Boston Phoenix Reviews Seth's CLYDE FANS!

“Ready To Ware” / Boston Phoenix / Douglas Wolk / December 10, 2004

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McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern #13: An Assorted Sampler of North American Comic Drawings, Strips, and Illustrated Stories, &c.
Edited and designed by Chris Ware. McSweeney’s, Ltd, 264 pages, $24.
Clyde Fans Book 1
By Seth. Drawn & Quarterly, 160 pages, $19.95.


THE SIGHT OF SURPRISE: in McSweeney's, Charles Burns's narrative about teenage lovers on a beach transforms from the idyllic to . . . something else.
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A SHOESHINE AND A SMILE: in the first half of Clyde Fans Book 1, Abraham Matchcard waxes nostalgic about life in the subculture of sales
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Among cartoonists, Chris Ware is informally known as the guy who makes everyone else look bad. His series The Acme Novelty Library (Fantagraphics) and his graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth (Pantheon) dumfounded the comics world and landed him in the 2002 Whitney Biennial, and he’s also the subject of a new monograph from Yale University Press by Daniel Raeburn. He’s a brilliant designer and artist with original ideas about visual narrative and presenting the relationship between space and time on a printed page — for instance, his poker-faced diagram of the entire history of communication on the back cover of last year’s Quimby the Mouse.

For issue #13 of Dave Eggers’s McSweeney’s Quarterly (which has just gone into another printing in time for the holiday season), Ware tried the guest editor’s hat, turning the volume 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 Ira Glass, John Updike, and "Malachi B. Cohen" (an anagram for Michael Chabon). There’s also a piece by Ware on Abstract Expressionist artist Philip Guston following one by Tim Samuelson on the cartoonist who inspired Guston, George Herriman of Krazy Kat fame.

The book 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 mini-comics 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 book’s highlights.

Ware’s curatorial tastes are generally 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 discern his selectivity. He prefers minimal, iconic, impressionistic drawing to the more deliberate rendering of the European school (Blacksad artist Juanjo Guarnido, say), and his introduction dismisses the comics æsthetic that’s grounded in old superhero comic books. He’s far more attached to the æsthetic of old newspaper comic strips — a style that was consolidated by Art Spiegelman & Françoise Mouly’s ’80s anthology RAW, where many of the contributors to McSweeney’s 13 also appeared. The Ware pieces that subvert the form of the old Sunday-funnies page — with a bunch of tiny, existentially grim comic strips butting up against one another — are great. But when Mark Newgarden, Archer Prewitt, Art Spiegelman, Jeffrey Brown, and David Heatley all try the same trick, it starts to lose its charm. Spiegelman’s contribution is an excerpt from his book In the Shadow of No Towers, which is almost entirely a riff on vintage strips.

If you follow alternative comics closely, you’ll have seen a lot of McSweeney’s 13’s contents before. The pieces by Charles Burns and Debbie Drechsler were published in the mid ’90s, and Joe Sacco, Chester Brown, and Seth all contribute excerpts from recent books. But this is 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. Lynda Barry 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.

THE CANADIAN CARTOONIST SETH is fascinated by the beautiful, obsolete ephemera of the mid-20th century — his previous graphic novel, It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken, concerned his attempt to research the life of a (fictional) gag cartoonist of the 1940s. Clyde Fans Book 1 (both from Drawn & Quarterly), originally serialized in Seth’s comic Palookaville, is a different kind of exercise in nostalgia: it’s about one character ruined by modernity and another who might have been saved by it.

The first half is a monologue by an old man, Abraham Matchcard, who was an electric-fan salesman operating out of Toronto for many years until air conditioning put the company his father founded out of business. As he goes about his daily routine, he discusses his family history and the growth of the technology that provided for them and then turned on them. Mostly, though, Abraham is talking about the art of salesmanship: the sort of pride in making and closing a deal that was the basis for a subculture of its own, back in the days when traveling men in suits and hats could make a living out of their sample cases. And he hints that something had made his brother Simon unsuitable to take over the company after their father was gone. In the second half, we see Simon himself on his first sales trip, in 1957, and discover what was wrong with him. It’s nothing shocking: he simply didn’t have the force of will to survive in the culture of salesmen. But we see his failures gradually destroying him.

Seth has mastered the bold, sumptuous brushstrokes of mid-century Saturday Evening Post and New Yorker cartoons, and he accentuates them with simple gray and blue tones. The effect is a bit like an old postcard, and in fact, there’s a subplot having to do with Simon’s fondness for novelty postcards of enormous vegetables or fish — just the sort of thing you can tell the artist adores too. A second and final volume of Clyde Fans is still in progress, but it’s taken Seth seven years to get this far, so he can be forgiven for jumping the gun.

 

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