Welcome to the future that the prophets dreamed about.
The Nostradamuses of comics dreamed of a day when comics would be published by mainstream book publishers. They dreamed of a time when comics could be presented in all shapes and sizes, with an extreme diversity of approaches. They dreamed of a time when once experimental techniques would become widely accepted and when cartoonists who didn’t draw super-hero comics would be able to make a good living and earn substantial fame by doing comic stories that fit their own unique views of the world.
One of those Nostradamuses was Scott McCloud, who created Understanding Comics some two decades ago, and one of the ways that we can see that McCloud’s dream has come true is through The Best American Comics 2014. This year’s lovely hardcover anthology presents – as the title says – a well curated list of the best comics by American cartoonists from the last year or so.
McCloud delivers a collection of stories here that would act as a great introduction for anyone new to artcomics or literary comics as they stand in 2013 and 2014. He presents stories by many of the recognized masters of the artform: both Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, an empathetic choice from Chris Ware’s Building Stories, a chatty piece by R. Crumb and Aline Kominsky-Crumb, a slice of Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’s Saga, a small excerpt of Ed Piskor’s Hip Hop Family Tree.
It’s hard to argue with McCloud’s choices from that standpoint – by presenting material that heavily depends on the medium’s masters, he delivers a fairly safe selection of content that represents the “chalk” of the pantheon. This is in many ways the sort of world that the Nostradamuses hoped would appear in our time.
And yet, somehow, the range of comics presented in this book feels lacking. Aside from Tom Hart’s heartbreaking and outstanding “RL”, Sam Alden’s gorgeously sketchy “Hawaii 1997” and a selection of Ron Rege’s brilliantly odd one-pagers, this book is missing a wide swath of interesting comics. Aside from a wonderful excerpt from Saga, there isn’t even a nod to mainstream comics in a year that included some truly excellent mainstream works. As well, McCloud presents excerpts from outstanding creators like Miriam Katin and Gilbert Hernandez – smart, thoughtful, well-considered art that is nonetheless well known by most attentive fans of the artform – while leaving out other great material from last year such as Dash Shaw’s astonishing New School, Box Brown’s Andre the Giant or Beach Girls, Rene French’s Baby Bjornstrand, stories by Julia Gfrörer, and on and on.
As I type these words, I realize it’s crazy to complain about the stuff that McCloud and series editor Bill Kartalopoulos selected to include in this volume. Would I have them exclude notable work from great cartoonists like Charles Burns or ask them not to include a selection from March by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell? Or is there something deeper that’s wrong here?
Do comics need a second volume in the “Best of the Year” series?
As the medium has grown and comics have gotten much more diverse, with a seeming geometric progression of great content from one year to the next, do we need more than one “Best Comics” volume? After all, the Nostradamuses of comics have seen their predictions largely come true over the last few years, with an incredible growth in quality of material in comics over the last several years.
The principle that comics are a medium rather than a genre has become more and more true over the last few years, and this book wears the tension between medium and genre on its table of contents. There’s a sense for the reader that the editors are trying to cover too much ground in this book; in a series that includes Best Sportswriting and Best Travel Writing of the Year, it seems ridiculous to try to cover the entire medium of comics in one 350-page book.
It’s as absurd to collect all comics in one volume as it would be to collect all material that’s all-text or that uses video in one collection. Nobody would try to include their favorite TV series and favorite movies along with a group of great web-only videos in one grouping, but that’s the impossible task that McCloud and Kartalopoulos are tasked to deliver. Comics are too diverse, too complex and too interesting to contain in one mere book. The editors nod in that direction as they include suggestions for further reading about webcomics and with a bunch of “recommended reading” at the end of the book, but it’s rather unlikely that a volume twice as long as this book would hit all of the year’s high points.
But for me, there are ways that the editors could have improved on this volume. For one thing, McCloud takes pains to present the pieces in this book in a suggested reading order, collecting grouping allied groups of works (“Great Comics Are Not a Genre”, “Raising Readers”, “Family Tree”) rather than distributing the stories in a manner in which each piece presents subtle comments on the material that surrounds it. This approach makes sense in a formalistic way, but in doing so they miss the subtle frisson that each piece inflicts on the stories that surround it, giving the reader the wonderfully euphoric feelings that I got from the 2013 volume in this series.
Scott McCloud was a Nostradamus of comic art when he produced Understanding Comics some 25 years ago, and in this year’s Best American Comics he looks backwards and forward at the same time. Though this book has its flaws, those flaws are mainly embedded in the fact that the scope of this book is too wide.
Every year I conclude my essay about Best American Comics with the same comment, but every year that comment is true. Comics have never been better. More creators are creating more brilliant comics – in all their diversity — than ever before. Comics Bulletin was created to present commentary on the incredibly panoply of the amazing comics medium and we will continue to explore comics in all their diversity as long as I’m in charge of this site. If you’d like to join us and write about the comics you love, click the banner above and shoot us a mail. We’d love to have you.
And if you want to explore some of the finest comic art, pick up The Best American Comics 2014. Though I may complain about some exclusions, this is a collection of some of the finest comic art published this year. The excerpt from Tom Hart’s comic deserves the price of admission all by itself.