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A Poignant Catalogue of Comics

The New Comics Anthology Edited by Bob Callahan Collier Books $19.95

Comics aren't just for the funny papers anymore. Although profound and absurdist cartoons are as old as Thomas Nast's Tamnammy Hall caricatures and the 1920's "Krazy Kat," the cartoonist's art exploded into a vast panopoly of styles in the 1980s. The New Comics Anthology, edited by Bob Callahan, provides the neophyte comics reader with a diverse representation of the most skilled cartoonists of the post-modern era.

Drawing upon U.S. and international sources, the anthology's contents run the gamut from Spain's most popular funny, "Firmin and Piker," by Javier Mariscal; to the dark ruminations of New York's Art Spiegelman, author of the Auschwitz comic book Maus. Although somewhat skimpy in its explanations of the represented artists' forebearers and influences, the book provides a well-planned overview of different comics' genres.

The editors do seem to understand the difference between the vivid humor present in such comics as "Life in Hell" and "Zippy" and the vapid four-panel daily strips that dominate the commercial comics business. But the editors' efforts would have been more informative if they had provided a greater context in which the non-junkie might understand current comics.

This book is, however, a comics anthology, and considered as a collection of modern cartoonists' work, it enthralls. A few of the off-the-wall humorous pieces miss their mark. But such works as Drew Friedman's "Laugh Makers," in which Shemp Howard, "Ugliest Man in Hollywood," has "His pick amongst a virtual smorgasbord of Tinsel-town starlets"; and Daniel Clowe's "The Laffin' Spittin' Man," in which a practical joker commits suicide with a toy gun, are darkly hilarious.

In updating the tired styles and themes of the 1950s, many of the cartoonists find objects for chilling satire. In a play upon the classic "Tin Tin" series, Joost Swarte's "The Adventures of Herge," describes how the curiosity of a bumbling photographer causes the death of an entire airplane crew.

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And in perhaps the most absurdly gruesome update of a classic '50s comic, Howard Cruse regrets "Raising Nancies." The story twists the classic comic-book mail order ad, for pet Sea Monkeys. The narrator details how the humanoid, but mindless, Nancy creatures grew from play-things into nuisances and how he finally sold them to the "Acme Used Nancy Collection Service." The narrator rues his error when he learns that the Nancies end up in concentration-camp "Nancy Farms," where their "pelts" are harvested for fur coats.

Cartoonists accomplish their greatest feats when pushing the limits of their medium. The bizarre juxtaposition of a "normal" Minnesota family and its new Californian cartoonist sister-in-law, in "Midwestern Wedding," reveals the darkness underlying American normality.

Normality withers in this anthology, only to be reborn in grotesque form. The bleak life of a homeless woman is snuffed out through blind chance in "Zombies on Broadway," by Kaz, whose characters recall the hollow face and tortured body of the man in Edvard Munch's "The Scream." And woodcut figures ride the subway to self-immolation in the Village Voice's Mark Beyer's "The Unpleasant Subway."

If these stories cause you to suspect that the New Comics project a bleak portrait of reality--or alternate realities--you're right. Beauty does make an occasional appearance in these pages. But the thematic wholeness of this anthology stems from its hopelessness and nihilism.

Stark reality and poignant beauty are not often enough seen in the daily paper comics. Mort "Beetle Bailey" Walker, the antithesis of the new cartoonists, once said that cartoonists can just barely draw and just barely tell jokes. This may be true in the generic land of "Beetle Bailey," but alternative cartoonists are nothing if not artists.

These cartoonists may skimp on elegance at times, but in doing so they reach down one's thoat and throttle one's guts. The expressive work in these cartoons leaves the reader breathless: breathless with laughter, with horror, with pain and with amazement. Some of them will deserve a place in the comics pantheon with the cartoons of Walt "Pogo" Kelly, one of the greatest stylists of all comic history.

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