Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Comics Journal #301

By Gary Groth (Editor), Michael Dean (Managing Editor), Kristy Valenti (Managing Editor), and a whole bunch of contributors

The latest "issue" of the venerable Comics Journal is, at 624 pages, less a magazine and more of a book.  Handsomely designed by Eric Skillman (that's the book's cover up above, with the title featured on the impressively thick spine), the book is the first release under the Comics Journal banner since the more-or-less-monthly magazine ceased regular publication a couple of years ago in favor of a regularly updated website, now ably run by Dan Nadel and Tim Hodler.

The cover feature is The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb, which is the subject of an interview with the author conducted by Gary Groth, as well as a roundtable critical discussion.  While I personally feel that Crumb's version of the first book of the Old Testament is an extraordinary work, certainly deserving of all of the pages devoted to it here, its merits are hotly debated in the roundtable.  The most entertaining and cogent arguments come from Jeet Heer (he likes it) and Rick Marschall (he doesn't, and comes at the book from the interesting perspective of a practicing evangelical Christian).  Also participating in the roundtable are Donald Phelps, Robert Stanley Martin, Tim Hodler, Alexander Theroux, and Kenneth Smith.  Fine writers and thoughtful critics all (although Smith more or less does his usual schtick, using Crumb's book to launch into a familiar sounding philosophical screed against modernity), whose opinions on Crumb's book vary wildly, making for an entertaining and enlightening exchange of ideas.

There are two other long interviews in the book, one a conversation between humor cartoonists Al Jaffee and Michael Kupperman (moderated by Gary Groth), and Groth's interview with Joe Sacco.  These interviews are as insightful and rewarding as one might expect, given the participants.  Also,  Marc Sobel provides a too-cursory gloss of "the Decade in Comics," R. Fiore writes about the depiction of racial minorities in old comic strips, R.C. Harvey provides a glimpse at an unpublished comic strip from late Gordo cartoonist, Gus Arriola, Tom Crippin answers "Three Questions About Robert Crumb," Chris Lanier examines Brian Chippendale's Maggots, Warren Bernard makes the case for John T. McCutcheon as the father of the midwestern school of cartooning, and a handful of recent graphic novels are reviewed. 

A generous selection of Gerald McBoing Boing comics are included, introduced by Gene Deitch.  Most people probably don't even realize that there were Gerald McBoing Boing comics, based of course on the Academy Award-winning animated short subject, but there were, and they were pretty good, although it's a shame the artists and writers who worked on them were not able to be identified.  The reprinting of rare and "undiscovered" comics was one of my favorite features of the previous incarnation of the Journal, and I'm glad to see they have made room for that sort of thing in this new format.

But wait, there's more!  One of my favorite features was the artist sketchbooks, featuring work by Jim Woodring, Tim Hensley, and novelist Stephen Dixon.  Each sketchbook section was preceded by a short interview with the artist.  I also really enjoyed a feature by Rob Clough on the Center for Cartoon Studies, focusing specifically on the mentoring program.  This feature offered great insight into the day to day experience of attending the school, as well as glimpses into the personalities of the various cartoonists who served as mentors to the students.

Along with the interviews (always a highlight of any issue of The Comics Journal) my favorite feature was Tim Krieder's excellent essay on Dave Sim's Cerebus.  Initially, I was only mildly interested in reading this essay, having not read very much of Cerebus at all, but it quickly became apparent that Krieder is a writer whose intelligence and wit are capable of making any subject interesting, or at least that was certainly the case here.  I would highly recommend this essay to anyone, regardless of your level of interest in Cerebus.  It's just a fine piece of writing.

I like this new format for The Comics Journal.  While the magazine was indisputably important and vital in the first several years of its publication, in its later years it could hardly be said to have had its finger on the pulse of the industry.  The print magazine seemed to lose its way the last several years it was published, and, while it always contained a lot of good writing, it was clear the best venue for a vital discussion of comics had relocated online, amongst a variety of the better comics blogs and websites.  After a rocky start, the regularly updated, online version of The Comics Journal has become a much more vital outlet for the serious discussion of comics, primarily thanks to the stewardship of online editors Dan Nadel and Tim Hodler.  In its new format, the print Comics Journal is a fine companion to that ongoing effort.  With the burden of remaining "current" lifted by the website, the print Journal is free to explore important works with a depth and seriousness rarely found online.  The Journal's founder, Gary Groth, is much more directly involved with this book than he seems to have been in recent issues of the magazine or the website.  This is a good thing, as Groth's editorial hand and distinct critical perspective (not to mention unparalleled interviewing skills) are what made The Comics Journal such an important voice in the comics community in the first place.


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