Thursday 16 February 2017

David Mazzucchelli Comics: Short Stories in Various Anthologies, 1991–2013

At the apex of his relatively brief career in superhero comics – he drew his first comic for Marvel, Master of Kung Fu #121, in 1983 and had all but left the genre by 1987 – David Mazzucchelli helped redefine and reshape superhero storytelling with two acknowledged classics, both in collaboration with Frank Miller: Daredevil: Born Again (originally serialized in 1986 in Daredevil #227–233) and Batman: Year One (originally serialized in 1987 in Batman #404–407). (I read both on original publication and still consider the latter in particular among the best comics I've ever read.) When Mazzucchelli spoke to The Comics Journal in 1997 he told interviewer Christopher Brayshaw that he left superhero comics for three reasons: that he was not a violent person, and so had no connection to the fisticuffs aspect of superhero comics (quite a big component of the genre); that the schedule of doing a monthly comic "was starting to drive me nuts"; and that the kind of work he liked in other media – film, literature, the performing arts – was very different to the kind of work he himself was doing, in terms of "Subject matter, approach, attitude, everything."

His final work for Marvel (officially; in 1992 he inked a single page of Evan Dorkin's Bill & Ted's Excellent Comic Book, uncredited) appeared in issue #40 of the anthology Marvel Fanfare (October 1988), a story written by Ann Nocenti titled "Chiaroscuro". In many ways it pointed the way forward for the cartoonist, displaying a looser, more expressionistic line and featuring almost no superheroics (there's a four-panel silhouetted fight sequence on the first page, and the X-Man Angel is the ostensible lead, but otherwise the story is grounded in a suburban milieu).

Mazzucchelli worked from a plot rather than a full script, but he wanted to go further – to write as well as draw his own stories. Set free from the confines of the superhero genre he embarked on a succession of formally challenging, exciting, intriguing, sometimes moving, sometimes perplexing art-comix projects. He's since understandably become best known for the more substantial of these – his three-issue anthology Rubber Blanket; his and Paul Karasik's 1994 graphic novel adaptation of Paul Auster's City of Glass; his 2009 masterwork Asterios Polyp. But in amongst those longer projects he contributed numerous shorter pieces to various anthologies. Characterized by a restless inventiveness, some of these stories are possessed of an extraordinary depth and sophistication; others are more fun and light-hearted; but all are considered, thoughtful, and well worth seeking out.

I already had in my comics collection a good number of the anthologies in which Mazzucchelli's work appears, and I recently got hold of a few more; and having just written a profile of Mazzucchelli for the Marvel Fact Files – concentrating naturally on his superhero work – I figured I might write a blog post on some of those smaller and in some cases lesser known works. This blog post, in fact.

One of Mazzucchelli's earliest post-superhero pieces can be found in the third issue of Nicholas Blechman's anthology Nozone, published in 1991 (the same year as the first issue of Rubber Blanket). The theme of the issue – Nozone has a different one each issue – is "Destruction", which in Mazzucchelli's hands becomes "Cold Truth", a wordless two-page story about the tension between the pleasures of making and, well, unmaking.

Mazzucchelli contributed to Nozone twice more, in issues #5 and 6. Copies of Nozone are quite hard to come by, especially in the UK, but as well as finding #3 on eBay I was fortunate enough to come across a copy of #6, the "Crime" issue (1995), in one of my local comic shops, Dave's Books in Brighton. There's no Mazzucchelli short story inside Nozone #6; instead the cartoonist contributes the terrific front and back covers, which tell their own fleeting tale of crime and punishment.

A little easier to get hold of than Nozone are the two issues of Drawn and Quarterly Mazzucchelli contributed to. In Vol. 1 #9 (July 1992) he drew two very short stories: a meditative one-pager on the inside front cover, "Hear the Atoms Splitting", and a jarringly sardonic, aptly angular two-pager, "A Brief History of Civilisation".

Two years later, he contributed the much longer, much-admired "Rates of Exchange" to Vol. 2 #2. Done after he finished City of Glass, Mazzucchelli said of the story (in the aforementioned Comics Journal interview), "I think it's one of my best stories. I think the writing in particular, and by writing I mean the narration and the dialogue and the structuring of it as a story visually is... it was definitely a step for me."

In 1993 Mazzucchelli contributed a story to the third issue of Fantagraphics anthology Snake Eyes (another recent eBay acquisition of mine; I believe he also contributed to the first issue, but I haven't got hold of a copy of that yet; perhaps if – when – I do I'll update this post). In some ways "Phobia" can be considered a precursor to City of Glass; Mazzucchelli told Christopher Brayshaw that he showed the story to Art Spiegelman at the same Angouleme convention where Spiegelman later asked if Mazzucchelli would like to be involved with the City of Glass project (of which Spiegelman was one of the instigators), and it has similar noir trappings, although in the case of "Phobia", these are put to the purpose of satirising the luridly violent stories Mazzucchelli was seeing at the time in mainstream comics. Handily, The whole of "Phobia" can be read on Brian Michael Bendis' tumblr.

Mazzucchelli contributed to another Fantagraphics anthology, Zero Zero, three times during its 27-issue run. The first time was in the second issue, dated May/June 1995, with "Stop the Hair Nude", an uncomfortable and clammy but stylistically virtuoso story about a Japanese censor's obsession with female pubic hair. (A year later he contributed another Japanese-themed story, "Midori", to the first issue of Kodansha anthology Manga Surprise!, but I haven't seen hide nor hair of that – so to speak.) His next contribution, "Stubs" in #11 (August 1996), is in a much lighter vein, although even here there is depth in Mazzucchelli's examination of the folly of youth personified in a pencil. But Mazzucchelli's best Zero Zero story is the final one he contributed, to the anthology's final issue (Summer 2000): the quiet, reflective, drifting, abstract "Still Life" (another Japan-influenced tale which I understand originally appeared in Manga Surprise! #2).

Speaking of Fantagraphics publications, there's a lovely two-page Mazzucchelli comic in The Comics Journal Special Edition Volume One (Winter 2002) – "The Boy Who Loved Comics". Making the most of the oversized 12" square format, with deft lifework and bold use of CMYK colour, stylistically it has a fair bit in common with the later Asterios Polyp, as this blog post by Chris McCarthy points out.

Mazzucchelli contributed to two fairy tale-themed anthologies published over a decade apart. In 2000 his bittersweet take on the Japanese legend "The Fisherman and the Sea Princess" appeared in Little Lit: Folklore & Fairy Tale Funnies (RAW Junior/HarperCollins), while in 2013 the more comedic "Give Me the Shudders", based on a Brothers Grimm story, appeared in Fairy Tale Comics (First Second). At ten pages, "Give Me the Shudders" is one of the longer Mazzucchelli anthology short stories I've come across (beaten only by "Rates of Exchange"), and is also, I believe, his most recent work.

A few other short Mazzucchelli pieces I have in my collection are, I think, worthy of note in this context. Negative Burn #17 (Vol. 1, 1994 – again another recent eBay acquisition) reproduces pages from Mazzucchelli's sketchbook – not a must-have, by any means, but still, I'd say, of interest to the Mazzucchelli enthusiast (speaking as one myself). His contribution to Evan Dorkin's Superman and Batman: World's Funnest (DC, 2000), on the other hand, is well worth a look – a four page homage to Jack Kirby's Fourth World which Mazzucchelli spent months perfecting. Lastly, the 2005 edition of Batman: Year One boasts not only copious extras – samples, roughs, marked-up script pages, even Mazzucchelli's first comic page, drawn at age six – but an afterword(s) taking the form of four one-page comics about the artist's personal history with, and feelings about, Batman and superheroes.