Wednesday, October 29, 2008
RoadStrips: A Graphic Journey Across America Edited by Pete Friedrich
This anthology by Chronicle Books had been peering out at me from the Strand’s shelves for a few years. Mostly I was drawn to seeing new work (work made for the anthology) from Mary Fleener, Jessica Abel, Carol Tyler, Phoebe Gloeckner and Roberta Gregory. I also hoped the promise of anthologies, to see great work by artists you’ve never picked up before, would be fulfilled by this book on such a juicy subject--American identity.
The book is divided into five sections: Pacific Northwest, East Coast, West Coast, Midwest and The South. The East Coast, West Coast and The South sections are opened by essays that supposedly say something about the region and comics, separately or combined. All three feel misplaced. “New York: Newsprint City” by Dan Nadel is on an interesting enough subject, 19-century media and its place in making comics popular, but it doesn’t address either the theme of the anthology or the comics that follow. “Oh Ye Sovereign Organism” by Jack Boulware is a rather straightforward introduction to the comics that follow with some annoying commentary about being a Californian thrown in. Chris Offut’s essay, “Why I Love Comic Books,” is about exactly that- theme be damned.
But, ok, ok, to the comics. Though a few were fun to read and great examples of the artist’s talent, the collection did not do the theme justice. The best were meditations on place, like John Porcellino’s quiet meditation on cities “Chicagoan,” the dust n’ sleaze of “Nevada” by Phoebe Gloeckner and “The Landed Immigrant Song,” on the complexities of California, by Mary Fleener. The other winners contained depictions of a certain time that said something very specific about being an American, like the very personal “The Day After” by Martin Cendreda, a story of a Cold War childhood that reflects today’s American’s everyday fear and easy forgetting and “Kid Games” by Pete Friedrich which shows America’s unique relationship with good guys, bad guys, and the price of war. Like “The Landed Immigrant Song” many of the stories featured tales of going somewhere else and coming back to the U.S. (or having a foreigner visit), all of which were pretty standard omg-fish-out-of-water things. Post-9-11 pondering of the U.S.’s place in the world and/or hating on Bush is another commonality between a few of the stories, both of which can be fertile (but unsurprising) topics, which made the collection feel dated and mired in angry reaction. (Which may go a long way toward creating the “time capsule of alternative perspectives that define us in this moment” that the editor was looking for, but doesn’t do much to make a good anthology).
Overall the anthology presents two sides of American identity: feelings of anger, frustration and self-deprecation and “just be yourself and anybody who doesn’t like it can go fuck themselves” (Gilbert Hernandez’s “I’m Proud to Be an American Where At Least I Know I’m Free”) sentiment. With these contributors, I expected something a little more unexpected.
Next time I’ll just read some Studs Terkel.