The thing I find most constantly surprising about the BEST AMERICAN COMICS series by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is the attention to quality. Not just quality in regard to the comix selected. After all, that’s really something they cover in the title, isn’t it? What I’m always surprised by is the attention to quality in presenting that work.
If your interest in comix goes beyond the spandex genre and into how diverse comix are as a storytelling medium, then these books should definitely be in your collection. In its fourth year now, the editions have served as a sampler of what’s happening in American comix as selected by some of the top names in the industry; Harvey Pekar, Chris Ware, Lynda Barry and, this year, Charles Burns. Each of these guest editors have had a long and important involvement with the development of comix as an artform, but Burns is a personal favorite of mine so I’ve been looking forward to this edition in particular for nearly a year.
Charles Burns own work shows a highly personalized care in the craft and quite a lot of that comes through in the selections he made for this edition. There are a lot of like-minded comic artists in this book who, while stylistically quite different, have that same attention to craft. One of the big challenges of the book itself is housing and presenting all of these different approaches in one standard-sized volume.
Comix, particularly those that we’d call the best American comix from the past twenty years, don’t tend to conform to one kind of shape or size. Largely a ghetto or alternative artform, these comix are made and often published by artists trying to get their work out there however they can; minicomix, long-form book edition, strips, pamphlets, webcomix, etc. Works by Gary Panter and Tony Millionaire just don’t fit easily into the same size book as Adrian Tomine or Art Spiegelman. All of these artists are, as I mentioned, quite concentrated on craft so the adjustment here make huge differences in the work. I’m a huge fan of Chris Ware’s work, for instance, but always find it difficult to read when presented in these editions. I think Gary Panter and Tony Millionaire, and even the Dan Clowes piece, also suffer a little bit from this re-sizing. But this work has to be in there in order for the title to work. After all, who’d buy a called “Best American Comics That Are Shaped Like This Book”? Series editors Matt Madden and Jessica Abel did a wonderful job trying make things fit together however, and there seems to be an attention to arranging things within the volume so that all the work gets as much breathing room as possible.
As samplers like this go I find there’s kind of two different desires I have in buying the book; an interesting seeing work in there that I know, and an interest in discovering new work there for the first time. As Burns mentions in his introduction, 20 of the 33 contributors have had there work in previous editions of BEST AMERICAN COMICS. There are a lot of familiar names here to be sure. But still quite a few nice surprises:
-Dan Zettwoch’s “Spirit Duplicator”
-Matt Broersma’s “The Company”
-Mimi Pond’s “Over Easy”
-Sammy Harham’s “Black Death”
-Ted Stearn’s excerpts from “Splitsville” (which I’m sorry to say I hadn’t read yet)
-Laura Park’s “Freaks”
-and this hilarious piece at right by Koren Shadmi!
Another great selection of comix that I can’t recommend highly enough.