McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern #13, Ed. Chris Ware

McSweeney’s, 2003, 316 pages, C$36.00 hc, ISBN 1-932416-08-0

I took years, but I finally snagged a copy of the quasi-legendary “McSweeney’s 13”, the “comics issue” of the relentlessly innovative fiction periodical from the fine folks at McSweeney’s. Whoever says “periodical”, after all, suggests a limited availability, followed by endless trips to used-bookstores in the hope of finding a copy.

But McSweeney’s isn’t a disposable sort of periodical, and so you may still have some luck, years later, finding latter printings shelved in the “literature” section of your neighbourhood monster bookstore. Don’t look for a brightly-coloured onion-paged digest: Look for a massive saran-wrapped hardcover with a strange cover featuring muted iconic drawings. If you know Chris Ware’s work, just look for his signature style: Not only has he edited the content of the issue, he also designed it –including the beautiful wrap-around cover.

It’s impossible to review McSweeney’s 13 without spending some time discussing its design. It’s no accident if it costs more than the average hardcover novel: not only is the book solidly bound in a slightly bigger format than most hardcovers, it sports full-color pages and a dust jacket that is much more than a dust jacket. Unwrap it and you will find not only two bonus comic-books hidden within the folds, but also a full-colour, two-sided, newspaper-sized (gilded!) comic by Chris Ware.

The biting, cynical, nihilist, self-referential, vaguely historical nature of Ware’s work sets the tone for what’s inside McSweeney’s 13: In assembling a special comics issue for one of the foremost literary periodical of our times, Ware has decided to play on two themes. First, that comics are good and literary and worthy of respect –a familiar tune for long-time fans. Second, that the type of comics showcased here would be almost absurdly literary in an autobiographical vein. If you’re looking for good superhero comics, or even accessible genre adventures in a graphical format, well, look elsewhere: McSweeney’s 13 won’t allow such populist riff-raff to sully its pages. Peanuts gets a pass on account of being old and respectable, but otherwise the only time you ‘ll hear about superheroes is through the nostalgic prose essays scattered throughout the periodical.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, mind you. I’m coming to McSweeney’s 13 through the comic-sized door, but an equal if not superior number of readers must be picking it up because it’s the newest McSweeney’s and it happens to talk about comics. This is the audience that has to be convinced, not the existing comic fans.

On the other hand, it leads straight to a theme anthology where you get your pick between a sad autobiographical tales of everyday life, and another dozen so-called edgy pieces whose meaning lurks out of context. Your choices: Be baffled or depressed.

If you’re not happy with the newer material, you can always gawk at the perfect reproductions of historical pieces, from the first American comic book, to an early Mutt and Jeff, to sketches seemingly stolen from Charles Schultz’s trashcan, to other pieces of American comicana. Also; a handful of essays from such notables as Michael Chabon, Chip Kidd or John Updike. (I suppose that I won’t be the only one surprised to learn that Updike can sketch relatively well.) All of this material accumulates to leave the impression of an affectionate tribute to the art form, of a memento of interest to comic book enthusiasts with long memories.

Alas, despite the tremendous labour of love that this edition represents, many (most?) of the pieces are not original to McSweeney’s 13 and can’t even stand on their own. Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers is quoted here, as is Chester Brown’s Louis Riel, to cite only two work with which I’m immediately familiar. Some other pieces leave us hanging, deprived of both context and resolution. McSweeney’s 13 is least satisfying when it’s acting as a sampler than an homage or a polemic.

But it’s hard to truly being critical of this book. I have mentioned the design a couple of time, but McSweeney’s 13 is truly that rarest of literary object: One that feels as if no effort was spared in order to make it as realized at possible. Time and time again, small touches remind us that several people have agonized over this as an object, not a disposable pop culture artifact. The sampler approach can work at driving newer readers to other works, introducing new and little-known artists to the McSweeney’s readership. One can quibble with part of it, but the whole is much greater than the sum of its part. As a entity, McSweeney’s 13 is close to its own kind of perfection.

It’s not an accident if I can see myself pulling this book from my shelves the next time some one visits and say “You have to take a look at this…”

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