Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Review: McSweeney's Issue 33: The San Francisco Panorama

San Francisco Panorama, by various, 2009, McSweeney's, 320 pages, $16.00

The independent publisher McSweeney's recently released a new issue of its quarterly literary journal in the form of a newspaper called the San Francisco Panorama. It's huge, beautifully designed, and includes contributors like Michael Chabon and Steven King. It's a celebration of print newspapers, and the writers, editors, and publisher have clearly attempted to show off every facet of what makes newspapers unique and vital.

I'm struggling to come up with an appropriate metaphor for it: is it the last spark from a dying fire, or a brilliant torch lighting the way for others to follow? Either way, perhaps the smartest thing that they did was to not make the content available on the web. The only way for people to see this sucker is to pick up a hard copy and open it using their hands.

Here's one of the few samples that they've put online:

(click to enlarge)

Looks great, doesn't it? And as you can see, one of the pages in the spotlight is a comic by Adrian Tomine. McSweeney's has already shown it is pro-comics, having published a well-regarded comics anthology (McSweeney's Issue 13) and a new printing of a piece of graphic novel history, Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary.

The San Francisco Panorama includes a entire section devoted to comics, with contributions from some of the most respected comic book creators around. Let's turn that sheet of newspaper and take a look at what's inside:

First are several short comic-strip style entries, from Keith Knight, Jon Adams, and Gabrielle Bell, and two from Michael Capozzola.  Perfectly fine stuff.  Capozzola's "Sorro, the Gloomy Bandito" is pretty funny, and Gabrielle Bell packs her panels with a eye-pleasing detail and color.  Jon Adams's stuff reminds me of Farel Dalrymple, but the strip doesn't really go anywhere, while Keith Knight turns in a classic-style comic strip, complete with a punch line.

Next is a full page from Dan Clowes, whose upcoming Wilson graphic novel is already being hailed as one of 2010's bright lights.  Here he gives us an episode in the lives of "The Christian Astronauts," who encounter a man from their past, now hideously deformed and harboring designs on the mother of the astronaut family.  I can't say that Clowes really takes advantage of having an entire broadsheet-size page to work with -- there are a lot of similar-sized rectangular panels and a lot of dialogue balloons, so that if you stand back and look at the page as a whole there doesn't appear to be any grand design going on.  The story is interesting, though, and raises some interesting morals dilemmas for our heroes.

The next page is split into thirds: one from Ivan Brunetti, one from Alison Bechdel, and one from Gene Luen Yang.  Brunetti shows off his nice, geometric cartooning, with a bright yellow background to make his story stand out.  I liked this one, which was about getting his tonsils out as a kid.  Bechdel's contribution might be my favorite one of the whole paper; it's a take-off on the game of Life.  It's funny, interesting, and thoughtful, and her personality shines through.  It reminded me why I liked Fun Home so much.  I didn't like Gene Luen Yang's story, on the other hand (I'm beginning to think I just don't like his work -- American Born Chinese was perfectly fine but didn't blow me away, and I really was not into The Eternal Smile).  The drawing looks cheap, as though he didn't spend much time on it, and the layout is dull.  The story is a simple joke that isn't all that funny.  Oh well, they can't all be winners.

Art Spiegelman gets the entire next page, and man, talk about a cartoonist's personality shining through in their work.  He delivers a wide-ranging screed on the intertwined history of comic books and childhood.  It's abrasive, demanding, funny, and unique.

Ian Huebert draws the next page, which looks like a Fletcher Hanks impersonation.  It's one piece of a supposedly longer story about a superhero with three heads defending a city from a dastardly scientist.  It's okay, I guess, but the "to be continued" bit kind of bothered me. We all know it's not going to be continued, so maybe try to give your readers a complete story, instead of copping out and pretending that you're just continuing that long tradition of serial newspaper stories.  There just wasn't enough to this one.

Tomine's page is next, about a superhero named Optic Nerve who is woefully in need of self-confidence.  It's funny, and sweet.  I liked it.

Then we get to the center spread, and the full two pages goes to . . . you guessed it, Chris Ware.  And he earns that two-page spread.  Good stuff.  At this point, I think you can all imagine in your head exactly what it looks like, so we'll just move on.

Kim Deitch gets the next page, and provides a biography of Paul Winchell, a 1950's entertainer who wewnt on to guy with a varied and interesting life.  Like most biographies, the story meanders and doesn't really have a point.  Kind of meh, for me.

Next is Seth's page, about a man who walks to a diner for lunch and then back, narrating as he goes. I liked this one.

And then we turn to the token superhero entry: two full pages for Erik Larsen and his Savage Dragon.  I approve of the choice to include Larsen, plugging away as he has been for so many years, and he does give us a nice huge shot of the Dragon reaching out as though he is going to grab the reader.  The rest of it is kind of simple and silly, but that's perfectly representative of many superhero comics at this point, so who am I to complain?  Ha ha, I kid. Or do I?

Next, Jessica Abel's True Tales of the Early Colonists is an old-school science fiction adventure about astronauts exploring Mars and encountering some aliens, but the strip is presented as though it is from a newspaper from Mars itself.  Clever.

That's it for the comics.  On the whole, I highly recommend grabbing this paper -- there is so much content that you are bound to find something of interest.

Oh, to have something this substantial show up on my doorstep once a week.

READ MORE: You can view a nine-page promo here. And here is a story about it by the San Francisco Chronicle.

BUY IT: From McSweeney's here or from Amazon here: McSweeney's No. 33: The San Francisco Panorama

Disclaimer: This review is based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher.

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