The McSweeney's phenomenon is a force to be reckoned with in American graphic design. It began as - and still is - an online journal with an admirably understated visual presentation: while website designers worked themselves into grand mal seizures of hyperactivity in the late twentieth century, McSweeneys.net never abandoned its plain vanilla format. But it was when founder Dave Eggers moved into the world of conventional publishing with McSweeney's Quarterly Concern that the design world took notice. Simultaneously intricate and restrained, the dense-packed all-Garamond pages of the Quarterly refracted Victorian foppishness through a prism of ironic cool, and provoked Andrew Blauvelt to take to the pages of Eye to proclaim the arrival of a new movement: Complex Simplicity.
Eggers's brand of simplicity got ever more complex with successive issues: issue 4 was fourteen saddle-stitched books in a cardboard box; issue 7, nine perfect-bound books held in a case with a massive rubber band; issue 11, ersatz-elegant brown leatherette with gold foil stamping. The latest issue, Number 13, guest edited and designed by Chris Ware, has just been published. It goes far beyond anything McSweeney's has ever done. It is extraordinary.
Eggers is a self-taught designer who famously writes his best-selling books in Quark Xpress rather than Microsoft Word; the cover of McSweeney's No. 2 included the aphorism "If words are to be used as design elements then let designers write them." But thinking of him as a designer required quite a leap when Blauvelt did it. Now he's the perennial flavor of the month. He was featured in the last Cooper-Hewitt design biennial. At the AIGA Voice conference, he entertained the crowd by evaluating his pages in terms of the frequency of their paragraph breaks, and noted that the most recent IBM annual report had a more-than-suspicious resemblance to the design (and editorial tone) of the most recent McSweeney's Quarterly. Perhaps he began to sense that when corporate America starts appropriating you, it's time for a change. Enter Chris Ware.
The theme of McSweeney's No. 13, not surprising to anyone who knows Ware's amazing work, is the comics. The 264-page hard cover book is bound with a giant, folded, comic-festooned dustjacket ("an enormous dust jacket that does much more than guard against dust," as it says on the website). It took me right back to the way the Sunday paper used to arrive on my childhood doorstep, and it conjured up that same sense of excitement. Inside is a feast of work: beautifully wrought pages by R. Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Julie Doucet, Chester Brown, Daniel Clowes, Charles Burns and Richard McGuire, and of course Ware himself, to name a few. These are complemented by thoughtful essays from Michael Chabon, John Updike, Chip Kidd, and others. Finally, there are appreciations of cartoonists of the past, including Rodolphe Topffer, George Harriman, Milt Gross, and - perhaps most tellingly - Charles Schulz, the creator of Peanuts.
Ira Glass, the eloquent host of Public Radio International's This American Life, describing his childhood obsession with Peanuts, nails the essentially tragic tone of McSweeney's No. 13 in particular and the world of cartoons in general. He read Schulz's strip not for amusement ("I don't remember ever thinking they were funny") but for reassurance ("I thought of myself as a loser and a loner and Peanuts helped me take comfort in that"). Charles Schulz himself understood the world view he was setting forth. Glass quotes from a 1985 interview: "All the loves in the strip are unrequited. All the baseball games are lost, all the test scores are D-minuses, the Great Pumpkin never comes, and the football is always pulled away."
The artists that Ware brought together for McSweeney's No. 13 do not seem to lead enviable lives. They are, as Glass says, loners and losers, inept at human relationships, tormented by the popular kids, given to swearing, hostility, and compulsive masturbation: in short, like Charlie Brown, nerds. But drawing and storytelling is their way to connect with the world, and with us. Lynda Barry's painfully revelatory contribution, my favorite, describes the moral quandary faced by the cartoonist (and perhaps by the designer as well): "Is this good? Does this suck? I'm not sure when these two questions became the only two questions I had about my work, or when making pictures and stories turned into something I called 'my work' - I just know I'd stopped enjoying it and instead began to dread it."
In the four short pages that follow, Barry seems to overcome her dread to find a place of solace. So do the other artists in the book, and, somehow, so do we. In a hostile, uncaring world filled with senseless wrongs, McSweeney's No. 13 provides a moment of exquisite, gorgeous revenge.