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On the hard-charging TCJ.com, cartoonist/commentator Michel Fiffe recently wrote a piece looking at the unique comics format of one-creator anthologies. He delves into the origin of the format in the underground comix movement of the 1960s all the way to modern success stories like Chris Ware’s Acme Novelty Library. What he finds is just how rare the laser-like focus needed to create these works are, and how even successful ones have trouble keeping up with the success of their creators.
“It’s a publishing sensibility that may have had its moment in the sun decades ago, but it’s never really been a dominant point of interest for cartoonists,” Fiffe explains in his introduction. “That’s not surprising; carrying the weight of multiple narratives issue after issue is not particularly alluring to those who just want to draw cool stuff for a page rate, or for those who just want to tell their stories one book at a time.”
To clarify, one-creator anthologies are series in which one creator writes and draws all the stories. It’s related but distinct from one-creator series that carry one over-arching narrative like Jeff Smith’s Bone or Brandon Graham’s King City in that it’s a collection of short stories with little or no connective tissue besides the common hand that creates it.
In the Big Two, examples of one-creator anthologies are unsurprisingly slim. The closest things in modern memory would be DC’s Solo series, which appointed a different creator to be the ringleader in each issue, or Marvel’s Ultimate Team-Up, which saw artist-turned-writer Brian Michael Bendis partner with a rotating series of artists in one-off stories. Fiffe does uncover a real nugget in the DC longboxes with the final six issues of Showcase in 1969 and 1970, when Mike Sekowsky was given the reins to write, pencil, color and even edit the remaining installments before cancellation. I’d argue for a print collection of this, but given the economy of things I’d be happy if DC just released it digitally.
Fiffe goes on to record the format’s “deluge” in the ’80s and ’90s, during which a number of today’s popular alternative cartoonists cut their teeth doing their own anthologies. He makes the argument that Fantagraphics’ support of the format led many up-and-coming cartoonists to veer into anthologies as a way of breaking into the industry.
“Not to suggest that the post-Clowes wave of creators had mercenary intentions (especially since the format was never a cash cow) but there was definitely a new guard forming at the time,” Fiffe writes. “Although that new generation was still in its infancy, it was very much being cultivated by a single publisher. One can’t blame a creator for trying to adapt, including Ware, and it doesn’t make them any less noble for trying to find their way.”
Fiffe also looks at the modern instances of this overlooked format, and that’s where the comments section of this article is exceptionally lively, with both informative addendums as well as the requisite trolling. Cartoonist Michael Kupperman steps in to note that his long-running Tales Designed to Thrizzle is the sole surviving one-creator anthology Fantagraphics publishes. Salgood Sam chimes in to comment, as others do, about the financial hurdles the format faces and the general lack of acceptance by publishers.
It’s interesting to imagine how the one-creator anthology works in the modern age of digital comics, but given the general freedom of creators to author websites hosting comics under various names as short- and long-form comics, it might instead reveal how the concept of a creator keeping his work under one-roof, in this case one title, is a remnant of an older age.