Comic Review: The Best American Comics 2008

[Purchase Book]

I’ve grown to really enjoy the yearly “Best American” anthologies; Dave Eggers’ “Non-Required Reading” was my gateway into them (I typically think of them as alternate issues of McSweeney’s), and a few years ago, they started doing “Comics” as well. Being a comics geek, this series has probably eclipsed “Non-Required” as my favorite, but I still dig ’em. (I’ve also enjoyed the Science Writing ones, too.)

Anyway – this is a really good haul this year; not every entry is perfect of course — such is the way with anthologies; but overall, it’s definintely a great spread of what people are doing. The nice thing too, is a lot of these are from small-press one-shots that you might have trouble even finding, let alone even hearing about — so to have them in a nice hard-bound book is great. And, the excerpts from longer works typically give you an idea for future things to pad out your Amazon Wish List with.

Lynda Barry’s introduction is a comic itself — though I suppose that’s to be expected. Typically, Barry’s work completely leaves me cold (I know, that’s kind of blasphemous in alt-comix circles), but her piece is about the nature of comics and storytelling, and it turns out that’s one of the things I’m a sucker for. She starts off autobiographical, talking about her love of the Family Circus (which is admittedly a bit of a surprise) and her exposure to the comics in Playboy, for which she created a whole new backstory to be able to understand them as a child. After that, it gets into more general ideas about the power of comics. It’s a very interesting read, with an intriguing layout.

The first story is “Burden” by Graham Annable. Though the stories are arranged alphabetically by author, “Burden” is an outstanding introduction to the book. It’s one of my favorite stories. It’s a really great short piece with clean but engaging linework; the art grabs the reader and does good service to a wonderful story.

While “Burden” is pretty straightforward, there’re experimental works as well — I really liked Joseph Lambert’s “Turtle, Keep It Steady”, a retelling of the Tortoise and the Hare transplanted to the world of drumming. Turtle is a talented but steadfast drummer, where the Hare is a overpowering, innovative musician with a predilection for sex and pills — and burns himself out; shades perhaps of Keith Moon.

As for excerpts for longer things, I’m looking forward to Seth’s new piece, “George Sprott (1984-1975)”, originally published in the New York Times Magazine, but soon to be published in an expanded stand-alone novel. I can’t wait to read the full version; the excerpt published in this volume is a series of page-long vignettes about a Canadian TV host whose show was just him telling stories underneath silent film footage of being in the Arctic in the ’30s. Each page comes from someone with a different point of view; interviews with collaborators, family or acquaintances and parts from the omniscient narrator (who really isn’t all that omniscient).

While not all of the stories are up my alley — the only one that really sticks out as a failure is John Mejias’ “The Teachers’ Edition” – excerpts from an ongoing minicomic about the author’s public school teaching career. While it’s an interesting idea, and a compelling one for what’s basically a diary strip, Mejias’ art is so poor it actually gets in the way of the story. Sequences are hard to follow due to his lack of visual structure — and the ugliness of the art makes it hard to get deeper. Sadly, the writing isn’t strong enough to overcome the art’s shortfalls — it’s a bit pedestrian, and there’s very little depth to explain what’s going on. I believe Mejias is hoping to use his illustrations to fill in the details of the story and add emotional resonance. If Mejias worked with a different artist, I think “The Teachers’ Edition” would be more successful; failing that, if he’d converted it to just prose and fleshed it out more, that would work too. It’s not awful — believe me, I’ve seen some awful comics — but in that there IS potential there makes it come off as worse than it would be otherwise.

Still, though — at least stories I would consider uninteresting or even failures — are at least done from a point of view where it’s clear the authors all are very talented — not a “How did THIS GUY get famous?!” in the bunch, which is always welcome in an anthology. Whether or not you’re a comics fan already or are just a fan of good fiction, check out this series. All three (so far) volumes are great — but this might be the best. Still, though, with editors like Harvey Pekar (2006) and Chris Ware (2007 – also the editor of the Comics issue of McSweeney’s, likewise highly recommended), it’s hard to go wrong.