At some point in the 1980s, the mainstream press got hold of the idea that comics weren’t just for kids anymore, and they dutifully make the discovery every four or five years, frequently citing the same classic works from that decade. The entertainment industry has since embraced comic books, adapting non-traditional examples, such as Road to Perdition, but especially profiting from the Guys in Spandex. Kids who wouldn’t be caught dead reading a comic now play superhero videogames, anticipate the next Spider-man movie, and think Superman’s sidekick is named Chloe. Talk to that Emo/Goth teen, and you may find a reader of Lenore, the Cute Little Dead Girl. Some university and high school courses have started to include graphic novels, from Batman: Year One to The Collected Strangers in Paradise to Ghost World on the curriculum.
Comic books have been around long enough that they must now be acknowledged part of the culture. And so it has come to pass that Houghton-Mifflin’s "Best American" series includes a volume of comix.
Title: The Best American Comics 2006
Editors: Harvey Pekar, Anne Elizabeth Moore.
The two editors, Harvey Pekar and Anne Elizabeth Moore each include thoughtful introductions. These reveal an interesting discrepancy. Pekar claims he would have included more mainstream fare-- those Guys in Spandex, say-- if any particularly memorable examples had been published in ’06. Moore’s introduction suggests she actively stayed away from anything too mainstream. While I’m pleased they wish to promote lesser-known authors and demonstrate that comics cover a far wider territory than the world of super-powered humans with bad fashion sense, a genuinely balanced collection entitled The Best American Comics would surely include at least one representation from the comic shop mainstream. It’s not as though some of the collected pieces don’t reference those comics; Joel Priddy’s minimalist "The Amazing Life of Onion Jack" parodies them in a manner that would be meaningless to anyone unfamiliar with superheroes and their history. It’s amusing, though not as subversive as some readers may conclude; such self-conscious, historically aware parody has become standard within the mainstream titles. Nor do the editors fail to include some of the industry’s stars. Best American includes work by Lynda J. Barry, Kim Dietch, and Robert Crumb. Gilbert Shelton’s Wonder Wart-Hog also makes an appearance and, while Shelton’s graphic talent has not faltered, the story itself hardly ranks among the anthology’s stronger entries.
The anthology’s range proves interesting even when the quality varies. Lilli Carré’s "Adventures of Paul Bunyan and his Ox, Babe," does something familiar to readers of the genre; it examines a mythic childhood figure in a “real-life” reflective moment. Political pieces appear, of course. "Nakedness and Power" by Seth Tobocman, Terisa Turner, and Leigh Brownhill covers and editorializes on the kind of story often ignored in the North American Press. David Heatley’s “Portrait of My Dad” features odd littles pieces of life in comic-strip form. Opinions will vary on Rebecca Dart’s “Rabbithead,” but I cannot think of anything similar I’ve seen before.
The quality does vary, as much as the tastes of individual readers. The better works (at least, in my estimation) include:
Joe Sacco’s "Complacency Kills" presents an account of the author’s two weeks implanted among the Marines in Iraq. He acknowledges he learned only a little in that time, but he depicts it in rich detail. File this among what we’re not seeing on CNN. Kim Deitch’s "Ready to Die" depicts the story of real-life death row inmate during his final days. The man wanted to die for his crimes; Deitch wonders whether this is justice. People who knew Fitzgerald remember a complex and often likeable man. Others reflect on the fate of the victims.
Johnathan Bennett’s "Dance with the Ventures" recounts a man’s pursuit of some discarded albums. It features impressive artwork and a story that I cannot see working in another genre. Jesse Recklaw’s "Thirteen Cats of My Childhood" relates in fractured manner the story of his fractured childhood and his usually short-lived pets. This could have been written as a conventional, if odd, short story, but Recklaw uses the medium to great advantage.
The lengthiest story, Justin Hall’s "La Rubia Loca" tells an inspired-by-life tale of a disturbed woman on a tour bus, and the efforts of the travelers to get her safely out of Mexico. It's a strange account, and definitely the stuff of literature. I had a more ambivalent response to the artwork.
Finally Robert Crumb’s "Walkin' the Streets" stands among his better work, and as an impressive introduction to the eccentric pioneer of the underground comix. He began the reflective piece in the early 1990s, abandoned it, and finally completed it in the early 2000s. The artwork of many other contributors pales by comparison.
These stories demonstrate the potential of comics as another medium worthy of serious consideration, and I heartily recommend this handsomely-bound edition to those interested in the genre.
A variation of this article first appeared at Bureau42