State Of The Art Comics 

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Jaime Hernandez' Dicks and Deedees follows the adventures of the female protagonists from the Love and Rockets series.
Talent explodes outside the superhero mainstream, despite economic challenges

Early this summer, serious fans of alternative comics may have noticed some dire e-mail messages in their inboxes, heartfelt pleas for cash that had nothing to do with toner supplies and cures for erectile dysfunction. "Fantagraphics needs your help!," they cried, and to any comix-lover, that was scary news indeed.

The preeminent publisher of comics for grown-ups, Fantagraphics Books was feeling the brunt of another company's bad debts. As spokesperson Eric Reynolds (an artist himself) tells it: "It was our previous distributor, Seven Hills, that went bankrupt a few years ago and fucked us up. We were still suffering as late as this May from the $75,000 they stiffed us." Reynolds sent out an S.O.S. in May, which was forwarded around the globe. "It was the best thing we ever could have done," he says, referring to the wave of orders that poured in within hours. "It pretty much single-handedly helped us absorb that debt."

Other smaller publishing houses have had similar crises with different distributors; for a few months there, it seemed the entire non-superhero industry might fall apart, forcing alt-comics stars to return to the days of Xerox self-publishing.

But looking at the latest crop of comic book releases, you would think this was a Golden Age. (It is!) Each new title seems more lavish than the last; even relative newcomers are seeing their work presented with the TLC that only high budgets can provide. How can this be? Surely, tight times would mean a hiatus for Christmas gift-worthy releases? "No," Reynolds explains, "oddly, we're doing more of those kind of books than ever. Our success with Norton `the company's new, more bookstore-savvy distributor` has enabled us to really focus on those kind of books. Our sales have actually gone steadily up the last two or three years." The urgency, then, came from the economic time warp in which the producers of books or records generally don't see payment until long, long after they have to pay production costs.

And what production costs! Putting aside risky endeavors like reprinting entire years of priceless Krazy Kat cartoons (a third lovely volume was recently released) or using two-color printing on fancy paper for Ripple, Dave Cooper's repulsively brilliant chronicle of a perverse sexual obsession - the kind of projects Fanta has done all along, only nicer looking - honchos Gary Groth and Kim Thompson have seen fit to drop two shockingly extravagant projects on their customers at once:

Jim Woodring's The Frank Book is a slick, thick volume containing the complete hallucinatory adventures of the eponymous purple cat. Much of the book is printed in full color and all of it is on glossy paper stock, bound in deep purple cloth with a ribbon bookmark like you might find in a Bible.

Even more elaborate is Chris Ware's Quimby Mouse, an 11-by-14-inch treasure chest with gold-embossed, multi-color hardcovers that contains every Quimby story - dating back to those days when Ware, soon to be acknowledged worldwide as comics' most original new voice, was publishing in the University of Texas' lousy little student newspaper. Speaking as a former reader, those strips were baffling when they first appeared in the mundane Daily Texan; startling experiments with the way comics were supposed to work - they were surreally violent one week, achingly nostalgic the next, and often even funny - they were a reason to show up on campus, and it is delightful to have them reprinted here.

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Remarkably, some of the alt-comics industry's most lavish productions are of cartoonists' sketchbooks, the tattered journals that often house aborted characters, half-formed page layouts, or snatches from the world around the artist as he shops for groceries or rides the subway. While sketchbook reproductions are nothing new (Fanta has a whole series devoted to Robert Crumb), Drawn and Quarterly has taken them to new heights:

Vernacular Drawings, by the deliberately anachronistic monomonikered Seth (author of the Palookaville series), is a heavy, clothbound tome dressed up in tones that would be at home on the office bookshelf of a '50s slide-rule salesman. While a few of the pages inside are devoted to quickie unfinished drawings, the lion's share are - in keeping with Seth's finicky reputation - as polished and lovely as the work he routinely does for publications such as The New Yorker.

Looking at Chris Ware's Acme Novelty Datebook is more like yanking a private workbook off the artist's desk. One finds every phase of drawing, from 10-second outline to meticulously shaded rendering; layouts for full-page comic strips; familiar characters trying on poses; pornographic fantasies, melancholy memories, and angry notes in which the artist laments his laziness and lack of inspiration. It's a treasure trove for the sort of fan who actually reads all the fine print in Ware's comics (guilty!), and it is assembled with typically caustic ingenuity.

Other artists aren't yet sufficiently worshipped to merit their own sketchbooks, but it's only a matter of time. Craig Thompson, for instance, had only published one graphic novel (the enthusiastically received Goodbye, Chunky Rice) when Top Shelf committed to publishing the phonebook-sized Blankets. It was a smart decision - Blankets (which has been fawned over by everyone from Neil Gaiman to Jules Feiffer) is a work of astonishing tenderness, one that remembers first love as only the very young can but captures it with the aesthetic eloquence of one of the medium's old masters. Thompson's drawing looks rushed at first glance, but contains a wealth of emotional detail; his layouts move from the pedestrian to transcendent metaphors in a heartbeat, and his knack for playing one set of themes against another (first love, religion, and family life) is flawless. Blankets is the kind of universally powerful coming-of-age story that could convince a lot of people that comics aren't just for hipsters and geeks, if only people would pick it up. With raves appearing in places like Time magazine, that just might happen.

Twenty-nine-year-old Berkeley cartoonist Adrian Tomine drew similar mainstream attention for his latest collection of stories, Summer Blonde, in which he moves farther from the shadow of Ghost World's Daniel Clowes. While Tomine's artwork is increasingly literal, a far cry from the experimenting stylization of his mini-comics - frankly, it's sometimes a bit stiff - his writing has become more refined. Focusing exclusively on alienated protagonists, Blonde works similar themes from four angles, finding something new in each story.

Drawn and Quarterly has just released Summer Blonde in paperback, after a successful hardcover run last year. (Ditto for Debbie Drechsler's poignant Summer of Love.) While this is a common practice for publishers in the text-only world, comics companies have usually issued hardbacks (when they do at all) alongside less expensive softcovers, with the idea that hard-core collectors will go for the pricier title while most readers buy the cheaper one. More often, titles are only released as trade paperbacks. D&Q seems to want to encourage the notion that its most accessible artists should be seen in the same light as the best-selling authors on The New York Times charts. Although these books are often serialized as periodicals (as were Dickens and so many other novelists), they are introduced to the fiction-buying public as real books, only later to be reissued for the cheapskates.

Pantheon, the division of highbrow fiction imprint Knopf, has taken this approach since the beginning of their venture into the graphic novel waters. Licensing proven works from other publishers, they have brought out volumes on Peanuts creator Charles Shultz and The Simpsons mastermind Matt Groening. More importantly, they have helped in the mainstreaming of some of contemporary comics' brightest lights: Clowes, Ware, and Maus author Art Spiegelman. With Ware's Jimmy Corrigan and Clowes' David Boring, Pantheon let as much as a year elapse between hardcover and softcover printings. (And they have also gambled on arguably less marketable - though important and entertaining - artists such as Kim Deitch and Ben Katchor, whose The Beauty Supply District was just reissued in paper.)

Fantagraphics, who in their quarter-century-plus have done much of the heavy lifting in the ongoing "comics are art for adults" campaign, may be catching this bug. During the long history of the Hernandez Brothers' Love and Rockets series, fans were given three simultaneous options when new collections were released: a paperback, a slightly costlier hardback, or a pricy signed edition. The latest compilation to draw from the series, though - Jaime Hernandez' Dicks and Deedees - is only being offered in hardcover. The same goes for Palomar, the upcoming complete edition of Gilbert Hernandez' epic Heartbreak Soup - a newbie-friendly volume that should finally bring Beto's masterpiece the kind of readership that Spiegelman got for Maus.

It would be gratifying, as Fantagraphics gets solidly on its financial feet, to see Gilbert Hernandez (along with Jaime, the company's longest-running star) having his book become the kind of phenomenon Maus was. Despite the bumpy road his publishers have traveled, they may be now in a position to deliver just that. Fantagraphics may still "need your help," but you would be hard-pressed to find an intelligent comics reader who would say they - and their younger counterparts in the industry - weren't holding up their part of the bargain. •

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