1. NOBODY'S FOOL: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF SCHLITZIE THE PINHEAD by Bill Griffith (published by Harry N. Abrams):
Any cineaste familiar with Tod Browning's 1932 masterpiece, FREAKS, will know the name "Schlitzie the Pinhead." Not only was Schlitzie one of the key carnival performers featured in that infamous Tod Browning production, but in 1971 he unknowingly inspired a young cartoonist named Bill Griffith to create the long-running comic strip ZIPPY THE PINHEAD. Forty-eight years after Zippy's debut in the March 1971 edition of REAL PULP COMICS, Bill Griffith has honored the memory of Schlitzie (whose birth name may or may not have been Simon Metz) by publishing a respectful, loving, full-length biography of this sideshow star in graphic novel form, the only biography of Schlitzie ever attempted.
NOBODY'S FOOL is heartbreaking and haunting. The story of Schlitzie, whose life began in 1901 and ended in 1971 (the same year he was reborn as a fictional character in Griffith's comic strip), is also the story of twentieth century America itself. Through Schlitzie's eyes we see the United States transform, in ways that are both positive and negative, from a naive Jazz Age filled with carnivalesque wonders where even a sideshow "freak" could attain cinematic fame to the cultural wasteland of post-Kennedy America where the detritus of Hollywood's past can be locked away in a Los Angeles psych ward merely for the convenience of others. But throughout all these tumultuous changes, Schlitzie remains "like all children, [craving] tenderness and affection." In an interview with Griffith, dramatized near the end of NOBODY'S FOOL, fellow circus performer Wolf Krakowski describes Schlitzie in this way: "Schlitzie seemed to be blissed out [all the time] to me. If you'd look into his eyes, whatever consciousness he embodied was wide open... there was no good or bad, legal or illegal... there was just demented glee."
After completing NOBODY'S FOOL, one can't help but conclude that we could all learn a valuable lesson from the man once known to rubes and marks the world over as "the Last of the Aztecs," "the Last of the Incas," "the Missing Link," and (perhaps most appropriately) "Schlitzie the Mysterious." The fact that Bill Griffith's graphic novel, at this late date, succeeds in clearing up some of the most mysterious aspects of Schlitzie's enigmatic life is a valuable addition to the history of carnivals, Hollywood, marginalized twentieth century performers, and American pop culture in general.
2. BLUBBER #5 by Gilbert Hernandez (published by Fantagraphics):
Gilbert Hernandez's BLUBBER is perhaps the only comic book being published today that even attempts to match (or rival) the transgressive outrageousness of 1960s underground "comix" artists such as Robert Crumb and S. Clay Wilson. More often than not, it succeeds. BLUBBER #5 is a perfect example. If I had to describe the subject matter of this particular issue in four words or less, I suppose "hermaphroditic cryptid fetish pornography" would be the most appropriate label, which will either repel you far, far away from this book or lure you closer to it. The theme of BLUBBER can be summed up by the immortal words of filmmaker Akira Kurasawa: "To be an artist means to never avert one's eyes." Coincidentally, on page 12 of BLUBBER #5, these same words emerge from the fuzzy black mouth of a masturbating cryptid called a "Doog" (or possibly a human dressed up as a doog). Other fornicating cryptids you'll encounter in this issue include fauns, mini-fauns, kekeppies, hummuncriuses, and various unnamed critters endowed with improbably sized sexual organs. Expect a plethora of pornographic sound effects such as "GWAB!" "PLOB!" "GWARP!" and "BLAUURGGH!" But you shouldn't let such perverse onomatopoeia scare you away from BLUBBER. As Corazon (the hermaphroditic protagonist of the book) says on page 15, "Conservative thinking is the enemy of creativity."
3. CRIMINAL and BAD WEEKEND by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips (published by Image):
After thirteen years, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' CRIMINAL remains one of the best written American comic books currently being published. In January of 2019, Brubaker and Phillips resumed publishing this series of interconnected crime noir graphic novels with a brand new story arc involving the seedy misadventures of professional thief Teeg Lawless and his delinquent teenage son.
Issues 2 and 3 of this new series have already resulted in an excellent self-contained graphic novel entitled BAD WEEKEND. If you don't have time to read every issue of CRIMINAL produced this year (which is highly recommended), then at least do yourself the favor of picking up a copy of BAD WEEKEND, described in the publisher's ballyhoo as follows: "JUST IN TIME FOR CONVENTION SEASON—the ultimate comic con crime tale! Comics won’t just break your heart. Comics will kill you. Hal Crane should know, he’s been around since practically the beginning. Stuck at an out-of-town convention, waiting to receive a lifetime achievement award, Hal’s weekend takes us on a dark ride through the secret history of a medium that’s always been haunted by crooks, swindlers, and desperate dreamers."
BAD WEEKEND makes a fascinating thematic trilogy when read in tandem with Howard Chaykin's 2018 roman à clef HEY KIDS! COMICS! (which also takes a rather jaundiced view of the history of the comic book industry) and Brian Michael Bendis and David Mack's globe-hopping espionage tale COVER (which similarly draws its narrative power from examining a shadow side of the comic book industry few fans ever see).
4. MONSTER by Enki Bilal (published by Titan Comics):
Since 2019 marks the first time this material has been published in English in its entirety, Enki Bilal's MONSTER deserves a special place on this list. MONSTER is a near-future, phildickian science fiction epic about a conceptual artist named Optus Warhole who creates an Art Movement known as "Absolute Evil Art." Warhole is famous for inflicting "phenomena-pieces" upon the world such as "Belch of Compressed Death," an acid rain cloud described by Warhole as follows: "It will spread as a solid cloud according to the winds, or my inclination. Before it breaks up, it will give out a rain of tears drawn from the decomposition of two million dead soldiers and civilians slain in this field of bullshit. It's a universal piece. Against war and the blindness of men. But it's going to do some damage. A boomerang effects of sorts. It's not Art Brut. It's Brutal Art." These rain drops created by Warhole can "melt through anything they touch," and the deaths caused by this destructive "happening" represents only the beginning of Warhole's ambitious dream to contaminate the world with Art that cannot be ignored. Caught up in Warhole's manipulative web are three Sarajavo orphans--Nike, Leyla, and Amir--who must get to the bottom of an "inexhaustible mystery" that revolves around a hijacked expedition to Mars, a swarm of genetically modified red flies that can inject microscopic smart machines into their victims that subsequently copy, assimilate, mutate, and finally replace one's organs (while controlling the victim from afar), a seemingly endless supply of replicant humans nearly indistinguishable from the originals, a seventy-million-year-old "inter-dimensional accident," and--perhaps most importantly--the true identity of Optus Warhole.
5. THE SONS OF EL TOPO VOL. 1: CAIN & THE SONS OF EL TOPO VOL. 2: ABEL by Alejandro Jodorowsky and Ladrönn (published by Archaia):
Volume Two of THE SONS OF EL TOPO debuted only a few days ago as I write this, and Volume One was published during the last two weeks of 2018. Together, the two volumes tell an ambitious story that picks up where Alejandro Jodorowsky's 1970 masterpiece EL TOPO (the first "cult midnight movie," as explained by Jodorowsky in his introduction to Volume One) left off almost fifty years ago.
"Always the same story!" exclaims Cain, the son of saintly El Topo, near the beginning of this tale. Cain is correct in more ways than he can possibly know, for his savage pursuit of his far more spiritual half-brother, Abel, is a recapitulation of mythological parables that have recurred from culture to culture throughout the centuries. This Biblical-allegory-as-surrealist-western turns familiar Christian symbols upside down and inside out, revealing the metaphysical, Gnostic mysteries that lay hidden beneath the superficial surfaces of the Old Testament. One-half Joseph Campbell, one-half Cormac McCarthy, this brutal tale of alienation and transcendence is a must-have for those who wish comic books to aim higher than merely replicating testosterone-fueled superhero power fantasies created decades ago. Instead, THE SONS OF EL TOPO taps into the original testosterone-fueled superhero power fantasies, those perverse parables collected in a blood-and-thunder-laden tome known to most people as THE HOLY BIBLE.
6. MARIA M. by Gilbert Hernandez (published by Fantagraphics):
Though the first half of this graphic novel initially appeared six years ago, 2019 marks the debut of MARIA M. in its complete form. This final version was well worth the wait. Reading like an early James Ellroy crime noir novel as adapted to the cinema by Samuel Fuller, MARIA M. is over brimming with sex, drugs, brutal revenge schemes, and unpredictable double crosses in an epic soap opera that takes our title character on a tumultuous journey from the exploitative porn industry of 1950s Los Angeles all the way to the blood-spattered corridors of a 1980s mansion built on decades of human suffering. This tale somehow pulls off being both a haunting character study of unrequited love as well as a hi-octane tale of pure pulp madness. Readers of Hernandez's earlier LOVE AND ROCKETS graphic novel, POISON RIVER, will be able to appreciate this story on a deeper level, but previous knowledge of Hernandez's oeuvre is not at all necessary to enjoy the abrupt roller coaster twists and turns of this ultra-violent, mobster-ridden psychodrama.
7. GIRAFFES ON HORSEBACK SALAD by Josh Frank, Tim Heidecker, and Manuela Pertega (published by Quirk Books):
I first read about Salvador Dali's long-lost Marx Brothers screenplay, GIRAFFES ON HORSEBACK SALAD, when I was thirteen. For a school assignment, I had to read a book about a famous person I admired. Naturally, I chose four famous people... and the book in question was GROUCHO, HARPO, CHICO AND SOMETIMES ZEPPO: A HISTORY OF THE MARX BROTHERS AND A SATIRE ON THE REST OF THE WORLD by Joe Adamson. Somewhere in this biography Adamson briefly mentions Harpo's friendship with Salvador Dali, and the fact that in the 1930s the most infamous surrealist in the world had written a full-length screenplay intended to star the Marx Brothers. At the time Adamson wrote the book, this unusual artifact was believed to be lost forever. I longed to rediscover this quaint and curious screenplay of forgotten lore and voraciously explore all its esoteric secrets.
Over twenty years later, while attending an impressive Dali gallery show entitled DALI: PAINTING & FILM at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in December of 2007, I was shocked to see Dali's original screenplay on display under glass in the middle of the exhibit. The plaque beside the screenplay--and its companion sketches--explained that the manuscript had been uncovered only recently. I very much wanted to break the glass and read the screenplay right then and there.
Fortunately for all of us Marx Brothers and Salvador Dali mavens, the fearless team of Josh Frank, Tim Heidecker, and Manuela Pertega have done just that (metaphorically speaking). These three lunatics have managed to break through the barriers of time and space and, admirably, have reconstructed Dali's vision in the form of an inventive and surreal graphic novel that attempts to approximate--in graphic novel form, perhaps the ideal medium for this near-impossible project--both the anarchistic humor of the Marx Brothers as well as the disorientating dream-images of Dali.
(Marx Brothers fans, please note: This is probably the only Marx Brothers story in existence in which Harpo has a speaking role!)
No fan of cinema, Hollywood history, anarchistic humor, surrealism or graphic novels will want to miss this one.
8. THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN: THE TEMPEST by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill (published by Top Shelf Productions):
As Brian Nicholson commented in a recent review of THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN: THE TEMPEST published in THE COMICS JOURNAL, "The book is dense [...]. [R]eading each issue as it came out, it was difficult to find a throughline by which to ascertain meaning. This, however, is how life has felt from 2016 until now [...]. [S]o much of the citizenry is lying to themselves, believing in multiple conspiracy theories, that consensus reality is essentially irreconcilable, and can only be made sense of by those who are versed in the insane systems of thought that other people believe in [...]. If the narratives of Thomas Pynchon novels are all about conspiracies of such fractal complexity they degenerate into entropy, Moore’s take on the modern moment is that entropy has overtaken everything, but that there’s still a density stemming from the weight of history."
I would amend this analysis with the following notion: Moore seems to be suggesting--in what has been announced as his final graphic novel--that the fluid realm of "Idea Space" is a far more accurate conduit of "truth," a more reliable keeper of historical narratives, than what passes as the news every day in the form of corporate press releases force fed to lazy journalists. Poems and stories and novels and songs, at their best, have always represented the voices of the marginalized. Today, in this bright and shiny future known as the twenty-first century, the private citadel of consciousness in which Art has always been created is now under siege like never before. In an age when even the human subconscious is being colonized by imagination-vampires disguised as politicians and priests and teachers and psychiatrists and social reformers, THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN: THE TEMPEST attempts to remind us that pure ideas have more power than a thousand and one authoritarian governments. Moore wants us to understand that the neglected fictional characters that make up the core of THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN can act not as mere soporifics, as a means of escape from the horrors of reality, but as powerful totems that give us strength and power in the noumenal world.
9. HOGBOOK AND LAZER EYES by Maria Bamford and Scott Marvel Cassidy (published by The Mincing Mockingbird):
HOGBOOK AND LAZER EYES is an autobiographical tale about two middle-aged romantics finally falling in love after enduring a long series of ridiculous, disastrous relationships. This charming love story, narrated by a pair of dogs (Blueberry and Bert), includes special guest appearances by Björk, Michael Flately, therapist Sheryl Hirsham, and a Ferangi named Nagus. At one point Bert tears through a Hefty trash bag and eats thirty chocolate cupcakes, after which he's rushed to the Emergency Room where an X-ray reveals that he's "half-pug and half-cupcake." Then Bert farts a lot. What more do you want from a love story?
10. JOHNNY BOO AND THE MIDNIGHT MONSTERS by James Kochalka (published by Top Shelf Productions):
(Warning: The terminally serious need not apply for admission.)
This is the tenth volume of James Kochalka's JOHNNY BOO series. If read in a row, these books might very well cause your brain to overload with pure nonsense. These books, like George Carlson's JINGLE JANGLE COMICS from the 1940s, are a paean to jabberwocky. If you're incapable of recognizing the literary significance of a Pumpkin Tiger who lives in a Happy Pumpkin Patch, an Ice Cream Monster who does nothing but spend his days and nights begging for more ice cream, a tiny ghost who looks like a squiggle (named "Squiggle"), and a skateboard-riding ghost named Susie who lives on the moon, then it would probably be best for all involved if you simply move on.
When Kochalka combines his freeform, improvisational silliness with the purposeful naivety of his characters, what emerges is the children's book equivalent of Carl Stalling's offkilter musical compositions for the LOONEY TUNES.
Kochalka's works--including the marvelous MONKEY VS. ROBOT (2000), MONKEY VS. ROBOT VOL. 2: THE CRYSTAL OF POWER (2007), and the complete JOHNNY BOO series (2008-2019)--are far more imaginative than the vast majority of mainstream comics churned out by both Marvel and DC during the past twenty years.
BONUS RECOMMENDATIONS: Many significant archival collections were released in 2019, all of which are worth your time....
WINSOR MCCAY: THE COMPLETE LITTLE NEMO 1910-1927 edited by Alexander Braun (published by Taschen):
THE 32 SERIES BY DITKO VOL 1: OVERTURE by Steve Ditko (published by SD Publishing):
THE 32 SERIES BY DITKO VOL. 2: OPENING ACTS by Steve Ditko (published by SD Publishing):
THE 32 SERIES BY DITKO VOL. 3: CHARACTER TWISTS by Steve Ditko (published by SD Publishing):
THE 32 SERIES BY DITKO VOL. 4: POSTSHADOWING by Steve Ditko (published by SD Publishing):
MARVEL MASTERS OF SUSPENSE: STAN LEE & STEVE DITKO OMNIBUS VOL. 1 by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko (published by Marvel):
BRAIN BATS OF VENUS: THE LIFE AND COMICS OF BASIL WOLVERTON VOL. 2 (1942-1952) (published by Fantagraphics):
GHOSTS edited by Steve Banes (published by IDW):
JUNGLE GIRLS edited by Mitch Maglio and Craig Yoe (published by IDW):
SWAMP MONSTERS edited by Steve Banes and Craig Yoe (published IDW):
THE UNKNOWN ANTI-WAR COMICS edited by Craig Yoe (published by IDW):
RETURN TO ROMANCE!: THE STRANGE LOVE STORIES OF OGDEN WHITNEY edited by Dan Nadel and Frank Santoro (published by New York Review Comics):
THE SILENT INVASION VOL. 2: THE GREAT FEAR by Larry Hancock and Michael Cherkas (published by NBM):
GO-BOTS by Tom Scioli (published by IDW):
MARVEL MASTERWORKS: CAPTAIN AMERICA VOL. 11 by Jack Kirby (published by Marvel):
TOMB OF DRACULA: THE COMPLETE COLLECTION VOL. 3 by Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan (published by Marvel)
MASTER OF KUNG FU VOL. 2: FIGHT WITHOUT PITY by Doug Moench and Paul Gulacy:
MISTER MIRACLE by Tom King and Mitch Gerads (published by DC):
DC UNIVERSE: THE BRONZE AGE OMNIBUS BY JACK KIRBY (published by DC):
Important nonfiction releases (by or about comic book writers and artists) include the following titles: