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The New Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Stories: From Crumb To Clowes
posted March 25, 2005


Creators: Various; Edited by Bob Callahan
Publishing Info: Smithsonian Books, 400 pages, $39.95
Ordering Numbers: 1588341836 (ISBN)

I can't speak to the final production on this book, about which I've heard there have been questions; I only received the uncorrected proof. The general critical reaction to this book from within comics circles seemed to have been one of fully disgusted horror. It's not that bad, not by a long shot. Part of that may be second-guessing, and some of that reaction may have been due to the fact that so much work remains in print these days that there's hardly a sense of discovery upon reading, say, Dan Clowes' "Caricature" one more time. Looking at the comic selected, I think Editor Bob Callahan did a fine job of assembling a strong sampling of great cartoonists from the last 30 to 40 years; I can't think of anyone missing that wouldn't be classified more as one of my favorites than an acknowledged major, let's say that. I also think it's brave and somewhat appropriate that not a lot of modern superhero work made the final cut; as much as I enjoy some of that kind of work myself; I too have doubt as to its longevity.

Where Callahan's selections may disappoint some readers is in the kinds of comics chosen for those outside of what I'm guessing is his primary interest. He chooses underground comics pretty well out of what looks like a direct interest, and even some modern superhero comics well because he sticks with acknowledged greats. But other signs of pulp seem to leave him a bit more confused. Jack Kirby is poorly served with the oddball "Hate Monger" story, from an issue earlier in the Fantastic Four series than the amazingly evocative and powerful work that came later on. This is even more of a letdown because of how appropriate his choice of Lee-Ditko Spider-Man comics is, the issue with the famous equipment-lifting scene. Steranko's Captain America story seems more odd and baroque than the startling departure they may have seemed at the time, while the Kubert comic included just made me think there had to be better Kubert art to include. The Hernandez Brothers are also poorly served with stories from earlier, less graphically accomplished periods as opposed to startling short masterworks like Gilbert's "For the Love of Carmen," Jaime's "Flies on the Ceiling" or even something a bit more formally ambitious like Jaime's "Tear It Up, Terry Downe" or any of Gilbert's narrated character studies. The other great problematic beyond the pulpier picks is that Callahan includes a long and very good Frank Stack story. This works against him in two ways. One, its presence makes you long for other quirky inclusions, and two, the length of the piece subliminally establishes Stack as a more considerable talent in relation to his peers rather than he really is.

I know this is second-guessing, too, but it's hard to avoid it as this is where the problems seem to lie. The New Smithsonian Collection could have been a very good collection by either embracing its best-of thrust and making more careful selections with about a half-dozen cartoonists for which the editor seemed to lack a solid feel, or by becoming a wackier, more idiosyncratic suite of stories designed to argue against the neglect of any number of ambitious but forgotten artists. As it is, this book falls between the cracks, maddeningly so because of how solid its most of it remains.