Best American Comics 2009 (Houghton Mifflin)

This year’s look at comics highlights, curated by Black Hole‘s Charles Burns, is more "respectable" and expected than creepy and freaky.


334 pgs. FC; $22 Hardcover
(W / A: various, edited by: Charles Burns)
 
When I found out Charles Burns was the guest editor for the latest installment of the crossover Best American Comics compilation, I expected him to bring the creepy. After all, this is the man whose long-running Black Hole series conflated nascent high-schooler sex, supernatural horrors in the woods, and regular violence, to winning and creepy effect. Years back, his Big Baby and El Borbah stuff printed in alt-weekly newspapers was as dark as it was funny, too.
 
For the most part, though, the latest BAC, is more “respectable” and expected than creepy or freaky.
 
When Harvey Pekar guest-edited the inaugural installment of this, it was literary dynamite—compelling writing just oozed from the collection. Chris Ware put an odd stamp on his picks, and then Lynda Barry, well, she’s not everybody’s cup of tea, and neither was the BAC she curated.
 
With Burns (and his wonderful cover image of a woman reading a comic through a metal-and-glass barrier a la an iron lung), you want him to freak you out. Instead, the book makes for a respectable Christmas gift for the comics newbies as opposed to a bulletin from the vanguard of the medium’s weirdoes.
 
In its defense, there is some marvelously creepy work here. It’s great to see Jerry Moriarty included. The “paintoonist,” as he calls himself, contributes a series about a teenage girl learning about her body and those of other women in various nightmare-like tableaux. The girl watches as a woman’s leg suddenly shoots under the divider between their bathroom stalls—it’s the pose she’s assumed because she’s puking her guts out in the adjacent toilet. In another painted sequence, a sudden rainstorm compels the girl to seek shelter on a house porch. She silently observes another woman doing the same thing, and then stripping off her wet blouse right there in public. There’s voyeurism and bodily fluids and puberty mixed together in a queasy Balthus-influenced vibe straight from the subconscious.
 
Koren Shadmi’s entry is absolutely fantastic. The Israeli creator offers a chilling horror story that brings to mind the famous “decapitated cunnilingus” scene (yeah, you read that right) in cult film Re-Animator, with the genders switched.
 
A wonderfully moody, wordless piece by Al Columbia, “5:45,” depicts a series of rooms in a filthy home by the spectral light of 5:45 a.m. Eventually we see a panel with a dead woman wearing a final expression of pain. No explanation is furnished, and like a nightmare, the images are all that’s necessary for the mind to begin working over the fresh hell of it all.
 
David Sandlin’s “Slumburbia” is a cynical look at the American dream imagined in the peculiar American format of the “sampler.” His knack for drawing blobs of protuberant flesh of unknown personage reminded me of another underground horror film called Society, which combines the trappings of plutocratic success with some disturbing scenes of “flesh ritual.”
 
Other strips are not exactly creepy, but let’s say they qualify as “freaky.” Jillian and Mariko Tamaki can create whatever they want and I’ll run to the store to read it. The sister-duo contribute a long excerpt from their graphic novel Skim, which imagines a disaffected, gothy high school student drawn to both Wicca and to her free-spirited English teacher. The award-winning tale manages to convey the heady emotions of secondary school with sharp realism, and the art is just a revelation—the stylish renderings are as sharp and charming as an animated Disney film frozen on the page (but, thankfully, much darker in tone). The excerpt ends with a panel guaranteed to make you want to read the story in its entirety.
 
“CF” offers the tale of a mad scientist with elfin ears named Mosfet. He belches forth a sentient black cloud which helps him in his quest to turn corpses into robots. It makes no particular sense, I know, but the art is hypnotic, and the whole piece functions as a mellow, entrancing voyage to another realm worthy of a fine children’s book.
 
I hadn’t realized Jason Lutes’ Berlin has been a 13-year endeavor and counting. In this chapter, a shocking murder-for-hire leaves a girl who survives by her wits (and her girl-parts) alone and hungry in war-ravaged, post-Nazi Berlin. The historically accurate look at Communists, Jews and others scraping by in an urban wasteland is grim, and drawn with impeccable precision.
 
I’m grouping masters-of-the-freaky Kaz, Tony Millionaire, and Michael Kupperman together because they’re all established kings of their respective idioms whom, once you come to appreciate, you’ll want to read every panel they’ve ever drawn. For the uninitiated, Kaz turns Popeye and Mickey Mouse into total sleazeballs interacting in a foul gutter-world; Tony Millionaire’s creatures are cute lil’ anthromorphic drunkards who abound in wit and ultra-violence; and Kupperman turns stiff, vintage clip art into pointed, absurdist jibes.
 
Burns would seem to really dig the freaky teen fetish of Tim Hensley. Burns has selected not one but four strips by Hensley that are scattered through this BAC. The latter specializes in Dada-ist, random parody of the cheesy teen-girl comics of the ‘50s. His wild mix of nonsense and sickness is what you might call an acquired taste.
 
That’s about it for the creepy and freaky. The BAC is a thick tome, though, so there are plenty of other hits and misses.
 
The literary efforts include some middling piffle by Dan Clowes about a jaded movie critic who arrives at a career and personal crossroads (it’s closer to the philosophic aspirations of Ice Haven than the delicious freak show of Eightball); Adrian Tomine’s prolonged limp about a Japanese-American asshole in lust conveyed with his typical cold, clear line drawings; and Art Spiegelman’s latest riff on meta-storytelling and breaking the form (it’s a far piece better than that 9/11 book he did a while back, but not ripping like his classic stuff).
 
And then there’s Chris Ware. The cult of adoration around this guy is positively Zac Efron-like. You expect him to be in every year’s BAC, without fail. His literary disgorging here is an experiment for which each page of panels chronicles a single day in a different year of the life of a common shlub. It starts out with Ware’s typical wallow-in-misery, and establishes itself as the thoroughly banal journey of a man who finds happiness via starting a family (yawn). I took nothing from this formal experiment, other than the memory of an amazingly stomach-churning panel showing a newborn’s head emerging from the maw of a bloody vagina.
 
Next, let’s mention the goodies in a subgenre you might call “the sentimental.” A Robert Crumb / Aline Kominsky-Crumb collaboration, as usual, gives a realistic sense of the curious romance between that gregarious woman and that curmudgeonly man. There’s a real cuteness to Dan Zettwoch’s “Spirit Duplicator,” which creates a believable chronicle of passing times at a suburban church, told via its newsletter. The piece is a nostalgic love letter to both printing technology and the goofy charms of the church social. Mimi Pond gives herself a sweet little boost with a heartwarming memoir about being an uninspired art student who becomes fast friends with a crew of wisecracking hipsters running a funky café—her style seems perfect for children’s books, too. Finally, Laura Park’s look at two sisters raising themselves without parents is a little precious, but intriguing.
 
The just-plain-funny stuff is highlighted by Doug “Steven” Allen’s two-pager on hillbillies —it reads like Tobacco Road on meth.
 
Winning a blue ribbon in the “contemplative” category would be Gabrielle Bell’s tale of a girl running away from home, to her empty summer camp in the off-season. The story has a lovely sense of solitude.
 
Let’s turn to a special category we’ll call “inscrutable.” I once had the pleasure of hearing Gary Panter narrate a slide-show retrospective of his work. His bottomless well of creativity was something to see, and I recall he said that “If I had nine lifetimes to live, I wouldn’t be able to get all the ideas in my head onto paper.” It’s a wonderful sentiment, and yet, I’ve never understood a single strip the man has drawn—his yen for surrealist gobbledygook puts me off every time.
 
Anders Nilsen, like Chris Ware, will probably be in every edition of the BAC as long as he continues to publish. His entry for ’09, about a bunch of birds defending a donut against a raggedy human nomad, is not his best –or easiest to comprehend—work (and it really pales next to his “The Gift” in the ‘06 volume).
 
Let’s end on a shitty note, yes? Dash Shaw is capable of so much more than the throwaway plot of his contribution here. Indeed, in the eye-opening biographical appendix, he calls his piece “immature” and “pissy,” and I’m not gonna argue with him.
 
Well, this is a comics review that has taken far too long to write and to read, I’m sure. The Best American Comics anthology is worth serious analysis, though, because at $22, it’s a good buy as a Christmas present for, say, a teen of either sex getting into non-superhero comics, and it should sell like gangbusters every year. But then, from the perspective of a crusty old comics nerd like myself, there are going to be entries that really seem to fly in the face of who’s the best, and what their best work really is.
 
In practical terms, that’s largely a function of the selections that series editors Jessica “La Perdida” Abel and Matt “Black Candy” Madden presented to Burns, which he then winnowed down to these three dozen pieces. (One of the book’s introductions explains that’s basically how it works).
 
So there’s a certain tension here, between some divine works by some creators you might not even know, and some abysmal stuff by guys who don’t need to be in this tome on an annual basis, but seem to have a lock in the selection process.
 
Personally, I look at the kind of sick, dark oddness Charles Burns has made his milieu, and I find the book lacks a certain luster, but at the other extreme, of course, if the whole series ever collapses into the dust, our culture would suffer. | Byron Kerman
 

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