Pay Attention: A New Feature


Friday, December 24, 2010

The Search for Smilin Ed! by Kim Deitch, a book worthy of attention

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.

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14 Responses to “Pay Attention: A New Feature”
  1. mr.pants says:

    King of the flies: Hallorave by Mezzo & Prius

    The perfect psychedelic for every slacker. I was very glad/surprised to see it on Amazon’s list. I thought it was forgotten since it came out so early, but it still seems no one knows about it. It just came out.

    • BVS says:

      I liked it, it seemed like more of a euro assimilation or reaction to Charles Burns. but something about it sort of erked me. the story for quite some time has me puzzled as to where it takes place. at first I couldn’t tell if this was a non american artist depicting the America seen through movies and TV? as in with Muñoz/Sampayo?
      or is this just an honest depiction of a segment of Europe I simply am unaware of and know nothing about. I don’t have my copy on hand but I remember something mentioned about how many miles they are from some incident happening in germany. so does the story it take place in Austria, or Switzerland or northern Italy or something? did anyone else read this and find them selves vexed and perplexed trying to grasp the setting of this comic?

      • Kim Thompson says:

        It takes place… on Earth, basically. It’s a weird global amalgamation that technically takes place in France (note that the currency is the Euro, too) but all the names and pop-culture references are American (or in a few cases British, like Jarvis Cocker). And yes, it is a bit disconcerting at first, and I’m not sure what the exact explanation for this is (I’m in contact with the writer but haven’t asked him) although it may be his sardonic commentary on how American pop culture has swamped everything to the degree that the rest of the world finds itself in this weird in-between realm. It may also be that he didn’t want to localize the story by making it France-specific, and the American pop-culture world is something of a lingua franca by now.

  2. R. M. Rhodes says:

    Cinebook has been quietly translating and reprinting some great French comics over the past few years – Lucky Luke and the Blue Tunics are old-school classics. And they just translated the City of Shifting Waters by Christin & Mezieres – the first in the extensive Valerian series.

  3. DerikB says:

    Except for this site, The Wrong Place. Just finished my second reading of it, and it is definitely going on my comics of the year list.

    The Zabime Sisters by Aristophane (First Second), probably because it seems like it’s a kids book, but it is not:

  4. This is a fantastic idea for a new column and I greatly look forward to reading future installments. Good call on Jack Survives, an extraordinary book. I’ll add Red Snow by Susumu Katsumata to the list. A gekiga collection from an artist I had never heard of before that was great for the quality of the work itself and for the suggestion of a larger tradition of gekiga we’ve seen very little of in the U.S. All of D&Q’s gekiga releases should probably be talked up more, actually.

  5. […] At Comics Comics, Jeet Heer starts a new feature about neglected new releases called “Pay Attention,” and there is also a post of an old article about the old Vancouver comix scene that was there […]

  6. Robert Boyd says:

    I reviewed The Wrong Place, but I agree that it seems to have been seriously overlooked. Was Jack Survives overlooked? It seems to me that it was held in high esteem, but maybe that is hindsight bias on my part. I think the “problem” with the Deitch book is the same as with the subsequent Walt and Skeezix books. “Oh look! Another brilliant Kim Deitch book!” It’s hard for a reviewer to say something new about it, even though it completely deserves to be praised publicly.

    • andrew bruner says:

      Jack Survives probably wasn’t particularly overlooked critically, but the high price point of the book for the work of a single creator probably kept it from consumption by the majority of potential readers (myself included).

  7. Second the Zabime Sisters and Red Snow suggestions.

  8. BVS says:

    I am glad this is happening. sometime books do need a while to digest in the brain.
    as was mentioned in the other thread one of the books that has stayed in my brain all year has been that last killoffer story in dungeon monsters: heart breakers. as well as killoffer’s work in general.
    red snow is another one that has stayed with me long after it was finished.
    dungeon quest was just a book i found hilarious but no one else seemed to have read it. if memory serves me correctly it came out the same week as prison pit, and that was all anyone was talking about, perhaps the marker was over flooded with goof ball doofus humor that month, but I liked dungeon quest better.
    and the captain easy collection! that was one of this year’s highlights.
    many evenings of the summer were spent smoking a bowl and wandering my way through those captain easy pages.

  9. Kim Thompson says:

    The funny thing about SMILIN’ ED is that both Kim D. and I dithered for a long time about when and how to collect it because we both thought it kind of went off the rails in terms of narrative coherence and weren’t sure how, or indeed whether, to fix it (it worked well in the original ZERO ZERO serial but we were worried that the book collection would highlight its ramshackleness), but ultimately we just said “fuck it” and collected it as is, and somehow with the addition of Bill’s introduction, Kim’s new story and chart of his characters, it all pulls it together and I think it’s one of Kim’s most successful books even if BROKEN DREAMS and ALIAS THE CAT are more controlled works.

    Gilbert Hernandez’s LUBA material in e.g. HIGH SOFT LISP ties together in book form unexpectedly well too, although in Gilbert’s case I think he actually did and does have an overarching concept and narrative in mind that was not necessarily apparent in the original serializations.

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