A snapshot of your life in 3,760 chapters
1. “A brick from space? With hieroglyphs?”

A good list doesn’t necessarily make you want to go out and explore the picks described therein ­ sometimes it just acts as a curiously exotic map of a stranger’s psyche. Just such a map is included at the back of the latest issue of LOVE AND ROCKETS (Volume 11, #10), as creators the brothers Hernandez reel off their favourite comics. Like the guys from PLAN B magazine, they adore Charles Schultz, but curios such as ‘When Lois Lane Became Cinderella’ and ‘Betty and Veronica’s Summer Fun’ give a tantalising glimpse into the sort of childishly sophisticated (or sophisticatedly childish) art that informs their own books.

The issue proper is a mixed bag, and I don’t just mean that it’s an anthology. This famous series relies strongly on character identification and recognition, but, to paraphrase a comment in the letters page, right now I can’t honestly say I “get” all of it.

The standout for me is ‘Maggie’, a tale which bends time and space, hallucination, reality and memory as a woman sifts through the embers of a burned-down house. It’s beguiling and quite gorgeous.

There’s a lot of LOVE AND ROCKETS material available through Fantagraphics though, and they’ve reeled me in enough to want to find out more about these characters. I want to “get it”.

Much more accessible to the new reader such as myself is LUBA’S COMICS AND STORIES #4. A spin-off from the LOVE AND ROCKETS universe, it’s based on the notion of femininity as some kind of moral, artistic, aesthetic, sexual, liberational ideal. It lays it on a bit thick, mind. As Venus, a young girl, ponders her future, she gets her scripter a tad too many PC brownie points: “I could get married and raise a bunch of kids. Or I could be a scientist. Or a teacher. Or an artist. Or all of the above.” I’m as PC as they come and even I blanched! The story itself though, about the ill-fated filming of a super-hero home movie, is cute.

‘Cute’ of a different kind runs through Grant Morrison’s latest mini-series SEAGUY. In a deflating two-fingers to the macho climate so current in mainstream hero comics, SEAGUY is about one man and his pet talking fish-thing as they strive to save a xenomporphic pink blob of sentient food from an omnipresent Cola/Disney-style conglomerate.

Like pretty much all of Morrison’s work, it reads as if it was written to entertain even if only in the form of a capsule review. “But a brick from space? With hieroglyphs?”“Giant balloon animals ­ pecking at men and women…”“The poor old moon is crying for help!”“I’m only a poor octopus shepherd”… If seeing genuinely bizarre sci-fi pseudofables published by one of ‘the big two’ still gives you a thrill, check this out.

2. “I wonder why other people couldn’t see the virtues of an innately democratic pictographic poetry grounded in a transdimensional metaphysic, anyway?”

Comics are still, as we know, considered dumb by most people. I saw an episode of FRIENDS recently (that title always makes me wanna stick two fingers down my throat) where Joey, the ‘whacky dim one’, answered the question “Do you read comic books?” with a hearty “Exlusively.” It got a big laugh. Me, I don’t see what’s so inherently funny about exclusive loyalty to a medium that stretches from PEANUTS and WATCHMEN to MAUS, but hey, I’m guessing I was never exactly that show’s target demographic.

The issues of comics, comic art, cartoonists, and their relevance to/relationship with culture are very much at the heart of McSWEENEY’S QUARTERLY CONCERN No. 13.

I am kicking myself that I didn’t learn about this publication sooner, but better late than never. This is my new Bible, I swear to God (or at least Stan Lee). Guest editor Chris ware, who broke fucking hearts with JIMMY CORRIGAN: THE SMARTEST KID ON EARTH, has compiled an anthology of work that showcases the best that comics and toons have to offer. The best.

The gang’s all here ­ Los bros Hernandez with more fragments from their LOVE AND ROCKETS canon; Dan Clowes with couch-potato and suburbia gags that out-deadpan even his classic GHOST WORLD; Art Spiegleman with his response to 9/11; a haunting pictorial dream (or is it a nightmare?) from Charles Burns; all these and what feels like a hundred more, to make you laugh, cry and all points inbetween.

But it is Chris Ware himself who weaves his editorial presence throughout. His passionate opening defence of comics, which he argues is not a genre but “a developing language”, unravels from the cover and beyond. It literally unravels, in the case of the wraparound cover which opens out into a huge history of cartooning, and which reveals two mini-comics hidden inside two flaps! He backs up his preface with a haunting (sorry, that word again) tale about the power of emotional memory; Ivan Brunetti supports this thesis with biographical toons about famous artists and their devotion to their art (and, to an extent, their wilful obscurity); even John Updike chimes in with a love letter to his cartooning days that borders, wonderfully in tandem with the entire book’s design and attention to detail, on the fetishistic.

Best of all, it’s opened my eyes to Mark Beyer, officially my new favourite cartoonist ever ever Ever. His AMY AND JORDAN cartoons start out giving offbeat cynical laughs but suddenly veers into a slab of self-criticism and self-hate that leaves one reeling.

MCSWEENEY’S is, sorry to be a bore, about what the art form of comics can do. And if people still don’t understand, it’s in hardback, which makes it the perfect thing to hit such unbelievers over the head with repeatedly. I don’t know if Charles Schultz would wholly approve of such action, but I’m sure he’d be smirking admiringly from behind his Bristol Board nonetheless.

© 2004 David O MacGowan.