Achingly drawn conclusions

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The Partisan Review may have folded in the last year, but alienation and ennui are alive and well in American letters. Ironically, at the same time that comic-book protagonists have earned a new literary respect, they have lost the ability to transform themselves. Instead of going from estranged loner to confident superhero, they remain alienated nebbishes -- as estranged as any hero before he dons his cape.

These loners are more likely to dress in vintage Arrow shirts or thrift-shop suits: While superhero comics swooned over the technological future, characters in the "alternative" comics of the last decade tend to be downright nostalgic. It may be that working in a form that peaked in mid-century, that's never quite recovered from the onslaught of television, drives cartoonists to idealize decades past. This melancholic pining takes all kinds of forms: "American Splendor's" Harvey Pekar, whose sensibility bridges the hippie comix and the alternative cartoonists born in the 1960s, loves jug bands and Delta blues. "The world my parents grew up in doesn't seem to fit together with this one," Seth, the porkpie-wearing hero and author of the comic "Palookaville," laments in one panel, while searching for a lost cartoonist from mid-century. They make record collectors look calm.

But rarely have nostalgia and alienation been transposed into art as fully as in Chris Ware's "Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth," the wrenching story of a man searching for his father, and Daniel Clowes' "Ghost World," about two sarcastic girls adrift in suburbia. Almost achingly soulful, these works brought the graphic novel acclaim, but they also showed the limits of nostalgia and alienation as artistic elements. While their characters were mooning over forgotten world's fairs or jeering fake-retro diners, the cartoonist Joe Sacco took his pen to war zones to produce "Palestine" and "Safe Area Gorazde," works that capture the daily street-level experience of the Israeli and Bosnian conflicts.

If these artists are like rock bands that have hit big, a spate of recent books collects the first vinyl singles. Like a band's early work, the quality ranges enormously.

Ware may be the most visually accomplished cartoonist in history. His style combines the look of magazine ads, old road maps, architectural drawings, retro typefaces and 1950s instruction manuals. His visual polish and use of unlikely, often muted color combinations is unmatched. The covers of "The Acme Novelty Date Book, 1986-1995" and "Quimby the Mouse" evoke the splendor of art nouveau.

Like many alternative cartoonists, Ware seems to have little interest in the visual world since the '50s; it's as if these artists are denying themselves the last half-century of visual life, judging it too lustful and worldly. But Ware makes encyclopedic use of earlier, more formal eras.

It's a surprise, then, to see that much of his early work lacks his trademark graphic sparkle and storytelling genius. "The Acme Novelty Date Book" collects self-portraits, doodles of old buildings, unlovely naked people drawn in the style of R. Crumb and some early appearances of Corrigan. And while his recent work makes imaginative use of space and sequence, these are mostly single, standing images. These drawings, many of them done as a University of Texas undergraduate, make it seem as if Ware's talent came out of nowhere.

Some of the link between the rough and polished becomes clear in "Quimby the Mouse," which collects comics from the early '90s. Many involve a prankish rodent whose tale is told almost wordlessly, evoking, at its best, Keaton or Chaplin. But most of the black-and-white stories lack inspiration. (Some of the color work, and there's not much of it, is nearly as pretty as "Corrigan.") The best stuff may be the book's title pages, which explode with language -- apologies, confessions, inside jokes, fake ads and letters from readers. "I do not think if I sent away for things you offer in the magazine that they would come to me," one writes. Another writer reveals that he uses the name Jimmy Corrigan to depress his wife's libido.

Both of these books will please Ware purists -- and may intrigue future scholars -- for their portrait of the artist. But the general reader will be happier finding his recent comics individually, which allows time to savor every page.

The recent work of Sacco, born in Malta but raised and educated on the West Coast, was inspired by New Journalism and partisan British reportage. "Safe Area Gorazde" and "Palestine" have been deservedly praised by Christopher Hitchens and the late Edward Said: They convey sides of their conflicts either too disturbing or too mundane to show up on the nightly news. Sacco's use of characters, especially those who gather around the bar after battles, brings an unsentimental human touch to these wars, which remain both well exposed and misunderstood.

"Notes From a Defeatist" collects a wide range of early, formative Sacco, including "Cartoon Genius," "Eight Characters" and "Voyage to the End of the Library." Somehow, these pieces aren't very interesting: They're the usual chronicles of losers and office drones who populate the alt-comics world, complete with the toilet humor that's the common denominator of cartoonists' early work. His visual style, closer to the head shop than that of the crisp Ware or Clowes, is lost without a good story.

Similarly, "In the Company of Long Hair" is a pro forma piece about touring Europe with a rock band. Clearly, the awkward Sacco has less fun than the shallow partyers he's touring with, but he doesn't find much that's insightful or funny.

From the evidence of these early comics, Sacco was an author in search of a subject. He found it when he began to write about war in three pieces included here. Among them is "More Women, More Children, More Quickly," which tells, from his mother's point of view, of the Fascist and Nazi raids on Malta and two other pieces written about war from the outside. These early war pieces show an urge to break out of the limits of his American experience, but their secondhand origins can lend them an earnestness. Sacco's strongest work -- including an excellent recent release called "The Fixer," set in Sarajevo -- was still to come.

Clowes' is by far the most satisfying of all these new books of old material. "Twentieth Century Eightball" includes its share of adolescent silliness and sexual weirdness: Perhaps every cartoonist needs to get this out of his system. Despite the hit-and-miss quality of its 40 strips over 100 pages, the book not only gives a good sense of where Clowes was headed, it's also got so much visual variety that even its most puerile gags make good browsing.

Some of the early comics are short and merely clever, like "Ink Studs," which ponders why rock stars get more "chicks" than cartoonists and advises women to find themselves "a cartoon Casanova." "Little Enid" is the brief debut of the jaded protagonist of "Ghost World." The strip "The Party" isn't fully developed but shows Clowes' knack with uncomfortable social settings. "On Sports" is an often funny Freudian reach about the sexual roots of baseball and football; "Art School Confidential" is a soon-to-be adapted (by filmmaker Terry Zwigoff) strip about a common cartoonist bete noire.

Clowes' real gift is an almost anthropological observation, and the masterpiece of his early work is the strip "Chicago," about his hometown. Here, a hapless narrator wanders through recent Chicago history, lamenting the phoniness of the "Ye Olde" themed bars, adorned with player pianos and names like "Q.B. Bushwackers" that sprang up in the '70s. As the '80s dawned -- "tired of being outclassed by more glamorous cities," he says -- Chicago re-imagined itself around "The Blues Brothers" and the Bears as a kind of urban lout. The last scene takes place in hell, where the devil wears a Cubs cap and "the damned are forced to drink old style beer while listening to an eternal medley of R&B standards performed by Jim Belushi and Bruce Willis."

One doesn't have to hate, or love, Chicago to be carried along on this nebbish's nostalgia trip.

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