Kate Beaton's Hark! A Vagrant has to be a contender for one of the best cartoon collections of the year. Beaton's comics are literate, clever, occasionally smutty, and very, very funny. Cartoons about books and literary characters are often too snide—think of all the cartoons you've read that feature tweedy professorial types in libraries—but Beaton assumes you're at least as well-read as she is. Here's Oedipus, weary of being the eternal stand-in for loving one's mother too much: "God! Can't they talk about anything else?" Robinson Crusoe is portrayed, finally, as the imperialistic jackass we all know he is, and Aquaman kind of gets his due. What a delightful book.
Michael Kupperman's also got a literary minded book out this fall. It's titled Mark Twain's Autobiography 1910-2010, and that's exactly what it is—an account of Mark Twain's life after everyone believed that he died. (The reports of his death, as you have probably heard, have been greatly exaggerated.) The book is mainly an excuse to insert Twain, Zelig-like, into every decade between 1910 and today. Of course he made a lot of money in the 1920s and lost it all in the 1930s. Of course he and Albert Einstein were repeatedly struck in the head by a hammer-wielding monkey. And of course he sleeps with Mamie Eisenhower ("this lady was one hot dish.") It's all told in Kupperman's Marx Brothers-style absurdist deadpan voice, and if you like Tales Designed to Thrizzle, then you'll love this book. It's packed with laugh-out-loud moments, though it does flag a bit toward the end.
One of the more common statements about Charles Schulz's Peanuts is that he made kids speak with the vocabulary of adults. That's not quite true: Charlie Brown and company talk the way we wished adults talked. They're sensible, self-aware, and fairly well-read. Gahan Wilson's Nutsfeatures kids talking the way adults really talk: When one kid see the size of his cousin's newest playset, he rages: "That lousy goddamn cousin Claude of mine's got a circus a hundred and twenty times as big as mine!!!" The kids in Nuts are vain, covetous, not so very bright, and they stagger around, reeling, from one unpleasant surprise to the next. They get their hair cut ("Sometimes I wonder if it's just that he's a lousy barber...") they look at some gory magazines, ("We're just not ready for that shit") and they attend funerals of uncles ("My God—I never saw them acting this way before! They've all fallen apart!"). Weirdly, by giving his kids the vocabularies of adults, he really captures the neuroses of childhood. We begin life as we live it now: Dazed, angry, and bitter at our own fundamental lack of control.