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The Comic Book as Object

Gabriel Greenberg

Once you are willing to consider the look of an individual page, it's a trivial step to consider the look of the whole book, including the cover, binding, ink, page-quality, and so on. This means that, besides being an artist and a storyteller, the comics creator must also be a graphic designer, type-setter, book-binder, and printer.

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The Comic Book as Object, Part I

In addition to having a stylishly short nom-de-plume, Seth is widely considered the best dressed man in comics. (He is followed closely by Jason Little, author of Shutterbug Follies.) Appearing in finely tailored dark suits, a Fedora, and vintage glasses, Seth stands out among the hordes of overweight, bearded comics nerds with faded black Wolverine T-shirts and bad haircuts, or (depending on which kind of comics convention you're attending) the hordes of skinny, unshaven comics nerds with faded black Ramones T-shirts and dangling cigarettes.

It takes a certain type to stand out from the crowd, to hold onto the little dignities of style as civilization decomposes around you. Anyway, it's pretty clear that Seth would like to be seen this way. In his newest book, Wimbledon Green, he includes a not-very-disguised parody of himself as Jonah (no last name), a desperate and amoral comic collector who will stop at nothing in his pursuit of comics' lost time.

Wimbledon Green
by Seth

Drawn & Quarterly
December 2005, 128 pages, $19.95

Acme Novelty Library #16
by Chris Ware

Acme Novelty Library
December 2005, 64 pages, $15.95

Little Nemo in Slumberland: So Many Splendid Sundays!
by Winsor McCay and Peter Maresca

Sunday Press Books
January 2005, 120 pages, $120.00

"Jonah was part of a small faction of nostalgic types. Guys who think everything was better in the past. Guys who won't collect anything after 1950. At first glance, all comic collectors might seem like backward looking sorts. And to some degree, that's true. But most collectors are merely reaching back to their own childhoods. A beloved time when they first discovered comic books. But Jonah and his ilk are a different sort. These self-deluded fops are pining for a time before they were even born. Jonah himself always made a big display of his 'sad' love for this 'lost world.' He believed civilization to be in decline� Matching his home, his clothes, his music� even his car to his antique tastes."

As the passage makes clear, being old-fashioned and well dressed is more than a mode of comportment for Seth, it's a philosophy of life. Witness his well dressed comic books: as physical objects, they are notoriously, excruciatingly, finely made. The quality of the paper, the tone of the ink, the shape of the cover, the stitch of the binding, all conspire to conjure up a 1940s sherry-and-a-pipe reverie. Even the smell of the book (a consequence of the binding glue) will Proust you away to your grandfather's library.

This nexus of nostalgia, craftsmanship, and the collecting of comic books is no coincidence. Indeed, the last few months have seen the release of several such concoctions. Whatever you ultimately think of them, they are all, undeniably, well dressed. One is Seth's satire of Wimbledon Green, an über comics collector with a mysterious history. A second is Chris Ware's Acme Novelty Library #16, in which we are introduced to the consummately downtrodden Rusty Brown as a child, circa 1970, whose unfortunate existence is made bearable by a comics-infused fantasy life. Yet these publications are easily eclipsed -- both in content and print quality -- by the release of Little Nemo in Slumberland: So Many Splendid Sundays!, a selected anthology of Winsor McCay's early 20th century masterpiece, in its original broadsheet dimensions and luscious color.

Still, to Seth and Ware a distinctive credit goes. They have been leading a new wave of chronically backward looking comic artists, who are beginning to take comic-books-as-objects seriously. For several years now, they have been making books, which, even beyond the art on the pages, are meticulously planned out down to the last detail. A trivial, telling example: neither Ware's nor Seth's most recent comics have bar codes on the back. (It would ruin the aesthetic, of course.) In Seth's book, the barcode is printed on a paper band around the back cover, upon which is written a note, in small letters: "The artist requests that this band be disposed of upon purchase."

The comic book as object, as sculpture in paper and ink, is really a logical (but oh so slow in coming) result of the idea of comic art itself.

Consider that, when we go to see a Renaissance painting at the museum we do not, under normal circumstances, evaluate the artistic merits of the painting and the frame, but only of the painting itself. (Only the painting is reproduced in art books.) And generally speaking, the frame is a good metaphor for all the environmental detritus that surrounds a work of art. Usually we draw a line: to one side lieth the work of art; to the other, the philistine world.

Take your average novel. You generally don't think of the choice of font, or paper, or the cover illustration as part of the real work of art. True, a nicer printing can make for a more enjoyable reading experience, but War and Peace is War and Peace, whether you've got a cheap paperback, or a deluxe, gold-embossed, nth anniversary limited edition. In other words: the metaphorical frame goes around the text of the book, but the actual contingencies of printing fall outside.

Things are less clear with comics. In comic books, how the material of the book looks obviously falls within the frame. When we evaluate comics we look at layout, art, lettering, story, all kinds of things both visual and narrative. Of course, in mainstream comics, there are things within the physical book which nevertheless lie outside the proverbial frame. The barcode is one; advertisements are another. Yet these features have always sat uneasily in their surroundings. It is jarring to be leafing through your favorite monthly and find a glaring, ugly advert facing a page of lushly illustrated comic art.

Or, to return to my pet peeve, when mainstream comics started to be sold directly through comic shops instead of five-and-dimes, the spaces left for barcodes were replaced with more pleasing, topical imagery. As for advertisements, they were always cut out of the anthologies where the stories were collected together. Everyone involved, readers and publishers alike, understood that, ideally, advertisements weren't really part of the art.

And this makes sense: once the visual qualities of a piece of art are allowed inside the frame, they tend to infect the entire object. Once you are willing to consider the look of an individual page, it's a trivial step to consider the look of the whole book, including the cover, binding, ink, page-quality, and so on. This means that, besides being an artist and a storyteller, the comics creator must also be a graphic designer, type-setter, book-binder, and printer. (This is a lot of work -- no wonder it has taken so long for masters-of-all-trades like Chris Ware and Seth to arrive.)

The sculptural implications of books have long been appreciated outside of American comics. This is so in the world of fine art book-making for one, and also in Europe, where comics are traditionally bequeathed a somewhat more flattering physical existence than their American counterparts. But the contemporary American trend spearheaded by the likes of Seth and Ware has its own, distinctive flavor, one that is primarily informed by the hobby of collecting, and saturated with nostalgia.

The obsessive collection of comic books is probably not very different from other forms of obsessive collectioneering -- stamps, butterflies, human heads, or what have you -- but if you haven't lived through it, then you probably don't have a good sense of how it works. In this world, the comic book as object is king. (Speaking of royalty: both Seth's and Ware's most recent comic books feature gold-embossed lettering on the cover.) It is treated as the most precious of jewels. It is cradled, fawned over, gazed at, lusted after, delicately caressed. However, it is not read. Or not very often, and when it is read, it is read very carefully. Most of the time, comics live in protective Mylar plastic bags, with acid-free boards to keep them from bending, and are securely tucked away from the sunlight.

The situation is reminiscent of an episode reprinted in So Many Splendid Sundays. Little Nemo, the child protagonist, is led to King Morpheus' palace by Crystallette, the Queen of Glass. She is beautiful to behold, but she is far too delicate to touch. Yet Nemo is smitten, and cannot restrain himself from taking her in his arms. At which point she shatters into a million pieces, and her entire kingdom comes shattering after her. It is a horrifying and poetic moment, and it is a morality tale for comics collectors. The lesson: no matter how much you adore that little parcel of folded paper, do not remove it from its protective bag, lest, in your clumsiness, it should fall to pieces in your hands. Comic books are queens of glass, and they break all too easily.

Ironically, part of the reason that comics are treated with such reverence is that they are so poorly made. Printed on flimsy, fadeable paper, with tearable covers, and dinky staple bindings, the comic book is a pulp medium which has outgrown its pulpy days. Given this fact, it is satisfying that authors like Ware and Seth are now, finally, making books which look good enough to be treated with the care they have been afforded for so long. Their creations are objects of art which really do deserve to be lavished with attention.

The deep link between the new attitude of comic-as-object and the culture of collecting has more and less fortunate implications. On the good side, both Ware and Seth have been involved in some of the best reproductions of old comics ever. Ware is the designer and driving force behind Krazy & Ignatz (published by Fantagraphics), an ambituous, multi-volume, complete reproduction of George Herriman's classic "Krazy Kat." Ware has handily demonstrated his love of "Krazy Kat," as well as the general endeavour of reproduction, by turning out six spectacularly designed and presented volumes. Seth, for his part, is the designer for Fantagraphics equally ambitious series reproducing all of Charles Schulz' "Peanuts". While Seth's Peanuts designs are lower-key that Ware's work on Krazy & Ignatz, they are no less handsome, and in some ways more satisfying to behold. Fantagraphics advertises, accurately, that every volume "features impeccable production values; every single strip from Charles M. Schulz's 50-year American classic is reproduced better than ever before."

If these new, lovely printings are informed by the culture of collecting, then it should be no surprise that Ware and Seth both, perennially, turn their authorial spotlights on the often mediocre lives of comic collectors themselves.

This is unfortunate for several reasons. First, serious collecting is a narrow interest that can be enjoyed only by an even narrower fraction of the population. It is the leisure class activity par excellence, the pastime of the already well off. After all, what to do you do when you've got too much money and too much time on your hands? You collect, of course. Stories about collecting, at least these ones, inevitably glamorize a culture of distraction and frivolous spending, whilst saying nothing of about topics of real social importance.

Of course, it's no news that art often indulges our fantasies of wealth. But, unlike Arthurian tales of kings and queens, or Austinian dramas of lords and ladies, comic book collecting per se does not lend itself to particularly zingy exploits. It doesn't involve much adventure; it offers few deep philosophical problems; romance is rare. The fact is, stories about comic book collectors can be pretty dreary.

But dreariness is exactly what Seth and Ware are after. These two are the kinds of artists that make you ask what the point of art is -- not because their works probe deep into postmodern questions about the point of art, but because their works so often seem to verge on pointlessness.

Seth is especially guilty here. His first major book, It's a Good Life If You Don't Weaken, despite the alluring title, tells an uneventful story of a somewhat depressed, but completely self-obsessed middle aged man in search of obscure New Yorker cartoons from the 1940s. The main text is his internal monologue: a litany of whiny complaints about life and the lost wonders of the bourgeois existence. Here is a book, to borrow a phrase from Dylan, in which nothing is revealed.

What is particularly troublesome about Seth's comics is not only that they are somewhat boring, but also that they are politically regressive. (As I say, anything about collecting comics looks like its starting out on the wrong foot.) Seth can't resist touting the delights of the middle class, the glory of the old days, and the comforts of home. There is no pain around here. There is no reality; and there is no radical departure from reality. Also, there are no female protagonists, no people of color, no very poor people, no distant lands, nothing unusual, nothing surprising, nothing that might even conceivably make your prototypical reader of comics squirm in his chair.

I'd much rather have political regression Frank Miller style -- with bullet-nippled girls discharging enormous guns into the brains of mobsters -- than Seth's whitebread noodling. There is neither enough time, nor money, nor paper in the world for art that does little more than romanticize the most staid features of the status quo. At least not my time or money. That Seth has been widely heralded as one the major comic artists of his generation is a confounding fact.

In fairness, it should be said that Seth's works, no matter how dopey, always afford a certain soothing pleasure. He draws with a thick, inky line, but with crisp, confident strokes that always manage to strike a wistful depression-era mood. While his layouts are straightforward, Seth's drawings do conjure occasional moments of poetry, especially in his scene setting and depiction of old towns. (He draws great trees.) These graces, however, rarely elevate the works above the merely comfortable. In fact, comfortable is exactly what they are, like an old sofa, and I find that they function handily as a soporific.

One cannot resist the ad hominem attack: the problem with Seth's books is that there is far too much focus on being well dressed, and not enough focus on being, well, good. Seth's concern with pretty objects has overtaken any concern with broader artistic merits. The collectable has squeezed out the comic.

To his credit Seth seems to up to something more substantive recently. His Clyde Fans, of which only the first of two books has been released, tells the story (here we go again) of a somewhat depressed older man who collects antique novelty postcards. But this story is mixed with genuine pathos: the protagonist's intense fear of social interaction and his troubled family life make for a narrative which we might, conceivably, actually care about. Furthermore, the art here is Seth's best work to date, pushing beyond the bounds of his typical retro pretense. Heavy shadows, stark contrasts, and subtle coloration infuse the book with a haunting, noirish mood.

Unfortunately, Seth's newest Wimbledon Green represents a large step backwards in the march towards meaningfulness (perhaps no coincidence: it is also one of his finest looking works from a printing perspective). This time the hero is again a collector, a fantastically rich collector of comic books. The story is a satire of comic book culture, featuring a string of mock interviews with famous collectors bad-mouthing each other behind backs, and riffing on the virtues of certain highly prized first issues. But if you're not already interested in the object of the satire -- strike that -- if you're not already a serious nerd, then the jokes simply won't do it for you. In fact, you'll be left with a peculiar sense of moral outrage, the kind appropriate to an exasperated parent: Seth, isn't there something better for you to be doing?

Next page: In Part II, Gabriel reviews Chris Ware's Acme Novelty Library #16 and Peter Maresca's reprints of the classic Winsor McCay strip Little Nemo in Slumberland: So Many Splendid Sundays!
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