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Dan Pearson on graphic novels

Dan Pearson on the seriousness of serious comics.

Crumb was a spooky cat who hung out with the editors at Oui in the '70s. Parents didn't want him near their kids. He was an outsider on the inside, who filtered his times through the tectonic movement in his loins. There was, however, torture in his art, because it was about sex and love and revolution. That mattered. It was real.Two decades later, the comic book artists of the '90s, beaten down with their own white manhood at Wesleyan, Davis, and Reed, would come to embrace Crumb and his boldness. It was only natural, in the cultural vacuum of that decade; they had finally tired of living on politically correct eggshells. Grunge and Gen X had turned out to be no more than a grand recruiting scheme by Microsoft and Intel, with super-cool photos by Charles Peterson. Kurt Cobain's primal scream had seemed real (and it was). But he would have been the first to tell you that the underground had run its course, and no one should have depended on him for cultural insight. Yet the scream worked because what else was there to talk about? Peace? Prosperity? No drama there. The generation needed something primitive, honest, something from deep within reminding them that they hadn't been reduced to characters in Tron. In Crumb and others, this new generation found a creative way to make love to the world again, without having to string crossbows with Ted Nugent.The comics they produced were serious, secret, subversive. You couldn't find them on the shelves of Borders. It was Kurt Cobain's voice, this time without the Kurt Loder commentary. It stood on its own, with characters who were aimless, diffident. The readers either embraced it, or knew that it shouldn't be mythologized. Or both. Hate. Love and Rockets. "Hey," the hipsters at Powell's or Reading Frenzy thought, "That's me."And it was them. But then, while Generation X got lost rubbing itself into a fit of cultural onanism, things got serious. The generation was cut off from the entire discourse, and was left to sort through all its closets of ironic T-shirts and space-age bachelor-pad music for something that couldn't be corrupted, something that could keep itself proud in the face of so much degradation. But come the second Bush administration, you couldn't just wallow in your own self-worth, you had to make a difference because it was getting way worse than you could have ever imagined. So Generation X sought a symbolic anchor to its old frivolity, some landmark, some sense that its artists had made something lasting of their brief peace and prosperity.Jimmy Corrigan, Eightball - at a sidelong glance the comics of that era seem insignificant. Look closer, though, and they offer a portent, even then in the prosperous, happy times of the '90s, that everything was not all right. And now that time has proven that things are not, in fact, all right, the comics seem richer and deeper still. See the characters of Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware? See them shaking and perspiring? It was about more than doing covers for Estrus singles. It was about fear, and loathing, and pain; and more than that, it was about isolation. What, the generation had to ask itself, did we accomplish with our privilege and opportunity? What is our Dangling Man? Who is our Jasper Johns? Tough to say. But you can be pretty sure nobody wants to go down in history as the one who threw it all away for Counting Crows.Generation X has grown up, but we still see ourselves in the pages of the graphic novel. We are still the outsider, the aimless wanderer, even with our kids, and our giant haul of Williams & Sonoma wedding-registry loot, and the Krupps panini maker running double shifts on the ciabatta. We refuse to concede to convention, we refuse to believe that the way it is is the only way it can be. We're sensitive, but realistic. We're artistic, but not affected. We're organizing team meetings, but we're still subversive. And strangely, we've been embraced by the establishment. Our comics are no longer mimeographed by friends in exchange for weed or guest-list comps at Kinko's. They're running full color as New Yorker covers or New York Times Magazine installments. See. We put our vision on the front page. We won. Full circle. We were there all along. We never left ourselves. We mattered. We matter.

What is he talking about?

Charles Peterson Photographer who captured the love beads and the Fenders.Chris Ware Author of Jimmy Corrigan.


Dangling Man Saul Bellow's account of a man on his way to war.Daniel Clowes Author of Eightball comics.

Eightball Groundbreaking graphic novel, portions made into Ghost World and Art School Confidential.Estrus Record label recording and distributing garage rock.Hate Peter Bagge comic chronicling Generation X.

Love and Rockets Rare literary graphic novel without references to author's morning routine.Oui Porno mag popular in the 1970s.Powell's America's largest independent new and used-book store, Portland, Oregon.Reading Frenzy Alternative bookstore in Portland, Oregon.Jasper Johns Precursor to pop art; hung with people who made unlistenable music that appealed to Brian Eno and Can.

Jimmy Corrigan The bleak urban saga of a taciturn nebbish.R. Crumb Seminal comic artist, immortalized in 1994 Terry Zwigoff documentary.Reed College Liberal arts college in Portland, Oregon; students make a lot of banana bread with shakes.Ted Nugent Avid bowhunter, former sex addict; penned line, "When in doubt/I whip it out."

Tron 1982 science-fiction movie in which life becomes a game of Pong.University of California at Davis Not Berkeley, but Harvard graduates end up there for postdocs.Wesleyan Prestigious college in Middletown, Connecticut. Harder to get into than Bennington, but same amount of orgies, hard drugs, and sophomores with literary agents.-D.P.