March 11-17, 2004
Luck of the Draw
Fans of comics and graphic novels win out with a crop of recent releases.
If comics publishing worked like the fashion industry, Fantagraphics’ The Complete Peanuts: 1950-1952 would surely be the event of the spring season. We’ll have to settle for calling it a milestone, and a long-overdue one at that. It’s hard to imagine a creature breathing who needs an introduction to Charles Schulz’s creation, with its vulnerable but resilient characters (a reflection of Schulz’s Minnesotan upbringing), its flawless, unfussy blend of humor and wry pathos. Though Schulz has been credited with bringing neurosis to the comic strip (Garry Trudeau called Peanuts "the first Beat strip"), Schulz always blanched at such highfalutin claims. The strip’s success depended on concealing its art, making it seem as if 8-year-olds going to therapy was the most natural thing in the world.
The opening salvo of a planned 17-year project to collect every last Peanuts strip, Fantagraphics’ first volume (covering 1950-1952) hardly shows Schulz at his best, but it’s fascinating to watch him discover his strengths, one by one. Schulz’s kids act like kids (endless mud pie jokes), then like adults; Charlie Brown is a scamp, then a sad sack. Finally, Lucy arrives, headstrong to his head case, and the dominoes begin to fall, but then it’s time for volume 2. (L’il Beginnings, a collection of Schulz’s pre-Peanuts work published by the Charles M. Schulz Museum, is available through Fantagraphics’ Web site.)
Would that calling Joe Sacco our finest comics journalist meant more; perhaps remove the word "comics"? The Fixer returns Sacco to Bosnia, the setting for his Safe Area: Gorazde, this time in the company of Neven, a former soldier who makes a living arranging access for foreign journalists. As such, Neven is usually a story’s enabler rather than its subject, but Sacco seizes on his experience as a metaphor for Bosnia’s inside-out state. Neven casts himself as both hero and villain, soldier and victim; Sacco suspects he’s being fed a line (if Neven stops telling good stories, the cash stops flowing), but he writes his skepticism into a story whose fractured structure mirrors the attempt to rebuild a shattered nation. Even by Sacco’s elevated standards, The Fixer is strong stuff.
Though Chester Brown owes his fame to his sexual fixations, there’s always been a deeply religious side to his work as well; tales of a clown with a deformed penis once ran with his adaptations of Gospel tales in Yummy Fur. Brown’s biography of Canadian revolutionary Louis Riel fuses the earthly and the divine. A métis (Creole) of mixed French and Cree heritage, Riel led a rebellion against the Canadian government and the Hudson’s Bay Co. (which owned half the country at the time), trying to prevent the expulsion of Canadian Indians from their land in what became the province of Manitoba. After being expelled from the country, Riel had either a religious experience or a psychotic episode (depending on the source) and was confined to an asylum for years before his eventual execution for treason. Brown tells the story with evenhanded naturalism whether he’s depicting a historical battle or Riel’s divine visions, and the lengthy book is drawn with a grace and solidity new to his work. Don’t skip the endnotes, where Brown humorously critiques his own work.
With My New Filing Technique Is Unstoppable, David Rees attacks office doublespeak (and triple-, and quadruple-) with the same scatological ferocity as his Get Your War On lavished on governmental sloganeering. As in War, Rees’ computer-drawn artwork is deliberately crude (book-size blowups reveal many a jagged diagonal), but his cut-and-paste approach to mission-statement lingo is breathtaking. A far cry from narcotic Dilbert pablum, Technique is as savage as it is funny, cranked out with the ferocity and precision of a downtrodden cubicle slave who’s spent his shift crafting the perfect attack on his smug co-workers.
In The Mad Playboy of Art, a weighty, lovingly assembled collection that spans half a century, Will Elder is quoted as saying, "Mad was me." Although the magazine was created by Harvey Kurtzman and William Gaines, few would doubt Elder’s assessment. Elder’s flawless draftsmanship and joke-laden style -- he called it "chicken fat," for the part of the soup that’s bad for you but tastes good -- helped smuggle Jewish humor in 1950s America. (He was born Wolf William Eisenberg.) Playboy goes light on Mad stuff, easily available elsewhere (though the classic "Starchie" is reproduced in its entirety) but adds a treasure trove from long-lost anthologies like Trump and Humbug, as well as more recent works that show off Elder’s skill in a less-humorous context. The text by editors Gary Groth and Greg Sadowski is invaluable, but you can just hear Elder yelling, "Get to the jokes!"
The Complete Peanuts: 1950-1952
By Charles Schulz Fantagraphics, 320 pp., $28.95
The Fixer: A Story From Sarajevo
By Joe Sacco Drawn and Quarterly, 140 pp., $24.95
My New Filing Technique Is Unstoppable
By David Rees Riverhead Books, 64 pp., $10
Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography
By Chester Brown Drawn and Quarterly, 272 pp., $24.95
Will Elder: The Mad Playboy of Art
Edited by Gary Groth and Greg Sadowski Fantagraphics, 392 pp., $49.95