Review of McSweeney’s General Concern No 13, edited by Chris Ware, for Independent on Sunday, published / by Rich Hobbs

One of the last editors of the old "Punch", before it was revived, briefly, into a

kind of living death by Mohammed al Fayed, rather usefully coined the

collective noun for cartoonists as a "whinge". Of course, cartoonists aren’t the

only group of artists who moan ceaselessly about the neglect and ingratitude

the towering edifices of their genius suffer at the hands of editors, publishers

and the public - poets, obviously, are just as bad; it’s just that cartoonists do it

better than anyone else. Take, for example, Chris Ware, guest editor of

McSweeney’s General Concern No 13. For the uninitiated, it should be

pointed out that Ware is something of a cartooning hero. His dense comic

book The Adventures of Jimmy Corrigan The Smartest Kid on Earth was a

phenomenon, up there with Art Speigelman’s Maus in breaking out of the

ghetto comics normally inhabit into the wider world of books. As it says on

the cover of Jimmy Corrigan, "Also, winner of The American Book Award

and The Guardian Prize 2001. (The consumer will note that these honors are

generally only bestowed upon those authors who refuse to learn how to

draw.)" That slight chippiness of tone is repeated in Ware’s introduction in

McSweeney’s General Concern, with lines like "Comics are not a genre, but a

developing language... despite the discipline’s extraordinary diifficulty, labor-

intensiveness, and paltry recompense..." or "where real writing and reading

induces a sort of temporary blindness, comics keep the eyes half-open,

exchanging the ambiguity of words for the simulated certainty of pictures."

Which is fine in itself, but I’m not entirely sure what point Ware’s making, or

indeed what the point of this lavishly and beautifully produced book actually

is. Is it, as it first appears, an anthology of contemporary American comic

book art, a rather heavier version of Speigelman’s Raw? At that level it works

very well, with contributions from Ware himself, and from modern masters

like Robert Crumb, Kim Deitch and Joe Sacco, who with his comic books on

Palestine and Bosnia has more or less single-handedly created a new genre of

politically-engaged cartoon reportage. Naturally, this is interspersed with a

good deal of badly drawn, badly scripted and self-obsessed stuff typical of the

current trend for solipsistic autobiography in American comics, sub-Crumb

and mostly crumby, but there you go. The reader can pick and choose as the

mood takes him or her (no, that should just be him).

But then, between the strips, there are also lengthy articles, including one from

John Updike, despite Ware’s warning that these may cause blindness. Most of

these are lengthy reflections on how comics were the only thing that kept a

whole bunch of lonely, gloomy American kids from going mad. Again, fair

enough, but mingling with these are other articles which are entirely more

academic in tone. Some are about the development of the strip cartoon, from

its alleged inventor Rodolphe Topffer [umlaut on the o, which this machine

can’t do] onwards (and let’s not quibble that Gillray was producing things that

looked remarkably like comic strips in the 1790s, years before it’s claimed

Topffer thought up the genre or, if you prefer, "developing language", in

1845); others rehearse the old line about the comic strip being the first truly

American artform (if you discount jazz and ignore the fact that Topffer was

Swiss). Others yet evince a reverential, almost fetishistic awe for iconic

artifacts of comic art. Thus we have the original artwork for a Mutt and Jeff

strip, run confusingly over 4 pages just so it can be reproduced same size

(respect!); likewise, six pages are devoted to scraps of paper half covered with

preliminary doodles of his cast of characters by Charles Schulz, the creator of

Peanuts. These come, it says, from The Charles M. Schulz Museum and

Research Center in Santa Rosa, California, and are reproduced so lovingly that

it’s clear that, before being rescued and duly archived, Schulz had screwed

them up and tossed them in the bin. The last Krazy Kat drawings by George

Herriman get the same treatment, although as he never got round to putting the

words in, all we can do is gaze at them in wonder.

In his introduction, Ware briefly comes down to earth when he writes "all this

flouncy nattering, however, doesn’t change the fact that comics are also

wonderfully vulgar and coarse, resistant to too much fluffing up or

romanticization". And yet this thick, hard-backed and heavy volume does just

that, fetishizing what were once called "funnies"and whose purpose was to be

disposable, light relief and generally being yet another sally in that old, old

struggle to get comics to be taken seriously and recognised by the adult world

in general as "respectable".

Except that comics aren’t and shouldn’t be respectable. The closest they

should come to the adult world is as a kind of foul-mouthed, filthy-minded

and grubby adolescence, with adolescents of all ages duly sequestered in that

teenage bedroom and, between bouts of what teenagers do, thumbing through

thin, flimsy funnies instead of damaging their wrists trying to hold this latest

over-weighty, overproduced whinge. Ware, after all, is rich and famous, and

thanks to this book will doubtless be mobbed by the thousands and thousands

of aging retards for whom comics still float their boat. Which, again, is fine,

but I wish he and the rest of them would accept that, in the ecology of culture,

comics flourish where they are for a reason, and so he should stop pushing

against an open door into an empty room.