Four Color Apocalypse 2019 Year In Review : Top Ten Single Issues

It’s that time of the year — specifically, the end of it. Or near enough, at any rate, for my purposes — those “purposes” being to survey the comics landscape and pick my favorites from 2019’s slate of offerings. As per the norm, I’ll be dividing things up into a veritable boat-load of different categories — top ten single issues (stand-alone comics, or ongoing projects that saw only one installment published in the last calendar year), top ten ongoing series (any comic series or “limited” series that saw two or more issues come out in 2019), top ten vintage collections (books presenting material originally published prior to the year 2000), top ten contemporary collections (books presenting material originally published after the year 2000), top ten special mentions (“comics-adjacent” projects such as ‘zines, books about comics, art books, prose and/or visual works by cartoonists that aren’t exactly “comics” per se, etc.), and top ten original graphic novels (long-form original works never serialized in single issues) — and again, as per usual, we’ll kick things off with the top ten single issues list, with the others following in the coming days. Now, let’s stop dawdling and get down to business, shall we?

10. Kids With Guns #1 By Alex Nall (Self-Published) – The opening salvo of Nall’s first-ever ongoing serial instantly captured my attention with its strong characterization, sublime grasp on inter-generational relations, and oblique-but-effective social commentary, all rendered in his signature updated take on traditional “Sunday Funnies” cartooning. This project could go in any number of fascinating directions, and may or may not be about what its title implies. I’m looking forward to finding out.

9. Expelling My Truth By Tom Van Deusen (Kilgore Books) – Nobody employs exaggeration and absurdity to tell the “truth” about both modern life and themselves quite like Van Deusen, and in his latest, his trademark satirical wit has never been sharper while his line art has never been smoother. Always a study in contrasts, this guy, but he’s found an inimitable way to make his work’s deliberate and inherent contradictions become its raison d’etre.

8. Rodeo #1 By Evan Salazar (Self-Published) – Debuts don’t come much stronger than this one, as Salazar immediately establishes himself as a cartoonist with a unique perspective and a natural gift for storytelling, his tale of a temporary family break-up as seen through a particularly precocious child’s eyes revealing much more about what’s happening than a straight re-telling of the “facts” of the situation ever could. Emotionally and intellectually arresting in equal measure, and drawn in a confident, non-flashy style, this is one of the best single-creator anthology titles to come down the pipeline in many a year.

7. Stunt By Michael DeForge (Koyama Press) – I struggled with which category to put this one in, but eventually settled on single issues simply because it’s formatted like a Jack T. Chick tract even if it’s priced like a book — it’s also, in true DeForge fashion, imbued with a hell of a lot more philosophical depth than its page count would lead you to believe. A rumination on identity and its voluntary, even necessary, abandonment filtered through his usual lens of homoeroticism and gooey body horror, this short-form offering ranks right up there with the cartoonist’s most confidently-realized works.

6. Nabokova By Tana Oshima (Self-Published) – It was such a strong and prolific year for Oshima that choosing a favorite among her works was tough, but in point of fact this is the one where she really “puts it all together” and delivers a treatise on alienation, self-absorption and the fine line between the two that’s every bit as dense as the Russian literature its title invokes — but it won’t, fortunately, take you all winter to to read it. Spellbinding stuff that will leave your head spinning with questions.

5. Castle Of The Beast By Ariel Cooper (Self-Published) – Fear of intimacy has never been delineated as beautifully or as sympathetically as it is in Cooper’s lush, breathtaking visual tone-poem that masterfully blends the concrete and the abstract into a comics experience quite unlike any other. Within a couple of years, this will be the cartoonist everyone is talking about

4. Tulpa By Grace Kroll (Self-Published) – It’s astonishing to see anyone bare their soul and their struggles as frankly as Kroll does in this, her first ever comic, but do so in a manner that brings forth genuine understanding rather than simply playing for sympathy? There are cartoonists that spend their whole careers struggling with what she achieves on her very first go-’round, and her singular art style is as smart as it is innovative.

3. For Real By James Romberger (Uncivilized Books) – The only thing more heroic than Jack Kirby’s characters was the man himself, and in this heartfelt tribute, master artist Romberger relates two harrowing life-and-death challenges The King faced in a manner than honors his style yet is in no way beholden to it. Another unforgettable comics experience by a cartoonist who never produces anything less.

2. Malarkey #4 By November Garcia (Birdcage Bottom Books) – Long the champion of neurotic self-deprecation, by tracing the roots of both to her Catholic upbringing, Garcia ups the stakes — and the results — considerably and establishes herself as precisely what previous issues of this comic hinted she might become : the best autobio cartoonist in the business. And maybe even the heir apparent to the great Justin Green? In any case, her moment has well and truly arrived. Now, will somebody get busy collecting all her stuff into a book, please?

1. Tad Martin #7 By Casanova Frankenstein (Domino Books)  – I could say that seeing Frankenstein and his nominally stand-in protagonist matched up with the production values they so richly deserve is a “dream come true,” but this gorgeous, full-color, oversized comic is actually a nightmare come to life — and harrowing, soul-searing life at that. Always an exercise in re-invention, this issue of Tad combines elements of all the previous entries in this sporadic series into a comprehensive vision of nihilism as the only thing worth living for. Other cartoonists will have to fight for a place edging toward the middle — the margins of the medium are already spoken for.

And so we’re off to the races with “Top Ten” week. I’ll be tackling the best ongoing series next, but in the meantime do consider supporting my ongoing work by subscribing to my Patreon site, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics for as little as a dollar a month. Please do yourself — and, who are we kidding, me — a favor by checking it out at https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

Grace Kroll’s “Tulpa” : That Voice In Your Head Is Getting Louder —

To the extent that I understand the term, a tulpa is an independent thoughtform created by a person that shares their brain but has thoughts, feelings, etc. of its own. Tibetan monks were — and may still be — big on these things, and David Lynch’s interest in their teachings and traditions undoubtedly played a big part in the inclusion of tulpas (or is that tulpae?) in Twin Peaks : The Return, although he added the twist of giving them actual, physical reality by means of rather standard hair-and-blood magickal conjuring. That’s how we ended up with three different versions of Special Agent Dale Cooper. But I guess that’s neither here nor there for purposes of this review, as the one in the comic we’re here to take a look at, Seattle-based cartoonist Grace Kroll’s self-published Tulpa, exists purely within her mind — and isn’t exactly the most welcome of guests.

A kind of incorporeal manifestation of Kroll’s doubts, insecurities, neuroses, and anxieties rolled up into one entirely unhelpful package, her own tulpa’s lack of physicality doesn’t preclude it from being a massive pain in the ass, and a kind of permanent obstacle to the ability of its host/creator to find not just happiness, but even simple contentment. In fact, if it had a body, it would probably be easier to deal with, because then you could at least just shoot the damn thing.

Which is probably me being too jocular by half in relation to this material, because truth be told this is one damn harrowing read — and yes, that’s meant as a compliment. Kroll wisely prefaces her comic with something of an oblique “content warning” on the inside front cover, and proceeds to give us 24 pages that prove why such a disclaimer was necessary : even by autobio standards this is remarkably frank and unvarnished stuff, and likely as therapeutic in practice as it clearly was in production. Whether she’s at the gym, having trouble getting out of bed, interacting with others socially, or bound and gagged on a sofa, our protagonist/authorial stand-in’s constant companion is always throwing freezing cold water on things, which affords us the opportunity to look at any and every situation presented from a “pro” and “con” perspective, and to recognize the gulf that needs to be crossed in order for Kroll’s own tendencies toward self-care and self-harm to somehow, finally, reconcile. Analytically, she has a firm grasp on what she’s doing and why at all times — her frank dissection of the healthy psychological benefits of consensual BDSM is particularly welcome and frankly long overdue — but oh, how the ghost of her own negative self-image, given a distinct persona and voice of its own, lingers. And casts zingers. And always, and I do mean always, points fingers.

Those fingers are aimed squarely at the artist herself, of course, depicted here in a form that’s recognizably human but with just a dash of anthropomorphic animal, perhaps even alien, characteristics, further cementing the notion one arrives at early on that, at least visually, Kroll appears to be giving herself a little bit of “breathing room” between self and subject visually that the narrative itself, by design, in no way provides for. It’s an understandable move, as well as a smart one — after all, we’d also like to hope that our ostensible heroine’s internal world isn’t in quite as extreme a state of constant struggle as it would appear to be, even though we know that hope is likely to be entirely in vain.

Even with all this in mind, though, we may as well address the elephant in the room by admitting that “yeah, I know I’m fucked up” is almost the default setting for autobiographical comics these days, and has been for some time. The key difference here, however, is that Kroll doesn’t play for sympathy so much as actively earn it — her cartooning is so inherently strong and expressive that it reaches out and touches readers at their core without resorting to cheap sentimentality or deliberately manipulative exaggeration. I mean, take a look at the pages reproduced here and tell me that her sublime use of shading, her expressive body language, her rich faces don’t hit you right where you live. There’s maybe a hint of Carol Swain at one margin and of Remy Boydell at the other, but this is unique and expertly-crafted illustration that has a living, beating heart at is core, and is more than capable of picking up the responsibility of most of the storytelling duties, leaving Kroll free to be selective and sparse with her dialogue and captions in each of the interconnected — though not necessarily linear — vignettes that comprise this book’s slim (but no less powerful for that fact — quite the reverse, actually) contents.

Acts of self-aggrandizement are common as dirt in the autobio game, acts of genuine self-reflection considerably less so. Kroll leaves them both in the dust, however, by committing an act of sheer and unmitigated bravery with this comic, and it’s no bullshit to say that for someone suffering though the same or similar issues relating to their own self-actualization and even sense of self-worth, this is a book that has the power to potentially save their life. Not by offering the usual “things will get better” bullshit, but by letting any reader in such a position know that they’re not alone, and that there are voices other than that of their own tulpa that are worth listening to, that understand, that have been there — and may even be there still. The road could very well never get easier, but art offers a way to at least communicate anguish, if not resolve and/or banish it, and this particular work of art does so with more forthright honesty and integrity than any I’ve come across in a good long while.

******************************************************************************

Tulpa is available for $5.00 directly from Grace Kroll at https://ingestpress.bigcartel.com/product/tulpa

Also, this review, and all others around these parts, is “brought to you” by my Patreon site, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics for as little as a dollar a month. Subscribing is the best way to support my continuing work, so please give it a look by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse