From the earliest issues of his oversized comic book, Acme Novelty Library, Chris Ware’s work has smouldered with a love for the object. Each new volume betrays his fetish further, is printed on thicker stock in more opulent colours and is bound by hard covers impossibly dense with eye-quaking detail. His books are tactile articles to be coddled and venerated. With the current issue of McSweeney’s, which Ware edits, his obsession reaches another apex.
McSweeney’s is the New York imprint, founded by one-time cartoonist Dave Eggers, that has become the knowing voice of young, urban sophisticates. In the publisher’s tradition of exposing nascent literary movements, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern #13 (US$23) is an all-comix issue, though in place of McS’s standard irreverence is an awe of the comics form that borders on the unseemly.
The full-colour, hardcover book has a cloth spine laced in goldleaf gearwork. It comes wrapped in a foldout poster teeming with Ware’s mechanistic strips, and bios of the book’s contributors in typically microscopic type. Two stapled minis, one by haiku cartoonist John Porcellino and another by Fort Thunder’s Ron Regé Jr., are tucked into the folds.
Comics anthologies are nothing new: Smithsonian has roped up both superhero and newspaper strips, and has an alternative comics volume coming in October (also edited by Ware). But no anthology has been so lovingly assembled, or makes as succinct an introduction to the brazenly experimental and often self-absorbed modern alternative cartoonists who until recently worked largely in the shadows.
For readers new to the medium — or to the English-language alternative scene — the book will be a revelation. It opens with a preface by National Public Radio host Ira Glass, a longtime comics advocate, and an essay by Ware explaining his MO (“I felt a bit like the director of a talent show at an institution for developmentally disabled students.”) After a brief strip (by Ware) that concisely skewers the history of comics, we’re given a recent story by comix godfather R. Crumb, the work nearly spoiled by garish pastels (tacky colours almost ruin Crumb’s Coffee Table Art Book, too. Do readers really prefer these Day-Glo emissions to the masterful b/w originals?). Other greats follow, including previously published excerpts from Chester Brown’s Louis Riel and Seth’s Clyde Fans, an Adrian Tomine story from Optic Nerve #9, a sequence from Joe Sacco’s The Fixer. The book at times feels like an infomercial for these artists’ latest — if not always best — releases. Which, in fact, it is, and rightfully so if you consider this period a definitive one for the medium. There’s a Chris Ware story, of course, plus a few oddities, like some crumpled Peanuts roughs rescued from Charles Schulz’s waste bin. And veteran readers will be pleasantly surprised by lesser-knowns like Richard MacGuire and David Heatly.
As beautiful and thorough as this collection is, though, it represents a frustrating trend: alternative publishers printing their new releases as expensive objets d’art — not just for reading, but for display. The preciousness of the McSweeney’s book is both impressive and intimidating. It practically demands reverence; its goldleaf frail to the touch, its byzantine cover as mind-taxing as a roadmap. Had Ware thought to slip a pair of latex gloves between its pages, they would have seemed perfectly at home. It looks and feels more like an elaborate dictionary than a comic book, which puts the experience of reading it dangerously close to the numbing wholesomeness of schoolwork. (No kid is going to sneak this thing into homeroom.)
Of course, the book isn’t meant for kids. This is comics for adults, sternly significant and vaguely educational. Not to say there’s no fun here: Kaz’s pincushion monstrosities and Jim Woodring’s oblique psychedelia could put a smile on a baked potato. But the package mostly plays it straight, and the prose essays by John Updike and others keep our top button fastened and our collar starched. Maybe Ware felt his readership still needs its hand held, reassured that comics won’t rot the brain. Or maybe he means to push comics even deeper into bookstores, beyond their new graphic novel sections and in with literature proper. It’s a noble effort, and the book is a first-rate comix primer that doubles as a compact history of the genre. It’s just a bit uptight.