ItÕs a Cartoon Nation

As the written word slouches toward irrelevance, cartoons spring up like on the rampant kudzu laying waste to everything from the network news to courtrooms to -- say it ain't so, Joe Liebling! -- print journalism. The only thing that cartoons aren't strangling, it seems, is comic art itself. Comic art has, in fact, never been better than it is now. We're not talking mindless staples of syndication like Garfield, Peanuts and Funky Winkerbean or animated corporate tie-ins like the egregious Space Jam. We're talking book-length work by such edgy masterminds as Charles Burns, Art Spiegelman, Eric Drooker and Lynda Barry. We're also talking about those cartoons that blur the boundaries between editorial comment and investigative reporting. In a recent issue of Mother Jones, for example, the talented artist Mark Zingarelli related a harrowing tale about how his town's school board and chamber of commerce were sneaking creationism into the classroom. But because he told his well-researched story in comic strip format, it was all the more compelling. Stan Mack, Jules Feiffer and Mark Alan Stamaty have been doing this sort of thing for years in the Village Voice and elsewhere, and occasional Advocate contributor Tom Tomorrow has taken the concept into new bitingly satiric pastures.While envelope-pushing animation has always been with us, a true renaissance took place on the fringes of underground comics in 1989 with the arrival of RAW magazine. Billed as "open wounds from the cutting edge," RAW made the work of artists like those above and below a Rorschach test for our times.Flipping through any issue of RAW was not unlike encountering an EC comic in the early 1950s or smoking pot for the first time in the 1960s. It was sensational and scatological, yes, but the keen intelligence on display and the seriousness of purpose made one feel part of some secret, dangerously hip society. Despite the occasional use of blood and gore -- but curiously little of overt violence you encounter regularly in Marvel or DC Comics -- each of the RAW contributors had a unique vision and a clear grasp of pictorial aesthetics that seemed incorruptible, un-mass-reproducable, totally un-Mickey Mouse.Four recent collections of comic art seem ready, willing and able to carry the RAW banner over the bridge to the 21st century: Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer by Ben Katchor (Little, Brown), Through the Habitrails by Jeff Nicholson (Bad Habit), Eye of the Beholder by Peter Kuper (NBM) and Red Meat by Max Cannon (Black Spring). Of these new collections, Katchor's is, by far, the most interesting and important. Not coincidentally, he has a direct connection with the original RAW and has syndicated his strip about the indefatigable Knipl for a decade. In 10 panels, he creates a fully realized urban landscape populated by shuffling old men who seem perpetually in search of totems of a bygone era. Like Winston Smith in Orwell's 1984, they cushion their bleak prescribed lives by haunting out-of-the-way junk shops or dream of escapes into the countryside. The humor of Katchor's comic art is not guffaw-inducing. It strikes deeper and has a more lasting effect. Anyone who is not moved by his new collection should return, with tail between legs, to Snoopy.You can pick just about any episode from his new book, but "The Resurrection Sensor" is typical of Katchor's scope. In it, a device registers "the first sign of a possible resurrection." It's intended by its manufacturers to assure family members that their dearly departed are enjoying an afterlife. But Katchor's catch is: "as forewarned in the cemeteryÕs brochure, 99 percent of all alarms are false." The names that float through just this one strip are curious enough to keep one mulling them for hours: Ojult, Nemea, Phlox, Vitriol, Maquis. Sheer genius.Nicholson's Through the Habitrails is the most ambitious of the four books discussed here. This is a 144-page account of his life as a literally faceless clone for an advertising corporation, from which he escapes, spirals towards suicide to be rescued by love, only to be forced to escape from that, too. When it works, Habitrails is a triumph of imaginative graphics (characters with no mouths or eyeballs) and intriguing thematic devices (gerbils run through offices, workers are tapped like maple trees). The most brilliant touch is the depiction of the narrator's alcoholism as a large Mason jar that encompasses his head, keeping him perpetually pickled.When it doesn't work, Habitrails is warmed-over Kafka -- an obvious influence mentioned in the introduction. He also owes an overlarge debt to Matt Groening's Work Is Hell series that skewered the corporate workplace as early as 1982 and, for my money, is still the best work he's ever done. Nicholson's text compounds the error by pointing out the obvious: "I am as trapped as the gerbil. We are as easily owned by the corporation." His is also an oddly sexless landscape, which is part of the point he's trying to make, but might also reflect the virtual reality of life in an age of AIDS and diminishing economic expectations. In short, Habitrails is a well-done bummer.Peter Kuper was named by Rolling Stone as the hot comic book artist of 1995. He is indeed a gifted draftsman, using a wordless, woodcut-style to evoke responses of surprise in his "readers." In each of Eye of the Beholder's strips, the first four panels set up a punchline in the fifth. For instance, in one we see first an egg, then a hatched chick, then a full grown turkey, then a Thanksgiving feast, then -- the O. Henry twist -- a homeless man rummaging through a dumpster for a discarded drumstick. Surprisingly, Kuper's art works more often than not, though he seems overpraised for what amounts to sight gags. Max Cannon's truly twisted Red Meat strip is a sadist's delight, with three panels devoted to one or two frozen-in-place characters. In less talented or imaginative hands, their "frozenness" might be a tiresome shtick. But Cannon makes that silence, and its implications, an integral part of his strip. It's the sort of discomfort one feels at a Litchfield County dinner party when someone, apropos of nothing, begins talking about leprosy or homelessness. (Not that we've been to any Litchfield dinner parties). Red meat indeed.Like Kuper, Cannon offers his existential punchline in the final panel. Only his is shocking rather than surprising. It's also nasty, morbid, insensitive and terribly, horribly funny. Which is the point of cartoons, isn"t it? This new generation of comic books produced by and for Generation-X readers goes largely unnoticed by a mainstream. But those whose idea of cutting-edge stops at The Simpsons should prepare to be sliced and diced by the acid wit of these up-and-coming comic artists. These books are just the tip of the iceberg.

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