NY Newsday features Chris Ware and ACME Novelty Date Book

COMICS: Of Mice And Supermen

Newsday    |    Richard Gehr    |    January 11, 2004

PALOMAR: The Heartbreak Soup Stories, by Gilbert Hernandez. Fantagraphics, 522 pp., $39.95.

Fixated on family relationships, Gilbert Hernandez's "Heartbreak Soup" stories began appearing in 1982 in Love and Rockets, the most influential alternative comic book of its era, alongside those of his brothers Jaime and Mario. For 15 years, Gilbert's magical-realist saga, set in a nowheresville coastal town somewhere south of the border, resonated perfectly with Jaime's more pop culture-inspired stories of loopy Latinas up north.

Boasting a dauntingly large cast of mostly female characters, Gilbert's stories were often difficult to follow from issue to issue. However, his art, which combined dramatic formal compositions with a blithe cartoony spirit, was always terrific. And enjoyed now in a single long sitting, these more than 500 pages deliver an utterly engaging epic beholden to comics' unique ability to allow readers to linger in time and space. Hernandez explores Palomar, a cross between Archie Andrews' sex-obsessed Riverdale and Gabriel García Márquez's tragic Macondo, leisurely and lovingly over a 20-year time span replete with births, deaths, love affairs of every configuration, insanity and mystery.

"Palomar" begins with the arrival of Luba, a basketball-bosomed, chicken-legged mother of four children by three fathers. At the center of a world of nurturing women and desiring men, Luba's breasts dominate the town both metaphorically and graphically.

The apex of this nonlinear matriarchal masterpiece is "Human Diastrophism," a 100-page novella involving a serial killer, a plague of monkeys, the town slut's ultimately tragic political awakening and Humberto, an uncompromising young artist who might be a stand-in for Hernandez himself. In a footnote, Hernandez explains that the titular soup cures broken hearts by turning them to stone. And as "Palomar" winds down, the reviled artist is secretly rendering all of the town's citizens as life-sized stone statues deposited in the local river. Luba's adventures will continue in America, but Palomar's citizens are set memorably in stone.

THE SILVER AGE OF COMIC BOOK ART, by Arlen Schumer. Collectors Press, 192 pp., $49.95/$29.95 paper.

'The costumed hero is what the comic book is all about," Spider-Man creator Steve Ditko once said, "a costumed hero in action." The characters virtually leap off the pages of Arlen Schumer's gloriously oversized, concisely written tribute to eight artists who thrust such cultural icons as the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, Daredevil, Dr. Strange and Green Lantern into America's collective consciousness during the 1960s and '70s.

Comic art was a matter of pure design for Carmine Infantino, whose Flash comics embodied a sleek modern sense of speed. Ditko, on the other hand, almost single-handedly inspired the psychedelic poster era through the darkly ingenious magical worlds he created for Dr. Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts. No artist, however, is more closely identified with the time than Jack "King" Kirby, a virtuoso of widescreen scenes of devastation and a pioneer of surreal collage art who declared that "violence is just a well-timed dance, a ballet."

The work created by these artists - along with Jim Steranko, Gil Kane, Neal Adams, Joe Kubert and Gene Colan - could, and should, hang in museums alongside the pop art productions of, say, Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist and Roy Lichtenstein, who so often appropriated their techniques and sheer energy.

QUIMBY THE MOUSE, by Chris Ware. Fantagraphics Books; 68 pp., $24.95/$14.95 paper.

Chris Ware is the Samuel Beckett of alternative comics. He can't go on, but he must go on. He does so by deconstructing and reassembling primal images derived from comics' history, then transforming them into allegories for potent personal memories. With up to 168 tiny panels on a single page, his work resembles cave paintings, flow charts and electronic circuitry all at once.

"Quimby the Mouse" collects strips Ware drew for the University of Texas at Austin student newspaper in 1990-91. These were reprinted in early issues of his ongoing comic, The ACME Novelty Library, and have now been lavishly repackaged in a large-format, gold-embossed hardcover edition that might have been hand-bound sometime during the 19th century.

In a frankly sentimental introduction, Ware chronicles his affection for his late grandmother and her Omaha, Neb., home. The first half of the book focuses on Siamese twin "Quimbies," one of whom gradually withers away, leaving his counterpart to wander bereft through an empty house. The latter half updates George Herriman's timeless romantic struggles between Krazy Kat and Ignatius the Mouse, with Quimby the Mouse alternately adoring and abusing a cat's head named Sparky. (Another long piece of prose details the actual mechanical cat's head Ware constructed for his grandmother prior to her death.)

Ware seems slightly embarrassed today by the fake novelty ads, purloined imagery and other distancing effects he employed. He needn't be. Indeed, the often stunning sketchbook pages reprinted in another recent volume, "The ACME Novelty Date Book" (Drawn & Quarterly, $39.95), prove Ware to be a far more flexible artist than one might have imagined from "Quimby" and his critically adored 2000 book, "Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth." Depressed and obsessed, this disturbing perfectionist is probably the cartoonist most singularly reflective of our sad, shrinking world.

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