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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.