A Canon for Comics?

Cartoonists, the writing is on the wall. Step into the Jewish Museum in New York City, which is currently cohosting the wonderful "Masters of American Comics" exhibit, and read it for yourself: "'Masters of American Comics' endeavors to establish a canon of fourteen of the most influential artists working in the medium throughout the 20th century." The framing-and-hanging of cartoons is nothing new—Mort Walker, the creator of "Beetle Bailey" and "Hi and Lois," founded the Museum of Cartoon Art in Port Chester, N.Y., in 1974. But to establish a canon? The idea of needing some ivory-tower rubber stamp seems anathema to this most outré of outsider arts.

To be sure, literary comics (or "graphic novels" as laymen call them to differentiate from daily strips like, say, "Dilbert") have steadily been gaining cachet in the mainstream popular culture since 1986, when Art Spiegelman's "Maus," the story of his father's Holocaust survival, won the Pulitzer Prize. The "American Splendor" series was adapted into an Oscar-nominated film in 2003. "Jimmy Corrigan" author and hipster darling Chris Ware edited the wildly popular 2004 McSweeney's Quarterly Concern Issue Number 13 devoted to comics. And earlier this month, Gene Luen Yang's "American Born Chinese," became the first graphic novel to receive a National Book Award nomination, albeit in the young-adult category.

But there has never been a level of establishment interest in comics like there is now. Yale University Press is releasing not one but two cartoon books this month. "An Anthology of Graphic Fiction," edited by cartoonist Ivan Brunetti, assembles some of the most influential comics from the past nearly 100 years, from usual suspects Robert Crumb Ware and Spiegelman, to surprising finds like a 1919 novel in woodcuts by Frans Masereel. Still, Brunetti will be the first to express ambivalence about being anointed by academia. "Ever since 'Maus,' we thought comics would be taken more seriously," Brunetti tells NEWSWEEK. "It's taken 20 years, but the rest of the world is catching up. There's good and bad to that. There is a certain amount of nostalgia for those days when nobody cared and there wasn't as much scrutiny. Maybe this is just me." (He even bristles slightly at the book's title: "when I hear 'Graphic Fiction' I think of 'Portnoy's Complaint'.") Yale's other offering, "In the Studio," narrows the focus even further, peeking behind the curtain at nine innovators—including Brunetti, Ware, Crumb and Spiegelman—through extensive interviews and looks at personal collections and outtakes.

Even Norton—publisher of those massive American-literature doorstops we had to lug through college—is getting into the game. They've given Will Eisner, one the genre's true granddaddies, a loving treatment in "Will Eisner's New York" this month, a compilation of four of his tragicomic love letters to the Big Apple published over the last 20 years of his career (he died in January 2005). Eisner's stories are as good as any top-rate short fiction. At his best he's on par with O. Henry. At his worst, an incredibly moving Hallmark card. There is sentiment and humor here, yes, but there is also a brutal honesty that does not flinch from the harshness and poverty of an uncaring big city: a couple witnesses a rape but demurs from identifying the assailant, offering instead a litany of flimsy excuses; an immigrant single mother's only water supply is shut off when the fire department clamps a leaky hydrant; a man has a heart attack in broad daylight, attracting gawkers but no help. And there is no doubt of Eisner's influence on today's masters. What is Chris Ware's boundary-breaking "Building Stories," which is excerpted in the Yale anthology, if not a direct descendant of Eisner's "The Building," an interwoven narrative of four ghosts that haunt the site of an old skyscraper?

But wait, there's more. Houghton Mifflin, which has been publishing its "Best American Short Stories" anthologies since 1915 released its first ever "Best American Comics 2006" this month. Edited by Harvey Pekar, the author of "American Splendor," the book comprises what he considers to be among the year's best comics, excerpts, pamphlets and Web items. For a grumpy 67-year-old man, Pekar champions his share of challenging work. Opposite "Complacency Kills," illustrated Iraq-war reportage by embedded cartoonist Joe Sacco, is "Only Disconnect," a portrait of a dysfunctional lesbian couple by Alison Bechdel. "The Amazing Life of Onion Jack" is one of a couple ironic nods to the superheroes who dominated strips in the 1960s and '70s (here the reluctant superhero wants nothing more than to open a bistro). "Busted," a portrait of a high-school oddball, looks and feels like found art, yet it deftly distills the campus freak in a few crude strokes.

There is much richness here. But is it a step in the march toward canonization, a charge led by an éminence grise ? Pekar balks. "Believe me, people are not overwhelming me with phone calls right now. I could use a little more money." It'll be interesting to see how different the anthology looks next year in the hands of another editor. Pekar himself is uncomfortable with the idea of ranking comics or deciding what should make the cut, he tells NEWSWEEK. "I normally don't go in for these contests, [choosing] what's the best," he says. "I've been on the other end of that when the movie was up for an Academy Award. It's a lot of bulls--t. But in the case of comics, it could give comics a boost."

In his preface to "The Western Canon," Harold Bloom writes: "One mark of an originality that can win canonical status for a literary work is a strangeness that we either never altogether assimilate, or that becomes such a given that we are blinded to its idiosyncrasies." On that score, not only does the "Masters" exhibit succeed with its explicit urge to canonize, but so do each of the new anthologies. Certainly, most of the cartoonists on display—Crumb, Spiegelman, Ware, Brunetti, Daniel Clowes, Gary Panter, Frank King, Charles Schulz—also appear in many of the new anthologies. This hints that canons may be self-selecting. And, according to John Carlin, who co-organized the exhibit, his whole point is to ruffle a few feathers. "A canon is meant to be scrutinized and ultimately deconstructed and replaced with different things," he says.

Which is perhaps why some of the oldest stuff in his exhibit, the work that's survived the longest and influenced the most, happens to be among the most sophisticated and wonderful cartoons in the collection. There is no question that Winsor McCay, who created the surreal and beautiful "Little Nemo in Slumberland," was one of the most avant-garde American artists at the dawn of the 20th century. A generation later, George Herriman's antic "Krazy Kat" would be a strip beloved by the masses and self-described intellectuals alike (something "Marmaduke" would be hard pressed to claim today). But how would Herriman feel about a place in the canon? Let's let his work speak for itself. In one 1924 strip an art dealer suspiciously eyes a portrait of Ignatz the mouse painted by Officer Pupp: "It smacks of sin and felony—still, art knows no barrier."