For this year’s BEST AMERICAN COMICS, with guest editor Jonathan Lethem, the speakers were turned up to eleven, all the windows were smashed, and the ceiling collapsed as the comics medium made a pretty nice step forward. I am talking about this imaginary line that’s been dividing comics from fine art. In the past (or still present), if I saw some compelling comics on display in an art gallery or museum, I would need to second-guess on how to describe it. The gallery or museum, the authority figures, had decreed that the work on the walls was “comics-related,” not simply “comics.” That’s always bothered me when I read “comics-related” on a label attached to a work that could simply be identified as, embraced as, “comics.”
Consider, for example Lethem’s inclusion of Henriette Valium, generally described as “a comic book artist and painter.” Valium is something of a hybrid, not easily pegged. In the right context, you can call him a cartoonist. You could also just call him an artist. His work is out there, way out there. It simply does not neatly fit into the conventional comics world or the traditional art world. And yet it belongs in both. The sample that Lethem has chosen demonstrates a masterful uninhibited expression. It’s powerfully visual and, while not a traditional or coherent narrative, the words carry weight. So, then the question becomes is this a comic that is “art-related” or just comics. Let’s embrace it as comics!
And then there’s Raymond Pettibon. If there is anyone who stands out as having their work labeled as “comics-related” by the art world gatekeepers, it would be him. Pettibon began his art career as an in-your-face punk. Pettibon created some of the most awesome, creepy, and wonderfully enigmatic art that was chiefly used to promote bands. Over time, his art went from the streets to the gallery walls. It was cool matter-of-fact images of all sorts of sordid things. I never thought of it as exactly being comics and yet, as a cartoonist-painter, I totally related to it. If it was “comics,” then it was of a more experimental stripe–without even trying to be or fully aware that it was! It was just great. Today, I believe, it would be accepted as some form of comics. So, the timing is perfect to see this move forward.
To be sure, the bulk of the work here adheres more closely to the principles of sequential art. For example, Eleanor Davis provides a more straightforward narrative. Her piece in this book, “No Tears, No Sorrow,” follows a group of participants in a workshop to learn how to cry. It is a beautifully paced comic with a nice spare look. While the characters and setting are very concise and minimal, it speaks volumes to our conflicted notions of expressing emotion.
Another piece that knocks it right out of the park is “The Good Witch, 1947,” by Megan Kelso. Like characters from a novel by Carson McCullers, these are mysterious, sad characters that we deeply want to know but will only be allowed in after thoughtful consideration. Megan Kelso is not “old school” or “traditional.” She just knows how to weave a good story. And that’s what you’ll find here, a tidy number of immersive and compelling comics.
As series editor Bill Kartalopoulos explained in an interview with Publishers Weekly, this latest BAC is not meant to be a straightforward survey of the best comics of the last year. Although, if it’s not a survey in some sense, then what is it? Well, it’s the guest editor’s take on the currents of comics. Fair enough. And, as long as we’re getting a collection that is being faithful to some notion of a survey, I’m all for that. Basically, it comes down to the series editor providing the guest editor with a mountain of books and, from that mountain, a collection emerges. This is Lethem’s take on comics. We see that, yes, comics come in many varieties. And with such an esteemed and thoughtful guide as Lethem, you are in good hands to make some wonderful discoveries and connections.