Best American Comics 2007 (Houghton Mifflin)

bestamerican-header.jpgThis year’s compilation, guest-edited by Chris Ware (Acme Novelty Library) has critics everywhere arguing what it truly means to be America’s best comics. We dissect the controversy.

 

 

341 pgs. Color/B&W; $22.00

(W / A: Various, Edited by Chris Ware and Anne Elizabeth Moore)

 

When you buy a book with a title like The Best American Comics 2007, you’re obviously going to go into it with a certain preconceived notion of the book’s quality. In fact, you might even set your expectations for the stories contained within its pages so high that you set yourself up to be let down. I feel that this scenario might have indeed been the case with a few of the critics whose personal biases led them to pan the book, but in my estimation it does not disappoint.

 

Some have quibbled with this book for something as simple as its title, claiming it is somewhat of a misnomer. That the contents of the book are quite excellent is not a matter of debate, but these stories being designated "the best" has gotten under some people’s skin when in their mind other, more outstanding works were left out.

 

I admit there were one or two selections that left me scratching my head as to why they were given a place in this collection. For my tastes, the more esoteric works like those of C.F. or Paper Rad left me feeling cold; they seemed to be sketchily drawn and nonsensical simply for the sake of being "out there," that the emperor had no clothes. But that choice of word, "taste," was very apt, for by its very nature, an anthology such as this one cannot please everyone. It cannot include every great story of the past year (which is why the publishers include a list in the back of the book of 100 Distinguished Comics not included in the anthology), and not every story is going to be one you will personally enjoy.

 

But that simple fact does not mean that the things you don’t like don’t deserve to be included. Surely such a compilation as this one is designed to create controversy, to spark debate about what the best of the best should be, and I have no doubt that a desire to invite discussion was factored into the decision to place certain stories on this list. In the end, I think any one of us would be hard-pressed to find better comics released in the past year that fit all the criteria for inclusion, such as length, geographical location of the creators, or the time period in which it was published.

 

The cover to Best American Comics 2007. Click thumbnail for a larger image.The logistics of creating a "best of" anthology also factor into another criticism: an overabundance of stories in the vein of autobiography. Admittedly, as a fan of that genre, the prevalence of that type of story did not affect me, and I still felt it had enough variety, with stories of real life being told with humor, as philosophical exercises, or with a historical bent. But I also wondered if that genre-specificity might not just be reflecting a trend in the industry at present. If that’s the case, you cannot fault a yearly anthology for echoing the year in which it was released.

 

Additionally, the perceived genre bias of this book might be an issue of publication rights. Autobiographical stories tend to be creator-owned, and thus the people that created the stories gladly submit their work for inclusion in such an anthology as this one and are grateful to be included. Many of the noteworthy stories in other genres such as science fiction, fantasy, or superhero are published by the most mainstream of publishers and are thus most likely off-limits, since corporations hold the rights to them.

 

A final criticism I’ve read is that the book is filled with the usual suspects, that most of the creators featured in the book are the same artists we saw in last year’s anthology. It’s true that many of the names in the table of contents might be familiar, names like Adrian Tomine, Alison Bechdel, Seth, and Art Spiegelman. But does the presence of these creators really illustrate a problem that the same artists are too often the recipients of what little critical and media recognition comics get? I don’t think so. The simpler answer would be that these artists clearly deserve to be highly regarded, since they repeatedly create works that are noteworthy.

 

That notion brings me to my only actual problem with the book, that because of my familiarity of some of the artists, I had read many of the pieces before. Having come across approximately a third of the book in other forms already, it failed to have the same impact on me that it might have had to a reader coming in with fresh eyes. Despite some familiar contents, there were still stories in the book that I hadn’t read which I enjoyed, such as the pieces by local St. Louis artists that were included, Dan Zettwoch’s historical "Won’t Be Licked" and Kevin Huizenga’s philosophical "Glenn in Bed."

 

Yes, many of the inclusions in the book do come from the same sources. Eight of the 39 pieces came out of the Fantagraphics anthology Mome, and another five came from Buenaventure Press’ Kramer’s Ergot. If you’re already a reader of those anthologies, you might come up a bit disappointed, but they are still quality pieces deserving of a place in this book. Jonathan Bennett’s "Needles and Pins" was a story I had already read in Mome, but I was happy to read it again here. Even if you read a large variety of indie books, there’s sure to be something to surprise and delight you.

 

At the very least, a long-time fan of indies could read and enjoy the introduction by this year’s guest editor Chris Ware (Acme Novelty Library), which contains musings on the artform and a discussion of the difficult tasks involved in putting together an anthology (including some points which address the critiques I’ve outlined here).  Also, the authors’ notes provide us with insight into what was going through each of the artists’ heads during the creative process.

 

In the end, whether you come to this book with firmly established firsthand knowledge of the works included therein or you’re completely a blank slate, you will find your purchase of The Best American Comics 2007 to be money well spent. If nothing else, it’ll be an excellent addition to your bookshelf: you’ll have all these great stories in one volume that is easy to loan out to friends to prove that there are quality comics out there. | Steve Higgins

Learn more about this year’s Best American Comics anthology by visiting http://www.bestamericancomics.com/2007/home.php

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