Syncopated reviewed by Marc Sobel

Posted by on December 22nd, 2009 at 9:00 AM

Syncopated: An Anthology of Nonfiction Picto-Essays Edited by Brendan Burford; Villard Books; 154 pp.; $16.95; B&W; Softcover; ISBN: 9780345505293

The fourth volume of Brendan Burford’s anthology of “nonfiction picto-essays” is the longest and most impressive to date (as well as the first published through Villard Books, an imprint of Random House).  The book starts off strong with a comic about “how and why to bale hay” by Nick Bertozzi, who recounts personal experiences growing up on a farm.  This piece is followed by Rina Piccolo’s passionate article about her collection of old postcards.   Tricia Van den Bergh’s series of illustrations of Washington Square Park (minus the college students and drug pushers) features intricately hatched compositions that demonstrate a careful attention to the movement of shadows and light.  Greg Cook’s distinctive style, which uses silhouetted figures and shapes on an open page, is perfectly suited to its dark subject matter — an anonymous FBI report describing in cold, impersonal detail the torture methods employed at Guantanamo Bay.  Paul Hoppe, whose rambling observations about obscure Brooklyn neighborhoods have appeared in previous volumes, turns his artistic lens toward Coney Island.  Hoppe’s inspired sketches of Ferris wheels, freak-show oddities and other landmarks are among his best work to date, and convey the gritty, nostalgic feel of the neighborhood.

Josh Neufeld, Alec Longstreth, Paul Karasik and Nate Powell also contribute excellent stories; however, a week after reading the book, three pieces stand out from the rest.  First is Sarah Glidden’s autobiographical account of a trip she took with her father to China to adopt a baby girl.  Glidden’s recollection is emotionally stirring as she candidly describes the little moments — the first encounter with the adoption administrators, the sterile feel of the agency, the surreality of sharing this quasi-birth experience with six other families.  Second is Burford’s own contribution, in which the cartoonist goes to Washington Square Park’s famous chess corner in search of a story and finds something completely unexpected in the character of Richard Peterson.  Burford’s portrayal of Peterson is straightforward and unsympathetic, and captures the small-time hustler’s indescribable charm.  But the piece that best embodies the anthology’s tagline of “nonfiction picto-essays” is Alex Holden’s “West Side Improvements,” a retelling of the history of mural paintings in the underground railroad tunnels beneath Riverside park on the west side of Manhattan. Holden’s comprehensive and meticulous research of these fascinating events is worth the price of the book alone.  If The New Yorker did an all-comics issue, this is what it would look like.

From Sarah Glidden's contribution to the anthology

From Sarah Glidden's contribution to the anthology

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