Ivan Brunetti and Jules Feiffer
Over the rather restful and calm holiday season, bereft of visits to relatives and replete with gorgings on The Wire, sundry animes, and such atrocities as The Lady in the Water, I had a chance to think about a few things. Questions kept popping up like bubbles of water ascending through oil. Like:
- Why are graphic novels and novels increasingly considered the same art form when they are clearly different creatures? (Note: For the knee-jerks out there, I'm not saying novels are superior.)
- Is it a compliment to have one graphic novel considered for a National Book Award as opposed to some more systematic analysis?
- Shouldn't the National Book Awards have a graphic novel category?
- Is there the same kind of divide in comics between SF/F work and the "mainstream literary" that you find in fiction?
- Is there something -- some insider knowledge or politics -- driving some of the dislike I've heard for Best American Comics?
- When is Enki Bilal's latest Nekropol work going to appear in English?
- How the hell can anybody keep track of the explosion of comics, graphic novels, mini-comics, illustrated narratives, et al, published every year?
I have begun to develop a few answers to the broader questions above, and I will be talking about these issues and others in future columns, without losing focus on the actual reviews.
2006 in Review
Because I started writing this column fairly late in the year, I’m not comfortable doing a year’s best list for 2006. My reading before September was erratic and un-systematic. So instead here are a few links of possible interest. I'm sure the Bookslut blog will mention several more over the next couple of months.
An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, and True Stories
First, the good and most important news: editor Ivan Brunetti has created a lively, rambunctious overview of the North American comics scene with this four-hundred page tome covering the past several years, along with several classics. Some of my favorite comics of all time are in An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, and True Stories, including R. Sikoryak's "Good Ol' Gregor Brown" and work from the amazing Lynda Barry, Jim Woodring, Richard Sala, Adrian Tomine, Tony Millionaire, and Bill Griffith, among dozens of others. The best work I hadn't encountered before -- I overlooked his contribution to McSweeney's -- was the creepy and insanely stippled "Agony" by Mark Beyer, which in part riffs off of the style of Munch's "The Scream."
Four hundred pages isn't enough to be systematically comprehensive (where're Matt Groening, Will Eisner, and Charles Burns, to name but a few?). For example, I would have liked to have seen more surreal and fantastical work in this volume. However, an editor should play to his passions and Brunetti tries very hard to be diverse and inclusive within his own set of likes and dislikes. (Although Brunetti should have resisted the impulse to include his own work in the volume.)
The other good news is that, graphically, Anthology, like Best American Comics, refers back to the McSweeney’s comics volume, which, it appears, has become the design touchstone for these kinds of books. (Someday, someone in a laboratory somewhere may come up with something more original that works better, but in the meantime...)
Now for the bad news.
Almost all of the essay-article text in the book is mediocre, starting with Brunetti's introduction. It seems as if it is there mostly to take up space. Anyone who "behooves to articulate" or who reduces comics down to banal statements like "...when we begin to read [comics], we enter their world so to speak, and suddenly characters, situations, and emotions are seemingly animated in our mind's eye" is aching to be put out of the reader's misery. An ill-fated extended analogy comparing comics to "the inexorable march of life" reminded me of the English papers of countless first-year college students trying, in excruciating fashion, to reach a minimum word count. There's really no other way to explain something like this: "Of course there's also the eventual calcification and decay of old age, not to mention the inevitability of death, so it may be best not to further belabor this fragile, shaky metaphor, wholly unfounded as it is."
The rest of the nonfiction is a mixed bag, with Charles Schulz's essay the most grossly repetitive and simplistic. The placement also seems unbalanced, given that most of the nonfiction appears in the first fourth of the anthology, after which it disappears until the very end.
Like the editors of McSweeney's, Brunetti eschews using a table of contents (other than a useless whimsical illustrated one) so you can't find anything easily, especially the nonfiction, and the reader has no clear idea of when most of these comics were first published or where, or which might be originals, if any such exist in the book. Some of the excerpts include copyright dates, some don't.
Part of the point of an overview is to provide anchors to time and place, and Brunetti's only concession to this is to end with thumbnail creator notes, which are marginally helpful. Take, for example, "Good Ol' Charlie Brown," mentioned above. I vaguely recall seeing it in a volume of RAW. There's no way of telling from An Anthology whether I'm right or not.
In this sense, and a few others (like having an ungainly subtitle as a title), Brunetti has created an inspired sprawl rather than a focused anthology. Why does this matter? It matters if you care about things like the difference between being an editor and a caretaker of an anthology. It matters if you think the details are important. And it matters if you think, like I do, that comics are maturing (not in Brunetti's simplistic chronological sense) and that therefore not just their history but the facts of that history are important.
Now, do I still think you should run right out and buy An Anthology? Yes, absolutely. No single volume can really do the comics scene justice. You have to cross-triangulate if you want completeness. Acquire the McSweeney's comics volume for some insightful essays and excellent excerpts. Buy Best American Comics for material published in a particular year. Get An Anthology for a richer sense of American comics and for its sheer exuberance. And then go out and buy Flights for a cross-section of more fantastical fare that includes American creators.
An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, & True Stories, edited by Ivan Brunetti
Yale University Press
I looked forward to The Long Chalkboard and Other Stories, written by Jenny Allen and illustrated by Jules Feiffer because I'd read an Entertainment Weekly review giving it an "A." Apparently, Entertainment Weekly may not be as reliable as its blithe, superficial 30 to 150-word reviews might indicate...
Described as "three delightful, bittersweet, especially-for-our time adult stories of modern life as lived by men and women of a certain age," The Long Chalkboard is the sort of thing that gives upper middle-class Whitebread suburban America a bad name. There's a nice fluidity to Feiffer's art, combined with a kind of 1950s sensibility that, put to the service of other stories, might indeed have been "delightful" if not "bittersweet." But the people in these stories are meant as fairytale ciphers, without distinction, and serve narratives that are meant to entertain the ghosts of the clichés of what we think soccer moms and software consultants are from watching them on television. The narrative comes to brief life in part of "What Happened," which details the connection between two children's book writers, but in general this is the kind of banal, effect-less writing that tries to convince us that the absence of wisdom is its presence.
The Long Chalkboard and Other Stories by Jenny Allen, Jules Feiffer
The February column will feature commentary about novels versus graphic novels as well as a full review of Big Fat Little Lit, a wonderful collection edited by Art Spiegelman and Francois Mouly.
Send complaints, compliments, concerns, and rambling rants about how wrong I am to: vanderworld at hotmail.com. (I’ll assume you don’t mind being quoted in this column if you send me something, unless you tell me otherwise.)
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