Chris Ware, possibly one of the finest comic artists of the last 20 years, takes the editorial reigns for this issue of McSweeney’s, and turns it into a half-quirky, half-conservative survey of the State of the Art. Conservative in that very few of the artists are unfamiliar to me, and any fan of Fantagraphics Books and Last Gasp will know the roster: Robert Crumb, Los Bros Hernandez, Daniel Clowes, Jim Woodring, Seth, Kim Dietch, Julie Doucet, Lynda Barry, and many more usual suspects. Quirky, because we also get essays from John Updike, Ira Glass, and glimpses of errata from Krazy Kat’s George Herriman and Charles Shultz. Those last two are not surprising if you know that Ware is also editing their collections. Most of these separate articles are by Ware as well, and his writing is scholarly and not snarky; if you were expecting the self-deprecation of his Acme Novelty Library text, it ain’t here.
There’s a slight thematic thread running through Ware’s selection, which is set up in an essay on Rodolphe Topffer, the “inventor of comics.” Topffer’s work, which is subsequently appropriated by the Americans (if not outright stolen) is a satire on a romantic, suicidal buffoon. It’s almost if the despair and self-loathing that infects most American comics is there from the beginning, like bad DNA.
Ware leads off with selections from the present and past, ones that play with the iconographic simplicity of earlier strips. Ware’s own work, a short two-pager about a collegiate romance (told from a female POV, a first), is typical of his spare brilliance. How he gets so much emotion out of tiny little ideographs is beyond me. Then follows Ware’s appreciation of artist Philip Guston, who is often called “comic bookish” even by critics who like him. Ware’s here to dispute it (which he does easily). Guston’s work, sampled here with three unnerving paintings, sets the stage for the uneasy middle of the book, with scary work from Mark Beyer, Gary Panter, Charles Burns, Richard Sala, and Art Spiegelman.
There’s a section on comics journalism (Kim Dietch’s Death Row piece, and a section from Joe Sacco’s Sarajevo tales, among others), then the final selection, closest to Ware’s heart, I believe, in which comics are used to bare souls (Joe Matt, Debbie Dreschler, Jeffrey Brown) and expand the medium into the complex levels of literature (no excerpt of the Hernandez Brothers can really do them justice, though). I love Ben Katchor‘s work in this compilation. His “Hotel & Farm” series belongs to a strain of American Surrealism that has brought us Lynch and the Coen Brothers, but has nothing to do with either of them. The stories, based around the city/country conundrum of the title, weave various strange narratives together like a fabulous tall tale. I want more of this. Adrian Tomine‘s work resembles a younger version of Raymond Carver or John O’Hara, of relationships falling apart slowly, inorexably. It’s too bad that many of the submissions to this issue come from already published work, though–it would have been nice to see how each of the artists dealt with a particular assignment. On the other hand, such plans often lead to weak work. Still, this is a large (265 pages) anthology, and Ware is to be commended for this overview.
And did I mention that the dust jacket folds out into a splendid Ware-drawn Sunday comic section doubletruck? It’s a lovely thing all around.