“The Devil’s Grin” Treads Where Angels Fear To

Following up a masterpiece is always a tall order, regardless of the medium — just ask Francis Coppola, Michael Cimino, Harper Lee, and Pink Floyd, among others — but following up an ACCIDENTAL masterpiece? That’s almost wholly uncharted territory.

All of which is to say that I don’t think Alex Graham set out to make the DEFINITIVE comic of the COVID lockdown era with Dog Biscuits, but I’ll be damned if that isn’t what it turned out to be, both by dint of its topical subject matter and its daily-via-Instagram delivery method, form and function coalescing into something as close as we’re likely to get to comics’ ultimate statement on the most consequential period of modern history — although, in fairness, hard-core fans of Simon Hanselmann may beg to differ. But I’m drifting (just a bit, as is my custom) away from whatever slightly dubious point I’m attempting to make here, I think.

Before I get too lost in the weeds, then, it occurs to me that Graham had three possible routes post-Dog Biscuits that she could have taken : do something just as “big,” only this time by design: pull inward and do something more small-scale: or just do whatever the hell she felt like. Wisely, she went with the the third option, and the still-developing result is The Devil’s Grin, a strip  she is serializing at something more akin to her own self-dictated pace via her Substack (hey, times change), the first part of which has just been collected and self-published by the artist in a magazine-sized package bearing the subtitle of “Milk.”  For the record, it clocks in at 52 pages and this is only the prologue.

So, yeah, maybe she’s going the “epic” route here again in terms of sheer length — it remains to be seen — but in terms of scope, this feels more like pre-Dog Biscuits Graham, with a tight ensemble of admirably bizarre anthropomorphic and/or downright ALIEN characters dealing with issues that are more personal, rather than societal, in nature, and navigating a path through terrain that is hitherto uncharted chiefly because it’s hitherto UNIMAGINED — unless you know of any other stories set in 1948 centered around a mutant prematurely-delivered baby (or perhaps it’s an accidentally-aborted fetus, it’s kinda hard to tell) that’s flushed down the toilet, captured by a demonic entity,  and fed until it’s the size of an adolescent by a lactating rat in the space of a couple of days. Annnnnddd I guess that’s me revealing most of the plot of this opening salvo in entirely offhanded fashion. Sorry.

In any case, as you’ve no doubt surmised, tonally this thing is all over the map — grimly humorous, deeply disturbing, deliberately sickening, and classically surreal, Graham’s own authorial POV somehow remains admirably clinical, even dispassionate, throughout : there’s a real sense that we’re not being “clued in” as to how we should THINK and FEEL about any of these personages (loosely speaking) and proceedings because the cartoonist HERSELF hasn’t come to any firm conclusions about any of that yet. It’s an organic work that is feeling its way forward, and in a very real sense both reader and author are in the same boat — one that’s floating through the municipal sewer system of Henryville, Idaho some 75 years ago.

In a pinch, I’m tempted to call a lot of what’s happening here “confusing,” but that seems like too narrow a term — it’s INCOMPLETE (hell, barely begun) to be sure, but there is an internal sub-logic to what Graham is doing that doesn’t exactly “make sense” in any conventional (or even UNconventional) definition of the term, but it’s just as true that at least everything FITS TOGETHER. Events proceed in linear fashion, but the question of whether or not our as-yet-unnamed protagonist is “moving forward” or simply falling into a deeper hole is very much an open one. Just about anything could happen on any given page here, and that makes this comic an inherently EXCITING one.

As for Graham’s cartooning, its trajectory isn’t in question in the least : with each successive project, she continues to build upon her already-established strengths, her linework becoming more expressive as it thickens, her body language becoming more articulated, her character designs becoming more unique, her facial expressions becoming more animated. It’s all rough-around-the-edges stuff, no doubt about that, but it’s the kind of roughness that feels authentic bordering on the EARNED. This is a hardscrabble world she’s drawing and it LOOKS that way — as it damn well should.

Obviously, its far too early to say whether or not Graham is crafting another masterpiece here, but there is every indication that she damn well COULD be — and that if The Devil’s Grin does indeed become one, it will be an entirely DIFFERENT SORT of one than Dog Biscuits was. If that turns out to be the case (hey, no pressure here or anything), then I think the debate over who the most interesting, imaginative, and NECESARRY cartoonist of our times is might just be over with.


The Devil’s Grin #1 is available for $12.00 directly from Alex Graham at https://www.alexngraham.com/TDGcomic.html

This review originally appeared on my Patreon site and is presented here as part of a dubious gambit to get new subscribers by offering free preview content throughout the course of the week. In any case, should you feel inclined to discover more, you can join for as little as a buck a month and I post three new essays/rants/ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics every week. Here’s the link : https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

Four Color Apocalypse 2021 Year In Review : Top Ten Contemporary Collections

We’re getting near the finish line here, I promise. Two lists to go, including this one, TOP TEN CONTEMPORARY COLLECTIONS. This is another fairly broad category, with ALL comics published from the year 2000 to the present day eligible, as long as they are not original, stand-alone graphic novels. So basically we’re talking about any trade paperbacks that are a collection of single issues; any translated works such as Eurocomics, manga, etc.; any anthologies; any print collections of webcomics; or any collections of strips or assorted odds and ends, etc., as long as fit my admittedly absurd 21-year definition of “contemporary.” And with that out of the way, we’ll jump right in :

10. Go Fck Myself : The Fckpendium By Mike Freiheit (Kilgore Books) – Sprawling, ambitious, heartbreaking, and hilarious, Freiheit’s cartoon “thesis statement” on human history — and humanity’s future — is as personal as it is universal. The kind of book that makes you feel glad to be alive — except when it doesn’t — and a legit tour-de-force work.

9. My Begging Chart By Keiler Roberts (Drawn+Quarterly) – A year just doesn’t feel complete without a glimpse into the lives of Roberts and her family, and this is one of her very best books to date. One day we’re going to look back at these and recognize them as perhaps the pre-eminent example of long-form memoir in the medium’s history.

8. Tono Monogatari By Shigeru Mizuki, Translated By Zack Davisson (Drawn+Quarterly) – A poignant and lavishly illustrated adaptation of Japan’s most timeless collection of “fairly tales,” done by a master working at the height of his powers. Many of the pages in this will quite literally take your breath away, as will the scope and grandeur of the project itself.

7. Fungirl By Elizabeth Pich (Silver Sprocket) – The funniest “hot mess” in comics finally gets her due in a comprehensive collection of hijinks and mayhem sure to make you laugh hard and then feel appropriately guilty for having done so. Pich has her finger on the pulse of something truly unique here that straddles a fine line between blissful ignorance and willful amorality. Consequences — unintended or otherwise — have never been this much fun.

6.Post York By James Romberger (Dark Horse/Berger Books) – A refreshingly human-scale take on post-apocalyptic survival stories, Romberger’s work is greatly fleshed out and expanded upon in this new definitive edition that finally gives the material the presentation it’s always deserved. A strong contender for the best-drawn comic you’ll lay eyes on all year, this is a truly timeless tale that both honors and transcends its genre-specific origins.

5.Night Bus By Zuo Ma, Translated By Orion Martin (Drawn+Quarterly) – A wide-screen, epic modern-day fable by one of the brightest lights of the Chinese cartooning underground, don’t let the vaguely “YA” trappings of this one fool you for an instant : this is visionary, hallucinatory, reality-bending stuff. As immersive as visual storytelling gets, yet somehow speaking in a language all its own, this is a book that demands you meet it on its own terms and rewards you for doing so with a journey unlike anything you’ve ever seen or read.

4. Are Comic Books Real? By Alex Nall (Kilgore Books) – Nobody in comics better understands — or more respects — children than arts educator Nall, who communicates both the simple truth and impenetrable mystery of their worldview with grace, humor, and heart. This collection marks the end of the road for his Teaching Comics strips, and trust me when I say you’ll miss them well before you’ve even finished reading them.

3. Aerosol Plus By C.F. (Mania) – This slim collection of comics by the former Fort Thunder mainstay showcases the work of an artist who is forever pushing the boundaries of his own creativity forward and refusing to let what comics have been determine what they will be. Visually, conceptually, tonally, and formally transformational work by someone for whom the term auteur is almost too confining and restrictive.

2. Heart Shaped Tears By Abby Jame (Silver Sprocket) – With this collection, Jame makes a strong case for being the cartooning voice of her generation, communicating as she does the inner lives of fundamentally-unimpressed young women and teens with all the nonchalance and cynicism of a true “insider.” Today’s youth have been there and done that before they’ve even been anywhere or done anything, it seems — but could it be that they come off as smarter than us old-timers because they actually are? Forget crap like Euphoria — this is the real deal. And besides, TV is such old news.

1. Dog Biscuits By Alex Graham (Self-Published Via Lulu) – The quintessential webcomic of 2020 is the quintessential print comic of 2021, as Graham’s “pandemic epic” actually reads even stronger in collected form than it did in daily single-page doses. The lockdown may be over — for now, at any rate — but this story nevertheless captures both where and who we are better than any other work in any medium. Probably a shoe-in to be on just about every critic’s “best comics of the decade” list come 2030 — assuming our species makes it that long.

We’ll wrap things up tomorrow with the TOP TEN ORIGINAL GRAPHIC NOVELS list, but until then I’m non-contractually obligated to remind you that all of these columns/round-ups are “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 I’d be very appreciative if you’d take a moment to give it a look by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse