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Sequential Art
by Matthew Peckham
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the all-comics McSweeney's #13, with 3,732 pictures, clocks in at the content equivalent of 12 copies of War and Peace.

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21 June 2004

McSweeney's #13

McSweeney's #13 Of all the books I've laid eyes on over the decades, many of them remarkably old, musty, stained, browning, several worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and locked behind glass displays, leatherbound or filigreed, embossed or inlaid, I have encountered nothing quite as entrancing as the latest collection of eclecticism from the house that Dave Eggers built. The all-comics McSweeney's #13 is a visual map of an underappreciated universe, a cosmology of ideograms and geometries, a pictorial translation of the world into some nearly four-thousand images racing through 264 pages of lunatic detail, craft, consideration, and history. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the all-comics McSweeney's #13, with its 3,732 pictures, clocks in at the content equivalent of 12 copies of War and Peace.

You may recall McSweeney's #10, also known as McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, edited by Michael Chabon, released last year to a mix of critical acclaim (several of the tales made The O. Henry Prize Stories 2003 short list), disdain (see, for instance, SF Weekly editor Scott Edelman's op-ed "Mammoth, Thrilling and Wrong"), and was by perhaps a third as many, simply ignored as hyperbole in disguise. Whatever your position, McSweeney's is a magazine that likes to stir controversy and get the editorial forges glowing; the result, a temporary spike in dialogue and public engagement. As long as the dialogue is courteous, this is not such a bad thing in a society dulled by such a record-breaking abundance of irrelevant, flavorless, strangely addictive consumable vapidity.

Issue #13 departs almost completely from straight prose, collecting over four-dozen contemporary artists and original or excerpted tales displaying, in a delightfully provocative package, the untold versatility of the idiom's contemporary American practitioners. To be precise, this is guest editor and comic artist Chris Ware's vision of the world, targeting the alternative/underground scene, missing too many important artists to count, yet astoundingly complete when one considers the editorial decisions of inclusion and exclusion for which the post of editor almost exclusively exists. How one rates the success (or failure) of a collection like McSweeney's #13 is thus entirely dependent on what one wants McSweeney's to be: as a historical collection, this issue fails, touching peripherally on bits of comic history, but mostly casting its net across the past several decades; as a contemporary collection of comic creators from multiple genres, it fails -- it's hooks are clearly in Ware's vision of the world -- essentially the underground/alternative scene; but as a hodge-podge of amazing, definitive, overlooked, exemplifying art, it succeeds wildly, and should be read by anyone interested in the most recent and important developments in the evolution of interstitial art.

The first thing one notices about McSweeney's #13 is that it is a beautiful book. I was at a local author's reading recently (location: an independent bookseller), and happened to have my copy along. Lying inconspicuously on a chair a few feet away, the book managed to catch the attention of the shop owner. "They just don't make them like this anymore," she said, sighing, smiling, reverently holding, then caressing the book's ornamented and cloth encased spine. I hadn't even brought along the slipcase, a breathtaking piece of Chris Ware ingenuity I'd removed to keep safe: a single piece of thick paper stock folded in half, and then in half again, so that the second fold turns up midway along the length of the book, forming a "wraparound pouch." In the pouch: two additional "mini-comics" by Ron Rege and John Porcellino, the former a terrifyingly honest visual transcription of an interview between an Israeli and an imprisoned female Palestinian would-be suicide bomber, the latter a tender, unhurried collection of poetic slivers of life realized in stark, simple black lines. Unfolding the wraparound jacket itself yields a roughly 29"x22" poster; on one side, a mass trademark assemblage of editor Chris Ware's bizarre, hilarious, boring, stimulating, annoying, (and many other mixed adjectives) comic work, adorned with beautiful golden etchings and calligraphy. On the opposing side: contributor bios, and artist Gary Panter's maze-like tribute to the history of the idiom, resembling an elaborate Aztec carving. A careful read of both can easily devour an hour, and that's just the cover.

Ware's prose introduction, like Chabon's in McSweeney's #10, is a provocative cruise missile aimed at conventional wisdom about comics. If you've paid much attention to the art industry over the past few decades, you're no stranger to the critical movements engaged in "rescuing" breakthrough sequential art from elite dustbins and dismissive, irresponsible criticism.

Comics are an art of pure composition, carefully constructed like music, but structured into a whole architecture, a page-by-page pattern, brought to life and "performed" by the reader -- a colorful piece of sheet music waiting to be read.
Even more revealing is Ware's systematic deconstruction of the creative process itself:
Let's take an example: your "idea" demands a scene which starts at night... someone sitting at a table, tired, drawing. Now unless you're dealing with a character you've already developed, you realize, once you start to think about it, you don't really know how to draw the person you thought you were imagining more or less clearly all this time. How old is he? What color is his hair? (What does hair color mean, anyway?) Also, should you show all of him sitting at that table, or should you just show his face? From the front, or side? If he's tired, is he resting his head on his hand, or should he be yawning?
And so on, for several more paragraphs, as Ware helps the reader realize that this sort of drawing is as complex and mysterious a process as any other form of composition. "Cartoons" may appear to be less articulate in form (with their misleadingly simple lines) than today's literary darlings (aka "the canon"), but this is simply deception, instigated in the service of the same invisible social and cultural currents that proceed to identify Borges or Joyce as literature, but Gene Wolfe or Michael Moorcock as writers that slot nicely alongside Star Wars or a collection of tie-ins to Xena: Warrior Princess.

The remainder of the book is a who's-who list of alternative/underground writers. There's Ivan Brunetti with three existentially comedic one-pagers touching on Dutch artist Piet Mondrian, musical composer Eric Satie, and philosopher Soren Kierkegaard; Robert Crumb's "The Unbearable Tediousness of Being," a collision of two utter losers (one male, one female) so completely self-absorbed and sex-obsessed that communication is impossible; a Milt Gross "review" of William Faulkner's The Wild Palms done up comic-strip style; Mark Newgarden's "The Little Nun," playing the stereotypical devotion of the religious against various sundry realities, with emphasis on strong base geometric shapes and simple lines to achieve depth perception in two-dimensions; Jim Woodring's strange hyperbolic elaborations on dreamlike sequences and extensions of improvised tangents to tangible realities; Lynda Barry's (One Hundred Demons) "Two Questions," a brutally honest look at artistic self-loathing and idiosyncratic triumph; Mark Beyer's "Amy and Jordan," where the existential meaninglessness of the scripting is offset by the abstract characterizations set against odd shapes and painstakingly detailed backgrounds; Gary Panter's "The Nightmare Studio," a sequence of abstract stream-of-consciousness imagery, where some of the author's original edits hover like ghostly impressions behind the inked finals; Charles Burns's "Black Hole," a beautiful, summery spontaneous beach-love piece with a horrific twist; Ben Katchor's excerpts from "Hotel and Farm," an edgy, scratchy art series of strips following illogic tangents and performing subtle indictments of the sterilized and concealed industrial food industry; Richard McGuire's "ctrl," a vision of the world from above, zooming in and out to perform the trick of simultaneously illustrating sequence, while relying upon it to allow the viewer to make sense of stills that often resemble photographic mysteries, i.e. objects captured on film so close or distant they appear as alien landscapes to the naked eye; and Art Spiegelman's (Maus) indictment of the 9/11 aftermath, and the exploitive American cycle of fear and consumption.

Interposed are a handful of prose pieces by luminaries like John Updike, whose motif "love breeds knowledge" outlines a history of favorite strips he grew up with, plus a beautiful hands-in-tub description of the technique, his study of it, including a few surprisingly good Updike cartoons (Updike veers slightly when he makes the comparison of pictures ("can feel perfect") to words ("mean different things to different people"). Ware himself provides a history of Rodolphe Topffer, the Swiss novelist whose nineteenth-century narrative sequence of images entitled "Obadiah Oldbuck" is a solid argument for the first comic strip ever. There's even a tribute to Charles Schulz, displaying the wavering, lightly sketched images on crumpled pieces of notepad paper he used to "doodle" out ideas for "Peanuts." Ware's "Philip Guston: A Cartoonist's Appreciation" itself slots perfectly into the theme of art ahead of its time. Guston was an abstract painter who circled back to representational art ahead of his contemporaries, and this Guston indictment of self-serving artistry is telling:

There is no such thing as non-objective art. Everything has an object. Everything has a figure. The question is, what kind?
The best contributions are excerpts from previously published works. Joe Sacco's The Fixer, nominated for a 2004 Eisner Award, is probably the most important piece in the collection, another addition to Sacco's unique and genre-drafting brand of sequential journalism, a look at the relationship between a journalist and his native contact, known as a "fixer," whose job is to provide information when the heat's on (and hookers when it's not). Chester Brown's Louis Riel (also nominated for a 2004 Eisner) is the fascinating biography of Louis Riel, leader of the French-speaking resistance movement opposing the Canadian government's takeover of the Red River Settlement (now Winnipeg) in the late nineteenth century. Chris Ware himself gets multi-billing in this issue, from the cover wrap to "We'll Sleep in My Old Room," one of the most haunting stories in the collection, a complex tale of love and loss.

The book has its share of misfires. Clowe's "The Darlington Sundays" is aimless, missing the deeper subtext and subtle tenderness one feels for his characters in Ghost World, and Archer Prewitt's "Sof'Boy" is simply silly (the first, about a fly called "flitty," however, is excellent), and reminds us that creative license can be extended too far. The other significant problem is with the thematic content of most of the prose essays, which strangely counteract the artsy thrust of the book by dolling out "boy's life" nostalgia trips about growing up with pulp comics and the superhero motif. Notable offenders include Pulitzer-winning authors Michael Chabon (here using the anagram Malachi B. Cohen) and John Updike, both of whose essays taken independent of context are masterfully written, tender, and funny, but here undermine what Ware is up to rather than bolstering his cause, which is to challenge the notion that comics either are, or need be, mere vehicles for adolescent superhero power fantasies.

Another problem is that Ware's vision turns out to be fairly narrow, providing a list the erudite, often elitist publication The Comics Journal would approve of, but sidestepping such essential creators as Neil Gaiman (The Sandman), Alan Moore (From Hell), Eddie Campbell (Bacchus), Osamu Tezuka (Buddha), Craig Thompson (Blankets), Tony Millionaire (Sock Monkey), and for goodness sake, Will Eisner himself. In spite of what it accomplishes anyway, the collection misses a rare opportunity to transcend party lines within as well as without.

In the end, though, this is a book for book lovers, a tribute to literary comic art that will be embraced by the choir, but most importantly, an introduction to a side of the comic scene the unconverted (as well as many faithful) will be unfamiliar with. Contradicting a trend toward blandness in publication design, Ware's issue of McSweeney's is essential reading you'll feel as justified admiring for its stunning visual dexterity as scrutinizing for its symbolic gravity. Comics have a long road to hoe before they're moved from the grubby adolescence of the GN (graphic novel) section of chain retailers' stores to lit sections, but in the meantime, there's McSweeney's #13 to put the lie to the notion that comics, like Trix, are just for kids.

Copyright © 2004 Matthew Peckham

Matt Peckham lives in Nebraska and Iowa. His first book, a guide to Mike's Carey's Lucifer, will be published by Wildside Press. For more about Matt, check out

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