Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 329 pp.; $ 23; Color and B&W; Hardcover; ISBN: 9780547241777
While the premise of The Best American Comics series is clear, its realization has always faced formidable practical obstacles. The annual hardcover from the high-profile publisher was designed from its inception to entice a wider, booky audience. An immediate complication was that newcomers might need some remedial help with the medium, an introduction to its conventions or generally be brought up to speed rapidly on the state of its art (nowhere is this made more explicit than in this yearâs introduction by series editors Jessica Abel and Matt Madden where, in the first sentence of their foreword, they describe âpamphlet comicsâ as âwhat we in the biz call what you probably think of as âcomic booksââ).
That wider audience might also be largely unfamiliar with the annually chosen guest editors, comics creators who would need no introduction to medium habituÃ©s (prior to this volume, they were Harvey Pekar, Chris Ware, Lynda Barry and Charles Burns). Editors were encouraged to make their selections according to quality and what tickled their fancy, with less attention to concrete attributes as format, scope or size of the original comics and presumably even less concern with how varied material would be subsequently assembled into a single volume.
Note that so far this has nothing to do with taste, sensitivity or preferences of editors (nor with the unfortunate necessities of lag time inherent in print publishing: The Best â¦ 2010 culls work from September `08 through August `09). Actually, personalized assessment made for one of the livelier features of the series and up until this year, particularized sensibilities had never proven to be a drawback. Idiosyncratic choices were often annual highlights. Still, accomplished creators arenât necessarily skilled editors, which helps to account for why the annual whole was never greater than the sum of its parts and why no Best American was the standout anthology of its calendar year.
This current edition, which unquestionably includes some absolutely superlative comics, is the least adventurous, most ungainly, most circumscribed and least surprising assortment ever, so much so that itâs worth considering whether anybody reading here at the Journal site would find it, on balance, of value.
Well, if you keep up with such publications as Bookforum, Taddle Creek and Reason and the on-line site Metropolis, if youâre familiar with Michael Cho, David Lapp, Fred Chao and Theo Ellsworth, if you keep abreast of more cutting-edge compilations such as Kramerâs Ergot, Mome and World War III and if you arenât an obsessive Chris Ware completist, well no, itâs probably not for you.
Alternatively, if youâve read Mazzucchelliâs Asterios Polyp, Crumbâs The Book of Genesis, Wareâs Acme Novelty Library #19 and Tylerâs masterpiece Youâll Never Know, Book One, itâs probably not for you either, as portions of these books have been included to the tune of either 12 or 19 pages each. Add segments from Josh Neufeldâs A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge (at 27 pages), the whole of Chaoâs âLobster Runâ from Johnny Hiro (30 pp.) and what looks like an entire issue of Marvelâs Omega the Unknown by Jonathan Lethem, Farel Dalrymple and Gary Panter (24 pp.) and you have eaten up almost half the book, with large chunks of the Gilbert and Mario Hernandezâs Citizen Rex, Jonathan Ames and Dean Haspielâs The Alcoholic and Lilli Carreâs The Lagoon yet to go.
Given that roster this obviously is less a question of quality than of allocation of resources. (But OK, as for quality, at this point is anything gained by a 10-page segment involving Bryan Lee OâMalleyâs character Scott Pilgrim that, out of context, is hopelessly confusing and that, enlarged to this extent, is more grandly insubstantial?)
The book feels bloated. By inevitable comparison, the two-page pieces from Peter Kuper and Laura Weinstein feel pared and lean, compressed, urgent and vital; as artistic expressions complete in themselves, they are proportioned and buff relative to the far longer, carved-out and ponderously dangling bits. Prior volumes had the occasional blank and spacing page to make sure certain stories began on the proper side of the book; here there are multiple sheets to decorate and set stage and signify gravitas, mostly to diminishing effect. In years past, the concluding lists of other Notable Comics, as compiled by Abel and Madden, have seemed supplemental and superfluous. In this yearâs sampler of superstars, Hall of Famers, big books and best sellers (all relatively speaking, of course), their addendum feels like an exotic tease, a menu of extras and exciting come-ons addressing the more catholic tastes and wider interests of more intrepid readers.
Which brings us to worse: As a package, this edition comes across as far too satisfied with itself, its lack of vision and lack of ambition. A handsome portrait of this yearâs editor, Neil Gaiman, appears on the back cover. (Where was Harvey Pekarâs mug on the inaugural release?) Flattering as it is, itâs hard not to think of it as an idealization, a completely realized do-over of the face of the comic geek.Â As such, it appears as a one-shot rehabbing of the image of comic fans so grievously wounded by Drew Friedman on the front of The Best American Comics Criticism of the 21st Century. Gaimanâs pleasing visage contrasts to his description of himself in his Introduction, as having âbags under his eyes â¦ the little potbelly â¦ the haunted expressionâ of a man who â we are free to infer â has physically sacrificed himself for the good of funnies.
Abel and Madden allow âitâs clear where Neil is coming from: the stories and excerpts are longer than in the preceding volumes, and that they are focused on the narrative,â which is fine as far as it goes but the trouble is it isnât very. His 25 selections are the fewest ever. As for the excerpting, Gaiman was hoping to feature portions that âwould interest, intrigue, or irritate you enough that they would perhaps send you out to buy the whole [original version].â Inciting emotion and moving folks to action is a tricky business; more likely you will â if you follow the biz at all â glance at your bookshelf and, seeing the originals there, wonder who might benefit from a regifting of this potpourri.
Toward the end of that facile Introduction, one that dabbles in a faux-pamphlet comic-scripting format for the rubes, Gaiman suggests a âreal titleâ for the volume as âA Sampler: Some Really Good Comics, Including Extracts from Longer Stories We Thought Could Stand on Their Ownâ and, as such, finds âItâs not half bad.â The Best American Comics this year, every year, any year, needs to be better than that.