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.
I read this year’s Best American Comics on the train and I loved it all the more for doing so–but more on that later. Bill Kartalopoulos is the series editor and this year’s editor is Roz Chast. Even if you think you don’t know enough about the contemporary American comics scene, you probably know Roz Chast’s work in The New Yorker. So nothing to worry about, even Roz Chast doesn’t think of herself as exceptionally knowledgable about the current comics scene. However, Bill Kartalopoulos knew right away that, no matter how splintered the comics scene may be, here was a legendary cartoonist, with a wealth of experience, insight, and a very special kind of irreverence. This book is a guide through the best of American comics from someone with just the right sensibility to add to the journey. And what a journey it will be kicked off by the artwork of Marc Bell on the cover, as well as within the pages!
From “Stroppy” by Marc Bell
The path begins with a forward by Kartalopoulos which explains how we got here from there and what sort of comics we are focusing upon. For the most part, the focus is on comics that have come to be known as alternative comics, or alt-comics. These are comics that fall well within comics as an art form. While genre comics occasionally rise to the level of art, that is not their main purpose. So, as I have maintained, it is useful to be able to separate comics within two main groups: genre and the alternative to genre. There is crossover (which is great when it happens and can be quite interesting), but, in general, art comics are on one side and superhero and various other genre comics are on the other side. So, while it is possible, you will usually not see the likes of Batman or Spider-Man in Best American Comics–even if that just doesn’t seem right somehow.
Father and daughter clash in Adrian Tomine’s “Killing and Dying.”
Roz Chast’s introduction provides some clues as to what comics would appeal to her. Considering what she chose to include in the book, she is mostly intrigued by wry humor and in-depth autobiographical work. She says she’s not a prude but that if work gets misogynistic, that makes her sad. And she’s open to just about anything, even willing to go back to a comic that she wasn’t sure about at first. Chast does not categorize her selections. You just start reading. First up, is an excerpt from Adrian Tomine’s celebrated collection, “Killing and Dying.” In this excerpt from the title story, I can only imagine Chast’s love for zany humor telling her this is the piece to set the tone for the rest of the book: a story about a father struggling with his daughter’s sudden desire to be a stand-up comic.
Misfits band together in Chris Ware’s “The Last Saturday.”
Along with Adrian Tomine there are other clear choices to include: Chris Ware, Lynda Barry, Gabrielle Bell, John Porcellino, among others. But the treat is that they are set within the context of choices that Chast came to make. That fact adds another layer to one’s enjoyment of a story about struggling misfits by Chris Ware. And, it is quite true, there are so many comics out there that you cannot keep up with all of them. It does seem best to find a way to hook in and make some sense of things using different approaches each year. To that end, series editor, Bill Kartalopoulos has settled into taking a long view of things. Ideally, you don’t just read one Best American Comics annual but you keep up with it each year to find out what has made an impression and how it may fit into the current wave. What novelist Johnathan Lethem did as editor last year is different from what comics historian Scott McCloud did the year before.
Discussing time and effort in Lynda Barry’s “Syllabus.”
By the time I reached Lynda Barry’s story about coming to terms with a cartoonist’s goals and how to impart that wisdom unto students, I had a good sense of what Chast was going for. It provided me with a way to hook into everything else. And it was about that time that the rocking motion of the train added more resonance, especially as I patiently followed along lines of Barry’s handwritten writing reproduced from a notebook page. Both the train and the handwriting asked me to take my time. Earlier in my reading, I had been picking up on the fact that there is so much going on around you while riding in a train and how that is true for comics.
Barry brings up a challenging question: Just how long does it take to draw something? Well, it all depends. In the end, a good cartoonist develops a keen sense for this. It’s a variation of the old saw, When is a painting finished? So many art students have suffered from callous professors who dismiss work as simply unfinished. But, on the other hand, so many art professors have suffered from callow and impatient students who demand a checklist for assignment requirements. You cannot create anything, especially art, from a checklist! Time. It all takes time. So, in “Syllabus,” Barry sums it all up with, “Rushing it is missing it!” It is that standard that is maintained by all the cartoonists included here.
From “Adults Only” by Lance Ward
Cartoonists of this caliber are meticulous note-takers and obsessive in the best sense of the word. Among these type of cartoonists included in this book is an excerpt from “Adults Only” by Lance Ward. Ward states that he works directly on pre-made panels, without preliminary drawings, so that he can best attack his work. This runs counter to the Barry dictum of measured craftsmanship. However, Ward’s obsessive quality wins out. This is in the same spirit as Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings. Ward has gotten to the point where he has hit enough marks to know, on an intuitive level, where the marks will end up. The work has a spare and energetic look to it. Ward is recounting his misadventures working in a porn shop. That is the point of departure for his delving into struggles with his sexuality. A more free-form style could not have been invented for him. A cartoonist can try to minimize or maximize their style but, usually a certain way of doing things falls into place.
“Bike Fast” by Sophia Zdon
Ward, along with other rising talents included here such as Sophia Zdon, has found what works. Zdon, a graduate of the School of Visual Arts in 2015, provides heartfelt observations as if out of dreams.
From “The Corpse, the Ghost and the Hollow-Weenie” by Casanova Frankenstein
One of the most raw and honest expressions in comics comes from Casanova Frankenstein. In an excerpt from “The Corpse, the Ghost and the Hollow-Weenie,” he confides in the reader about a tumultuous life.
Panel excerpt from “Fatherland” by Nina Bunjevac
An excerpt from “Fatherland,” by Nina Bunjevac, published by W.W. Norton, provides insights into a peculiar and dangerous life in Yugoslavia in the aftermath of World War II.
From “Fashion Cats” by Alex Schubert
Alex Schubert‘s “Fashion Cat” is a hilarious look at the misadventures of a feline hipster, originally published in Blobby Boys 2 by Koyama Press.
From “El Deafo” by Cece Bell
Cece Bell‘s “El Deafo,” published by Abrams, is quite a captivating story about a little girl coming to terms with being deaf and how to navigate the world. The story is given an added lift by the nicely modulated coloring by David Lasky.
“Don’t Leave Me Alone” by GG
“Don’t Leave Me Alone,” by GG, is a dream-like compilation of growing up with fear and uncertainty in an intolerant and hostile world.
From “Blanket Portraits” by Geneviève Castrée Elverum
And then there are those comics that are simply transcendent–and can best inform us on the integrity and purpose of the comics medium. “Blanket Portraits,” by Geneviève Castrée Elverum, is a visual essay on a lifetime’s appreciation for blankets, their beauty and comfort, and what they symbolize. Geneviève passed away on July 9, 2016 from pancreatic cancer. As Bill Kartalopoulos states in a postscript, what made her comics unique was that they were “entirely expressive of who she was.”
The Best American Comics 2016
“The Best American Comics 2016” includes the work of 30 cartoonists. It is a full-color hardcover, available as of October 4, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Best American Comics proves to be an essential and inspiring guidebook. As I say, Bill Kartalopoulos has taken the long view. You’ll definitely want to read this year’s edition and make it a habit to keep up with this most distinctive collection.
Jonathan Lethem self-portrait in Introduction to The Best American Comics 2015
Jonathan Lethem is the author of nine novels, including “Gun, with Occasional Music,” “Motherless Brooklyn,” “The Fortress of Solitude,” and most recently, “Dissident Gardens.” He is this year’s editor for the annual, “Best American Comics.” Lethem’s 2003 novel, “The Fortress of Solitude,” famously references superhero comics. In 2007-2008, Marvel Comics published a ten-issue comic book collaboration between Lethem and artist Farel Dalrymple. It was a revisiting of one of the most unlikely of superheroes from the 1970s, “Omega the Unknown.” In 2013, Lethem collaborated with artist Raymond Pettibon as part of a collection of the artist’s work.
In my review of Best American Comics 2015, I speak to this year’s focus on comics as art. Series editor Bill Kartalopoulos brought in the idea of including Raymond Pettibon and it’s an exciting move toward further establishing comics as an art form in its own right. It would seem to many of us that such an assertion is no longer necessary. But every bit helps to make known to all readers the endless possibilities for comics. In my interview, we talk about Pettibon and his place in both the art world and the comics world. And we take a closer look at what comics are all about in the first place.
Cover art for Best American Comics 2015 by Raymond Pettibon
HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: I was reading over an interview you gave in 2008 and I wanted to quote a little from it. You said: “What I do in book after book after book is smash together — as urgently and as adamantly as I can — things that feel verifiably real everyday: textures, stuff of the prosaic and dreamlike material.” Is that the spirit in which you took on your editorship of this year’s Best American Comics?
JONATHAN LETHEM: That’s a great question. I like that quote. I don’t always love hearing myself read back to me but that one stands up. It sounds like what I feel that I do. Of course, I didn’t think of the editorship as having to reflect my aesthetic as though this were like a novel I was writing. You know, it extends from my position as a member of the audience, as a fan, as a responder, of other people’s work.
I’ve always seen a lot of continuity between the reader and the writer. There’s something in between like a member of the bookstore staff putting together a display, or a deejay setting up a set, or that overused term, “curator.” Helplessly, I’m grabbing at things that interest me and pushing them up against each other to make interesting vibrations between them. So, I guess it is like that quote. It is similar. The book ended up including things that are surreal, or magical, or fantastical, along with stuff of grubby ordinary life.
HC: This is your own personal journey through comics. I’m thinking of what Bill Kartalopoulos, the series editor, had said about this year’s edition being less of a survey than last year’s. I suppose each editor is going to bring different things to the next volume. This is your own take on the current scene in comics.
JL: Bill was tremendous about handing me a lot of rope. Obviously, he’s immersed in a field in a way, on a year to year basis, that I could never dream of being. He was brilliant in getting me up to speed and informing me of context. He was a pair of super-binoculars. He also wanted the book to be mine and not lead the horse to water too often. He said he wasn’t passing along anything he wasn’t interested in but that it was going to be too much and that I would need to carve out a vision from all this stuff. He was a great sounding board. He helped guide me to my decisions. For a while, I was floundering around. It’s overwhelming. The field is so huge and so hyper-kinetic in the kinds of energy and ambition being expressed.
HC: So, going through that mountain of books, impressed upon you the enormity of possibilities for comics.
JL: Yeah, I really did feel that. I guess that my selections reflect a kind of a sense of wanting to force the reader to experience, in some ways, the same exciting calamity of possibilities that I experienced. I wanted to reproduce the sensation of “What the hell is this?” Comics are so many different things right now: so vibrant, so many chances are being taken, so many fantastic experiments are being conducted. I started to think that this wasn’t just one thing. It’s a gigantic art form with brilliant juxtapositions and perplexities encompassed within.
Excerpt from “No Tears, No Sorrow,” by Eleanor Davis
HC: Looking at this year’s Best American Comics selections that you made, it runs the gamut from a more straightforward approach, like Eleanor Davis, to a more unconventional approach, like Henrietta Valium. And it’s all comics. I think you did something very significant this year by, in a natural way, bringing forward the understanding that comics is an art form. Now, one of my pet peeves, and you may agree, is when a gallery or museum labels something as only “comics-related” when, in fact, it is a work of comics, pure and simple.
HC: And here you have Raymond Pettibon’s work on the cover of this year’s Best American Comics.
JL: Somehow, I got in there very early and that was a piece of good luck. A little feeler that series editor Bill Kartalopoulos put forward was that he had spotted this recent work of Pettibon’s and he sort of dared me to agree with him that it really was comics, just like you say. I was the right recipient for that little piece of provocation. I was already a big Pettibon fan. I wrote something for him, so we had collaborated on that a few years ago. The results were published in The Believer. And that was a comic. I thought of it explicitly as four panels. I wrote for him a four-panel really bizarre and over-loaded comic to do. Raymond being Raymond, took that into even stranger directions. When Bill asked what I would think of Pettibon’s work in a comics context, I was absolutely on board. As an opening exchange, I think it set the ground for how the rest of the book was going to feel to us, that we’d agreed to this slightly audacious definition of comics. And then it comes first circle with the invitation to Raymond to be the cover artist and his agreeing to do it.
Excerpt from Raymond Pettibon’s “The Credits Rolled,” 2013.
HC: When I was reading this year’s Best American Comics in a cafe the other day, a barista made that “What the hell is this?” comment. And it was in a very supportive tone as he was very familiar with Pettibon’s work. This would be interesting: What can you tell us about Raymond Pettibon? How does he see himself within a comics context?
JL: I have met him a handful of times. And I would say that he is dodgy in the extreme, with a great disinterest in facing questions like that directly. But his work is eloquent. His work incorporates giant chunks of response to comics as one of the key American vernacular visual languages. Along with film, the covers of pulp paperbacks, and tabloid photography, his work devours comics as a source. You have images of Superman, you have hints of Krazy Kat. There’s that Vavoom character from Little Lulu. I think, to him, it’s a question that is too obvious for him to engage in. And here is where I’d feel a lot of native sympathy myself in terms of my own writing and how it engages with comics as a zone of vitality and American language all its own. Comics just begs to be responded to by other art forms. So, what the Pop artists did, by grabbing onto that comics energy, is akin to other artists, like Philip Guston, or Raymond Pettibon. What I’ve humbly tried to do a couple of times in my writing is that, somehow make literary prose just to the tune to the energy that you find in a comic book or a comic strip panel. I think it’s a natural response. You see that today among artists, an understanding that comics are crucial, alive, and part of the American cultural stratum.
HC: You see all sorts of creative people fascinated by comics narrative. You teach creative writing. Do you suggest comics to your students?
JL: I have done that and I also have dealt with some independent study students or thesis writers working on the subject of graphic novels. I haven’t yet assigned a comic as a text in a seminar class but you’re making me think that I ought to do that. It doesn’t seem out of reach to me. My seminars have included film assignments in the past so it would be completely of a piece with that.
HC: I want to reassure everyone that this is not simply a survey, although it is in some sense. It’s definitely a wonderful guide to what’s been going on in comics in the last year or so.
JL: I hope so.
HC: I love how you keep an irreverent tone. It’s respectful but fun. I mean, your introduction is a comic and it’s hilarious. I love the character you created, even though you say it’s derivative.
JL: Well, most good characters are derivative. The two things aren’t mutually exclusive.
HC: One thing I recall from creative writing class is to avoid being portentous. And I believe that most good comics have a lightness to them. They can be anything but they need to strike a good balance, and avoid being portentous.
JL: I’m with you on that. Ironically, the portentousness that I mostly shied away from was largely found in the mainstream superhero comics–which I couldn’t quite relate to. For the present crop, I wasn’t clicking with it. Often, this is because there is a slightly artificial heaviness to them. It’s sort of a role reversal from grown-up stuff being found among the underground and graphic novels and the funny books being there for kids. But, actually, the mainstream comic book companies are producing a lot of very jacked-up grim stuff. And, as you say, some of the most sophisticated or beguiling suggestive work that you can come across includes a certain levity or a sense of the absurd. Some frivolity is in the mix.
HC: Let’s consider some of the work included here. One that quickly comes to mind is Megan Kelso.
JL: Yeah, Megan Kelso was a great discovery. She’s so sly. It appears to be very straightforward work but the degree of compression, the way she can do so much with such a small number of pages, is very, very literary in fact.
From Julia Gfrörer’s “Palm Ash”
HC: Another intriguing selection is Julia Gfrörer.
JL: That’s another intricate and evocative piece. That was a total discovery for me. I hadn’t come across her work anywhere before.
HC: I’m familiar with her work. She’s definitely on the rise.
JL: Well, she should be.
HC: It’s nice that it was printed in the book on green paper.
JL: Yes, it was a pamphlet on green paper. One of the interesting things about work like this is that it has the quality of being an artifact. Some other works in the book were either bigger or smaller than the anthology pages. Or would be silkscreened or some other printing process. It’s only an approximation to the original when we fit it into the anthology format.
HC: What would you say about your readership?
JL: More than usual, I’m on the edge of my seat to meet my readership. I know the sense of being stakeholders the comics audience has. I wonder about how they will respond and probably argue with this book in certain ways. I’m really interested in what will come out of that and what I’ll learn. I think it was crucial to feel that I was being dropped into a universe and trying to do justice to this last year. It was like a flashbulb strobe image of the landscape. My volume was one in a conversation. It was instructive to study the last few years of the volumes and see the different kind of statements that people are making with the editor’s position and the different senses you get of what the competition in the field feels like at any given moment.
HC: I wonder if cartoonists see it as a contest. I tend to think that they’ll appreciate that this volume is, like you say, part of a conversation.
JL: Well, you know, everyone who makes things is waiting for that gold star. It’s a neat job to be able to give out the gold stars once in a while. You also want to let people know that there were hundreds of submissions that were clamoring and knocking on the door to be included. In some cases, the selections were determined upon what went together in making a book out of it all, making it all flow, and making it all interesting in context. There are some pieces that I fell in love with that didn’t make it into the book.
HC: It must be great when you make these connections while putting the book together, like the two pieces with a Wonder Woman theme, one by R. Sikoryak and the other by Diane Obomsawin.
JL: There was going to be a third Wonder Woman piece, by Ron Regé Jr., but lawyers stepped in and squelched it. I was trying to give as much of a glimpse into Wonder Woman as possible especially since there had been a couple of nonfiction books on Wonder Woman in that same year.
HC: And you ran into difficulty with getting a work in by Steve Ditko.
JL: That one went down to the wire. And it led us nowhere. So, somewhere, out there, there’s a compendium worthy of Steve Ditko.
HC: Well, God bless him. Thank you for your time, Jonathan.
JL: Thank you, Henry.
You can listen to the podcast interview by clicking below:
“The Best American Comics 2015” is a 400-page hardcover, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and is available as of October 6, 2015. You can find it at Amazon right here.
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.
It is a pleasure to chat about comics, especially with someone as well-versed on the subject as Bill Kartalopoulos. For this interview, the occasion is the 2014 volume of “The Best American Comics,” which Bill takes over as the new series editor. I thought I’d take the opportunity to ask him about his thoughts on the term, “alternative comics,” since he led an interesting panel discussion on that topic at SPX back in 2012 entitled, “Life After Alternative Comics.” This was a way to frame the conversation.
Bill Kartalopoulos is a great observer of, and participant in, today’s comics scene. Part of his impressive resume includes being the program coordinator for the Small Press Expo as well as the program director for the MoCCA Arts Festival. Both of these events are essential barometers of prevailing trends. So, if Bill suggests that alternative comics are dead, I listen. Of course, he doesn’t really suggest that, at least not as you might think. But, let me continue…