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Playing the oddities (continued)
Unhinge your loved ones with the weird comedy of graphic art

Just as iconic as Superman and Batman, and just as able to speak to generations on a profoundly human level, is Charles Schulz’s Peanuts. Schulz drew the strip every day for half a century — an astounding body of work by any measure. Fantagraphics has now undertaken the daunting task of compiling every Peanuts strip — every one — between two covers. Or make that 50 covers. The Complete Peanuts: 1950-1952 (Fantagraphics; $28.95) is but the first in a 25-volume collection, slated to be rolled out regularly over the next 12 and a half years at the rate of two books per annum. That’s more than 7500 pages of Good Ol’ Charlie Brown. Photographed from the original syndicate proofs, they promise to be the highest quality Peanuts reproductions yet. Better still, precious few people have ever seen the first two years of the strip, when Snoopy was a puppy and Schroeder, Lucy, and Linus grew from toddlerhood. But while Chuck and the gang might look a little different, their tyke-size travails and the universal voice with which Schulz spoke to the world were there from the beginning. Fantagraphics rightly calls this "the most eagerly-awaited and ambitious publishing project in the history of the American comic strip." And that’s no hyperbole. It’s not published yet, but order from Fantagraphics.com before February 1, and you’ll get free shipping when the first editions are shipped straight from the warehouse on March 1.

To tide you over until then, page through Peanuts: The Art of Charles M. Schulz (Pantheon; $16.96), another Chip Kidd/Geoff Spear collaboration. The hardcover was published two years ago, but if you missed it then, you’ll want to get this new paperback version, with 32 pages of extra material. Like Mythology, Kidd and Spear have teamed up to document a treasure trove of sketches, models, merchandise, and, of course, more than 500 comic strips. Simply put, their work is gorgeous. Spear’s probing eye zooms in tight on yellowing Sunday funnies, giving us close-up views of billions of Benday dots glowing in kaleidoscopic, pixilated perfection. Kidd lingers lovingly on the texture of the paper, the impressions of pen, compelling the reader to apprehend Schulz’s work anew by getting up close with his wry humor and gentle melancholy.

Much of the material in The Art of Charles M. Schulz came courtesy of cartoonist Chris Ware, who gave Kidd and Spear access to his vast archives of Peanuts strips and paraphernalia. Ware and Kidd have collaborated often (as an editor at Pantheon, Kidd oversaw publication of Ware’s masterpiece of quiet desperation, the critically lauded Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, in 2000) and the two share an obsession with visual trickery and bravura design acrobatics. Ware’s Quimby the Mouse (Fantagraphics; $24.95) is a perfect example of his mind-bending manipulation of the page. Collecting old works, some from his days as an undergraduate art student, the oversize folio cements Ware’s reputation as one of the best, most innovative cartoonists ever to put pen to paper.

Quimby’s pages seethe with life, whether they’re depicting the absurdist existential adventures of the title rodent (an ersatz, emaciated Mickey) who wanders aimlessly and listlessly through myriad labyrinthine panels; reverently referential old-style cartoons of masked superheroes and BB-gun ads; rough prototypes of Jimmy Corrigan (reminiscent of a doughy, middle-aged Charlie Brown); or even architectural whimsies meant to be cut out and assembled. Ware’s an obsessive, pushing the boundaries of how much visual information can be crammed on the page, and how intricately and painstakingly it can be arranged. Some pages, with more than 100 fingerprint-size panels, are so minutely detailed they’re almost impossible to read. It’s information overload. But it’s not just Ware’s unbridled technical brio. His work is suffused with muted despair and a vague but palpable sense of alienation that ensures his intricate precision is not mere sound and fury signifying nothing.

For a more intimate look at Ware’s thought processes and raw emotion, flip through the Acme Novelty Datebook: Sketches and Diary Pages in Facsimile, 1986-1995 (Drawn & Quarterly; $39.95). It is, quite literally, his sketchbook. Reproducing the febrile scribblings and manic marginalia he churned out between the ages of 19 and 28, the book leaves no doubt why Ware is one of the best artists of his generation. First, he draws anything. Sad sacks sitting in diners, household appliances, austere architecture, grotesque cartoon characters whom he subjects to gruesome demises. And he seems at home with any medium: pen and ink, gouache, watercolor, crayon, marker, colored pencil — sometimes all on the same page. Most important, he has an intuitive grasp of the vernacular of comic books. Showing the influence of Dick Tracy, Krazy Kat, and Robert Crumb, he’s synthesized them all in his own inimitable style. (And after page 28, you’ll never again look at Nancy and Sluggo the same way.)

After the neurotic, fastidious precision of Jimmy Corrigan and Quimby, it’s a surprise to see the messy, try-anything quality of these pages. No coincidence that some look like Technicolor guts were spilled on the paper; Ware’s sketchbook doubles as a diary, a window on his hang-ups and insecurities — from his troubles with women (see several self-loathing, sexually explicit cartoons) to his sadness over the death of his grandmother to his insecurities about making art. It feels voyeuristic, in a way, but it’s so visually stimulating that it’s hard to put down. As one fan wrote on Amazon.com, Ware "seems unafraid to show us his most private moments of self-doubt and insecurity. It was surprising to me that someone this talented could be such a harsh critic of his own work."

Another new title from Montreal’s Drawn & Quarterly comes from Canadian cartoonist Chester Brown. Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography ($24.95) is exactly what it says it is: the starkly told story (originally serialized over 10 issues into a book) of a crucial figure in Canada’s history — yet one whom most Americans have probably never heard of. It’s a credit to Brown’s plainspoken artistry and flair for narrative that it’s a page-turner till the end.

Riel was a Métis (of mixed French and native blood) who lived in the Red River Settlement, north of Minnesota — which at that time (the mid-19th century) was not yet a part of Canada, but governed by the Hudson Bay Trading Company. To protect against further French influence in Canada, the government tried to foist an English Protestant governor on the province (soon to be Manitoba). But the Métis, resentful of this impingement on their land, turned to Riel as their leader. His journey from seminarian to community leader to member of Parliament to treasonous revolutionary to condemned man is one that Brown tells slowly and deliberately, in plain square panels and a spare understated style (influenced by the subtle caricatures of Hergé’s Tintin and Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie). His clean line and keen eye for mise en scène are perfectly suited to this bleak cipher of a story. Riel meant different things to different people. Beloved by his Métis, despised by the Protestant ascendancy, a mystic convinced he was spoken to by God and the chosen savior of his people, he was a singular and enigmatic figure. Brown makes you care. And he’s an honest historian; wherever a story’s facts are tweaked for the sake of narrative, he makes note of it. Indeed, it’s a rare comic book that comes with end notes, an index, and a bibliography.

About the same time Louis Riel was becoming a martyr in Canada, A.B. Frost was all but inventing the comic strip in America. Stuff and Nonsense (Fantagraphics; $24.95) is the first collection that’s done justice to the "sequential graphic stories" of this well-known painter and illustrator. With the acerbic wit and healthy misanthropy of a Mark Twain or an Ambrose Bierce and a crisp, representational style that would influence everyone from Winsor McCay to Tony Millionaire, Frost was a trailblazing illustrator. He was revolutionary in his arrangement of successive panels to effect narrative thrust (he was influenced by Eadweard Muybridge’s and Thomas Eakins’s early work with moving pictures) and he was a master of gesture and facial expression. For an example of both, see the maniacal energy of a doomed feline in the hilarious "Our Cat Eats Rat Poison: A Tragedy in Five Acts" from Harper’s New Monthly (1881).

The black-comic cartoons, bawdy illustrated limericks, and acid caricatures in Stuff and Nonsense may be more than a century old, but they’ve aged well. And the words of critic Joseph Pennell, written way back in the ’20s, are still arguably true: "A.B. Frost is the only comic artist we have or have had; the rest are mostly a disgrace, even to this land of artless, childish vulgarians."

Sharing some of Frost’s twisted whimsy is Jim Woodring’s The Frank Book (Fantagraphics, $39.95). It came out this summer, but it’s such a weirdly beautiful and deeply disturbing collection, we figured it merits mention.

Woodring confesses to having had a rather unsettled childhood, "full of apparitions, hallucinations and paranoia." He thought his parents were trying to kill him. That goes some way toward explaining the genesis of his warped worldview. In his introduction, none other than Francis Ford Coppola calls Frank "such a strange creation that I hardly know how to describe it ... tenderness and bloodshed, cruelty and sacrifice, love and betrayal, terror and bliss.... The Frank Book is one man’s puzzling gift to a puzzling world." Indeed. Drawing on the iconography of European fairy tales, cartoon characters like Felix the Cat, science fiction, and 17th-century Dutch painters like Hieronymous Bosch — and what seems like some hefty doses of potent psychedelics — Woodring casts a visual spell, compelling his "anthropomorph" protagonist, Frank, to wander silently through a wordless dreamscape dripping with hallucinatory weirdness.

Sometimes these fantastic landscapes are foreboding, done up in woodcut-like black and white, sometimes they pulsate with phantasmic color. Either way, there’s an omnipresent sense of impending disaster. In one panel Frank might pal around with a friendly fantastic creature, but in the next the grotesque Manhog might start slicing the flesh off his own leg (with liberal amounts of vividly dripping blood). Splitting the difference between the heartwarming and the horrific, kaleidoscopic psychedelia and sanguinary violence, Woodring’s work evokes an uncanny unconscious.

Finally, if freaky Frank is your thing, you’ll also like a trio of arty paperback tracts from Highwater Books. In Teratoid Heights ($12.95), a collection of a dozen minicomics published between 1994 and 1999, Mat Brinkman posits a universe whose wordless otherworldliness owes much to Woodring’s vision. But the half-lit dystopias through which his Grendel-like manbeasts and half-formed homunculi wander is much bleaker. In Ron Rege Jr.’s Yeast Hoist ($8.95), the artist makes extraordinary use of scads of simple lines. Whether chronicling an unfortunate bathtub toke or creating a visual diary of two dozen nights of sleeping arrangements on a European trip, Rege’s pensive slices of life, rendered in blueprint blue and related in a direct and honest voice, are recognizable takes on quotidian ups and downs.

Then there’s Montreal’s mondo weirdo Marc Bell. His Shrimpy and Paul and Friends ($16.95), collected here for the first time, is one of the strangest (and best) comic strips around. Shrimpy is a subtly sadistic pig-in-a-blanket. Paul is a neurotic phallic symbol with Al Jolson lips, who has the bad habit of losing his nipples. Then there’s Brosse the greedy goose; the floating and flatulent octopod, Taco; and Chia Man, an alcoholic buffoon who rages at the world. Bell’s style is charmingly, energetically primitive. Best of all, though, are his stoned-inscrutable speech balloons, filled with peculiar profundities like "Sit down with the chocolate policeman, he will comb your hair with his mind" or "Petey and mee floo throo the mall with the father ocean. He wears the water trousers."

Art. Who said it always has to make sense? But it sure is nice to look at.

Mike Miliard can be reached at mmiliard@phx.com .

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Issue Date: December 12 - 18, 2003
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