- Posted by Johanna on June 10, 2006 at 6:23 pm
- Category: Graphic Novel Reviews
- CREDITS: edited by Ted Rall
- PUBLISHER: NBM; $13.95 US
You know how sometimes you’re curious about something, but you want a reliable guide to the field to point out what’s worth spending your time on? That’s what these books are great for, finding pointers to lesser-known but talented alternative cartoonists. Whatever poor opinion I may have of editor Ted Rall as a person, he’s got a good eye for interesting artists with unique points of view.
Each volume consists of, for each cartoonist, a several-page interview with plenty of sample strips, as well as an overall resource page listing contact information.
The first book is subtitled “The New Subversive Political Cartoonists”. Some of my favorite artists are covered, such as Tom Tomorrow, Ruben Bolling (Tom the Dancing Bug), and Jen Sorensen. Also included are Peter Kuper, Lloyd Dangle, Ward Sutton, Andy Singer, Scott Bateman, Don Asmussen, Derf, and ten more who tend to work in alternative newspapers and similar outlets (heavy on the West Coasters, but there are a handful of Midwesterners, Southerners, and New Yorkers included).
In his foreword, Rall describes his selections as “too alternative for the mainstream and too mainstream for the underground.” I’m not a fan of using “mainstream” in any sense, because it’s much too connotative and subject to change depending on what the user thinks it means, so let’s push on. Rall continues:
These alternative weekly political cartoonists draw in styles variously described as edgy, rough, different, amateurish, disturbing, scratchy, dark, striking, and incompetent…. these men and women revel in anger about issues that matter to ordinary people. They name names. They ridicule their readers as much as their leaders. They tend to be concerned about similar issues: commercialism, global warming, free trade, alienation, the two-party system…. Cartooning won’t change the world, but that’s no reason not to try.
The adjectives making up the first sentence are similar to those I’ve heard applied to Rall’s own art, and unsurprisingly, he’s included himself in this first book as well. He doesn’t go so far as to interview himself, though — Ruben Bolling does the honor.
There’s some “we’re not like those sucky people over there” attitude in this introduction as well, but it’s easy enough to skip over. Groups often need to define themselves as much by what they’re not as what they are, especially when as loosely similar as this bunch. But even if you boil the book down to “cartoonists Rall is sympathetic to”, it’s a good, eye-opening read.
Book 2, “The New Subversive Alternative Cartoonists”, widens the net, allowing coverage of great strips that don’t necessarily deal with politics but with other kinds of social commentary. (After all, no one creates in a vacuum, and the culture in which a strip is created is often reflected in it.)
I was glad to find out more about old favorites Keith Knight and Alison Bechdel (Dykes to Watch Out For), and I was excited to discover new talents like Emily Flake (Lulu Eightball), Tak Toyoshima (Secret Asian Man), and Mikhaela B. Reid. Also included are Shannon Wheeler (Too Much Coffee Man), Aaron McGruder (The Boondocks), David Rees (Get Your War On), Jason Yungbluth (Deep Fried), Stephen Notley (Bob the Angry Flower), former Usenet buddy Barry Deutsch (Ampersand), and ten more.
This expanded focus demonstrates both the wide range of non-mainstream cartooning being done today and how to clearly define what’s “political” against what’s just “alternative”.
The newest volume, “The New Subversive Online Cartoonists”, looks at webcartoonists. Rall’s forward briefly discusses some of the economic problems online distribution may solve or create, as well as acknowledging that this volume is less diverse than the previous. Although he states he doesn’t believe in “artistic affirmative action”, these books aren’t male- or white-only, and they’re the stronger for it. However, this latest volume covers only one woman and focuses mostly on white males of a certain age group. Is that a result of the technology involved or more a reflection of Rall’s reading list? The question isn’t pursued further.
I was surprised I hadn’t heard of more of those selected. There are certain obvious choices, artists that appear on most webcomic reading lists — Richard Stevens (Diesel Sweeties), Dorothy Gambrell (Cat and Girl), Nicholas Gurewitch (Perry Bible Fellowship), Steven Cloud (Boy on a Stick and Slither) — but the majority of the 21 cartoonists covered were new to me, and I only found one I added to my regular reading list.
A couple of flaws make this volume the weakest in the series, in my opinion: First, many webcomics use color, some brilliantly. Since the book is black and white, that aspect was lost. Also, reading some of these strips, I got the sense that many webcomics are made up of talking heads where the same art is used over and over. Although a couple of the interviewees bring up the concept of cut-and-paste strip creation, I’d have liked to have seen the editor address that issue more directly. Instead, he mostly tackles the economic question, whether people are making a living from their online work.