The anthology comic has a long and storied tradition in alt/underground comics. From the early days of the Zap Comix collective (Crumb, Spain, Rob't Williams, et al) in the late 60's and early 70's to the recent outstanding Drawn & Quarterlies, a number of the most important comics of the last 30 years first saw light in an anthology. Art Spiegelman's MAUS ran in RAW, the seminal 80's anthology that he co-edited with Francoise Mouly, along with many other cutting-edge comics. Contrasting its formalistic precision was Robert Crumb's WEIRDO, a grab-bag of expressionistic outbursts of id that Peter Bagge later edited. Kim Thompson of Fantagraphics took up the banner in the 90's with ZERO ZERO, an extremely eclectic book that featured long serials by Kim Deitch and some outstanding short pieces by Joe Sacco, among others. The aforementioned DRAWN & QUARTERLY is no longer quarterly, but its beauty as an art object combined with its exposure of European artists recalls RAW. The hippest and most beautiful might be Jordan Crane's NON. Finally, one can't forget groundbreaking all-women's anthologies like WIMMEN'S COMICS.
The anthology series is an extremely difficult sell these days, so most anthologies that are published tend to be yearly affairs or self-published labors of love. In the last six months, there have been an astonishing number of interesting collections released. They range from polished, bookstore-ready collections of well-known talent to self-published, hand-crafted creations consisting of up-and-coming artists. The fact that most stories in anthologies tend to be short and self-contained is both a strength and a weakness. If you don't like a story, just wait a few pages and you get another one. But sometimes one can feel cheated by just getting a few pages of an appealing artist. There are ways around this, however. For example, some anthologies feature extended stories by some artists (like the "Monsieur Jean" stories in D&Q) with shorter features by others. Another way is giving anthologies a theme. Much like a rock 'n roller having to find an interesting way to use three chords, limiting an artist's subject palette can lead to interesting results if you pick the right theme. The editor becomes crucial here, since they not only have to pick the right combination of artists, they must arrange the stories in an order that makes sense. In looking at the following works, how well the anthologies hang together as a whole will be considered, as well as a few standout stories (good and bad).
Beginning at the handmade, art object end of the spectrum, we have issue #5 of TYPEWRITER. The comic itself is 4x4, with a cardboard cover that is hand-fastened with clips. When you pull out a tab, the thing opens up to reveal a series of sections, each one folding up like a map. You pull out a section to read a complete comic, and then flip it over to read the next section. The content varies wildly, though in general most of the stories are dominated by images rather than strict narrative. The art tends towards the primitive, spearheaded by "cute-brut" enthusiast Ron Rege', Jr. A wildly imaginative designer, his style can be an acquired taste. At the other end of the spectrum is the Carrie Golus-Patrick Welch team. They did a straightforward history of an old theatre's history, with each image depicting a different year and state of either glory or decay. Golus' eye for describing detail always is good for a fascinating read. There's also a bit of slice-of-life, Jessica Abel-style, with Johnathan Russell's "Abercrombie Type". The centerpiece is David Youngblood's "Baby Grumpus" strip, a wacky retelling (of sorts) of the Moses myth of a baby being sent down the river that gets merged with bizarre creatures, tribal masks out of Picasso and other assorted weirdness. A lot of the stories seemed to lack much substance, just being quick one-offs; the page from the Shiver Bones Group is an example. Everything in here is at least worth looking if not exactly compelling, but the disparate nature of the stories and lack of stylistic cohesion make this kind of a jarring read. Interesting, but not essential reading.
An anthology with a similar feel but a radically different look is STUDYGROUP 12 #2. The cover is a beautiful silkscreened design from Zack Soto with jagged edges. The contributors are a grab-bag of artists from Highwater, Hi-Horse, Kramer's Ergot and other minicomics circles. There are a lot of things in here that aren't even really comics per se, such as Souther Salazars primitivist collage/poetry pieces, or sketchbook drawings from David Lasky & Marc Bell. Soto did a nice job arranging the stories in the book, alternating longer narratives with bizarre interstitial pieces by Salazar. The narratives all have a taste of the absurd mixed with a certain creepiness. Mat Tait contributes a tale of a teen trying to retrieve a certain object from an apparently dangerous blind woman--and what he has to do in order to get it. The story is very understated yet horrific, with an unspoken sense of menace surrounding it. The most clever story is "Wakaru", where artist Peter Conrad provides a meditation on language and its meanings. A man gets into a car with a man speaking French; the translations into English are then seen on things like t-shirts, road signs and cigarette packs. The most absurd piece is from Andrice Arp, a tale of a giant cat that has the moon clinging to its head. Wordless pieces from Sammy Harkham and Soto are the other main highlights. As a whole, it's more coherent than TYPEWRITER, but the sketchbook material and some of the cruder works detract from the more interesting long narratives. One gets the sense that it might have been a stronger work if it was 10-15 pages shorter than its 80.
HI-HORSE is perhaps the quirkiest selection in this group. Unlike everything else I'm reviewing, it's a standard-sized pamphlet, published roughly twice a year. The contributors have been pretty much the same from issue to issue--it's really more of a collective than a standard anthology. The four artists who usually contribute include Andrice Arp, Howard Arey, Joan Reilly and Bishakh Som, though #4 also has a story by Olivia Kate Schanzer. What I like most about this series is that while the styles of each artist contrast sharply, each artist shares a common sensibility. The stories all have a smart, ironic and often absurdist slant. The standout of the group is Arp, the best draftsman of the group. Her "Turnip's Progress" serial is a bizarre parody (of sorts) of Pilgrim's Progress, complete with Old English font and a 19th century-style illustrative style. My favorite writer of the group is Reilly, whose "Catharta" uses super-hero tropes to tell of a young woman who has the power to hear and solve other people's emotional problems in her role as a bartender. Som contributes a moody coming-of-age story with a sci-fi backdrop, while Schanzer tosses in a hilarious account of grade schoolers being taught by a Black Panther who encourages them to commit "insurrectionary acts." This book is a pleasure to look at and read and is created by skilled hands.
MEATHAUS #6 is another example of an anthology with many different styles but a common sensibility. Begun as a way for students at New York's School of Visual Arts to stay in touch after graduation, it's blossomed into one of the most graphically interesting collections around. Many of the contributors who started the anthology actually did not have an extensive comics background, instead having studied animation or illustration. It showed in the early issues, because there simply wasn't much narrative hung around the pretty pictures. The original members have gotten much more adept at making interesting stories and have recruited a number of new members. There's no surprise that Tomer Hanuka and Dash Shaw both have strong entries here. Shaw has a series of interstitial parodies of Bazooka Joe comics that are hilarious. Hanuka tells a charming little tale of a circus freak with a loving family and stable home life. There are a lot of surprises here, like a virtuostic piece from Tom Herpich, weaving in a brutal fairy tale about captured sprites and jackass-headed men with the pathetic mother imagining it. His sparse pencilling style captures the fear and lust in every panel and makes them palpable. Becky Cloonan contributes a nice-looking piece about being away from loved ones that is interesting for the way she uses shadow and contrast. Mu Dufaka turns in several hilarious stories done in a scratchy & scribbly style that reflects the mad energy and ideas therein. There are few clunkers in this volume and it reflects a group of artists who are serious about their work. It's also nice to see an almost completely fresh set of names in this book; in the alt-comics world, there tend to be a lot of the same people in anthologies. Editors Chris McDonnell and Stephen Q Stardog really have taken this book to another level.
Turning to a somewhat more lighthearted approach is BOGUS DEAD, a themed anthology with an impressive list of contributors culled from minicomics, Highwater and the usscatastrophe.com crowd. The theme is simple: zombies are roaming the earth and mankind is doomed. Draw the human reaction to this. Based loosely around George Romero's DEAD series of films (NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD being the first), the results range from silly to ponderous. Standouts include Graham Annable's tale of a murdered zombie rising up, buying an airplane ticket, flying to a remote location, finding his killer and killing him with the same weapon, flying back, and crawling back into his grave. All very matter-of-fact and deadpan. Gabrielle Bell has a hilarious account of zombies in a hip San Francisco bar and beating them off with art installation objects and a copy of McSweeney's. K Thor Jensen has an amusing tale of a grad student turned zombie who finds himself alone and realizes that he can bring about peace in our time between humans and zombies--if he gets the chance. Megan Kelso continues her hot streak with a quickie about Alexander Hamilton rising from the grave and eating a Wall Street fat cat. Three of the creepier pieces are from Robyn Chapman, Kevin Huizenga & Ted May and Jenny Zervakis. Chapman tells a story of a woman whose sister-in-law rises from the grave--with her brother wanting to know why his wife killed herself and their baby. Huizenga & May retell the story of Red Riding Hood, this time with zombies. Zervakis stays close to the spirit of the film in a story where she winds up in a survivalist bunker and gets bitten--but this winds up saving her from an attempted rape. There's a lot of forgettable material in this anthology, but the theme prevents contributors from taking things too seriously or too lightly. The craftsmanship is very strong here and the common theme allows the different styles to mesh well. Perhaps not for all tastes, but it's interesting to see genre fodder mutated into something very unusual.
The most lighthearted of all these anthologies is GARLIC, whose content is so frothy at times that it threatens to float away. Fortunately, the list of contributors is the cream of the minicomics scene, dominated by the usscatastrophe.com gang. Despite the fact that most of the stories were one-offs and played for laughs, I couldn't help liking it. The theme had something to do with it: it's a comic entirely about garlic. Each story had to involve garlic, one way or another; the issue is the first in a series of anthologies about food. Beyond the inspired silliness of things like Dave Kiersh's "Vampire Silliness" and Souther Salazar's out-there song-comic "Radical Garlic", there were a number of quieter pieces. John Porcellino proves once again that he's the king of reflective, emotionally powerful stories that somehow aren't overly sentimental. Jenny Zervakis plays it completely straight, simply describing how much garlic means to her Greek relatives and even offers a recipe. The weirdest piece is John Hankiewicz's "Garlic Soup", a story about a man's personal odyssey after eating a bowl of especially powerful soup, where the images and text often seem unrelated. While most of the contributors are quite talented,most of the pieces here aren't necessarily the best example of their work, and some look practically ripped out of a sketchbook.
If GARLIC suffered from a certain sloppiness and silliness (even if that was part of its appeal) while sporting a stellar lineup, ORCHID doesn't make any of these mistakes. There are seven stories here, adapted from Victorian short stories or poems. The subject is horror, and the artists create a frightening atmosphere throughout. ORCHID opens with a bang with "The Story of the Demonaic Pacheco", adapted by Lark Pien and Jesse Reklaw. The story concerns a man who awakens under a gibbet and who hears a tale of terror from a man who is damned by sleeping with his stepmother and daughter, and is told with a wild, expressionistic flourish that matches the melodramatic tone of the tale. Gabrielle Bell, whose line has a Jason Lutes-like clarity to it, adapts a story called "Tobermory", about a cat who learns how to talk. He talks a bit too much, exposing the foibles of a Victorian household. Ben Catmull turns in a brief, spooky tale abouta haunting.
The book's real tour-de-force is Kevin Huizenga's "Green Tea", a nightmarish and sweat-inducing tale of his alter ego, Glenn Ganges. Ganges recounts a time in college when he was working feverishly and drinking green tea, when he suddenly started seeing hallucinations of a dog that he knew was going to harm him. He then comes across an account of a reverend who had a similar experience, with a demonic monkey that followed him around and eventually started speaking to him. Huizenga's deceptively simple style is at its peak here, playing with light and narrative in a masterful fashion. There's not a better story in this bunch.
The rest of the book does not impress as much as the earlier stories, but there's still a lot to look at. T. Edward Bak contributes a beautifully-drawn adaptation of a rather hackneyed vampire tale. David Lasky's adaptation of Poe's "The Raven" is Lasky at his most conceptual--there are panels with narration--but no actual drawings in the panels! The aggressive formalist later gives us an image of a raven cut across panel to panel. This is a unique approach to such a familiar work of literature. The book winds up with Dylan Williams doing a story about a doomed marriage called "The Man With The Nose." While he's a good storyteller (as anyone who reads his REPORTER series knows), his slightly ragged line felt out of place here. Overall, ORCHID is a superb example of artists both appreciating and transcending genre. Williams and Catmull both clearly have a firm hand as editors, with the book's feel being consistent even as the style and tone changing from story to story. The order of the stories was absolutely perfect, and everything is worth reading.
Mainstream publisher Dark Horse has been putting out single-issue anthologies under their creator-owned Maverick line, and they went for a real full-sized anthology this time around. HAPPY ENDINGS is a themed anthology revolving around that very idea. There will be a few names familiar to mainstream readers here, like Sam Kieth, Brian Bendis & Mike Oeming and Mike Mignola. Kieth and Mignola contributed some pleasant fluff, while Bendis shows that his intentionally funny comics are much better than his crime or superhero comics. MEATHAUS contributor Farel Dalrymple contributes a beautiful-looking, whimsical story about a boy and a blimp, while Craig Thompson's intense story will surprise those only familiar with his GOODBYE, CHUNKY RICE. The highlights are two pages of grimness from Harvey Pekar & Joe Sacco and the best work I've seen from Frank Miller in a long time. Miller does panel after panel of endings, most of them not exactly happy. His piece is playful but also raw with anger, creating some amusing and disturbing images. Overall, this is a worthy anthology though a bit like drinking lite beer--frothy, but not substantial.
Fantagraphics has returned to doing an anthology comic, sort of, with their first two SPECIAL EDITIONS of THE COMICS JOURNAL. The line-up is mind-boggling, with virtually every artist on their roster contributing something in one or both of the volumes published so far. The comics are just part of the issue, with the rest of it containing the usual sorts of interviews and features that TCJ normally runs. The bonus is that the comics are mostly in color, which is quite a treat in some cases. The problem here, as it is in many of the bigger anthologies, is that even though you might have big names contributing to your anthology, it doesn't mean that they're going to do their best work. Some artists simply aren't very good at providing interesting 1-3 pages stories. This volume's theme was "Cartoonists On Music" and it did produce a more interesting response than volume I, which was the very meta "Cartoonists On Cartooning". Many of the artists either weren't interested in grappling with the issue, spent the space whining about the comics industry, or babbled on about aesthetics in ways that weren't very interesting (Linda Medley's strip still gives me nightmares).
Writing about music gave the artists a chance to express themselves a bit differently. The book reads better if you're familiar with each cartoonist and what they normally do, because otherwise the strip to strip variation can be a bit jarring. (Of course, any transition to or from a scatological Johnny Ryan or Rick Altergott strip is automatically jarring.) There were a few biographical pieces, most of which were quite well done. Chris Ware contributed a beautiful, sad piece about an African-American singer named George Johnson who earned money singing an offensive "race record", and who fell on hard times when new recording techniques made him superfluous. Ware's design and the way he carefully couched the narration in dialogue, leading up to the strip's ultimate point was effective and heartbreaking. Ivan Brunetti used his more stripped-down style to relate the sad tale of chanteuse Francoise Hardy, while Craig Russell pulled out all the stops and pyrotechnics in discussing composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Both were quite effective in their own way.
Some played it for laughs, like Roger Langridge's clever punchline to a frustrated artist gaining inspiration through music or John Kerschbaum's demented rhyme about a man who can't get an annoying tune out of his head. Sam Henderson found a way to bring it all back to comics in his strip where music enjoyed the status in American culture that comics do today. Arnold Roth contributed a couple of pages of music-related gags and Peter Blegvad's ingenious "Anatomy Of A Hit" drawing uses multiple layers of meaning for an array of puns and visual gags. Others talked about music inspiring them, like Mary Fleener's encounter with Joey Ramone; or Carol Lay nearly getting into a fight with Slash. The best stories used music as both backdrop and focus for deeper feelings. That includes Phoebe Gloeckner's exquisite tribute to Janis Joplin with her own character, Minnie; and Megan Kelso's eloquent and understated ode to the waltz.
A lot of the pieces simply didn't resonate with me, even by artists whose work I normally admire. The pieces turned in by the Hernandez Bros. Seemed slight and rather rushed, while Michael Kupperman's strip was only mildly amusing. Robert Crumb turned in a nice-looking but silly strip about a dirty song his daughter once taught him. A lot of the artists here frankly didn't have much to say about the subject, which is a problem with all-star anthologies: the stars are more important than the work provided. That was the case here to some extent, and I think trimming a lot of the published strips would have created a stronger work overall.
SPX 2002 practically deserves a column all its own due to its size and scope. This is the first time that the anthology created to support the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund as part of the Small Press Expo has been restricted to a theme. In this case, the theme is biography. Editor Tom Devlin did a superb job of mixing wildly different styles about a truly odd group of subjects. Generally, the stories about lesser-known figures turned out to be the most interesting. Some of the stories had an unfortunate tendency to lapse into "high school book report mode", making the book somewhat text-heavy. If you're looking for a flashy, innovative design, this isn't really the place to get it. On the other hand, SPX 2002 has an impressive array of familiar artists as well as a host of lesser-knowns and newcomers, with very few true clunkers in the bunch.
Josh Simmons contributed a text-heavy but fascinating piece about Ernest Bellocq, the photographer who created some famous shots of prostitutes in the Storyville section of New Orleans. Simmons cut through a lot of legends but even he didn't have all of the information about his subject. This led to an interesting discussion of what pornography is and how the way the subject is presented changes the context of the photo. His illustrations range from realistic to cartoony, with an excellent eye for design. Another fine piece was turned in by the team of Jim Ottaviani and Rachel Hartman. The tale of the mathematician Bourbaki, who influenced cryptography, was told in the usual chummy Ottaviani style, using a clever framing device and coming up with a great ending. Hartman's whimsical art is perfect for the piece. The great R.Sikoryak told three tales of Rasputin in the style of early 20th century newspaper strips; these pages were just jaw-dropping in their level of detail.
Other standouts include Paul Hornschmeier's time-fractured take on St Francis of Assisi as suffering from dementia; Martin Cendreda's minimalist take on turntable artists Invisible Scratch Piklz; Laurenn McCubbin's tale of an escort named "Jane"; Jamie Tanner's superb rendering of vignettes from artist Egon Schiele's life; Rob Ullman's visceral account of unstable hockey goalie Terry Sawchuk; Jon Bennett's clever rendering of Don Leslie, inventor of the Leslie Speaker; and Alison Taylor's evocative story about "Carolyn Keene", who wrote the Nancy Drew Mystery series.
The theme of the anthology turned off a lot of creators and some readers, though the sheer variety of subjects should prevent boredom. Interesting choices of mediums, like Chris Pitzer using cut-and-paste clip art to discuss a designer and Tod Parkhill using Space Invaders-type graphics to tell the story of an Atari programmer keep the book from falling into a rut. The stories may not be the best example of the works of the artists featured, but I was fascinated at the ways they approached the theme and had to find ways to solve the problems that it raised.
The last book in this survey is ROSETTA, which in many ways is by far the most ambitious anthology on this list. Comics Journal critic Ng Suat Tong put together an impressive lineup of both new material and reprints. The result is something is a cross between Jordan Crane's anthology NON and DRAWN & QUARTERLY. In particular, there are a number of European artists featured here, and not just from France, either. The quality of the contributors is unquestionable (with the exception of perhaps one or two artists), but the fact that the anthology is unthemed and has so many excerpts from larger works makes it a somewhat jarring read. It also doesn't help that two of the longer pieces had been printed before elsewhere. I also wasn't particular thrilled by smaller details like the intrusive interstitial introductions and the lack of page numbers. I'm harping on the details a bit simply because ROSETTA has a chance to be one of the best anthologies ever--the overall level of talent is that impressive.
Miriam Katin's piece about her memories of drinking condensed milk and facing anti-semitism ring with a sweetness and sincerity lacking in many such memoirs. Nick Bertozzi's own take on the many views of Mt Fuji, incorporated into a city story about a missing child was a showcase for his formal cleverness. Michael Kupperman's two strips were both absolutely hilarious, a perfect tonic to some of the more serious strips in the book. Renee French had an ingenious strip displaying different body parts, types of food eaten and mail received and other clues that let us identify a particular sort of stranger. The big discovery for me was Malaysian artist Lat, whose autobiographical account of his school days absolutely sucked me in and left me wanting much more. This was both a strength and weakness of the book: there were simply too few complete stories in here. Some of the excerpts did little more than tantalize me. If these were serials, that would be one thing, but it bugged me that I was only getting a taste of some of these artists.
Some of the better reprints here included a Megan Kelso story that first appeared as minicomic Artichoke Tales #2, a Dave Choe story about Palestine that was first published in his own Bruised Fruit, and a very clever Matt Madden strip called "Tinubu Square" that plays with narrative in an amusing fashion. Really, the only absolute clunker in the book was Swiss artist MS Bastian's strip "Bazooka Joe", a nightmarish, headache-inducing comic that was virtually impossible to follow.
ROSETTA was not the most satisfying read, even if it did have some of the best material. Hopefully the next volume will need to rely a little less on reprints. Despite my reservations, this book is a must if you want to become acquainted with talent outside of the United States, or if you're not very familiar with alt-comics at all. In fact, it's almost an alt-comics primer of sorts, with the visual inventivenesss of David Lasky providing an impressive show of formal techniques. Unlike the TCJ SPECIAL, ROSETTA is a good indicator of what kind of material these artists create, and for that reason I would recommend it above all of the others on this list for novice fans. In that sense, the anthology truly lives up to its name, providing a key to a segment of comics that many aren't even aware of.
A last note: there are many other anthologies that have come out within the last year that I didn't get to touch on. Kurt Wolfgang's LOW-JINX anthology deserves a column of its own, especially with its fourth issue out (featuring the work of alt-comics artists from when they were children). The Monkeysuit gang produces an engaging and accessible book about once a year. KRAMER'S ERGOT is an anthology along the lines of STUDYGROUP 12. If you're interested in learning more about alt-comics, anthologies are an excellent place to begin.
How To Find These Comics:
TYPEWRITER #5 is $5, available from Popzero Productions. Email editor David Youngblood at firstname.lastname@example.org.
STUDYGROUP 12 #2 is available from editor Zack Soto while supplies last. Email him at email@example.com .
HI-HORSE #4 is $3. Check out their website at www.hi-horse.com, which will give you further instructions, or send them mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
MEATHAUS #6 is $7 and available from Meat Haus Press. You can buy it straight from their website, www.meathaus.com, or send money to 184 Kent Ave Apt 322 Brooklyn, NY 11211. Contact them at email@example.com.
BOGUS DEAD is the brainchild of Jerome Gaynor and is currently being distributed by Alternative Comics. Go to www.jeromanempire.com for the skinny; the book is 10 bucks and its ISBN is 1-891867-19-9.
GARLIC can be had from editor Sean Duncan if you email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out wiseanduncanny.com/food to get a good look at some of the stories in the anthology.
ORCHID is a bargain at twice the price for just 8 bucks. Happily, it is being distributed by Diamond. Go to www.sparkplugcomicbooks.com to learn more, including previews of every story. Contact publisher/co-editor Dylan Williams at email@example.com or write to him at PO Box 10952 Portland, OR 97296-0952.
HAPPY ENDINGS is published by Dark Horse Comics (part of their Maverick division) and thus should be available in those comic shop thingies. It's $9.95, and more information can be found at www.darkhorse.com. The book's ISBN is 1-56971-820-2.
THE COMICS JOURNAL SPECIAL EDITION Volume 2 is of course published byFantagraphics and should be available at fine comic shops everywhere. If it isn't, you can order it from Diamond or go to FBI's website at www.fantagraphics.com. For those interested, its ISBN is 1-56097-473-7.
SPX 2002 is a charity book published by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. At $9.95 for over 300 pages, it's quite a bargain. It can be purchased at Mars Import but should also be in any good comic shop. That Mars Import link is http://www.marsimport.com/display_comic.php?ID=3911&affiliateID=4
ROSETTA is a hefty $19.95 and is available from Alternative Comics. This just came out at fine comics shops everywhere a little while ago. You can order it online here: http://www.indyworld.com/rosetta/index.html. For the curious, the ISBN is 1-891867-22-9.