Category Archives: Best American Comics

Interview: Bill Kartalopoulos on The Best American Comics

BEST AMERICAN COMICS 2018

Here is a discussion of what makes for the best comics within the United States with Bill Kartalopoulos, the series editor of the prestigious annual collection, The Best American Comics, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. What does it take to be considered the best? Well, mind you, everyone has their own set of ideas but, essentially, it boils down to compelling work. One way or another, things add up. The work commands your attention and it checks off a number of boxes like being original, structurally sound, and maybe even groundbreaking.

One thing that makes this particular interview special is very good timing. I happen to have been in New York for a combination of business and pleasure. The latest collection of Best American Comics had just come out. In fact, I’d recently reviewed it here. So, one thing led to another. I asked Bill what he thought about getting together in person for an interview and so we did. For me, meeting Bill at Parsons The New School for Design was a nice treat. He teaches there on the subject of comics. Currently in his class, he’s covering Art Spiegelman’s landmark work, Maus. Bill was Associate Editor and Production Assistant on MetaMaus, Spiegelman’s 2011 book and multimedia DVD set examining the production of Maus.

Parsons The New School for Design

My goal in this interview was simply to have a pleasant, perhaps even lively, conversation. I am a fan of Best American Comics but I was setting that aside, so to speak, in order to go through a relatively objective set of questions. I wanted to dig around and see what we might uncover and Bill was certainly up for it. What I come away with  is the fact that this annual best-of collection has gone through a rigorous process. First, we have Mr. Kartalopoulos dutifully gathering up around 120 or so works that he deems worthy. Then, he hands them off to the guest editor. This year, that honor goes to cartoonist Phoebe Gloeckner. Finally, a shaking and mixing and final rinse. The editor, after paring down the final cut of titles, may end up adding some of her own, and will ultimately preside over a presentation all her own. Okay, lots going on. So, here we discuss all that and more.

“Yazar and Arkadaş” by Lale Westvind

HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: Bill, I thought we could take as our jumping off point the last work in this year’s Best American Comics. This is by Lale Westvind. It is quite a surreal sci-fi tale entitled, “Yazar and Arkadaş.” I think it would be good fun to linger over this loopy and wonderful work, an ideal example of what comics are all about. It kicks off with an urgent search for a book and, along the way, the main characters are compelled to continue their journey naked. What can you tell us?

BILL KARTALOPOULOS: Lale Westvind did the cover for this year’s Best American Comics. This piece was one that she published during the twelve month cycle that we cover for each volume. Our excerpt doesn’t contain the story in full but it gives the reader a good sense of it. The original work was published on a risograph. We attempted to evoke that same look and feel, including the pink paper used in the original.

CHAMBERLAIN: That unique look that you get from a risograph is part of what defines independent comics.

KARTALOPOULOS: I think a lot of Lale’s work speaks to science fiction. Although a lot of her work is very different, it does bring to mind Jack Kirby and how he played with mythology with his New Gods.  Something else that I think is really nice and speaks to the selection process is what happened when it came time for Phoebe to pick what to excerpt from Emil Ferris’s My Favorite Thing is Monsters. She chose a conversation that refers to Medusa. That moment would end up resonating at the end of the book, with the last work by Lale Westvind and her disembodied head of Medusa with the tendrils of hair acting as arms grabbing at things.

 

Emil Ferris

 

Lale Westvind

CHAMBERLAIN: It happens every year. I recall us talking about interconnections between the selected works during our phone interview a few years back.

KARTALOPOULOS: It’s  not a heavy-handed thing.

CHAMBERLAIN: Oh, of course not.

KARTALOPOULOS: It’s something you can’t force. It’s natural and organic.

CHAMBERLAIN: I think of how iconic My Favorite Things is Monsters is for readers. To present it in this collection, the challenge was to find an interesting way to revisit. Maybe you could give us another look behind the scenes. What is the significance of having Gabrielle Bell’s piece as the opener?

Gabrielle Bell

KARTALOPOULOS: That’s an interesting question particularly with how it relates to the creation of this collection. Each new guest editor handles the job a bit differently. For example, Scott McCloud created categories and wrote short introductions for each. Jonatahn Lethem, the next year, aware of what McCloud had done, followed suit in his own idiosyncratic way.This year, with Phoebe Gloeckner, she decided to see what it might look like with  alphabetizing the titles–which is exactly what she ended up doing for the book!

CHAMBERLAIN: You can’t be any more fair than having the book alphabetized! That’s a good tip for aspiring cartoonists. Get a pseudonym that places you towards the front. I’m looking at Tara Booth’s work now. It’s a very raw and powerful style. And then you’ve got, after that, the very lean and clean work of J. D. Bryant. Some of the elements in Tara’s work are very challenging for the viewer. While, with Bryant, it’s very cool and detached. Maybe we can do a bit of comparing and contrasting with these two. 

Tara Booth

 

D. J. Bryant

KARTALOPOULOS: Sure, these are two very different ways of working.  I certainly hope that it demonstrates the wide variety of work on display in these pages. Tara Booth shares with the reader the more private aspects of life, things you wouldn’t typically share, like popping a zit. She works mostly, if not exclusively, in gouache for this piece. Bryant works in the tradition of alt-comics from the ’80s and ’90s. It’s a naturalistic style with pop appeal, very dense, with a surreal narrative that loops back on itself. The types of brushes and pens and inks he uses go back further to the ’30s and ’40s. Booth has a very different approach, wordless little moments. Both are extremely effective styles.

Geof Darrow

 

Max Clotfelter

CHAMBERLAIN: It does take a lot for a major comic book publisher to appear in Best American Comics, doesn’t it? It happens from time to time. This year we have a piece by Geof Darrow that appeared in Dark Horse Comics. I understand why that is. A lot of the work is market-driven and would seem out of context in Best American Comics. That said, I see a lot of interesting work coming out of Image Comics, for example. Is it a case of stepping back from the major comic book publishers in order to secure room for the independent cartoonists?

KARTALOPOULOS: We don’t really think about the scale of the publisher necessarily. We’re just looking for good work, something that is unique that expresses a personal vision, not necessarily an autobiographical vision. Dark Horse does publish a good amount of creator-owned work. This piece by Geof Darrow is very much an auteurial work: it is his vision; he is doing the work just the way he sees it. This is a personal vision regardless of the means of production. It is a personal vision as much as the work just before it, a self-published piece by Max Clotfelter.

CHAMBERLAIN: I agree. This brings us back to our theme of different approaches. One piece is technically crisp and another is stripped down. I want to ask you to share with us something about your intimate connection with comics. I know you spend quite a lot time on comics in various ways. Would you give us a window into your day or whatever you might like to share.

KARTALOPOULOS: I teach at Parsons about comics so at least once a week I’m teaching. Then I’m either preparing for a class or grading papers. I just finished reading for Best American Comics 2019. Each book has a time lag. For example, the current volume covers work created from September 2016 to August 2017. It goes from Autumn to Autumn. Then it takes a full year to create a volume. I’m at a place right now where I’m about to hand off work to our next guest editor. At the same time, I’m working on a book on North American comics for Princeton University Press. It’s pretty far along but I still have a number of chapters to complete.

CHAMBERLAIN: How do you gauge the reception that the book gets. With each year, do you sense that you’ve got a locked-in audience?

KARTALOPOULOS: The print run is somewhere around 20,000 copies so that’s a lot of copies out in the world. One thing that I think is very helpful is that the series tends to fairly automatically enter libraries. I think this series has a pretty useful life as an entry point into comics for many readers. We put as much information as we can about the sources of each title. We have bios and websites. So, for example, if there’s a self-contained work among the selections, maybe readers will seek out that creator and read more. In this way, we can make a quite impact well beyond the initial release of a volume.

CHAMBERLAIN: You’re talking about a quiet impact. You’re not exactly thinking in terms of setting a standard–or maybe you are, to some degree?

KARTALOPOULOS: I think we’re seeking out good comics. I’m putting together a larger pool of material, over a hundred pieces, for the guest editor. I select work worth considering…really give the guest editor a lot of options. Really select pieces that are meaningful to them. I try to give them a broad palette. The guest editor is applying their own sense of critical judgement of what they consider a good comic. If you look at the series from multiple volumes, you’ll see a consistency, a pretty high level of quality.

A mark of success for the series is how each guest editor leaves their personal mark.  This year’s volume, edited by Phoebe Gloeckner, feels different to me to the volume edited by Ben Katchor, which feels different to me to the volume edited by Roz Chast, and so on. There’s consistency, a high level of quality, and each guest editor brings in their own point of view.

CHAMBERLAIN: That’s a wonderful place to end. Thanks for your time, Bill.

KARTALOPOULOS: Thank you.

*****

We had a really good, insightful, and fun conversation. You can listen to the interview by just clicking the video link below:

You can visit Bill Kartalopoulos right here.

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Filed under Alt-Comics, Art, Best American Comics, Bill Kartalopoulos, Comics, Comix, Independent Comics, Interviews, mini-comics, Minicomics

Review: THE BEST AMERICAN COMICS 2018

THE BEST AMERICAN COMICS 2018

The Best American Comics 2018, with series editor Bill Kartalopoulos, and editor Phoebe Gloeckner, is another impressive collection of comics that are offered to the reader as among the best of the last year. Think of it as a comics art festival all in one book. Don’t expect much in the way of mainstream comics: no big publishers, let alone superheroes. What you will find a great deal of is a treasure trove of activity on the fringes.

While comics can be created in a myriad of ways, some patterns hold true. The most distinctive common trait is that work in the alt-comics scene is usually the work of one original voice that knows the work best and is compelled to shout it from the mountain tops with little or not additional assistance. Here are some examples for this year’s BAC anthology:

Kevin Hooyman

Kevin Hooyman fits more into the heroic mold of the hermit cartoonist. There are any number of glorious examples of this type of commitment. It leads to some of the most idiosyncratic, and compelling, work around. People can take sides and claim this is the only kind of comics that really matter. The truth is that including Hooyman’s work in this alt-comics anthology helps to set the tone and continue to build on what is possible in this medium.

Richie Pope

Richie Pope is an excellent example of an indie-pro hybrid. It happens and more often that you might think: a rebel/eccentric who, when he is assigned a client, will naturally keep to deadlines and go to meetings. Consider Pope’s work to have that extra professional snap and polish.

Lale Westvind

Lale Westvind is another hybrid. This time: cartoonist-animator. This is always an intriguing combination of skill sets. Westvind can bring to bear her rigorous animation background in the service of art comics–giving it that added lift.

Tara Booth

Tara Booth is another example of a cartoonist identifying as an outsider and challenging the reader, whether mainstream or not. That said, she’s also a masterful artist with a deceptively simple style.

Max Clotfelter

Max Clotfelter is high on the list of cartoonists who aim to provoke. He is a guerilla artist who defies the general reader’s expectations. It’s an ethos rooted in punk and DIY: the more raw and simple the better. A more raw approach is something cartoonists like Art Spiegelman advocated and yet, as underground cartoonists progressed in what became actual art careers, refinement was never far behind raw. So, the balancing between the raw and the cooked will go on.

Geof Darrow

Geof Darrow is another independent cartoonist who is also at home with big publishers like Dark Horse Comics from which Darrow’s piece in the book originally appeared. Darrow is a shining example that technical skill and masterful creation within the traditional structures of comics is something to celebrate and not distance one’s self from in favor of seeking out the most experimental of creators.

Bill Kartalopoulos has much to be proud of in all his efforts to support and to better understand the ever-shifting world of contemporary comics as an art form. He makes choices as to what may end up in the book. Then an esteemed guest editor makes the final calls. After that, well, it’s up to the selected creators to take it from there. Some may find themselves relatively rising and some may find themselves relatively coming up short. And others may just slip out the back door and never be heard from again.

The Best American Comics 2018 is a 416-page hardcover, in b&W & color, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Visit HMH right here.

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Filed under Anthologies, Best American Comics, Bill Kartalopoulos, Comics, Phoebe Gloeckner

Interview: Ben Katchor, Guest Editor of The Best American Comics 2017

Ben Katchor, guest editor of The Best American Comics 2017

Where are contemporary comics headed today? Is it best to remain underground or to be viewed as respectable? For legendary cartoonist Ben Katchor, comics that interest him need to be unusual. Ben Katchor is known for his critically-acclaimed comic strip, “Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer.” Mr. Katchor is the winner of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur Fellowship. He is Associate Professor of Illustration at The New School-Parsons School of Design.

“The Best American Comics 2017”

And he is the guest editor of The Best American Comics 2017. I had the pleasure to review this year’s edition. And, to add to that, I am honored to share with you this interview with Mr. Katchor. Just click the link below:

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Review: ‘The Best American Comics 2017,’ Editor, Ben Katchor; Series Editor, Bill Kartalopoulos

“The Best American Comics 2017”

Comics can be discussed in any number of ways. You can try to include everything from comic strips to superhero comics to the latest graphic novels. What the annual anthology Best American Comics does is focus on comics that rise to the level of art that are already coming from some sort of artistic background: boutique publishers, arthouse anthologies, cultural websites, self-published work, and any other art outlets including galleries. The Best American series began with a short stories yearly anthology in 1915. The addition of an annual focusing on comics began in 2006. This was perfect timing as consensus in varied circles had reached a fever pitch that American comics had reached the level of art. And so, here we are with another long look at the comics medium with The Best American Comics 2017.

“Generous Bosom Part 2,” by Conor Stechschulte

When you focus solely on alt-comics (alternative as opposed to mainstream) as representing all the best American comics, that creates an interesting challenge. But, all in all, it ends up being very helpful in sorting out where comics are headed as an art form. It is essential to avoid pitfalls: giving a pass to work that is weak from being self-indulgent, ill-conceived, poorly crafted, or heavy-handed. But we’re looking for the best, right? Comics cannot be held by the hand and protected. It is made of stronger stuff. To try to shield its creators from the harsh realities of life only hurts the very thing you may think, it your position of authority, you are helping. You wouldn’t provide a painter with free room and board and simply expect masterpieces in return, right? That’s not how life works. Anyway, the best work will win out in the end and the best work has got to have some kind of “wow factor.” This collection has plenty of that.

From “Frieze, No. 181,” by Gary Panter

First, be sure to read the introductions by series editor Bill Kartalopoulos and guest editor Ben Katchor, a master cartoonist. To be fair, this is a very dry nutshell of what they have to say but, basically: Kartalopoulos advocates for artist-cartoonists to not hold back at all since their odds of fame and fortune are nil; Katchor, in a series of hilarious satirical pieces, reveals a sensitivity to the marginalized role of cartoonists. To be egalitarian and invite everyone to try their hand at creating comics does, as I suggest, create interesting challenges. Another example: you would not assemble an annual collection of the best American illustration and really spend too much time considering nonprofessionals–nor would you concern yourself over the status of a person in the illustration profession. So, what makes the artist-cartoonist (plus those who aspire to be) so special? You could say that is what makes this book so special since it devotes itself, as well as logic and space can accommodate, to the current state of independent American comics.

From “Communications Workers of America,” by Dan Zettwoch

We begin with a piece by Gary Panter. Here is someone who, by all rights, openly defies any professional standards to the comics profession. Panter’s work is messy: from the clumsy depiction of figures and composition down to the often hard to read hand-drawn lettering. A lot of people do not like a “clumsy” work. However, a lot of people who attempt such a style, don’t nearly come close to the spark and originality in Panter’s work. In “Frieze, No. 181,” Panter has his characters prattle about the current state of art. It’s funny, unique, and totally Panter. In comparison, the next work in this collection is by Dan Zettwoch. Now, here you have a cartoonist who has mastered all those aspects of traditional cartooning: crisp and dynamic depiction of figures and composition right down to intricate highly-polished/professional-grade use of hand-drawn lettering. In his case, if he tried to be too casual and expressive, his creations might become too hard to follow. So, there you have two examples of contemporary indie comics, among a myriad of possibilities.

From “John Wilcock, New York Years, 1954-1971,” by Ethan Persoff and Scott Marshall

If I were to point to only one item in this collection, I would be satisfied with the excerpt from “John Wilcock, New York Years, 1954-1971,” by Ethan Persoff and Scott Marshall. I believe this satisfies the desire of Kartalopoulos to highlight work that pushes boundaries; and it also satisfies a similar inclination in Katchor, to seek out offbeat and unusual work. I find this excerpt especially timely as it focuses on the origins of The Village Voice, which recently had to give up its print edition. In this piece, we follow the misadventures of writer John Wilcock, who actually succeeds by not only skill and talent but by a formidable force of will. He finds himself at the right time and place as one of the founders of the Voice, first published in October of 1955. Wilcock manages to hold his own with tough guy co-founder Norman Mailer. And, among the dazzling people he gets to interview is none other than Marilyn Monroe. This is a very lively work of comics. You can follow it as a webcomic right here.

From “Test of Loyalty,” by Sam Alden

There is definitely something to be said for being completely inclusive about the act of creating comics. We have already reached the point where you can just as easily consider taking a cooking class, or a yoga workshop, or a comics-making workshop. Hey, you can also include improv comedy in that self-improvement list. Do comedians feel that their profession is somehow diminished by having so many amateurs getting into (or attempting to get into) the same game? Nope. Same goes for a whole bunch of other people: writers, actors, and various other artists. Fortunately, you can’t learn some of the basics of becoming a doctor on a lazy Sunday afternoon. The point is that the standards for comics are there and some people will do comics for a certain time while others will be compelled to delve deeper. What a book like Best American Comics does is provide both the practitioner and the reader with a wonderful roadmap and source of inspiration–and, by the way, entertainment and enrichment.

“The Best American Comics 2017,” editor Ben Katchor; series editor, Bill Kartalopoulos, is a 400-page hardcover, available as of October 3rd, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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Review: ‘The Best American Comics 2014,’ Editor, Scott McCloud; Series Editor, Bill Kartalopoulos

The-Best-American-Comics-2014

Anyone who digs deeper already knows that comics are fully capable of being as elastic, ambiguous, and fluid as any other art medium. Just like fiction, film, and painting, the comics medium can reveal as much as it hides. There’s an annual anthology, “The Best American Comics,” that showcases a wide range of North American comics and addresses the familiar and peculiar in what amounts to a particular branch of contemporary comics. Or, perhaps the best way to put it is to say this book showcases the best in comics as an art form. The 2014 edition is now available. Let’s take a look.

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Review: ‘The Best American Comics 2013,’ Editor, Jeff Smith; Series Editors, Matt Madden and Jessica Abel

best-american-comics-jeff-smith-2013

“The Best American Comics 2013” pops out at you with we-mean-business cover art by Kate Beaton and zips right to it. I interviewed this year’s editor, Jeff Smith (read here). As he explained, he was looking for singular talent, whether new or established, “A story someone really needs to tell.” He took care with placement so that elements from one work flow into the next and compliment each other.

Smith starts with Alison Bechdel’s “Mirror,” an autobiographical piece about mother/daughter dynamics; and he ends with Paul Pope’s “1969,” a quirky inside look at the first human landing on the moon. These two works by cartoonist heavyweights anchor the top and bottom. In between, other top contenders lend a hand, like an excerpt from Craig Thompson’s “Habibi.”

Sophie Goldstein's "The Good Wife"

Sophie Goldstein’s “The Good Wife”

There are many new rising stars that get to sparkle amid the well know cartoonists. One such talent is Sophie Goldstein. Her work is placed right before Craig Thompson’s. The connection between the two is the focus on the female main character. In Goldstein’s “The Good Wife,” we view a woman who denies herself well beyond her limits in order to please her husband. That story gives way to Thompson’s “70 Nights of Pleasure,” an excerpt from “Habibi.”

Craig Thompson's "70 Nights of Pleasure," excerpt from "Habibi"

Craig Thompson’s “70 Nights of Pleasure,” excerpt from “Habibi”

Again, we have a woman pushing her limits to satisfy one man. The artwork, and the narrative structure, for each of these pieces is quite different. Goldstein’s style is basic. Thompson’s style is ornate. However, both present confident, mature work. That’s saying a lot since Thompson is a seasoned veteran and Goldstein is a recent graduate from the Center for Cartoon Studies.

If you’re looking for a cut-to-the-chase short list on the best comics in America, then this 400-page trade paperback is your book. There are 30 works featured here and they are all gems. This book is in full color. “The Best American Comics 2013” is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and is available here.

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Interview: Jeff Smith Talks About BONE, RASL, and THE BEST AMERICAN COMICS 2013

Jeff-Smith-Cartoonist

It is an honor to get to interview master cartoonist Jeff Smith, creator of the landmark comics series, “Bone.” There are many subjects to cover with such a giant in comics. For this interview, we focus on the recent release of the collected hardcover edition of his sci-fi noir work, “RASL,” (reviewed here) and his role as guest editor of the just released “The Best American Comics 2013,” anthology (reviewed here).

Bone-One-Volume-Jeff-Smith

In this interview, we get down to what matters most, those things that cause a spark in childhood and lead the way for a lifetime. The spark I am thinking of is when a 9-year-old Jeff was quite impressed by a animated feature he saw on TV, “The Pogo Special Birthday Special.” Already, the title of such a show hints at something offbeat. It was the only time that Walt Kelly’s “Pogo” was to be animated and that was by yet another legend, Chuck Jones. The very next day, Jeff received a collection of “Pogo” comics from a classmate. That got Jeff to thinking and set him on his life’s path.

We chat about Nikola Tesla, the offbeat superstar of science in many circles today. He figures large in “RASL.”

Jesse Jacobs's "The Divine Manifestation of a Singular Impulse," excerpt from "By This Shall You Know Him"

From “Best American Comics 2013”: Jesse Jacobs’s “The Divine Manifestation of a Singular Impulse,” excerpt from “By This Shall You Know Him”

And we take a quick tour of “The Best American Comics 2013.” To be fair, Jeff did not have his copy with him so we only discuss some highlights to the book. Suffice it to say, what we do cover gives you a sense of what Jeff was looking for as he made his selections. And while he loves each piece in the book, he does speak fondly of Jesse Jacobs. Smith’s art is far more detailed and realistic, in comparison to Jacobs’s, but it’s clear that they share a similar fanciful sensibility.

You can listen to the full interview by clicking just below:

You can visit Jeff Smith here.

“The Best American Comics 2013,” is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and you can get your copy here.

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