Return to the Funnies

Courtesy of McSweeney's

Among cartoonists, Chris Ware is informally known as the guy who makes everyone else look bad. His series The Acme Novelty Library and graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth dumbfounded the comics world, and landed him in the 2002 Whitney Biennial. He's a brilliant designer and artist, with wildly original ideas about visual narrative and presenting the relationship between space and time on a printed page. (See, for instance, his poker-faced diagram of the entire history of communication on the back cover of last year's Quimby the Mouse.)

Now, trying on the fancy hat of a guest editor, Ware has turned the new issue of Dave Eggers's literary magazine McSweeney's into an anthology of his favorite contemporary comics artists. This being McSweeney's, there are occasional digressions: articles about a few earlier cartoonists and demi-cartoonists (including the 19th-century artist Rodolphe Töppfer, whom Ware identifies as the inventor of comics), and essays on related themes by the likes of John Updike and "Malachi B. Cohen" (an anagram for Michael Chabon).

The new issue is an exquisite physical object: a heavy, full-color, 264-page hardcover with a gold-embossed spine, wrapped in a folded-up tabloid-size "comics supplement" with an ornate Ware piece on one side and a scribbly Gary Panter drawing on the other. It's even got tiny minicomics by John Porcellino and Ron Regé Jr. tucked into its folds. (Regé's contribution, adapted from the testimony of a Palestinian woman who changed her mind about a suicide bombing at the last moment, is one of the most striking things in the book.)

Ware's curatorial tastes are generally quite broad: The issue includes Richard McGuire's "ctrl," which has been rendered entirely through flat and spare overhead views; a selection of Mark Beyer's hilariously tormented art brut "Amy and Jordan" strips; and a suite of concentrated, hyper-stylized pieces from Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez's Love and Rockets series. Even so, you can see his particular selectivity in the McSweeney's picks. Ware prefers minimal, iconic, impressionistic drawing to the more deliberate rendering of the European school ("Blacksad" artist Juanjo Guarnido, say), and his introduction is quick to dismiss the comics aesthetic that's grounded in old superhero comic books.

He's far more attached to the aesthetic grounded in old newspaper comic strips--a style that was solidified by Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly's '80s anthology RAW, where many of the contributors to McSweeney's 13 also appeared. Ware's own pieces that subvert the form of the old Sunday-funnies page--with a bunch of tiny, existentially grim comic strips butting up against each other--are great. But when Mark Newgarden, Archer Prewitt, Art Spiegelman, Jeffrey Brown, and David Heatley all try the same trick, it gradually loses its charm.

If you follow alternative comics closely, you'll have seen a lot of McSweeney's 13's contents before: Charles Burns and Debbie Drechsler's pieces were originally published in the mid-'90s, and Joe Sacco, Chester Brown, and Seth all contribute excerpts from recent books. But it's a more-than-solid introduction to the art-comics scene of the moment. Every few pages, there's a perfectly realized sequence of images. A Gilbert Hernandez page captures an old woman's changes of expression and body language as she prays. Burns's narrative about teenage lovers on a beach makes the scene look idyllic--until he points out that one of them has a tiny mouth above his clavicle. And Lynda Barry keenly analyzes her process of doodling abstractions until they resolve into representations.

"Who woulda thought that in less than one week comic strips would supplant painting, sculpture, and movies as the world's dominant art form?" muses one of the tiny stick figures on Ware's cover. Well, they're working on it.

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