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They've Got Issues

McSweeney's anthology reveals the mind of the comic book guy


The comic book anthology McSweeney's Quarterly Concern #13 marks the latest milestone in the medium's drawn-out coming of age. If American comics saw their infancy with newspaper strips in the early 20th century, and endured an endless adolescence with superhero titles, the art form now emerges ready for adulthood. The ultra-hip literary journal McSweeney's Quarterly Concern devotes its 13th issue to comics in a special 260-page hardback volume. Guest editor Chris Ware, creator of the acclaimed graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan, assembles the work of 37 artists and writers for arguably the most comprehensive -- and cool-looking -- collection in comics history. With a few exceptions like American Splendor's Harvey Pekar, every graphic novelist embraced by the mainstream literati turns out.

With so many contributors, Ware's volume provides a kind of window into the mind of the "comic book guy," revealing their shared concerns and contradictions.

Comic Book Guys Have Relationship Issues.

Failed love affairs and the inability to make personal connections recur throughout the book. R. Crumb's two-page "The Unbearable Tediousness of Being" shows an agonizingly awkward first date between two lonely but mismatched people. In an autobiographical piece, Joe Matt admits his disgust at his addiction to pornography in queasily intimate detail.

In one of the book's highlights, Adrian Tomine's untitled story depicts the sexual problems and family tensions between young lovers, a Korean-American girl and a Japanese-American guy. His drawing style emulates Dan Clowes of Ghost World fame, but Tomine demonstrates an eavesdropper's ear for how ordinary people lose their tempers, argue and leave the most serious problems unspoken.

Comic Book Guys Are Slackers.

Graphic novelists take "write what you know" a little too much to heart. They frequently chronicle the mundane lives of unkempt bohemians who turn out to be either themselves or thinly disguised surrogates. Scrawling, shadowy drawing styles emphasize the grungy "underground" settings.

Jeffrey Brown portrays himself as a poor, unshaven, twentysomething in scribbled, primitive panels so crude and simple, anyone could draw them. "Sulk Excerpts" circle his strained dealings with his ex-girlfriend and the frustrations of being "just friends." Seemingly unrelated vignettes depict his communication problems and childish emotions: One 12-panel story called "You Didn't Have To Be Such a Fucker" shows him trashing his own apartment. Brown's peers in McSweeney's 13 may be older than the 28-year-old artist, but they seldom portray themselves as any more mature.

Comic Book Guys Obsess Over Form.

Ware himself provides one of the book's best stories, "We'll Sleep in My Old Room," about a young woman (who happens to be an amputee) remembering an old boyfriend when she visits her parents' house. Ware sets himself and the reader at a dispassionate distance -- his characters' faces have no more detail than the average snowman -- and his layouts lead in unexpected directions, as if imitating the way our memories seldom move chronologically. But his little details add up to rich portraits of everyday melancholia: Imagine M.C. Escher as the art director of Raymond Carver's short stories.

Ware's sheer, obsessive pleasure in constructing complex yet rewarding work shines through every page of the book. Ware's dust jacket unfolds to a loving imitation of a daily newspaper's Sunday color comic section for jokey yet intricate stories about God, dysfunctional families and angst-ridden cartoonists.

Be careful when you open it up, because a pair of chap-book sized mini-comics by Ronald J. Rege and John Porcellino will pop out, in a tribute to the low-cost means that struggling cartoonists get their work published. The book itself can be a little too clever for its own good: Ware hurls so many comics stories at the reader that sometimes you can't tell when one ends or another begins, or whether you're reading a self-contained tale or an excerpt from a larger work.

Comic Book Guys Love Comic Strips.

Nearly the first third of McSweeney's 13 pays homage to vintage newspaper comics and includes a tribute essay to "Peanuts" creator Charles Schulz and reprints of the final "Mutt and Jeff" and "Krazy Kat" strips. Several new pieces, such as Kaz's "12 Samples of Underground Comedy" use the short, "one-liner" comic strip style for hilariously gross gags far too dark for a daily paper.

Art Spiegelman, creator of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus, harks back to classic newspaper cartooning in several stories about the aftermath of 9/11, from his book In the Shadow of No Towers. "Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop" turns a vaudeville-style gag into a metaphor for the fear of another attack. Spiegelman puts famous characters like the Katzenjammer Kids on the New York streets for his first-hand account of witnessing the towers fall, suggesting that the event had such enormity, it turned jaded New Yorkers into panicky children.

Ware, Spiegelmen and the other contributors also lionize old strips to give comics the traditions and respectability of "real" literature. Why? Because ...

Comic Book Guys Are Genre Snobs.

McSweeney's 13 shows that "serious" graphic novelists are still defensive about comic books' association with superheroes and other genre stories. Glen David Gold, Chip Kidd and Michael Chabon (under the anagram Malachi B. Cohen) all write essays about youthful comic collecting. Some prove pleasantly nostalgic, others evoke the depressing challenges of childhood, but together they imply that superhero comics are something to "grow out of."

But it's OK to enjoy genre comics "ironically." For decades Charles Burns has imitated the horror comics of the 1950s to evoke contemporary anxieties, as in McSweeney's "Black Hole." Burns moodily portrays a pair of teens on a romantic getaway that ends with an unsettling, surreal turn, foretelling the failure of young love. It's a fine story, but no better than, say, Frank Miller's black-and-white noir book Sin City. However, no comic book artist who dabbles in superheroes or the supernatural proved to be cool enough for the guys in McSweeney's. Speaking of which ...

Comic Book Guys Are Mostly Guys.

With three female cartoonists represented, McSweeney's 13 supports the stereotype of comics as a boy's club. Julie Doucet's "Diary" blandly records the trivial details of a cartoonist's life, but Debbie Dreschler's "The Dead of Winter" closely observes a young woman's fraught feelings before and after having an abortion. From the contained heartbreak of the waiting and recovery rooms to the narrator's melancholy epiphany, "Winter" knows how to use pictures when words fail.

Comic Book Guys Sometimes Look Past Their Drawing Boards.

The most impressive material in McSweeney's 13 reaches beyond autobiography or formal homage. Chester Brown's Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography provides a visual history of a 19th-century Canadian uprising. The 16-page extract starkly recounts a military execution without just cause and proves enormously relevant to the cases of wartime imprisonment and abuse in today's headlines.

Some artists can encompass broad geopolitical concepts in only a few pages. Gilbert Hernandez's "Jamie's Day" recounts some bleak but hopeful stories of class differences at the U.S./Mexican border. Ronald J. Rege's mini-comic transcribes an interrogation of a failed Palestinian suicide bomber by an Israeli official. The cartoonish visual style -- the prisoner dressed in black-and-white striped pajamas, the officer like a superhero -- mirrors the would-be terrorist's childlike mentality, and hints at how she could succumb to pressure to sacrifice her own life.

Reading McSweeney's 13 is like leafing through the portfolio not from a talented, youthful artist, but a talented, youthful art form. It announces, "I'm all grown up and ready for serious work."

McSweeney's Quarterly Concern #13. McSweeney's, 264 pages, $24.

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