Review: The Best American Comics 2008


Harvest time. My favorite time of year, maybe because I’m not a farmer. It’s a time where we can kick back and enjoy the year’s bounty just before it rasps into frigid slumber. It’s also a great season for  reading. If I had a hearth, I’d be by it. To snuggle and to reflect. And to read. 

I’ve long been a fan of Houghton Mifflin’s Best American Series, which endeavors to present — through nine, annual anthologies — the very best writing published in North America throughout the year. Guest editors ranging from Stephen King to Anthony Bourdain and Dave Eggers (and some brilliant folks we’ve never heard of) select their favorite short stories, travel essays, and science and nature writing (among other things) to compile these volumes and deplete my bank account by about $100 annually. Historically, comics or excerpts from longer graphic novels often appeared in The Best American Nonrequired Reading along with prose and poetry, but in 2006 they began collecting full volumes of The Best American Comics in their own glorious hardbound editions. The third such edition arrived just last week.

Initially, it’s all a bit daunting. With no overarching theme to cement these stories into any kind of cohesive premise, it was difficult to approach this review. Unlike other anthologies such as the Flight series or Comic Book Tattoo, this Best American Comics collection really doesn’t offer anything in the way of harmony. There is no unifying style. Tone shifts dramatically from page to page. The dustcover says it all. Eleanor Davis (also a contributor) renders a nation of signs, song, and shouting. Our land of simultaneous stimuli, musicians and marksmen all clamoring for and against one another. America, both beautiful and cacophonous. This is our country, our state of affairs. And these are our ragtag comics. 

How was I to tackle this? How does any reader glean anything from this treasury of vital, yet hopelessly diverse comics? It had to be more than a random survey of distinct American voices. This is a time capsule and I knew that, somehow, these pieces all added up to some greater whole. But with such disparate stories held together by only glue and stitching and the affection of editor Lynda Barry, the picture of America as a melting pot felt a little false. Nothing was melting together. It was just a mixture of elements refusing to settle. Stew, not soup. 

And then I remembered.

Back in June of 2007, Wired contributor Clive Thompson wrote about Twitter. It’s a one page piece, but I’ve been revisiting it from time to time ever since. He argued that the then fledgling and misunderstood micro-blogging app really wasn’t as insubstantial as first gawk might suggest. A cursory survey of your Twitter feed won’t yield a life story. But Twitter does deliver something gradually, incrementally. We’re focused on the tiny building blocks which make up the feed. How could such inane details about a person’s everyday routine, or even the occasional pithy nugget of zen sequitur say anything about a human being? Thompson offers that revelations happen over time. These seemingly inconsequential thoughts, observations, and details add up to create a pretty full picture of your friend’s habits and personality. And not just one friend; it’s a community scale:

 

“Critics sneer at Twitter and [the location tracking web app] Dodgeball as hipster narcissism, but the real appeal of Twitter is almost the inverse of narcissism. It’s practically collectivist — you’re creating a shared understanding larger than yourself.


Eventually, patterns develop out of confusion. It’s a phenomenon called emergence. Think of it like Pointillism. Zoom in, and it’s all a scattered array of colored dots. Zoom out, and the patterns build. You’re in a park on a Sunday on the island of La Grande Jatte. Out of chaos, a symphony. And, really, isn’t web 2.0 and the culture we’ve built for ourselves, both socially and artistically, a new media Symphony for the Common Man? Take that idealistic concept of America as a land of opportunity and shuttle it to 2008. Many of the comics featured in this book are syndicated on the web and would have otherwise never made it to print. A vast majority are produced by a solitary writer/artist. This is the very definition of DIY expression, and it is the product of a modern culture. The story of the Best American Comics in 2008 isn’t simply in what these artists are saying. It’s how they’ve come to say it. It’s a communal testament to dedication and workmanship. The common theme is stubborn tenacity and the gall to say this thing exists because I wanted it to and I stayed up late to work on it so that I could share it with you. This book is a celebration of the fact that people toil away at creating beautiful, absurd, important things even though there’s no promise that such hard work will ever pay off, that such works will ever be seen. 

That’s what I saw emerge from these pages. I saw care and precision, but also reckless abandon. In John Mejias’ Teacher’s Edition, you see the frustrated scrawlings of an elementary school teacher trying to make sense out of a broken national education system. These tiny cartoons almost look like a child’s work at first glance. But these images so effectively speak up for the kids with no voice, and show just how childish bureaucracy can be. These comics, which I envision Meijas drawing on printer paper at recess, spoke volumes to me. There is an immediacy to these stories. Alternatively, Rick Geary’s work is painstakingly rigid, a true documentary comic. In his commentary on The Saga of the Bloody Benders, he explains his motivation as a need to rectify historical blunders. “As a former Kansan, I’d heard about the Benders for years,” he says, “but their story had become so encrusted by legend and misinformation that it cried out to be told in an authentic way.” Both of these stories and many others in the book serve to inform us of truths, of forgotten, shoved-aside things which the authors believe would benefit from our attention. These are small gestures, but this book ought to serve as an American grocery list, an inventory of our cares and concerns, our regrets and our hopes.

In this way, The Best American Comics often ventures into topics political. We are outraged and adamant, but we are also confused at times. Some cartoonists are also journalists. In an excerpt from War-Fix, David Axe and Steve Olexa even portray an embedded photo-journalist who ventures off to document the war, only to find his camera as voyeuristically damaging as a gun is physically destructive. Such moral ambiguity surfaces again in Eleanor Davis’ Seven Sacks, a parable about monsters and the responsibility of those who offer them passage. Comics alternate between fiction and non, and the subject matter ranges from the photo-real to the bizarrely abstract. I’m still trying to decipher Michael Kupperman’s Cousin Granpa, which involves an anamorphic sunflower and the Wolfman, but I took some consolation when I read Kupperman’s commentary in the back. He seems pretty unclear on the meaning as well. Stories like Cousin Granpa and Joseph Lambert’s Turtle, Keep it Steady! are decidedly frivolous, but they’re also undeniably beautiful. Lambert describes his entry as a revised school exercise. It’s a simple reinvention of the turtle and hare story as a battle of the bands. It’s a really charming comic and I was floored by the depiction of motion in dancing. Call these comics fancy free, but don’t call them pointless. Inspiration and perspiration do nothing to hurt the medium. These comics made me want to pick up a pencil and start sketching. More on that another day.

With all these ideas and viewpoints, America is bumping into itself. Still a stew and not a soup, we’re a conglomerate of people with varying (and often conflicting) creeds and backgrounds and traditions. It’s not just a portrait of this country or even this continent, but of this species. America is maybe the litmus test because it is so famously associated with the confluence of cultures. And our comics reflect that. Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese, (many of these comics are not technically from 2008) perhaps the most popular book excerpted in this collection, centers on the clash of cultures and our fickle inability to empathize. Chris Ware’s stellar cover designs for The New Yorker comment on generational divides and domestic dissonance through Thanksgiving and its traditions. We get along or we don’t. We’re together in this anyway.   

For as much as I wanted to escape that cliche of a buzzing, percolating, groaning cacophony of culture in the melting pot, it really is a constant reality. We’re often reluctant neighbors, but we can share in our small triumphs and we can share our burdens on the way. We have little ideas scrawled on napkins. We have pictures in our dreams and we want to liberate them. Even if nobody on this block or in this borough or in this sprawling metropolis or podunk town  seems to care. It’s passion and persistence in the shadows, and if that isn’t the American Dream than I don’t know what is. I, for one, am exceedingly grateful that for as destructive and detrimental to our tradition of communication as an online culture may seem to some, there are more and more opportunities for us to share the things we do. The things that mean most to us and the things which might otherwise go unnoticed. Because dreamers deserve for their dreams to be realized. Especially if they try against all reason to make it so.  Especially then.  

Series editors Jessica Abel and Matt Madden, and guest editor Lynda Barry have put a lot of love into this collection, and even if you don’t decide to buy it, I do urge you to visit it. Grab a copy off the shelf and just browse. You’ll find some things you like and probably some things you loathe. But you’ll find some things. And that’s the point.

 


Paul Montgomery lives and writes in America. Often in the dark. Sometimes with pants. You can find him at paul@ifanboy.com or on Twitter.

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Sometimes Paul’s writing is so beautiful and his points so brilliant that it almost scares me.

    Well done, sir. Well done.

  2. This was a great book. Loved the 2007 one, so I couldn’t wait for this to come out. 

    Great review as well. Took on a really big focus. Loved it. 

  3. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t know that Best American Comics exsisted  Leave it to Paul to throw something unepected into the stew, theM ystery Meat nobody expects, but most enjoy. Thanks for the review.

    The only  thing i’m worred about is that the styles maybe a little confusing from page to page. But hell, great art requires the audeince to strian, right?

  4. Never have I read a more perfect review.

    I can add nothing more that wouldn’t ruin this review of your review. Wait…too late. 

    Seriously, great job!

  5. Paul, I hope you don’t take it the wrong way when this article fails to elicit 456 responses in the comment section. It’s not because we don’t like your review. It’s because we’re speechless.

    Bravo.

    Wonderful review. And I like the way you worked in Twitter and Web 2.0. Nice. (That’s a Monteforte "nice", btw.)

     

     

     

  6. Top marks my friend bravo! This review kick some ass and took some names. namely mine does this mean i have to make sandwiches and your biding for the rest of my life? Will i ever get my name/soul back? 

  7. Your Internet metaphor is really terrific — and appropriate, given how much comics activity happens on the web.

    I have the ‘best american comics’ anthology from last year or 2006; somebody got it as a freebie and passed it on to me, and I havent’ really cracked it because I think I didn’t know how to approach it, how to get my mind around it.  I have that issue with anthologies, sometimes, not knowing how to take them as a whole.  Thinking about this article is really going to help with that.  Bravo!

  8. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    @ohcaroline – In her introduction (composed as a comic in itself!), the editor suggests picking up the book and reading a story or two, putting it down and coming back to it.  Just pop it open and select a story at random and enjoy it on its own terms.  I found the unifying force that I stubbornly decided I needed, but that doesn’t mean there has to be one.  We’re so hung up on making connections that it sometimes gets in the way of enjoying the parts that make up the jumbled whole.  Don’t worry about finding that essential kernel right away.  Just let yourself enjoy the pretty pictures first.  

    Thanks for the kind words, everybody!  It really does mean a lot.     

  9. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    As an interesting sidenote, Paul Pope’s Batman: Year 100 was supposed to appear in this collection, but according to the introduction, DC decided to pull it at the last possible minute. It would have been the only traditional superhero comic included in the collection.  The pull of this series is really independent comics, but I hope innovators from the weekly stacks like Hickman might make it into future installments. 

  10. Heh, I totally lied.   What I have is the book-sized, all-comics issue of McSweeney’s.  This also looks cool.  However, I’ve never picked up one of the ‘Best American’ collections because I thought I already had it.

    *makes a note*

    Again, thanks for the thoughtful review.

  11. this is a great series of books – glad to see it get some time here on the site. really worth spending some time with, as you can find some wonderful talent here.

  12. Paul write many words…take me long time read. Good stuff!!

  13. About a year ago, we had one of the volumes in this series challenged at the library where I work. I can’t recall if it was the 2008 or 2007 edition. In either case, a child had picked it up from the adult section where it was properly shelved. A parent, not bothering to look at the book longer than to read it said "comics," checked it out for the child. Of course, the parent, once it became clear what he or she had checked out for the child, became angry at the library for housing said volume in the library. After all, anything that said "comics" was meant for children. A request was made for the book to be striped from the library shelves and never bought again.

    No matter what the reason, a library takes a book challenge very seriously. The graphic novel selection committee. of which I am a part, read the work and found it to be consistent with the goals and policy of the library and that it needed to stay where it always had been: properly shelved in the adult collection. And there it currently stays.

    My point? I only wish I had read this review by Paul before I had to write up my thoughts on the book. It would have been so much easier to just quote him than try to string together my own words on how I felt about this book. Paul nailed it.

    Oh, and AMERICAN BORN CHINESE is a great book too. Seriously, go pick that one up if you haven’t read it yet. 

  14. Thanks for pointing this out, Paul, and this is also a very nicely written review.

    I’ve put it on my library hold list, and I’m going get some of the previous years too.

    @JeffR, thanks for doing what you do too.  Years ago I use to volunteer at the public library in my home town (one year worked in Reference, and then another two in A/V and childrens), and it really takes a good calm but strong temperment to deal with some people.  Thanks for doing it, JeffR!