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More than doodles to this story

"An Anthology of Graphic Fiction" opens with a "Nancy" comic strip and a tribute to "Peanuts" creator Charles Schulz. It ends with a story entitled "Gynecology" that uses adultery and graphic perversion as a metaphor for the never-ending battle between artistic integrity and commercial success.

In his introduction to the anthology, editor Ivan Brunetti writes a wonderful piece on cartooning and the genre's drive for mainstream acceptance. "It is helpful to think of the doodle as the fundament of cartooning," Brunetti writes. "Yes, the humble doodle. Of course, everything starts as a doodle, a scribble, a scrawl; masterful paintings, complex architecture, and models of the universe begin with the simplest concrete visual representations."

From there, Brunetti arranges about 80 comic strips -- everything from a few simple panels to snippets from full-length graphic novels -- in a rough parallel to the evolution of a work of graphic fiction. We move from simple drawings and sight gags to densely illustrated, or experimental, examinations of sex, economics and the human condition.

Anyone who looks at today's graphic novels and figures that they're nothing but "kid stuff" simply hasn't been paying attention. Underground comics got hip and began dealing with sex, drugs, and rock and roll in the 1960s. Graphic novels that took classical superheroes and imbued them with ennui and moral dilemmas appeared in the 1980s, such as the groundbreaking "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns."

People who turn up their noses at books that incorporate artwork with text are the same as people who boast that they don't know how to turn on a computer and that the Internet is a fad. They are missing the point -- graphic fiction represents a new medium that is populated by a wide range of artists. Dismissing the entire genre outright deprives you of the opportunity of discovering some truly talented writers, artists, and social commentators.

Brunetti makes a comprehensive effort to include a wide variety of artists and styles. "My criteria were simple," Brunetti writes. "These are comics that I savor and often revisit."

Unfortunately, Brunetti tries to include too much to digest. Several artists are represented with excerpts of larger works, and frequently there is no delineation of where one piece ends and the next begins. Perhaps the most touching and beautiful piece in the book, an excerpt from Chris Ware's "Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth," simply ends in mid-stream, as do a number of other pieces.

For the true graphic fiction enthusiast, Brunetti's collection is a must-have, including work from such seminal artists as R. Crumb, Art Spiegelman, and Bill Griffith, but it can be difficult for newcomers to the genre to navigate their way.

"An Anthology of Graphic Fiction" is an often amusing, frequently challenging, and occasionally disturbing read, which can be a hallmark of good literature.

But there is an odd disparity at work within the "cartoon industry." Animated TV shows like "The Simpsons," "Family Guy," and Comedy Central's Adult Swim block of shows are some of the most popular -- and often some of the more intelligent -- things on television today. Yet, cartoonists always seem to be beating themselves up, trying to incorporate more delicate and tragic themes in their work, like teenagers demanding to be taken seriously.

But the comic form -- or any form, really -- should never take itself too seriously. Brunetti starts with the work of Charles Schulz, as if Snoopy, Charlie Brown, and the rest of the Peanuts crew are the starting point for today's breed of more serious, "genuine" graphic artists.

Brunetti -- and many other cartoonists -- have it backwards. Schulz gave us universal truths that were easy to digest. They would be well-advised to try using his approach and getting back to the basics. After all, the work of Schulz and his contemporaries is what influenced them to pick up the pencil in the first place.

Dan Murphy is a free-lance reviewer.

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An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons and True Stories

Edited By Ivan Brunetti

Yale University Press

400 pages, $28

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