Syncopated: An Anthology of Nonfiction Picto-Essays
Edited by Brendan Burford
Villard, May 2009, $16.95
For most of the past fifty years, American comics had been running
through an ever-tightening spiral of acceptable topics – somewhat mitigated by
occasional art-comics eruptions – as superheroes and (ever less and less) other
areas thought acceptable for children dominated ever more and more each year.
And one little-remarked side effect of that spiral was that nonfiction comics,
stories that actually were true, became so marginalized that they practically
didn’t exist. Everything was fiction – even the memoirish comics of the
undergrounds were transmuted into fiction – and the truth was nowhere to be
found on the comics page.
That’s changed in the past decade or so, as a generation of
new or newly energized creators have grappled with their own lives and
histories, bringing forth a host of primarily memoir-based comics, from [[[Perseopolis]]] to [[[Fun Home to Cancer Vixen]]]. And
that flood has brought attention to cartoonists who write about true stories
that aren’t their own, like Joe
Sacco. Slowly, nonfiction is creeping onto the comics shelf – it may be mostly
memoirs now, but I hope that we’ll see ever more biographies (like Rick Geary’s
J. Edgar Hoover) and histories
(like Larry Gonick’s work) and even diet books (like Carol Lay’s [[[The
Big Skinny]]]) and less likely things. Maybe,
if I can be optimistic for once, in twenty years there will be comics (or
graphic novels, or whatever you want to call a couple of hundred of drawn pages
in a coherent narrative) in every bookstore category, filling the shelves with
real stories as well as made-up ones.
If that does happen – and I hope that it is
possible – Brendan Burford’s [[[Syncopated]]] will become a signpost on the way to that new world. Syncopated has sixteen original stories by sixteen
distinctive voices (Burford among them), on various nonfiction topics. It splits
fairly neatly in half between memoirs and personal reminiscences on one side
(seven pieces, by my count) and works of history and current events outside of
the artist (also seven pieces), with two portfolios of drawings, by Tricia Van
de Burgh and Victor Marchand Kerlow, to finish up.