Thursday, January 1, 2009

Start Anywhere: Best American Comics 2008

Rob reviews the latest volume in the Best American Comics series, edited by Lynda Barry, Matt Madden and Jessica Abel (Houghton Mifflin). (This review originally appeared at

As I've noted in my reviews of prior volumes of the Best American Comics series, the choices selected for inclusion reflect not only the tastes but the editorial missions of its guest editor. For Harvey Pekar in 2006, many of his choices leaned towards naturalistic stories and representations. For Chris Ware in 2007, he was interested in stories that showed its characters expressing the truth of their desires. He cleverly and painstakingly edited it such that each story in some way connected to or commented on the stories around it. The experience started with the ways children looked at the world and went from teens to adults, then switched from the ways we communicate to the ways in which we try to obtain our desires. In each (unlabeled) subsection of the anthology, he would be careful to juxtapose stories with similar themes that had wildly different graphic approaches. It was a formalist editing experiment from comics' supreme formalist that was very much a love letter to comics and its capacity to express emotion, a capacity that obviously means everything to Ware as both cartoonist and editor.

The series' permanent editorship has passed from Anne Elizabeth Moore to the cartoonists Jessica Abel & Matt Madden. It's an interesting and inspired choice, given their roots as DIY minicomics artists to their current station as having published several books. It also fits their side career as educators, with every one of these volumes a potential text. Still, the most important component of this series is the guest editor, and it was thrilling to hear that Lynda Barry was this year's editor. A longtime fixture in the alt-weekly world, she's made a huge career comeback of sorts in 2008. After being unable to land a book deal, she found a perfect home with Drawn & Quarterly and published WHAT IT IS, my current pick for book of the year. She'll also have a new collection of her ERNIE POOK strips published by D&Q.

It's interesting to compare Barry's role as editor to her role as an educator. WHAT IT IS is an extension of her creativity workshops, where she helps people avoid the Two Questions: "Is this good?" and "Does this suck?" As editor, she gets to spend time picking out nothing but what seems "good" to her. In her introduction, presented in a comic strip/collage format not unlike WHAT IT IS, she talks about the phenomenology of looking at comics. She discusses looking at a "dirty" strip as a child and not understanding the "real" punchline, but instead taking a different meaning from it. Barry also talks about how much Bil Keane's THE FAMILY CIRCUS meant to her as a child, as a gateway into this ordered world she wished she could live in. Sometimes we don't understand why we make certain connections to certain kinds of art; we only know that it is important to us. Barry chose the selections in much the same way: she thought they were Good, and encouraged each reader to create their own experience reading the book. She encouraged them to start reading anywhere.

Obviously, this was a vastly different tact than Ware's, and yet this volume is not entirely dissimilar in terms of the way works are arranged and the ways in which they comment on each other. There are some more jarring transition points, to be sure, but one can see Barry reacting to certain aspects of excerpted work and reprinting those key pages. She'd then follow that up with a completely different kind of story that shared some aspect of the same theme. Of course, these connections are entirely accidental, given that the stories are printed in alphabetical order by author. As Barry suggested, the reader makes connections that aren't necessarily really there, but the mere act of putting one comic next to another and the parts of them that are excerpted creates new connections that must be sorted out.

As one might expect, the choices here are rather eclectic, and are taken from a number of different sources. As befits an artist with such a long history in independent/alternative weeklies, there are strips here from Derf, Kaz, Matt Groening, and Alison Bechdel. A number of stories are reprinted straight from minicomics. Barry also had a way of rooting out interesting stories that weren't widely seen by many comics fans. Chris Ware's Thanksgiving covers for the New Yorker is one example, David Axe & Steve Olexa's WAR FIX excerpt is another, and Kevin Pyle's BLINDSPOT excerpt is a third.

Barry avoided a lot of obvious names and included a lot of cartoonists who have not been widely printed to date. Barry did operate under the constraint that the stories must have been printed from August 31, 2006 to September 1st, 2007. They also had to be North American (USA, Canada or Mexico). Of course, the last constraint involved the willingness of the artist and/or publisher to have their work reprinted. DC forbade the anthology from using a Paul Pope Batman story, which sort of douses complaints from some sectors of comics fandom that superhero stories were being deliberately ignored.

The first few stories center around forms of obsession and inspiration. Graham Annable's "Burden" sees a man who commits a horrible act as a way of making up for the horrible acts of his brother. The excerpt from WAR FIX is about one man's obsession with Iraq and the ways in which the reality of the situation is a shattering experience. That dance between abstract desire and reality is examined from a different angle in T. Edward Bak's "Trouble", about two teenaged girls, the possibility of their sexuality, and feelings of abandonment. A series of DYKES TO WATCH OUT FOR strips by Alison Bechdel focuses on the ways in which personal and political obsessions cross over, while an excerpt from Nick Bertozzi's THE SALON details obsession and inspiration, as Braque and Picasso struggle to find the right way to express their vision. Visually, we move from Annable's cartoony line to Olexa's dense, heavy naturalism to Bak, Bechdel and Bertozzi's focus on character design.

The next several strips, in their own way, are different kinds of fables. Lilli Carre's "The Thing About Madeleine" is about a woman coming home to find herself asleep in bed, and how this one fantastic element leads to a total loss of identity. Martin Cendreda's "Hopscotch" imagines little orphan children coming out at night to play games and then disappearing when morning comes. Both "The Monkey and the Crab" (by Shawn Cheng & Sara Edward-Corbett) and "The Seven Sacks" have a classic fairy tale set-up, with talking animals and monsters being used to construct ethical dilemmas and the ways in which revenge is pointless.

Seeing the grotesques in Derf's syndicated strip THE CITY next to a Rick Geary strip about a family of murderers was an appropriate transition. Going from a family of murderers to Matt Groening's LIFE IN HELL strips starring his young sons was an unintentionally funny segue. Groening is sort of forgotten in art-comics circles these days, but he's still very much a part of that community. From kids talking about monsters we move to Eric Haven's strip about the war between reptilian monsters and mammals, "Mammalogy". From there, the reader is given a left turn as we see a Jaime Hernandez Love & Rockets strip featuring Maggie as a young girl, establishing connections of her own with the outside world.

Kaz and Michael Kupperman are next with their own brands of absurdist humor. Joseph Lambert and Evan Larson, going back to the fabulist theme, give updated versions of The Tortoise and the Hare and Cupid's Arrows, respectively. Lambert sees the race as a battle of drummers, while the world goes haywire when Cupid takes a day off. A running theme in the pieces Barry selected is obsession vs. inspiration. We see the latter running rampant in the excerpt from Jason Lutes' BERLIN and Cathy Malkasian's PERCY GLOOM, while John Mejias' "Teacher's Edition" seeks to tease out the latter in the form of an art teacher's diary comics. Sarah Oleksyk's "Graveyard" and the excerpt from BLINDSPOT both deal with significant encounters that change our protagonist's lives. The pieces from Seth, Ware and Gene Yang all discuss identity and how we measure ourselves as humans.

As a reader, I was delighted to see so many stories I hadn't read but had heard about. There are a lot of surprises in here and a lot of delights that I'm glad are being seen by a wider audience. The book is handsomely designed, with a wrap-around Eleanor Davis cover and endpapers designed by Joseph Lambert. Barry really is right that it doesn't really matter where one started in this book. That said, it's interesting to see how many of the stories had some kind of fantastic element, some sense of conveying the reader elsewhere (something obviously important to Barry). There's very little in the way of autobiographical stories in this volume (just Axe, and even that's mediated by having an illustrator). Every strip is very much a story, with an emphasis on narrative. That makes sense, given Barry's style as someone who in her creativity workshops emphasizes creating connections between objects and memories to create stories.

The kind of stories she selected are unusual, varied and challenging, but they are stories or jokes nonetheless; there's no interest in formalist experimentation. In a sense, the vagueness of her own directive ("good") made her selection process all the more clear. No matter where we start, we are getting a peak into Barry's point of view both as artist and reader. And so, we have a third volume in this series that is quite dissimilar from the first two, illuminating what is important to Barry. In the case of each volume, it's up to the reader to make their own interpretation of what was selected for them. Like Chris Ware's volume, this is Linda Barry's own love letter to comics and its readers.

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