The forces that have made possible a new golden age in comics publishing have also led to similar riches in publications about comics. The Comics Journal is still the model for such publications, but it's been forced to adapt to a new generation of comics-related magazines. Windy Corner is my favorite of these publications for its eccentricity and focus on artists writing about artists. Comics Comics stands out for its tabloid format and distinct editorial point of view far outside of any orthodoxy. In many respects, the most ambitious magazine of this kind has been Comic Art, edited by Todd Hignite. In its older, periodical form, Comic Art distinguished itself with its production values, the depth of its analysis, and the worldwide search for interesting and sometimes forgotten cartoonists to profile.
With the last two issues, Comic Art became even more ambitious. It switched to an annual, bound format; issues #8 and #9 are around 200 pages each. Additionally, each issue has a bonus publication by a prominent cartoonist attached to it. The result is a sumptuous feast for the eyes for comics fans and for comics historians in particular. Those who aren't students of the genre may find some of the articles a slog to read, but the illustrations themselves (as arranged by designer and cartoonist Jonathan Bennett) are top-notch. What follows are some observations about the two issues.
* Perhaps unintentionally, these two issues feel like a RAW reunion, with extensive profiles on Richard McGuire, Jerry Moriarty, Kaz and Drew Friedman. The interview with McGuire was probably the single most stunning article in these two issues, due in no small part to McGuire's peerless and instantly affecting sense of graphic design. The interview with McGuire leads off with a reprint of his classic strip "Here", a work that was a direct influence on Chris Ware's diagramatic comics. The Moriarty piece led off issue #9, and the artist essentially narrated his own progress as an artist, commenting on his own work. It felt like it could have been a chapter in a sequel to In The Studio, Hignite's coffee table book that had artists talking about their own work.
* The best-written pieces in the issues were by Ben Schwartz, who wrote about Kaz and Friedman. Apart from being remarkably thorough histories of those two artists (both of whom were students at the School of Visual Arts at the same time), Schwartz crucially contextualizes the work of both men. While the interests and styles of the artists couldn't be any more different, both created comics that were intrinsically connected to a time and a place: New York City in the late 70s and early 80s. Schwartz is careful to analyze the actual content of the images, how it was influenced by the artist's surroundings, and how those images commented on larger cultural issues. Friedman used an hyperrealistic style to both expose and celebrate ugliness, while Kaz went the abstract route. Schwartz then took great pains to interview a number of figures crucial to their stories, adding further context.
* There are plenty of comics in these issues as well. There are new pieces by Dan Zettwoch, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Tim Hensley (who drew the demented cover for #9) and a comics essay by Zak Sally. That latter piece, "The Man Who Killed Wally Wood", is another triumph. It absorbs the tropes of the detective genre into an autobiographical account of meeting a man who published the great former EC artist late in his career--but wouldn't let Wood collect those strips. It's a story of inspiration and desperation, one familiar to many cartoonists, and Sally's straight-ahead, clipped prose and washed-out pencils are an ideal match.
* There's a lot of attention paid in these volumes to classic strip and magazine cartooning. Tom DeHaven's essay on Chester Gould was gripping because it presented and defended a strong & personal point of view on the best eras of Dick Tracy. He articulated precisely why he preferred those eras and backed it up with page after page of illustrations and examples. The production values of Comic Art make this sort of essay possible.
* Most of the other articles on classic cartoonists are written from a more academic perspective, like Theirry Smolderen's exhaustively researched history of the word balloon and essay on Lyonel Feininger. The former article is really for the most hardcore of academics on the subject, but the latter is a revealing profile on the fine artist who began his career as an illustrator and cartoonist. In both articles, Smolderen's research unearthed all sorts of rare images and correspondence.
* There really is a sort of murderer's row of great writers about comics in these pages. The great Donald Phelps (author of Reading The Funnies and one of the first serious comics critics) contributes essays on Edd Cartier and George Clark. Phelps in particular makes a convincing case for the importance of the latter artist, analyzing both the era and the creator and contextualizing the kind of family satire he was pushing through in his strips. He was less convincing in his painstaking profile on pulp artist Cartier, whose work had more to do with illustration than comics.
* Another member of that "murderer's row" is Jeet Heer. Yet another essay seeking to provide context for the inspirations of cartoonists was his article on Navajo Country and its influence on George Herriman, Frank King and other artists who made the trek out to the American southwest in the 1920s. This was before trains made it easier to see things like the Grand Canyon and Monument Park. Heer also wrote an article about the famed New Yorker cartoonist Gluyas Williams and his friendship with writer E.B. White. Williams' work was subtle and refined to an extreme degree, revealing a lot about the personality of the cartoonist as a result.
* There's really something for any kind of fan of comics in these issues. Douglas Wolk broke down why he found Jim Starlin's Adam Warlock to be so strangely alluring. There's a long feature on German avant-garde cartoonist Anke Feuchtenberger that's another triumph. Ken Parille wrote a feature on Abner Dean that delved deep into analyses of particular drawings (including their psychological impact). There are features on the prank art familiar to any long-time comic book reader, the long-buried teenage comics of S. Clay Wilson, the Mystery Men strips of Richard Taylor, German publication Simplicissimus, French humor magazine La Rire and more. I especially enjoyed Adrian Tomine interviewing Gilbert Hernandez about why he liked former Tarzan artist Jesse Marsh's work so much.
* Lastly, the small booklets by Seth ("Forty Cartoon Books of Interest") and Ivan Brunetti ("Cartooning") are both fantastic. I've reviewed the latter book elsewhere, but Seth's book is a testament to a lifetime of collecting. He begins the book with a strip on his obsession and how he misses the "thrill of the hunt" in dusty old bookstores (obviated by the internet). The book itself shows us an illustration from a cartoon book and his thoughts on it. None of them are all that obscure, yet he also avoided making obvious selections as well.
Seth's essay reminded me why I enjoy reading cartoonists talking about other cartoonists, and it's perhaps the one thing I'd like to see more of in Comic Art. The main critique that's been made in other corners about Comic Art is that it eschews negative critiques. I don't really see that as a pertinent critique, because that's simply not the magazine's mission. All I ask for from a comics essay is an author who is willing to truly engage the material he's analyzing and do the hard work of unpacking it. When you combine this willingness from its writers with its production values, it's no wonder why the release of a new issue is always so eagerly anticipated