It's time again this year. As regularly as the summer sun turns to the autumn rains (at least here in Seattle) and the kids return to school, so too does the annual volume of The Best American Comics hit Amazon.com and your local bookstore.
It's perfect timing because there's a kind of synchronicity to the schedule. Every year this book is one of the profound highlights of my autumn, a good reason to forgive our ever-present rain that makes my grass so green and regrows that moss on my driveway. It gives me a nice weekend day inside, meditating on the beauty of comics while the pounding rain bangs dissonantly on the windows around me. It's inevitable and it's wonderful and it fills me with a kind of euphoria.
Every year this book is curated by a world-class American cartoonist- one year Charles Burns, another Alison Bechdel, this year the incomparable Jeff Smith – and every year that smart curator delivers a wonderfully fat collection of the acclaimed pantheon and the absurdly obscure, of cartoonists who publish through the Big Five "real" book publishers and cartoonists who publish through their own laser printer, folded and traded at zine cons. It's always an eye-opening experience reading this book, like opening the door to the TARDIS and seeing a nearly infinite panoply of experiences awaiting.
The thing is, comics are better now than they ever have been. Every year doesn't just bring greater acceptance of the comics artform – and really, what do we care if mainstream people read graphic novels these days as long as we get the chance to read them, right? – it also brings more and more compelling work, more thoughtful creators delivering wonderfully idiosyncratic work that reflects a view of the world that is thoroughly and completely theirs. The world of comics – or graphic novels, sequential art, ninth art, whatever the hell you want to call it – just gets richer and more profoundly wonderful for readers, seeming to grow and improve on a geometric level every year.
In his wonderful introduction, Smith calls this The Age of the Cartoonist. When he says "there are no rules and boundaries other than imagination and skill", he's only confirming a principle that I believe and that I hope we follow as an important guideline here on Comics Bulletin: the real genius of the comic book artform comes from the nearly infinite possibilities of the medium, by the low cost of entry and the completely visceral reaction that readers have to comic art.
Comics are magic. Comics are an absurdly powerful, shockingly simple communication machine that can break through all of our boundaries and deliver something powerful, something thoughtful, something intellectual and graceful and deeply, deeply special that readers can just grok in a way that's both extremely simple and profoundly complex.
So when Smith presents the breathtaking diversity of material in this generous book, with important cartoonists like Brandon Graham, Craig Thompson, Faith Erin Hicks, Terry Moore and Paul Pope sitting alongside the undeservedly obscure Sam Alden, Laura Park, Malachi Ward and Jesse Jacobs, it cuts through a perceived pecking order in order to show the profound diversity of this most forgiving of all arts.
I had the most amazing experience reading this book that's akin to listening to a collection like Bob Dylan's "Biograph" or "Bootleg Collections" after listening to some of his solo material. There was a feeling of comfort and extra appreciation for my favorite works by seeing them next to other great works – a feeling of great material next to its peers that allows me to metaphorically understand the complexity of Dylan's guitar playing or the infinite ways that an artist can show a preternatural dexterity with their tools.
I was tempted to compare reading this book with going to an art gallery, but the material in The Best American Comics is anything but stuffy. If anything, Smith's selection is profane and salacious, with copious bared breasts, an abundance of adult language, and the realistic discussion of mature themes. That material isn't included to titillate or arouse; rather it's there to illustrate the human condition in all of its complexity and hilarious strangeness. That's part of the boundless complexity of human life, and comics can encompass that complexity like no other artform.
If it seems like I'm talking around describing the contents of this book, well, I am. I want to tell you to pick up this book (and for good matter pick up previous years' editions of this book too – they can often be found on remainder tables these days) because it's the perfect book to pick up to restore your faith in comics or help show infinite diversity in infinite combinations on display on paper using the world's greatest artform. My dear friend Keith Silva recently published his own dissertation on why he loves this amazing artform; I offer this essay and this astonishing collection of comic art as an illustration of why Silva is right in his love for the form and wrong in his worry about some readers not appreciating some of the greatest comic art that's out there.
Frankly, it doesn't matter what we think or what the buzz is like on the internet. More and more creators are going to keep creating more and more mindblowing comic art as time goes on. The amount of brilliant material keeps increasing geometrically each year, and every indication is that the pure sheer number of astonishing comics will only keep increasing as time goes on. You can jump on the bandwagon or you can keep reading the stuff that you love. It's all good. The artists don't care. They'll keep creating their art for themselves.
It's the Age of the Cartoonist, don'tcha know?