Anthology Making as Autobiography


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.

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26 Responses to “Anthology Making as Autobiography”
  1. Desert Island says:

    Ever checked out Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project? He basically says you can compose your autobiography using nothing but quotes and samples from pre-existing works. (And he wrote this in the 1930's!)

    Seems like a related point.

  2. Bill Kartalopoulos says:

    I'd also mention Jules Feiffer's The Great Comic Book Heroes, although maybe the essay is more valuable than the specific comics that were included. Additionally, that book may have been constrained by the publisher's desire to reprint stories about recognizable characters (even though Feiffer spends almost as much time on lesser known characters in his text). Clearly, the inclusion of Eisner was personal to Feiffer, and apparently important in restoring Eisner's work to public view.

    I know some have regarded Sadowski's Supermen! as lacking the sense of personal investment you're talking about here, but I think that book was very useful for a variety of reasons, including providing context for some of the more vital and idiosyncratic artists such as Hanks, Wolverton, etc. I thought that book balanced several goals at once pretty admirably: presenting a range of representative work, presenting early work by many artists who would go on to do stronger work, and arranging the book both loosely chronologically and according to publisher, thus presenting several historical strands at once. In short, I guess the historical thoroughness satisfied me enough that I wasn't feeling the absence of anything else. Certainly, I was approaching that book with primarily historical interest.

    It sounds like you're avoiding talking about anthology series, but I'd still mention Kramers Ergot 4 alongside McSweeney's 13, both of which can be taken as very successful assertive statements about different but overlapping areas of contemporary comics. Coober Skeeber #2 and Low Jinx #3 are both super interesting parodistic anthologies that I got a lot out of. Speaking of Devlin, his two SPX anthologies, though perhaps unbalanced by that anthology's mission, were also important in exposing many under-regarded American and then-unknown European artists.

    It's tempting to want to talk about RAW, but it's hard to point to any particular issue. Volume 2 n. 1 is iconic for me, but I know that others have different preferences.

  3. Jeet Heer says:

    I'm definately thinging along the lines of Benjamin, a big influence on my ideas.

    Feiffer belongs on the list but it could have been better.

    I've been warming to the Supermen book as well; the virtues Bill describes are real.

    I wanted to focus only on anthologies of already published work. If I talked about anthologies of new work, the list would be much larger: Kurtzman's Mad, Spiegelman and Griffith's Arcade, Spiegelman and Mouly's Raw, Chris Oliveros' Drawn and Quarterly, Reynold's Mome, Kramer's Ergot, etc. etc.

  4. Anonymous says:

    This might be a stretch or not really the same thing but what about Stan Lee's Origins of Marvel Comics and Sons of Origins from the mid 70's?

    Those books were like Stan's autobio in a way.

  5. BVS says:

    all the anthology of graphic fictions, and best american comics both just still feel to me like pale imitations of McSweeney's 13. lots of the same artists, so it feels like the spotlight is being shined in the same direction. some have better and worse examples of particular artist's work, but it all came together so much better in McSweeney's 13. making the reading experience of the whole greater than it's parts. Kramers Ergot 4 also I don't think can be overlooked. it was an explosive debut of an entire spectrum of comics that weren't well know (or known at all) out side of their home regions. everything just works together so well. separately lots of those pieces in Kramers 4 wouldn't work on their own or in different collections. no issue of Kramers since has achieved that same synthesis. neither of those examples I guess are anthology as autobiography. but I guess I think of them more as more anthology as awesome mix tape. something I'm more interested in getting out of an anthology.
    I think the same can be said of certain issues of MOME, RAW, and Weirdo. though no exact one comes to mind.
    not having been there the first time, it's kind of hard to gauge what it was like to read RAW when it was brand new. I will look at the issues I have and see really awesome stories by Charles Burns that I've seen reprinted a million times and the little MAUS mini comic. comics that I've seen before over and over and am very familiar with. but then you have these other comics By Jose Munoz or Tardi that I can't recall ever seeing reprinted again in english again. I wish I could know how that comes together when looking at all for the first time.

  6. Joe Decie says:

    I'm a fan of small press & mini comic anthologies, especially those which take time over their printing (perfect bound, unusual size format, silk screened, newspaper supplements etc) A few that spring to mind are Always Comix, Solipsistic Pop and recent themed issues of Not My Small Diary .

  7. jimrugg says:

    Perhaps off the beaten path, but it wouldn't surprise me if there's a strong personal connection between the mini-comics reprinted in Newave!: The Underground Mini Comix of the 1980s and its editor. It seems like the proliferation of that format probably had a major impact on many aspiring cartoonists of a certain age.

  8. Jeet Heer says:

    Again, I think we need to seperate out "anthologies of old material" from "anthologies of new art."

    My point about anthology making as autobiography really applies only to "anthologies of old material". I think that for "anthologies of new art" there has to be a comparable personal involvement but the dynamic is a bit different. Anthologies of new material are really about editors educating themselves and creating a community, rather than reflecting on what has shaped them.

    I'm looking forward to the Newwave anthology which could be terrific.

    I have mixed feelings about the Stan Lee edited collections, but I guess that's because I have mixed, largely negative, feelings about Stan Lee. But sure, those books hare his autobiography, and the overheated rhetoric of his introductions does reflect something of who he is.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Comics Underground Japan.

  10. BVS says:

    when I woke up this morning i was suddenly reminded of Comics underground Japan. that's an awesome anthology. the first time I read it I had not before seen any of those cartoonists. and it came at the perfect time too. just when the american manga import boom was about to explode. it was like by the way, there is also have these completely different comics.

  11. Frank Santoro says:

    I was working at Copacetic Comics and suggested The Toon Treasury to a father with kids. He was looking for something for his 5 year old daughter. He said that if it was a book for kids "they shouldn't have made it so heavy." Indeed the book is a tad unwieldy for little hands.

    He didn't buy the book. He bought her Mutts instead.

  12. afdumin says:

    Along with The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics I'd add Blackbeard's two-volume Comic Strip Century which is quite wonderful for many of the same reasons. I also continue to enjoy L'Association's Comixs 2000 collection for it's breadth and variety of artists and styles.

  13. Michael Grabowski says:

    By themselves the Stan Lee anthologies fail by including seemingly random follow-up stories of the same characters after the headlining origin features. The origin stories really do a great job of representing what was great in the early Marvel years, but the the second stories in most cases suffer from spotlighting an already fading glory by the late 60s.

    But those first issue/origin stories by themselves, with Stan's introductions, do make for some pretty fun books. Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko should have received some kind of co-author credit, though.

  14. Bill Randall says:

    Am I alone in finding the essays in McSweeneys 13 leaden? Besides Martin Rowson.

    And I like Comics Underground Japan most of the three Garo translations to date (Sake Jock & Secret Comics Japan being the other two), but there's only one anthology's worth of decent material among the three.

    In Japanese, I can't think of a collection that fits the same model Jeet's put forward of an historical anthology… perhaps because the work never fell out of sight? Does anyone know French-language anthologies that compare?

  15. afdumin says:

    Frank Santoro said…
    "I was working at Copacetic Comics and suggested The Toon Treasury to a father with kids. He was looking for something for his 5 year old daughter. He said that if it was a book for kids 'they shouldn't have made it so heavy.' Indeed the book is a tad unwieldy for little hands."

    Bah, comics should always be read on cozy mornings, spread open on the floor while lying on your stomach basking in their multi-colored glory!

  16. Jeet Heer says:

    Comics Underground Japan is a good book and belongs on the list.

    Bill Randell is right, though, that it would be good to have a historical anthology of manga in general. Although such a book could be very difficult to put together. Still, I would love to read something like that. Someone like Bill would be perfect to edit it.

    And of course it would be great to have a French historical anthology as well.

    In my experience, kids love big books: I've known several tykes who were charmed by the Sundays With Walt and Skeezix volume.

  17. BVS says:

    I feel like Spiegelman and Mouly's kids comics anthologies sort of fail as far as actually appealing to kids. I work at Big Brain Comics. we've got a pretty good section devoted to comics for younger readers. I'll show off the Little lit books and the The Toon Treasury to parents and kids who are just looking for something new. and they usually seem to pick it up and confusedly flip through them and then just set it down. I think to parents who aren't comic book devotees, the books are just too big. as for kids, I think they like knowing what the book is. they are quick to decide what they like and what they don't. in their eyes, whatever is on the cover should be what the book is. so anthologies are just sort of an uncomfortable format, they don't care who Carl Barks and John Stanley are, they just want the book to be filled with what they like, and not have to sort through some stuff they don't like. and if your a kid who really just wants a stack of sonic the hedge hog comics, the stuff in the toon treasury is a bit too old and alien looking .

    Post a comment.

  18. BVS says:

    and it's true, the essays in McSweeney's 13 are the low point. I feel like maybe they were included as something to grasp on to for the regular McSweeney's reader, to whom comics might be a completely foreign subject.

  19. Anonymous says:

    (I'm only "anonymous" because it was easier to post. I'm Scott Grammel.)

    Even finding quibbles with Blackbeard's Smithsonian Strip book is wrongheaded, in my view. The book is, was, and always will be an amazing and masterful survey. The essential starting point for anyone interested in comics as an art form.

    The Brunetti collections simply hew far too closely in their selections to the alt/indy creators or their spiritual and artistic forebears. Any such collections that can't find room for even one of Toth's essential air shorts ("Burma Sky," "Lone Hawk," or especially the Frontline Combat #12 piece) is hopelessly skewed and thus finally inadequate, however smart many of the choices are.

    Art Out Of Time looked swell, but I think it was a decade or two too late, much as the Supermen! collection was. And, yes, the Sunday strips were reproduced too small. The unforgivable crime, though, is still that Dan used the censored/edited later version of Powell's "Colorama,' which in addition suffers from lesser printing and coloring.

    It's hard for me to criticize the Apex underground anthology, as it invaluably opened my eyes to so many unique creators at a crucial time, but I'd agree a new, better, similar collection is very much needed.

  20. Andrei says:

    (Third time's the charm, right? I totally screwed up the code the first two times. But then, my grades for the semester were due today, so I slept very little last night.)


  21. D says:

    I was going to suggest Trina Robbins' The Great Women Cartoonists for consideration, but it's actually more of an art book than an anthology. It is, at the same time, the only book of its kind, and it fills in the gaps left by other anthologies and books on comics history.

  22. Anonymous says:

    1991's "The New Comics Anthology" was very impressive… it exposed me to some really interesting work and I wonder how it would hold up now.

    On a tangentially related note, there was a great graphic novel called "Horror Hospital Unplugged" that came out in '96. It was a collaboration between the author Dennis Cooper and the artist Keith Mayerson. It seems to me that it's very in sync with the work that's touted by comicscomics. I was just curious if anyone had read it, and what they thought of it?


  23. Inkstuds says:

    Hey Jeet, what about the Twisted Sisters collections?

  24. Jeet Heer says:

    Yeah, the Twisted Sisters collections are great, particularly the first one. That should have been on my list.

  25. sean r. says:

    About the possibility of more great manga anthologies — here's Matt Thorn on why anthologies like Four Shojo Stories, which he translated, are such rare birds due to 'artist ego' —

  26. Steven H says:

    Speaking of great Japanese anthologies, I love the Fanfare / Ponent Mon "Japan: As Viewed By 17 Creators" collection. Excellent work there!

    I've also recently gotten into the Canicola collections, and recieved both #7 and #8 the other day, gorgeous books filled with excellent comics (and not that expensive for an import, considering they're both 240 pages, with english "subtitles"). Along with the great European artists in this series, they also have some non-Euro translations (in #8 there are a couple of excellent Hanakuma Yusaku shorts, for instance.)

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