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Arts Framed – John DeFore on Comix 

All you ever wanted to know...

We’re well past the point now, I hope, when a fledgling comics column needs to make the case that “Comics are for adults now! They can be serious literature!” But just because folks accept the presence and merit of the graphic novel doesn’t mean we’re all sufficiently educated in its history and mechanics. Sensing a need, publishers have recently provided some helpful books along those lines — many of which are as worthwhile for longtime fans as for newcomers.

Masters of American Comics (Yale), published alongside a landmark museum exhibition in Los Angeles, is the richest of the bunch, accessible to all but fascinating even if you already know who E.C. Segar (Popeye) and Lyonel Feininger (The Kin-der-Kids) are. The book’s first half is a lavishly illustrated history of American comics, from The Yellow Kid through Chris Ware. But the cognoscenti will thrill to the second half, in which more than a dozen masters are praised by unexpected voices: film critic J. Hoberman on Madman Harvey Kurtzman, Matt Groening on punk savant Gary Panter, and so on.

Yale’s Pictures & Words, by Roanne Bell and Mark Sinclair, eschews the Great Man approach in favor of a taxonomy of “narrative illustration” and a focus on recent developments. Garden-variety comic books are just a small part of the picture here, with big sections devoted to single-panel cartooning, esoteric text-plus-image works, and “silent” narratives in which pictures tell stories by themselves. The collection focuses almost entirely on artists who aren’t yet stars (Palestine’s Joe Sacco being one exception), and does a great job of exposing new talent while helping us think about cartooning in fresh ways.

Three new anthologies pitch themselves in varying degrees at newcomers to illustrated narratives; their writing and content vary widely. Stephen Weiner’s The 101 Best Graphic Novels (NBM) aims at librarians and others who might not know good from bad when trying to select titles; the synopses are short and the illustrations scarce, but the list covers a nice, broad swath of what’s available, from genre and superhero titles to autobiography and art comics.

Year’s Best Graphic Novels, Comics & Manga (St. Martin’s Press; Byron Preiss and Howard Zimmerman, ed.) doesn’t quite do what it says: Though published at the close of 2005, the “year” it covers is May 2003 to December 2004. What’s more, it sacrifices some editorial discernment in favor of spreading the attention around to various publishers. But at $19.95, your comic dollar could hardly stretch farther: Instead of offering paragraph-long synopses, the book’s editors just plonk down huge excerpts (as long as a dozen pages) of their favorite titles. For any browser who’s ever heard a clerk shout, “Hey, this ain’t no library!” the collection is a boon.

In Graphic Novels: Stories to Change Your Life (Collins Design), Paul Gravett works hard to make an exotic world accessible to new readers. If you can avoid bristling at the schoolbook tone, though, the anthology strikes an excellent balance between classic works and promising newcomers, grouping them into general categories and explicating themes and storytelling devices.

Out of left field comes 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style (Chamberlain), in which cartoonist Matt Madden threatens to become the next Scott McCloud. That is to say, he’s an artist intent on explaining his craft (as the required-reading Understanding Comics did) to those who until now have been passive consumers. Madden takes a single scene and depicts it in 99 different — and increasingly imaginative — ways, shifting points of view, graphic styles, attitudes, and genres. After 20 or so, a deep sense of amazement sets in: What the hell will Madden think of next? Often, the answer is hilarious.

Also of note this month:

Eternal sad sack Ivan Brunetti may take forever to produce new work, but when he does it’s a must-read: The oversize Schizo No. 4 (Fantagraphics) spans 1999 to 2005 and employs various styles for single-page odes to artists from Charles Schultz to Piet Mondrian and French pop star Françoise Hardy. Brunetti may occasionally find life not worth living, but his work is a delight.

Similar in high-production-value format is Fantagraphics’ new Ignatz Series, which focuses on international artists who have often been featured in highbrow anthologies but are underexposed on their own Stateside. The second batch of debuts is now available: interiorae, which involves a Harvey-like apparition; Chimera, a wordless, dreamy hallucination by RAW veteran Lorenzo Mattotti; and Ganges, the most friendly in the bunch, in which Kevin Huizenga wanders through some comic slice-of-life episodes with an endearingly modest style.

By John DeFore

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