Published in 1999, right in the thick of the heat of millennial fever, Top Shelf: Under the Big Top was the eighth volume of the Top Shelf anthology series, which Top Shelf Productions co-honcho, Brent Warnock began publishing in 1995. In fact, some of the stories do touch upon what was then the approaching end of the millennium and beginning of next, and one can also read millennial subtexts into most of these stories.
The ad copy for Under the Big Top on the publisher’s website claims that “this anthology helped Top Shelf become a leader in discovering and showcasing the vanguard of the alternative comics scene.” This is true to the extent that Top Shelf and a few other North American publishers have been showcasing the vanguard, new guard, and old guard of alt-comix cartoonists. Indeed, Under the Big Top is a grab bag of alternative comic strips, so much so that one can’t really describe the entire package with either a few glib words or clever catch phrases. Perhaps, the easiest thing to say is, “it’s certainly a showcase.”
Under the Big Top is a wonderful way to see cartoonists working their craft, experimenting, storytelling, and even attempting both high and low art. Michael Bonfiglio’s “The Couple” certainly reads like an experiment in abstract art, leaving interpretation largely to the reader. K. Thor Jensen’s “Ghosts,” is an exercise in storytelling craft and looks like a “typical” indie comics short story, as does Jeff Levine’s “Have We Peaked Yet,” clever as it is.
Clocking in at only two pages, Carrie Golus’ “Persuasive Essay,” is artsy, literary, and sweet as candy. A color section of comix from Israeli publishing collective, Actus Tragicus, contains some engagingly strange work. Jeff Bourguignon’s “A Clean City” would make a memorable short film, as would Mandy Ord’s “Five Minutes.” If I have to pick a favorite, it would be Mack White’s snarky genre mash-up, “Operation Blue Beam.”
That anthologies like Top Shelf: Under the Big Top (Number 8) exists is a good thing, because an anthology can be like a big top. For underneath this giant canvas is space for a wonderfully diverse group of cartoonists to share their visions. It would be super duper good if those who claim to have such love for the medium of comics, but only read superhero/fantasy/sci-fi, would try something like Under the Big Top, which showcases so much of both the potential and art of the medium.