Pulp Fictions: Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons & True Stories Volume Two and The Best American Comics 2008


Comics come out on Wednesday, and so does Richard Gehr’s Pulp Fictions.

Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons & True Stories Volume Two
Yale University Press

The Best American Comics 2008
Houghton Mifflin

In Toute le Mémoire du Monde, his 1956 short film about France’s Bibliothèque Nationale, comics-loving director Alain Resnais creeps up on heaping piles of Mandrake the Magician and Dick Tracy comics as the narrator inquires, “Who knows what will be the most reliable testament to our civilization?”

If Yale University Press’s 400-page Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons & True Stories Volume Two is any indication, that testament will include comics creations undreamed of by Resnais. Edited by Schizo creator Ivan Brunetti, who modestly omits his own brilliant depictions of self-loathing, the Press’s second anthology overlaps significantly with the original 2006 volume. It also includes more up-and-comers and otherwise overlooked innovators (I want to see more work by Dan Zettwoch, Ron Regé Jr., and Matthew Thurber immediately).

If you’re already an indie comics fan, reading either volume may be like attending a party with lots of old friends – both books contain justifiably praised work by Robert Crumb, Daniel Clowes, Chris Ware, Charles Burns, Art Spiegelman, Seth, Adrian Tomine, etc. – and then departing with the feeling of not having really spent enough quality time with any of them. Anyone simply curious about the field, on the other hand, can look forward to picking up the shards of his or her blown mind on the way out the door.

Brunetti has a genius for sequencing. One astonishing series consists of Joe Sacco’s journalistic “White Death,” about Muslims starving in East Bosnia in the aftermath of the Bosnian war; “Minnie’s 3rd Love, or ‘Nightmare on Polk Street’,” Phoebe Gloeckner’s brave, harrowing, and masterful portrait of sex, drugs, and abuse in San Francisco; Elinore Norflus’s scratchy and emotionally raw “Depressed Dora’s Comics”; and two episodes from Brian Chippendale’s scratchy yet subtly controlled Ninja. Like almost any good comic, these anthologies flow.

Where Brunetti avoids mainstream comics entirely in his collections, editor Lynda Barry at least tried, albeit unsuccessfully due to a last-minute bureaucratic mishap, to excerpt Paul Pope’s “Batman: Year 100” in The Best American Comics 2008 (Houghton Mifflin). Oh well, maybe next year. Surprisingly or not, only about a half dozen of the 26 artists represented in the 325-page book overlap with Brunetti’s two tomes. Where Brunetti looks for formal coherence, Barry focuses on emotional communication. “Comics are a place to go,” she writes in her splendid comic introduction. “They gave me a ‘meanwhile’ and an ‘elsewhere.’ They are a form of transportation for the shut-in kids who need to see life in other worlds.”

Those kids may well include the students in educator John Mejias’s rough yet revealing ongoing strip, “The Teacher’s Edition“; the kid ambivalent about his heritage in the promising excerpt from Gene Luen Yang’s forthcoming American Born Chinese; and even Matt Groening’s kids, whose hilarious arguments he appropriates in many “Life in Hell” strips.

As a weekly strip artist herself, Barry has an affinity for “Life in Hell,” Kaz’s “Underworld,” and Derf’s “The City,” all represented here. My overall favorite choice, though, turned out to be a healthy excerpt from The Saga of the Blood Benders, Rick Geary’s graphic novel about murderous recluses on the Kansas plains. As an historically accurate testament to good old American ultraviolence as mysterious as Lee Falk’s Mandrake the Magician and as forensic as Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy, it can’t be beat.