guttergeek the discontinuous review of graphic narrative

August 2009

Brendan Burford, ed.,
Syncopated: An Anthology of Nonfiction Picto-Essays (Villard, 2009). $16.95, paperback.

By Jared Gardner

It is hard not to begin with the subtitle of this interesting but ultimately very mixed collection. “An Anthology of Picto-essays,” Burford calls it—a term which has a wonderfully late-19th-century feel about it, summoning up a time when modernity was just breaking upon Victorian interiors everywhere in the form of “horseless carriages” and “telegraphy.” In truth, there is something quaintly old-fashioned about the whole affair here, and I don’t mean the individual “picto-essays” themselves, but Burford’s insistence that they need to be sold as something other than what they are. Surely we are past that? These are comics, and we all know comics can tell important stories. I’d rather Burford spent less time coming up with a new olde timey name for the medium and more time coming up with important stories.

There is some very good work here, with stand-out contributions from Sarah Glidden and Nate Powell. Glidden and Powell tell very different stories: Glidden’s a personal tale of accompanying her father to China to adopt her baby sister and Powell’s a historical tale about the Tulsa Race Riots of 1921. But they are both unique among this collection for being, first and last, comics, and for using the unique energies and ambiguities of the form to tell their stories in a way it could not have been told in any other medium. It is hard to say the same thing, exactly, for any of the other pieces in this collection. Even those I greatly enjoyed (such as Alex Holden’s “West Side Improvements,” the history of a remarkable graffiti project and community in the tunnels beneath the city) would have been more effective in other media. Many of the pieces felt like short pieces on All Things Considered, and there were very few that seemed to be committed to telling a story that could only be told in—or even in a way that was unique to—comics.

The result is that a lot of these “picto-essays” feel like half-baked documentaries, and not all of them are worth fully baking. I enjoyed the story of the Dvorak keyboard, which I had never known, but I learned more from five minutes on the internet after reading through the short hagiography of its inventor. The piece on Erik Erikson was a mess of a story, and I could not help but compare it unfavorably to the brilliant ongoing portrait of Reich by Elijah Brubaker. And then there were those entries that had no narrative, no argument—simple sketchbooks of subway buskers or scenes in Washington Park. In what way are these “picto-essays”? Methinks the volume protests too much, and ultimately delivers too little.

I am also starting to suspect we are past the anthology, or at least the kind of anthology represented here (I know I am). What we need at this point in the development of graphic narrative are not more anthologies creating ungainly connections among disparate, unfinished pieces in vague hopes of convincing non-comics readers that important work can be done in the form. We need more sustained, major works. I would love to see the talented cartoonists of our age take a five-year moratorium on contributing to anthology projects, and focus instead on big projects. Easier said than done, I know. The kinds of books I am describing take years to create, and the exposure and paychecks (however modest) of anthology projects are no doubt helpful along the way. But I worry that ultimately anthologies such as this one do more harm than good—convincing few new readers that comics can tell these kinds of stories better than other media (especially in what is undeniably a new media golden age of documentary filmmaking). In truth, this anthology mostly just made me want to go download old episodes of This American Life.