(Editor’s note: This is a long discussion about the most recent volume of Best American Comics. I mean, it’s really long. Esteemed gentlemen Mr. Elkin and Mr. Sacks gave me permission to edit it down, but I realized that the discussion of the process of discussing the process of this collection [I’m sorry, I’ve been writing about Grant Morrison’s work a lot lately] is at the heart of the piece. If you decide to tackle the entire thing, I hope you agree.)
THE BEST AMERICAN COMICS 2015
Daniel Elkin: It’s been said that comics will break your heart. It has also been said that there are comics that can show you your heart. It’s true. You just need to find them.
There are books out there that not just intellectual properties retold by work-for-hire contract employees, but are of the artist — intimate, personal, visceral, viscerous — even if they are imagined or dreamed or reported.
During her acceptance speech when How To Be Happy won the Outstanding Anthology or Collection Ignatz Award at this year’s SPX, Eleanor Davis poignantly pointed out that what separates these small press published “stacks of shitty little stapled xeroxed things” from corporate comics is best summed up by the phrase, “This is me.” Davis rightly claims that the comics you find at gatherings like Small Press Expo or Comics Arts Brooklyn or Short Run or Autoptic “have our whole selves inside.”
These are books about connections. They serve as a coupling between the artist and the audience. You experience them as much as you read them. When these books strike a chord, it resonates basso profondo. The “me” in “This is me” becomes you, together with the creator, and you dance and cry and laugh and shudder concurrently and concomitantly. Someone else’s vision of experience floods your eyes in that moment of understanding and, unfettered, you feel part of a community.
“This is me.” I am in these pages too. As Davis said at the end of her speech, “We say, ‘I see you inside here’ and we say, ‘Thank you’ and we say, ‘I hope you make more.’”
The Best American Comics series has been going strong now for ten years. The beauty of the anthology is that it celebrates this experience, this connection, these types of comics. In the Foreword to The Best American Comics 2015, series editor Bill Kartalopoulos writes, “To expect comics to function merely as colorful, illustrated cousins of conventional narrative fiction is a profound and wasteful act of self-denial.” These are the comics that show us our hearts.
So many “reviews’ of these types of anthologies focus on process. What is in and, more often than not, what was left out. I guess that is a problem inherent in calling something “The Best”. Also, much is made of configuration and organization. Last year there was article after article talking about guest editor Scott McCloud’s idea of taxonomic chapters, just as there are bound to be an onslaught of persnickity sticklers who get caught up in the organization that this year’s editor Jonathan Lethem brings to the book. But regardless of your thoughts on what’s out, what’s in, and how it is presented, this is a book that celebrates these comics. It puts them in a fitting format in the context they deserve, and it opens up closed spaces and gives us back our heart, championing all that is beautiful and possible in comics today.
But course, everyone has their favorites. It’s almost personally validating to see artists I have been talking about for awhile like Josh Bayer (“Theth”), Julia Gfrorer (“Palm Ash”), Alabaster (“Mimi and the Wolves”), Gina Wynbrandt (“Someone Please Have Sex With Me”), Jesse Jacobs (“Pockets of Temporal Disruptions”), and Blaise Larmee (“Comets Comets”) included in the list. Of course it would have been nice to have seen Sam Alden, Elijah Brubaker, Renee French, Aidan Koch, Roman Muradov, Conor Stechschulte, Malachi Ward, and more of my favorite artists be moved from “Notable Comics” to the forefront of the book. And yes, I scratched my head a little when I noticed that creators like Theo Ellsworth, Derek Van Gieson, Sean Ford, Jamie Vayda, Noah Van Sciver, and Leslie Stein were seemingly overlooked entirely by the collection, but this is all spilled milk on the kitchen linoleum and I’m really only writing all this to massage my own ego, as well as to apparently undermine my statements one paragraph earlier.
What is important is that the experience of reading The Best American Comics 2015 is participatory. The audience engages actively in their response to these works. It is not the passive entertainment of reading the endless serialized exploits of garishly garmented exemplars of public morality punching villains in the taint. Rather these comics demand the audience’s partnership as much as they demonstrate respect for and trust in their readership. As they emerge from personal perspective, oftentimes they require consideration and empathy to grok. Because of this, immersion in this world, perhaps, makes people just a little bit better for having done so. The more people are exposed to other voices, the more they realize that we are all, ultimately, singing the same song into the darkness: Know me for who I am because when you strip everything away, I am just like you.
By working in the intersection between words and pictures, these “deep cuts” and “termite” comics (as Lethem calls them in his introduction), force the brain to operate in a more personal and affecting way. It is inviolable.
It’s like what Kartalopoulos also says in his Foreword, “As a first principle, art is the ultimate safe space for the theoretical exploration of visual, ethical, formal, stylistic, expressive, psychological, narrative, ideological, and conceptual ideas, no matter how unorthodox.” These comics are that safe space. They are art. And as we read them, we create along with them.
What is best in The Best American Comics 2015 is the work itself. Possibility realized, truth examined, ideas unfettered, hearts beating — these are the comics that we should be talking about all the time.
Kyle Garret: I’m not going to attempt to follow-up the wonderful, positive sentiments that Mr. Elkin laid out above. I would only water down what he’s said and would fail to do so as eloquently. So I’m going to touch upon something he said that I think is more important than he acknowledges.
Yes, too many reviews of something called “Best American Comics” focus on the process, but that doesn’t mean the process doesn’t play a crucial part in the discussion. Less important, but still a major factor, is the fact that Best American makes its selections based upon open submissions. In other words, this isn’t so much a book of best American comics as it is a book of the best American comics that were chosen from comics submitted to the editors.
That’s an important distinction to make, not because I really, really miss Batman, but because Daniel listed a number of talented, deserving creators whose work could easily appear in this book, but for all we know the editors never saw any of it.
But this is how it works. There’s no real way around this. That’s why, while it’s a major factor, it’s ultimately not a problem. It is what it is.
The major process factor here is the choice of guest editor, and to fully explain that I’m going to have to go on a slight digression.
Most of these comics are probably considered “small press” comics, but back in the 90s I mostly heard them referred to as “alternative.” Unlike the music at the time, they were legitimately an alternative to something, never overtaking the mainstream (even when Daniel Clowes and Charles Burns drew soda cans). I knew they were black and white and I knew they were published by companies I’d never heard of, but that they could be grouped together by the size of their publisher was news to me.
I read “alternative” comics in the 90s, in part because I had been briefly driven away from comics by superheroes and still loved the medium. I was also in college in the 90s. I studied creative writing, something I’d done my entire life but had become more focused on in high school. I even went to graduate school for it. This is relevant, I promise.
When it came to the actual act of creating stories, the focus in college was short stories. We never talked about the process for writing a novel or even a non-fiction book. It was all short stories, all the time. In some ways, short stories were considered the last bastion of “real” writing; novel had been compromised by hacks and sellouts. Short stories were where true artists created.
As I read “alternative” comics, I began to notice something: an awful lot of them could have been short stories. In fact, an awful lot of them should have been short stories. The art was often so unrefined that it took away from the words. And since I was focused on words, I often missed the added dimension that came with that art, even if it looked like it had been drawn by an 8th grader.
But these comics felt like short stories and I was already reading an awful lot of short stories, so why did I need to read these comics?
And that particular point of view has colored my perception of small press comics for two decades now.
This isn’t to say there weren’t exceptions. Strangers in Paradise, Stray Bullets, and Bone were all small press comics and they were unlike anything I’d read in any creative writing class. But by and large I gave up on the personal, slice of life comics that were so prevalent in the “alternative” section of any comic book store (assuming such a section even existed).
Which brings me back to this year’s edition of Best American Comics. Jonathan Lethem is a writer and he has written comic books, but it is clear to me from his selections that he is viewing these works through the same type of lens that I do. His criteria is far different than Scott McCloud’s was last year, even if he borrows the taxonomy structure (which I really like, for what it’s worth). There are a number of contributions in here that really push the definition of what a comic is either to or past its breaking point, just as there are a few stories in here that could and probably should have been short stories.
The selection process for Best American might limit what’s in the running for this book, but it’s the guest editors who frame it, and Lethem’s influence is clear throughout.
Jason Sacks: Gentlemen, it’s always a pleasure writing with you and this essay is no exception. You’re both putting your (typing) fingers on many of the points I wrote about in my euphoric essay about last year’s Best American Comics.
You guys both talk a bit about a topic that jumps out at me as I look over this book. Though it purports to be an anthology of great comics, Best American has an agenda. It doesn’t present the best of all comics. It presents the best of the artcomics/self-published comics crowd. There’s nothing in here from any of the publishers who take up the front section of Previews, no stories from some of the more idiosyncratic series published by the likes of BOOM or Image Comics, let alone Marvel and DC. And while that’s long been a tradition in this series, it feels like a gap to me. It’s a flaw. And it serves to make the idea of a Best American Comics volume feel just a bit myopic.
In last year’s volume, editor McCloud included an excerpt from Saga alongside work by R. Crumb and Ed Piskor, and it fit perfectly. The segment from that hit series was a lovely, heartbreaking moment that was as powerful and thoughtfully created as anything else in the collection. It deserved to be considered one of the year’s best. And considering the quality of material that came out in the previous years, I’m shocked that there’s almost nothing from publishers that are household words for most comic readers.
Let me step back a minute and say that I adore independent comics. Daniel and I wrote a column together for two or three years that covered indy and self-published comics. I love the work of Dash Shaw and Box Brown, Noah Van Sciver and Derek Von Giesen and many other alternative cartoonists. I have subscriptions that allow me to receive everything published by 2D Cloud and by Retrofit. Alt comics shake me up and force me to think about my world in ways that other comics do not.
But it doesn’t mitigate against quality, against the idea that “this is me.” This past year has brought us many “this is me” comics from color publishers, from the gritty Omega Men to the delightful Giant Days to the deeply moving We Can’t Go Home Again. In fact, the history of the artform argues for there being no boundary between commercial comics and comics that push the medium together. Creators like Eisner, Barks, Kirby and Gerber worked within commercial constraints to create some of the most transcendent comic art ever. Some of the medium-shaking comics have been published by mainstream publishers with mainstream creators, and they should not be neglected.
I’d submit to you that an anthology that contains multiple submissions from Koyama Press and none from BOOM, IDW or even DC shows a view of comics that is as shallow as the viewpoint that only embraces super-heroes.
Kyle and Daniel, am I a comics luddite or am I onto something?
Garret: I’m going to upend our rotation here (do we have one?) to step in and reply to this since Daniel is being a masochist and watching our beloved Cleveland Browns come as close as possible to victory only to snatch defeat.
If you’re a comics luddite, Sacks, then we’re all in trouble.
I also completely agree with you, although I also don’t think it matters.
Everything Daniel said to open this with regards to creator owned work is on the money. If you’re looking for real emotion, for real truth, you’re generally not going to find it in corporately owned comics. I don’t think it’s necessarily a conscious decision (although I think it’s become that way in recent years) for creators to “save” their heartfelt work for themselves. I think creators who work on corporately owned books are given a specific set of tools and are forced to make something from those tools, which inherently limits what they’ll produce.
That’s not to say there isn’t talent there. Making something out of virtually nothing is impressive.
But these days a full ⅓ of the comics market is made up of publishers who aren’t DC or Marvel (yes, I realize how sad it is to be thrilled about 33.333%). There are so many creator owned books being produced these days that it truly is a golden age of comics. And yet for some reason so many of those titles are being overlooked by Best American, seemingly because they’re from publishers who care about things like market share.
It’s an unfortunate oversight, like Jason said.
It also doesn’t matter.
I will again turn to person experience for this. As I implied above, I don’t read a great deal of small press comics. I read fewer than either Jason or Daniel, that’s for sure. When I volunteered to review last year’s volume of Best American with Jason, I was completely out of my depth, but that was the point. I wanted to be out of my depth. I want to be tossed into the deep end of an entire sub-category of comics that I knew very little about.
Even after last year, I still don’t know much about small press comics, but the beauty of these collections is that I don’t need to. I don’t have to sift through solicitations and reviews to try to figure out if something is any good or appealing. I can leave that up to the guest editor and just go along for the ride. I will never like everything selected, but I’ll enjoy a lot, and I’ll be better off for having read all of it.
And this is why it doesn’t necessarily matter that Best American appears to shun what they must consider “mainstream” creator owned work. These small press comics need a venue to gain a larger audience and this is it. Yes, this is clearly not a collection of the best American comics of last year, but that title is going to get people to order or pick up this book; it’s going to put butts in the seats, as they saying goes.
So while I think it’s unfortunate that such a collection is lacking in so many ways, I’m willing to allow for it for the greater good.
Now I’m going to put together my own version, full of nothing but superheroes, and make Daniel read it.
Elkin: And I’d read it too, Kyle, if only to see what constitutes The Best Corporate Comics According To Kyle. You’d probably have to do all sorts of deals, sign all sorts of contracts, and donate all sorts of organs and fluids in order to reprint them, though.
Which, I think, gets to the point. When Kyle wrote above that Best American seems to overlook works from publishers “who care about things like market share” I think he may have offered more of an answer to your luddite question then he meant to, Sacks.
Perhaps the reason that there is a lack of representation from BOOM!, IDW, Image, or even DC comics is that there is market share and profit to be thought of first and foremost. There is money behind these entities, money tied up in intellectual property, and where there is money, there are contracts. Where there are contracts, there are lawyers. The more money, the more lawyers. I can only imagine that Best American just doesn’t have the resources or the time or the lawyers to deal with all that shit, most of which has little to do with the art of the work being produced at all.
Not to say that the artists whose work are included in this anthology don’t have a profit motive, aren’t interested in money, or wouldn’t like to be compensated for their efforts. Of course they would. But the world in which they work is not at the whim of a top-down structure; there are other sorts of investments and investors at play. There is a greater sense that the artists featured in Best American control their work more than others. They are also more responsible for promotion, sales, distribution, etc… There is no larger, crisp-linen marketing team pushing these comics into the institutional hopper of web sites masking press releases as critical reviews. There are no editorial teams mouth-foaming with the exploding heads of super events tied into films in order to sell sippy cups and plushies. The comics in Best American remain a niche within a niche within a niche.
It’s where you find the best sandwiches.
So good on Best American for using a term like “best” to gather these comics under, because, fuck yeah, it’s entirely subjective and idiosyncratic and personal and quirky. Still, it’s someone’s (Lethem’s) assertion of “best,” and if it is the best for that person, then maybe it could be best for you. Regardless of the superlative, though, how many of these works would you have read if it hadn’t come under the title of “best” anyway, operating as they do in their tiny world to begin with.
Is that a flaw? Is that shallow? Yes. No. Does it matter? Corporate comics get the lion’s share of the attention and the audience and the money (and the lawyers). These guys get a once a year nod between hardcover bookends that their work is valid, that it’s appreciated, that it has value.
Everybody draws lines in the sand sometimes. But eventually the wind blows them all away.
What I’d rather talk about is what Kyle pointed to when he wrote that “there are a number of contributions in here that really push the definition of what a comic is either to or past its breaking point….” Maybe this is what makes these comics “best”. The clear cut idea that comics have to follow certain guidelines in order to be called comics is being called into question more so than ever. Have you seen the stuff that 2dCloud or InkBrick are putting out? Does that stuff fit into the working definition of comics that Scott McCloud derived in Understanding Comics, “Comics are juxtaposed pictorial and other images in a deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer”?
The Best American Comics 2015 is suffused with these pieces that seem to teeter off the grid into something new, something unique, something beautiful. And it is precisely BECAUSE they are individual expressions free from corporate oversight that they are able to experiment with form, tinker with idea, and burn the tea-candle down to that little metal circle at the bottom.
And this is good for comics — ALL comics. Because what is beautiful and pure and true becomes part of the zeitgeist. Sometimes these oddball comic creators are asked to play in the corporate pool. When they do, the medium is pushed forward. Sometimes the corporate muckety-mucks notice some sort of buzz happening in the small press world (they may even own a copy of The Best American Comics) and they task their people to start making things in that “Box Brown style” or something that captures the excitement of a Michel Fiffe book.
Everything becomes monetized in the end. Everything new is eventually turned to plastic in some child labor factory in Shenzhen. But when it is new, when it is raw, when it is exciting, THEN it has power. That’s what makes it “best”.
So say what you will about “flaws” and “shallowness” when it comes to the comic choices in The Best American Comics 2015. But I’d rather you be quiet for just a moment and really look at the work contained in this volume. If you don’t connect to at least one of the comics, if you don’t nod your head in agreement at some point, if you don’t find yourself somewhere in these pages, then I worry for you.
While we all may not agree that these are the “best” of all American comics produced in this time period, you have to admit that they are all full of heart.
“I see you inside here. Thank you. I hope you make more.”
Sacks: I’m not going to continue beating this metaphorical dead horse, especially since I’m the one who likes to pontificate ad nauseum about the fact that part of the genius of comics lies in their near-infinite malleability. Comics can be anything, and can deliver stories in nearly any possible way, and if some of the stories in this collection blow away McCloud’s definition of comics, then I’m positive that he would nod his head and agree that comics are fucking brilliant and that you can do anything in them.
Not to go too far off on a tangent, but I’m going to disagree with you, Daniel, with your statement that “when it is new, when it is raw, when it is exciting, THEN it has power.” A statement like that (and the blanket cynical assertion directly above — which I know disagree with — that everything becomes monetized in the end) denies the idea of craft, of quality, and of experience. Taken to its implicit extreme, your comment is an explicit criticism of the work of Roz Chast, Jules Feiffer and Jim Woodring in these books. All three are creators who have done brilliant work over the years. The material by them presented in this book represents the product of a lifetime of craft-building and of thoughtful production, sometimes for financial gain and sometimes for personal passion. All three pieces are wonderful and well-presented, and in some ways are also well-rehearsed work by old pros.
Craft is not the enemy of quality. Craft is the enemy of amateurishness. For me, at least, a work by an accomplished cartoonist that uses a large amount of professional craft is often a more powerful experience than work by less skilled cartoonists. Bumperhead is a greater work due to the craft that Gilbert Hernandez brings to it. The Sculptor was a tough book to review in part because Scott McCloud’s level of craft was shown on every page of the book. Experience isn’t always a bad thing. I know that’s not what you’re saying here, but can you please elucidate what you do mean?
Elkin: Aw hell, Sacks, I thought I could just shit on the rug and run. You’re going to actually make me explain my motivations for doing so? Damn you.
I think the problem is that you seem to be confusing terms. Just because something is new, raw, and exciting doesn’t mean it’s amateurish. To say so would be foolish. Likewise, just because it’s new, doesn’t mean it is necessarily better (sorry Windows 10). And finally, just because an artist has mastered his or her craft doesn’t mean he or she can’t produce something pulsating with a personal heartbeat that threatens to overwhelm the world with its power.
Just because an artist has been painting or sculpting or choreographing or cooking or playing or singing for years doesn’t mean they no longer have anything to say. I mean, Jesus Christ, just listen to Johnny Cash’s American Recording series and you’ll get what I mean.
Rather, I’m saying that given the freedom to create, an artist does just that. An experienced artist probably has more tools at his or her disposal, perhaps, to theoretically explore all the boundaries of expression and ideas. All it takes is vision, talent, intent, and time.
So, while the likes of Gerber and Kirby were absolutely able to create “some of the most transcendent comic art ever” within the confines of the corporate structure as you suggested earlier, Sacks, I think we all know how that ended up for them both.
Now that I think about it, I’m not really shitting on anyone’s rug. I also ain’t denying the ideas of craft, of quality, or of experience at all, Sacks. I’m celebrating it and thanking it and asking it to do more.
Sacks: Maybe this is the segue we needed to move into discussion of the actual stories in this book rather than the meta about the book, but the thing that jumps out at me from this year’s Best American Comics versus last year’s version is an emphasis on youthful enthusiasm over experienced patience. Last year’s volume had work by youngsters like Sam Alden and Box Brown that shined with craft, and from oldsters like Tom Hart that sparkled with an experienced mastery of storytelling. It’s a dissonant experience, y’know?
Garret: Not to beat a dead horse (by beating that phrase), but I think this is a perfect example of the difference between McCloud and Lethem. I think McCloud, being something of an expert in the field of understanding comics (see what I did there?), was, I think, drawn more towards stories that reflected the art form as it exists. I think Lethem, who is at least a bit of an outsider, has no preconceptions.
I would liken it to studying something so closely that you are unable to see the big picture.
Funny enough, I found myself leaning more towards McCloud than Lethem, I suppose because I crave some kind of definition.
Look at the work by Raymond Pettibon. Are these comics? My gut says no, but given time I acquiesce. Even the descriptions suggest something further from a traditional comic book and closer to, as Lethem himself says, that you might hang on your walls. “Ink, acrylic, and collage on paper” isn’t exactly something you’d see in the credits of a comic book. I suppose it’s sequential story telling of a sort, but does that make it a comic? “No Title (As we can..)” seems made up of independent parts, yet features the most “comic book” looking art of Pettibon’s pieces. So where’s the line here? When the art collector in New York hangs this on his or her wall, is it a comic?
And yet compare it to the excerpt from Joe Sacco’s “The Great War,” which forgoes words all together, yet is a striking piece of serial storytelling. Perhaps it’s the linear nature of the work that fits the mold in my head. Perhaps that’s what’s tripping me up.
Then we go the other direction. Gabrielle Bell’s “The Colombia Diaries, Sept 14-16” is, to me, the classic example of what I mentioned earlier: this reads like a short story. So many of the panels are almost more words than art, and the art does nothing to enhance those words. And those words are wonderful. They don’t need the art. They work on their own. So why make it a comic? Where does that choice come from? And does it fall into such a select grouping as this when it’s not taking full advantage of the form?
But compare Bell’s piece to Andy Burkholder’s “Pretty Smart,” which also features nearly as much caption as art in each panel. The two, however, are inseparable, to the point where neither makes much sense on its own. They need each other to survive. Perhaps it’s that symbiosis that I’m looking for.
I thought that Julia Gfrorer’s “Palm Ash” and Matthew Thurber’s “Infomaniacs” were two of the best entries in this collection, but when I reconsider them, I can’t help but notice how traditional they are when it comes to form.
Time and again I come to the same questions: why is this a comic? Why is it in this form? Yes, it’s in this form because the creator decided as such, but what does it gain from being a comic? What is it doing in this art form that can’t be done in any other?
Elkin: Choices, Garret. It’s all about choices. You could ask the same questions of almost any art form. Is Throbbing Gristle a band? Is Metal Machine Music an album? Is Russell Edson a poet? Is Marina Abramovic an artist? We must trust the creator to create in the context/medium in which they feel is geared best to their vision.
Just because a person is unsure what to do with the photos of Andres Serrano doesn’t mean he’s not making the statement he wants to make, how he wants to make it.
I worry that by asking the question, “Is this comics?” you are instantly limiting possibilities. If the artist tells us this is a comic, then who are we to say otherwise?
Garret: Well, to paraphrase the great “Tommy Boy,” I could shit in a box and call it a novel, but that doesn’t make it a novel, even if I, as the creator of said shit in said box, deem it as such.
More to the point, if anything is comics, then nothing is comics.
I don’t necessarily think that we need an unmalleable definition for comics, but in defense of Scott McCloud’s life’s work, I think some kind of criteria is necessary, if for no other reason than to distinguish this art form from others.
For that matter, part of the challenge in this collection is seeing how that art form is being pushed in different directions, but you have to have a starting point, or else it doesn’t matter. Comics are unique and I think that deserves recognition. You can do things in comics that you can’t do in any other form and that matters. That’s why it’s so powerful.
I think asking the questions is enlightening.
Elkin: Indeed, as it helps clarify thinking even more.
Anyway, both you guys have been pestering me on Twitter to start talking about the actual comics within this anthology. If you look waaaaaaaaaayyyyyyy back to the 8th paragraph of this extended piece, you’ll see I already did that. But to the list of Josh Bayer, Julia Gfrorer, Alabaster, Jesse Jacobs, Gina Wynbrandt, and Blaise Larmee — I also have to add the aforementioned Eleanor Davis, as well as Erik Nebel’s “Behold the Sexy Man”, as it is playful, as it is powerful.
One of my absolute favorite comics in the anthology, though, is Rosaire Appel’s “Briefly Before Dawn”. This two page wordless comic consists of 68 static panels that perfectly convey motion, depth, and warmth. You know that moment that she is capturing, you’ve been there emotionally as well as physically. It is your story as much as it is Appel’s.
In the Contributors Notes, Appel says “The structure is rational; the narrative can only be approached subliminally.” This completely encapsulates all of the ranting I had been doing above. I see this artist in these panels. I see that this artist has seen me too.
“Briefly Before Dawn”, for me, is what is best in comics. It trusts me as much as I trust it. Together we make meaning. Together we make art.
Sacks: I’ve written a lot of comics criticism in my life. A lot. So much so that my family and friends sometimes think I’m crazy with all the writing I do about comics. But I can’t stop myself. I love this art form, and writing about it makes me understand the art form better. To steal a cliché I despise. I’m straight but not narrow when it comes to comics. I love innovation and creativity, but I also sometimes get lost in more experimental works. I’m more McCloud than Lethem.
My favorite pieces I write are the ones I call the “anatomy” pieces, the ones that take apart a comic story and help to figure out what makes a page or sequence successful. I wrote a long series about the 1980s comic Thriller (now collected and available as an eBook on Amazon) that does just that, and many of my Classic Comics Cavalcade columns are all about what makes a comic succeed or fail.
To be able to write an article like that, I need to have a strong and well-formed set of critical faculties, a set of theories that I support in my essays, and some articles and books that I can use as examples of that sort of writing. In fact, I grew up reading that level of criticism in The Comics Journal. Writers like Gene Philips, Carter Scholz and the sublime R. Fiore helped explain to me why creators like Miller, Eisner and Kurtzman were geniuses by explaining to me why their decisions illuminated their storytelling. There’s an explanation of Frank Miller’s fencepost panels and their ability to show time as slivers that sticks in my mind even now.
I had trouble with “Briefly, Before Dawn.” I could see the artist in the piece, see an implied complexity in Rosaire Appel’s nearly abstract use of panels and nearly subliminal story. Appel doesn’t trust the reader in this piece as much as she presents her work and expects the reader to make what they will from it. But Appel’s piece also makes no concessions. If you don’t get it, if you don’t fall into the rhythm and energy of the piece, it doesn’t trigger anything other than distant appreciation. That’s how I felt about it, anyway.
This is a long way of coming around to the thoughts that you both discuss above. It probably won’t surprise you, then, that my favorite piece in the book was Julia Gfrörer’s “Palm Ash”. The storytelling in this story is clear and thoughtfully considered, with an approach that emphasizes the narrative without directly calling attention to itself. The art is in service of the parable or horror that Gfrörer presents, a painfully sincere piece with the feel of a riddle about Christian charity, pain and sacrifice. Everything from the slightly shaky panel borders to the distancing bloody violence of the piece leads the reader to a sense of profound dislocation and confusion, an existential horror made more effective by her mastery of the comics page. There is a lot of Gfrörer in this piece, as there is a lot of me in the story as well. “Palm Ash” calls me into dialogue with it and I come out of it changed.
I suppose that’s not very different from what Daniel says above, is it?
Garret: My favorite stories came down to the two things that most comics I enjoy have at least one of: emotional resonance and/or nostalgia. Anders Nilsen’s “Prometheus,” Eleanor Davis’ “No Tears, No Sorrow,” and Anya Ulinich’s “My Year of Unreasonable Grief” all hit upon the former in their own way. Ed Piskor’s “Hip Hop Family Tree,” Cole Closser’s “Little Tommy Lost,” A. Degen’s “Crime Chime Noir,” and Anya Davidson’s “No Class” all hit the latter.
And for whatever reason, I found I enjoyed the second half of the book more than the first, but that could entirely be my mainstream comics brain adjusting itself to the language of small press comics. I mean, the lettering alone…
Not to open a can of worms as we’re winding down, but I feel like we’ve neglected the elephant in the room, one that we barely grazed a while back: the sections. More specifically, the fact that there’s a section called “Raging Her-Moans,” dedicated strictly to female creators.
I found the entire thing unfortunate, particularly at a time when diversity and inclusiveness in comics has never been more prominent. Lethem even admits that he’s going to get into trouble for having this section, so why do it? He might as well have used “cooties” instead of “pheromones” in his introduction to this section. None of these could have fit into “Voices” or “The Way We Live Now?” And then to end his introduction to the section on “girly things” with “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen” is so tone deaf I can’t believe it.
I just don’t understand why this was necessary or even useful.
Elkin: It isn’t.
And you’re right, Garret, this designation undermines Lethem to such an extent that it just about invalidates his editorial hand. But it’s tricky business, and I’m not sure three middle-aged white guys are the ones to discuss it.
I’ve spent a good amount of time searching the web to see if anyone has brought up this point, and I couldn’t find ANYTHING — which I am kind of amazed by, especially when, as you said, “diversity and inclusiveness in comics has never been more prominent.”
So yeah, this choice is unnecessary as it is useless as it is gross. Lethem’s characterization of the section is beyond problematic, which is why I had no interest in talking about him as the editor here, and devoted my energy to the comics.
Jason: Ultimately the success of a volume like this comes down to the stories that the editor chooses rather than the arbitrary decisions he makes about organization. One of the ways I judge its success is by asking if he chose pieces that I would have chosen, and the second is by asking if he did indeed cover some of what I consider the best comics of the previous year.
I concur with Daniel’s astute commentary way back at the beginning of this series of articles: for a comic that aims to present the best comics of the year, an awful lot of great cartoonists were excluded. We can all build our own pantheon, but a book like this is a zero sum game, and the absence of great indie creators like Elkin favorite Noah Van Sciver and Sacks favorite Box Brown shows that the choices made in this book seem off from what we would have chosen.
That means that Lethem chose differently from how I would have chosen. I’m sure every other commentator on this book would say the same thing, which goes to the idiosyncratic way that books like Best American Comics are compiled. That happens every year. From Harvey Pekar’s choices in 2006 to Scott McCloud’s choices last year, there were always stories I would have selected that were different from the professional’s decisions.
But the selections this year felt more off for me than ever before. I understand Jonathan Lethem’s criteria, but his criteria was so different from mine that I find it tough to agree with much of what he presented. The Best American Comics 2014 made me feel euphoric. The Best American Comics 2015 makes me feel merely glad.