Laying hands on the comics

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Comics: Up Close and Personal
Post by Andrea Kirsh

In light of the exhibition of Robert Crumb; My True Inner Self at the Rosenwald Wolf Gallery (see posts here) and here and my previous comments on Masters of American Comics at the Jewish Museum, it seems time to explore ways to gain a more intimate knowledge of this burgeoning field. Where does one find graphic novels and serious comic literature in Philadelphia? The Free Library has a healthy selection in their catalogue (including R. Crumb Draws the Blues), although many of the entries are marked “no copies available.” I admit I haven’t tried looking for any of them on the shelves. But if it is an introduction you want, you can benefit from a couple of well-chosen anthologies, both put together by comics artists.

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McSweeney’s Issue 13, from 2004

If you can find a copy, you should check out Issue 13 of Mc Sweeney’s Quarterly Concern, for which Chris Ware was guest editor. [Ed note: $24 online at the McSweeney’s store].

McSweeney’s falls somewhere between a periodical and a book, and it’s a rare item. The only library copy that I could find in Philadelphia (according to WorldCat) is at Drexel. One of the delights of this anthology, which concentrates on contemporary work but includes early material and critical essays by the likes of John Updike, is that Ware appreciates the physical and graphic possibilities of the form, and makes sure that the selection transcends its format.

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McSweeney’s #13, Dust jacket inside
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McSweeney’s #13 Dust jacket unfolded

He does this with a dust jacket that unfolds into a double-sided tabloid/game board, two tiny soft-bound graphic books as inserts ( I can’t imagine how a library would handle this peripheral material) and a binding with the sort of decorative gilding that hasn’t been seen on popular books for a century. His selections include many of the most-respected as well as up-and-coming current practitioners (including Daniel Clowes, Kim Deitch, Ben Katchor, Art Spiegelman, Gary Panter, and Linda Barry); their biographies are on the interior of the dust-jacket (in tiny type).

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Ivan Brunetti’s Comics Anthology, page by Joe Sacco

More available is Ivan Brunetti’s An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, and True Stories, improbably published by Yale University Press (2006, ISBN 13:978-0-300-11170-5) and very much in print. [Ed. Note: Yale’s website has a podcast with Brunetti.]

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Table of Contents from Brunetti’s Anthology

It is the only university press publication I know whose table of contents has no text at all; the selections are indicated with drawings by the various authors (a device which McSweeny’s 13 used, but then, it was designed as well as edited by artist, Chris Ware; if I could find the designer of the YUP book, I’d credit him). It must also be the Yale University Press volume with the least text ever (4 pages).

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Brunetti explains that he selected the work that he most enjoys looking at; it’s a catholic lot of current American artists, with brief bios in the back, and includes, as he says, the entire selection of “brow” from “high” to “low.” There’s a fair but not complete overlap with Ware’s selection in McSweeny’s 13. The arrangement is usefully didactic, in that Brunetti begins with single-panel work, progresses through four-panel strips and then moves on to longer formats. The maturity of the form is indicated by its self-consciousness; there’s Mark Newgarden de-constructing the graphic conventions of George Herriman’s Nancy, and no fewer than three artists (Art Spiegelman, Chris Ware and R. Sikoryak) doing riffs on the sublime Charles Schultz. I also appreciated the inclusion of Joe Sacco, a particularly interesting draughtsman and narrator who uses the form for reportage rather than fiction. It is a handsome and useful book.

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Mark Newgarden from Brunetti’s anthology

To Have and to Hold

And if you want to buy graphic fiction in Philadelphia? The following are the sources I found in Center City and West Philly.

Fat Jack’s Comicrypt (2006 Sansom, (215) 963-0788) has one of the largest selections, if you don’t mind sideling past the Adult comics section to get to the artier stuff.
The Marvelous ( 208 S. 40th St., (215) 386 6110) has its independent comics and graphic fiction nearer to the front door.
Penn Book Center (130 S. 34th St., (215)222-7600) has a good Graphic Fiction section
Robins’ Bookstore (108 S. 13th St., (215)735-9600) often has graphic material by artists of color that may not show up elsewhere.
Jinxed Clothing (620 S. 4th St., (215)978-5469) which carries zines and graphic work by smaller publishers than Fantagraphics and Drawn and Quarterly. They have a couch and welcome browsers, and I always discover something new there. Despite the name, Jinxed Clothing is an art gallery, as far as I’m concerned.

–Andrea Kirsh is an art historian based in Philadelphia. You can read her newest Philadelphia Introductions and other commentary at InLiquid.

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