Pay Attention: A New Feature
by Jeet Heer
Friday, December 24, 2010
As Evan Dorkin and others have mentioned, we’ve had a flood of good (and sometimes jaw-droppingly great) books that haven’t received anywhere near the recognition that they deserve. In response to this sad situation, I’m going to start a feature called PAY ATTENTION, devoted to recent, new and forthcoming books that deserve to be singled out.
The question of why books get ignored is worth puzzling out. Some personal reflections might be in order: when I worked on the first Walt and Skeezix book, I wasn’t sure how it would be received and was pleasantly shocked at the number of reviews it got, often in very prominent places (Playboy, the Washington Post, the New York Times, etc.) It wasn’t just the number of reviews and their high-visibility that was gratifying. A surprisingly large number of the reviews were very thoughtful and responsive to King’s work.
So why did the first Walt and Skeezix do so well in the public notice sweepstakes? A lion’s share of the credit has to go to the fact that Peggy Burns has claims to be the most talented publicist in comics. Chris Ware’s eye-popping design on the book played no small part in making it a volume that couldn’t be ignored, as did the stellar production work of the D&Q staff. But part of the story is also one of timing. We were early in the reprints game. The complete Peanuts series and the Krazy & Ignatz series had already started, which gave a context for people to understand the book. But there wasn’t a lot of other competition around. Frank King had the novelty factor going for him since no one had seen those daily strips in decades.
I understand why subsequent Walt and Skeezix books, even the spectacular Sundays with Walt and Skeezix, haven’t gotten the same amount of attention. Such is the way of the world: reviewers and editors of book reviews feel, quite properly, that valuable media space should be given to fresh projects being launched rather than a continuing series.
But more frustrating has been the relative lack of attention for subsequent reprint series that I think also deserve notice: The Captain Easy book (which was the first time those Sundays had ever been presented properly), the Doug Wright book that Seth and Brad Mackay did, the King Aroo book that Dean Mullaney and Bruce Caswell put together.
Of course the relative lack of attention to these books is simply an outgrowth of what is otherwise a happy situation, the oft-remarked fact that we are living in the golden age of comics reprints. There are so many good books out there that it’s hard to keep track of everything. The sheer abundance of material is hard not just on reviewers but also readers: I think it’s taking people time to process all these books, which in their entirety are reshaping how we see the history of comics. So it’s no surprise that artists that are a little bit quirkier or off-the-beaten-path aren’t being immediately absorbed. But I’m hoping this isn’t a permanent situation and that Doug Wright and Jack Kent will, in time, have a larger presence in the comics conversation.
So which books over the last few years have deserved attention but didn’t receive it? Off the top of my head I’d say:
The Artist Himself: A Rand Holmes Retrospective by Patrick Rosenkranz.
The Search for Smilin Ed! By Kim Deitch – a delight not just because it gives us one of Deitch’s most deranged meandering tall tales but also because the whole handsome package was designed to highlight the cohesiveness of Deitch’s world-making project, the way his fictional universe and its large cast make up a single unfolding story.
Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary by Justin Green (McSweeney’s edition). Another example of classic underground art that deserves a second look thanks to the excellence of presentation. The work, of course, is a classic but the new format really foregrounds the rough-hewn, nervous passion of Green’s art.
The Complete Jack Survives by Jerry Moriarty. Again, classic material made to look new by being shot from original art. Because of Moriarty’ s background in painting, his work has a tactile reality that most comics lack: the sheer physical effort of the mark making is part of the art itself.
This is just the list that comes to mind from looking at my bookshelf. I’m sure Comics Comics readers have other suggestions. So, fire away in the comments section.