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Just When You Thought Things Couldn't Get Worse
posted July 13, 2007
Fantagraphics, softcover, 170 pages, June 2007, $18.95
For as much as Edward Sorel's cartooning has been kept mostly to the margins of a rightfully lauded career as an illustrator and portrait-maker, the comics in Just When You Thought Things Couldn't Get Worse
prove remarkably consistent in their outlook and applied craft. Split into several areas of modern living, the bulk collected here by longtime fan and editor Gary Groth touch on political and cultural issues. Refreshingly, Sorel goes knives out for the hypocrisy of modern conservative politics and the presumption of truth inherent to the doctrines of the right and the left. A recurring theme to Just When You Thought...
is that each side of American politics achieves the same results through slightly different means and emphases. If it seems Sorel spends more time pummeling the conservative side of the spectrum, well, it's been that kind of half century. It's easy to imagine Sorel as an otherwise placid student suddenly beating up the playground bully, and then when the laughing from the prone kid's rival gets a little too loud, Sorel grabbing bully #2 by the hair and giving him a few shots for good measure. You can even track Sorel's voice through the pages if you're so inclined, a generous and funny presence in the midst of so much venality.
Where the notion of variety makes its presence known is through Sorel's approach to the art: color and black and white, a style in each that favors dozens of thin line marks to achieve texture and two more that make use of solids, single drawings and sequential comics, borderless two-page spreads and rigidly structure tiers. They are all lovely, although I favor the thickly textured color pages. Format gets a workout, too. The book was selected from a wide variety of publications (about 50 additional publishable cartoons didn't make the cut), and we therefore see everything from first person reportage over multiple pages to single-drawing summary statements on periods from the past. I liked best some of the two-page spreads featuring a borderless, single scene against which a series of actions play out, and a genuinely sweet strip about the artist having lunch with his mother. Although the most significant impression remains not one or two strips but many, wave after wave of cartoons that could have been summary statements from four or five skilled illustrators, and the way they're all bound by Sorel's animating intelligence. It's not a perfect book: some of Sorel's jokes are more obvious than insightful, particularly on popular culture, and a few of his choices on the page don't always end up clear to the eye. The strengths win the day, however. I usually don't like sampler volumes, but Just When You Thought Things Couldn't Get Worse
makes an eloquent and necessary case for Sorel as a formidable cartoonist.