I first discovered McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern in early 2004 while browsing Amazon for comics. The 13th issue of McSweeney’s, the site told me, would be all about comics and graphic novels. Would I like to pre-order it? It turned out I would. And so began my journey into the world of McSweeney’s.
For those intrigued by the name (I was), McSweeney’s turned out to be an indie-publishing mini-empire of sorts founded by Dave Eggers (remember A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius), which was responsible for a literary quarterly, a monthly magazine, The Believer, the website, www.mcsweeneys.net (humour, if you want to know), and other such. For the past three years, I have been a McSweeney’s junkie of sorts.
The fixes that made the trip worth it include: McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, a special issue of the quarterly published in book form (and edited by Michael Chabon, he of The Complete Adventures of Kavalier and Clay fame), a follow-up special McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories (again edited by Chabon and featuring illustrations by the redoubtable Mike Mignola; don’t tell me you’ve never read Hellboy), and a compilation of the best humour that has appeared on the site and the book after 9/11, Created in Darkness by Troubled Americans.
Among my favourite entries in the last mentioned is an imagined conversation between Noam Chomsky (everyone knows him) and Howard Zinn (a historian and activist, whose views are fairly similar to Chomsky’s) on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s books. A quick digression and two quick excerpts (those amused or chagrined by this can read the full text at http://www.mcsweeneys.net /2003/04/22fellowship.html).
CHOMSKY: I mean, here we have swords being distributed to the Hobbits by Strider so they can protect themselves against these “evil creatures”. Now, in this case, it’s probably warranted, though the “evil creatures” are looking for the ring in their own individual self-interest. They’re behaving in a purely “rational way”.
And earlier in the same conversation:
ZINN: You view the conflict as being primarily about pipe-weed, do you not?
CHOMSKY: Well, what we see here, in Hobbiton, farmers tilling crops. The thing to remember is that the crop they are tilling is, in fact, pipe-weed, an addictive drug transported and sold throughout Middle Earth for great profit.
ZINN: This is absolutely established in the books. Pipe-weed is something all the Hobbits abuse. Gandalf is smoking it constantly. You are correct when you point out that Middle Earth depends on pipe-weed in some crucial sense, but I think you may be overstating its importance. Clearly the war is not based only on the Shire’s pipe-weed. Rohan and Gondor’s unceasing hunger for war is a larger culprit, I would say.
CHOMSKY: But without the pipe-weed, Middle Earth would fall apart. Saruman is trying to break up Gandalf’s pipe-weed ring. He’s trying to divert it.
To come back to comics, the 13th volume of McSweeney’s is the book I’d recommend to anyone who wants to know what comics and graphic novels are all about. It is edited by Chris Ware, and one benefit of this is that every time he is at a loss for words in the book, you get the unique picture-box panels that distinguish his work (even the cover is a foldout of a large-format panel by him—this forms the background for this piece).
It features the work of Ware himself, Daniel Clowes, Joe Sacco (who has made an art form of reportage-driven non-fiction comics such as Palestine and The Fixer), Charles Burns (Black Hole, the most disturbing teenage-wasteland book I have ever read) and, as a special treat for those really into comics, Obadiah Oldbuck, a comic by Rodolphe Toppfer, the man who invented the comic strip back in the early 1800s.
Almost two-and-a-half years after the book was released (in a limited print-run; I remember buying one of the last copies available on Amazon then), it is finally here in India. I saw five volumes, cellophane wrapped and all, at the neighbourhood bookstore, and was immediately tempted, in the way collectors are, to buy one and put it into the safe for posterity.
If you’re one of those readers who has always wondered what the big deal about comics (and this column) was, I’d suggest a trip to a good bookstore to pick up Vol.13.
(Write to email@example.com)