Comics Understood:

An Anthology Of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons & True Stories

AN ANTHOLOGY OF GRAPHIC FICTION, CARTOONS & TRUE STORIES (hereafter just AGF) is the third significant general-audience comics anthology to be published in as many years, and in many ways it’s the most important. The missions of each anthology, though complementary, are all slightly different. MCSWEENEY’S #13 and BEST AMERICAN COMICS 2006 were both results of the personal tastes of editors Chris Ware and Harvey Pekar, respectively. Ware was looking to bring comics to the reader of literary anthology McSweeney’s: a broadly-read person who is always looking to expand the boundaries of their reading experiences. Thus the emphasis on essays about comics by literary figures as well as the comics themselves. Pekar’s book reflects his tastes, that of an author of naturalist stories who is looking to introduce a general audience to more of this kind of work–with the added chronological restriction.

Ivan Brunetti, one of my five favorite cartoonists working today, had a different mission with AGF. With Yale as his publisher, his mission was to create a sort of Norton’s Anthology for comics. That is, a book for a literate general audience, but one that eschewed the more radical visuals one can see in some comics now (eg, anything from Picturebox). This book was meant to be read more than looked at, and this was an imperative from the publisher. The difficulty of what to call the comics themselves was an issue with the title–after initially calling the book simply “An Anthology of Graphic Fiction”, some of the contributors noted that they didn’t write fiction–hence the extra “Cartoons & True Stories” tagline. While Brunetti noted that his only prerequisite was to include intensely personal work, the way AGF flows reflects another aspect of Brunetti: his role as a teacher.

As such, the book doubles as a general reader for a literate audience and the best kind of textbook for those looking to go further and lay bare the bones of comics. The difficulty I’ve had with other attempts at comics-as-textbooks is that they quickly fall into restrictive traps that do little to really demonstrate the possibilities that comics offer. The best-known example is Scott McCloud’s UNDERSTANDING COMICS. In many ways a noble attempt to create the terminology on how to study & think about comics, McCloud’s prescriptive, rigid & reductive attempts at description, while well-meaning, ultimately have too many holes in them to hold together. In particular, McCloud seeks to nail down an exact definition of comics, and in attempting to do so, includes things that intuitively don’t make sense (like the Bayeaux Tapestry) and excludes works that do make sense (like single-panel comics). While I don’t particularly have a problem with a more inclusive definition, since outlier examples like cave paintings tend to fall away quickly when really getting down to analyzing comics, I do have a problem with arbitrarily attempting to remove works that are recognizably comics from the lexicon.
McCloud insists that because some comics have panels that are reflective of a sequential (and temporal) order, he declares that any work of art that doesn’t strictly fit this description simply isn’t comics. In order to make the rest of his theories work, he had to awkwardly apply this temporally-based definition to the entire artform and declare it to be objectively true. I liken it to Kant trying to unify ethics & epistemology in one well-ordered system; that is, trying to create a system that provides an objective system of morals based entirely on reason. Kant proceeded from one general principle and built an entire philosophical system based on it. The holes in Kant’s system bring it down upon close inspection, but it’s convincing enough to do actual damage in the real world. Likewise, while it’s heartening that so many young creators have felt the call to start drawing comics as a result of reading UNDERSTANDING COMICS, I find it alarming that many artists in an entire generation look at the book’s theories as unassailably true.

Beyond my aesthetic & philosophical differences with McCloud, UNDERSTANDING COMICS violates the oldest of saws regarding comics: show, don’t tell. This is what AGF does so wonderfully well. Brunetti could have split the book up into bite-size chapters that cordoned off different ways of telling stories into discrete packages. Instead, his guidance is much more subtle. The way he chose the ordering of the strips he included is very deliberate, starting from simpler single-panel work and then showing single-panel work that totally subverts audience expectations. While there are noticeable subthemes and stories that can be grouped together, this classification is an organic one. One kind of storytelling technique in one story may be subtly different in the next, and then subtly different in the one following. An astute reader can see the change in storytelling choices when each strip is read one after the other, but it doesn’t rob them of the pleasure of an actual reading experience.

In a sense, this is a stealth textbook. There are lessons here for those looking for them, but this education doesn’t interfere with the book’s original purpose: to be read. Still, understanding AGF as a textbook sheds light on some of Brunetti’s choices as an editor. First of all, his own imperative to include only personal work easily explains why he chose not to include any genre comics. Some have dismissed the book as being just an “art-comics primer” on that basis alone, but this decision was the best way to show general audiences what comics are capable of, what they are, how they compare to other arts–from the simplistic to the most complex. Including assembly-line/corporate comics here simply wouldn’t make sense from this perspective, even if many of them are quite good in their own right (Alan Moore springs to mind).

Furthermore, in light of the decision to only include personal comics, the section on outsider artist Henry Darger and various classic cartoonists makes more sense. They’re meant to be a point of reference to newer material, a means of comparing new and old eras of comics. If the book has a sequel I hope we get a more expanded version of this section. Reprinting the classics serves to make the public understand that comics have been an ambitious art form in spite of commercial concerns for many years. Not only that, but from a pedagogical perspective, these strips are a way of describing the origins of the language and iconography of comics. This is not just in the sense that these strips influenced those later artists to come, but that they created a language out of whole cloth. Comics are so endlessly fascinating to me because of their ability to express the mysterious, the sublime. The form borrows from virtually every other art in one way or other at some point, yet in combining different techniques, influences and motifs allows itself to create an endless number of variations.

These variations on a form are what AGF captures so well. I’m not going to review every piece in here, a task that would practically take another 300 book to complete. Instead, I’ll discuss the ebbs and flows of how the book goes from one form to another, look at major subthemes and hit on some of the key artists in the book.

One of the oldest bits of advice on public speaking is: start with a joke and get your audience laughing. Brunetti does this, and then turns gag strip humor on its head. Actually, Brunetti begins the book by starting from his first lesson in drawing comics. Our first understanding of comics comes from childhood, when we get a simple pleasure from making marks on paper. That’s why he leads with three detail-packed pages of Marc Bell’s doodle narratives, and then moves on to Sam Henderson’s simply-drawn gag work. After that, Brunetti stuns his audience with 3 consecutive Mark Newgarden cartoons. Newgarden is one of the most subversive of all cartoonists and a clear influence on Brunetti himself, creating Bigfoot images and pairing them with the most nihilistic of punchlines. But his “Love’s Savage Fury”, a distortion of Nancy & Bazooka Joe iconography, takes our understanding of what comics are and shoves it into a blender. By reminding the reader that these are all just marks on paper (even as the eye recognizes them as a familiar iconic figure) and then re-purposing the images for a completely new narrative with inserted text, Newgarden shows the reader that comics aren’t what you think they are. He’s a sort of comics version of Marcel Duchamp, giving old images new ideas.

We segue from there into typical alt-newspaper comics insolence from Kaz, Tony Millionaire and Bill Griffith. All of them have a bluntness and edge to their work that stops just short of trying to shock, but all still work within a gag strip paradigm. The link between these master gagsmiths and the next section is provided by David Mazzuchelli, who contributes a strip about a cartoonist who fell in love with his own creations and found himself both trapped and liberated.

That next section is dedicated to several artists paying tribute to one of the most successful artists of the 20th century, Charles Schulz. Art Spiegelman, Chris Ware and Seth rhapsodize (all in a style paying tribute to the master) about Schulz’s influence on comics and them in particular. Schulz is one of those touchstone artists whose ability to depict humor and suffering simultaneously makes him a role model. From there, we are treated to an essay by Schulz himself on how to create a comic strip, but before things get too stuffy and reverential, the section is capped off by R.Sikoryak’s pitch-perfect interpolation of Peanuts with Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.

From there, we go from a page of Crockett Johnson’s low-key Barnaby to James Kochalka’s diary strips. Kochalka’s strips generally grate on my nerves (I consider him to be the Zach Braff of the comics world), but there’s no denying that he’s had a huge influence on the journal comic that’s become popular with the rise of the web. From Kochalka, we turn to Lynda Barry’s fictional and autobiographical confessional comics. The subject matter remains the same as we read an excerpt from the Joan Reidy-Ron Rege collection BOYS, even as the art becomes more stylized.

The themes of style, design, page composition and color are quickly explored with single Sunday color pages from classic strips Krazy Kat, Polly & Her Pals, Gasoline Alley, The Ambassador and the Kinder-Kids. Brunetti had to heavily cut down the number of pages from the first draft of this book, and it’s clear that the classic comics section got the unkindest cuts. Still, if you look at it from the point of view of a textbook, these single pages are a nice series of examples on how the language of comics was created and expanded. What follows immediately after that is an obviously comics-influenced painting by outsider artist Henry Darger. His images were part of a huge epic he wrote that was only discovered after his death, and Brunetti makes the connection between his palette choices and the Sunday comics.

Darger also serves as the perfect segue to a fantastic flow of comics. It starts with comics outsider Rory Hayes, who combined teddy bear imagery and horror. Then it shifts to Aline Kominsky-Crumb, whose crude images & warts-and-all confessional approach paint her as a different kind of outsider. We then shift to Mark Beyer’s Amy & Jordan strips, perhaps the ultimate alienated pair of characters. Along with that alienation and slightly crude draftsmanship comes a sort of dream-like quality, one that’s picked up by Mat Brinkman in his “Oaf”. All of these strips have a pureness to them, a revelling in the language of comics and Brinkman in particular immerses us in the world of a monster exploring his environment. The jarring but familiar strangeness continues in a Jim Woodring Frank strip. Like Brinkman, we are completely drawn into the world of the odd, funny title creature. Unlike Brinkman, Woodring uses bright colors and a cartoony style to both emphasize the fantastic in his work and contrast it with the darker thematic undertones.

The more cartoony, stylized aspects of Woodring are picked up next in strips by Peter Bagge and Walt Holcombe. The artists simplify their figures while imbuing the strips with manic energy and do it all without words. Indeed, that’s another subtheme that started with Brinkman in this section: wordless imagery that forces the reader to use their eyes to process the visuals of a page without the aid of text. That continues in two strips by Brunetti himself, the latter of which has a number of formal tricks that warp time and space.

That formal experimentation present in his strip makes it a perfect transition to Richard McGuire’s classic “Here”, a strip about the history of small corner of a room. The trick here is that with techniques like panels popping up within panels, all labeled as different years, McGuire shows that all of the events in this room are happening simultaneously, that time is another construction. Brunetti then takes a look at other comics that try to express this sort of simultaneity by first fracturing images and then seeing them come together on a page, as with pages from Gene Deitch and Harvey Kurtzman.

After that comes another thematic shift, as we look at increasingly complicated and intense comics exploring increasingly strange & hellish scenarios, all with a powerfully visceral feel. This is capped off by an excerpt from Gary Panter’s JIMBO IN PURGATORY, a masterpiece of design that demands total immersion from its readers in order to follow it successfully. The shift to the slicker but equally strange world of Charles Burns is a smooth transition, as is the next switch to Kim Deitch’s cartoony but nightmarish images.

One of comics’ great strengths is its ability to depict time and place. Ben Katchor’s strips make his not-quite-real world of New York come alive despite their deadpan absurdity. Excerpts from Art Spiegelman’s classic MAUS, Jason Lutes’ BERLIN and James Sturm’s THE GOLEM’S MIGHTY SWING similarly create worlds that instantly transform the reader to eras filled with monstrous oppression & violence–and all do it with completely different graphic approaches.

Another strength of comics is its ability to depict interior struggles. Strips by Sammy Harkham, Adrian Tomine and Gilbert Hernandez all address guilt, alienation, obsession and loneliness. What makes them great is the distance each of the artists creates between character and reader and the narrative choices that creates this distance. Jaime Hernandez runs with this notion in his classic “Flies On The Ceiling”, a tale of one woman’s struggle with self-loathing, guilt and trying to break out of self-destructive patterns. With his gorgeous line, powerful use of blacks and magical-realist motifs (the heroine may or may not be in conflict with a demonic creature that spurs along her guilt), it’s staggering how much power is built up by its use of restraint.

The experiences of children and how they deal with trauma marks the next transition, beginning with an excerpt from Justin Green’s BINKY BROWN MEETS THE HOLY VIRGIN MARY. This is widely considered to be the first autobiographical comic, and it’s certainly the first to be so openly confessional with regard to one’s most persistent inner demons. This is extremely thinly-veiled autobiography, with the author not holding back any painful details from his childhood. It’s no surprise that the next two entries, Phoebe Gloeckner’s “Fun Things To Do With Little Girls” and Debbie Drechsler’s “Visitors In The Night”, are two jaw-droppingly stark and painful retellings of childhood sexual abuse. The manner in which both artists approach the stories is completely different, with Gloeckner’s distorted realism adding a touch of detachment to the proceedings, while Dreschler’s intense woodcut-style art fully immerses us in the horror of her surroundings.

Brunetti stays on the theme of autobiography and sexuality as we get an excerpt from Chester Brown’s I NEVER LIKED YOU and Joe Matt’s THE POOR BASTARD. The pretense of even thinly-veiled identities is dropped here as Brown recounts a story from his childhood that clearly evoked wistful feelings, especially in regard to early feelings of romance. Matt’s story is typical Joe Matt, wherein the face he shows is a completely unsympathetic, blunt lout. The third member of the D&Q Canadian cabal, Seth, checks in with an excerpt from IT’S A GOOD LIFE IF YOU DON’T WEAKEN, a meditation on time, place and romance (in all senses of the word) that turns out not to be strictly autobiographical.

Continuing in the confessional vein are excerpts from Julie Doucet’s MY NEW YORK DIARY and Jeffrey Brown’s CLUMSY. Both take journal-style approaches to autobiography, with Doucet’s crowded & chaotic style reflecting the overwhelming experience of moving to a rundown New York apartment. Brown’s anecdotal strips look like they’ve been shot straight from his sketchbook, a design choice that heightens the sense of immediacy found in his work. Progressing from Doucet’s panel-filling design to Brown’s sketchiness, the reader is led to John Porcellino’s minimalist musings. John Hankiewicz takes things in a different direction with an autobiographical narrative that comments on images that are tangentially related to it.

With a complete Jonathan Bennett minicomic as a transition point (complete with front and back cover), things take a shift for the slightly strange and deadpan. David Heatley checks in with dream comics, Gabrielle Bell contributes “Cecil & Jordan In New York” (about a young woman who decides to turn herself into a chair), Kevin Huizenga presents an iconic & phenomenological exploration of one man’s experience of a sunset and Lauren Weinstein’s grotesquely renders a reminiscences of adolescence. Carol Tyler finishes this section of beautifully stylized and (mostly) colored comics with “Gone”, a story of memories and opportunities lost.

The complexity, depth and subtlety of Tyler’s comics mark a segue for the rest of the book. Throughout the anthology, Brunetti had shown us a variety of approaches to comics in terms of content, style, design and mood. In the final section, Brunetti shows us comics of increasing complexity, those that are blazing new trails. He naturally starts off with Robert Crumb and the various phases the underground master has undergone. He starts with “A Short History of America”, a commentary on commercialization that’s a companion piece of sorts to “Here”. “Uncle Bob’s Mid-Life Crisis” is autobiographical Crumb at his neurotic best, while two strips about music put his passions (and wild imagination) on display. There’s a natural shift from solo Crumb to Crumb collaborating with Harvey Pekar’s quotidian autobiographical stories.

Joe Sacco follows Crumb, a progression that makes sense given the influence Crumb had on his visual style. But in this excerpt from “Soba” (my favorite of all his stories), Sacco demonstrates his facility in comics-as-journalism, combining the personal observations pioneered with gonzo journalism but managing to provide a level of objectivity and subtlety not found in such reports. We get more of the same in a David Collier article about a Canadian athlete before we move on to the reigning king of design in comics, Chris Ware. He starts with “Scott Joplin” and an excerpt from his landmark JIMMY CORRIGAN, both staggeringly beautiful tales of despair. But his “Thrilling Adventure Stories” is perhaps his most remarkable short story. Framed like a golden age superhero comic (down to the flat four color palette), it tells of a young comics-obsessed boy trying to come to terms with his mother’s new boyfriends. After the formal pyrotechnics of an excerpt from Ware’s new BUILDING STORIES, we come to the final major story of the collection: Dan Clowes’ “Gynecology”. In many ways, it’s a recapitulation of many other stories from AGF. It draws its aesthetic from the past, depicts a lurid series of adventures of despicable characters, and is bitingly hilarious. Really, this story (and most of the other entries in this book) deserve columns of their own, but I wanted to get across the sense of why Brunetti chose to include this story last.

Well–almost. After an essay from Daniel Raeburn about “Gynecology”, we get a one-pager from Seth that feels like a perfect, quiet epilogue. Even the dust jacket provides clever commentary, with Seth riffing on classic comics and illustrating commentary from Schulz and Crumb. After finishing this book, a new reader of comics will have gotten a thorough sampling of what comics can do. A long-time reader will still likely encounter something they haven’t read before, and perhaps gain a new appreciation of familiar pieces placed in a new context. An aspiring artist will have gotten a quick education in the kind of choices available for solving narrative problems and a wide range of approaches.

This kind of book always tends to reflect the idiosyncrasies of its editor. As such, while the vast majority of Brunetti’s choices were dead-on, I probably would have made some different selections. David Collier’s piece seemed redundant after Sacco’s more powerful story, for example. Michael Kupperman’s brand of insanity would have been my choice over Kaz, and I also would have tried to find a way to include Mary Fleener’s unique design in the autobiographical section. Of course, the fact that this collection is restricted to North American creators only gives it some limitations. If a sequel is done, it’s simply begging to have translations of the best European and Asian masters. Another volume could contain more classic comics matched with modern analogues. The bottom line is that Brunetti took on an extremely difficult mission and succeeded in creating a book whose true influence will not be fully understood until a generation has gone by.

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Rob Clough fights cancer by day, and writes about comix, college basketball and funky music by night. He is the comics editor of Other magazine and is happy to have published many fine cartoonists. He used to write for Savant and just finished something for idea-bot. He is married to award-winning poet Laura Clough (formerly Jent), with whom he lives in lovely Durham, NC.

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