Quietly, The New York Times Sunday Magazine’s Funny Pages (an unlikely comics venue the last few years) has been running some really polished new stories by such old guard alternative cartoonists as Jaime Hernandez, Seth, and, currently, Daniel Clowes. All have been doing independent comics work since the early 1980s/1990s, and that’s not even including Chris Ware, who kicked off this series when it started in 2005 with his strip Building Stories, just recently reprinted in ACME Novelty Library #18!
Technically, Jaime Hernandez should be excluded from this list since his strip, La Maggie La Loca, appeared in The New York Times Sunday Magazine in 2006. But his comics publisher, Fantagraphics Books, collected all of his strips and released them this summer in Love and Rockets (No. 20) with four added pages, some revisions and in smaller dimensions than the original 23- or 24-week run.
For most of his career, Hernandez has been published in black-and-white, but on this rare occassion, Steven Weissman (an accomplished cartoonist himself with YIKES! and hopefully the permanent colorist on all future Locas stories in color) has done a splendid job coloring Hernandez’s world, a treat that adds further nuance to this heartfelt strip and added pleasure to gazing at it afterwards. Even though Hernandez has been telling these stories for over 25 years, he has not lost any of his forte to capture previous and first-time readers with the characters’ “never-stale” adventures as they mature through the years from one tale to the next. Hernandez has designed a narrative with tighter structure than he usually practices: every episode uses five panels to tell its story, with Hernandez being loose enough to have an occasional montage within those five panels while still pushing the overall narrative forward.
Seth is at the height of his storytelling/cartooning powers with George Sprott (1894-1975), where the reader gets to know the story’s main character through not only first-hand, direct address accounts, but also second-, third-, and even fourth-hand accounts, pulling it off with panaché. A bit like how everyone recounted bits of information and insight in Citizen Kane regarding their relationship to or encounters with Charles Foster Kane. Sure, there are similarities to Citizen Kane and Robert Siodmak/Jacques Tourneur film noirs, making this read like a pastiche from the canon of classic RKO/Universal Pictures film noir flashback plots. But George Sprott (1894-1975) is the least cinematic (due partly to its static, talkative and flat qualities) and the most unfamiliar (because it references a past that reaches beyond what we remember in our recent collective memory, making it a novelty) of the three strips on this list. It’s more a hybrid of retro poster art graphic design sloganism/early 20th Century illustration & cartooning (i.e. The New Yorker’s single-panel gag cartoons during the jazz/flapper age) and storytelling that weaves effortlessly through both flashback and vividly descriptive monologues like those of Bibi Andersson in Persona, though not as brutally dour in their penetrating honesty. Just like how Hitchcock’s Spellbound felt like a clunky early attempt at the tropes he would later hone to perfection in Vertigo, Seth’s earlier stories and efforts now seem like a warm-up to tell this story—a most profound tale of a very insignificant man in the grand scheme of things, and how he devastatingly affects those around him through unintentional/intentional dereliction. Seth creates a very memorable character, full of life with a rich history, and Seth’s views on nostalgia and memorabilia have never been more bittersweet than in George Sprott (1894-1975).
Although Daniel Clowes’s Mr. Wonderful has just reached its halfway point (of the three on this list, it’s the only strip I have been reading every week as it comes out—I read the others in one sitting after they were published in their entirety), what we’ve seen so far is very promising. And quite possibly it will be just as entertaining and fulfilling as Clowes’s Ice Haven, even though there is a certain uneven quality of following the strip each week it comes out. Actually, it’s probably best for me to reserve final judgment until the strip completes its run and I can re-read it in its entirety. Through his narration, Marshall (the lead character) has the same self-deprecating assessment of himself as the neurotic leading men Woody Allen portrays in his films. But Marshall has more poignancy than Allen’s leads because of narration so intimate with insight and candor that it evokes blissful melancholy. As with Wong Kar-wai, Clowes dwells on mundane, introspective personal moments extended in time during each episode, which resonate nicely without the benefit of music or slow-motion camerawork because Clowes has his own devices that are effective only in comics. Clowes’s line art has a nice balance between realism and cartoony-ness. And, most of all, Clowes showcases the boundless formalistic possibilities of telling stories through comics. Clowes is quite the formalistic, yet tempered showman with Mr. Wonderful.
These three strips have the superficial veneer and charming endearment of children’s comics. But Hernandez, Seth, and Clowes make them much more, deploying their formal inventions, obsessing with nostalgia & collecting memorabilia of the past, drawing from personal experience (possibly?) and referencing their past work, as well as the comic medium’s vast history. Bravo to The New York Times for publishing these strips to entertain us on most Sundays!
Author’s Note: Although I prefer the magazine print versions for the larger reproduction size (even though they cost $5 a pop or roughly total $120 to own every installment of the individual strips), you can conveniently download free PDF versions online. The Clowes and Seth strips are still being archived here. Also, you may have to sign up for a password to access The New York Times site. It has been announced that Drawn & Quarterly’s future collection of George Sprott (1894-1975) will include more episodes to compliment what was first published in The New York Times Sunday Magazine’s Funny Pages. And La Maggie La Loca will be re-reprinted in the same size as it first appeared in a future collection of Jaime Hernandez’s work.
Chris Anthony Diaz is the creator of the blog CAD Pictures. He takes photographs, makes short films and writes about movies too.