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McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern #13
Edited by Chris Ware
Featuring stories by Chris Ware, Dan Clowes,
Charles Burns, R. Crumb, et al
Published by McSweeney's; $24.00 USD
Reviewed by Jeet Heer

Although the literary journal McSweeney’s continues to delight many readers, it is nothing but a nightmare for librarians. Your typical literary magazine is as uniform and orderly as a military formation. At the end of every year, you can line up the back issues into a tidy row, bind them up, and store them next to older volumes on a dignified shelf. The collected back numbers of McSweeney’s will never possess this sort of sequential regularity. With the exception of the staid first three issues, the magazine has been constantly changing its physical form and sometimes even its name.

One issue came as a series of booklets in a box, while another will come with a DVD. The most recent McSweeney’s is an all-comics issue guest edited by Chris Ware, who also designed the book. The book Ware has produced is a handsome hardcover with an elegant gold ornamental pattern along the spine. The dust-jacket of the journal is a fold-out poster. On the front of the jacket is a colurful faux comics section drawn by Ware, where cute little cartoon characters enact fables about the agony of artistic creation inside many tiny boxes (274 by my count). The members of Ware’s miniature theatrical troop are shaped a bit like snowmen: three spheres on top of each other with jutting sticks as hands and legs. But like so many of Ware’s creations, the cuteness of their appearance is belied by the fact that they experience as much pain and misery as real people.

Ware likes to use every inch of a book, so the inside of the dust jacket is also part of the total package. Aside from printing the biographical information of the artists, the inside jacket also has a poster-size Gary Panter drawing. Executed in the style of an Aztec stone mural, Panter gathers together the iconic heroes of comics history (Mickey Mouse, Little Orphan Annie, and Alley Oop, among many others) in order to suggest a parallel between ancient and modern visual language. Inside the folds of the dust jacket there is a further surprise: two mini-comics, which with their pamphlet-like fragility stand in ironic juxtaposition to the bound-and-glued solidity of the main book.

You could easily spend an hour or two reveling in the rich details of this jacket, which in its unusual form stands as a superb showcase of the McSweeney’s aesthetic. As literary critic Sarah Brouillette noted in the online magazine Reconstruction, McSweeney’s editor Dave Eggers enjoys playing with "bibliographic formats" and creating "unique and anomalous printed objects." With his book-making hi-jinks, Eggers has sometimes been accused of being too cute for his own good, motivated merely by a spirit of impudent irreverence. Yet in a manifesto published in the fifth issue of McSweeney’s, Eggers provided a forceful defense for his approach.

The McSweeney’s crowd, he noted, wanted to use new technology, "to enable us to make not cheaper and cruder (print-on-demand) books or icky, cold, robotic (electronic) books, but better books, perfect and permanent hardcover books, to do so in a fiscally sound way, and to do so not just for old time's sake, but because it makes sense and gives us, us people with fingers and eyes, what we want and what we've always wanted: beautiful things, beautiful things in our hands -- to be surrounded by little heavy papery beautiful things." In this passage, Eggers fuses together two separate book-making traditions. In speaking of "beautiful things," he is using the language of the arts and crafts movement, which started in the late 19th century in England as a protest against the standardization of mass technology. Yet the cocky tone of Egger’s manifesto is far removed from the elegiac regret of the craft crowd. In speaking with such confidence, Eggers is adopting the spunky "do-it-yourself" stance of modern ‘zine culture, where freedom from corporate control is the highest value.

For many reasons, Chris Ware was an ideal guest editor of the comics issue of McSweeney’s. Not only a superb cartoonist himself, he is vastly knowledgeable about his chosen art form. The history of comics seems to run through his veins. Many of his best strips re-vitalize techniques and gambits developed by earlier cartoonists, demonstrating that there is actually a continuous artistic tradition that continues to inspire.

In assembling the current issue of McSweeney’s, Ware demonstrates the value of his wide ranging knowledge of comics history. Within the pages of the book, Ware brings together classic cartoonists (Rodolphe Topffer, Milt Gross, George Herriman), writers and artists who have important ties to comics (John Updike and Philip Guston), as well as the best contemporary cartoonists (Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Lynda Barry).

But even aside from his editorial acumen, Ware brings skills as a book designer which perfectly suit McSweeney’s. Long before Eggers started-up McSeeney’s, Ware was showing how much fun could be had with modern print technology. In is solo title The Acme Novelty Library, which started in 1993, Ware was constantly remolding each issue so that the form would match the content. The first issue of Acme was just about the size of a regular comic book, but subsequent issues would either shrink into brochures or expand into poster books.

"In my own case, early on I was criticized for changing the sizes of my comic books," Ware explained in an e-mail interview. "But I wanted to break free from the ridiculous self-constraints that'd been set on the comic book publishing industry, and I also realized that certain stories felt more ‘right’ presented larger and others felt better smaller; I had no interest in emulating the boring template of the regular comic book. The whole story is an object in and of itself -- practically a real thing in space. The book should be considered almost a sculpture of form and time, since a book is, like a building or a person, something that's physically bigger on the inside than it is on the outside."

In describing books as being like buildings, Ware has found the perfect metaphor for his own design work. Chris Ware’s books are always like a well-designed house. From the outside they are inviting and it is hard to leave after you enter, since each little spot offers its own delight.

The strong design work that Ware puts into his own work is reshaping the approach that cartoonists in general take, making other artists more mindful of the importance of linking form and content. Many other cartoonists, notably Seth and Chester Brown, are taking their cue from him and spending more and more time making sure that the physical form of their books matches their art. The latest issue of McSweeney’s will only solidify Ware’s growing reputation as a maker of beautiful books.

This review originally appeared in The National Post.

The ADD Blog by Alan David Doane. Trouble with Comics Reviews of comics and graphic novels. Commentary about the artform and industry of comics. Get back to the main page.

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