You Could Give a Shit About Comics
Me Neither, But These are Good
Listen: I’m with you. I’m not interested in comics, either, and I’m a cartoonist. Sure, yes, as a boy who grew up in the ‘70s, I inevitably contracted a certain sentimental attachment to characters like Peter Parker, Ben Grimm, and Tony Stark, but I lost interest when it was age-appropriate and I was ready for more mature, thoughtful work—like Ray Bradbury and Star Wars. I did not continue reading comics into adulthood. I have not played role-playing games since 10th grade; manga all looks like Speed Racer to me; I do not get creepily rhapsodic about the brilliantly minimal composition of Nancy. Unfortunately, due to a genetic condition that renders me unable to do any boring or difficult work, I accidentally ended up becoming a cartoonist, and so, unavoidably, have become familiar with some of my colleagues’ work. And here’s what I have learned, and what you should know:
There are books out there that are better than 94 percent of the pandering, middlebrow, niche-market product being marketed as “literary fiction” today that happen to be in the form of comics. And if you dismiss them just because of a bias against the medium—because comics in America are associated with the obese, the socially maladroit, and the virginal—you are denying yourself access to some genuinely great art, just as snobbishly and narrow-mindedly as did people who wouldn’t read novels in the 19th century because they were a trashy and sensationalistic pastime for the lower classes, or didn’t listen to jazz or rock ‘n’ roll in the 20th because it was Negro music inspired by marijuana that led to lewdness. It’s true there are some comics fans who conform unpleasantly to the stereotype, who’ll argue about whether Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman is the better writer but don’t know names like Don DeLillo or Raymond Carver. But it’s also true that your taste may be no less parochial than theirs if, because you’re embarrassed to be seen reading something with pictures in public, you’ve cut yourself off from some of the finest novels and short stories written in the last 20 years.
If you’re reading City Paper, you probably already know about cartoonists like R. Crumb, Harvey Pekar, and Dan Clowes because you saw Crumb or American Splendor or Ghost World at the Charles; you may have heard of Alan Moore as the author or co-author of books adapted for the films From Hell, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and the upcoming V for Vendetta. You may know the names Art Spiegelman (the Maus guy) or Chris Ware from their New Yorker covers. We won’t be talking about them here because 1) they’ve gotten enough publicity already, and 2) frankly, with the exception of Moore, none of them really floats my boat. Whether they like it or not, many of these artists are still too mired in the insular, self-referential subculture of comics (reacting against something doesn’t mean you’re free of it) to have much crossover appeal to mainstream readers. I want to recommend some books that you’ll like if you’re the kind of reader I described above—someone whose reading life is as integral to their personality and sanity as their dream lives or sex lives. This list takes something of a shotgun approach, partly because I don’t know you and your tastes, and also, I’m afraid, because there are so few truly good comics being drawn that any list of the best ones will unavoidably be eclectic. However, I can promise you that in none of these books will you see even one man in tights.
Pixy by Max Andersson (Fantagraphics Books, 1993)
A grim and hilarious black fantasy about a world where people wear all-body safe-sex suits, graffiti-infested buildings are executed by firing squads, and the only thing to read is the back of milk cartons. Its central characters are an unhappy couple: Alka, who gets a demeaning job cleaning the cages of small change at the National Money-Breeding Farm, and his girlfriend, Angina, who is haunted by drunken late-night phone calls from her aborted baby. It follows Alka’s soul on a journey into the fetus district of the Kingdom of the Dead, where he and his aborted child get fucked up on vodka and Elmer’s glue. The story ultimately disintegrates into an insane mishmash, but its apparently bottomless capacity for disturbing invention is awe-inspiring, and it’s drawn like the sort of old woodcut that gave you nightmares as a kid. Andersson is one of those artists, like Bosch, Kafka, Lovecraft, or Lynch, who seems to have a clear, unblocked conduit directly from the subconscious.
I Never Liked You (Drawn and Quarterly Publications, 1994) and Ed the Happy Clown (Vortex, 1989) by Chester Brown
I Never Liked You, about the author’s adolescence, is an understated and dispassionate recollection of his first bungled, hurtful flirtations with girls and his mother’s gradual dissolution into schizophrenia. It’s generally considered the best of the glut of autobiographical comics, which, like the memoir in mainstream literature, is currently suffering from an oversupply of quantity and an emergency-level shortage of quality. Me, though, I prefer Ed the Happy Clown, collecting stories that appeared in Brown’s comic Yummy Fur in the ‘80s. The plot, such as it is, follows the increasingly bizarre and humiliating misadventures of Ed, a hapless innocent, involving vampires, vampire hunters, pygmies, Frankenstein’s monster, cattle-mutilating aliens, and angels, culminating in the head of an alternate-universe Ronald Reagan being transplanted onto the end of Ed’s penis via a transdimensional waste-disposal duct. There is a strain of something distinctly unfunny underlying all this absurdity, a cruel morality that was reinforced by the straightforward, unironic adaptations of the gospels that originally backed every episode of Ed in Yummy Fur. Government scientists turn out to be hysterical homophobes with concealed handguns; the brutal, porcine police wear domino masks; doctors smoke cigarettes over their surgeries and beat patients with pipes in bare cinder-block rooms in hospitals that look like Central American prisons. Even divine justice turns out to be as arbitrary, unfair, and indifferent as any MVA bureaucrat.
Hey, Wait . . . by Jason (Fantagraphics, 2001)
Alone among the books on this list, this one features anthropomorphic animals—tall, gawky, mournful dogs—but you’ll forget that and read them as people after the first few pages. There are other whimsical touches of unreality—grownups commuting to work on stilts, the Creature from the Black Lagoon living down the hall—but they’re presented so matter-of-factly that you accept them as part of the world in which this painfully uncartoony story plays out. In Part I, a boy watches as his best friend is killed in a dumb accident on a dare. He grows up (abruptly, in a single sneeze) into a man who’s divorced, works a drill press, and drinks himself to sleep at night, haunted by the dead. The story is often wordless, meditatively paced, structured as perfectly as a poem. You’ll finish it in half an hour, 45 minutes at most. It may be the saddest book you will ever read.
Queen of the Black Black by Megan Kelso (Highwater Books, 1998)
This book collects Megan Kelso’s early stories, which range from the autobiographical to the fantastic but always center on intimate, awkward human conflicts: an uncomfortable conversation at a herpes clinic, a boy who understands his relationship is over when he hears his girlfriend playing a piece on the piano. But Kelso’s best work yet has been appearing in various magazines and anthologies over the last few years and won’t be published in book form until next spring; watch for her collection of short stories, The Squirrel Mother, and her fantasy epic, Artichoke Tales, from Fantagraphics. Like the short stories of Charles Baxter or Alice Munro, Kelso’s stories resonate long after you’ve read the last line (or, in her case, panel). She’s one of the surprisingly few cartoonists who understand that visual metaphor is the medium they work with, and knows how to use it with subtlety and force. Odd incidents (a woman locks her niece out of the house overnight and meows sadly under her pillow) and images (a girl, abandoned by her mother, deliberately scissors a flap out of her homemade dress) are charged with inexpressible emotion and elusive meaning. Anyone who skims through her work just reading the dialogue and expects to “get it” will be as nonplussed as filmgoers who expect clear, spoon-fed exposition in the films of Stanley Kubrick. It requires you to slow down, really look, and mull it over. It’s suffused throughout with trademark poignancy and the tension of things left unspoken.
Perfect Example (Highwater Books, 2000) and Diary of a Mosquito Abatement Man (La Mano, 2005) by John Porcellino
Punk rock was a revelation to the young John Porcellino, showing him that anyone could make art without formal education or technical virtuosity. However, unlike many people who have taken this lesson to heart, Porcellino is a born artist, someone whose nerve endings seem more sensitive to both the pain and the mystery at the center of this existence. Anyone who was ever moved to tears by “the loveliest saddest landscape in the world” as drawn by Antoine de Saint-Exupery in The Little Prince will understand the quiet power of Porcellino’s deceptively childlike drawings. Perfect Example is one of the best novels ever written about adolescence—yes, up there with The Catcher in the Rye. I hesitate to describe it as a story about a depressed teenager, because I know this sounds like the last thing in the world you’d want to read. Even though it clearly evokes what it was like to grow up in suburban Illinois circa 1985, it also, unlike most bildungsromans, transcends those incidentals and grapples with ageless problems that adults still have to contend with: figuring out how to be a person in the world, how to love and let yourself be loved by others. A second collection, Diary of a Mosquito Abatement Man, is a more episodic chronicle of Porcellino’s days as an exterminator that documents his growing reverence for the natural world. It includes some passages that make the hairs rise on your arms and the air around you seem to stand still; like Denis Johnson’s stories in Jesus’ Son, whose subjects are often mundane or tawdry, they always point beyond themselves to something ineffable.
From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell (Top Shelf, 1993)
Alan Moore is the best-known writer in comics, the author of several graphic novels adapted for the screen—not only From Hell but also The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the upcoming V for Vendetta, and the perennially in preproduction Watchmen. Moore loves to weave vast and multilayered stories dense with intertwining verbal and visual threads, plots, and mysteries that are always a little bigger, more complicated, and even more appallingly cynical than his cleverest and most dogged characters can fathom. They’re puzzles as endlessly fascinating for the reader to pore over and try to piece together as Pale Fire or Infinite Jest. Moore’s trademark match cuts suggest startling, poetic parallels between disparate story lines; tantalizing leitmotifs and unexpected symmetries reveal themselves; incidental background details prove to be crucial clues. In From Hell he takes the already exhaustively documented “Jack the Ripper” case as an unknowable historical event whose “truth” is irrevocably lost, and uses it for his own purposes: Moore devises his own conspiracy theory involving Queen Victoria and the Masons, and delves deep into the ancient and bloody forgotten history of London. Ultimately he transmogrifies the murders, in the mind of their perpetrator, into a ritual sacrifice in the millennia-old war between Man and Woman, and the act that gives birth to the sterile, rationalist slaughterhouse of the 20th century.
Palestine (Fantagraphics, 1996) and Safe Area Gorazde (Fantagraphics, 1998) by Joe Sacco
If you are anything like me, the last thing you need is to feel even more depressed about things like Palestine and Bosnia when we’ve now got shit like Iraq and New Orleans to worry about. But Joe Sacco’s books are not only among the finest contemporary reportage; they are worth reading as literature, reminiscent of Michael Herr’s Dispatches in their use of anecdote to render nightmarish, intractable political situations on the other side of the world intelligible and human. Sacco’s detailed, exacting drawings capture everything from the distinctive claw shape of mortar shell craters to his driver and guide drunkenly bellowing the chorus to “Born in the U.S.A.” with heartbreaking clarity. He illustrates atrocities, it’s true, some of which are regrettably seared into my memory, but what I remember more often, and more clearly, are the abashed faces of the “Silly Girls” as they’re admonished for caring more about designer jeans from the West than about their doubtful futures. Like you and me, even they didn’t want to have to think about Bosnia.
Doubtlessly connoisseurs of comics will despise this list for its prejudices and omissions. Fuck them. These are people who think Craig Thompson’s Blankets is a good graphic novel because it was well drawn and very, very long. Really good graphic novels are still too few, but superb new work is being written and drawn all the time. I’m still waiting for the second volume of Jason Lutes’ complex and ambitious historical novel Berlin, and I’m told the new book Epileptic, by one David B., is extremely good.
It’s not yet clear where comics are in their history—whether the current spate of serious, literary comics is just the autumnal blaze of an obsolete medium in its decadence, or the spazzy, pretentious, and gorgeous adolescence of a new, unexplored art form. The difference may depend on the ambitions and talents of a handful of individual creators—and on the adventurousness, curiosity, and discernment of you, the reader.
David Foster Wallace: 1962-2008 (9/24/2008)
When Books Could Change Your Life (9/24/2008)
Why What We Pore Over At 12 May Be The Most Important Reading We Ever Do
The Frightener (9/26/2007)
William Sloane's Two Novels Cut Right Through Genre And Burrow Into a Dark, Uncanny Unknown
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201