Back in February Fantagraphics finally published the much-anticipated collection of comics from Joost Swarte, Is That All There Is? Swarte, a Dutch comics artist and graphic designer, and known for his ligne claire or clear line style of drawing (he even coined the term), has been a presence in the U.S. for some time, although my guess is that most people don’t know his work. He was a regular in Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly’s Raw, and he has contributed illustrations to The New Yorker. I was familiar with his art long before I really knew who he was, having read some of his work in Raw, and one of the things that hooked me was his ligne claire, which reminded me so much of Herge’s Tin Tin. The thing is, Swarte’s comics are much more mature than the innocence found in Herge’s work. It’s as if the ligne claire were brought to underground comix. Indeed, Swarte’s work does have that free-wheeling and even irreverent feel that you’ll find in the best work of Gilbert Sheldon and Robert Crumb.
Chris Ware writes the introduction to this book, and he does a good job of setting up the collection. As he points out, Is That All There Is? contains most of Swarte’s work, which has me wondering what comics were left out, and why. Regardless, this is an incredible collection that spans Swarte’s career from the early 1970s to today. The comics in this collection vary in length and complexity. Sometimes the stories are lengthy and involved, and at other times we get a one-page anecdote or humorous piece. Stories revolving around two of his main characters, Jopo de Pojo and Anton Makassar, make up the majority of the narratives. In fact, the most outstanding comics are those surrounding Jopo de Pojo, e.g., “Une Chance sur Cent Mille,” “Imago Moderna,” and “The Rubber Paradise.” However, my favorite in the collection involves neither of Swarte’s main characters. ”Enslaved by the Needle!” is an early story, written in 1973, that has the feel of something you’d read in one of the underground comix. It’s a wonderful comic that weaves this way and that, following the misfortunes of criminal wannabe Fred Fallow. This is such a detailed and dense comic, and you have to pay very close attention to the art to make sure you don’t miss any of the jokes, asides, or even significant parts of the visual narrative itself. I believe it’s the longest and most sustained story in the entire collection. In the last half of the book we see much less of Jopo de Pojo and more of Anton Makassar and Pierre van Genderen, another one of his characters. ”Klokslag met Anton Makassar” and “Modern Art” are two of the best stories in the last half, but there are also some interesting other stories worth mentioning. ”Anton Makassar in Kleur” is basically a “how to” when it comes to color and the printing process, a mixture of comic and text that explains how you get color in comics (or how you used to, before digital printing). And “It Was a Dark and Silly Night,” which closes the book, is a surrealistic piece with a fairy-tale feel to it. I think that Fantagraphics was originally supposed to publish this book last year, or perhaps earlier, but for whatever reasons they pushed back publication until early 2012. Regardless of the reasons underlying the delay, this book was definitely worth the wait.