, Research Paper
A cat above the restRecent comic albums have tended to fall into two camps. There’s the ‘arty’, difficult kind, as typified by Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, winner of a Guardian book award; and then there’s the mass-market variety – by the time you read this you’ll probably be wishing Spider-Man would go spin somewhere else.There are connoisseurs of both types, of course, but you get the strong impression that advocates of the former look down on the ‘fanboy’ followers of the latter (and they are generally boys, albeit grown-up ones). Which is a bit rich considering that comics in general are looked down upon by just about everybody else – John Sutherland was right to suggest in his Guardian column that the Ware victory was a fluke and that the editors of literary magazines ‘hope there won’t be too many books like this submitted for review’.Krazy Kat is probably the ultimate connoisseur strip. The story of an androgynous feline’s unrequited love affair with a mouse (Ignatz) who in turn despises Krazy and tries to ‘bean’ him/her with a brick at every opportunity, it was created by George Herriman in 1913 and syndicated in American newspapers for more than 30 years.At the time, most readers didn’t get the almost Joycean language and bizarre dadaist cartooning style – it was only kept going because press magnate William Randolph Hearst was a fan – and reprint volumes have not been big sellers. Nevertheless, TS Eliot, Picasso and Gertrude Stein were admirers, and modern comics critics have labelled it a ‘classic’. Krazy and Ignatz (Fantagraphics, pp118) collects strips from 1925-26, a vintage run, and comes with a gorgeous cover by Chris Ware – which should tell you how damned hip it’s supposed to be.So does the strip deserve its high reputation? Frankly, yes. Not everything is fabulous, and sometimes the panel layouts are so loose they threaten to fall apart (a doodle is a doodle, even if it is a dadaist doodle). But when that over-the-top dialogue meshes with the energetically scrawled situations, something magical happens and you find yourself still chuckling about it days later (my favourite involves Ignatz, having been foiled brick in hand, wailing like a drama queen: ‘Oh! Is there not one moment of joy in this world for me!’). I’m not so sure that the characters are symbolic of democracy and anarchy, or of Ego and Id, as some have suggested but it is a witty and often strangely moving read.Humour of a more recent vintage is the subject of Caricature (Fantagraphics, pp102) by Dan Clowes, a series of short stories about losers, fakers and caricature makers. Clowes is currently riding high on the fame of his previous graphic novel, Ghost World, and here revisits the tropes that made that story so painfully amusing.Obsession is his forte, and as a long-time satirist of the snobbery that exists within (and about) the comics industry, his best yarns here involve the fanboy mentality. In ‘Black Nylon’, a mentally ill father of two dresses up as a superhero and terrorises his shrink, while in ‘MCMLXVI’ a thirtysomething geek is fixated on the year 1966 (Batman and all that) and cannot establish any kind of rapport with women. Funny stuff, but in his cruelty, Clowes reveals himself to be the biggest snob of all.European albums are often thought to be sophisticated because, well, they’re from Europe. How wrong this equation can be is proved by Memories of Outer Space (Humanoids, pp48) by Enki Bilal, which collects several science fiction stories from the Seventies by one of the ‘grands fromages’ of the French scene. The problems are clear from take-off, as clunky writing and stock situations hobble the intriguing, organic-looking art. The high-production values (full-colour, hardback) don’t fool anybody: pink blob monsters and suicidal robots are juvenile and silly whatever their context, and the proto-Fifth Element feel is not really a recommendation.Manga graphic novels tend to occupy their own critical space in the world of comics, usually because they are assumed to share a particular art style and unfamiliar storytelling techniques – they’re rarely included in Leavisite listings of good and bad releases (the recent Comics Journal ‘Top 100′ famously ignored them). Taiyo Matsumoto’s futuristic No.5 (Viz, pp150) confounds such stereotyping because it is drawn and told in a European style, and is indeed a homage to the French SF of the Seventies of which Bilal was such a part.The story of a group of ‘global security guardians’ and how they hunt down one of their number (No.5) who has gone rogue, it’s a meaty and intelligent trip, and utilises atmospheric scene transitions to emphasise the alien nature of the terrain. Where Matsumoto scores over Bilal is in his eschewing of the short-story format in favour of creating a believable world over hundreds of pages: this is the first volume of what will become an influential SF epic.Finally, one for connoisseurs of sports comics – and there can’t be many of those around. The Golem’s Mighty Swing (Drawn and Quarterly, pp100) by James Sturm is a graphic novella set in 1920s America about a Jewish baseball team. Sport is never just sport, of course, and as these ‘bearded barnstormers’ roam the country taking on local squads, the dramatic games – all cinematic cuts between pitches and swinging bats – become metaphors for the struggle against poverty and anti-Semitism. (’Hey Dino! It’s one of those Jew ballplayers’, says a kid from the Midwest. ‘I want to see his horns.’) Don’t be put off by the subject matter: the book’s a home run in anybody’s language.