Wednesday, December 8, 2004

From the Archives: The 25 Comics I Like Best

#25: RAW

edited by Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly

RAW has been encumbered with a burden I wouldn't wish on any comic. It's developed a reputation as the ground-breaking, avant-garde comics anthology. More serious in its subject matter and more rigorous in its formal invention than the exuberant, but unfocused underground comix, it's now remembered more as part of Art Spiegelman's project to show that comics could be art (and, in fact, often had more life in them than much of the work that made up the stagnant high art scene), rather than for any of the actual comics that filled its pages. Of course, it's these pages, drawn by cartoonists who would shortly become superstars of the art comic world, that show that Spiegelman's polemic is more than just the hot air of a defensive fanboy.

It was in the pages of RAW that I first read work by Gary Panter, Charles Burns, Kim Deitch, Richard Sala, Chris Ware, and Ben Katchor, not to mention George Herriman (Spiegelman was kind enough to repreint the "Tiger Tea" episode of Krazy Kat). It says something about the quality of the artists assembled for the book, that none of them seemed out of place next to Herriman, and in some way it seemed as if Herriman's own restless creativity and virtuoso inventiveness had finally found a fitting home. Reading RAW also marked my first encounter with the European comics scene, opening up for me a whole world of comics I was barely aware of. What strikes me now is the wide variety of the stories and the breadth of the artistic achievement.

Despite the undercurrent of playful po-mo, deconstructionism that runs through most of the comics (most noticeable in Art Spiegelman's own, non-Maus work), there's a wide variation of tone, style, and technique: from Charles Burns' deadpan horror to Ben Katchor's melancholic surrealism. However, if I had to single out the strip that sums up best what RAW means for me, I'd have to go with what is perhaps the obvious choice: "Here" by Richard McGuire. Through a series of panels that represent the exact same space looked at through constantly shifting time frames, "Here" explores in depth, a single formal issue of comics, and, moreover, does so with an irony and humour that never eclipses its underlying poignancy. RAW's place in the history of comics may be due primarily to Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly carrying through on their strong editorial vision, but it earned its place in my own personal history of comics reading because it collects a number of the most challenging and best executed strips I had ever come across, which changed the foundation of what I thought comics were capable of, forcing me to reevaluate my own beliefs about what made my favorite art form work.

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