Review: ‘The Best American Comics: 2008’ edited by Lynda Barry
The Best American Comics: 2008
Series editors: Jessica Abel and Matt Madden; edited by Lynda Barry
Houghton Mifflin, October 2008, $22.00
The “Best American” series has been around for decades, starting with the acclaimed annual collection of short stories and expanding in recent years to such newer emanations as [[[Best American Nonrequired Reading]]], [[[Best American Spiritual Writing]]], …[[[Travel Writing]]] and, of course, [[[Comics]]]. This is the third year for this particular Best American series, and it sees the cast of editors completely change over.
The way the “Best American” books seem to work – as much as they are explained to us mere mortals – each series has a “series editor,” who takes on the tough work of reading or looking at everything eligible in the given year, and culling down that list to something manageable for the marquee-name “editor” to select the final contents from. (For example, for the most recent annual editions, the series editor of [[[Short Stories]]] is Heidi Pitlor and the editor is Salman Rushdie. Similarly, Adam Gopnik edits Essays this year, Anthony Bourdain Travel and George Pelecanos Mystery Stories.) For the first two years of Comics’s existence, the series editor was Anne Elizabeth Moore, who was somewhat controversial for reasons that always remained murky to me. She’s been replaced this year by the team of Jessica Abel and Matt Madden, for no stated reason – though it does seem unusual for that to happen so soon.
The big-name editor this time out is Lynda Barry, following Chris Ware last year and Harvey Pekar in 2006. And, again, the editor profoundly affects the content of the book. Pekar leaned towards long, autobiographical stories, often with a political slant. Ware continued the trend towards autobiography and memoir – it would be hard to avoid that tide in comics, this decade – but he also brought in the expected formalist streak. And now Barry changes the mix again, with more comic strips (Matt Groening’s [[[Life in Hell]]], Derf’s [[[The City]]], Kaz’s [[[Underworld]]], and Alison Bechdel’s [[[Dykes to Watch Out For]]]) and many excerpts from longer works (Nick Bertozzi’s [[[The Salon]]], Cathy Malkasian’s [[[Percy Gloom]]], Gene Luen Yang’s [[[American Born Chinese]]], and Seth’s [[[George Sprott]]]).
Barry’s choices still come out of mostly the same art-comics world as Ware’s and Pekar’s – there are no superheroes (though see below) – but are more focused on storytelling and on close examination of character. Her ten-page introduction (in comics form) explains how she limited her focus – excluding single-panel cartoons, editorial cartoons, and daily strips – even though her favorite cartoonist is Bil Keane (and she then proceeds to praise, and to explain his relevance to her life). Actually, Barry’s introduction here is the first work of hers that I’ve really connected with – her semi-autobio comics of her youth have always made me cringe – but I can’t say if the difference is me or Barry.
There almost was a superhero story in [[[Best American Comics: 2008]]]; Barry had selected an excerpt from Paul Pope’s [[[Batman: Year 100]]] for inclusion. But, at the last minute – reportedly, because they thought that it would be the selling point for the entire collection, in a stunning display of hubris that is only too typical for “mainstream” comics – DC refused permission, so Pope’s work doesn’t appear in the book. (And the closest thing to corporate comics in the “Notable Comics” list in the back matter – compiled by Abel and Madden – is the second volume of Brian Wood’s [[[DMZ]] and an issue of Stan Sakai’s [[[Usagi Yojimbo]]]. Neither of those, though, are in the book Barry edited.)
There are some more experimental stories in this year’s book, such as Ware’s New Yorker covers “The Thanksgiving Series,” John Meijas’s aggressively art-historical mini “The Teachers Edition,” Michael Kupperman’s dreamlike “Cousin Grandpa” and Joseph Lambert’s engaging and clever “Turtle, Keep It Steady!” But the core of this book is in the more conventional stories, from Graham Annable’s stunning “Burden” and the closely observed “War-Fix” by David Axe and Steve Olexa up front on through Jaime Hernandez’s flashback story “Gold Diggers of 1969”on to the excerpt from Jason Lutes’s Berlin and Sarah Olesyk’s long and affecting “Graveyard” near the end.
I shouldn’t make that dichotomy too stark, since there are also a number of stories that are somewhat fantastical or stylized, but still tell mostly straightforward tales. Some of the excellent stories in that category include Lilli Carré’s transformed-life tale “[[[The Thing About Madeline]]],” the fable-like “[[[The Monkey and the Crab]]]” by Shawn Cheng and Sara Edward-Corbett, and the lovely goofball fun of Evan Larson’s “[[[Cupid’s Day Off]]].”
Any “Year’s Best” book will be taken differently by every reader, depending on which stories they react to, which ones they like and which ones they hate. I found Ware’s annual, last year, to be less successful, because it had a large number of stories that I didn’t think worked. Barry’s collection, this year, has stories that I uniformly like and appreciate – so, to me, this is clearly a better book, and maybe even a better year for comics. (Others may have differing views, of course.)
But the value of a series like this is precisely in its accretion over time. If Ware, or Barry, or anyone, did an annual every single year, some creators would appear regularly, and others would never be reprinted. With a different sensibility each year, the series stays fresh and exciting, bringing new and different work forward with each new editor’s tastes. I might think that [[[The Best American Comics: 2008]]] is the best yet, but it’s also great simply because it’s different from the 2007 and 2006 books. And, I expect, the 2009 book will be equally different, and exciting, in its own way.
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.
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