The product of 18 years of work, Chris Ware’s graphic novel Rusty Brown is set in a parochial school in 1970s Omaha, Neb. The book will be published in Sept. 24 by Pantheon.
Ware’s book takes a plunge into the daily consciousness of his characters—third grader Chalky White; his sister Alice, perpetually bullied middle-schooler Rusty Brown; his remote father, Woody Brown; cruel stoner Jordan Lint; and Joanne, a black teacher with a powerful secret—in a methodical, unsentimental, lyrical rendition of their lives.
Meticulously drawn and designed, each page is a testament to Ware’s distinctive visual syntax and to a story that is both heartbreaking and heartrending. In this email exchange, Ware responded to questions about the creation of the book and his process.
The Millions: You’ve been working on this book for 18 years. When did you imagine Rusty Brown as a book? Your editor Chip Kidd said that the last hundred pages or so are unpublished. How long did they take you?
Chris Ware: I drew the first page of Rusty Brown a week after finishing [my earlier graphic novel] Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (2000). I knew it would be a long book, but as in the embarrassing cases of my other experiments, never thought it would go on as long as it has, or metastasize into such a sprawling mess. Then again, sprawling messes are what I aim for, since they most accurately reflect real life. After a few years of working on it along with other projects (I started Building Stories [a PW Best Book in 2012] and finished that somewhere in the middle) it became clear that it would stretch well into a many-years-long project and I decided to make that a defining characteristic of the book rather than a humiliating secret.
I’ve changed as a person while working on it, reflected both in how I draw and in how I write, and the nation has changed as well, all of which I’ve tried to acknowledge and incorporate into the “feel” and plot (for lack of a better word.) Then again, this sort of “staying the same while changing” is no different from the way in which we all live, trying to fix what we consider important moments in our minds yet inevitably changing and rewriting them, while making plans which always change or fall apart in the face of unpredictable fortune and tragedy.
TM: How autobiographical is Rusty Brown?
CW: Well, comics are the art of memory, and every word, picture, gesture, idea, aim, regret, etc. that’s gone into the story has somehow filtered through my recollection and selectivity, so it’s all somehow autobiographical. I did grow up in Omaha, and while I share qualities with all of the characters in the book, I’ve tried to imagine people different from myself and also to understand and empathize with them as much as possible, since I believe that’s really the only aim and hope for humanity and art, and also one of the points of the book, more or less.
With Building Stories I tried to write a book without a beginning or an end, and Rusty Brown is an attempt to write a book without a protagonist, despite its goofy title. Without going all college-seminar-y here, it’s inspired by the structure of a snowflake, the six-sided shape of which is determined by the molecular structure of a water molecule, and which cannot form without a central piece of flotsam or grit. Though that sounds really pretentious; sorry.
TM: Can you tell me something about your process?
CW: Every morning after recording the events of the previous day in my comic strip diary, I sit down at my table and try to avoid all of the distractions of the modern world day by turning off my computer and phone. If I’m starting from a blank page I might have some notes or ideas as to how the page is going to take shape, but those might also be completely jettisoned once I get going, since when I start drawing, new ideas and memories float to the surface based on what I’m looking at that rather than what I was thinking about; sometimes I might even remember a person or an incident I’ve completely forgotten, or a character “reacts” to something in a way I would not. In simpler words, it’s improvised, but no more improvised than it would be to sit down, stare at a wall and see what I could script and come up with—which, from experience, I find is always vastly inferior and banal compared to what the slow-release inward-looking process of drawing suggests.
I work in lumps of two pages each, since that’s how books are bound, and once I get two pages all “written,” which means drawn in pencil and which usually takes two to five days, I’ll ink it using a brush and ink, which usually takes a day or two. Then I’ll scan it in and color it, which takes a day. So generally it takes about a week to do two pages. Not a very efficient mode of storytelling. Then again, it allows for a certain slow percolation of ideas and story that perhaps other art forms don’t. The guiding rudder of writers I revere like Zadie Smith, Tolstoy, Joyce, Nabokov, etc. provide a humiliating reminder that I’m never trying hard enough or getting enough done, but Rusty Brown is my current best attempt to make a literary graphic novel that respects its reader, and unlike a film director or even an artist with multiple assistants, it’s all me doing it and none of it involves any collaboration or editorial adjustment. So if a reader doesn’t like it, then I’m solely to blame.
TM: Can you tell me about the book jacket for Rusty Brown?
CW: Not unlike the folding jacket for Jimmy Corrigan, this one is something of the conceptual inverse, designed to be folded into a different jacket for each of the book’s three protagonists. Once the second part is published for the other three, it could also be arranged into a larger diagram of how the six characters combine and narratively mortify each other. It, like the book itself, is loosely based on the structure of a water molecule. Perhaps I was in college for a little too long.
It makes little sense to come up with another list of “best” Chicago books. To select a “top” 10 (or 20 or 1,000) has always seemed arbitrary and destined for accusations of unjustified boosterism and hyperbole, even in a city built on a foundation of unjustified boosterism and hyperbole.
Fairly or unfairly, Chicago often serves as a general proxy for American cities. Love or hate this idea of ostensible representativeness (most Chicagoans kind of just roll their eyes), to embrace it can prove helpful in one respect: looking at ambition, failed policies, immigration, founding myths, and contemporary life in Chicago, you find resonance elsewhere in America. When thinking through issues confronted by American cities today (and maybe always) — unequal distribution of resources, violent policing, persistent de facto segregation, administrative corruption, privatization of public services, neoliberal coddling of gentrification, fallout from decades of environmental degradation, and others — Chicago serves as a vital case study.
The local commentariat here works itself into spitting rages whenever any outsider — especially if that outsider bears a New York Times business card — parachutes into the Loop for 36 hours to explain Chi-Town (seriously, stop it: no one here calls it that) to the rest of the world. So, designed as a “Chicago 101” syllabus, these books serve as starting points rather than final judgments. They place Chicago at the center of ideas about city life, in some case pressing back on prevailing narratives about American urbanism. Instead of best Chicago books, this selection focuses on books that use a Chicago-centric perspective to address challenges that other places similarly confront.
And given that I’m leaving town this fall and casting my lot with the outsiders when I transplant to — I cringe, really, it feels like betrayal — Brooklyn, I wanted to get this thing together before the movers arrive. Much is missing: I chose not to focus on novels because so many others have done so, and poetry is almost entirely absent. Nelson Algren and Carl Sandburg were not on this list because they are prerequisites for the list. But with the excuses that I don’t intend on completeness and the movers at the gates, I hope it’s acceptable to leave gaps that conversation might fill.
1. “It Really Wasn’t Much of a Place at All.”
Dominic A. Pacyga opens Chicago: A Biography, his sweeping history of the Midwest’s largest city, with Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet. The priest and explorer first came upon a portage between the Chicago and Illinois Rivers in 1673. To build a canal here would be to connect the Great Lakes to the Mississippi, creating the largest inland waterway in the world and facilitating transportation from New York Harbor to the Mississippi along the entire midsection of the continent.
There’s a lot in between and after, and the last page of Pacyga’s book makes it to Barack Obama’s inauguration as President of the United States. That Pacyga covers so much — from the fire that destroyed one third of Chicago in 1871, to the city’s subsequent explosive growth (Chicago had a 1.7 million residents by 1900), to the Haymarket riot, to the 1968 DNC — should give a sense of the book’s scope. With so much terrain to cover, it comes as little surprise that even major events get relatively little space. Pacyga does, however, provide an especially detailed account of labor upheavals that characterized Chicago around the turn of the 20th century, providing context for understanding the city’s pushback against the rampant capitalism for which it earned its reputation.
Chicago: A Biography represents an essential starting point, primarily because it tracks the evolution of the city from a mucky swamp to a “global city.”
2. “Natural Advantages”
William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis and Donald Miller’s City of the Century both present meticulously detailed and conceptually riveting pictures of Chicago in the 1800’s — a century of incredible expansion. Chicago’s founding hustlers (to borrow Nelson Algren’s term for his fellow Chicagoans) proclaimed as early as the 1830’s that a marsh named for stinking onions by indigenous people, seated aside gloriously fertile grasslands on the shores of an inland ocean, would one day represent “the most important point in the great west.” By the time of the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, the climax of Chicago’s ascendant century, that destiny had been realized.
Cronon and Miller interrogate the stakes of this transformation, asking about the lives it altered and about the enduring epistemic shifts that Chicago’s rise implied for the United States. Chicago transformed America’s relationship with the West and with capital itself, producing not only a vast urban expanse but also structuring what we would come to understand as “rural,” “suburban,” and “hinterland.” Cronon helps us understand how the city transformed goods into abstract commodities, reshaping our relationship to the food we buy and the environment we consume. He shows how rail transit didn’t just connect distant places, but rather restructured our very understanding of space and time. In notable contrast, Miller’s history dives into the enormous cast of characters that built Chicago and chronicled its rise. City of the Century’s meticulous characterization of the “hustlers” that poured concrete into Chicago’s foundations provides singular descriptions of this cast’s influence on the city’s trajectory.
3.“High Strung, Contagious Enthusiasm”
Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City has become standard literary fare for newcomers to Chicago, and one will often find multiple copies in a transplant’s household. Larson dramatizes the planning of the aforementioned World’s Columbian Exposition, which marked the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s voyage to America. Planning required construction of an enormous classical-inspired city in Jackson Park on the South Side, involving many of the city’s (and nation’s) architectural and economic leaders, and marking Chicago’s global coming-out party.
Lurking in the crowds, H.H. Holmes — the book’s eponymous devil — became one of America’s first serial killers. He committed scores of murders silently throughout the fair, the urban anonymity afforded him by the crowds facilitating his crimes. Larson’s book has become important, not just as a document that depicts this contradiction between glorious spectacle and urban underbelly, but also because his romanticized vision of Chicago squares with how the city still views the fair. Its spectacle (and specter) looms large in Chicago’s self-conception.
Where Larson spends time examining the drama among fair planners, Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, Smartest Kid on Earth presents an imaginative — and sparely, gorgeously rendered — view of the event’s history through a child’s eyes. An emotionally paralyzed man living in present-day Chicago, Jimmy attempts to reconnect with his father. In scenes from the 1800s, the monumental fair casts similar shadows over an inter-generational Corrigan family history. Ware depicts how the tendrils of Chicago’s past reach to its present in a city with a complicated history.
Jane Addams founded Hull-House in 1889, well before the Columbian Exposition’s electric lights flickered on. Her settlement house ultimately comprised an enormous complex of buildings in one of Chicago’s poorest immigrant neighborhoods. In Twenty Years at Hull House, one gets the sense of Addams’s determination to reformulate the way that cities treated the poor and immigrant classes — with dignity and a focus on individuals. She charted a course for services and advocacy for the poor that formed the foundation of social work and emphasized that communities matter in urban development.
Concurrently, Daniel Burnham — architect of the Columbian Exposition — moved on from the fair to create an urban plan that would transform Chicago and cement the city’s status as a global metropolis. Carl Smith’s The Plan of Chicago makes it clear that Burnham’s monumental visions leave a complicated legacy. Despite “sincere” hopes that “City Beautiful” concepts would ennoble the poor, the Plan of Chicago deserves criticism for overlooking conditions of daily life for those to whom Addams ministered. As much as it marks a culmination of optimism in city planning, it lays some of the foundation for abysmal policies that would haunt public housing in Chicago and in many other cities. Moreover, it marks a kind of opening chapter in “public-private partnerships” that govern contemporary efforts to encourage markets to solve urban problems.
5. Bigger Ambitions for Chicago-Born Novels
Native Son and The Adventures of Augie March belong at the heart of any serious conversation about Chicago novels (though I find Augie difficult to get through). The ambitions of Richard Wright and Saul Bellow in these two midcentury novels rise to the level of Chicago’s ambitions for itself. Their alternatingly devastating and ennobling investigations of individual agency and social determination in two unforgettable protagonists — Augie and Bigger Thomas — make them essential to an understanding of American ideas about selfhood, race, and ambition.
It can be easy to forget that these novels take place in Chicago; they belong to us all and not to any one city. “I am an American,” Augie declares right at his beginning. “Chicago born” comes only second, though it acts as validation of his Americanness. Upon reflection, one cannot imagine either novel taking place in any other American city — one of huge immigrant classes fragmented into neighborhoods bitterly segregated along racial and ethnic lines.
Reading these novels together with a spatial understanding of Chicago deepens one’s appreciation for how wide a gulf exists between the lives of their protagonists and the populations they represent. Augie and Bigger find themselves in Hyde Park, for example (which still boasts of its veneer of racial diversity relative to other neighborhoods), but their experiences there are utterly separate. From this smallest of details — the incongruity of lives despite physical proximity — emerges persistent truths about the structure of racial dynamics in American cities.
6. Making the Most of Migration
The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson’s mammoth history of the Great Migration, won the 2015 Chicago Reader’s poll of “Greatest Chicago Book.” Chicago shares billing with LA and NYC as important destinations for those whose lives Wilkerson traces from the rural south to the urban north and west, but there can be no doubt that the Great Migration wrought indelible changes in the social fabric of every region in the United States from World War I through the 1970s; and in this story, Chicago plays a central role. Unwavering in her depictions of the political and physical violence of Jim Crow and nuanced in both her telling of personal stories and descriptions of broader effects of the migration on cities and people, Wilkerson’s book is the seminal text on the largest internal migration in American history.
Meanwhile, Adam Green’s Selling the Race provides an incisive contribution to conversations about how black Chicagoans carved a place for culture in modern America. Against prevailing narratives that cast black Americans (including many new migrants to Chicago) as victims of modernity, swept up by forces that looked to capitalize on anxieties of belonging, Green argues that they became powerful agents of cultural production. Examples from Mahalia Jackson to Ebony and Jet magazine (product of the Chicago-based Johnson Publications) present a rich picture of how much of black culture was generated and packaged for sale to wide audiences in Chicago.
7. Obsessions with the Ordinary
No city values the “ordinary” so dearly as Chicago. And if Studs Terkel stands as the everyman’s greatest champion, his Division Street America best ties the city’s affection for ordinariness to American identity. It would be a mistake to suggest that Terkel shilled the myth of a “city that works” (a term coined by Richard J. Daley). Rather, his no-nonsense portrayals of everyday Chicagoans — rich, poor, Democrat, Republican, racist, gay, jag-baggy, and others — coalesce to create this affecting hodgepodge. As Alex Kotlowitz (no slouch himself in the department of spotlighting and writing movingly about injustice in Chicago) has observed, there’s always Studs in the background — curious, probing, insisting, and asking questions that prompt often-ignored individuals to tell their stories.
Vivian Maier, whose recently discovered work also transacts in Chicago’s obsession with the ordinary, may outshine Terkel decades from now. She embodies the perfect female flâneur (or, as historian Lauren Elkin has rightly insisted, flâneuse). Maier spent most of her life as a nanny in Chicago, secretly capturing some 100,000 images on the city’s streets. The domestic nature of her work all but guaranteed invisibility, given chauvinistic structures of artistic production and labor valuation. But when John Maloof was researching the Northwest Side neighborhood of Portage Park in 2007, he came upon Maier’s forgotten images. He bought and disseminated them. Vivian Maier: A Photographer Found is a great introduction and Maier now belongs in discussions about great American street photographers. Hers is an utterly Chicago story.
8. Daley’s Siege
Richard J. Daley reigned over much of 20th-century Chicago. He ruled the city from 1955 until 1971, dominated Democratic Machine politics, and earned all of his enemies. Several books on this list describe Daley, and his complicated legacy plays out differently in their assessments. For this reason, I have left out of this list any Daley biographies.
Perhaps no account of Daley proves as brutal as Norman Mailer’s Miami and the Siege of Chicago. In his run-up to descriptions of protests and Chicago police reprisals, Mailer writes, “Daley was no national politician, but a clansman.” The 1968 DNC, convened by Daley, proved a flashpoint in American political history. The chaos fragmented the Democratic Party nationally, and set the stage for Richard Nixon’s victory in November. In Mailer’s description of Chicago, his clear affection for the city makes it all the more heartbreaking (despite his intimations of inevitability) that the fractures of American society should appear on live television broadcasts from Michigan Avenue.
Algren-esque musings notwithstanding, Mailer remains a Chicago outsider. So it feels appropriate to add Chicagoan Haskell Wexler’s film Medium Cool to this list of books. Combining documentary footage of the convention protests with a fictional film, Wexler enlivens and deepens Mailer’s account. He depicts the tumult of 1968 like perhaps no other text from that stormy year. As a bonus, Medium Cool echoes experiments happening in documentary at places like Kartemquin films, which would go on to produce the now-canonical Chicago films Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters.
9. Out in Chicago
The most recently published addition to this list is Timothy Stewart-Winter’s Queer Clout. In it, Stewart-Winter troubles the dominant narrative of 20th-century gay rights activism in the United States, which typically treats New York and San Francisco as the two central cities, often to the exclusion of the Midwest. He fills this narrative with a cacophonous history of LGBTQ culture and activism in Chicago, where firings, shakedowns, police bribes, and bar raids were just as much a part of life throughout the city as anywhere else.
Effective action depended ultimately on collaborations between gay rights and black civil rights groups, and the pursuit of delicate coalitions. Queer Clout traces the fits and starts of these collaborations and coalitions. Post-Orlando, Stewart-Winter’s discussion of the importance of gay bars for LGBTQ individuals — historically and presently — seems especially valuable. Bars served ground zero for exploitation by law enforcement, but also as meeting places and (most of the time) safe havens.
Stewart-Winter cautions against readily equating the gay rights movement with the civil rights movement; the layering of race, sexual orientation, and gender identification necessitates a more complicated picture. And his affecting description of unequal access to healthcare among Chicagoans affected by AIDS creates a devastating picture of failed policies. In a city divided between a black south and white north, lack of access to educational resources, preventive care, and treatment becomes a reminder of how segregation produces injustice that communities and policymakers must continue to fight to address.
10. Humboldt Park
To understand gentrification in Chicago, head to the Humboldt Park neighborhood, where protests against rising rents, tax hikes, and teardowns took place recently on the 606. This park, built on a former rail line, echoes efforts in other cities to erase industrial infrastructure from urban landscapes. Having whetted the appetite of developers, The 606 has accelerated the pace at which Humboldt Park is becoming unaffordable for longtime residents.
Sandra Cisneros grew up in Humboldt Park. Her beloved The House on Mango Street takes place in a similar fictional neighborhood. Traditional readings peg the novella as the coming-of-age story of Esperanza, a daughter of Mexican immigrants. Cisneros experiments with form — the book is a series of short vignettes — to explore Esperanza’s struggles with sexuality, national identity, class, and the Spanish language. The poetic language of these depictions alone makes an argument for the work’s importance.
To read Mango Street alongside Chris Ware’s Building Stories widens the lens through which readers can examine the relationship between individual and community identity. Ware’s unnamed protagonist, who loses a leg in a childhood accident, lives in Humboldt Park. Her story unfolds across 14 pamphlets, broadsheets, books, and other objects. Like Cisneros, Ware’s formal cartwheels advance conversations about identity. As with Cisneros, the book’s themes center on self-description — again, a disjointed and chronologically jumbled task (there’s no “right” way to read the book). He’s also interested in the evolving neighborhood, as the heroine moves away and revisits the three-flat in which so much life happens.
11. Whose City?
What does Chicago look like today? Natalie Moore’s The South Side, published last year, combines history and memoir to describe neighborhoods in the city that are too often represented in national news media in one-dimensional stories of gun violence. Her book draws productively from her own biography of a childhood in middle-class and largely black Chatham, and feels less concerned with comprehensiveness than with augmenting and correcting the record. As the current South Side reporter for the local NPR affiliate, Moore brings a great deal of connections and numerous voices to this project.
By contrast, Larry Bennett’s The Third City offers a picture of contemporary Chicago that seems at times too rosy in its assessment of the younger Richard M. Daley’s infrastructure investments (the book was published before the first term of Mayor Rahm “One Percent” Emanuel). Visions of Chicago as a global city — one that attracts entrepreneurs to ride the next wave of innovators was for a time called “Silicon Prairie” — ring with the optimism of the 19th century. It presents a picture of Chicago that has become popular among elected officials looking to attract private money and foreign tourists. This vision of Chicago’s third incarnation (a vision of privatization premised on the notion that a city’s chief ambition should be to attract capital to its core) looks like a new version of Burnham’s century-old Plan. It has fans elsewhere.
How to square this vision with the neighborhoods that sustain Chicago, and other cities, remains an unanswered question.
12. There Are No Two Finer Words…
Among garrulous Chicagoans, most will grudgingly agree: we miss Hot Doug’s. Chicago treasure Doug Sohn’s sausage emporium was not only a celebration of encased meats, but equally a democratizing force on a desolate block on California Avenue in the Avondale neighborhood. One waited in line (often for more than an hour) whether one was Anthony Bourdain, Aziz Ansari, or even Doug’s dad. In Hot Doug’s, the coffee table book that cashed in on Doug’s decision to close the shop not long ago, local voices weigh in on The Line: when they waited, how long they waited for, who got engaged to whom while waiting, who had to rush to the hospital to deliver a baby, etc.
Doug reminded us all (always calling us “my friend”) that in Chicago, one waits in line like civilized people. The snow, cold, heat, wind, and rain be damned.
13. Coda: Next Steps
There’s so much more to read and through-lines to trace from Carl Sandburg to Gwendolyn Brooks to Aleksandar Hemon to Chance the Rapper. Those interested in extensive lists of Chicago novels should consult, all kidding aside, several best-of lists already out there. My favorite was published by the dearly departed local site Gapers Block, and it organizes novels by neighborhood. Chicago magazine published a fun list of new Chicago-centric reads for the summer. I’m excited to read Margo Jefferson’s Negroland and Darryl Pinckney’s Black Deutschland. And Curbside Splendor Publishing (a local house) recently put out The Empty Bottle Chicago: 21+ Years of Music / Friendly / Dancing, a history of one of the Northwest Side’s most-loved venues.
But now, it’s time to get to packing.
Image Credit: Pixabay.
My generation of comics fans had a reading list. In grade school, we dug Chris Claremont’s S&M take on the X-Men and reprints of Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four. When we were 12, we picked up Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, and Maus, which dealt with the things 12 year olds think of as adult, like fascism, the military industrial complex, and the Holocaust. In either our senior year of high school or freshman year of college, a friend turned us on to Neil Gaiman, Adrian Tomine’s short stories, and, because it’s fun to see Betty Boop actually have sex, reprints of the Tijuana Bibles. A teaching assistant in a public policy class assigned Joe Sacco’s Palestine, which came with a foreword from Edward Said. There were a few other milestones that brought our interests into the literary mainstream, like Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, Art Spiegelman’s September 11 New Yorker cover, Fun Home, as well as two novels, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. We had always kept copies of Eightball next to our issues of Granta. Now the rest of the world does the same.
The roster of Drawn and Quarterly — Lynda Barry, Kate Beaton, Chester Brown, Daniel Clowes, Julie Doucet, Jason Lutes, Joe Matt, Joe Sacco, Seth, James Sturm, Jillian Tamaki, Adrian Tomine, and Chris Ware — represents at least a quarter of this high-art, high-literary comics renaissance in the Anglophone world. This summer, the Montreal-based independent comics publisher released a 776-page anthology in celebration of its silver anniversary, Drawn and Quarterly: Twenty-Five Years of Contemporary Cartooning, Comics, and Graphic Novels. It’s a fun book, filled with old and new work by the house’s artists and appreciation essays from scholars, fellow travelers, and novelists.Credit: Daniel Clowes/Drawn and Quarterly
A publisher’s anthology of its own work will be a hagiography. That’s okay. There are other places for brutal criticism of comics. The mainstream press is learning to develop a more discerning eye towards the form, to not declare every new graphic novel by a semi-famous artist a groundbreaking innovation. The Internet has many take-down podcasts. D&Q’s anthology reads like a high school yearbook, complete with scrapbook-level photographs. The personal essays describe career changes that are more interesting to their authors than to their readers. With that said, the book also provides an important service. The initial phase of the comics renaissance is over, and the publication of this anthology offers an opportunity for understanding what defined D&Q, what we readers were looking for in comics throughout the past 25 years, and what we are looking for now.Credit: James Sturm/Drawn and Quarterly
Chris Oliveros, the founding editor of D&Q, was smart, industrious, and he had an excellent eye for talent, but there were others before him. Fantagraphics had been around for awhile when Oliveros started his project and it published The Comics Journal, an exuberant and angry forum for comics journalism and criticism. Fantagraphics’s premiere artists, Los Bros. Hernandez, were Latino children of the punk scene. Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly edited RAW. Robert Crumb, Peter Bagge, and Aline Kominsky-Crumb edited Weirdo. Alison Bechdel and Howard Cruse had homes in the niche gay press. There were places for ferocious comics creators who told stories other people weren’t telling, but those spaces were limited. D&Q was a welcome addition to the comics world.
D&Q began in April 1990 as a black-and-white comics anthology. It fit the standard newsstand magazine size at 8.5″ x 11″. It was 32 pages long. It had a glossy cover. In its first issue, Oliveros, who was then in his early-20s, called for higher standards for the comics medium and lamented the “private boys’ club” that characterized the comics industry. The manifesto set a tone for what the company eventually became.
The magazine’s sales were based on the “direct market,” comic-book specialty stores which would buy the magazine on a non-returnable basis. It was the most economically viable option at the time, but it also limited the magazine’s reach. Soon after the first issue of the anthology, Oliveros started publishing single-artist comic books. In a few years, the original anthology magazine went to color and D&Q found inroads into Virgin Megastores (which have disappeared from North America), Tower Records (which are all now gone), and pre-monopoly Amazon. Oliveros started compiling serialized stories in quality paperbacks and hardcovers and published stand-alone graphic novels. Storeowners didn’t quite know what to do with these comics, how to sell them to the people who read literary novels. Peggy Burns, a publicist at DC Comics, came to D&Q in 2003 and in 2005 she negotiated a distribution deal with FSG. The people who published Jonathan Franzen also worked with Adrian Tomine, which was as it should be.
The essays here claim D&Q treats its creators well. D&Q allows its artists to do what they want to do, letting some of them design their books in meticulous detail, determining paper type, size, and printer quality. They are book-makers at heart. D&Q’s artists are good to their fans. They get to know them at conventions and spend a long time inscribing their books with cartoons during signings. The audience who reads this anthology has probably also read the major popular comics histories of the last few years and it knows that a comics publisher that allows creators space for their genius, doesn’t force them to hire a lawyer, and doesn’t populate its staff with misogynists is a special publisher.
No one agrees why D&Q was so good. The testimonials contradict each other.
Jason Lutes, the author of Berlin and Jar of Fools: “They were the kind of comics I was hungry for — taking a cue from the precedent set by Art Spiegelman’s RAW magazine, but stepping out from under the influence of the American underground, which had overshadowed so much of ‘alternative comics’ up to that point.”
TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe on his introduction to D&Q: “From then on I only wanted to read and make ‘underground’ comics, watch and make ‘underground’ films, listen to ‘underground’ music, and basically soak up anything that seemed even a little bit subversive.”
Anders Nilsen describes the publisher’s “quiet, understated commitment to quality work.”
It’s not always clear who is on the inside and who is on the outside, what is dangerous and what is just new. Those contradictions define D&Q.
Let’s start with Kate Beaton, who uses the comic-strip format and her naïve style to take down the myths of Western high culture. In her appreciation essay, Margaret Atwood writes, “Let she who has never drawn arms and a moustache on a picture of the Venus de Milo in her Latin book cast the first rubber eraser.” In one of Beaton’s parodies of The Great Gatsby, our hero complains that the green light gives him seizures. Beaton’s work isn’t that subversive. A hip teacher would hand that strip to her students. She would smile when her students told her the strip is better than the corresponding passage in the book. Atwood goes on, “Of course, in order to burlesque a work of literature or an historic event, you have to know it and, in some sense, love it — or at least understand its inner workings.”Credit: Kate Beaton/Drawn and Quarterly
In the early ’90s, Adrian Tomine was a prodigy scribbling away at his grim mini-comics and taking notes from Oliveros by mail. His work has grown more somber and mature through the years and now he is a master of narrative in different permutations of the comics form. Françoise Mouly describes the “handsome, stripped-down aesthetics” of his New Yorker covers, which “form a paean to the poignancy of daily life in the big city.” The moments he captures in these covers are pregnant with ambiguity, and he “finds the humanity of a small town within the big one.” His stories depict human beings who struggle with their own mediocrity. Tomine’s work is even-keeled. The lines are careful. The page layouts and panel organization don’t invite any confusion. He has a gentle, classical style and he can bring you just to the edge of tears.Credit: Adrian Tomine/Drawn and Quarterly
Jonathan Lethem describes Chester Brown as a “citizen of the timeless nation of the dissident soul, as much as Dostoevsky’s underground man. At the same time, he’s also a citizen of a nation of one: Chesterbrownton, or Chesterbrownsylvania, a desolate but charged region he seems to have no choice but to inhabit.” Brown’s subjects veer between the respectable and the borderline subversive. His best-known book Louis Riel is now a staple of Canadian public schools. Paying for It is a memoir of his life as a john. The anthology includes “The Zombie Who Liked the Arts,” a tale from 2007 about a zombie’s infatuation with a human female. These are stories about lonely men, a would-be revolutionary who fights madness, and lovers who dislike their own bodies. Brown’s connection to the underground may be less tenuous, but unlike the folks at RAW and Weirdo, unlike Fyodor Dostoevsky for that matter, he doesn’t hide his polish.Credit: Chester Brown/Drawn and Quarterly
Are these books threatening? In his 2005 book Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature, Charles Hatfield noted that the appeal of the comix underground in the 1970s required the medium of the traditional comic book itself, and the ironies that involved using a medium associated with the “jejune” to discuss illicit, “adult” topics. “[T]he package was inherently at odds with the sort of material the artists wanted to handle, and this gave the comix books their unique edge.” I don’t know if the packaging still matters in the same way, if the placement of Tomine’s mature, sad stories within the firm pages of a graphic novel causes such a disjuncture.Credit: Julie Doucet/Drawn and Quarterly
My special edition of Julie Doucet’s exploration of sexual insanity Lève Ta Jambe Mon, Poisson Est Mort! comes complete with a lithograph of a nude belly dancer on the frontispiece and a rave review from ArtForum on the jacket cover. Sean Rogers describes Doucet’s “beguiling forays into an untrammeled imagination, rich with fantastic displays of menstrual flow, severed unmentionable body parts, and inanimate objects forced into service for pleasure.” Doucet is one of D&Q’s more anarchic writers and it may be true that this finely crafted hardbound edition cannot contain her sexuality. But I don’t know if it’s any more scandalous to read Leaves of Grass or Portnoy’s Complaint in a Library of America edition.
The packaging of these books matters for other reasons. Eleanor Davis, the author of How to Be Happy, explains why:
Loving a book containing prose is like loving a cup filled with a wonderful drink: the cup and drink are only connected by circumstance. Loving a comic book is different. The content and the form of a comic are connected inextricably. The little autonomous drawings are held tightly in the pages of the book the comic is printed in, and they cannot get away. When you hold the comic book, you hold those worlds. They are yours.
Drawn and Quarterly publishes extraordinary comics. And because they are an extraordinary company they know to make extraordinary books for these comics to live in.
It’s not irony that makes the fine hardcover editions of Beaton, Tomine, Brown and Doucet so good, it’s the craftsmanship that marries the content comfortably with the medium, a craftsmanship that understands that a small, standard, novel-size hardcover is appropriate for the spare intimate melancholy of Brown’s I Never Liked You, and that a large, flat, Tintin-like edition is appropriate for the grim fantasy of Daniel Clowes’s The Death-Ray. The various forms of packaging in D&Q’s catalogue simply offers an added texture to each of their creators’ distinct voices.
After 25 years, the D&Q artists’ formalist methods, their wry sense of humor, their careful delineation of human emotions, their firm grasp of the comic book/graphic novel as a medium have become not just familiar to comics readers but also the standard for quality comics. Their content, for the most part, is not shocking, and even the subversive voices are much less threatening now than they were before. Brown’s discussion of prostitution is no more provocative than Dan Savage’s. Doucet’s frank discussion of female sexuality was more shocking in the early ’90s than it will ever be again. These artists were never revolutionaries. They were never reactionaries either. They are Burkean liberals of the comics form.
For all its self-congratulation, the anthology does have a sense of humor about itself, the comics industry, and comics celebrity. The book contains a new story from Jillian Tamaki about a D&Q intern who finds fame and fortune after Oliveros fires her for writing a blog post critical of the company. It includes a handwritten note from Spiegelman to Oliveros declining the editor’s request. “I’m a big fan of Julie’s work and I can probably be bullied into giving a quote but would appreciate being left off the hook only because I’ve had to write so many damn blurbs recently. I dunno.” The book begins with a short strip by Chester Brown, “A History of Drawn & Quarterly in Six Panels,” which depicts Oliveros’s advance from youth to middle-age. In the final panel, Oliveros stands alone on a cold, quiet Montreal street.
Oliveros is retiring this year. Peggy Burns, the publicist who moved to D&Q from DC Comics, will now head the company. This anthology stands as a monument to Oliveros and what he accomplished. He discovered extraordinary talent, he widened the audience for non-superhero comics, he created a minor Canadian institution, and he published forgotten comics that would otherwise have been left to the archives. (D&Q has a secondary role as an NYRB Classics of comics, publishing reprints of vintage American comics creators like John Stanley and translations of classic foreign artists and writers like the Finnish author Tove Jansson.) With those accomplishments behind him, the message of Brown’s strip is ambiguous, but I take it to be this: The comics industry doesn’t really change anything. Most of the world is indifferent to your work just as most of the world is indifferent to poetry. This art form of comics will not bring you any closer to enlightenment and it will not bring you any great happiness. It won’t bring you any misery either. Comics makers and comics readers will grow older and come a little bit closer to death, the same way they would if they followed another vocation or indulged in another pastime.
Some of D&Q’s comics may have educated a few minds, but most of the publisher’s craftsmen embrace their own irrelevance. When I was young, I read Maus, Watchmen, and The Dark Knight Returns because they were about mass death, because they were strange, because they treated violence in a way that I thought was real. I still have them on my shelf and thumb through them now and again, but their appeal has changed. Watchmen, I realize now, is a comedy. The Dark Knight Returns is pretty funny too. Maus is as much about the horrors of the present as it is about the horrors of the past. I read Beaton, Brown, Tomine, and the rest because, in every well-placed line, in every well-told joke, they remind me that monotony has its own pleasures and comics don’t have to be important.
Before I finally weaned myself off reality television, I used to fantasize about a new kind of Bachelor franchise. Instead of tanned and muscular milquetoasts courting a bunch of taut-bodied ladies who work in sales, there would be a handsome if anemic-looking lad in a chambray shirt courting young women with tattoos and/or glasses, library cards and/or sewing machines, their bodies either skinny-flabby or heavy and lush. On this show, no one would have their teeth bleached and capped, and no one would fly in a helicopter. Instead of talking about their commitment to love, contestants would discuss their passions as software developers, artists, or political scientists, and talk about books and current events. It would be Alterna-Bachelor, and I’d tune in every week.
Unfortunately, no such show has arrived, and so, at the end of July, when something about the web-based project 40 Days of Dating appeared on my Tumblr dashboard, I was hungry for a new kind of romance narrative.
If you missed it, 40 Days of Dating was created by two New York-based designers, Jessica Walsh and Timothy Goodman. As the site explains: “Two good friends with opposite relationship problems found themselves single at the same time. As an experiment, they dated for 40 days.” They devised six rules, which included seeing each other every day, visiting a couple’s counselor once a week, and, of course, documenting everything.
(If you haven’t already visited the site, I’ll wait while you do so. See you in, oh, fifteen hours…)
The first time I found 40 Days of Dating, the entire experiment hadn’t been posted yet. That first afternoon, I scrolled through the days updated so far, slobbering them up as fast as I could, until — suddenly! — there were no new posts to click on. I’m pretty sure I moaned, partially out of desperation for more of Tim and Jessica’s story, and partially out of relief, for it meant I could live a normal life again, reading merely a post a day from then on. Either way, I was sure 40 Days of Dating was one of the most compelling internet projects I’d stumbled upon in a while – -the antithesis of “tl;dr.” It’s no surprise that Walsh and Goodman have since signed with CAA for representation in “all areas” — which means, I suppose, that their project could become a book, a movie, a television series, a musical, a video game, or all of the above. Their collaboration clearly resonates with people. But why?
For one, the drama of the experiment feels immediate, with both parties describing moments and experiences with selective but strong details, be it the headaches Jessica suffers from the first couple of weeks, or Tim’s attraction to Jessica when she wears her hair up, or when they finally kiss for the first time. They take pains to convey their emotions as they tilt and shift, while also occasionally discussing tangential topics like coffee, basketball, and Walt Disney. It’s voyeuristic, but what’s displayed isn’t unfiltered, which is both refreshing and a bit tantalizing: I kept wondering what wasn’t included, what moments didn’t get recorded. (I am not going to lie, I am seriously hoping a sex tape gets unearthed soon!)
Despite the site’s as-it-happens feeling, the experiment is over; they posted it only after the project was completed. It’s recent history, even if it seems like it’s occurring right now. Their narratives are paired with typography and design work by their many talented friends, which reminds the reader that this love experiment is also a design experiment, collaborative to its core. The project is deliberate.
This dichotomy, between spontaneity and premeditation, created an interesting tension for me as I followed the project: I was continually swept away by their drama, while also cognizant that it had already passed. I kept imagining the couple in the present: were they still together, like, for real? Were they enemies? OMFG, what if they were married by now? I also kept considering their unkempt, un-designed inner selves next to the site’s slick presentation. Goodman and Walsh claim to want to get at the root of their relationship troubles, to dive deeply into the mud of their desires and flaws, and yet, this self-exploration is hemmed in by the limited questionnaire they’ve assigned themselves to answer every day, and by the vision of whatever guest designer they’ve asked to render their writing into a cool image some youngster might want to frame and hang above their flea market-gleaned love seat. Unlike some other critics, I don’t doubt Goodman and Walsh’s sincerity; just because your shit looks tight on the internet doesn’t make it any less authentic. But it also might mean that what Goodman and Walsh learned about themselves from this experiment can’t be translated, can’t fit the medium they’ve devised for it. I say “might” because I’m still not sure. My brain’s still spinning a little.
What’s also compelling about 40 Days of Dating is its “he said/she said” nature. Throughout the experiment, I was regularly surprised by how conflicting their accounts were. (For instance, once Tim tried to send Jess a flirty text, but she thought he was being seriously jealous and shut him down real quick. The misunderstanding was too cute, as I might tell my son.) Other times, one person will describe an entire encounter that the other doesn’t mention at all, and it feels like they’re experiencing drastically different events. The project is a lesson for fiction writers in the variance of point of view, and it proves that interpersonal communication can be as trying as putting together Ikea furniture. The last post, on the 40th day, is the most heartbreaking, for when Tim confesses, “I know now that I’m in love with her. I love her, yet I know there’s nothing else I can do,” it’s clear that Jessica has no idea — or she didn’t at the time — and that their failure to adequately express their perspectives to each other is what led to their downfall as romantic partners.
Both Jessica and Tim answered the same questions every day, and their responses are posted on the left- and right hand columns respectively. The side-by-side format, with different graphics for each, emphasizes their isolated experiences. It also complicates the reading process, for one has to make decisions about what to read and look at first, and why. (The experience reminded me of a little of approaching a graphic novel like Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, where simply scanning left-to-right just won’t cut it.) Some days, I read Jessica’s answers first, sometimes Tim’s, and other days I’d toggle back and forth between each of them. How I absorbed the graphics was another variable. I felt like one of the collaborators in this regard, participating in the experience.
There’s another way I participated in the experience, or imagined that I was: I hoped. Like a sports fan who wears his favorite jersey on game day and screams at the T.V., I had this superstitious feeling that my actions made a difference in the outcome of this couple. I tuned in and rooted for the success of Tim-and-Jessica, this forever-after couple. And, boy, did I want it to work out! Throughout my 40 Days experience, I continually caught myself yearning for the happily-ever-after narrative; I wanted Goodman and Walsh’s story to adhere to a RomCom formula, even as I knew that it was a formula. The contradiction reminded me of Mindy Kaling’s essay “Flick Chicks.” In it, she writes:
I like watching people fall in love onscreen so much that I can suspend my disbelief in the contrived situations that occur only in the heightened world of romantic comedies. I have come to enjoy the moment when the male lead, say, slips and falls right on top of the expensive wedding cake. I actually feel robbed when the female lead’s dress doesn’t get torn open at a baseball game while the JumboTron camera is on her. I regard romantic comedies as a subgenre of sci-fi, in which the world operates according to different rules than my regular human world. For me, there is no difference between Ripley from “Alien” and any Katherine Heigl character. They are equally implausible. They’re all participating in a similar level of fakey razzle-dazzle, and I enjoy every second of it.
You can read 40 Days of Dating as another of these narratives, participating in these unbelievable tropes. From that angle, Jessica plays the overworked, career-driven female lead, while Tim plays the go-lucky committment-phobic dude who will rescue her from her uptightery. Throughout, friends of each (off-the-page, in this story), express their concerns over the project, just as minor characters would show disapproval in a cliched romantic comedy. Throughout it all, the viewer/reader longs for the final act to bring about confessions of true love. That these lovers are also super hip (i.e., their handwriting is font-worthy and they somehow manage to find the coolest Mickey Mouse paraphernalia at Disney World), nudges something inside of me: namely, the notion that True Love Exists for All. It turns out, we can all be Katherine Heigl and James Marsden, even the skinny-flabby and the yellow-toothed among us.
Except that this story doesn’t end happily, not in the traditional sense: Jessica Walsh and Tim Goodman aren’t together, haven’t been since day 40. Instead, they remain business partners, if not friends, possibly earning oodles of money off their wacky project. And I end up checking myself, for longing for that master narrative, for letting it persist in my imagination when there are far more complex stories to be had.
In the end, maybe Alterna-Bachelor would fail because the very people I’d imagine on that show would be way too cool for something that commercial. Or maybe it would fail because a bearded guy who likes IPAs isn’t inherently interesting. (It takes four years of college sex to learn that one!) By now, when even the boy toys in One Direction look like promising cast members for my imaginary show, and when consumer culture co-opts identities faster than you can say Silverlake, there’s nothing to differentiate my idea from the original Bachelor franchise except the obligatory tribal plugs and a few more brunettes. All that means nothing if the story adheres to the same false notion of happily-ever-after.
Jessica Walsh and Timothy Goodman recognize that falseness, I think, and are thus looking at different ways to adapt their story. They might have been on the Today Show, but I doubt you’ll see them hosting their own cheesy talk show anytime soon, or, worse, taping their wedding for the E! network. Straightforward television just isn’t flexible enough for this story. Goodman recently said, “We’re interested in creating a book about our experience and a web-based community platform for others to participate in this experience.”
What this web-based community will look like is beyond my powers of fantasy, but I’ll definitely take a peek as soon as it’s a reality.
See you on the internets, guys.
Chabon. Obreht. Franzen. McCann. Egan. Brooks. Foer. Lethem. Eggers. Russo.
Possible hosts for Bravo’s America’s Next Top Novelist? Dream hires for the Iowa Writers’ Workshop?
Nope — just the “Murderer’s Row” of advance blurbers featured on the back of Nathan Englander’s new effort, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. And what an effort it must be: “Utterly haunting. Like Faulkner [Russo] it tells the tangled truth of life [Chabon], and you can hear Englander’s heart thumping feverishly on every page [Eggers].”
As I marvel at the work of Knopf’s publicity department, I can’t help but feel a little ill. And put off. Who cares? Shouldn’t the back of a book just have a short summary? Isn’t this undignified? But answering these questions responsibly demands more than the reflexive rage of an offended aesthete (Nobody cares! Yes! Yes!). It demands, I think, the level-headed perspective of a blurb-historian…
Let’s be clear: blurbs are not a distinguished genre. In 1936 George Orwell described them as “disgusting tripe,” quoting a particularly odious example from the Sunday Times: “If you can read this book and not shriek with delight, your soul is dead.” He admitted the impossibility of banning reviews, and proposed instead the adoption of a system for grading novels according to classes, “perhaps quite a rigid one,” to assist hapless readers in choosing among countless life-changing masterpieces. More recently Camille Paglia called for an end to the “corrupt practice of advance blurbs,” plagued by “shameless cronyism and grotesque hyperbole.” Even Stephen King, a staunch supporter of blurbs, winces at their “hyperbolic ecstasies” and calls for sincerity on the part of blurbers.
The excesses and scandals of contemporary blurbing, book and otherwise, are well-documented. William F. Buckley relates how publishers provided him with sample blurb templates: “(1) I was stunned by the power of [ ]. This book will change your life. Or, (2) [ ] expresses an emotional depth that moves me beyond anything I have experienced in a book.” Overwrought praise for David Grossman’s To the End of the Land inspired The Guardian to hold a satirical Dan Brown blurbing competition. My personal favorite? In 2000, Sony Pictures invented one David Manning of the Ridgefield Press to blurb some of its stinkers. When Newsweek exposed the fraud a year later, moviegoers brought a class action lawsuit on behalf of those duped into seeing Hollow Man, The Animal, The Patriot, or Vertical Limit (Manning on Hollow Man: “One hell of a ride!” — evidently moviegoers are easy marks).
When did this circus get started? It’s tempting to look back no further than the origins of the word “blurb,” coined in 1906 by children’s book author and civil disobedient Gelett Burgess. But blurbs, like bullshit, existed long before the term coined to describe them (“bullshit,” in case you were wondering, appeared in 1915). They were born of marketing, authorial camaraderie, and a genuine obligation to the reader, three staples of the publishing industry since its earliest days, to which we will turn momentarily.
But before hunting for blurbs in the bookshops of antiquity, it’s important to get clear on what we’re looking for. Laura Miller at Salon writes: “The term ‘blurb’ is sometimes mistakenly used for the publisher-generated description printed on a book’s dust jacket — that’s actually the flap copy. ‘Blurb’ really only applies to bylined endorsements by other authors or cultural figures.” Miller can’t be completely right. For the consultants at Book Marketing Limited — and their numerous big-name clients — blurb describes any copy printed on a book, publisher-generated or otherwise, as evidenced by the criteria for the annual Best Blurb Award (ed note: as per the comment below, this is the typical British usage). So much for authorship. The term is often used of bylined endorsements that appear in advertisements. So much for physical location. And if we try to accommodate author blurbs, even Wikipedia’s “short summary accompanying a creative work” isn’t broad enough.
What a mess. In the interest of time I’m going to adopt an arbitrary hybrid definition — blurb: a short endorsement, author unspecified, that appears on a creative work. So Orwell’s example and Manning’s reviews would be disqualified if they didn’t appear on a book or DVD case, respectively. I’ll leave that legwork to someone else, because we’ve got serious ground to cover.
If you needed beach reading in ancient Rome, you’d probably head down to the Argiletum or Vicus Sandaliarium, streets filled with booksellers roughly equivalent to London’s Paternoster Row. But how to know which books would make your soul shriek with delight? There was no Sunday Times; newspaper advertising didn’t catch on for another 1,700 years, and neither did professional book reviewers. Aside from word of mouth, references in other books, and occasional public readings, browsers appear to have been on their own.
Almost. Evidence suggests that booksellers advertised on pillars near their shops, where one might see new titles by famous people like Martial, the inventor of the epigram (nice one, Martial). It’s safe to assume that even in the pre-codex days of papyrus scrolls, a good way to assess the potential merits of Martial’s book would have been to read the first page or two, an ideal place for authors to insert some prefatory puff. Martial begins his most well-known collection with a note to the reader: “I trust that, in these little books of mine, I have observed such self-control, that whoever forms a fair judgment from his own mind can make no complaint of them.” Similar proto-blurbs were common, often doubling as dedications to powerful patrons or friends. The Latin poet Catullus: “To whom should I send this charming new little book / freshly polished with dry pumice? To you, Cornelius!” For those who weren’t the object of the dedication, these devices likely served the same purpose that blurbs do today: to market books, influence their interpretation, and assure prospective readers they kept good company.
Nearly fourteen hundred years passed before Renaissance humanists hit on the idea of printing commendatory material written by someone other than the author or publisher. (Or maybe they copied Egyptian authors and booksellers, who were soliciting longer poems of praise (taqriz) from big-shot friends in the 1300s.) By 1516, the year Thomas More published Utopia, the practice was widespread, but More took it to another level. He drew up the blueprint for blurbing as we know it, imploring his good friend Erasmus to make sure the book “be handsomely set off with the highest of recommendations, if possible, from several people, both intellectuals and distinguished statesmen.” This it was, by a number of letters including one from Erasmus (“All the learned unanimously subscribe to my opinion, and esteem even more highly than I the divine wit of this man…”), and a poem by David Manning’s more eloquent predecessor, a poet laureate named “Anemolius” who praises Utopia as having made Plato’s “empty words… live anew.” What would he have written about The Patriot?
Hyperbole, fakery, shameless cronyism: though it will be another three hundred years before blurbs make their way onto the outside of a book, things are looking downright modern. In the 1600s practically everyone wrote commendatory verses, some of which were quite beautiful, like Ben Jonson’s for Shakespeare’s First Folio: “Shine forth, thou Star of Poets, and with rage / Or influence, chide or cheer the drooping stage, / Which, since thy flight from hence, hath mourned like night, / And despairs day, but for thy volume’s light.” (Interestingly, Shakespeare himself never wrote any — one can only imagine what a good blurb from the Bard would have done for sales.)
It was only a matter of time before things got out of control. The advent of periodicals in the early 18th century facilitated printing and distribution of book reviews, and authors and publishers wasted no time appropriating this new form of publicity. Perhaps the best example is Samuel Richardson’s wildly successful Pamela, an epistolary novel about a young girl who wins the day through guarding her virginity. Richardson made excellent use of prefatory puff, opening his book with two long reviews: the first by French translator Jean Baptiste de Freval, the second unsigned but likely written by Rev. William Webster, which first appeared as pre-publication praise in the Weekly Miscellany, one of Britain’s earliest periodicals.
Hyperbole? “This little Book will infallibly be looked upon as the hitherto much-wanted Standard or Pattern for this kind of writing”; “The Honour of Pamela’s Sex demands Pamela at your Hands, to shew the World an Heroine, almost beyond example…”
Fakery? The book also had a preface by the “editor,” really Richardson himself, which concluded a laundry list of extravagant praise with the following: “…An editor may reasonably be supposed to judge with an Impartiality which is rarely to be met with in an Author towards his own Works.”
Shameless cronyism? De Freval was in debt to Richardson when he wrote his review, as was Rev. Webster, whose Weekly Miscellany was funded partially by Richardson.
All of this sent Henry Fielding over the edge. Nauseated as much by the ridiculous blurbs as the content of the novel, Fielding wrote a satirical response entitled Shamela, which he prefaced with a note from the editor to “himself,” a commendatory letter from “John Puff, Esq.,” and an exasperated coda: “Note, Reader, several other COMMENDATORY LETTERS and COPIES of VERSES will be prepared against the NEXT EDITION.”
While Fielding may have been the first to parody blurbs, it was another literary giant who truly modernized them. A master of self-promotion, Walt Whitman knew exactly what to do when he received a letter of praise from Ralph Waldo Emerson. The second edition of Leaves of Grass is, as far as I know, the first example of a blurb printed on the outside of a book, in this case in gilt letters at the base of the spine: “I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career / R W Emerson.” (Emerson’s letter appeared in its entirety at the end of the book along with several other reviews — three of which were written by Whitman — in a section entitled “Leaves-Droppings.”)
Whitman’s move wasn’t completely unprecedented. The earliest dust jacket in existence (1830) boasts an anonymous poem of praise on the cover, and printers had long been in the habit of putting their device at the base of the spine. Nevertheless, the impulse to combine them with a bylined review was sheer genius, and Emerson’s blurb can be read as greeting not only Whitman, but also the great career of its own updated form.
After Whitman there were further innovations. A century ago, fantasy author James Branch Cabell (unsung favorite of Mark Twain and Neil Gaiman) prefigured self-deprecators like Chris Ware by including negative blurbs at the back of his books: “The author fails of making his dull characters humanely pitiable. New York Post.” Or, as Ware put it on the cover of the first issue of Acme Novelty Library: “An Indefensible Attempt to Justify the Despair of Those Who Have Never Known Real Tragedy.” Unlike Cabell’s, Ware’s first negative blurb was self-authored, but those featured on Jimmy Corrigan were not. Marvel Comics followed suit when it issued its new “Defenders.” (A related strategy — Martin Amis’ The Information was stickered “Not Booker Prize Shortlisted.”)
These satirical strategies highlight the increasingly common suspicion, nascent in Fielding’s parody of Richardson, that blurbs just aren’t meaningful. Publishers, however, have evidently concluded that blurbs may not be meaningful, but they sure help move merchandise. Witness the advent of two recent innovations in paperback design: the blap and the blover (rhymes with cover).
The blap is a glossy page covered in blurbs that immediately follows the front cover. In deference to its importance, the width of the cover is usually reduced, tempting potential readers with a glimpse of the blap, and perhaps even accommodating a conveniently placed blurb that runs along the length of the book.
The blover is essentially a blap on steroids, literally a second book cover, made from the same cardstock, that serves solely as a billboard for blurbs. Blovers are not yet widespread, but given the ubiquity of blaps it is only a matter of time. (For an extreme case see The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, where the blover’s edge sports a vertical banality from Entertainment Weekly — “I couldn’t put the book down.” — not to mention the 56 blurbs on the pages that follow.)
Blovers and blaps… what next? For my part, I can see where Orwell, Paglia, and Miller are coming from, and I certainly wouldn’t bemoan the disappearance of blurbs. But not everyone is like me. Some people enjoy glancing at reviews, or choosing a book based on the endorsements of their favorite authors. Blurbs sell books (maybe), and they allow established writers to help out the newbies. Those are good things. And since regulating them is as unfeasible as banning reviews, as long as blovers don’t replace covers I guess blurbs are a genre I can live with. And who knows — one day Murderer’s Row might be batting for me.
Previously: To Blurb or Not to Blurb
Image credit: wikimedia commons
Rob writes in with this question:I’m a seventeen year old who is going to be spending five weeks this summer in Chicago (to be specific – Evanston, since I’ll be part of Northwestern’s summer high school music institute). I’m a life-long New Jerseyan, and have never been in the city of broad shoulders for longer than three days.So, since I like reading books about the place I’m visiting, I was wondering if you could recommend anything that captured the essence of Chicago – I’m looking for works that encapsulate Chicago in the same way Kavalier & Clay encapsulates New York.I was thinking about The Lazarus Project and Carl Sandburg’s work. Do you have any other ideas?Chicago has inspired some of America’s greatest fiction and continues to be a fruitful setting for contemporary writers. I’ve just completed The Lazarus Project (review hopefully forthcoming), and its twinned stories – set in Chicago 1908 and present day Eastern Europe – mine Chicago’s multicultural past and ignominious history. The book, based on the true story of the mysterious death of immigrant Lazarus Averbuch reminded me a lot of The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson’s non-fiction account of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and the serial killer who lurked in its shadows (my review here). Both Devil and Lazarus vividly evoke the chaos of Chicago, a turn of the century boomtown of slaughterhouses, nascent industry, and the first “skyscrapers” that was quickly aligning itself as the country’s center after only decades earlier being its frontier.An interest in this era in Chicago will inevitably lead one to Upton Sinclair, whose 1906 novel The Jungle is a muckraking, contemporary account of the slaughterhouse workers who drove Chicago’s economic engine. The novel is a landmark among American social novels.Jumping forward in time, Chicago produced one of America’s greatest novelists, Saul Bellow, who haunted the hauls of Northwestern in the 1930s. Garth writes that “the greatest Chicago novel ever is The Adventures of Augie March, which is highly recommended for someone who liked Kavalier & Clay.” This contention is hard to dispute.Patrick points us to another, more contemporary literary lodestar for Chicago: “The poet laureate of Chicago is Stuart Dybek (I mean, I don’t think he actually is, I just think he should be). The Coast of Chicago and I Sailed With Magellan are both absolute must reads. They both entirely take place in Chicago (mostly the South Side, but not exclusively). He’s one of my favorite authors, and somebody who should have a much larger audience.”Patrick also throws a more recent selection into the mix: “Also, it’s not like a totally Chicago Chicago book, but I think [Joshua Ferris’s] Then We Came to the End is about Chicago in a really interesting way, as it encapsulates life in the Loop, full of business people commuting from all the suburbs, folks who live in Lincoln Park, people who drive up from the South Side. Plus it’s really fun.”To these I would also add Adam Langer’s well received duo of books set in West Rogers Park, a neighborhood at the northern edge of the city not far from where I used to live: Crossing California and The Washington Story. Finally, anyone interested in Chicago fiction should consider Chris Ware’s landmark graphic novel, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. It’s another twinned story, with threads taking place in the near present and during 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, for so many the moment of Chicago’s emergence. Ware’s pathos is haunting and his spare, eccentric drawings are mesmerizing. Along with Devil in the White City, it is a favorite of contemporary Chicagoans.We’ve undoubtedly skipped over much worthy Chicago literature, so please enlighten us with further suggestions in the comments. Rob, thanks for a great question!
“Scriptland,” as it turns out, is not the area formed by the borders of the 10, 101, and 405 freeways, it is the LA Times’ new weekly feature on the world’s highest-paying thankless job, screenwriting. While the first installment of the series was a fawning valentine to the King of Scribes, Charlie Kaufman, this week’s edition offers something a little more intriguing.Jim Uhls (IMDb), who earned is bona fides adapting Fight Club (IMDb) (and doing a fabulous commentary track discussion with Chuck Palahniuk, I might add), has signed on to turn the graphic novel Rex Mundi into a movie starring Johnny Depp. This continues a trend of Hollywood snatching up graphic novels as if they were tacky TV shows from the 70s. I shudder to think of the day I wake up and find that they’re making Jimmy Corrigan, starring Jack Black and Carl Reiner.
After two weeks of distractions, spotty internet service, and a massive dose of holiday merriment and madness, I am finally back in Los Angeles, which is why I can now move towards completing the year end list that you are all awaiting so patiently.Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum: Earlier in the year, Ryszard Kapuscinski’s book Imperium had made me more fully aware of the vast Soviet prison system. Years ago, when I was in high school, I had read bits and pieces of The Gulag Archipelago, and, bewildered by the density of it, I had come away with little more than the notion that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had been a political prisoner held by an evil, totalitarian state. I carried this notion of the Gulag with me for a long time, and though Solzhenitsyn certainly would have been able to correct my misconceptions had I been a more diligent reader, I encountered nothing else that showed me the real picture of a state-run system that killed tens of millions. Then Kapuscinski’s forays into the long-hidden depths of Siberia opened my eyes to a tragedy that is, of course, no secret, yet manages to be overlooked when people are taking stock of recent historical tragedies. This negligence is the launching point for Applebaum’s considered history of the Soviet prison system. She covers the system from all the angles, from the bureaucrats at the top to the zeks toiling in mines and forests and withering away on frozen ground. I began reading the book in early June and I was halfway through it when I left for Europe. I didn’t bring it with me because I didn’t want to lug the heavy hard cover with me, but I ruminated over what I had read for much of my trip.Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire by David Remnick: This was one of three books I read while I was in Europe, mostly on interminable airplane rides and also while I was in Ireland as I recall. I hadn’t planned to read all those books about Russia, but the three put together taught me more about the subject than any course might have been able to. Remnick’s Pulitzer-winning book about the fall of the Soviet Empire is truly exhilarating. Through his eyes, you see the collapse of the great empire from Moscow. The book reads like breaking news, and though I was, of course, aware of the ultimate outcome, his blow by blow account is really exciting. Being halfway through Gulag at the time, I was especially fascinated by the role that “Memorial,” a group dedicated to uncovering the crimes of the Soviet regime, played in the process.The Lonely Hearts Club by Raul Nunez: I spent a week in Barcelona last summer, and before I left I decided it would be fun to read a novel set in the city while I was there. I managed to track down this slim volume, which I found to be a bit thin, but nonetheless a perfect book to read at three in the morning in a steaming bedroom whose only window looks into an airshaft, and when I walked through the bustling old city, I have to admit, I felt like I could see the city through Frankie’s eyes. Here are my comments on the book, which I posted after my trip was over.Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware: Years from now, people won’t remember that the graphic novel was once a marginal format, consigned to hobby shops and newsstands. Literary historians, however, will point to Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan as the book that brought graphic novels out of the dark and into the cultural spotlight. I read this one in Europe, too. It’s one of my favorites ever.Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis: I mentioned this book dozens of times this year, so I won’t bother to once again mention how much I enjoyed it. Instead you can read what I wrote right after I read it. (It’ll be at the very bottom.)The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem: Ditto on this one, which I probably talked about on this blog and in the aisles of the bookstore more than any other new book this year, so here’s my review.That’s all for now. I’m jetlaggin’.
Ms. Millions and myself are expecting a number of house guests for Thanksgiving, so there probably won’t be much posting on the old blog for a few days. Luckily for you guys, though, I’ve brewed up a post chock-full of fascinating info for all of you. First off, Time Magazine columnist, Andrew Arnold put together a list of 25 best graphic novels of all time as part 2 of a series commemorating the 25th anniversary of the birth of the graphic novel, which, according to him (and many others), was the publication of Will Eisner’s A Contract With God: And Other Testament Stories. I haven’t read it but it’s supposed to be incredible. At any rate, Arnold has put together a great list that includes a couple of my favorite books of all time. Here are the ones from the list that I have read.From Hell by Alan Moore was lent to me, forced on me really, by a friend of mine who is really into comic books. I was skeptical, but this one turned out to be pretty riveting. The art, especially, is magnificent: noirish fields of black create an ominous mood that permeates the story.Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware: This is one that really transcends the genre. When I read this, it made me wonder why people aren’t making graphic novels out of everything all the time. There are so many stories out there that can be made fascinating by the artists’ pen. Everyone should read this book.Maus Vols. 1 & 2 by Art Spiegelman: It’s hard to put into words how incredible these books are. If anyone requires proof that the graphic novel medium, when wielded expertly, can bring more to the table than the plain old written word, then these books provide it. Reading Maus is an emotional experience, and I think a lot of that emotion comes from reading a tragic story rendered in a format that seems so innocent. Everyone should read these two books, too.Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud: I’ve talked about this book before. There is something about comics, about the format of comics, that makes them enchanting and that makes them peculiarly well-suited for telling stories. I had always just accepted this as fact, but McCloud decided to find out why, and the result is a phenomenal book — itself a comic — that is both illuminating and entertaining. I should also thank Scott for pointing me in the direction of this list via his blog.More Mutis ManiaThis is good. This is really good. I open my email today to find this email from friend and fellow Alvaro Mutis & Maqroll the Gaviero obssesive, Brian:Man, oh, man, do I have some info for you! I was just casually glancing through a copy of Video Store magazine, when you wouldn’t believe what movie I came across…. “Ilona Arrives with the Rain.” Yep, apparently, it’s a Columbian film from 1996 that’s billed as “A dangerous romance full of international intrigue…. Based on the novel by award-winning Columbian author Alvaro Mutis.” Not sure if its really any good, but am still very curious to see it. A DVD is being released by Facets, and Amazon has a release date of December 16. Here’s the link: Ilona Arrives With the RainI’ll definitely be checking that one out.MoreMy friend Edan, who loves cookbooks, wants everyone to know that Home Baking: The Artful Mix of Flour and Tradition Around the World is a great new book by globe-trotting husband and wife team Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid. And since we’re talking about cooking, here’s a quote from the book I’m reading right now: “‘Restaurants make lousy hobbies. You have to be obsessed and driven and completely out of your mind to own one.”But you had–”Two, yes. But Alice,’ Pete said almost tenderly, ‘I’ve been totally nuts my entire fucking life.'”
I stepped into a book store in the old city of Barcelona. It was spacious and well lit with dark wood shelves and floors. Many langauges were well represented including a wide selection of English language books. It is very easy to take a shot at American bookstores when comparing them to bookstores overseas, and it’s really remarkable to see the difference in person. I sometimes wonder what it would be like to be an expat, estranged from my country, but sometimes yearning for contact. I think I would spend a lot of time in a bookstore like that and it would fill the void for me. With the jet lag and all that, I was having trouble diving into another book. I guess I needed a change of pace to reflect the change of scenery, so I fished into the bag of books I brought with me and came up with this beauty: Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware. I have always been drawn to certain of the visual story telling forms: typically not so much the action hero stuff, but certain “graphic novels” have caught my attention. I also like to flip through a collection of “newspaper funnies” from time to time, Calvin and Hobbes, for example, is always a delight. Rarely, however, have I encountered a book that transcends the genre like Jimmy Corrigan. This book has already received a chorus of praise and numerous awards. In a lot of cases, in fact, no one had ever considered that a graphic novel might be eligible to win certain of the awards, but this one was just too good to be ignored. I have been on a good stretch with books lately; I haven’t been disappointed in while, but my next book is a bit riskier: The Lonely Hearts Club by Raul Nunez… I’ll let you know how it goes…I’m off to Ireland tomorrow, and there might not be internet there, but I will try my best; if not, we’ll catch up when I get back to the states.