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An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, & True Stories Edited by Ivan Brunetti Yale University Press: 400 pp., $28

October 15, 2006|David L. Ulin | David L. Ulin is book editor of The Times.

COMICS are at a peculiar kind of crossroads. On the one hand, the form has never been so esteemed as an art, with publishers marketing graphic novels as literature and museums such as MOCA and the Hammer launching retrospective shows. At the same time, the whole thing seems a bit over the top somehow, as if everyone were trying to cash in. How much of this, you have to wonder, has to do with commerce? How much has to do with taste?

Equally apropos is another question: What does it mean for comics?

"An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, & True Stories" is a book that frames all these issues, although that's less a matter of intention than of effect. Edited by Ivan Brunetti -- a Chicago-based cartoonist -- it aspires to nothing less than a visual record of the genre in America, taking us from classic newspaper strips like "Krazy Kat" and "Gasoline Alley" through the work of such contemporary practitioners as Lynda Barry and Charles Burns.

For Brunetti, the key is not the passage of time, necessarily. "After much deliberation," he writes in his introduction, "I have chosen to arrange the work so that it flows smoothly, unobstructed by strict chronology. I prefer to see cartooning as a continuum, albeit one with many divergent lineages; thus, I've allowed the past and present to intermingle freely in this book." More important, he believes, is a sense of development, starting with "the infancy of the doodle" and culminating in "the multilayered complexity of longer stories." In practical terms, this means his collection traces an arc from four-panel strips like Kaz's "Underworld" and Bill Griffith's "Zippy" to more elaborate narratives like Daniel Clowes' "Gynecology."

What's best about the book is its ecumenical sensibility. The book is all over the place, with autobiographical narratives (Joe Matt, Julie Doucet) juxtaposed against gags and sketches (Jeffrey Brown, John Porcellino), and artists such as David Collier next to well-known talents like Ben Katchor and R. Crumb. A section near the front honors Charles M. Schulz's "Peanuts" -- considered the most influential strip in comics history -- gathering homages by, among others, Chris Ware and Art Spiegelman; the latter's "Abstract Thought Is a Warm Puppy" features his alter ego from "Maus" atop Snoopy's doghouse.

That's a perfect metaphor, both for this book and comics in general, offering what amounts to a conversational template, a way to see how all these aesthetics interrelate. It's a quick leap, Brunetti means to tell us, from Snoopy to "Maus" or from Charlie Brown to almost any artist here. Even now, comics remain something of an outsider's form. "Like Charlie Brown," Ware notes in his "Peanuts" tribute, "I was the sort of kid who didn't get many valentines .... But I loved 'Peanuts,' and Charlie Brown became almost like a friend to me ... I knew that he wouldn't laugh at me, or call me names."

There's an irony to this, of course -- and not just because this anthology is published by Yale University Press. Rather, it has to do with the nature of the project, which, being a showcase, tilts toward the established, if not the mainstream. Besides his "Peanuts" tribute strip, Spiegelman is represented by a 13-page selection from his Pulitzer Prize-winning "Maus"; Crumb, meanwhile, has several stories, including the iconic "A Short History of America" -- which, in 12 wordless panels, portrays the development of a piece of property from the rural past to the congested urban present, ending with a single question: "What next?!!"

To his credit, Brunetti mixes things up effectively. Some of the finest work is the least expected: James Kochalka's minimalist "The Sketchbook Diaries," Adrian Tomine's painfully funny ""Hawaiian Getaway." In "Black Cherry," Michael Dougan portrays a slacker who works in an ice cream parlor and alienates his steadiest customer, a street person who orders the same soda flavor every day. Richard McGuire's "Here" uses overlapping frames to tell the story of one home from creation to demolition, moving back and forth across generations in a fluid tapestry of time. These are comics at their most expansive. Still, the existence of a book like this can't help but bring us back to what happens when comics get accepted, when the inside embraces the outside.

In that sense, the most telling piece in the collection may be Harvey Pekar's "Hypothetical Quandary" from 1984. It's a three-page strip (illustrated by Crumb), in which, as with most of Pekar's stories, almost nothing happens, and yet something important is resolved. Here, Pekar drives to a bakery on a Sunday morning to buy a loaf of bread, all the while pondering his prospects.

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