Art Comics For Beginners:

The Best American Comics 2006

As anyone who’s read my articles on MOME and HOTWIRE will quickly realize, I have a particular interest in comics anthologies and the effect they can have on comics in general. While there are many inherent problems with anthologies (some avoidable and some not), their inherent potential to both highlight what is great about comics and bring attention to the medium is enormous. While anthologies like NON, KRAMER’S ERGOT and MOME have served either to establish a cutting edge (in the case of the former two) or to bring art comics a step closer to a wider audience (in the case of the latter), neither has quite had the mission, scope or intention of a couple of other anthologies.

The first was MCSWEENEY’S #13, a special issue of the literary anthology guest-edited by Chris Ware. Published in 2004, the elaborate hardback issue had three primary foci: reprint classic comics or materials related to same; publish essays on why comics were such an important medium and/or their connections with other arts; and print the best comics of the day. That often included reprinting stories that originally appeared in various publications published by Fantagraphics or Drawn & Quarterly. This book wasn’t necessarily aimed at established art-comics fans, but rather the literate and sophisticated reader of MCSWEENEY’S who had heard vaguely of these sophisticated comics, but didn’t quite know where to turn to next after reading MAUS. It was a wider audience than the usual art-comics crowd, but still not exactly what I’d call a general audience.

The second anthology going out to a wider audience is the upcoming THE BEST AMERICAN COMICS 2006. Published by Houghton-Mifflin, it’s the newest series of THE BEST AMERICAN… books that began in 1915 with THE BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES. The series is edited by Anne Elizabeth Moore, a former editor of The Comics Journal and a current editor of the magazine Punk Planet. She went through a number of submissions, minicomics, online comics, anthologies, weekly independent newspapers and various other sources to compile a list for this edition’s guest editor, Harvey Pekar.

Pekar is of course one of the unique voices in comics, with his AMERICAN SPLENDOR series gaining a lot of momentum thanks to the success of the film adaptation. Pekar went to SPX in 2005 and was exposed to a lot of new work. He lamented the fact that so much of it would never be seen by a larger audience and so relished the opportunity to guest-edit this volume.

The result is an anthology that reflects Pekar’s interests and biases as a critic and writer. Naturalism dominates the book, either in terms of story or art or both. There are a number of political/journalistic pieces with strips from Joe Sacco (embedded in Iraq), Lloyd Dangle (at the Republican National Convention in NYC), Kim Deitch (interviewing an inmate on death row), and various artists from WORLD WAR III ILLUSTRATED (on an uprising in Nigeria). There’s plenty of autobiographical stories/self reflection: Robert Crumb on his childhood, Lynda Barry on the artistic process, Jesse Reklaw meditating on his childhood by recalling each of the cats his family kept, David Heatley’s clever series of short strips about his father, an excerpt from John Porcellino about a job he had, Rick Geary recalling a missed opportunity at being seduced and David Lasky talking about driving a bread delivery truck.

Even a lot of the fictional pieces fell into the realm of quotidian, slice-of-life stories: a strip from Alison Bechdel’s DYKES TO WATCH OUT FOR, a intense story of a suicidal woman forced to care for a woman going insane by Justin Hall, a Jonathan Bennett story about a record collector from MOME, an installment from the excellent “Day-By-Day With Hopey” LOVE AND ROCKETS serial by Jaime Hernandez, an observation of a young man in front of a trophy case by Esther Pearl Watson, a story about a woman dealing with a difficult supervisor by Hob, an excerpt from Alex Robinson’s TRICKED wherein a man is confronted by a daughter he’s never met and an excerpt from Jessica Abel’s LA PERDIDA wherein a young woman is confronted regarding her thoughtlessness. Some of the fictional strips were heavily political, like a piece on union-busting from Olivia Schanzer and a first-person account from a monstrous businessman by Tom Hart.

That’s twenty-one of thirty stories that all tread on somewhat similar ground. What’s really missing from the anthology are comics in the KRAMER’S ERGOT/NON/Fort Thunder school of formal experimentation. That’s probably not a huge surprise, given Pekar’s interests and preference for fairly straight-ahead representation in the artists he collaborates with. Of course, the fact that trying to sell such avant-garde comics to a general audience is a difficult task possibly may also have had something to do with it. The closest thing to formal experimentation we see in this volume is an excerpt from Rebecca Dart’s intriguing RABBITHEAD, a wordless comic with multiple branching narratives. Strips from Chris Ware and Ivan Brunetti (both done in a stripped-down, minimalist style) were also innovative in terms of layout.

That leaves six other stories that don’t otherwise fit into the naturalist groove that I discussed. Joel Priddy’s “”Amazing Life of Onion Jack” is one of the few overtly humorous pieces in the volume, a stick-figure story about a superhero who really wishes he were a chef. Kurt Wolfgang’s MOME story “Passing Before Life’s Very Eyes” is a slice-of-life story with a fantastic bent, while Lilli Carre’s tale of Paul Bunyan shows us the downside of being an oversized woodsman. Lastly, there’s a weird story of a man running across a dying soldier by Anders Nilsen (another excerpt), a loopy tale by Ben Katchor about a man who designed a window-sill pillow that altered society and lastly a wild Wonder Wart-Hog adventure by underground legend Gilbert Shelton.

The nature of this sort of anthology is to pluck the most interesting stories from other sources, and that certainly includes other anthologies. THE BEST AMERICAN COMICS 2006 not only used certain aspects of MCSWEENEY’S #13 as a template for some of its own efforts, it also used many of the same artists and several of the same stories. The pieces from Ware, Heatley, Barry and Deitch were all originally published in MCSWEENEY’S, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they’re some of the best pieces in this book. In addition, different stories from Sacco, Hernandez, Porcellino, Katchor, Crumb and Brunetti were also published in MCSWEENEY’S. Both anthologies concentrated solely on North American comics, which certainly had a lot to do with the commonalities of authors (especially since there’s a strong consensus on who the best artists are) and styles. Still, while BAC 2006 went to the same well as MCSWEENEY’S on more than one occasion, the pieces from artists like Crumb and Sacco were more compelling than the entries they had in MCSWEENEY’S.

That said, BAC 2006 diverged from the MCSWEENEY’S model in concentrating on current comics and only current comics: no extraneous essays and no historical reprints. There’s another, perhaps more subtle difference: while MCSWEENEY’S only published the work of three women (of 31 modern contributors), the ratio of BAC 2006 was 8/32. I think this speaks to two factors: the increasing number of women producing comics and the editorial influence of Moore. She has always been quite outspoken about the paucity of women represented in significant industry anthologies, and this was clearly a chance to rectify that.

The result is a perfect primer for those curious about alt-comics, or ready to branch out after reading a few of the big names. Some might complain that super-hero comics aren’t included here. Pekar addressed this by saying that he read plenty of them, but didn’t see any he felt were worth reprinting. That’s certainly the bias of Pekar as an editor, and that may change in the future with different guest editors. Still, even the best superhero stories (I might have included an issue of SLEEPER) are handicapped by being serialized, too long to easily reprint and often heavily laden by continuity. Personally, I thought that humor comics were given short shrift; not having Michael Kupperman in here is inexplicable. Pekar did say in his introduction that he didn’t want to claim that this as a definitive list of all the great comics in this period, just his crack at that concept.

There’s a nice balance between big names like Crumb, Shelton, Ware, Barry and Hernandez and younger artists as Carre, Hall and Watson. While most of the art isn’t aggressively experimental, there’s still a wide range of styles, ranging from the realism of a Sacco to the crude cartoonishness of Watson, Schanzer or Dangle. The fact that so many of the strips have a political point of view is something else that differentiates this book not only from MCSWEENEY’S but from a lot of art comics in general. It helps that these points are made by artists as visually distinctive as Tobocman and as sharp-witted as Dangle. Also, though there are a lot of autobiographical stories in the collection, none of them fall into the narcissistic trap that befalls so many cartoonists. Barry and Crumb’s pieces are especially sharp. I reviewed Reklaw’s story in an older article.

The other feature I enjoyed was Moore’s list of “100 Distinguished Comics from January 2004 to August 2005″, also known as “the comics that I liked that Pekar chose not to include”. The fact that this list contains work from humorists such as Kupperman and Sam Henderson, along with several contributions from KRAMER’S ERGOT, shows that future guest editors could help this book move in some unusual directions. As it stands, it’s perhaps not a bad thing that Pekar, who does some of the most accessible of indy comics, should put together an anthology that is quite accessible to the sophisticated reader not necessarily fluently conversant in the language of comics.

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Rob Clough fights cancer by day, and writes about comix, college basketball and funky music by night. He is the comics editor of Other magazine and is happy to have published many fine cartoonists. He used to write for Savant and just finished something for idea-bot. He is married to award-winning poet Laura Clough (formerly Jent), with whom he lives in lovely Durham, NC.

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