Arguing with Art In Time
by Jeet Heer
Monday, June 21, 2010
I’ve been reluctant to comment on Art in Time not just for the obvious reason (a glaring conflict-of-interest!) but also because like the best anthologies it is a book that I feel I have to live with for many months before I can properly appraise its value. I’ve talked before about the anthologies that have meant the most to me and one common trait they have is that I keep going back to them, keep learning from them, and have gained a deeper appreciation of the way they were put together from my 5th or 6th reading rather than my initial impression.
Having said that, I’m pretty confident that Art in Time belongs in the small pantheon of great comics anthologies. Art Out of Time was a distinguished book but the companion volume is an improvement in almost every way: the artists and the excerpts are more thoughtfully selected and hang together better, and Dan’s writing on them displays a new level of engagement and insight.
There is one quality of Art in Time that really sets it apart. Rather like Ben Schwartz’s recent Best American Comics Criticism anthology, Art in Time is a fun book to argue with because the some of the editorial decisions are counter-intuitive. Provoking arguments is a sign of an important book, one that challenges your preconceptions.
For me, the most important argument-provoking decision Dan made was to include four underground cartoonists (Sharon Rudahl, Michael McMillan, Willy Mendes, and John Thompson) in a book largely devoted to commercial adventure cartoonists. I have to say, if I were the editor I would done it something much more conservative: two books, one devoted to the commercial cartoonists (Marsh, Morisi, etc.) and one devoted to unjustly ignored cartoonists from the classic underground age (say from 1968-1980).
But Dan wants to shake up our sense of history. I’ve taken the issue up with him during a panel in TCAF and he’s made the point elsewhere as well but in essence he’s challenging the view of old fogeys like me who see a major epistemological break between the world of commercial comic books and the world of the undergrounds. For Dan, it is all comics, and the formal properties that unite Marsh and Sharon Rudahl (for example) outweigh the social, cultural and economic divide.
There is obviously an element of truth to this. Robert Crumb, to pick one example among many, learned how to draw comics by reading and imitating the works of Carl Barks and John Stanley. And some of the commercial cartoonists were interacted, socially and aesthetically, with the counterculture. Wally Wood is the best example but even someone as straight-laced as Will Eisner, who was doing comics for the Pentagon, re-thought his career when he saw the undergrounds. Eisner’s whole return to comics came about because he was impressed by the new freedoms won by underground cartoonists. Or to pick an even more unexpected example, Barks praised Crumb’s work.
Still, and this might be a testimony to my age and the extent that I was formed intellectually in the 1980s when the divide between commercial comics and the alternative press was especially large, I’m not sure I fully buy the argument Dan is making in Art In Time. It seems to me that the undergrounds did represent a fundamental break with the past. I’m not sure if I can define it in words, but the best underground comics (Crumb, Deitch, Spiegelman, Justin Green) cut deeper into human experience than any of the commercial cartoonists, no matter how good they were, ever did. The experience of reading an underground comic is different from reading a commercial comic book. Even with the best commercial comics, you have to make allowances or read between the lines to find the spark of individuality.
As I said before, though, the mark of a good book is that it makes you argue with it. By that criteria, Art In Time is a very good book indeed.