McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern #13
Dave Eggers, series editor
Chris Ware, guest editor
Chris Ware, Gary Panter, E.D. Muenchow, Ivan Brunetti, Charles Burns, David Heatley, Seth, R. Crumb, Daniel Clowes, Rodolphe Topffer, John McClenan, Bud Fisher, Milt Gross, Louis Beidermann, Kaz, Mark Newgarden, Jim Woodring, Archer Prewitt, Lynda Barry, Charles Schulz, George Herriman, Philip Guston, Mark Beyer, Richard Sala, Art Spiegelman, Kim Deitch, Joe Sacco, David Collier, Chester Brown, Ben Katchor, Richard McGuire, Jeffrey Brown, Julie Doucet, Joe Matt, Gilbert Hernandez, Jaime Hernandez, Adrian Tomine, David Heatley, Ron Rege Jr., John Porcellino, writers/artists
Ira Glass, Chris Ware, John Updike, Charles M. Schwab, F.W. Seward Jr., Tim Samuelson, Glen David Gold, Michael Chabon, Chip Kidd, writers
McSweeney’s Quarterly, 2004
The other day I said that most of the big hardcover comics anthologies put out by prose publishers over the past few years draw from a “comics as high art” canon consisting of classic newspaper strips, the undergrounds, RAW, people who were published by Fantagraphics or Drawn & Quarterly during the ’90s, and Kramers Ergot. Turns out I really nailed it when it comes to McSweeney’s #13: I could be wrong, and correct me if I am, but after taking a closer look at this one I’m pretty sure that every single cartoonist in the book falls into one of those categories. What’s more, it pares away the wilder edges: The only underground guys you’ll find here are the three most high-falutin’, R. Crumb, Kim Deitch, and Art Spiegelman; the Kramers contributors–the ones that aren’t covered in any of the other categories, that is–are lo-fi autobio guys like Jeffrey Brown and David Heatley, while (depending how you count one of Ron Rege’s most straightforward and topical comics ever) the whole Providence school of noisecomix is nowhere to be found.
In other words, editor Chris Ware is presenting a very, very specific, and familiar, vision of alternative/art/literary comics here. There’s the emphasis on artifact and ephemera, with reproductions of a hand colored copy of a Rodolphe Topffer bootleg and bizarre old-timey “comics are good for the sould” advertorials, while sketches or unfinished strips from George Herriman and Charles Schulz presented as their contributions to the book. There’s the prominent masturbation humor placed toward the beginning and end of the book so you really can’t miss it. There’s the de rigeur current-events strip or three. There’s the ever-present link to mortifying memories of lonely childhoods in which superhero comics serve as both instigator and mitigator of misery–witness basically all the guest text pieces, particularly those of Chip Kidd and Glen David Gold. There’s the plethora of strips about how loveless and thankless and pointless is the life of the artist/thinking man/aesthete in general and the cartoonist in particular. When certain critics trot out their anti-altcomix hobbyhorses, this book is almost certainly the sort of thing that makes them whip those suckers into a gallop.
There are plenty of reasons not to give a damn about that, mind you. Ware, of course, is a genius, and his taste is as respectable and enjoyable as you’d imagine, if a bit narrow. He has a terrific eye for excerpts: the surreal ending of the otherwise realistic passage from Black Hole he includes must be absolutely stunning to people who’ve never seen it in context, for example, while the chapter he takes from Louis Riel, featuring the execution of a loudmouthed Anglo prisoner, would most likely close out Chester Brown’s highlight reel. In both cases a particular skill of the artist is emphasized: With Charles Burns, it’s how his inks can subtly shift between sensualism and horror; with Brown, it’s his knack for staging, in this case displayed by how the prisoner’s censored rantings take on an almost physical presence that absolutely overwhelms the staid characters at which it is directed. Then there’s the novel way he handles Los Bros Hernandez, intercutting two unrelated stories by Gilbert and Jaime in order to approximate the experience of reading them in their two (and sometimes three) man anthology series. I think Gilbert’s material (the devastating, temporally jumping “Julio’s Day”) comes off the stronger, but that of course is also one of the pleasures of reading Los Bros.
And that’s not all. While not quite the knockout blows listed above, the material from artists like Joe Sacco, Adrian Tomine, Dan Clowes, and Ware himself are also quite strong. Unexpected contributions from John Updike and Philip Guston are roped in. The early section on newspaper strips cleverly arranges contributions from Mark Newgarden, Ivan Brunetti, Clowes, Ware, Crumb, Seth, Kaz and more right up against Mutt and Jeff and the like, making an implicit argument that the strip format holds as much potential as the more traditional graphic-novel or short-story modes. Meanwhile, it’s always edifying to read Gary Panter or Mark Beyer, and one of the great comforts of all these big anthologies is that I know I’m never more than 100 or so pages away from some Ben Katchor. Entertainingly, the packaging, as it were, may be the best and most innovative part of the book. Strong minicomics by Ron Rege Jr. and John Porcellino are tucked into the folds of a massive, and massively impressive, cover by Ware. The competing takes on “the history of comics” presented on the front of the cover by Ware, the inside of the cover by Panter, and the endpapers by Brunetti are dazzling, while reproducing images from a 1936 “How to Cartoon” guide by E.D. Muenchow was inspired.
Now, there are the same old problems any anthology has, too. This is likely just a YMMV issue, but the predilection of many anthologizers to place material from Seth and Joe Matt back-to-back merely reminds me that I’ve never much cared for either; Matt’s subject matter is usually dull and offensive, while for some reason I’ve just never felt comfortable with how Seth’s thick, wavy lines sit on the page. I’ve yet to be sold on Lynda Barry or Richard Sala either. And not all of Ware’s selections are as perfect as the ones listed above: Richard McGuire’s “ctrl” is lovely to look at, but he handled the subject matter with tons more nuance and sensitivity in “Home”; and just once I’d like to see Ivan Brunetti represented by stuff from Haw! And as far as Ware’s editorial presence is concerned, he sometimes lets his enthusiasm get the better of him, as you can see in his text pieces, which are heavy on hyperbolic assertion: “Charlie Brown was a real personality, living on the newspaper page—he wasn’t a picture of someone, he was the thing itself…”; “Philip Guston is the first painter, ever, to truly paint a portrait from the inside out.” If he was a blogger writing about Final Crisis, other bloggers would be writing about how ridiculous he sounds.
But those last few concerns are all pretty minor in the face of a book full of, let’s face it, really good comics by really good creators. I mean, there are only four contributors I don’t care for or something like that, right? What’s to complain about? Well, it’s a lack of imagination, that’s what. And I’m as surprised as anyone to here me say that about an effort from Chris freaking Ware. But while there are standout moments to be found here—the cleverly constructed cover materials, the creative editorial layouts of the strip material and the Hernandez Brothers’ stuff, the Burns and Brown selection—the primary sensation engendered by reading McSweeney’s #13 is “yep, that’s exactly what I expected.” And that’s a real bummer in a way, isn’t it? Leading with a bunch of strips about how dull and pathetic it is to be an artist, then segueing into a Crumb strip called “The Unbearable Tediousness of Being” just to hammer the point home; sprinkling it with guest appearances from prominent prose writers who can’t shake the melancholy of their six-year-old selves dressing up in towels and underwear and pretending to be Batman; closing with a Brunetti strip about how Kierkegaard intentionally sabotaged his own love life, then died alone, segueing into those adorable “history of cartooning” endpages also by Brunetti, so that what you’ve just read in the Kierkegaard strip calls into question any pleasure you might get from Brunetti’s laser-precision pastiches of Superman, Eustace Tilly, Mr. Peanut, Enid Coleslaw, Fred Flinstone et al…I dunno, is this what comics is? Obviously it is to Ware, and the chances are good it is to a decent chunk of the McSweeney’s audience, so maybe this is exactly what they wanted to see. It’s just not what I wanted to see, and probably not what I would have chosen to show, either.