Anthologies are often the proving ground for innovation in comics.
Comics were birthed in innovation. The newspapers comic strips’ anarchic humor, along with early cinema, synthesized vaudeville, minstrel and photography to create new visual languages. This lasted until the end of the Jazz Age, and the ascension of radio and Talkies as the dominant pop culture mediums. Nonetheless, invention continued with the great newspaper adventure strips, leading to superheroes, horror and crime in the nascent comic books, until they censored themselves out of pop cultural relevance with the Comics Code in the Fifties. The fans of these “Golden Age” comics were the ones who started the Undergrounds with Zap Comix, an anthology of cartoonists publishing communally in the wake of the Summer of Love.
As with the hippie love-ins, things turned dark quickly in comix, a freewheeling attitude toward sex giving way to a culture that often degraded feminine creative spirit. In reaction, women published their own comics anthologies such as Tits ‘n’ Clits, channeling anarchy into feminist manifesto. These were very influential as the undergrounds gave way to the Punk/DIY-inspired Raw Magazine, edited by Art Spiegelman (Maus) and Francoise Mouly (later art editor of the New Yorker) to provide an outlet for avant-garde comics. Thus the era of great anthologies began. This model of self-published personal expression led eventually to creator-owned titles in the mainstream comics business and a new market for Euro-style albums in the bookstores. Here’s a list of some of the best, many still available cheaply through online booksellers, and constituting a history of the growth of adult-oriented comics in their current renaissance:
A qualified tip of the hat must first be given to Heavy Metal magazine, a pioneer in bringing Euro-style sophisticated fantasy and sci-fi (meaning non-superhero), along with gratuitously naked, large-breasted women to America in the late 70’s.
Arcade Comics Revue, Art Spiegelman and Bill Griffith: provided an early link between the UG’s and Raw. It featured R.Crumb, Jay Lynch, and Griffith’s early Zippy stories, among others. I was not living near a decent newsstand at the time and missed it, but it’s available through online sellers.
Raw(1980-1991), Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly: To paraphrase the old line about The Velvet Underground, it didn’t sell a lot, but everyone who bought one started their own comic. This large format mag revolutionized the market for intelligent, artful comics and was the first great alternative comics anthology. It still inspires imitation, starting with its ironic tag lines. “The Magazine That Lost Its Faith In Nihilism”, one early issue deadpans, and it’s one indication of Spiegelman and Mouly’s unique genius that no other magazine was able to come up with tag lines as funny and clever as theirs. Its aesthetic was edgy, punk, expressionistic, as with Gary Panter’s Jimbo. Their stable of artists such as Richard McGuire, Jerry Moriarty, and Joost Swarte are now stars, and they started the careers of others, such as Chris Ware. They also provided my first taste of alternative Manga ( Yoshiharu Tsuge’s Red Flowers, flipped. Neither Raw nor I knew then how defeating to the original vision is printing Manga left-to-right). But there were certainly many niches to fill besides Raw’s New York School/Euro Clear Line, and a host of anthologies arose in the 80’s and 90’s to fill them.
Weirdo, Robert and Aline Crumb: A poor man’s Raw, traditional magazine-sized newsprint comic not afraid to publish some very unrefined artists, including the first episodes of Bob and wife Aline’s innovatively synthetic collaborations later collected in Drawn Together. This is largely because Crumb had made enough of a name with Zap that his other contributions and covers could keep it afloat for thirty-or-so gloriously uneven issues.
Escape, Paul Gravett: A well-produced, London-based magazine that was definitely inspired by Raw, even publishing many Raw artists in a tribute to the New York School in #13. Mostly concerned with the first great wave of British creators like Brian Bolland, Eddie Campbell and Carol Swain, who were soon to have a big impact on American alternative and mainstream comics alike.
Graphic Story Monthly, Zero Zero, Street Music Gary Groth and Kim Thompson: After the demise of Weirdo, its publisher, Fantagraphics, undertook their own series of anthologies in magazine and comic book format, all featuring fresh faces from the burgeoning American alternative scene, along with significant British and Euro artists. Serialized stories by Jacques Tardi and others abound here.
Drawn and Quarterly, Chris Oliveros: D&Q brought a new tone in their editorial choices, leaning less on the raucous, edgy Punk/Alternatives of Fantagraphics with their UG roots, and more toward the European clean line revivalists such as Dupuy and Berberian and the retro styles of Canadian cartoonists, such as Seth and Michel Rabagliati. They also brought light on forgotten classic cartoonists, such as Frank King.
Blab, Monte Beauchamp: Provided a link between the graphics of yesteryear ( e.g, Artzybasheff), underground and alternative comics (Spain Rodriguez), neo-realists (Camille Rose Garcia) and cutting edge illustration ( Baseman, Christian Northeast). It was also the first to go to TPB format, thus making it a pioneer in the move to the bookstore market.
Nobrow, Sam Arthur, Alex Spiro, Ben Newman: Another English publication, also combines illustration with comics with a strong emphasis on cutting edge European work such as Blexbolex, making it almost indispensable.
Mome and Drawn & Quarterly Showcase, Eric Reynolds and Chris Oliveros, respectively: Both Fantagraphics and D&Q continued to push the anthology form, moving to TPB’s after the demise of earlier magazine formats, perhaps in an effort to make them more profitable. They may have had some success with this; both had long runs and are widely available in the secondary market, suggesting decent print runs. D&Q featured longer stories by 2-3 artists per annual issue, including Genevieve Elverum and Nicholas Robel; Fanta continued to serialize up and comers like Tim Hensley, Gabrielle Bell and Dash Shaw.
Best American Comics, Jessica Abel and Matt Madden, series editors: This annual is a very nice summary of recent trends, with individual guest editors choosing current work by long time favorites like the Hernandez brothers and Chris Ware, along with new faces from web- and mini comics like Kate Beaton and Noah Van Sciver.
Kramer’s Ergot, Sammy Harkham: The heyday of anthologies seems to have passed now, with only this, Best American, and Blab still publishing. But Kramer’s is the current gold standard. Harkham has his ear to the ground for fresh faces soon to be discovered (Anya Davidson) with an emphasis on the avant garde of the Fort Thunder school and others, such as Mat Brinkmann, Marc Bell and Ron Rege. Bonus: he often includes his own sublime work. Some of these are still available at cover price, but many have become very pricey collectibles.
Extra Credit! There is an increased interest in comics criticism, and these journals mix literary exegesis, art critique and comics history to varying degree, along with actual comics; filling a void in the understanding of the medium, which can be quite superficial in traditional critical circles. These can be uneven; Thierry Smolderen’s painfully jargon-filled study of the invention of word balloons in early comics from Comic Art #8 was fortunately cleaned up and much more focussed when he included it in his later book The Origins of Comics, From William Hogarth to Winsor McCay. But they can be sublime, too: a tribute to the illustrated letters of H.C.Westerman, in the form of an illustrated letter by David Sandlin in The Ganzfeld #4.
The Comics Journal Special Edition, Gary Groth: The regular Comics Journal is famous for clotted, digressive meanderings at length and contentious criticism, but these stick mainly to the cartoonists themselves, from Lionel Feininger and Al Hirschfeld on up to Steven Weisman.
The Ganzfeld, Dan Nadel: This is why magazine junkies (and hopefully magazines) will never go away- Sandlin’s is not the only relentlessly obscure synthesis on art and literature Nadel has published; Henry Fielding “On Taste”, Lawrence Wechsler on Edward Snow on part of a Bruegel painting, Jonathon Rosen’s expressionistic medical diagrams, and the Hairy Who’s History of The Hairy Who. Also, the strange Manga of Shigeru Sugiura. Nadel is now editor of The Comics Journal’s website. Fine, it’s undoubtedly less stress-inducing than small press publishing, but web sites do not hold a candle to bizarre eccentric journals in my house. Print runs seem to vary per issue; some numbers are easy to find, some not.
Comic Art, Todd Hignite: Not quite as eccentric, but certainly wide ranging. Unlike the others, Comic Art rarely reprints any comic longer than a single page, so they are more accurately a critical review than an anthology. But in the larger purpose of discovering new artists and placing them into context in both comics history and cultural history as a whole, its essential, and also still relatively cheap and easy to find online. The early photo-comics of Rudolph Topfer, the perverse scatologies of S.Clay Wilson in the underground era, and the quiet existential horror of Anke Feuchtenberger are analyzed and the explorations of comics theory, including Smolderen’s, are often ground-breaking.
Introducing oneself to such a variety of comics through so many eras and geographies would be impossible on the normal budget without anthologies. If you are curious about the current creative explosion in comics, you would do well to start with some of these.
Denver’s DINK Comics and Art Expo is April 8-9 at McNichols Building, with headliners Los Bros Hernandez. I’ll be there, and I’ll write about it sometime in mid-April.