Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Art of Editing: An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons and True Stories Volume 2

Rob reviews the Ivan Brunetti-edited AN ANTHOLOGY OF GRAPHIC FICTION, CARTOONS AND TRUE STORIES, Volume 2 (Yale University Press).

I've had a copy of Ivan Brunetti's AN ANTHOLOGY OF GRAPHIC FICTION, CARTOONS AND TRUE STORIES, Volume 2 (henceforth to be referred to as ANTHOLOGY 2) for a year now and have had trouble finding the right approach on how best to review it. Given the complexity of connections in the first volume, I thought that I'd carefully write notes after reading each entry. Then I thought it might be best to re-read the first volume. After several abortive attempts at doing both, I reread the introduction of ANTHOLOGY 2 and finally realized that all of these efforts ran counter to the spirit with which the book was created. Thus, I set about simply reading the book as quickly as possible, letting the connections and juxtapositions of each story register without slowing down or analyzing them too closely during this process.

The result from this approach was the experience of a book that, despite having no material in it from the editor, was as intensely personal as any of his own comics. There was a certain burden in the first volume of the anthology to put in certain well-known stories from well-known cartoonists. In a sense, that volume mirrored Brunetti's own course on cartooning: starting from single-panel comics & mark-making and working up to increasingly more complex narratives. While not making a value judgment on what type of expression was "better" or more sophisticated, there was clearly a progression of at least technique and complexity of form, one that any reader could follow.

This volume also had its own set of progressions, but they are more idiosyncratic and personal. Brunetti himself described it as a family album of sorts, and this concept was concretized as Brunetti juxtaposed older strips against newer works, creating a richer context for both. The first volume of the anthology had an extended tribute to Charles Schulz, the most popular cartoonist of the 20th century. That tribute was especially interesting because of the way Schulz affected so many different kinds of cartoonists, a fact that would be especially revelatory for the casual reader of comics. Everyone knows Peanuts; not every reader perhaps has a deep understanding of the elements of the strip that inspired so many. ANTHOLOGY 2 has an extended tribute to Harvey Kurtzman, a figure far more obscure for the casual reader, yet much more influential for several generations of cartoonists than Schulz.

Brunetti's introduction is brief and lays out several crucial pieces of information for those who might wonder why and how the contents of the anthology were selected. In addition to noting that his choices were personal, reflecting his own idiosyncrasies, he makes a clever comparison between comics and family. That metaphor allows him to note that he couldn't include all the "far-flung and distant relatives" (the most experimental comics), and that some would be "prohibitively expensive to fly in" (corporately owned comics that were nonetheless of interest) or "would not attend the sitting" (those artists who simply refused to have their material printed in the anthology). Brunetti also clearly expressed what drove him to make his choices: "formal experimentation, uncompromised subject matter, uniquely expressed mood, deeply felt theme, inventive drawing or sheer craft". Not every comic in the anthology necessarily had all of these traits, but knowing this ahead of time was an aid in understanding the way that Brunetti chose to link each entry. The Saul Steinberg cartoon, depicting each member of a family being drawn in a radically different style, was the perfect springboard for describing what Brunetti was attempting here.

Brunetti deliberately eschewed hard-and-fast categorization and sectioning in this volume. How and why the comics were sequenced was left not so much as an exercise for the reader, but rather as an opportunity to make connections on one's own. It allows the reader to let the works reveal themselves to them. While it is true that the most important references for any particular piece were the stories immediately preceding and following them, I thought there were some rougher groupings that tended to reveal themselves only after finishing a section and seeing a significant shift. As such, there were roughly nine different groupings to my eye in this 400-page tome.

The first section was from pages 1-47 and served as an introduction and ode to a number of classic cartoon tropes: funny animals, superheroes, gag work, and horror. Sammy Harkham's strip "Napolean!" was a great starter strip, given the way it addressed a chief concern of the cartoonist (iconic vs representational work) and turned it on its head when it's Napolean Bonaparte who's tackling this problem on a battlefield. Indeed, this whole section serves as both tribute and subversion of familiar cartoon imagery. Chris Ware's intricate gag work made for a nice connection, given the downbeat nature and innovative page design of his jokes. Going from his God/Superman strip to R.Sikoryak's hilarious "Action Camus" Superman/lit mash-up was an inspired choice. Michael Kupperman's deliberately stilted art style that recalled older comics for absurd effect is cleverly paired with Drew Friedman's ultra-realistic but grotesque figures. The fatalism of that strip made for a natural partner with Mark Beyer's crude "Messenger of Death" comic. In turn, themes of death, the afterlife and desire find a partner with Kaz's "The Tragedy of Satan". It's a spin on the devil as a sympathetic figure of sorts, forever denied his only desire in Kaz's trademark cartoony & feverish line. From there, it's short takes on horror (body horror especially, as detailed by Jayr Pulga and Renee French), deviltry (Mack White's deadpan nude nun/satyr story) and mystical experiences (Kim Deitch's Al Ledicker strip). The section ends after a series of grisly funny animal strips, the last one from an anonymous cartoonist.

These strips were all from contemporary cartoonists, and the way they subverted expectations naturally led one to ask for further sources of inspiration. That led to the Kurtzman tribute section, which made sense when one considers the deep impact he had both on popular culture and the underground cartoonists. MAD planted the seed of satire and questioning popular ideas in several generations, turning cliches and familiar tropes on their heads in ways no one had seen before. That opened the door for the underground generation and total, uncensored free expression.

While Brunetti obviously celebrates and showcases his influence in this volume, he also makes the case that Kurtzman was very much part of a continuum of cartoonists, as he included strips from Harry Tuthill, Milt Gross and Bill Holman that showed the debt owed to them by Kurtzman. After running a few early Kurtzman strips (nothing from MAD, alas, other than a classic Basil Wolverton cover), the reader is treated to twin tributes from Robert Crumb and Art Spiegelman. Those two artists couldn't be any more different aesthetically (as their editorships of WEIRDO and RAW, respectively, demonstrated), yet both cited Kurtzman as a primary influence.

Spiegelman's piece made for a smooth segue to a section devoted to comics formalism and the act of creation. Beginning with Spiegelman's most visually stunning work, "The Malpractice Suite", this section is all about different ways of approaching the comics page and understanding the medium. Comparing Spiegelman's "Dead Dick" to the fine artist Jess' "Tricky Cad" (which is in the Hirshhorn Museum) is interesting as a point of reference, given that Jess years earlier had done a painting that was a mash-up of Dick Tracy before Spiegelman used an even more surreal approach in his strip to make meaning elusive. From there, we get the comics-as-poetry of John Hankiewicz, a mixture of John Stanleyesque cartooning and naturalism from Tim Hensley, a play on "The Plot Thickens" by Bill Griffith wherein panels become smaller and smaller as the story becomes denser, and some stunning visual experiments from Richard McGuire and Gilbert Hernandez. From there, we turn to Jim Woodring's "Particular Mind", one of his dreamlike autobio pieces. This one's all about the act of creation and being an artist and what that means, especially in terms of one's sanity. That's driven home in David Collier's "Artist", about an artist who became an accidental acid casualty, only to meet up with Collier in a low moment for both men. One gets a sense of the cost of being an innovator. Someone who sees the world differently as an artist may well have trouble coping with all sorts of aspects of that world on a day-to-day basis.

The next section of the book is perhaps its most clever and directly didactic, as Brunetti flips from an older comic to a more contemporary piece, so as to allow the reader to draw a direct line between the two. It begins with obscure artist Eugene Teal's bizarre & crude strip about murderous frogs to Charles Burns' ultra-slick BLACK HOLE excerpt that featured an ominous frog dissection. A painting by Karl Wirsum had a figure that could have been part of Gary Panter's JIMBO stories, an excerpt of which immediately followed. The raw craziness of Fletcher Hanks was flanked by Paper Rad's calculated pop-culture crudeness and CF's sketchy, nervy violence. Charles Forbell's intricate "Naughty Pete" strip, about the relationships between children and their environment, was followed by Ron Rege's "We Must Know, We Will Know", about people and their relationship with knowledge. Concluding the section is a Winsor McCay dream comic followed by a stunning Matthew Thurber bit of dream logic. It should be noted that the contemporary cartoonists featured in this section are some of the most innovative and experimental (and some just plain out of left field) in comics today. That said, Brunetti demonstrated that no matter how experimental the strip, they all had predecessors of a sort in comics or fine art. Brunetti tightens the bonds of history in this section both between classic cartoonists and today's artists as well as fine artists, blurring the traditions of both.

If the preceding section was more deliberately intellectual in the way it was assembled, the next hundred or so pages were far more intuitive and personal. The first thirty pages (roughly from 146-177) are all about family, relationships and longing. It starts on the absurd side with Souther Salazar and Kevin Scalzo, then takes a plaintive turn with a Megan Kelso strip about what is left out of a family's vacation slideshow. We then get a run of diary comics, including a reproduction of James McShane's day recorded in ten-minute intervals, Laura Park's stunning and intricate strip about getting a pedicure, Vanessa Davis' hilarious evocation of small moments, and Onsmith's strip detailing memories that only features places, not people (and has a stunner of an ending). This run is about details, minutiae, and the ways in which these quotidian moments accrue meaning. Longing and desire, carried to frequently neurotic ends, mark the next four strips, featuring Joe Matt, Jeffrey Brown, Martin Cendreda and Dave Kiersh.

The Kiersh strip is about a sense of longing with regard to place, making a nice segue to the next mini-section, Brunetti's tribute to his hometown of Chicago. It begins in the suburbs with John Porcellino and a favorite dog that tied him to the city. Carrie Golus contributes a strip about an observation of youth in urban Chicago and a memory of her own youth in suburban Chicago with Patrick Welch. Jessica Abel's "Jack London" is a meditation on a drifting young woman's life as the city was covered in snow, while Cole Johnson concludes the section with a younger woman's memories of a forest. This section also acted as a sort of pivot point for the rest of the book, leading into a darker section on the ways in which friends & family can betray us, grief, loss and life and death struggles.

The section begins on a light note with Lynda Barry, and it ties into a consistent theme in her work: the ways in which self-awareness and self-judgment destroy our ability to create and seize joy. Family, time and place all figure prominently in this story about how a friend's judgment affected young Barry. That leads into a typically shattering story from Debbie Drechsler, about a girl and her best friend, and how the incestuous advances of her father destroy her joy. Diane Noomin is featured in a strip about three best friends and how she drifted apart from each of them. In that same, slightly crude style, Aline Kominsky-Crumb depicts her mother as a grotesque figure. Ariel Bordeaux's one-pager about an almost pathological need to seek validation in others is followed by Chester Brown's strip about what schizophrenia actually is. That sense of one's world breaking down is heightened by Anders Nilsen's minimalist, labyrinthine monologue touching on the death of a loved one and the ways it destroyed all sense of possibility. Joe Sacco took that feeling to another level as he detailed the raw struggle for survival in the ordeal a group of people from the Bosnian town of Gorazde had to endure in a time of war. Using that same intense, naturalist style of art, Phoebe Gloeckner's devastating "Minnie's Third Love" topped Sacco in terms of the intensity of suffering and betrayal that her teen stand-in suffered at the hands of adults and so-called friends, in the form of sexual abuse and drug abuse. The section concludes with Elinore Norflus' crudely drawn and darkly hilarious story about a woman calling a vicious suicide hotline and finally taking solace from a kind operator.

The focus changed from family and friends to time and place with high stakes. The excerpt from Brian Chippendale's NINJA takes the baton from Norflus in terms of the crudeness and almost OCD quality of the line. The stories are about sex and death, leading into Leif Goldberg's bit about two animals trying to brave a freeway to make it to the ocean. David Mazzuchelli's "Near Miss" sees a character worrying about the apocalypse in the form of an asteroid before heading out to the desert for a hallucinatory encounter, while Jerry Moriarty contributed a "Jack Survives" strip about the frustration of trying to experience a boxing match on TV and being denied it. Ben Katchor is the ultimate cartoonist in creating a space for characters to inhabit that becomes an entity unto itself, as he does in these stories about a fictional city filled with patron saints of jaywalkers, cryptic notes under tables waiting to be read and men who pretend every day is their birthday so as to take advantage of others. The sketchiness of Katchor is followed by the similarly loose style of Frank Santoro in a STOREYVILLE excerpt that flipped between character and scenery--both urban and pastoral. That sense of community is further explored by Dan Zettwoch in "Cross-Fader", one of his classic diagram comics that subtly gives us an understanding of a midwestern church community. Kevin Huizenga's "The Curse" keeps up that midwestern exploration but brings an air of creeping menace in the form of a starling invasion. Like Zettwoch, his story has a diagrammatic feel to it, with frequent asides to ornithological history reinforcing that sense of dread. Finally, Bill Griffith's "Is There Life After Levittown", about his youthful troublemaking in his dull suburban hometown, is very much about time and place--it's just a place that the writer couldn't wait to get away from.

That focus on one's teen years led neatly to the last section of the book (approximately the last hundred or so pages), which focused on youthful obsession, especially as it related to music and the process of creation, as well as the way the passage of time affects our relationships. The Harvey Pekar/R.Crumb piece about Pekar's obsession with collecting jazz records, ends with Pekar kicking his habit so as to finally become a comic book writer. Crumb's "That's Life", about obscure blues artist Tommy Grady, ends with young Crumb finding an obscure record by this guitar player who was shot to death after fooling around with someone else's girlfriend and getting it appreciated years after his death (albeit by a room full of white blues scholars). Brunetti then gives us another variation on this story, this time with Crumb's "Patton", about one of the legends of the blues. Crumb bemoans that his death went mostly unnoticed by the national press, but at least he managed to influence the entirety of 20th century blues and rock with his raw country playing. Crumb doesn't exactly romanticize these men and plays up their infidelities, lack of interest in other forms of work and hard-drinking ways. (In a sense, he identifies with these men who were imperfect human beings but great artists.) Crumb finishes this part of the section with a short story about trying to buy an old blues record from an African-American woman and getting shouted down about him trying to take advantage of her. It's an interesting story given that he didn't quite feel guilty about possibly exploiting her (because he really didn't have much money) but was haunted enough by the experience to record it.

The subsection featured the intersection of youth and old age, wandering and being sedentary, impatience and calm reflection--in other words, the way time passes. Carol Tyler's "Country Music" played on this idea cleverly on several levels as she was out in the country with her grandparents and heard the "music" of nature, but then got asked to put on country music (and it winds up being John Phillip Sousa!). Maurice Vellekoop's melancholy one-pager about the passage of time in a park was a perfect transition to an excerpt from Seth's CLYDE FANS, which dealt with a man's mother slowly slipping into dementia. Her being unable to remember him fully made her a little dead to him already; Seth's use of silver-blue gives the story a distancing effect.

That sense of distance with relation to memory and identity was flipped with the next piece, Adrian Tomine's "Hazel Eyes". It's a story about a young woman struggling with social anxiety and trying to create a new version of herself by imagining herself a different person when she stopped the car. That slicker line made it a perfect transition for the Jaime Hernandez story "Jerusalem Crickets", a classic about life on the road for a punk band and how one character tried to deal with the guilt of abandoning her best friend. Daniel Clowes' "Blue Italian Shit" was a stunningly self-deprecatory account of a man's youth and attempt to lose his virginity. In these stories, it's the little details of nights spent in bars and clubs and the desperate searches for connection therein. Connection and alienation are important themes for Clowes, as the excerpts from ICE HAVEN demonstrate. Working in a variety of comic strip and comic book style, Clowes shows us a child who keeps his desires pent up (but emerge in unexpected ways), a frustrated hack of a writer, a detective blind to the needs of his wife, and a teenaged girl who is simultaneously wiser than her years and enormously naive.

Brunetti concluded with an excerpt from Chris Ware's BUILDING STORIES wherein Nanna details her time as nanny in a story that distilled this idea of disconnection and flailing for meaning. This story brings to a crescendo Brunetti's suite of stories that marry a coolness of line with an increasing sense of desperation. Ware's pages are stunning both in their formal cleverness (with a number of recurring visual motifs) as well as the humanity he's able to express. The anthology ends on sort of an odd note, with an extended excerpt from the then-upcoming MY BRAIN IS HANGING UPSIDE DOWN by David Heatley, featuring portraits of both his mother and father in short strip format. I thought this was odd not for its inclusion, but for the length of the excerpts and placement in the book. Following Ware seemed a bit of an odd choice, especially given the ways Heatley went back and altered some of the original strips he published in the book in an act of self-censorship; it seemed a bit counter to Brunetti's desire for "uncompromised" material. On the other hand, the strips acted as a coda of sorts to the book, after Ware opened and closed it with his work, working in a number of themes found in the rest of the book.

That slight hiccup aside, this is one of the most challenging, exciting anthologies I've ever read. The Clowes cover is hilarious, with two figures with a thought baloon made of a cloud and street lamps and a word baloon made of an unusual ceiling lamp. Clowes explodes that image with a "Joe Bristolboard" strip about an artist trying to come up with an image for an anthology he's in (unpaid, but "it's great exposure!"), cleverly skewering every struggle of the alt-comics artist struggling with inspiration and self-esteem. No one is better than Clowes at satirizing his own profession while still sympathizing with its practitioners. The back cover image of a lonely cartoonist in his socks staring at his drawing board, surrounded by half-eaten pizza and other effluvia, is an image every cartoonist can relate to. If cartoonists are all members of a family with any number of distant branches, they are all united both by the despair of the blank page taunting them and the joy of mark making.


  1. who did Heatley bribe to get 16 pages in this book? Hey Brunetti, Is he that good in bed?

  2. My sunday-self has come back to chime in that I enjoy Heatleys work.