Anthology Making as Autobiography
by Jeet Heer
Saturday, December 19, 2009
Dan’s comments on the Toon Treasury got me thinking about anthology-making, an underappreciated craft. In the entire history of comics, there have only been a handful of great anthologies. Off the top of my head the following come to mind:
1. The Smithsonian Book of Newspaper Comics, edited by Bill Blackbeard and Martin Williams. A really great anthology, collecting the best strip comics from the early 20th century: Opper, McCay, Herriman, Sterrett, Gray, Segar, Crane, Gottfredson. This book is the foundation stone of the reprint renaissance we’re living through right now. There is no way, for example, that the Walt and Skeezix books would exist if the Smithsonian volume hadn’t published choice examples of King’s Sunday pages, which led Joe Matt and Chris Ware to collect Gasoline Alley strips. The book is particularly strong on the great long and rousing continuities of the 1930s that Blackbeard grew up reading: giving readers an extended sample of Wash Tubbs, Mickey Mouse, and Popeye at their violently exuberant best. It took me many years to figure out that the book has some limitations. The editors had no taste for adult observational humour panels, so there is no Clare Briggs or Gluyas Williams in the book. And because Blackbeard’s taste was so nostalgically oriented, the book peters out after 1945 or so. Still, this is an essential volume that anyone interested in comics should own.
2. The Toon Treasury of Classic Children’s Comics edited by Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly. Dan has already said what needs to be said about the book. The one point I’d add is that it does a useful job in sorting out a canon of the really great kids cartoonists (Barks, Stanley, Kelly, Mayer) while providing enough material from other artists who did solid work so that readers get a sense of the scope of the genre.
3. Art Out of Time edited by Dan Nadel. This is probably too incestuous but I have to say this book looks better every time I return to it. This is especially true now that we have more books reprinting some of the artists from this anthology: what distinguishes the book is the fact that the stories Dan selected were both striking and emblematic of the cartoonists being displayed. About the only critique I’d make is that the comic book pages looked better than the newspaper Sunday pages reprinted. It might have been better to have two volumes, one devoted to the comic book stories and a larger book to the Sunday pages.
4. An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, and True Stories, two volumes, edited by Ivan Brunetti. There is so much that could be said about these books. I love the connections they draw between classic cartoonists (notably Bushmiller, Kurtzman and Schulz) and alternative comics. Like Spiegelman and Mouly, and Dan as well, Brunetti is very smart about how he’s organized the book: the unexpected juxtaposition of certain artists (Forbell and Regé, Teal and Burns) ignites a new understanding of familiar material. And I like that the Crumb material is from his underrated middle period, and not the overly reprinted 1960s stuff. More subtly, Brunetti has a knack for picking out stories that stick in your mind. Much of this book was déjà vu for me, but that’s because so much of it is from the very stories that I’ve constantly been re-reading for the last twenty years.
5. McSweeney’s 13 edited by Chris Ware. All the praise of Brunetti’s book applies to this volume.
Aside from these books, there are a few near great anthologies: books that are very strong but more flawed, including A Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics (edited by Michael Barrier and Martin Williams) and The Apex Treasury of Underground Comics (edited by Don Donahue and Susan Goodrick). The Smithsonian book suffers mainly from its half-hearted selection of superhero and action material (which either should have been more comprehensive or entirely left out), and the dull coloring of the reproduction. The Apex book gives a good selection of the main underground artists but many of them would go on to do stronger work (notably Spiegelman, Spain, and Deitch; actually also Crumb, now that I think of it). So it’s crying out to be republished in an expanded edition. Or perhaps someone can start from scratch and do an anthology of “The Essential Underground Comics”.
One interesting thing about good anthologies is how autobiographical they are. It’s no accident, I think, that the Smithsonian Book of Newspaper Comics is strongest on those comics Blackbeard and Williams read when they were boys in the late 1920s and 1930s. The Toon Treasury is an outgrowth of the experience Spiegelman and Mouly had as parents, sharing Barks and Stanley with their kids. And some of the selections in the Toon Treasury are either personal interests of Spiegelman (Jack Cole), influences on his work (Gross, Kurtzman) or in one case his mentor (Woody Gelman). The Yale anthologies are really a record of the comics that shaped Brunetti’s own development as a cartoonist.
Anthology-making can thus be seen as a form of autobiography. A good anthologist is moved not just by objective considerations (who are the masters of the genre?) but also personal concerns (what are the works that speak to me?). This personal dimension of anthology-making extends outside of comics: consider Dwight Macdonald’s Parodies, or John Metcalf’s many collections of Canadian short fiction, or Hugh Kenner’s volume of Seventeenth Century Poetry or the Subtreasury of American Humor edited by E.B. and Katharine White. All of these are anthologies that bear the impress of particular personalities, with items selected and organized to sharpen taste and perception.
PS: I should add that there are some very attractive-looking recent anthologies which I haven’t read yet: notably Abstract Comics by Andrei Molotiu. So if there are books that I missed, feel free to list them below in the comments section.