The Best American Comics 2006 (Houghton Mifflin)

best06-headerHarvey Pekar (American Splendor) teamed with Anne Elizabeth Moore to craft this collection of recent works from the likes of Joe Sacco, Kim Deitch, Robert Crumb, and more, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a better digest of graphic lit anywhere.  

294 pgs FC; $22.00 Hardcover

(W/A: Various; Edited by Anne Elizabeth Moore and Harvey Pekar)

 

Series editor Anne Elizabeth Moore and guest editor Harvey Pekar have taken pains to make sure the inaugural installment of Houghton Mifflin's Best American Comics series does not suck. And it does not suck in a very big way.

 

 It is, as Moore and Pekar have intended, a heat-seeking missile aimed at the sensibilities of the fools who still don't get that great comics are great literature, period. It is a functional sampler of that which is stellar in the world of thoughtfully written comics. Will it save your soul? Yeah, maybe it will. And it might even damn you to the hell of dumping a lot more disposable income than you really have into graphic novels. That's because this collection is so compulsively good, it doubles as an obvious jumping-off point; when you're done, you'll want to seek out other work by these gifted writer/artists.

 

Kim Deitch's "Ready to Die" is a sobering interview with a Virginia murderer on death row just before his execution, and then, a series of interviews with his family and his victims' families just after the lethal injection. It's a serious meditation on the death penalty, colored in incongruously bright hues, like some absurd beach towel.

 

It's followed by Anders Nilsen's "The Gift," which somehow manages to be even more powerful. It's the tale of a man trying to survive in an anonymous country where chaos and violence rule the day. His magnanimous decision to take pity on his own attacker may wind up costing him his life — a haunting allegory for an age when thieves, killers and sundry other slimeballs seem to hold all the cards. The spare art positions the violence on a wide plain, lending everything an end-of-the-world eeriness, too.

 

Joe Sacco's "Complacency Kills" – another social-justice comic — is a visual report from a graphic journalist embedded with a group of Marines in the Iraq War. We wait through boring stretches of desert surveillance, broken by tense, poorly understood confrontations with Iraqi drivers on a vital road, and by deadly Improvised Explosive Device bombs. This piece could not be more urgent or relevant, and it could not be told by text alone-Sacco's drawings of soldiers joking, weightlifting and barking commands in adrenaline-fueled fear go right to the gut.

 

Justin Hall's "La Rubia Loca" tells the true tale of a woman going off her antipsychotic meds and becoming unhinged during a Mexican vacation, and how her disturbing antics (including offering herself to every man she encounters) ultimately teach the narrator a lesson in grace and humility.

 

On the lighter side, Lilli Carre's "Adventures of Paul Bunyan and His Big Blue Ox Babe" dares to introduce the possibility of sexual tension between the giant and his bovine companion. A snippet by the ever-clever Alison "Dykes to Watch Out For" Bechdel and a very funny Gilbert "Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers" Shelton comic are reprinted. "Dance with the Ventures," otherwise known as Jonathan Bennett's adventures in trashpicking, has the sort of meticulous art that draws you in, and enhances the mocking tone of the story.

 

Jesse Reklaw's "Thirteen Cats of My Childhood" recalls the lives and personalities of the many cats he and his siblings once kept, and in the process, offers a look at both his pathetically angry father and his mania for Star Wars action figures (the panel where C3PO explains the presence of a cat turd to R2D2 is priceless).

 

It's no surprise that editor Pekar, famous for chronicling his "adventures" as a file clerk in his American Splendor comics, has also included a number of strips that detail the mundane routines of blue-collar wage slaves with humor and style. John Porcellino's "Diary of a Mosquito Abatement Man" and David Lasky's "Diary of a Bread Delivery Guy" will resonate with anyone who didn't happen to be born with a silver spoon in his mouth.

 

A poignant piece by Robert Crumb on his relationship with his brother Charles, who would go on to eventually kill himself, ends the book with verve. My favorite entry, though, would have to be David Heatley's masterful "Portrait of My Dad," a collection of strips in panels of different sizes that form a mosaic of boring, hilarious, random, sappy, embarrassing stories from the life of the cartoonist's father. The "Portrait" is a complex one, of a man whose flaws, strengths and peccadilloes (you have to see how he labels the spines of the VHS tapes he records from TV) coalesce into a perfectly realized rendering possible only via the medium of comics.

 

And all those goodies take up less than half of what's printed in this thick anthology.

 

Pekar is a writer, not an artist, and his literary bent wins the day. It seems he was drawn (no pun intended) to select bold, memorable, personal stories as well as excellent art, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a better digest of graphic lit anywhere.

 

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