You know, even though I really liked this collection, I liked it even more before I read the promotional reviews tucked gently inside the book. I should clarify: this book is not one I actually would have bought on my own. I would have picked it up off the shelf as it is a beautiful, eye-catching thing with a sprawling cover design of shadowy creatures (from shocked poodles to Swiss-Cheese men) parading across the cover, courtesy of Steven Guarnaccia. If you flip from the front cover to the back the characters morph. The shocked poodle becomes all angles, and the holes in Mr. Swiss Cheese become eyes. Brilliant. The inside covers are equally stunning. Overall, in terms of product, this book is peerless, though reminiscent of Raw. Had I a coffee table, this book would be on it.
But I don’t, and I have to confess that (at least for me) spending $24.95 on a book is kind of a big deal and would have kept me from buying the collection despite how much I have enjoyed reading it. I spent more than 25 bucks on non-school books exactly twice: once was a copy of the expertly done From Hell. The second was one of those “incentives”—I bought a signed limited hardcover of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods for a donation to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.
Further, the first story, Hincker Blutch’s “The Boxer,” is off-putting. Not for the style, a bold black-and-white with really pretty lettering, which belies the message underneath: the vicious history of racism in boxing. The piece details the buildup between a black fighter who wants to take on the white champ, and the promoters who push the fight. Blutch is a widely published comics author (fifteen books since 1987), who I had never heard of prior to reading this book. Part of the initial drawback for me ended up being a real benefit by the end: I had no idea who almost all of these artists were when I started reading, which is to say that I would probably never have run across their work. That is one of the clear strengths of this collection, and one of the reasons I ended up being terribly fond of the thing. (I should add that I got a review copy from the kind people at Drawn and Quarterly for free, so I feel sort of lame even mentioning the cost.) So, if you have 25 bucks and you want a beautifully done showcase of different comics, get a copy. It is worth it. Like most of what Drawn and Quarterly publishes, this volume has exquisite publishing values and is packed with amazingly evocative images. Plus the book has something for every reader.
Personally, I’m not a major fan of Tintin, but there’s this thoroughly charming and incredibly detailed biographic homage to Herge, Tintin’s creator. The piece, “The Adventures of Herge”, includes an index (I had no idea that Herge and Andy Warhol met!) and a bibliography. I’m also not terribly familiar with Little Lulu, but I laughed myself sick at R. Sikoryak’s Little Pearl-retelling of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. (Part of why the enclosed reviews were depressing was because I discovered that in the previous volume, R. Sikoryak did a similar thing: recounting Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment in the style of the Bob Kane’s Batman. I think I liked the gimmick more when it was a one-time thing rather than part of a series.)
Both this volume and the one before it include reprints of Frank King’s Gasoline Alley from the 1920s, which are apparently rather rare (and, oddly, are owned by notorious cheapskate and pack rat Joe Matt). I had seen reprints here and there of the strip, but I never was able to read a set in sequence. I had to really get close to the page and squint to read them, but it was amazing to have this look backward into the past. Also included (which I found likewise odd but visually cool) are these 1940s war posters done for the National Film Board of Canada by a man named Harry Mayerovitch. It is fascinating-yet-eerie to look back at other points in history similarly marked by war and recession to see what some visuals were like then.
Mixed in with all this stuff is a work by Geneva-based Nicolas Robel, whose piece, “Bleeding Tree”, is achingly evocative of a young boy’s despair. The style reminds me of both Seth’s work and James Kolchaka’s, but Robel’s storytelling is quite differently paced and his lettering more jarring. The story takes place during winter, and, as such, the comic is primarily light blue with—as the title would suggest—a bit of rusty red as well. It uses things somewhat out of our realm, like talking rabbits, but the ending is open-ended enough to accommodate any reader. Miriam Katin’s “Oh, to Celebrate!” (only her second comic book story) uses color as an effective way to navigate past and present in telling the story of the 1956 crushing of the Hungarian revolution in Budapest. It, like Robel’s work, is beautifully rendered at the same time it is heart-rending. I’ve said it before: good comics (or any other medium) at their best move their readers in indescribable ways. They make them feel something, bring something to the forefront of readers’ minds.
Certainly, Ron Rege, Jr. uses the most color in his work. I did not recognize his name when I opened the book, but I recognized his art. I’m not sure that I understand it in terms of narrative, but I love looking at it. It seems a bit like a They Might Be Giants video crossed with a math lecture. One piece I especially enjoyed is called “Magicicada” which details the life cycle of a cicada from sucking on roots for years to its rise from the ground, its mating, and ultimately its death. But what I like more than anything with Rege’s work is the lettering, the likes of which I’ve never seen in comics.
Overall, the collection is masterfully edited and very diverse both visually and historically. It is an admirable addition to all the wonderful things Drawn & Quarterly publishes (and you should check out their website and peruse the other things) and to comics as a whole. You’ll probably learn a great deal as you read, just from seeing all the different styles, and I guarantee you’ll be moved by something in the collection. Twenty-five bucks is a good bit of money to pay for a book, but probably not more than you’d pay for a hardcover book. And, besides, I’m told it looks fabulous on coffee tables.