An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, and True Stories
Ivan Brunetti, editor
Robert Armstrong, Peter Bagge, Lynda Barry, Gabrielle Bell, Marc Bell, Jonathan Bennett, Mark Beyer, Mat Brinkman, Chester Brown, Jeffrey Brown, Ivan Brunetti, Charles Burns, Daniel Clowes, David Collier, Robert Crumb, Henry Darger, Gene Deitch, Kim Deitch, Julie Doucet, Michael Dougan, Debbie Dreschler, Lyonel Feininger, Phoebe Gloeckner, Justin Green, Bill Griffith, John Hankiewicz, Sammy Harkham, Rory Hayes, David Heatley, Sam Henderson, Gilbert Hernandez, Jaime Hernandez, George Herriman, Walt Holcombe, Kevin Huizenga, Crockett Johnson, J. Bradley Johnson, Ben Katchor, (pause for breath), Kaz, Frank King, James Kochalka, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Harvey Kurtzman, Jason Lutes, Frans Masereel, Joe Matt, David Mazzuchelli, Richard McGuire, Tony Millionaire, Jerry Moriarty, Mark Newgarden, Onsmith, Gary Panter, Harvey Pekar, John Porcellino, Archer Prewitt, Daniel Raeburn, Ron Regé Jr., Joan Reidy, Joe Sacco, Richard Sala, Charles M. Schulz, Seth, R. Sikoryak, Otto Soglow, Art Spiegelman, Cliff Sterrett, James Sturm, Adrian Tomine, Carol Tyler, Chris Ware, Lauren R. Weinstein, Wayne White, Karl Wirsum, Jim Woodring, Terry Zwigoff, writers/artists
Yale University Press, 2006
I have to admit I’m a little tempted just to let the contributor list for this anthology serve as my review. I mean, look at that thing! And indeed I think I’d be somewhat justified in doing so. If the purpose of this anthology is to demonstrate the depth and breadth of style and effect possible in the comics medium as evinced by its best practitioners, well, the defense rests, you know? Provided your non-comics-reading buddy is a short-story guy rather than someone who needs a big long self-contained tale for their fiction fix, this book is an A-#1 Christmas gift.
But the strengths of this first volume in what I sincerely hope will be a long series of Ivan Brunetti-edited comics anthologies published by my alma mater go beyond the names in the table of contents. (Where they aren’t listed at all, now that I think of it–Onsmith provides an illustrated TOC featuring drawings of the main characters in each story or strip.) As a curator, Brunetti knows not just who to include, but nine times out of ten what to include from them. Therefore, your Jaime Hernandez story is his masterpiece, “Flies on the Ceiling.” Your Ron Regé Jr. contribution is drawn from his little seen, much loved, then-uncollected collection of haiku-like sex comics with Joan Reidy, Boys. Your Dan Clowes story is motherfucking “Gynecology.” Mark Newgarden’s “Love’s Savage Fury.” Phoebe Gloeckner’s “Fun Things to Do with Little Girls.” Richard McGuire’s “Here,” an ass-kicker if ever there was one. Kevin Huizenga’s “A Sunset” (albeit just an excerpt, which sort of dilutes the power of what to me is the comic of the decade, but still!). The sense I get is of Brunetti in front of his bookcases, selecting what should go into the anthology based on which sections of which comics are the most dogeared, read and re-read, loaned out and repurchased. It’s like when your friends come over and you go “oh man, you’ve gotta read this one!”
But it’s not just a collection of shorts that run one into the next haphazardly–it’s like the really well-made mixtape of comics anthologies. I was intrigued to read in Brunetti’s introduction that he ordered the comics roughly by length, starting off with mostly gag-driven one-pagers and ending with long stories and excerpts. That’s a smart and engaging structure in that the books trains you to read it as you go along, starting simple and gradually growing more demanding. Within those overall parameters Brunetti frequently arranges his selections in noticeable sub-sections, determined either by subject matter or artistic style: there’s a crosshatcher’s club with Robert Crumb, Joe Sacco, and David Collier; a childhood trauma section with Justin Green, Phoebe Gloeckner, and Debbie Dreschler; the Three Amigos of Canadian Comics, Joe Matt, Chester Brown, and Seth; an outsider-influenced section kicking off with Henry Darger and Rory Hayes and continuing through Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Mark Beyer, and Mat Brinkman; a Jewish ghetto of Julius Knipl, Maus, Berlin, and The Golem’s Mighty Swing; and whether this is intentional or not, closing with Chris Ware and Dan Clowes seemed a deliberate crowning of those two artists as the giants of the modern era of comics, which I personally have always thought them to be. If I’m making this sound easy or rote, I don’t mean to at all, by the way. Discovering what section you’ve just read your way into is a lot of fun, a big part of the pleasure of the collection.
Now, to draw pleasure from the collection in the first place, it probably goes without saying that you must be capable of drawing pleasure from astute depictions of misery. I’m sure there are broadsides against this book out there from people who want a little less dreary awfulness in their funnybooks than you’re going to get from the contributors listed above. I think this complaint has some justification. The near-total lack of genre material of any kind, save only the horror-tinged monster-y comics of Jim Woodring, Mat Brinkman, Rory Hayes, and Charles Burns, offers a somewhat lopsided frame through which to view what people do with comics, narratively and emotionally. You’re basically dealing with sadness and black comedy, with the occasional gross-out gag and “gosh weren’t things beautiful in the olden times” nostalgia to leaven it a little. Of course, nostalgia and misery go hand-in-hand for many of these comics, particularly for the memoirists–between Seth, Crumb, Joe Matt, and several tributes to Peanuts, you will probably get tired of cartoonists complaining about how ugly and awful their lives are compared to their old clothes/houses/comics/records/etc. General self-pity is a running theme, too, and while the occasional cartoonist manages to convey it in a novel fashion–Ware’s flat-affect trip down memory lane, incongruously set to a mocked-up Golden Age superhero comic–there’s no way to get around the fact that you’re gonna see a lot of funny lookin’ dudes in glasses kvetching about themselves with a lot of exclamation points. I’ve never minded that tendency in the overall altcomix gestalt all that much, but when you put a lot of it between two covers, it gets harder to ignore and sometimes harder to take. And even when the nostalgic elements are presented as-is, those presentational choices can be a bit cloying. Most of the old-time newspaper strips we see, for example, are reproduced Chip Kidd-style as photos of the original pages rather than, you know, just taking the comics themselves and putting them on the page. Presenting old comics as fetish objects dulls their impact, whatever else doing so may have going for it–”Here’s a Chris Ware strip, here’s a Charles Burns strip, and here’s something I found in my grandpa’s attic.” Similar moves done to emphasize the unique publishing circumstances of more recent projects–throwing a photo of a Jonathan Bennett minicomic in front of the actual strip contained therein, reproducing Jeffrey Brown stuff by photocopying them straight from the tiny diary-like books he originally draws them in–are sort of haphazardly done and to minimal understandable effect.
But none of that really takes much away from the impact of the collection, for all of the above reasons and one more: Is there something to be gained from having so much work from so many different artists all in one place, even when many or even most of them already grace your bookshelves? Sure, and it’s gained through juxtaposition. I found myself noticing all kinds of things about work I already knew pretty well–Joe Sacco’s art runs full-bleed. R. Crumb’s “trademark” style shifts far more radically than I’d ever noticed. You really can see Hayes in Kominsky and Beyer. In all honesty I feel like I got as much out of this book as any newbie might. That’s the mark of a great anthology.