Thursday, July 25, 2013

Sequart Reprints: Best American Comics 2007

When I reviewed The Best American Comics 2006 last year, I noted that it was clear that the choice of guest editor had an enormous impact on which comics were selected. Because the guest editor was Harvey Pekar (of American Splendor fame), most of the stories were naturalistic, often with a strong political bent. Unsurprisingly, the anthology lacked genre work, but it also lacked the sort of aggressively experimental comics seen in Kramer's Ergot. Overall, the book was a fine primer for readers interested in art comics who didn't know where to begin.

Chris Ware was the guest editor for the 2007 edition, and the book certainly reflects his interests. Unlike Pekar, Ware had already had the recent experience of editing a comics anthology, the all-comics issue of McSweeney's  (#13). That experience allowed him to create an anthology that not only flowed better, but where each individual story was enhanced by its juxtaposition to the other stories in the book. In some instances, there were stories that I had initially disliked that gained a new life due to the way they were sequenced.

Phenomenology is a philosophical technique used to describe an object. Among other things, it requires the observer to remove one's preconceived notions about the observed object and to attempt to remove it from its average, everyday contextual understanding. The Best American Comics series has received a lot of flak in comics circles, largely because of an unwillingness to actually engage the text or read it out of preconceived contexts. The "best" label seems to throw everyone off every bit as much as the "American" label does.

Superhero fans are frustrated that their "team" (as it were) isn't represented and validated. Heidi MacDonald at The Beat wrote a column saying that this book was emblematic of new mainstream-type storytelling under-representation. The problem with her essay was not just that she vacillated on how culpable this volume was in a supposed lack of critical attention, but also in privileging the idea of "story" as something with a specific set of easily-recognizable fictive elements (and presumably fantastic ones). There's nothing in this volume that isn't a story, just perhaps not the kind of page-turning stories that some readers might find comforting. There are some in the genre camp who have dismissed this book as stories filled with navel-gazing & whining, sight unseen. Even art-comics fans have been unhappy with the book because so much of the book came from other anthologies like Mome and Kramer's Ergot. None of these suppositions accurately reflect the actual experience of reading the book and thinking about why Ware chose the pieces he did, and why he put them in that particular order.

A shorthand way of describing the progression of stories in the anthology is that it goes from autobiography to fiction. This is not quite accurate. Insead, Ware takes a page from Ivan Brunetti's Anthology of Graphic Fiction and has what can be called pods--a few stories that address roughly the same concerns, but either do it in radically different ways or else comment on each other by virtue of their placement. There's also a certain overlap where story A bears some similarities to story B, which in turn bears a different set of similarities to story C.

The book begins with two opening salvos: a hilarious bit of self-loathing by Ivan Brunetti done in his more recent, minimalist style; and the selection that kicks off the book's first story cycle: Art Spiegelman's "Portrait Of The Artist As A Young %@?*!". It makes sense to start off the meat of the book with a strip by one of the world's most famous cartoonists, but a more salient reason is that the story concerns itself with the point of view of children. That's followed by a jam strip with Robert and Aline Crumb, visiting their daughter Sophie in New York. They adore and dote on her, but these two underground veterans feel more than a little out of place in a squat. Even two radical cartoonists can embarrass their daughter. Ware follows this with a Sophie Crumb strip that was a bit of a petulant throw-away in the pages of Mome, but here is a sly commentary both on her parents' work and her own shortcomings as an artist.

An excerpt from Alison Bechdel's Fun Home brings these relationships into sharper analytical focus, as she grapples with the apparent suicide of her father, his closeted homosexuality, and her own obsessive nature. Carol Tyler continues by flipping perspectives and writing about her daughter as a young girl, wistfully crafting stories about a time gone by. That perspective is then flipped once again as we move to some strips by Lynda Barry, focusing on a teen's point of view, and then concludes with a lighthearted Lauren Weinstein story about a teen's first date.

This section focuses on the primacy of family, both as a child and as an adult. We seek to understand our parents and parents seek to understand their children, but the fractured nature of generational communication frequently makes that process difficult. Children also seek to understand and master the world and their own desires, especially as it plays out in terms of sex. Longing has always been a running theme in Ware's own work, and thus it's no surprise to see his interest in how other artists grapple with it. Visually, Ware goes from the relatively staid compositional style of Bechdel to the wild full color expressionism of Tyler to the scratchy black & white drawings of Barry to the almost lurid quality of Weinstein's work.

Weinstein's story makes a nice transition point to the next cluster of stories, dealing with the concerns of young adults. Vanessa Davis presents a series of one-page vignettes involving snippets of her life hanging out with her friends, going on dates, etc. Ware flips that yet again by following her strips with a black & white Gabrielle Bell journal comic that's about visting her family in California. Ware then intersperses her dry, observational humor with another balls-to-the-wall Brunetti strip, this time a tribute to his girlfriend. Ware then presents the observational work of Jeffrey Brown, an artist whose voice is quite different from Bell's. Bell likes to quietly observe her surroundings, even as she internalizes her neuroses. She always has the air of being detached. Brown is someone who lives entirely within each moment, even as he tries to get some sense of perspective. This series of strips deals with the power of that moment, as it affects him in terms of relationships, art and daily life.

From Brown's scratchy but naturalistic style Ware takes us to Ron Rege's stylizations. His stripped-down but hyper-stylized character and panel design will be jarring for a reader unfamiliar with it. This is the first comic in the book that may require the new reader to force oneself to engage the work and try to understand the visual language and series of symbols that Rege uses. It's worth the effort, because the story that he unfolds is heartbreaking. Rege challenges the reader with his shifting color scheme, his unusual panel presentation, and a raw portrayal of human emotion.

Rege's work marks another shifting point, as Ware turns toward a series of meditative works. While some are fictional, they all share a quietude and respect for the importance of living in the moment and respecting the often beautiful rhythms of quotidian existence. John Porcellino leads off this set of stories as he ponders the possibilities of living in a small town. Jonathan Bennett slows the pace down to an absolute crawl as his mind wanders during a reverie on a park bench. Kevin Huizenga has his Glenn Ganges character off in a similar reverie as he watches his wife sleep, but this time the thoughts of our main character center around mortality and the possibility of losing his wife. These strips might give the typical fan of genre comics the most difficulty, because there's no action here, just a series of character moments that nonetheless linger on. The beauty of this anthology is that Ware quickly moves on to other approaches in short order and makes an obvious point of varying stories in terms of both their emotional tone and the way they're paced & structured.

Reverie is a waking dream, and Ware marks the next transition point with a transcribed David Heatley dream that has a charged racial component. Racial and ethnic identity are the focus of the next section, beginning with Sammy Harkham's short story about Hassidic Jews in the 19th century. This story depicts one man trying to negotiate his way through the world as an artist and a man expected to be a good Jew and the difficulties therein. I also read it as a sly parody of modern autobiographical comics. The story concludes with a couple of gentiles wanting his blessing on their marriage because they automatically assume he's a man of god. That slightly ambiguous ending leaves the protagonist with a sense that being a Jew is something that he doesn't necessarily have a choice in, for good or ill. That's driven home in the next section, an excerpt from Miriam Katin's shattering book We Are On Our Own. Here, Miriam's mother has to pretend not to be Jewish in order to survive. I love this juxtaposition of stories: different time periods, completely different styles (Harkham is inspired by early 20's comic strips and Katin has a lush, feathery look to her pencils) and very different explorations of similar ideas.

Ben Katchor contributes a story that deconstructs a particular kind of cult built around shoes that's weirdly hilarious in Katchor's inimitable manner. Katchor's ability to create alternate city realities out of whole cloth never ceases to amaze, and it was interesting to see this story placed with other shorts that discuss ethnic and religious identity.

In the second half of the book, Ware subtly shifts the stories he chooses in terms of their primary focus. In the first half, it was longing and a desire to understand and be understood. In the second half of the book, the stories are about desire: sexual desire, the desire to be accepted, the desire to master one's environment, the desire to fulfill a quest. Ware starts with an excerpt from Adrian Tomine's new book, Shortcomings, about an Asian-American man who yearns to be with a white woman. This is both for fetishistic reasons and a desperate attempt to squelch his own self-loathing.

After a couple of more Heatley strips that briefly touch on guilt and desire, Ware contrasts the thwarted desires seen in Tomine's story with one filled with characters who fulfill their fantasies in Gilbert Hernandez' "Fritz After Dark". The story is lurid, populated by those who take their desires to logical extremes. Fritz is the one character who always bravely indulges herself, even if it leaves her vulnerable to the manipulation of others. Those that internalize their desires (especially muscleman Enrique) are susceptible to forms of fetishization so extreme that they can no longer relate to real people. Again, the differences in art and technique heighten both stories: Tomine's stories have a cold distance to them even when they grapple with the most lurid of topics, while Beto has a warm, cartoony style that sweeps the reader into his world.

The next three stories also deal with desire, but of a different kind. In a Kim Deitch excerpt, he's trying to get at a mystery that gets at the heart of his creative process. Anders Nilsen's Big Questions excerpt deals with the inexplicable desire of a bird to be gripped by a human that could easily kill it. It's the desire to touch the unknown, even if it risks oblivion. Oblivion is the theme of the last piece in this section, an excerpt from Charles Burns' Black Hole. In this story, a young woman contemplates suicide as she floats on the ocean at the beach. She is completely disconnected from the world and those she loves, yet can't quite bring herself to leave it.

These three stories are quiet and contemplative, even if they are bizarre. In each of the three, we're on the verge of something important happening, but these stories are about the sensation of being on the edge. In the final section, Ware presents stories that are variations of The Quest, where we are presented with nothing but action. Throwing his audience a curveball, Ware presents stories that are increasingly abstract and difficult to engage, yet bursting with energy. He begins with an excerpt of Gary Panter's Jimbo's Inferno, where we follow an everyman and his magical talking valise as they descend into the Inferno--which looks very much like a mall.

The artist C.F. takes this one step further in a story about a boy breaking into a house in order to gain power from objects inside, combining elements from video games, role-playing games, and psychedelia into his storytelling bag of tricks. The outsider art duo Paper Rad takes this quest idea to its weirdest extreme as the Kramer character from Seinfeld winds up hallucinating an explosion of bizarre imagery. Ordinarily, I have a great deal of difficulty digesting Paper Rad's material, but once again the story's contextual fit seemed ideal in this anthology.

Ware reels the audience back in with another Heatley story that involves a strange journey and an attempt to go home. That leads neatly into one of the most naturalistic (yet playful) stories in the book: Dan Zettwoch's "Won't Be Licked", an account of his grandfather's trip around town in a homemade boat during a catastrophic flood. This story has all of the components of a quest story, yet it's told in Zettwoch's typical deadpan, playful and detail-oriented style.

After some extremely revealing and helpful contributor's notes, series editor Anne Elizabeth Moore then presents a list of 100 other comics worthy of mention. They certainly would have made for a much different anthology, but it's hard to imagine breaking up the storytelling flow that Ware directs here. Ware concludes the anthology with an excerpt from Seth's Wimbledon Green. This story is about the title character of the story musing on his origins. Of course, this story is really about everyone who not only reads comics, but who reads and desires in general. He asks why we read, why we care about books, why we look at the world, why we have desires. These are questions without answers, but what Seth implies is that to ask these questions is what it means to be human. For Ware, the story is a perfect encapsulation of what he tried to present in this volume. He said in his introduction that he wanted to present stories that tried to capture the truth, and though he didn't explicitly state what he meant by this, it seems clear that he meant the truth of the human condition.

There's a lot of autobio here precisely because Ware isn't interested in navel-gazing; he instead wanted stories of human connection and disconnection that could reach any reader. He wanted stories of lusts and desires fulfilled and unfulfilled, and stories about goals met and unmet. Ware did this while simultaneously showing off the broad spectrum of storytelling and compositional styles in comics today, notably choosing a number of artists whose styles couldn't be any more different from his. The result was a gift from Ware to the reader, providing a very specific but powerful reading experience; whether or not this was the "best" possible anthology of comics is not an important question.

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