Sunday, September 13, 2015

Comics in 2005

The Best American Comics 2006 (2006; stories originally published 2004-2005): edited by Harvey Pekar and Anne Elizabeth Moore, containing comics written and/or illustrated by Jesse Reklaw, Justin Hall, Rebecca Dart, David Heatley, Chris Ware, Kim Deitch, Anders Nilsen, Ben Katchor, Joe Sacco, Jaime Hernandez, Gilbert Shelton, Alison Bechdel, Alex Robinson, Jessica Abel, Rick Geary, Kurt Wolfgang, Lynda Barry, Robert Crumb, Seth Tobocman, Esther Pearl Watson,  Lilli CarrĂ©, and others.

This first volume of Best American Comics, from the same publisher who gave you long-running anthologies that include Best American Sports Writing and Best American Mystery Writing, seems to be a mainstay of used bookstores as a result of it being remaindered out the wazoo soon after its publication back in 2006. Anne Elizabeth Moore did the initial selection and the late Harvey Pekar made the final selection from her list, in case you're wondering what the two editors did.

Pekar's preference for reality-based storytelling explains the book's avoidance of superhero and similar genre material. There is one funny parody of super-heroes. That's it. Some of the comics work as absurdism or satiric fantasy. But the bulk of the volume consists of memoir and memoir-like work, with some experimental pieces that play with form and structure and lay-out interspersed throughout.

There's a lot of awfully good long-form material here. I'd pick Jesse Reklaw's story about childhood pets, "13 Cats," as one of the two or three best stories here. It's sad and funny. And it doesn't wear out its welcome. An autobiographical piece by American giant Robert Crumb also pleases me to no end (as does Crumb's snarky reply to the editors' earnest request for a text piece on the origins of the story). 

Justin Hall's "La Rubia Loca," the longest work included herein, could use some trimming, and perhaps some serious work on working with more panels per page. The length makes it feel padded. The pat ending in which a character learns to love life from the lessons learned from the torments of a mentally ill woman... ugh. Cut out those last few pages, though, and it's a nicely observed work, though the art bears more than a passing resemblance to that of Gilbert Hernandez. There are also fine pieces by Kim Deitch, Joe Sacco, and Lynda Barry, among others.

There are two major flaws with the volume. One comes with its page size, that of a normal hardcover. This reduces several stories originally printed in larger formats to near-incomprehensibility. Pieces by Chris Ware, Rebecca Dart, and David Heatley suffer the most from the size reduction -- you'll either need a magnifying glass or you'll say to hell with it.

The second comes with the decision to include excerpts from longer works. An excerpt from a Jessica Abel piece is probably the worst of these. It's the comics equivalent of treading water for 20 pages, and puts me in mind of how annoyed I get at short-fiction anthologies that include excerpts from novels. I understand it in the context of a Norton literary-survey anthology. In a 'Best of' anthology of shorts, though, it seems like an editorial violation of some fundamental rule. It's as if the Best Short Oscar category included 20-minute chunks from the Best Picture category along with the 'real' shorts. I hate it. I really hate it. 

Still, a worthy beginning to a series that offers non-superhero comics material to a mainstream book-buying audience. Recommended.

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