a Raw coverWell, the old avant-garde anyway – I’m out of touch these days, so apologies for talking about yesterday’s pioneers. Raw was a comic magazine, published in a variety of formats, which specialised in the strange and experimental, striving towards comics with values more often applied to modern painting and literature. It wasn’t all successful by any means, but given the experimental nature, it hit the mark far more often than one could have ever expected. The mags (Penguin published some in book format) are well worth reading if you can find them, but I’ll just highlight a few people from that school.

Its biggest name was its editor, Art Spiegelman, who made a huge impact with his narrative of his father’s days in a Nazi concentration camp, interleaved with their current relationship, with all the characters depicted as animals. Maus was an international hit, garnering possibly the greatest praise a comic book ever had in the US, and its status was largely warranted. It’s an unflinchingly honest account, told with rigour and great skill. I have my doubts about the animal aspect, but it had its pluses as well as difficulties. It’s a very impressive achievement, and holds up pretty well stacked against something like Primo Levi’s autobiographical tale of similar experiences.

A favourite of mine found a kind of fame through a very different route: Gary Panter won awards for designing sets for Pee-Wee Herman. His comic work is rough and fiery and difficult, but genuinely exciting on all kinds of levels. Mark Beyer is a strange proposition: his work is flat and almost childlike, with something like a cubist sense of shallow space at times. He puts his childishly drawn characters, almost like cut-outs, through horrible experiences, with a powerful sense of despair. Mark Marek’s work has a crude look, but is hugely entertaining. I’m particularly fond of his Hercules Amongst The North Americans, which is enormously funny. I also liked many other things, including Jerry Moriarty’s odd fragments, and Ben Kachor’s oblique tales of semi-ordinary life. It also included lots of great creators from older schools (like the undergrounds), from Europe and South America and Japan, and reprinted some great ancient comics (including some Krazy Kats).

I can’t think of a single thing from this list that you are likely to be able to buy cheaply, but there is perhaps no comic more likely to be found in libraries than Maus. (You probably have a better chance there than in comics shops. Someone was trying to buy me the second volume for a gift, back when it came out. She tried two comic shops. The first was apologetic, but didn’t have it. The second hadn’t heard of it. She spelt the title and creator’s name – still no good. “What’s it about?” they asked. “The Holocaust,” she said. “The what?”)