Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Comics get big again

Comics: A Section of the San Francisco Panorama (McSweeney's Issue 33)



This "comics at a large size" could catch on if even publishers outside the comics mainstream are trying it.  McSweeney's has done comics stuff in the past, most notably the Chris Ware-edited thirteenth issue of their quarterly anthology, so for them to include a comics section in their San Francisco Panorama newspaper edition of the series is a natural idea, as is selling it separately, for those of us who have enough news to read already, thank you very much.  It's a really nice-looking section, full of comics big and small from artists well known and more obscure, and even including a kids' activity section, an "infotainment" page about tide pools, and a pull-out Chris Ware "Rocket Sam" strip with one of the paper models that you can cut up and build, if you're so inclined.  The odd thing, however, is that while several name cartoonists contributed, few of them seemed to bring their "A" game, turning in strips that aren't especially noteworthy.  It's pretty odd when a two-page Erik Larsen Savage Dragon comic is the most entertaining thing in the, uh, section.

Daniel Clowes leads things off (if you don't read the strips inside the "COMICS" title flap first) with "The Christian Astronauts", which isn't bad, but it's hard to tell what he's doing with this tale of the titular family, who have fled a dead Earth to roam the stars and come across a deformed former friend.  There's a bit of interest in the barely-spoken relationships between the characters, but there's little of the expected Clowes bite, especially considering the expectations raised by the title.  It's possible that he's noting the modern Christian tendency to separate themselves from "the world", anything that doesn't agree with their beliefs, and do their best to protect their children from these influences, but even with the space, Clowes doesn't do much with the idea.

Art Spiegelman doesn't fare much better, turning in one of his collage-ish strips that's all about Fredric Wertham and Seduction of the Innocent, using well-known comics imagery to tell the story very simply.  It seems like there might be something to the idea that since the Victorian era, childhood has been revered as a "protected zone" in which kids are isolated from the evils of life until they are ready to face them, and comics violated that supposed safety.  But Spiegelman manages to quickly turn into the aging crank, complaining about modern society. Yawn.

Even Chris Ware's complicated center spread manages to disappoint, although it certainly looks pretty amazing, full of little details and oriented in different directions such that it takes a long time to figure out how to read, and even more to actually squint hard enough to see the increasingly tiny pictures.  The story itself (which, given the title of "Putty Gray", a riff on Ware's characters Rusty Brown and Chalky White, could be an over-my-head spoof of his own style, but I don't think so) is pretty rote Ware stuff though, contrasting a space-travel-obsessed kid's imagination toward science with his adult self's own loneliness following his divorce.  Why, it's as if the isolation of space is like the barriers surrounding the human heart!  Haven't we seen Ware do this sort of thing before?  His recent issues of Acme Novelty Library have been expanding into more complex emotional territory, but this seems like a step backward.  Some of the margin-filling bits don't work all that well either, like a series of gag panels focusing on Putty's aging father's alcoholism and dementia, a classic Ware juxtaposition of style and substance that doesn't make the impact it should, given that there's nothing leading up to it.  Still, there's a nice scene of Putty's childhood neighborhood laid out in architectural detail, and a series of tiny circular panels chronicling the disappointments and drudgery of Putty's adulthood are effective, with longer and longer sequences of panels seeing him just sitting in front of a computer.  But this is strictly beginner Chris Ware, like a boiled-down version of parts of Jimmy Corrigan, when we know he's grown capable of so much more.

I'm not sure what to make of Jessica Abel's faux-adventure strip "True Tales of the Early Colonists", which seems completely pointless, possibly being an attempt to portray the middle chapter of a serial, but not being interesting enough to capture the imagination and make the reader want to know what happens next.  And Ian Huebert's "The Fuser in Divide and Conquer" is a fairly ugly bit of strange superhero stuff about a three-headed guy who fights an evil genius; it's kind of unappealing.  Other strips from notable creators aren't bad, but they're nothing special, like Seth's "Accidental Composition", in which he walks across a railroad bridge and looks at some rocks, or Ivan Brunetti's "A Childhood Story (c. 1973)", in which he remembers having his tonsils out and then going to his first day of school.  Keith Knight's "The K Chronicles" is a standard strip from that series, about the frustrating negative perception of rap music, and Gabrielle Bell's "Walking Around Greenpoint" is like most of her Lucky strips, seeing her wander through her life and think about stuff, with the best panel being one filled with a cloud of musical notes when an ice cream truck disrupts her thoughts.

There's still plenty good here though, like Gene Luen Yang's "Toast-O-Tronic", about a couple of kids who use their dad's toaster/robot to fight off a bully.  Jon Adams' "The Optimist" is a typically harsh bit of cruelty directed toward a would-be fiance proposing to his girlfriend.  Some of the strips on the kids' page are really fun, like an instructional feature (again illustrated by Adams, but written by Jenny Traig) on how to fake an illness in order to get out of going to school, or Adam Rex and Mac Barnett's "How to Sneak", which is pretty funny, with some cute breaking of the fourth wall.  Adrian Tomine's "Optic Nerve" is enjoyable too, taking the opposite of the expected approach (which would be something about whiny, unlikeable hipsters) and telling the story of a struggling superhero named, yes, Optic Nerve, who does do some whining, but comes off as a lovable goof rather than a jerk.  Plus, it might just be due to my current personal circumstances, but I like the ending.  And the aforementioned "Savage Dragon" strip ends up being goofy and fun, with a brain-floating-in-a-jar supervillain bickering with the girl he kidnapped before the hero busts in and starts wrecking shit up.  It makes a good use of the space, with lots of rubble being stylishly strewn about; I'm not big in Erik Larsen's work, but if that series is anything like this, I might consider giving it a try sometime.

The best strip is almost certainly Alison Bechdel's "A Story About Life", in which she takes her childhood habit of playing the "Game of Life" board game by herself and making up stories about the different "players" and their lives, then spins that into a consideration of nonfiction writing, in which real people are reduced to pieces on someone else's board.  All this is presented similar to the game itself, with the panels (if you can call them that; many are simply text) winding through the space of the strip to make a snaking path like the spaces on the Life game board.  It's an elegant design, and Bechdel makes it work, even splitting into two possible paths at one point to contrast writing about life with actually living it.  The whole piece only takes up a third of a page, but aside from Chris Ware's contribution, it's the most engaging one in the section, demonstrating Bechdel's innate grasp of how to convey information and make dry concepts interesting.  If only everyone had the inspiration she had, this might have been a comics section for the ages, rather than a decent showcase for large-size comics art with a few standout parts.