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Nexus Graphica
by Rick Klaw

Other Nexus Graphica Columns
For more information, you can try the following:
Ripley's Believe It or Not
Comics of 1986 overview
The Cartoon History of the Universe
Larry Gonick
Jack "Jaxon" Jackson
Rip Off Press
The New Texas History Movies
Harvey Pekar
Robert Crumb
American Splendor
"Leave Me Alone"
American Splendor film
The Big Book of...
The Big Book of The Weird Wild West
Marjane Satrapi
Scott McCloud
Syncopated: An Anthology of Nonfiction Picto-Essays
The Beats: A Graphic History
Everybody Is Stupid Except for Me and Other Astute Observations
Recent Books of Interest

Syncopated: An Anthology of Nonfiction Picto-Essays edited by Brendan Burford (Villard) Syncopated: An Anthology of Nonfiction Picto-Essays
In his introduction editor Brendan Burford explains, "[S]yncopation literally means that an accent or stress is placed on the weak beat between the usually dominant beats. When music is syncopated, it can offer a whole new perspective on rhythm." Using this definition as a guide, Burford compiled a diverse collection of quality stories. Some of the tales such as the excellent "How and Why to Bale Hay" by Nick Bertozzi offer uniquely personal histories. Others illuminate fascinating aspects of historical figures ("Erik Erickson" by Paul Karasik and "Dvorak" by Alec Longstreth). Burford and artist Jim Campbell relate one of the book's finest tales with the dynamic "Boris Rose: Prisoner of Jazz." Alex Holden's "West Side Improvements" chronicles the amazing story of graffiti artist Chris Pape (aka Freedom). Perhaps this extraordinary anthology's only weakness is a few too many New York-centric tales. But this is a small complaint. With Syncopated, Buford and his contributors have crafted one of the best books of the year.

The Beats: A Graphic History Text by Harvey Pekar et al. and Art by Ed Piskor et al. (Hill and Wang) The Beats: A Graphic History
No other group of writers inspires the level of interest that the Beats do. Harvey Pekar and his cohorts tackle this phenomenon in The Beats: A Graphic History. Wisely, Pekar and artist Ed Piskor spend the first half of the book recounting the labyrinthine origins of the group by focusing on its intriguing and tragic core of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs. Pekar and Piskor masterfully and concisely convey the fascinating, interrelated stories of these three pioneers. The remainder of the book explores, with varying degrees of success, different aspects of the movement and their profound influence on entertainment.

Everybody Is Stupid Except for Me and Other Astute Observations by Peter Bagge (Fantagraphics) Everybody Is Stupid Except for Me and Other Astute Observations
Like many on the Left, I respect and enjoy Peter Bagge's art and humor, but not always his politics. His denouncements of many public services and his stance against gun control fly in the face of my beliefs. On the other hand, his Libertarian views on sex and drugs are refreshing in our puritanical, hypocritical society. With great candor and wit, Bagge tackles all these issues and more in Everybody Is Stupid Except for Me, a collection of his strips from Reason Magazine. As in his previous works like Hate and The Bradleys, Bagge deftly manages to simultaneously anger and amuse the reader with his intensely personal stories about larger topical issues.

Graphics of Reality

Like many people, my earliest memories of nonfiction comics start with Ripley's Believe It or Not. First appearing in 1918 as Champs and Chumps, Robert Ripley's one-panel strip about sports evolved by 1919 into the more general Ripley's. During my childhood in the seventies, most bookstores sold Ripley's paperback collections. The one on UFOs helped to foster my lifelong interest in science fiction and scared the bejeezus out of me. That, along with the numerous Bigfoot "documentaries" of the era, kept me awake many a night.

Like most young comic book readers of that decade, my comic reading selections were dominated by DC and Marvel. Outside of the occasional war comic, neither offered much in the way of true stories, so I rarely experienced the nonfiction graphical narrative until high school.

Maus At seventeen and getting bored with conventional comics, I grasped for anything new and different. Thankfully, this was 1986, often considered a pivotal year in comics publishing. The groundbreaking superhero works Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, the beginnings of the influential anthology Dark Horse Presents, and the first collection of Maus all appeared that year.

Art Spiegelman's Maus, cribbed from his father's remembrances, understandably caught my interest. My grandmother used to regale me with tales of our Jewish family. I could (and did) listen to her for hours on end. Cleverly using the unique properties of the comics format, Speigelman relates his father's experience in a Nazi concentration camp by representing each nationality as a cartoon animal: mice for Jews, cats to represent Germans, pigs for the Poles, dogs as Americans, etc. This deeply serious portrayal exposed the powerful potential of the medium, eventually winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 after the debut of the second volume.

Published as collection for the first time in 1990, Larry Gonick's The Cartoon History of the Universe appealed to my dual interests of history and comics. Primarily focused on western civilization, the cartoonish and at times humorous renditions created one of the most intelligent, accessible, and popular nonfiction comics. Gonick's ongoing series now encompasses six massive volumes (the latter two renamed The Modern History of the World) and inspired a cottage industry of similar books, including several by Gonick himself.

God Nose Perhaps the greatest historian to work primarily in the graphic narrative format, Texan Jack Jackson began his artistic career under the nom de plume "Jaxon" as one of the first underground cartoonists with the self-published God Nose (1965). Several years later after moving to San Francisco, he co-founded the first independent publisher of underground comics (or comix as they are more popularly known), Rip Off Press in 1969.

Inspired by the Texas History Movies strips of his youth, Jackson created his best and most powerful works when he returned to Texas and turned his attentions to the state's rich history. In graphic novels such as Comanche Moon (1979), Los Tejanos (1982), The Secret of San Saba (1989), Lost Cause: John Wesley Hardin, the Taylor-Sutton Feud, and Reconstruction Texas (1998), and Indian Lover: Sam Houston & the Cherokees (1999), his realistic portrayals and clear vision garnered critical acclaim and generated controversy especially regarding his unflinching depiction of the treatment of Indians and his interpretations of African-Americans. Jackson also penned several prose books on similar subjects for scholarly presses. Before his death in 2006, Jackson completed the first volume of his dream project, The New Texas History Movies.

In the early nineties, my own approach to writing changed when I discovered Harvey Pekar, who first started working on comics with his good friend, the legendary artist Robert Crumb. Their tales comprised the initial issues of Pekar's autobiographical comic American Splendor. Within, the curmudgeonly author examines the minutiae of his rather mundane life in an entertaining and insightful manner. The cynical, everyman Pekar opened my eyes to the infinite subject possibilities and styles that can constitute a quality comic book story. Since then, Pekar has written several historical comics, earned acclaim as jazz critic, and wrote the libretto for and performed in the jazz opera "Leave Me Alone." Pekar's chronicles formed the basis for the critically-acclaimed 2004 film American Splendor.

As part of their imprint Paradox Press, DC began publishing a series of "factoid books" headlined by The Big Book of... anthologies in 1994. For each volume, several writers and artists contributed dozens of short graphic pieces focused on a single theme. The first, The Big Book of Urban Legends, won the prestigious Eisner Award and sold extremely well. Over the next six years, The Big Book of... series grew with 16 more titles on subjects such as death, conspiracies, hoaxes, and vice before culminating with The Big Book of the 70's.

The Big Book of The Weird Wild West Informed by our love of Western lore and comics, Mojo Press publisher Ben Ostrander and I developed the initial concept for The Big Book of The Weird Wild West. Published in 1998, we co-wrote seven of the volume's 64 stories. Though the book sold poorly and eventually fell out of print, I count two of the stories ("The Head of Joaquin Murieta" and "Fight of the Century") among my finest.

Nonfiction comics have become commonplace. Bookstores and comic shops feature graphic novels on a wide variety of subjects and ideas. Most publishers produce a steady stream of nonfiction comics for all age groups. Creators such as Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis), Harvey Pekar, and Scott McCloud (Understanding Comics, "Press release for Google Chrome") receive coverage from all types of media and continue to push comics further from their adolescent fantasy-driven past.

Copyright © 2009 Rick Klaw

Professional reviewer, geek maven, and optimistic curmudgeon, Rick Klaw has supplied countless reviews, essays, and fiction for a variety of publications including The Austin Chronicle, The San Antonio Current, The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy, Moving Pictures RevolutionSF, King Kong Is Back!, Conversations With Texas Writers, Farscape Forever, Electric Velocipede, Cross Plains Universe, and Steampunk. MonkeyBrain Books published the collection of his essays, reviews, and other things Klaw, Geek Confidential: Echoes From the 21st Century. He can often be found pontificating on Twitter and over at The Geek Curmudgeon.

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