The Sorta-Funnies 

McSweeney's presents the first comic standing

The comics are experiencing some growing pains. On one hand, the proliferation of excellent alternative strips, books and "graphic novel" (I don't pretend to know where the demarcation between the last two resides) has led to unprecedented mainstream respectability in recent years. Groundbreakers like R. Crumb, Art Spiegelman (Pulitzer-prize winner for Maus) and Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez (Love and Rockets) are continually subject to elaborate anthologies and historical citations by contemporary critics. In fact, Dave Eggers' most recent literary omnibus McSweeney's Quarterly Concern No. 13 is entirely devoted to frame-bound stories by these and other authors.

On the other hand, the tome itself, guest edited by acclaimed cartoonist Chris Ware (The Acme Novelty Library, Jimmy Corrigan), is rife with the kind of self-referential sounding off that makes comic appreciation sound more like a genetic condition than an artistic taste. Without going into frame-by-frame detail, a common mindset (put here into dialogue; create your own pictures) unites Ware's introduction, cartoons and accounts of other cartoonists. Ware: "Dear mommy/girlfriend/college professor/general public, I bear a compulsion to wile away my existence in an inky world of my own creation. While thoroughly unreasonable on many levels, it is my legitimate art-form and cross to bear." Replies the naysayer chorus: "That's fine, sweetie, but it won't pay the bills/won't get you laid/isn't for adults/isn't real art." Ware's rebuttal: "Ah, you're just one of them. Anyway, Goethe and Tolstoy liked comics!" In other words, while many comic creators downplay their own status as artists, probably because of the exclusionary attitudes inherent in the a-word, they do so with a Marvel-sized chip on their collective shoulders.

That last statement, about Goethe and Tolstoy, may be one of the most striking revelations to come out of No. 13 for those of us who open the book more in the inexperienced "them" rather than the "us" category (always a fun starting point for a reader). Unlike a straightforward contemporary anthology--few could accuse any McSweeney's of that--No. 13 is also a unique lesson in the history of visual humor. Witness, if you will, the patron saint of the medium, the wily Swiss doodler Rodolphe Töpffer, favorite of authors and philosophers alike, whose 19th century illustrated satires were unapologetically ripped off by the strips of early W.R. Hearst American newspapers. Or feast upon the last six Krazy Kat comics, found on the nightstand of the late George Herriman, or the rudimentary drawings behind early Mutt and Jeff or late Peanuts strips. Ware and his guest writers craft loving tributes meant to draw the curious in deeper while wowing veterans, but the appeal doesn't end there. They paint comics as a field suitable for scholarship, tied into other arts and packed with brains as worthy of dissection as those of any gallery artists or writers of their day. In that literary validation alone, No. 13 is a near-essential purchase for anyone who has nervously paused before answering the question, "So, who do you read?"

The more contemporary crafters of Ware's wares are also as diverse and well-papered as any McSweeney's lineup. R. Crumb and Spiegelman in particular provide a historical foundation, delivering two characteristic meditations on their topical fortes: for the former, the continual foiling of a bespectacled male's schemes to mount large women in tight pants. For the latter, a nervous fascination with the experiences of 9/11 witnesses like himself, expressed through a rotating array of historical cartoon styles. Both of these standbys flutter between funny and awkward like the pages of a comic book left open on an air conditioner, and provide a narrative pattern which one can clearly see filtered down through many of the contemporary comics included.

From a more strip-based perspective, Lynda Barry, the most gifted comic artist ever to unceremoniously vanish from the back pages of Boise Weekly (is anyone else still fingering an Ernie Pook itch, or is it just me?) contributes a characteristically chaotic autobiography titled "Two Questions." The questions, responsible for both the insanity and success of every comic strip: "Is this good? Does this suck?" Notably absent is Herriman heir-apparent Tony Millionaire, author of both Sock Monkey Comics and Maakies, the drunkest, most disjointed three-panel concoction to hopefully take Ernie Pook's place in BW. However, given the range of styles represented in No. 13, from single-panel punch lines to 12-page mini-epics, such individual exclusions can be forgiven. Mostly.

That said, there is a glut of lengthy, predictable relationship-based work in No. 13 which offers little visual insight not already proffered by the worlds of print or film. Others still cling to the tried and true underground comic themes of masturbation, female abandonment and self-loathing to such a degree that they feel like a mix tape of Crumb's work 35 years ago. In both cases the novelty of an illustrator's perspective and face-drawing talents can wear off rather quickly. But I suspect that is the point. Not every comic with an individual following fits together into a distinct body of work with its brethren anymore. Illustrated fiction, high-brow comics, narrative ideograms--whatever you call them, they have blossomed to a point where distinct sub-genres can be sifted through, scrutinized and harvested for years on end. I can think of no better starting point than McSweeney's No. 13.

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