I've wanted to do a comics issue for, oh, close to three years now — ever since I first arrived here. It's not that I'm a lazy editor, or into post-verbal storytelling or any of that. (Well, maybe the latter. C'mon — wouldn't you want to read a crime story told entirely in rebus form?)
But the real reason: I think comics are a forgotten part of newspapers' very DNA. Sure, there are still Sunday funnies in the Inquirer and the Daily News — though I can't remember the last time I sat down and really savored a Lockhorns strip.
No, I mean real comics. The raw stuff. The independent. The unsyndicated, scary stuff. The undiluted, 100 percent grain alcohol stuff. The stuff that even comic art neanderthals like Brian Hickey (see Philly Blunt, page 18) could appreciate. The stuff alt-weeklies are known for.
Years ago, I was lucky enough to work at a magazine where Art Spiegelman, creator of Maus: A Survivor's Tale, served as our "comix" editor. One afternoon, he sat down with the staff and took us on an idiosyncratic tour of comics history — starting with the glorious full-color, full-page strips in the New York World at the turn of the century, up through Harvey Kurtzman and Jim Warren's irreverent Help! magazine. It was a stunner.
Now I'd grown up on a steady diet of Marvel comics and Mad magazines, the descendents of these publications. But until Spiegelman's talk, I'd never realized how much color comics used to be a fundamental part of the mainstream American newspaper — like, on the front page. Readers of the New York World circa 1900 took it all in: reportage, commentary, illustrations, jokes, caricatures, political cartoons and yes, even comics. (Don't believe me? I urge you to check out Nicholson Baker's and Margaret Brentano's The World on Sunday: Graphic Art in Joseph Pulitzer's Newspaper (1898-1911) and see for yourself.)
Today's readers ... I don't know. You still get strange looks if you say you read comics in a room full of middle-class, college-educated adults. (No, not looking at you, Pat.) (Yes, looking at you, Hickey.)
Something like the New York World, sadly, probably can never be again. Such lavish art and color pages are too expensive these days.
But I think newspapers can inject some life into their pages by adding more comics, and I hope that this special issue is a small step in that direction. I'm thrilled with what we're running this week, and would really love to send out a reporter with a comics artist the same way we send out Doron Taussig with Mike Regan on a news story.
I think Hickey should be first in line.
A Smokin' Read
I'd be remiss not to give a plug to one our comics regulars, Emily Flake, whose "Lulu Eightball" appears in our back pages every week. Flake has a new book out: These Things Ain't Gonna Smoke Themselves: A Love/Hate/Love/Hate/Love Letter to a Very Bad Habit (Bloomsbury USA, $12.95). It's excellent. I'm not a smoker, and think kissing a smoker is like licking a charcoal briquette, but even I wanted to light up in solidarity after reading this book.
There's a short Q&A I did with Flake here, if you want to hear more. One sample: "Smoking gives you a minute to step back and think about your work, to breathe (ironically) deeper than you do normally, it gives you a focal point," says Flake. "Having to choose between productivity and health is a fucking problem, man, I tell you."
About the Cover
This week's cover came together in a happy, interesting way. Artist Ed Piskor saw that we'd reviewed Macedonia, his collaboration with Harvey Pekar, in our most recent book quarterly. He e-mailed us blind, offering his illustration services if we ever thought there was a cover story that seemed like a good fit. Little did he know we had a Comics Issue brewing ...
So we did something we never do: We let the artist run wild. We didn't give him a theme, or direction, or any of that crap. We just told him: "It's the Comics Issue."
Strangely, it worked out just fine. Seems Piskor had a lot on his mind ...