Michael Bierut | Essays

McSweeney's No. 13 and the Revenge of the Nerds


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.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Graphic Design, Media

Comments [38]

Why is it that half the time I read one of your posts I end up spending money? I even donated to WBEZ Chicago after becoming severely addicted to This American Life (after reading about it here a few months back). Thanks tho' ... can't wait to get my copy of #13. Anything involving Chris Ware ...
marian bantjes

...and don't forget the McSweeney's magazine "The Believer" which I think is wonderfully designed and very consistent.

If you have picked up a recent copy of Zembla, (http://www.zemblamagazine.com/) though it is nicely designed, I feel it is not designed by writers or readers, as it feels more like the usual scenario of copy written in word and then handed over to the designers in the next room to play with. The glossy paper and size is less reader friendly than the 'warm' Believer I feel.

This marks out the Eggers design approach I think. Once a good design solution is found that totally suits the product, it is stuck with consistently come hell or high water, like a good piece of product design that you know just doesn't need any more tinkering with.
As opposed to the endless distraction that is the magazine designed 'spread by spread'. For literary magazines anyway, it's the content that counts.
david arthurs

> Why is it that half the time I read one of your posts I end up spending money?


You crack me up, Marian. But you are so right! I saw this McSweeney's the other day and instantly wanted to buy it.

Oh man oh man oh man...

by the way, for those in London, Ware'll be speaking at the ICA on the 8th of June.
Kevin Lo

There is so much to be said about Chris Ware, though much of it has already been said in reviews, essays, and soon (this Fall), one of Rick Poynor's Monographic series will be devoted to Ware.

Every generation an artist comes along (sorry for the cliche, but sometimes its true) who literally startles the world with his or her talent, intelligence, wit, and craft. Ware is that artist. But for readers of Design Observer, he's something more: He is the designer's artist.

Of course, I can only speak for myself (but I'm sure I speak for many appreciative others): He is the artist I wish I could be.

For years, since I was introduced to is early Quimby strips (now collected in a beautiful Fantagraphics volume) I've marvelled at his transformation of comics into graphic totalities, transfiguration of design into narrative structures, and his downright brilliant storytelling prowess. But I do not see Ware as just one in a line post-Underground comix artist turned graphic "novelists," but as a bridge between comic art and design, a master of the kinetic pace and moving space whose capacity to pique my design aesthetic as well as my comics love has rarely been achieved with such aplomb. He goes into the pantheon with R. Crumb, Victor Moscoso, Rick Griffin, and Art Spiegelman as artists who so masterfully wed images and letterforms (the ingredients of design) to convey absorbing tales, they cannot simply be described as comics artists (or the now-fadish "graphic novelist" rubric does not do the job, either).

At the risk of sounding hyberbolic, Ware just might be the most significant artist of our time. If not, however, he's definitely tapped into powers that have been long dormant in design. Did I say he's the designer's artist? He's also the designer's designer.
steven heller

Gosh, I hate to be the cranky bastard here, but McSweeney's -- at least every issue before this one -- just isn't my cup of tea.

To me, it represents the latest victory of context over content. By and large, much of the writing distinctive of McSweeney's is (in my opinion) so insubstantial, so self-consciously baroque and precious and insular, that the end result for me isn't boredom as much as mild nausea.

From the past volumes I've looked over -- and I've perused through pretty much all of them, hoping to catch the literary euphoria that has so infected many of my cohorts -- I can't help but feel that this particular emperor indeed has no clothes. (Well, not counting the handsome dust jackets).

I mean, jeez, if I'm going to wallow in obvious hipsterism, I want it to at least be fun and well-executed, not ironically arch, foppish and bloodless.

It's no wonder that McSweeney's has caused such a rift among many in the underground/indie literary community. Just ask any serious aspiring writer what they thing of, say, early McSweeney's contributor/current literary darling Neal Pollack. Words of either high acclaim or scorn will be flung at you faster than you can duck.

Designers, however, don't seem to be scrutinizing McSweeney's as much as other publications -- I sorta miss those old fights about Raygun (maybe McSweeney's is just too wordy) -- which is unfortunate, because seemingly every cooler-than-thou literary magazine has since copped Eggers' genteel, knowingly eccentric visual style.

Whether McSweeney's aesthetic is presenting a good design solution or not, I presently can't seem to escape its influence on the hipster literary zine market -- and I'd sure like to.

All of this isn't to say that I don't admire Eggers and company for their creativity and energy in manufacturing it -- nor their drive in promoting it (which shouldn't be overlooked). The fact that it exists at all is inspiring as hell to me. It's the end product that kinda bums me out.

However, since I haven't seen the latest volume yet, it's with great excitement -- and a little trepidation -- that, on Mr. Beirut's recommendation, I'm checking this one out.

Because as soulless and overblown as I may find McSweeney's, I couldn't think of three individuals who (from my standpoint) currently personify pure soulfulness, masterful artistry and the highest caliber of self-expression more than Chris Ware, Dan Clowes and Ira Glass (among many others in this issue's stunning roster of contributors).

Those three guys have, on more than a few occassions, given me a reason to wake up in the morning.

Since I'm such an enormous fan of Chris Ware in particular -- the only living cartoonist/typographer/writer/fine artist/etc. whom I'd unequivocally call a genius (and I'm glad he's getting some much-deserved props on Design Observer) -- perhaps his involvement with McSweeney's will even alter my opinion of the publication itself, proving me wrong after all of my blowhard vitriol here. If anyone can change my thinking in leading by example, it's Chris Ware.

So who knows. Maybe I'm the chump.
Jon Resh

hmmm... I wouldn't be quite so hyperbolic about Ware. I collected all the original issues of 'novelty library', and though they are great visually and in their detail, the story is actually very slight. Spending 10 yrs on one specific small story seems a little like a waste of talent to me. Perhaps because the layouts and covers are so "designed" they overshadow other artists for graphic designers, but I don't see Ware up there with David B, Dan Clowes, George Herriman, Schultz, Ben Katchor or others.

Your critique is valid, but I think spending ten years (and doubtless more to come) perfecting his art is an extraordinary act of will and passion. Schultz, Herriman, etc. spent equal if not more time developing their characters. Ware is not Joe Sacco, David Clowes, or Art Spiegelman, in terms of narrating the zeitgeist. But he brings a truly unique intelligence and extraordinary serendipity to this sequential form. Ware is by no means one dimensional, either, his repretory is expanding. Acme Novelty Comics is but one obsessive path - have you ever seen is zine devoted to ragtime? Moreover, just look at his collected work over the past decade - from the remarkable sketchbook to this issue of McS - there is range and depth. Design is but one mastery. Sure it is seductive, and at times overpowering, but if Ware was about style alone, I wouldn't be so hyperbolic.
steve Heller

I think what intrigues me about the potential of this issue is in Michael's title "[...] Revenge of the Nerds" (a phrase I can now only hear in the voice of the ultimate nerd from the movie American Splendor). I agree with Steven Heller's eloquent description of Chris Ware's place in, at least my heart, as a designer, but where he really gets me is closer to the bone ... usually, the funny bone.

In a recent self-examination of what makes me, marian, laugh, one of the key ingredients I came up with is self-deprecation. I love self deprecating humour. Ira Glass is Fun-ny for this reason, and Chris Ware is also a master. Ware's other comic genius is mimicry—also one of my favourite forms of humour (every 4-point sentence in the front matter or Quimby the Mouse is a side-splitter). In my mind he is closely linked with Bruce McCall. Yes, they are graphic geniuses, but they also share an uncanny ability to observe and mimic to comic perfection (from McCall's recent New Yorker cover: "Every floor a penthouse." FUNNY!).

So aside from wanting the book as an object, what I'm really anticipating is the content. Whether for comic or tragic effect (Lynda Barry), I look forward to a walk with the nerds and perhaps also, with a little hand-held mirror.
marian bantjes

I think what Ware is certainly good at is exploring the possibilities of visual "space" on the page. I think Richard Mcguire's "here" panels in Raw magazine has a huge influence on him, and he admitted as much in many interviews.

Not unlike the graphical segways in the original "Thomas Crown Affair" I think Ware is certainly placing the potential of visual structure at the core of his story. I'd like to see him move on to do this in a more interesting story than the loser that is Jimmy Corrigan. It would be great to see him team up with a writer or existing story and see what he could do.

So who knows. Maybe I'm the chump.
If you are, Jon, I'm right alongside.
Kenneth FitzGerald

...and though they are great visually and in their detail, the story is actually very slight...

I'd have to respectfully disagree with you there, David. In fact, in my estimation, Ware's exceptional writing and story-telling ability is under-appreciated in part because his visual style is so spellbinding and distinctive.

While Ware's graphic and illustrative work pack such an incredible wallop, his story lines are very subdued and quiet, which, I think, makes the quality of the writing go overlooked. To me, Ware's stories and their visual execution compliment each other brilliantly.

(And this isn't even mentioning the comic genius of his much-imitated phony ads in the side-panels of many of the Acme books, with Ware's inspired humor writing outshining even the hilariously absurd fakeries of, say, The Onion.)

This is all very subjective, of course. I have a number of friends who share your opinion, David. And I like your idea about Ware possibly collaborating with a good writer on a project -- the results would surely be interesting.

Nonetheless, I've been genuinely moved by Ware's stories on their own -- not just the visual artistry, but the narratives, plots, dialogue, etc.

For instance: in the case of the Jimmy Corrigan episode that appeared in Blab #8 (where young Corrigan is trapped on a deserted island, only to be "rescued" by Ware's malevolent "Superman" character), the unexpectedly heartbreaking conclusion was so powerful that, upon first reading it, I found myself suddenly teary-eyed, with a lump in my throat and all. (Damn, there goes my street-cred...)

True, maybe I'm just a hopeless milksop. But still: how many works of graphic design have made anyone here -- dedicated design nerds, all of us -- cry?
Jon Resh

Just a fawning p.s. about Ware:

Every art director I know wants to work with Ware. So I give all due credit to Chip Kidd for being one of the first to bring Ware out of the comics ghetto into our design world. His jacket for American Illustration, the first time I saw him in a venue other than comics, was sublime. I also give credit to Dave Eggers and Joe Holzman (Nest) for continually publishing Ware's art and words.

A few years back Ware designed a special issue of the Times Book Review. My all time favorite issue. He had carte blanche to make the cover over in his image (even redesign the Book Review nameplate and Times Old English logo - which he redrew in an early 20th century style). It was one thing to have his compelling art grace my newsprint pages, but it was another to intimately watch the way he worked. Everything - and I mean every last piece of lettering (and there was a lot) was initially created by hand and then rendered on the computer. In addition to creating a Ware-ian world of retro-sci-fi reader-borgs, he developed an intricate storyline - part word and part pantomime - that continues to give me joy every time I pull the issue out of the drawer.

Jon Resh writes that Ware's design made him cry. For me the operative response is glee. And its glee that I never get tired of experiencing.
steven heller

The literary output associated with the McSweeney's genre can certainly be called "self-baroque, precious and insular" not to mention "ironically arch, foppish and bloodless" (all quotes courtesy of Jon Resh).

What interests me about McSweeney's as a phenomenon is the way that graphic design has been used to create a context (another word from Jon) for the work that has a transformative effect. I don't mean the design has been used just to make things look cool, but rather has been used to underline, to heighten the ironic effect. I'm sure, for instance, I'm not alone in having read Eggers's fine-print "operating instructions" for A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and discovering, hey, he's right, the story does get boring about 2/3 of the way through! The design creates a kind of, er, meta-context for what would otherwise be a somewhat flawed novel.

What makes McSweeney's No. 13 different is that Chris Ware brings no irony to the task at hand. Obsessiveness, yes. Even self-pity in spots. But nowhere do you doubt his sincerity. The result has a kind of purity of intent, and, for all its putative nerdiness, a refreshing lack of self-consciousness.
Michael Bierut

Thanks for the in-depth review. This one is going on my Will Buy list.

A few months back, I bought the paperback Quimby the Mouse. I had a lot of stuff in my reading queue; since I like saving the best for last, Quimby and Ware's sketchbook went to the end of the queue.

However, I did peek inside, to test out the magnifying glass I purchased for the occasion.

I read one of the fake ads, an gung-ho Popular Mechanix classifieds-style invitation to get into the business of raising giant frogs.

It was bitter and mocking and the little engraving was no work of art . . . but I spent at least fifteen minutes laughing and weeping.
Stefan Jones

I think it's interesting that the multi-frame comic narrative approach that Ware expanded upon to such extremes so well, has never really been taken up by cinema to any great extent. Multi-frame was dabbled with in the Film of Woodstock and by Pablo Ferro in sequences in the 1968 Thomas Crown Affair, and recently a bit in the film of the Hulk by Ang lee but in the 70's I believe it was hailed as being the future of cinema but just never really took off. Peter Greenaway is I think the only director currently who is exploring its possibilities to any great extent currently.

it would be interesting to see how for example a standard blockbuster like "day after tomorrow" could be re-edited with a Ware-like sense of visual depth and drama for those of us who can take a visual complexity beyond frame following frame narratives, which even art house cinema still glories in.

david, i would just like to add to your list mike figgis' 'timecode' and the split-frame scene in roger avery's 'the rules of attraction'. im interested in knowing which parts of chris ware's work you are referencing. the use of the split-frame in a movie in many ways may be more powerful than in a comic book, as there is a true sense of simultaneity as things are happening exactly at the same time on screen. in this sense, i would argue that comics still remain more sequential, as readers are normally prone to read a single page from left to right.

for me, chris ware stands apart from dan clowes and adrian tomine (two of my other favorites) in that ware really is pushing the form of the comic book, both making it more of a graphic object as well as experimenting with the relationship between graphic and narrative structures. what interests me the most is his skillful employment of graphic techniques such as information design, repetition/variation, and type to depict very a very human sense of loneliness and futility. just as the main character on the cover/poster on the hardcover edition of 'jimmy corrigan' is dehumanized (while still managing to keep a look of sadness) by the reductive graphic language in which he is represented, so too are the characters in the story limited and constrained by history, the actions of previous generations, and the advancement of time.

i think ware fits with art spiegelman very well in terms of how they both engage with history (race relations in chicago and the holocaust, respectively) and how history finds its way into people's personal lives. while joe sacco's protagonist in 'safe area gorazde' is an objective, removed journalist, and clowes' and tomine's stories are basically ahistorical, ware's and spiegelman's engagement with history reflects a certain maturity that is pretty rare in comic books.

btw, has anyone here been following ware's contributions to nest magazine, a series called 'building'? ive managed to only catch a few installments while checking nest out on newsstands, but id be interested in finding a collection of these, if anyone here knows how to get all of them in one package.
manuel miranda

The McSweeney's phenomenon annoys me. I love the journal; it generally feels good in the hands (which is an important thing that many book designers seem to forget about--McSweeney's feels like a book, not like someone trying to realize some theoretical construct of a book), although the text rarely gets to breathe enough to be entirely easy on the eyes. The baroque feel of the writing, after so many decades of ridiculous, oppressive (in the sense of overly-solemn) monotonous scrutiny of minutia in the most spartan styles imaginable, is quite refreshing, provided you don't over-indulge. In many ways it is in reaction to what Robertson Davies described as the American mode of writing (as exemplified by the often stilted pages of the New Yorker); he was referring to stories "where whether the family will have pumpkin pie or something else on Thanksgiving Day is a decision with infinite psychological sexual repercussions. I take this quite seriously. I admire their subtlety but I get so sick of it." Davies went one way (from minutia to broad themes), and Eggers & Co. went to the extremes of minutiae, to the point where the kind of thing Davies was writing about became not subtle so much as frivolous. And a bit of frivolity is exactly what American writing (I say this as an outsider) needed, and needed badly. The design reflects this, I think, is mostly-positive ways.

But I dislike it being called a phenomenon, or having it treated like it's some kind of movement. It really isn't that important. It's the kind of regular shift (which is not nearly so dramatic as it seems) that occurs every so often in much older literary traditions (I can't speak to design traditions, but I imagine there may be something similar). This isn't something we've never seen before; it's something we've seen a billion times before (does no one remember "The Germ", the journal of the Pre-Raphaelites?), but because now it's happening in America, it's suddenly this enormous phenomenon. It's fun, and it is an upheaval of sorts, but it's certainly nothing on the scale that many seem to think it is.

"out of the comics ghetto into our design world" is a very funny statement to me. If we are celebrating his passion and his originality I would say that he was lifted out of the comics world for the design ghetto.

essl: Absolutely.

I picked this book up the moment I saw it with the thought: "Oh, wow, McSweeney's does Raw." And on the surface that's pretty much what this excellent survey of modern comic work is. I would give this book to a young artist/designer in exactly the same spirit as that art teacher who handed me Raw 3 when I was 13.

Oddly, I love design and I love comics, and while I am attracted to Chris Ware's work -- and have been aware of it for years now -- I still have not made an emotional connection with it. I guess I will keep trying.
Kevin Steele

Chris Ware just might be able to do something for design that few have accomplished: give it heart and soul. Ware does elicit an emotional response... at least for me. Maybe it's me seeing his work and longing for publications, zines, comics, and ephemera I grew up with. That's what he taps into. That's what he loves. And for me, those things led me to graphic design. As for Ware, I'm so pleased to see him doing this kind of work. Maybe it's just nostalgia, but I love it and eat it up whenever I see something full of Wareness. It's getting easier to spot these days, no differently than the Raygun/Cranbrook/Deconstructionist work that Jon points to.

yes, it's important to remember that once upon a time everything from the smallest booklet, periodical and poster had an incredible amount of detail and design time invested in it. And the majority of this work was had drawn type and illustration of incredible depth. Just scrounge around your local 2nd hand bookstore and you'll know what I mean.

I don't think you can blame anyone for the changes; they reflect the fast paced single image/single word punchline design world we live in today and of course the incredible rise of desktop publishing and the shrinking design time and budgets on most design projects today.

In those days the idea of marketing teams leading design would have been unheard of. And though we'd be loath to admit it, if we took our designer's hat off we could probaly look with cold eyes via that now ingrained marketing speak at early design work and say "far too much happening on the page", "no clear message", etc., etc.,

progress... you tell me ;)


Split-screen/multiple-screen fans might take another look at Brian DePalma's movies. He's been breaking the frame up at least since "Hi, Mom," 'way back in the late '60s. And of course there are always the classics: "Napoleon," "Sherlock Jr.," Hitchcock's "Rear Window." But DePalma's an interesting figure. Whether you like his movies or not, he anticipated/prefigured/was-an-early-participant-in/whatever multimedia and postmodernism. There seem to be a number of very young film buffs who understand this about his work -- DePalma a la Mode is a heckuva site one brainy filmbuff fan has devoted to him.

FWIW, count me among those who yawn (largely from a reading p-o-v, though I often find the visuals precious too) at McSweeney's. I dunno ... Arch, foppish ... It's like some annoying high-school in-group. I mean, all due credit to 'em for entrepreneurship, etc. But please: actually read more than a page or two of hipster-wannabe-one-upsmanship? Life's too short.

Hey, just a thought: is there anyone else out there who thinks the whole yuppie-graphic-novel thing has been (generally speaking, exceptions allowed for, etc) a really awful development? Given that a lot of what I enjoy about comics is their crappiness, trampiness, and their wayward, untame-able exuberance, I always find myself feeling depressed when I see people trying to take them upscale. While I can't really defend this position in any reasonable way -- I mean, why not take comics upscale? -- it's a strong personal taste, and I'd be curious to hear if anyone else out there shares it.
Michael Blowhard

Given that a lot of what I enjoy about comics is their crappiness, trampiness, and their wayward, untame-able exuberance, I always find myself feeling depressed when I see people trying to take them upscale.

frank "sin city" miller, mike "hellboy" mignola, bill "stray toasters" sienkiewicz, david "rubber blanket" mazzuchelli. jaime "love and rockets" hernandez, dave "cages" mckean...
crappy, trampy, NOT.
exhuberence, yes.
compared to all those crappy romance novels that you can get at the checkout lane in the supermarket, comics should at least deserve that level of esteem. i don't think it's about upscale. it's about mainstreaming, like manga in japan. respect. legitimacy.

as far as mcsweeneys, i'm not much of a literature connoisseur, but the stories are usually light hearted and humorous. i just know mcsweeneys is one of those few instances of the total designed object. i am interested in the idea of the designer as (co)/author or in this case the author as designer (like books designed by lorraine wild, irma boom and stephen farrell). going beyond the situation where the designer just gets a word document to flow into a book template quark file. going beyond just a chip kidd cover. the mcsweeneys' books are thought out/thoughtful designed objects. i also partially rationalize the purchasing of the books as indirect donations to the 826 valencia project.


For a full circle effect...how about CW's (Chris Ware) story ON TAL (This American Life) about having superpowers...


Well, all due respect, and if comics buffs want to spend a lot of time and energy agonizing over whether comics get enough respect or not, why deny them the pleasure. But it was always hard for me to look at stuff like Spiegelman and think he wasn't trying to take comics upscale. I dunno, I think there's a lot to be said for flying under the "respect" radar. Isn't that how comics became such a fab art form in the first place?

Incidentally, I'd submit that Frank Miller (whose "Sin City" books I like) is plenty crappy and trampy. Those can be descriptive and not judgmental words. He's being very Weegee, very sensationalistic, very gutter-sexy in the "Sin City" books, as well as very visually brilliant. Now that I can get behind.
Michael Blowhard

Spiegelman "trying to take comics upscale" suggests a diabolical plot to (as Tom Wolfe accused the purveyors of Impressionism) create a seller's market for his wares (no pun intended) and inflate their cultural worth.

I'd argue that through intelligence, talent, and will Spieg's art was ultimately (though not predictably or inevitably) recognized by those culturati and literati who had ignorantly looked down on comics. Moreover, his comics transcended the proscriptions and cliches imposed by the Comics Code, bringing comics back (as the Underground commix artists did so well) to challenging pre-Code days.

Ok, the graphic novel has become a genre, and like rock n' roll before it, once accepted into the mainstream must fit certain formula. But so did most Marvel, D.C. and other mainstream comics. Enough with the superheros already (even the tragically flawed ones). But the fact that there is American popular acceptance almost on a par with the French for comics and graphic "books" has enabled artists like Ware, Burns, Panter, Clowes, Abel, and many more to produce in a somewhat freer environment.

Like Blowhard, I do mourn the passage of the untutored and sacreligious Underground Commix. I remember when Crumb was new, and Spain, Dietch, Yossarian, Shelton, and others tried anything and everything without pretense. I still have all those great Gothic Blimp Works. Nonetheless, under the umbrella of "graphic novel" people like Dietch still produce great work (i.e. Boulevard of Broken Dreams), and Panter's Dante's Inferno is about to be published (by Fantagraphics).

All this comes back to: comics ain't upscale, some are they're just getting their due in a culture they helped create.
steven heller

Good points all, and thanks. I guess I'll mention a couple of things before evaporating.

* I still think the artschoo/art-appreciation approach to graphic design and creations like comics has its perils. (And I guess I do wish y'all would address them from time, sigh.) It's obviously quite possible that the artschool/art-appreciation approach is vastly superior to any and all alternatives. But that doesn't mean it doesn't bring along its own challenges and burdens. Nothing's perfect, etc. For example, has it been an entirely, unalloy-edly good thing that movies have gotten their due as an artform, and that the country is aswarm with filmmaking schools? Maybe on balance yes. But both yes and no can be made cases for, and it can be interesting to explore them both. Rather than arguing for one or the other I'll say that I don't think the picture's complete until both sides make their cases. Which means spending a few minutes on the "no" side too. I think where lit-fiction's concerned, for instance, the academicization of it has been (on balance) a disaster, though the pro side can be made too. But it's fun to dwell for a sec every now and then on the con side. In lit-fiction, audiences have fallen away, the artform feels self-righteous and under siege, and a rather peculiar set of writing-and-reading conventions have emerged and developed that really have little to do with literature, or any basis in audience reactions. I dunno: is this a direction y'all would like to see graphic design and comics go in? And how do you hope to avoid leading the fields into similar binds? It's possible to over-theorize, over-academicize, and over-"appreciate" an art form, and to do it to the point where it loses what's really great about it, which is usually something that's hard to pin down. Something like "its spirit," or something. How to discuss and enjoy and think about artforms in ways that don't bury them under too much "thinking" but instead contribute to their development ... It's a good question, and you guys do a great job of it. What's your secret? How do y'all avoid the pitfalls? And what are the pitfalls?

* The other point is that, yeah, I think Spiegelman was quite obviously out to open up a market for the artschool-comix thing. I can't imagine why anyone would see this -- or would see acknowledging this -- as "diabolical." Or why anyone would see the Impressionists as having been diabolical for pursuing and creating markets for their own work. Good for all of 'em. I've only met and talked with Spiegelman once and am of course happy to be corrected if I'm way off here. But I came away with the strong impression that, art-driven though he may primarily be, he wouldn't mind at all being recognized for also having an entrepreneurial streak. Of course he does (and of course the Impressionists did too). That's a plus, not a negative.
Michael Blowhard

There are a few things there michael - certainly the battle for the 'appreciation' of comics as artform has been won, with the arguements the Crumb's of the world might have made in the 70's (and been laughed at) coming home to roost in subsequent generations. But this happens with any craft that over time develops and gathers a history to it. Typography could be said to have it's own cult of worship, despite really being as utilitarian as the comic strip in the geography of everyday print. Windsor mcays 'little nemo' strips are still just sunday newspaper strips. But if they aren't art as well, nothing is.
Certainly you could argue that many of the newer generations of comic artists are more form than content. The japanese are probaly the only ones still living the rush of story that envigourated early US comics of the 40's and 50's. Whereas the fictional world of the superhero or fantasy hero had marked comics as juvenile in the US, in a sense this world is still relished by japanese of all ages, as there is no fear of them rejecting subjects and characters so deeping tied to spiritual and culturally historical forms.
In many ways the problems with US comics have still not been resolved. The mcsweeney's book could almost have been produced ten yrs ago, as the mainly post RAW generation still does not seem to have resolved what is next for comics, and may I fear have hit a bit of a brick wall.
david arthurs

the university of minnesota has put up the transcript of a great discussion between ira glass and chris ware that you i think you will all enjoy (link to pdf)
jesus henry christos

Thanks for posting the link to the Ware interview Jesus. It's a rare insight into how Chris constructs rich emotive narrative landscapes. He's so honest about what he sees as his shortcomings as well which is so disarming and adds to the appeal.

The idea of the drawings being about the space they create in the reader's mind and so many other points are articulated beautifully.
Ben Weeks

Okay, yeah, McSweeney's is often a sort of showcase for "ironically arch and" maybe even "foppish" writing ---at least the several issues I've sampled give that impression. But, as opposed to other literary magzines, where the writing is often as dry and dull as Sheetrock and you're lucky if you stumble on any reward for your (too often) wasted efforts of giving-the- magazine-the-benefit-of-the-doubt-because-who-knows ... as opposed to those other zines, McSweeney's is a delight.

Because, besides the lovely diversion of its design, it does provide the rare story that transcends the merely arch or hip and moves into the sphere of Actual Life-Enriching Value ... and when the stories don't move into that sphere, as most of them don't, well, at least "arch and foppish" is more basically entertaining than dry and dull.

Of course, this may be the comparative to saying "At least we're not as bad as Saddam," or only effective for me because I myself am a bit arch and foppish and thus identify with such stories... but still.

I was so taken with McSweeney's when it first came out. But it quickly became obvious that all they were serving up was a steady diet of nothing . The last time I bought a Quarterly was when it was put out in the form of a bunch of pamphlets in a box.

It got boring real quick. Every time a new issue came out I'd glance at it. Very quickly. But when I saw issue 13, I stopped dead in my tracks and bought it on the spot. I'm afraid to remove the plastic wrapping for fear of damaging the book.

Chris Ware is brilliant. Thanks for that interview link. Chip Kidd did a great story on him in May/June 1997's "Print." Though Kidd has done a lot to promote Chris Ware, it was Spiegelman who gave him his first national exposure, in the pages of Raw.

Oh, and I vehemently disagree with whomever said that the Jimmy Corrigan story is slight. I bought the book for a friend; he was unable to finish it because the story made him damn near suicidal. And I think it's probably the best "graphic novel" ever published.

A bit late to this party, but I have to applaud Michael Bierut's focus on this latest McSweeneys. As someone who has a foot in both camps (I'm a graphic designer, and I've been involved with comics since I was about 12, both as an amateur and a professional), I can't help but be bowled over by the sheer wonderfulness of this book/zine. It's a brilliant introduction to modern US alternative comics for designers, and a tour-de-force of book design for cartoonists.

On the subject of Jimmy Corrigan, I have to agree with growler. Anyone who thinks that JC is slight obviously hasn't read it closely enough. Give it another go. You'll be surprised at what you missed the first time round.
Brad Brooks

For any fellow Chicagoans who might be reading, or anyone within 500 miles of Chicago who'd find this worth the trip:

On Sat., July 16, Ira Glass will be presenting a slideshow of a Chris Ware story, which apparently chronicles the tale of a boy who loves Chicago architecture (or something like that).

It will be presented on a rooftop terrace for the Millenium Park celebration. Check the bottom of the This American Life index page for details:


Witnesses who saw this piece at the TAL live show at Chicago Theater said it was incredible. Perhaps at some point it will be available online.

To all other Design Observer readers: sorry for the momentary provincialism!
Jon Resh

There was a major piece last week in The New York Times Sunday Magazine by Charles McGrath, former editor of the NYT book review, on graphic novels as the future of literature. Many of the important contemporary graphic novelists are represented: Seth, Chester Brown, Adrian Tomine, Art Speigelman, Joe Sacco, and Chris Ware. Well worth reading...
William Drenttel

Ok, looking round the net and reading this convinced me that Chris Ware is brillant...or at least idolised. I realise that anything that is taking comic books to a greater level(oops, graphic novels) is worth its weight in gold (luckily, as "Jimmy Corrigan weighs a ton"). However, am i alone in thinking that no matter how well it is presented, no matter how many awards it wins, and no matter how many barriers it breaks, something like "Jimmy Corrigan", a personal, appropriated biography of all the haunting and hard-to-approach emotions in Ware's life, should be published as a carthasis, aka dirty lanudry?
Claire Mac

Mr. Ware is the cartoonist's cartoonist. As it was said above in relation to the designer's artist.

That aside this is simply the best doorway into contemporary American comics we have today.

There is much more going on there then the geek in us cartoonists... it is rare to find one of us who is not. It is equally rare to find that is all we are. Example Jim Woodring and his work "Frank." I would recommend you buy this ("the big book of frank") next.

I would hope by reading these one can find more to the story, the value of the medium, the statement on our lives and the contribution we make as artist to design and the arts in general.

Ware simply does this with a soft-spoken elegance and a hint of depression that maintains the mythology of the cartoonist... He is keeping us young upstarts in line and reaching further, asking over and over... is this crap? What value does it have? I hope it doesn't suck? All excellent questions if there is to be more Wares in the world.

Jobs | July 12