If the growth of comics as an art form can be correlated with human development, Ivan Brunetti speculates that comics would be in their mid-30s — callow youth no longer, but not yet enjoying the perspicacity of middle age. Mr. Brunetti, a highly respected cartoonist best known for the strip "Schizo," is referring to comics' stylistic maturity, but he could just as well be speaking of their credibility in the critical establishment, where comics are only lately beginning to be welcomed into respectability.
Although comics have always been a case of arrested development, recent museum shows and criticism have done much to bolster the reputation of comics as an art form. In the past few years, Fantagraphics, a leading independent comics publisher, has produced carefully designed volumes of classic works such as Krazy Kat, Peanuts, and Dennis the Menace — giving readers the opportunity to discover what made these works "classics" in the first place. Meanwhile, "graphic novels" are being greeted by readers and reviewers with increasing enthusiasm, suggesting that serious comic art is finally shedding its unsavory associations with immaturity and illiteracy — with dime-a-dozen superhero comics on the one hand, and Garfield on the other.
But respectability at what price? Part of the thrill of reading comics comes from the their marginality, and from the looseness of any established rules governing proper form and content. As far back as 1946, the critic Robert Warshow, writing about George Herriman's Krazy Kat, praised the "complete disregard of the standards of respectable art" in comics that brings about "a certain purity and freshness that would almost surely be smothered higher up on the cultural scale." One of the questions facing comics today is whether the medium can remain fresh and surprising despite the embrace by high culture.
The curators of the recent "Masters of American Comics" exhibition, which took place earlier this year at the Jewish Museum, were not coy about their motives to redeem comics from juvenilia. Visitors were welcomed by this salvo emblazoned upon the gallery wall: "This exhibition is founded on the premise that comics are a cultural and aesthetic practice with their own history, protagonists, and contributions to society, on a par with music, film, and the visual arts, but still in need of the kind of historical clarification that has been afforded those other genres." The origin of modern comics is roughly contemporaneous with that of film and recorded music, and like those art forms, it has had to navigate the uneasy channels between art and commerce. The exhibition traced the evolution of comics from the Sunday papers through daily comic strips, and then, as newspapers began cutting back on the size and quality of their comics sections, through to independently published comic books.
Although the work presented in "Masters of American Comics" (Yale, 328 pages, $45) spans more than a century, Mr. Brunetti's anthology (Yale, 400 pages, $28) — which only includes comics produced in the last two decades — offers a more panoramic view of the vitality and variety of comics. "These are comics that I savor and often revisit," he says, and indeed, there is much to enjoy here. Well-known cartoonists such as Art Spiegelman and Robert Crumb are included, as are many of the stars of alternative comics: Daniel Clowes, Adrian Tomine, Lynda Barry, and Gilberto Hernandez. Yet Mr. Brunetti also manages to find plenty of room for younger artists, such as Lauren Weinstein, John Porcellino, and Jeffrey Brown, whose work is admirably piquant.
A good anthology introduces authors to willing readers. A great anthology elucidates the possibilities and limitations of an entire form. As David Collier, one of the artists included in the anthology, observes, "there can be no hiding for the cartoonist. The state of his mind is apparent to the reader on the first glimpse of his drawing." Some of the most interesting work being produced today demonstrates that comics can serve as an ideal medium for autobiography and memoir. Notable recent work in this vein includes Gabrielle Bell's "Lucky" and Julie Doucet's "My Most Secret Desire."
Ms. Bell's illustrations are simple, efficient, and serene, yet they transmit a palpable current of vulnerability. Ms. Bell is a keen observer of the small frustrations and serial disappointments that afflict the young, artistic, and indifferently employed, and her understated humor simultaneously diffuses the pervasive melancholy of her stories and hones its edge. In contrast to Ms. Bell's spare arrangements, Ms. Doucet's feral, gamy work is like a caterwaul from a forgotten underground. The work collected in this recent volume depicts her characters inhabiting a collapsing, claustrophobic world littered with hostile objects.
Mr. Brunetti's anthology gives a generous overview of a medium supple enough to give shape to Ms. Bell's vision as well as Ms. Doucet's, and ample enough to accommodate Art Spiegelman's up-to-the-minute "In the Shadow of No Towers," which considered the reverberations of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, alongside the aching nostalgia of Chris Ware. Comics have always thrived on the margins of respectability. If Mr. Brunetti's anthology is any proof, they will also thrive in the mainstream of serious art.
Mr. Berenstein is a writer and cartoonist living in Brooklyn.