Going Out with Pizzazz

No stranger to life's little ironies, Canadian artist Harry Mayerovitch published Way to Go (Drawn and Quarterly; paperback, $9.95), a slim volume of cartoon meditations on life and death, in early April, just before he died on his 94th birthday. An architect, graphic designer and teacher, among other things, Mayerovitch occasionally drew cartoons as well. Way to Go anthologizes some of his strongest work and adds a touching and prescient coda in the form of its last chapter, which contains the artist's visual thoughts on the comedy of dying.

Death is shown through a series of ridiculous coffin designs: Coffins come with blow-dryers for the vain, or they double as cakes for the gourmands among us; a coffin can even serve as a golfing green for the sport-obsessed. When shown, the dead smile out from their resting places, perhaps thinking of a line from Mayerovitch's introduction to the section: "Why not go in style -- with panache -- with pizzazz?"

The rest of the book also walks the line between joie de vivre and sanguine meditation. The first section, "The Other One," contains a series of cartoon riffs on shadows, originally published in 1973. Each cartoon is a little psychological nugget, with a shadow either tormenting its owner or revealing some bit of its subject's persona. The shadow of a puffed-up hothead withers behind him; a criminal's shadow points a finger at him; a long line of shadow children trail a husband and wife. Drawn with a facile, sleek line, Mayerovitch's work would not have been out of place in the New Yorker of old. His images are articulate and warm: Mortality and all of its shadowy jokes should always be this welcoming.

A Cliff Dweller

Mister O (NBM, $12.95) can't catch a break. A petite circle with arms and legs, he undertakes a Sisyphean leap from a ledge in 32 comic strips of 60 panels each. His wordless exercises in futility are rendered with evident delight by the French cartoonist Lewis Trondheim, whose nimble pen strokes can imbue even a squiggle (or an "O") with humor and pathos.

Each page of this colorful volume is a new take on Mister O's dilemma: He approaches a cliff in the first four panels, then inspects it and attempts some kind of leap to the other side. It's not giving too much away to note that he fails -- miserably -- every time. Mister O tries catapult-like mechanisms, tricks his fellow creatures, uses plants, missiles and even semi-elaborate machines to orchestrate his way over, but to no avail. The final panel of each page is forever missing Mister O, of course, because our hero has plunged to his fate, if only to reappear on the next page, as perturbed and puzzled as he'd been at the beginning of the previous one.

The repetitious page structure emphasizes the monotony of Mister O's clueless existence but never makes for dull reading. Instead, taken one after the other, the strips seem funnier and more ridiculous. Their utter silliness carries the day, and we turn each page as much to see if Trondheim will let his little man off the cliff as what he'll invent to keep him on it.

An Issue for the Aficionado

The cartoonist Chris Ware recently took custody of a single issue of the literary journal McSweeney's, transforming it into a remarkable state-of-the-medium comics anthology, its packaging, pacing and editing as carefully and brilliantly considered as Ware's own comics. The result, McSweeney's Quarterly Concern: Issue Number 13, An Assorted Sampler of North American Comic Drawings, Strips, and Illustrated Stories, &c (McSweeney's, $24), is a rare feat.

In choosing the work to be collected, Ware focused mostly on contemporary North American cartoonists who, he writes, "have in some way reinvented the language to suit their own particular sensibilities, with no work done to fulfill any ancillary commercial obligation." To that end stalwarts like R. Crumb, Kim Deitch and Art Spiegelman are represented with recent work alongside excellent work by younger talents like Daniel Clowes and Chester Brown, as well as an array of lesser-known cartoonists; also interspersed is astute prose by Chip Kidd, Ira Glass and John Updike, among others. And in a thoughtful design choice, Ron Rege Jr. and John Porcellino, two important and influential young artists who initially made their names through mini-comics (homemade photocopied booklets), are represented by their own separate mini pamphlets, tucked into the front and back of the elaborately constructed dust jacket, which itself unfolds into a massive comic by Ware.

The editor opens his introduction by discussing the difficulties of cartooning and closes it by celebrating the medium's diversity. Along the way Ware makes a rare and affecting case for the human effort behind cartooning, the process of combining unruly skills -- including typography, drawing and writing -- to make something that communicates far more effectively than the sum of its parts. The recent comics that follow demonstrate the medium's strength and variety.

But a trio of historical features articulates the medium's human dimension. Sketches from late in the career of "Peanuts" creator Charles Schulz show his famously shaky line faintly describing what we instantly take to be Snoopy. It is a moving tribute to the power of the character and to the simple effectiveness of Schulz's draftsmanship. Also showcased are the six unfinished "Krazy Kat" comic strips found on George Herriman's drawing table upon his death in 1944. They are printed here for the first time, their stiff lines and ghostly-penciled portions reminders that comics exist in various states of rendering before they are, at last, printed. And in another feature, the original art for a 1922 "Mutt and Jeff" daily comic strip appears at 80 percent of its original 11 x 29 inch size -- it runs for four full pages, demonstrating the scale to which the medium was once entitled and allowing readers to savor the artwork section by section.

Taken together, these three features are the book's thematic core, serving to remind us that the medium so vibrantly presented between stiff covers originally exists as ink on paper, requiring long nights of work and, in the cases of Schulz and Herriman, filling and surpassing a lifetime. McSweeney's 13, a humane and passionate gathering of the medium's contemporary best, also casts an exacting and unblinking eye on its past.

Keeping Their Company

The Canadian cartoonist Seth, best known for his previous graphic novel, It's a Good Life if You Don't Weaken (and a contributor to the aforementioned McSweeney's 13), is exceptionally gifted at evoking the passing of time and the stasis of space. His second full-length book, Clyde Fans Book 1 (Drawn and Quarterly, $19.95), plays to his strengths while successfully expanding into new terrain.

Clyde Fans is the story of two brothers, Abe and Simon Matchcard, and the titular fan-manufacturing and -distribution company started by their father. The elder son, Abe, begins the book in 1997. He awakens and begins strolling through the long-since-closed storefront and residence for the entire 68-page section, drifting from room to room as his monologue moves from salesmanship to the beginnings and ultimate demise of his business, to his brother Simon, whom he pities with a fraternal mix of compassion and scorn. Abe takes readers deep into his psychological and physical confines in exacting detail: leaky pipes, an office in disarray, an unchanged calendar and numerous figurines -- perhaps souvenirs of ancient sales jaunts.

Seth's drawings are lush, delicate examples of cartoon realism rendered in black ink and luminous blue tones. His version of the world is completely his own -- from figure to object to landscape but, in its details, utterly familiar to a reader. These drawings, combined with Seth's deliberate pacing, give the effect of having the narrator whisper in your ear, making Clyde Fans a wonderfully captivating experience and a masterful use of the medium.

Abe's section ends with the day's light, and the second and final part of the book picks up in 1957, where we meet Simon on his first and only sales trip. Though surrounded by the city and its inhabitants, he seems as isolated as Abe is in 1997. His abortive sales calls are mortifications, and daily life seems to rattle him beyond what he can handle.

Here the decaying artifacts of Abe's old age are bright and new once more: the golden age of Clyde Fans (the company) and the era it represents as witnessed by the weaker brother. Simon's journey crystallizes parts of Abe's monologue, demonstrating both the sales culture of the time and the dynamic between the brothers. This implicit contact between the two parts makes Clyde Fans Book 1 (Book 2 will follow) a complete and engrossing look at the lives and culture of the brothers Matchcard, comprising salesmanship, collecting, manufacturing and, by extension, a lost history of the 20th century.

The Sound of One Hand Drawing

Osamu Tezuka's 3,000-plus-page fictionalized biography of the Buddha was serialized in Japan in the 1970s and '80s, and is now being translated and collected as eight thick hardcover volumes, of which the latest are Buddha Volumes 3 and 4 (Vertical, $24.95 each). Tezuka (1928-1989) was the creator of Astro Boy and remains Japan's most revered cartoonist. His version of the Buddha story is halfway between a fantasy comic book and a traditional epic -- he took ample liberties with both the story of Siddhartha and the historical milieu, rendering it a kind of homogenized version of Eastern myths and legends.

After years of producing comics with both a light touch and a moral focus, Tezuka knew how to straddle genres and themes without much strain. To wit, after establishing Siddhartha's lineage and laying the foundations of the vast plot in the first two volumes, in his next two installments Tezuka depicted the young Siddhartha's time in the wilderness, his adoption of the name "Buddha" and his subsequent journey to enlightenment, with his full maturation achieved at the end of the fourth volume. Along the way there are wars, marriages, palace intrigue and numerous other operatic subplots, all of which support the central story arc.

Tezuka tells his story with pathos and humor. He seems as comfortable goofing on a central tenet of Buddhism (Siddhartha asks his young companion Assaji how to deal with the dread of death, to which Assaji responds: "I say no think about nuthin") as he is depicting Siddhartha's physical and psychological agonies as an ascetic, which he does in an elongated 12-page sequence in volume four. All of this is rendered in Tezuka's trademark ur-manga style -- big-eyed faces, bendable limbs and exaggerated features of all kinds. If it all seems incongruous, it is. It takes a while to adjust to the use of a drawing style usually associated with children's comics in this country, but Tezuka, who was a master of cartoon nuance, manages to cover all manner of emotion and story with wit and pulp instincts that make these mammoth volumes page-turners. Tezuka's history may be dubious, but as a great yarn about a boy called Siddhartha, his opus is hard to beat. *

Dan Nadel, a partner in the visual culture firm PictureBox, Inc., is working on a history of comics to be published next year.