Thursday, July 22, 2004

Part One – The Interminable Introduction

I’m about to cause a ruckus.

Everybody’s talking about Eightball #23. Well, I haven’t read it yet. As I get older and the comics industry metastasizes further I find it eminently easy to procrastinate these things. It’s not going to fall out of print anytime soon.

Instead of debating why Eightball #23 is the single greatest issue of any comic book ever since Marvel Two-In-One Annual #7, I have been deeply involved with Chester Brown’s Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography. I am surprised more people haven’t been talking about this since it was completed and collected in 2003.

Perhaps it strikes some as a particularly odd work. Based on Brown’s past track record, a historical biography is perhaps the last thing anyone could have expected. Or maybe it wasn’t.

Let there be no doubt, it is a slightly odd work, but I mean that in the best possible way. Brown is that rarest of cartoonists, able to create and elaborate a fully functioning and cohesive reality in the confines of a strict six-panel grid. It’s odd because everything Brown does takes us deeper into his head. Even a seemingly dispersonal work such as Riel succeeds in pulling us deeper and deeper into his mind. The process only stops when we realize we are seeing the world through his eyes and no longer through our own.

I believe that Chester Brown is the greatest English speaking cartoonist alive today.

It’s not that there aren’t many who could offer a reasonable claim to the title. Of course, there is Crumb, the legend and the celebrity. But his glory days are behind him. Art Spiegelman could perhaps have been a contender if he hadn’t spent the fifteen years following Maus basically jerking-off and doing covers for the New Yorker. I haven’t read more than isolated strips from the In The Shadow of No-Towers series yet, so I can’t offer any opinion as to whether this is as compelling an artistic rebirth as R. Fiore would have us think.

Los Bros Hernandez are both incredibly talented, but the fact is that we have been lulled into complacency by the fact that their work is consistently great. As much as I feel slightly ashamed for saying so, I almost take them for granted now that Love & Rockets comes out on a regular basis again. Gilbert still manages a way to work on ten zillion projects on the side. They’re all fantastic, more or less, but predictable in their greatness.

Dan Clowes and Chris Ware are the two great formalists of our time. But unfortunately their recent works have seemed to be spiraling into an abyss of increasingly constrained asceticism that threatens to extinguish all light and hope from their horizons. Take Rusty Brown or David Boring for example: two undeniably great works (one still in progress), but on that same token, you couldn’t find two more alienating and spiritually oppressive works on your entire comic book shelf. It’s a tonal limitation that they need to outgrow.

Seth’s work has always seemed similarly atonal, albeit from a slightly different perspective. It says something that my favorite work of his is his Sketchbook. Joe Matt is disqualified as a result of having spent the last five years literally jacking off, to the detriment of any output.

Alan Moore would be a contender if he knew how to draw.

Joe Sacco is strong candidate. Hmmm, better move on.

Phoebe Gloeckner’s work is good, but the best from her is yet to come. I get the same feeling from Debbie Dreschler and Richard Sala. Jim Woodring and Kim Deitch, however, have probably peaked. Considering the undeniable and unimpeachable strengths of The Frank Book and The Boulevard of Broken Dreams, its hard to see either of these artists topping these magnificent achievements.

Eddie Cambpell could conceivably be considered a contender if he ever finishes his History of Humor. I haven’t read Jimbo in Purgatory yet so I’ll refrain from judgement on Gary Panter – it looks like his definitive work to date but from what I’ve seen it also looks to be an incredibly dense and adversarial reading experience.

Barry Windsor Smith is limited by his subject matter. Likewise, Lynn Johnston, Erik Larsen and Kyle Baker are all effortlessly adept craftspeople, but similarly limited by their formalistic dedication to the idioms of their specific genres.

Thankfully, Dave Sim is retired, which saves an awkward pause as the members of the Feminist-Homosexualist Axis shuffle their feet and fidget in their seats.

There’s not a syndicated strip cartoonist active today, save for Johnston, to even be considered.
Jessica Abel, Charles Burns, Dave Cooper, James Kochalka, Tony Millionaire . . . all excellent, but none essential.

Which leaves us – or me, at any rate - with Mr. Chester Brown.

Brown’s work has evolved by broad strokes since his humble beginnings. The disturbing, surrealistic comedy of Ed The Happy Clown transformed into the ravishingly painful intimacy of The Playboy and I Never Liked You. Although I’ve always preferred to regard these last two works as two parts of a whole narrative, there is a marked change in tone and content between them. I Never Liked You succeeded in stripping the comics medium down to its barest raw nerve, a slowly throbbing membrane pulsing in a swelteringly claustrophobic darkness.

From these successes Brown entered a period of rapid artistic growth and expansion. The narratalogically ambitious Underwater strips started with the simple goal of charting the growth and progression of language and perception in human life. Unfortunately, his pacing proved far too ambitious and the project was subsequently abandoned. His strip adaptations of the New Testament proved similarly explorative. If these projects were met with varying degrees of bafflement by his fans and critics, one can only surmise that towards the end of the Underwater experiment he began to feel similarly unmoored.

The reason for this supposition is merely the existence of Louis Riel. Although Brown had been no stranger to heavily-researched non-fiction comics, the impetus to create a 240 page graphic novel on the life of a reasonably obscure figure of Canadian history must have been daunting. Brown remedied the problems which had eventually derailed Underwater by working from a full script in advance. Amazingly, by confining himself to a rigid stylistic formula and committing to a prior blueprint, Brown was able to create his most confident and kinetic work to date.

Chester Brown has made a career out of consistently defying even the highest expectations placed on his work by prior experience. More than any other cartoonist alive today, he has never stopped growing and changing and improving since the day his first strips were published. Louis Riel is a work of impossible virtuosity, an example of formalistic rigor almost unparalleled in the medium’s history. The worst part is that it’s easy to imagine that Brown yet has it in him to surpass even this magnum opus.

Louis Riel is quite simply one of the greatest comics ever produced. It enters a rarified sphere, side-by-side and shoulder-to-shoulder with works such as Peanuts, Maus, From Hell, Gilbert’s Palomar and Jaime’s Locas, Woodring’s Frank strips and Jimmie Corrigan as the vanguard of the English-speaking world’s contribution to the cartooning arts. It’s just a damn fine book.

And now that the puffery of this Interminable Introduction is over, perhaps now the real fun can begin.

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