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How to Draw a Funny

Debut Best American Comics Entry Straddled By Its Literary Slant

PANEL DISCUSSION: Chris Ware's "Comics: A History."

By Jess Harvell | Posted 11/1/2006

Here's a bit of friendly, unsolicited advice to cartoonists everywhere: Stop being so goddamn self-deprecating.

We know, we know--self-deprecation is kinda woven into the medium, from Charlie Brown to Jimmy Corrigan. But comics' lingering inferiority complex is just unseemly at this point. The inaugural edition of the Best American Comics--part of the Best American series that stretches back to 1915--should be cause for celebration. Instead, both the preface by series editor Anne Elizabeth Moore and the introduction by guest editor Harvey Pekar devote quite a bit of rhetorical energy to why such a lowly medium deserves such highbrow treatment and how the medium is, as usual, on the verge of extinction.

One comic here, Chris Ware's "Comics: A History," condenses decades of seemingly nonstop bitching about the sorry state of the medium into two pages. Ware's circular homunculi trace the industry's doomed history and pursuit of the lowest of common denominators in tiny sarcastic fragments. "What our democracy needs is its own native artform," Ware's William Randolph Hearst decides. "Something like those German and Swiss picture books I loved as a kid. Hey, that's it! I'll just have one of my staff artists plagiarize them!" Hey, at least we can laugh about it now.

But c'mon, even trounced as in Ware's strip by the moving image, the internet, and the video game, comics sales are certainly healthier than they were a decade ago, when it looked like the medium actually was about to kick it--it would have been hard even to imagine this book in 1996, let alone 1976 when Pekar's American Splendor began--and at this point the potential audience for art comics is probably about equal that of literary novels, poetry collections, visual art magazines, serious documentaries, basically anything that isn't multiplex fodder or prime-time TV or airport newsstand novels--CDs, too, at the rate we're going. (Though you'd need the SoundScan numbers to prove it, a Dan Clowes comic probably sells more than a new jazz CD.) In 2006, economics of scale, if nothing else, put comics on the same level as the the other arts. I hope each installment of the Best American Essays doesn't begin by trying to convince its audience that the essay matters.

This kind of self-effacement isn't surprising coming from Pekar, and it repeatedly sneaks into his choices. As might be expected from a guy who has put his own humble self into his own unadorned comics for 30 years, Pekar's choices--drawn from a pool of 150 originally compiled by Moore--are weighted toward the just-a-regular-guy observational with the occasional side of historical/political comment. Lilli Carré's "Adventures of Paul Bunyan and His Ox, Babe" features two giant characters straight out of a tall tale, but like Pekar at his file clerk job, they're just two working schlubs on their lunch break, shooting the shit about women and work. Carré's smooth, curved lines--evoking both children's book illustrations and woodcuts--are inviting, and both they and her naturalistic dialogue nicely undercut the absurdity of a man who kicks down trees with his feet bitching about his love life.

The stories here are also, by and large, short--a detractor might say slight--something Pekar makes note of in his introduction, and again not too surprising for a guy who specializes in sketches of the stuff that happens in between the important stuff that happens in life. After all this time, Pekar knows what he likes, and what he likes isn't typically flashy or fantastical. (Superheroes? Forget it.) But his preference for brevity and realism is only intermittently successful. It works well for the comic vignettes--the forehead-clenching conclusion of Rick Geary's one-page "Recollection of Seduction" resonates with anyone who's ever woke up the next morning realizing they blew their chance for romance at last call.

But political comics such as Joe Sacco's "Complacency Kills" and Kim Deitch's "Ready to Die" often suffer for it. Six or eight pages don't allow their authors enough space to render their characters--Marines stationed in Iraq and a serial killer on death row, respectively--as anything other than ciphers. There's no way a wounded soldier you met in a single panel can hit you with the suckerpunch force of Sacco's long-form comics like Palestine, and Deitch's stilted figures with their bewildered saucer eyes, perfect for his throwback phantasmagorias, just feel wrong for this kind of material. Plus just like any medium, "serious" comics are a dangerous business whether they take place on the killing fields of Basra or in small-town America. Alex Robinson's "Thirty-Three," in which a father and his estranged teenage daughter meet for the first time, is just maudlin--as with prose, the line between Raymond Carver and Mitch Albom is thin and perilous.

As with any compendium book like The Best American Comics there are always going to be petty quibbles of taste. The appeal of Lynda Barry has always been a mystery to me, for instance, and outside of his collaborations with Robert Crumb, Pekar is a similar mystery. One of the big problems with the collection stems from having a writer, even a writer so deeply entrenched in comics, as a guest editor rather than a cartoonist. Stories like Robinson's "Thirty Three," Jessica Abel's "Missing," and Justin Hall's way too long "La Rubia Loca" feel like prose that just happened to sprout images overnight, which sounds an awful lot like your average issue of Pekar's American Splendor. Without straying into the minefield that is the long-running argument about just what makes up a comic, there's a whole lineage of artists busting up the graphic constraints of the medium--or just reveling in its more garish, cartoony splendor--that stretches from Jack Kirby's guttersnipe cubism to Raw's fourth-wall smashing and beyond that's largely absent. Plenty of cartoonists here "think outside the box"--sorry, had to--but Pekar's choices move to the beat of the word rather than the images, an old critical saw when it comes to his own work made more apparent as a curator.

Not to be one of those downers taken to task at the beginning of this review--there's plenty of good stuff here, and certainly the world of "serious" narrative comics deserves as much attention as the weirdos making tiny upside-down drawings in neon Crayola that run left to right or the weirdos drawing dinosaurs and wizards piloting spaceships, not that the two are mutually exclusive--but forget the post-facto rationalizing left to introductions and prefaces. A collection like this should be less about defense and more about offense. It's debatable if, taken as a whole, the contents of The Best American Comics offer their own intrinsic argument for the medium as worth a casual reader's time and dime, and casual readers are clearly at whom this book is aimed. Looks nice as hell on a bookshelf, though, and it would be a shame if the series didn't make it to volume two.

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