June 2007

Heather Smith


Judging a Book by Its Cover: Comics Swankified

Pardon me while I get out my corncob pipe and reminisce here, but in my day, comics were cheap. Skinny paperbacks like Peanuts, Dennis the Menace, and Family Circle were four for a dollar at ubiquitous used bookshops perpetually stocked and replenished with approximately 95% romance novels (alphabetized) and 5% miscellaneous (jumbled in cardboard boxes stacked behind the radiator). Comic books -- the sorts with tights and boy wards and exhortations not to do drugs -- needed no buying. Rather, if one was willing to forego such pleasantries as narrative continuity they could be prospected out of the great slithering piles of magazines at the laundromat.

Not that I want the early '80s back, mind you. It was harder to avoid images of Mary Lou Retton then than it is now. Asking a computer to do anything resulted in ominous kachunking noises and large, dot-matrix exhortations to insert a new floppy disk. On school trips, more nervous mothers shooed kids away from the roller-rink drinking fountain, on the grounds that it "had AIDS." Nonetheless, a few days ago I wandered into a local comic book shop and came face to face with a display of the first eight beautifully designed hardbound volumes of The Complete Peanuts (only seventeen more to go!) and, well, it gave me the vapors.

What would it be like, as a kid, to first encounter comics in a format that suggests that comics are actually important? An entire generation of children has already grown up without the memory of clawing through the sports pages to soak, junkie-like, in the hypnotic lameness that was Dick Tracy or Family Circus, now that the daily paper has bit the dust in most households. The jumbled newsstand racks and musty "Everything in this Box is a Quarter" boxes have long-since morphed into the pseudo-Victorian charms of Barnes and Noble, and hermetically sealed comics shops that sell spendy hardcover omnibuses and Franklin Mint-type statues of the Sandman while giving actual children the fisheye.

None of this is bad, necessarily. It's just different. The tide of comics as something endlessly disposable is receding before our very eyes, and as we look ahead, the future looks suspiciously like a fluttering mountain range of sewn bindings and velveteen ribbon bookmarks. So how is this strange thing called "dignity" conveyed? Does a velveteen bookmark a classic make? Are we ready for the deluxe leatherette edition of Beetle Bailey? After all -- the content is the same. Only the outer wrapping has changed. And so it behooves us, at this moment, to turn aside from our dog-eared copy of Adventures of Gumby and Pokey and cast an eye on how the birdcage lining of our yesterdays is being transformed into the doorstop of our future.

The Complete Peanuts 1950-1952 by Charles M. Schulz
ISBN: 156097589X
320 Pages
Cover designer: Seth

In short, this collection is so slick that it makes even the non-Peanuts fan yearn to possess it. The overall design of the books is spookily film noir-like. Each character's shadow billows hugely behind them, as though they're caught in a police spotlight. On the cover of volume three, Pigpen is a good example. He looks out half fearful, half curious -- like a kid in a Weegee photograph. Of all eight volumes, the only cover character who looks remotely content is a rather drugged-looking Linus, curled up to his blanket with a wobbly smile of satisfaction. Perhaps it's this noir treatment that makes the idea of such a magnum opus of the franchise that was, after all, responsible for the phrase "Happiness is a Warm Puppy" seem more respectable. If all those kids are miserable, and if no sign of the adorable Woodstock is in evidence, than the enterprise must be a worthwhile literary endeavor.

That said, each cover is so compelling and beautifully designed that it's hard to decide which of the eight volumes published so far is the most fabulous. The way Snoopy's tongue curls up in volume 4 is an incredible design element, as is Schroeder's self-absorbed hammering away at an unseen piano. But, out of all the covers, there's something especially eerie about the Pleistocene Charlie Brown in volume one, staring angrily out of the cover like a character in a Russian novel. His single eyebrow/forehead wrinkle is hypnotic as it hovers above and completely dwarfs his tiny downturned "u" of a mouth. Charlie doesn't make the cover again until seven volumes later, and by the time we get there, he's been sanitized. All the bile has been scrubbed from his expression -- and in its place is the familiar worried-yet-philosophical Charlie Brown of so many coffee mugs and beach towels, his heavily inked ovoid eyes reduced to two perfectly blank black dots. 

Hank Ketcham's Complete Dennis the Menace 1951-1954 Box Set by by Hank Ketcham
ISBN: 1560978074
1344 Pages
Cover Design: Jacob Covey

Perhaps Art Spiegelman's scholarly exploration the Tijuana Bible was the first sign. But for absolute proof of the deification of the formerly pulpy, one need look no further than Fantagraphics equally reverent treatment of Hank Ketchum's Dennis the Menace. It's a testament to Ketcham's skill with pen and ink that his drawings look so incredibly good when not shrunk down to two inches by two inches on a piece of newsprint, but for all its playful, swooping lines and coldly excellent draftsmanship, Dennis the Menace was a one-trick pony, certainly no Peanuts. To his credit, the cover designer, Jacob Covey, doesn't try to convey respectability through ponderousness. Instead, he simply blows the head of Dennis the Menace up to a size more appropriate to Mount Rushmore, and slaps it on the side of the slipcase, so that it hovers in the center in the center of a Russian Constructivist starburst like the all great and powerful Oz.

Covey appears to be the stealth weapon of cover design over at Fantagraphics -- he's also behind the extremely smoove, '70s action-movie style redesign of the Love and Rockets collections, which, one hopes will lead to more girls in Pucci sundresses reading Maggie the Mechanic. In the case of Dennis the Menace, Covey gives the covers a similarly candy-coated treatment, but also does a superb job focusing on the most interesting part of a mediocre comic -- Ketchum's exuberant, coldly perfect drawing style. Isolated images are enlarged and re-enlarged until Dennis the Menace looks like almost like a cherubic fertility symbol.

Like Seth, Covey has carefully designed the book to look good on the bookshelf, as well as on the display table. He throws several charming details -- especially on the jacket spine, where a disembodied Dennis the Menace head (a different head! For every book!) hovers over a jagged timeline showing the years the book covers. Again, it's hard to say who is going to buy this collection, except for advertising directors, '50s nostalgia fetishists, and (possibly) commercial artists in need of a sourcebook on how to draw small children in overalls 4,000 different ways, but the collection itself is sleek and cool, like an otter with a popsicle.

The Complete Far Side 1980-1994 by Gary Larson
Andrews McMeel Publishing
ISBN: 0740721135
1272 Pages

I'm sorry, but I just finished the '90s. And the '80s I finished a bit before that. Even though the bad perm is, apparently, back again as a cultural force, I find that I am nonetheless most assuredly Not Ready To Remember Either. I can handle a few poodle cut shag things, and maybe even a belted tunic or two, but I'm drawing the line at commemorative boxed sets of the Far Side. Personally, enmeshed as I am in the '00s, I need no reminders that there actually was such a thing as the '90s in particular, lest I burst into tears at the memory of a time when, apparently, the biggest worry facing the country was whether or not wearing two flannel shirts on top of each other looked good (History's Ultimate Verdict: No) and whether or not we should all, as a nation, move to Seattle. (Remember? That was an actual cover story of Newsweek magazine back in 1996. They even asked Lynda Barry what she thought, and she said that it was too rainy, but that the coffee was good. Oh! To have such slow news weeks again!)

So have the ghost of the long-deceased Far Side dredging up unpleasant memories with its whimsical cartoons of scientists (plump-cheeked and apparently still well-funded) and prehistoric critters and big bangs (apparently still believed to have existed) seems, to me, to be an unnecessary cruelty -- like showing movies about the roaring '20s to people in a 1930s bread line. But, gut reactions to decades aside, this very Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci reworking of the Far Side is not bad, especially compared to the Middle Earth treatment given to the Complete Calvin and Hobbes, which looks destined to wind up in the background of a Pottery Barn catalog, or a hobbit hole. The gold, cursive "Larson" on a dark green cloth background? Tacky as hell, but fully in keeping with the tongue and cheek Time LIFE/Masters of the Renaissance vibe of the entire collection.

So, a little early for its time, but refreshing in that its design is playful enough to convey that it is both ponderous quality ART (one of the reader reviews on Amazon advises to "remember to lift with your legs, not with your back") and a collection of clumsy pen and ink drawings about cows and wiener dogs that once sold a lot of coffee mugs and Hallmark cards. 

Ice Haven by Daniel Clowes
ISBN: 037542332X
88 Pages
Cover design: Daniel Clowes

So here's the story. In 2001, Eightball #22 comes out. Pretty typical Dan Clowes -- beautifully drawn and designed, featuring the usual cute and vaguely retro teenage girl, the usual schlumpy guy who can't quite get it together, plus a whole lot of Leopold and Loeb and Peanuts-style comic strips with maladjusted little kids with big heads. It cost six dollars.

Then, three years later, Ice Haven is published by Pantheon, a division of Random House best known for taking a chance and publishing the oft-rejected Maus back in the '90s (though our current ban on remembering the '90s demands that we move on quickly from this point). A speedy perusal of Ice Haven reveals it to be Eightball #22, reformatted, and with a few extra panels. Same Leopold, same Loeb, same maladjusted everybody, now at three times the price. Copies of the original comic are still for sale. So no one buys Ice Haven, right? Wrong. It sells out repeatedly and goes into multiple printings over the next year.

If there ever was a case of book design triumphing over the logical thought processes, this is it.  Clowes did the original comic book, and he did the book design for the Pantheon reissue, and to be honest, the redesign is a vast improvement. On the Eightball cover, the colors bright and sunny -- and even though the characters are tangibly miserable, they're all jumbled together in a very companionable way. There's even a front porch, like in Mayberry. The cover to Ice Haven, on the other hand, is sleek and spare and significantly grayed down. All of the heads stare off in different directions, not quite making eye contact. The vibe is now much more in the line of "French movie poster," and the cover change, the message conveyed by the reader is subtly changed from "I collect kitsch memorabilia. Sell me your Don Knotts bobble-head" to "Approach me if I'm reading this in a café. Especially if I have a scarf on."

But selling a comic book in hardcover book form is about more than just a change in cover image -- it's the change in the entire way that the story is packaged and sold. People and books seem to have a kinky relationship with one another that comics have a hard time muscling into. Comics just don't seem to fetishizable in quite the same way -- there aren't any films where someone peeks through the gaps in a comics display to see that cute guy or girl browsing the Love and Rockets single issues, or where people a clasp a comic book to their heart and say things like "I simply love this, Quentin! I will never forget this anniversary! Make love to me now!"

I can't help but believe that people do feel this way about comics in real life, all the time -- but that it simply hasn't entered the "cultural narrative" -- to be all grad-studenty about it. It could be that as people read less and less, they come to value books more and more -- as totemic objects of retro intelligence, rather than things to be hauled around in one's backpack and read at the dentist's office. This could be a good thing -- the day that a book's sales depend entirely on its prettiness, will be a day when book design is forced to get that much better.