Tuesday, November 14, 2006

"The Best American Comics of 2006"

Have you ever read any of Houghton-Mifflin's "Best American.... of ...." series? As in Best American Short Stories of 2004, or a volume similarly collecting the best essays, poems, or crime writing of any given year... They have been expanding their series showcasing the year's finest writing since 1915. There are installments for mysteries, sports, science and nature, travel, "nonrequired reading", and spiritual writing. It's an invaluable resource for discovering notable contemporary work in your favorite genre. For the first time in history, the publisher has offered The Best American Comics (...of 2006).

Of course there is no need to point out to you (dear reader) that the comics medium has been getting increasing notoriety and respect during the last few years. Alternative comics (those that don't feature superheroes) have been featured in museum exhibitions, the New Yorker, The New York Times, etc. Folks who have appreciated this type of thing for a long time are continually frustrated by media assertions that "comics are not just for kids anymore". It shoiuld be patently obvious, but somehow the word is just not getting through to everybody. This volume, which will be carried in bookstore chains throughout the country, should help remediate the situation.

The editor of the budding annual is Anne Elizabeth Moore. Her work began with the selection of 150 of her favorite pieces from sources as diverse as graphic novels, art periodicals, the Sunday funnies, alternative newspapers, minicomics... etc. She then passsed those on to Harvey Pekar, the final editor of this edition, who chose the thirty that made the final cut. Pekar got a boost of recognition from the Hollywood film American Splendor. He's been publishing under that name since the 1970's. He writes quotidian stories of his life in Cleveland, and contracts artists to draw them. Most famously, he collaborated with legend R. Crumb. I think he's an appropriate choice to arbitrate the inaugural edition of this series. If nothing else, he's noted for being an excellent writer.

For someone like me, who has no use for stories and pictures about men in tights, it's refreshing to see the scope of pieces included in the book. We get NO superheroes... instead there is a rich diversity of subject matter, from the realistic to the fantastic. The aforementioned Crumb has a coming-of-age autobiographical selection that clearly demonstrates why he is considered a living legend. Other luminaries include Chris Ware, Joe Sacco, Jaime Hernandez, Gilbert Shelton, Lynda Barry, Kim Deitch, Ben Katchor, Rick Geary and Tom Hart. Although the editors took a fairly conservative approach to the selection process, there were some relative newcomers that made the grade- Kurt Wolfgang, Jonathan Bennett, Anders Nilsen, and David Heatley are among the young bucks that have recently gained exposure through the quarterly, Mome.

One could carp over the particular inclusions and omissions of Moore and Pekar. That's an inevitable byproduct of any anthology that claims to be a "Best of" edition. But I find this volume generally representative of the form. Of course pure fiction makes its appearance. And then there are the memoir-style stories that first became popular over a decade ago, and are becoming a staple. There are a few political expose pieces. You'll even find a smattering of truncated epic material. But while there is much that is familiar, there are also a few surreal pieces that seem to have few referents (Rebecca Dart's Rabbithead especially distinguishes itself). It's both diverse and highly readable.

The best thing about The Best American Comics of 2006 is that, due to its format and publisher, it's going to be easy to find and purchase. But if you know of an independently run shop that has been stocking comics for years- then please buy it there. For those of you who live in/around Pittsburgh, I recommend you get yours at The Copacetic Comics Company (1505 Asbury in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood). If you are from out-of-town, you can order it from their website.

4 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

personally, I like me some men in tights - but I get fetishy like that! Yay! Best of Comics! What is the name of that Fantagraphics series? I have one of them, by an Italian woman that rules, "Interiore" but it's a whole series - world wide - that's all beauty printed and everything.

shameless self promotion

12:10 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

Anon,

Are you referring to the Ignatz Series? They are printed oversized on quality stock, and priced at $7.95. You have the one by Gabriella Giandelli. Lots of good stuff in that series including David B., Kevin Huizenga, Gilbert Hernandez, and Richard Sala.

1:40 PM  
Anonymous marc v. said...

Imagine my surprise to see a whole stack of "Best American Comics..." on the endcap floor next to the graphic novel shelf of a large, brand-name bookstore (that starts with B). I can recall, with vivid detail, my utter astonishment and disbelief that I was truly seeing what I was seeing.
The fact that a most notable and time-honored institutional publication had chosen to increase their realm, and that comics would be their newest baby - was music to my eyes....
I do have to think that someone over there was a bit influenced by the excellent McSweeney's Issue #13 (also available/orderable at Copacetic Comics) we were graced with a year or so ago. For an additional tome to sidle next to your Houghton-Mifflin, I highly recommend this read.

12:23 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

marc,

I just got around to reading a library copy of McSWeeney's 13... like a nerd, I preferred to read their already soiled copy rather than open my own... It was a pretty good selection of the best artists working today. I had already seen a lot of the stuff, but it's great for people that haven't had the opportunity to survey the field at greater depth.

6:25 PM  

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