guttergeek the discontinuous review of graphic narrative

November 2006

Ivan Brunetti, ed.  An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, and True Stories (Yale University Press, 2006)  $28; Todd Hignite, ed.  In the Studio: Visits With Contemporary Cartoonists  (Yale University Press, 2006)  $29.95.

By Hillary Chute

The first thing to notice about what Yale University Press calls two of their fall list’s “most eagerly awaited titles”—published simultaneously on October 23—is how simply handsome they are: they are heavy, polished, lavishly designed tomes, conveying gravitas and also an upbeat aesthetic wit. As the press release states about Graphic Fiction: “Luxuriously produced and printed in four-color throughout, the book is a must-have for collectors, aficionados, readers of comics, and everyone interested in cutting-edge art and literature.” The design (and heft) suggests that this is serious stuff, while at the same time reminding us how deeply stylish it can be.

Brunetti’s volume is reminiscent of the now-famous
McSweeney’s comics issue (no. 13) published in 2004, both visually in its layout (those Chris Ware endpapers) and in its overall aim to collect the best contemporary work and frame these texts with auspicious historical contexts, discussing and excerpting artistic precedents both “high” and “low” (in this case, Saul Steinberg, George Grosz, Ernie Bushmiller). In fact, Brunetti’s text is so similar to the Ware-edited McSweeney’s no. 13 that Yale even sends, as a promotion, a stand-alone Brunetti comic along with the book titled “A Conversation with Ivan Brunetti.” In the nine-frame supplemental comic, Brunetti speaks with an inquisitive off-panel voice who opens the strip by asking, “How is this anthology different from the McSweeney’s volume edited by your friend Chris Ware?” The Brunetti figure responds that the book is longer—more pages, more artists—before mentioning he’d like people to see the two as companion volumes, “y’know?” Clearly, even as Brunetti pokes a little fun at himself, the lack of substantial differences between the two is a big enough issue to warrant preemptive attention.

Graphic Fiction tries in small ways to do something different: there is, for example, a clever illustrated table of contents (executed by Onsmith), which stands out for being a neat but completely non-useful idea. Its logic can be exasperating. Small example: a Spiegelman comic, “Abstract Thought is a Warm Puppy”—a non-fiction piece on Charles Schulz—is represented by a Snoopy figure, while an excerpt from Spiegelman’s book Maus is represented by the well-known artist-mouse that represents Spiegelman in that title. For a person who doesn’t know much about comics but wants to know more, withholding hard information up front—organizational stuff like if a certain author is represented in the anthology and where— seems counter-intuitive to the goal of the book to showcase comics to the potentially uninitiated. Many interested readers are just beginning to know certain names (through venues like the Times’s “Funny Pages”), and to obscure this kind of basic information with a trussed-up table of contents for a thick 400-page book seems like a mistake—a distancing move. (That said, the authors and titles appear vertically in small grey type on the pages of the pieces.) 

Graphic Fiction’s central, basic strength is that it represents a superb range of authors, from the typical titans like Burns, Clowes, Crumb, Los Bros Hernandez, Sacco, Spiegelman, and Ware to riveting yet comparatively under-sung women artists like Lynda Barry, Julie Doucet, Phoebe Gloeckner, and Aline Kominsky-Crumb. This inclusivity is important, not only because of the often-overlooked texture and sophistication of the work at hand, but also because comics as a field is often spoken about as primarily a man’s field (with standout exceptions). For instance, the recent “Masters of American Comics” exhibit raised some eyebrows for offering the work of more than a dozen men and not one woman. 

And while
In the Studio: Visits With Contemporary Cartoonists visits with (alas) nine artists of one gender, it is ultimately the more interesting book. It’s edited by Todd Hignite, the founding editor of the valuable Comic Art magazine, and many of the write-ups in the book first appeared there. Why Hignite, when he was all the way over in France, didn’t profile Aline Kominsky-Crumb, who he calls “an autobiographical comics pioneer and a highly important cartoonist in her own right,” in addition to her husband, is anyone’s guess.

In the Studio is a taller, slimmer volume than Brunetti’s, and it breathes better visually; there’s less of a visual barrage, and the effect is more inviting. The epigraph—from Goethe, on the grandfather of comics, Rodolphe Töpffer: “If, for the future, he would choose a less frivolous subject and restrict himself a little, he would produce things beyond all conception”—stands alone on a large white page, and it’s both a serious invocation of comics’ potential and a little funny. After all, plenty of the artists profiled here In the Studio have been inspired by so-called “frivolity.” Hignite, like Brunetti, thankfully keeps his introduction on the short side, abdicating too much pontification. Instead, he brings us right into the studio of Robert Crumb as a kick off, offering Crumb’s vividly colored, full-page “Cradle to Grave” strip.

The usefulness of the chapters is as follows: Hignite offers brief career trajectories and then, significantly, he lets the cartoonists speak for themselves. They explain their past and current work and the enormous range of their influences—the particular things they were once (or are still) inspired by; in short, the content of their studios. The illustrations, beautifully reproduced, are significant, as the artists take the time to explain what we see on the page and put it into a unique context: their personal relationship to those images. We see Crumb’s beat-up copy of his
Picture Stories from the Bible, Dan Clowes’s favorite album artwork, Chris Ware’s mid-century Dutch comic books. But what is refreshing about this book is that is doesn’t fall prey to romanticizing the cartoonist’s stuff or wallow in the fan-like interest in anything a famous cartoonist touches or approves. Instead, each visit offers a perfect mix of material: plenty of the artists’ own work interspersed with influences that show a truly fascinating breadth.