Whazzup With the Talking Turnip

One of the best comics in The Best American Comics 2007 is Jeffrey Brown's story of a stubble-faced kid who leaves Chicago to visit a girlfriend in Minnesota. They go to music and comic stores, argue about the amount of time she's spending at work, and have sex while worrying that her roommates might come home. He reads her journal without permission. Back at home, a music lyric seems to define the relationship.

Devoid of superheroes, talking animals and other fantasy, Brown's “These Things, These Things” is about as ordinary as it comes, the kind of mundane tale that could be pulled from a collection of self-absorbed short stories, or worse, from some confessional memoir of the sort that seems to be all the rage (the hero's name is “Jeffrey”). But the illustrations, in which everything seems small and the characters look and act like children despite that three-day growth of beard, give poignancy to this rather sad and frustrating tale. In one of the strip's best panels, Brown finds an image for the predicament in his own fingers pulling out a CD illustrated with a not-so-comic clown.

Call them “reality comics,” real-life tales drawn in fanciful styles. Their rise several years back rejuvenated an art form mostly anchored in the fantastic. But has the comic world reached a point of reality overload, as on MTV? Editor Chris Ware, whose own Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid On Earth is a wry blend of real and imagined life, cites in his introduction a New York Times comics reviewer who “expressed a certain weariness” at the “creeping sameness” to “semi- or wholly autobiographical sketches of drifting daily life and its quiet epiphanies.”

Sophie Crumb, daughter of R. Crumb, complains about the same thing in her one-page strip “Hey, Soph, Whazzup?”: She voices her distress over cartoonists who “spend 10 pages going on and on about taking out the fuckin' garbage!” Then again, she's having this conversation with a talking turnip.

Isn't that the best thing about comics? Like movies, they can illustrate almost anything, ordinary or not. But while movies capture our imagination, comics set it free, inviting us to sketch in motion, to fill in what happens between panels and, in black-and-white, the colors. And if a mouse has to take to the skies to save the world, why the hell not?

While The Best American Comics 2007 has its share of everyday life, even the most mundane stories are craftily constructed, their style expressing tone or substance better than the dialogue. Simply drawn panels complement simple manners. Gabrielle Bell's “My California Journal” begins with a couple of friends taking advantage of free drinks on Ladies' Night in a New York bar and ends in Berkeley with a Barbie doll on the end of a leash. Adrian Tomine's uncluttered panels convey confused racial and sexual identities in the excerpt from “Shortcomings.” The only thing beyond belief in Gilbert Hernandez's “Fritz After Dark” is the size of certain body parts. There's serious historical stuff here, too, including Sammy Harkham's ultra-spare “Lubavitch, Ukraine, 1876” and Miriam Katin's lushly drawn, untitled story of escape from Nazi Germany.

Fantasy isn't forgotten. There's one of the darkest sections from Charles Burns' graphic novel of literal alienation, Black Hole, and one of the most comic from veteran Kim Deitch's toy-cat-and-midget epic, The Stuff of Dreams. There's sheer psychedelic fantasy in work from art-world cross-over Gary Panter, and someone who calls him- or herself C.F. Paper Rad offers “Kramers Ergot,” which was pulled from the pages of the wonderful series anthology of the same name and is blindingly colorful.

Still, the pieces that move us the most are those, like editor Ware's work (none of which is included here), that are heavily caricatured and graced with a touch of magical realism. David Heatley's cover piece is a perfect example. A black-and-white embryo emerges in a colorful world to crawl, walk and fly before donning glasses, adding a cane and laying down under a tiny sun. Ron Rege Jr.'s two-tone, subconscious-shaking, graffiti-ized series of fables seems to encompass the entirety of life.

Part-time comic fans will find things here they've seen elsewhere, and full-on comic nuts will recognize plenty. But even when he's pulling something from the best-known work, like the section from Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, Ware has a knack for finding an illustrator's best. That's not the case with R. and Aline Crumb's “Winta Wonderland,” the story of their visit to daughter Sophie pulled from the pages of The New Yorker. The juxtaposition of R.'s fine detail and Aline's wacky self-portraits hardly seems up to the master's best work. You want to argue? Talk to the turnip.

The Best American Comics 2007 edited by Chris Ware; Houghton Mifflin. Hardcover, 341 pages, $22.

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