I was wrong, and in a good way. Ivan Brunetti‘s Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, & True Stories, is starting to get some well-deserved hype, this time a longish, overwhelmingly positive review in the New York Times Sunday Book Review. This is an unalloyed good thing, both for Brunetti and for the field as a whole. But…
Well, maybe it is just a little alloyed, but only because the reviewer was one lazy and condescending (at least in this instance) critic named David Hajdu, who is probably best known for his book about the ’60s folk scene in Greenwich Village, Positively 4th Street. I say lazy and condescending because it is quite clear from reading his review that he didn’t bother to do the relevant research, but still felt qualified to act as a generous mandarin, bestowing status on a “disreputable” art form that has finally earned his good graces.
Take for starters his description of the book’s editor:
Brunetti, a comics artist and writer himself, is best known for his comic-book series “Schizo,” a hodge-podge of spare, poetic vignettes heavily influenced by Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts.”
It seems likely to me from this that Hajdu only read the two pages of Brunetti comics included in the book under review, but let’s be generous and assume he skimmed Schizo‘s unusually gentle fourth issue. Hajdu clearly didn’t bother checking into the earlier issues, which might well be the most scarifying comics ever drawn. “Spare”, “poetic”, and “Peanuts” are not the words (well, “poetic” maybe, but not the way Hajdu means it).
Here’s a less important one:
[Brunetti] likes the funnies to be funny; we get few adventure stories — not even, among the historical selections, a panel of “Little Lulu” or Carl Barks’s “Donald Duck,” both of which were more dramatic than literally comic.
Hmm. Little Lulu always seemed pretty funny to me.
More from the maestro:
[Brunetti] is indifferent, even silently hostile, to superheroes, none of whom appear anywhere in the book … There is no question that the vast bulk of superhero comics are factory-made product, rather than works of individual expression; still, at least a few mainstream comics published in recent years — including a series of Batman stories drawn by David Mazzucchelli, who has other work in the anthology — are as artful and subtle as some stories in this book.
Mazzuchelli‘s work on Batman is greatly accomplished, but so many of his other, non-superhero comics are superior that it would be very strange to include it while skipping the rest.
More than that, considering the nature of this anthology, Hajdu’s argument is just silly. Only when discussing comics do people feel the constant need to glorify or excuse work on licensed properties in this way. You’d never find a critic reviewing an anthology of contemporary literature and bemoaning the lack of excerpts from Star Wars novels. (Who knows, maybe there’s a book about Yoda that’s just as good as the story about a novelist suffering writer’s block at Yaddo—it would still feel out-of-place in a book meant to showcase stories that are personal and intimate.) If Hajdu really feels like comics are now finally “suitable for adults”, maybe he could treat them with the respect (and expectations) accorded to other adult media.
Hajdu continues by calling for the deletion of Aline Kominsky-Crumb‘s “clumsy noodling” and praising Kim Deitch “for her [sic] cynical romance with the past and sheer kookiness of spirit.” I love Kominsky-Crumb’s work, but I guess I should give Hajdu a pass here, seeing as everyone’s entitled to their own taste. But would it be too much to ask that, if he’s going to say an artist may be “the literary voice of our time”, and do it in the New York Times, that he actually bother to conduct enough research to get the Possible Voice of Our Time’s gender right? [UPDATE: The Kim Deitch gender mix-up was apparently an editing error, in which case the writer should of course be excused.]
Here’s his final paragraph, a wonderful mixture of clichés, misconceptions, and patronization:
Now going under the name graphic fiction, no doubt temporarily, the comics are all grown up, and this anthology represents the most cogent proof since Will Eisner pioneered the graphic novel and Art Spiegelman brought long-form comics to early perfection. What other kinds of art or entertainment invented for young people ever transcended their provenance as kid stuff? Not coloring books, nor paper dolls, nor board games. There are no Etch a Sketch drawings in the Museum of Modern Art and no View-Master slides in the International Center for Photography. While it took more than a century for the medium to be accepted as suitable for adults, the fact that the comics made it here at all testifies to their resilience and adaptability.
Ugh. Well, I guess it’s good that comics are more of a legitimate art form than the old View-Master, but this seems like faint praise to me.
(By the way, this isn’t the first time Hajdu has written about “grown-up” comics for a prominent cultural publication, or the first time he’s proven himself not quite up to the job.)
I should stop whining. What does it matter really? It’s nice overall that the big cultural arbiters are recognizing comics, and these mistakes aren’t really that important. But it would be even nicer if the people deciding what art is serious and legitimate would take their own jobs just as seriously.
And what is Hajdu up to next? He’s working on a new book, a history of the comics. As he graciously acknowledged in a 2003 interview, it’s something he “knew virtually nothing about before”, but he’s found that doing the research “is the fun part”. I hope that the new year finds Hajdu having lots of fun.
Oh, and one more thing, related only in general theme: When you’re putting together a large-scale, scholarly exhibit of the Masters of the American Comics, ostensibly in order to demonstrate the artistic significance of the form and its practitioners, and you display one of the most famous and iconic comic book covers of all time, go ahead and make the effort to find out who drew it. Don’t just credit Harvey Kurtzman on a guess. Especially when Basil Wolverton‘s signature is clearly legible, right at the bottom of the page.