All Good Things Must Come To An End : November Garcia’s “Malarkey” #5

I guess maybe it’s a bit grandiose to call Birdcage Bottom’s release of the fifth and final issue of November Garcia’s Malarkey the end of an era, but fuck it : for the past five years this book has been a staple of my comics-reading life, and I have something of a personal “trajectory” with the title, as well, going from enthusiastic fan to gushing critic to friend of the cartoonist to someone’s who’s consistently thanked in the book’s credits and whose “pill quotes” are regularly featured on its back covers and related promotional internet blurbs. I ain’t no neutral observer or anything of the sort — not that critics ever are, it rather flies in the face of the job description. Still, it’s fair to say that I have a personal interest in Malarkey‘s success, there’s no doubt about it — this comic really is my equivalent to the sports fan’s “home team.”

That being said, unless you’re new here, you all know me, and if Garcia turned in a subpar issue, you know I’d be the first to tell you — the simple fact is, though, that this final installment proves that she’s probably not capable of making a bad comic at this point, and it may even stand as her best work yet. Certainly COVID and its attendant lockdowns factor into the proceedings in a rather major way, as they do in all of our lives, but this is more than simply yet another “quarantine comic,” as Garcia begins the issue with some autobio strips set before the pandemic, delves us deep into the heart of what life feels like during it, and even ends on a mildly hopeful note reminding us that life (for most of us, at any rate) will go on after it’s over. Be prepared, then, to run the emotional gamut.

Death looms large in these pages, that’s for certain, but it’s not COVID-related : Garcia has been losing members of her extended family at a depressingly brisk clip in recent months, and it’s clearly having an effect, as she not only reflects on their passing, but also on her own mortality, before lightening up the mood for a bit with some Seattle-based tales of mild debauchery, then plunging us in at the really deep end with what is, for me, the highlight of the book : a semi-experimental meditation on aging, fear, and uncertainty not specifically referencing the pandemic, but no doubt exacerbated by it. Awash in gorgeously, frighteningly resonant full color (as opposed to the well-placed spot colors utilized in the other strips in this issue) and set to song lyrics I’m not familiar with by a band I’ve never even heard of, this nevertheless hit like a ton of bricks and left me reeling in my seat as I read it. It’s a step outside Garcia’s comfort zone of gentle self-deprecation and a step into the maelstrom, and proves that much as I’m reticent to see Malarkey go, the time to expand her ambitions and horizons has well and truly arrived.

I’d be remiss if I failed to mention how much smoother and more confident Garcia’s line has become, as well — when this series started she was still being compared all too frequently with Julia Wertz, but I think it’s safe to say that’s well in the past now. Her cartooning is her own, a singular and frankly inimitable blend of classic humor strip exaggeration, well-executed figure drawing, simple-but-effective use of space, and tongue-in-cheek caricature coalescing into a look that bears the imprimatur of legit auteurship with every pen and bush stroke. Throw in that color I just mentioned, and yeah — this is great-looking stuff, perfectly suited to its subject matter.

And as for that subject matter — hey, to quote myself back at myself, I referred to Garcia last time around as “the premier autobio cartoonist of our time,” and I stand by that absolutely. She’s on a creative roll the likes of which few achieve, and that we’re privileged as readers to bear witness to. She’s gone from “it looks like it’s all coming together” to “wow, it’s really all come together” in remarkably short amount of time, and now the only question that remains is where it all goes next.

What’s absolutely not in question is whether or not I’ll be along for the ride. Where Garcia goes, I follow, and I don’t even ask questions. I trust her instincts because she trusts them, and while this comic may, indeed, mark the end of an era, the good news is that it also means it heralds the beginning of a new chapter — not just from the finest autobio cartoonist of our time, but from one of the finest cartoonists, period.

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Malarkey #5 is available for $8.00 from J.T. Yost’s Birdcage Bottom Books distro at https://birdcagebottombooks.com/collections/comic-books/products/malarkey-5

Review wrist check – Ocean Crawler “Paladino WaveMaker” green dial model riding an Ocean Crawler “Vintage Crazy Horse” leather strap.