guttergeek the discontinuous review of graphic narrative

Ivan Brunetti, editor, An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons & True Stories (Yale University Press, 2008), $28.00, hardcover.

By Jared Gardner

Two years ago Hillary Chute reviewed Brunetti’s first volume in these virtual first pages, and she spoke for all of us here at guttergeek when she expressed a certain ambivalence about the book. On the one hand: big, beautiful, and overflowing with some of the most important graphic storytellers of our time. On the other hand: um, McSweeney’s #13? Not that we could not use more of Chris Ware’s groundbreaking and (for many in the non-comics world) eye-opening anthology, and certainly Brunetti is every bit up to the task of editing an anthology very much in the same spirit as his friend Ware, but some of us were kind of hoping for something a bit more conventionally, academically, historically edited (and here “some of us” refers to, well, me). The desire stems not any deep-rooted predilection for academic editing (for what Brunetti, half-mockingly, refers to as the sweater-wearing, pipe-smoking distance of the academic editor in a recent video commentary accompanying his new volume). Or at least not entirely. No, in truth, my anthology dreams stemmed from the same source as all my anthology dreams: a desire for a big, beautiful, overflowing book that would slot in effortlessly into my courses in graphic narrative. “This week, we’ll be focusing on autobiographical comics, class,” I would say. “Please read chapter three of Brunetti and come back prepared to describe the role of the underground comix movement in shaping the early experiments with this form.”

Alright, it was a crazy fantasy. The work of teaching comics will remain in my lifetime an unanthologized affair, and for a lot of reasons that is a good thing (much to the despair of reluctant, cash-strapped students: as we all know too well, a graphic narrative library does not come cheap). And I suspect I would viciously turn on any anthology that attempted to do what I suggest for not doing it
exactly as my fantasies had dictated. Fortunately, two years later, I turned to Brunetti’s second volume with fewer preconceptions, ready to accept it for what it was: the third volume in the Brunetti/Ware series of deeply engaged, personal, and unbelievably gorgeous anthologies—perfect for converting resistant relatives to the wonders of the form. And this installment is perhaps the most engaged and personal of the three. Here Brunetti picks up with further examples of many of the creators he focuses on in his first volume, as well as introducing some lesser-known artists and a range of archival material from the early days of Sunday comics. There is no clear logic to the way the comics are ordered here, but instead Brunetti lets the selection and the order take shape organically, based, as he puts it, on the same kind of creative intuition he would bring to the creation of one of his own comics. And the result is truly something special. So many of our favorites were here, and in almost every case Brunetti honed in on just the right selection not just to represent that given creator’s work, but to speak to the other selections in this volume. In its own terms it work wonderfully—arguably even surpassing Ware’s McSweeney volume as the best anthology of its kind.

Still, our fantasies of a different kind of anthology have not faded. Even less than the first volume can I imagine using this in a class: it is just too personal and idiosyncratic in its organization to serve as a foundation to a syllabus. As an academic press, Yale University Press has earned my undying respect and gratitude for their contributions to this form in recent years, including the two Brunetti volumes, Todd Hignite’s brilliant
In the Studio interviews from Comic Art, and Daniel Raeburn’s monograph on Chris Ware. And I don’t in any way underestimate the risks in entering into this field for the prestige of a university press (I can too well imagine the eye-rolling in the board meeting when Raeburn’s volume was first announced). But now that Yale University Press had cleared such nonsense from the decks, it is time for another similarly respected and endowed academic press to enter the fray and provide an anthology (or better yet, rival anthologies from rival presses) from which those of us working to establish graphic narrative in the classroom can draw.