The New School


Wednesday, November 29, 2006

UPDATE: This post has been somewhat edited from its original form.

You know it’s a great year for comics when an anthology as strong as Ivan Brunetti‘s Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, & True Stories isn’t an obvious front-runner. Considering its quality, the stature of its editor, and the publisher, this book hasn’t gotten as much hype as I might have expected, at least so far. Maybe it’s just Seth cover fatigue. (I hope the same syndrome doesn’t kill off the Dick Tracy series before it gets to the volumes set in outer space.)

Of course, it might just be that most people who really follow comics are already familiar with most of the contents—or at least think they are—and are accordingly less likely to get enthused about a collection of comics they already know. (Of course, as I mentioned a while back, I’ve been surprised by some comics fans’ selective sense of comics history before, so there might be more unfamiliar material here than is apparent.)

Whatever the reason, this is a truly remarkable book, and I surprised myself by plowing through the first half in one sitting, even though I’ve read probably 90% of the material previously.

Brunetti has said that he conceived of the book as something like a Norton anthology for comics, collecting the work of the very best and most (artistically) successful North American cartoonists of the last thirty years, and for the most part, his selections are impeccable. It’s difficult (though not impossible — no Gilbert Shelton? No Jack Jackson? Etc.) to think of important cartoonists from the last three decades who aren’t represented.

Of course, not all of the cartoonists here work best in short form, so some of the selections don’t show the artists at their strongest or most representative. And considering the general thrust of the anthology, some of the selections are odd, and lead the reader to wonder. Why include five pages of pre-WWII comic strips and ignore nearly every newspaper strip from later years (other than Barnaby and Peanuts)? Why leave out so many artists from the underground days? Why include outsider artist Henry Darger, and once you have, why not include a half-dozen others? For that matter, why pick so many young cartoonists who may not actually belong in a book of this type yet?

At least part of the answer to these questions is that the book as originally planned was much longer. Yale decided it needed cutting, and Brunetti had to remove a big chunk of the book. (On a panel at this year’s Small Press Expo in Bethesda, he said that he found it a lot easier to cut out the work of dead cartoonists than live ones, which explains the chronological lopsidedness.) The other, more important, part of the answer lies in the personal nature of the book, something Brunetti is clear about in his introduction, where he writes that his “criteria were simple: these are comics that I savor and often revisit.”

That he took the criteria seriously is evident throughout the book—all of these comics repay rereading—and many of the more obscure or idiosyncratic choices help give the book a much more individual-feeling tone than you would usually find in an historical anthology. Brunetti writes that he sought to highlight “vital, highly personal work”. His own cartooning has always been highly personal, so it’s no surprise that he would value the trait in others. It is nice to find that he approaches his editing from a similar perspective.

In fact, half of the fun in this book is following the thought process implied by his selections, and their placement. The anthology opens with a page of Sam Henderson, followed by a Mark Newgarden section, which is not unlike a Norton anthology of twentieth-century theater beginning with a Marx brothers sketch, followed up with an excerpt from Waiting for Godot. With an opening salvo like that, you know the editor’s on the side of the angels.

Basically, the book may or may not be worth your money if you already own a lot of this work (if you do, you have a great library), but it’s still probably the finest anthology of so-called alternative comics yet published. It certainly beats the hell out of the lousy book that the Smithsonian put out a couple years ago. For someone who wasn’t already immersed in the field and its history, and wanted to learn more, this is just about as perfect an introduction as I can imagine. And even if you consider yourself a full-on aficionado, there are still bound to be at least a few revelations here, whether in discovering a comic you’ve never read before, or in re-experiencing a comic in a new context, one planned by an expert and a clear lover of the form.

[DISCLOSURE: My wife, Lauren R. Weinstein, was one of the contributors to this anthology.]

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8 Responses to “The New School”
  1. Eric Reynolds says:

    “Why include five pages of pre-WWII comic strips and ignore nearly every newspaper strip from later years (other than Barnaby and Peanuts)? Why leave out so many artists from the underground days? Why include outsider artist Henry Darger, and once you have, why not include a half-dozen others? For that matter, why pick so many young cartoonists who may not actually belong in a book of this type yet?”

    I know these are rhetorical questions, but it’s because Ivan picked what Ivan likes, right? Give Yale credit for picking an editor with a vision, no matter how much nitpicking we can do (something that will happen with any editor, no matter how smart or stupid — I would’ve rather seen Johnny Ryan in there than Kochalka, you might’ve preferred Leif Goldberg, etc.). The rhythm of that opening section is pretty fantastic, from Henderson to Newgarden to Kaz to Millionaire to Griffith and eventually the Schulz stuff and Sikoryak/Barnaby/Kochalka.

    But yeah, what you said was pretty spot-on.

  2. D_W_ says:

    There was an interview with Ivan on WFMU a few weeks ago, it’s archieved;

  3. T Hodler says:

    Eric —

    You’re right, and I probably should have stressed that more in the post. My problems with the selection are definitely no more than quibbles, and part of what I like about the book is how personal it feels.

    (Also, I should have probably noted that at least part of the answer to these questions is that the book originally was much longer. Yale apparently decided it needed to be shorter, and Brunetti had to cut out a big chunk of the book. On a panel at SPX, he said that he found it a lot easier to cut out the work of dead cartoonists than live ones.)

    But yeah, again, you’re right. This book is great, is the impression I wanted to leave on people. The “problems” are extremely small, and really, since part of the appeal to the book is following Brunetti’s thought process, they’re not actually problems at all, but another reason to read the book.

  4. T Hodler says:

    Oh, and I should probably also say that Ivan is very upfront about the personal nature of the book and his choices, and says so right in his introduction.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Some of Ivan’s choices are a bit idiosyncratic, while he also seems to give a bit of short shrift to a lot of the more avant-garde artists out there. But Ivan noted that this was a book meant to be read, not looked at, and this was an imperative from his publishers.

    The two artists I really missed in there were Mary Fleener and Mike Kupperman. I thought both would have been perfect both in terms of format (their strengths lie in short stories) and content.

    In addition to feeling like a Norton anthology, this book also is laid out like a textbook. That’s both in terms of the comics he chose and the order they’re in. I betcha that this book becomes a standard part of the curriculum at CCS.

    In light of this, the section on Darger and the classic cartoonists makes more sense. They’re meant to be a point of reference to newer material, a means of comparing the new and old to each other. If the book has a sequel I hope we did get a more expanded version of this section.

    Which brings up another question: what would you include in a sequel? I’d pick some earlier Crumb, the artists I mentioned above, and perhaps a few humorists who are a bit more mainstream, like Evan Dorkin or Kyle Baker. That’s off the top of my head.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I definitely think one of the reasons people haven’t been crowing about the book more is that it is mostly familiar material. (I think in my case there were only two stories I hadn’t read before.)I think for most fans there just isn’t that sense of discovery there was with, to make an unfair comparison, with Mssr. Nadel’s book.

    That’s not to say it isn’t a fantastic anthology though. It may even be better than that recent McSweeney’s. It’s perfect for folks who haven’t dipped their toe in the graphic novel waters yet.

    — Chris Mautner

  7. T Hodler says:

    Rob —

    I don’t think there are any concrete plans at this point, but I imagine that if the book does well enough, there may be updated editions of the anthology in the future. At least Brunetti made a vague allusion to the possibility at SPX.

    As to who should be included in an expansion or a sequel, that would take days to think about. There are certainly many cartoonists who could fit in comfortably (Fleener and Kupperman, as you mentioned), though Dorkin and Baker seem like poor aesthetic fits to me for some reason. But I’m just guessing, and I wouldn’t have thought he’d choose Kochalka (whose strips actually work pretty well in context) either, so who knows?

    Chris —

    Yes, in a way it might be a good sign for ambitious comics in general that a book this good doesn’t seem like a thunderclap from heaven. I do think though that it covers a lot more ground than a lot of comics readers realize, and almost anyone will find at least a few revelations in it. Whether that means it’s worth $30 is a question others will have to answer for themselves. (I’d buy it again if I somehow lost our copy, for what it’s worth.)

    One thing is for sure: There is now a very easy way for people (like maybe newspaper and magazine reviewers) to educate themselves on the form and its recent history fairly quickly. This book gives at least a sense of the whole elephant in a way that you wouldn’t get from simply reading MAUS or AMERICAN SPLENDOR or Dan’s ART OUT OF TIME (though someone who learned everything they knew about comics from that alone would have an interesting perspective!) or even the Chris Ware-edited MCSWEENEY’S (which, while excellent, had a less comprehensive and historical approach).

    So that’s good.

  8. BVS says:

    I kind of came to a realization about books like this, or why i buy books like this and mcsweeney’s 13. even though I pretty much already own and have definitely read everything in the book. It seems like when you make a new friend, or enter a new relationship there is always a sharing of interests thing, and while it’s easy and fun to make a mix tape or cd to share the bands you like with the new person, how do you share comics?
    when it comes to comics it might end up more like your lending them a huge stack of shit just to show them a good range of what comics you like. and that’s intimidating, they may not even read any of it, or heaven forbid your precious out of print edition of Shrimpy and Paul gets beat up or lost or the binding gets fucked. with comic book virgins I think lending them McSweeney’s or anthology of graphic fiction is a better idea, They’ll look at it and tell you what they liked and suddenly your now dating a Matt Brinkman fan. It’s a very good mix of good comics. aside from photo coping and scanning and printing out your own personal 100 page single copy edition comics mix tape(which is time consuming but I’ve done it, it’s fun, kind of…) a books like this is the next best thing. so i guess i bought anthology of graphic fiction to share and lend out, rather than for me to keep. I guess that may be a weird reason to own a book.

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