Friday, October 31, 2008

The Best American Comics 2008: Oh boy, here we go again

Holy cow, two posts in one day?!  I haven't been this prolific for months and months!  That's assuming I actually finish this post before tomorrow...

The Best American Comics 2008
Edited by Lynda Barry
Series Editors Jessica Abel and Matt Madden



For some reason, this annual volume always seems to inspire strong reactions in me (and I'm not the only one, if this infamous Beat post from last year is any judge).  I think it's the same reaction the people have to awards shows: "That [movie/song/show/comic/book/TV commercial] was all right, but I don't think it was the best of the year!  What about this other [band/play/music video] that I loved?  If you're not including it, that means you think I have bad taste!"  And so on.

But that's not really the point of this sort of thing, is it?  It seems like it's really all about spotlighting what the editors think is superior work, with the book's title being more succinct than We Think These Comics Are Pretty Good, In Our Opinion (2008 Edition).

Still, inclusion in this volume lends some respect, and it can be irksome to see a comic that doesn't seem to deserve said respect.  Thus, legions of complainers are born!  So, with that in mind, let's dive right in, shall we?

The comics stories in the book are presented in alphabetical order by the creator's name(s), so that seems like as good a method of discussing them as any.  But first, there's an introduction comic by the year's guest editor, Lynda Barry.  Myself, I've never really liked Barry's work, and this isn't really any exception.  She has some interesting personal anecdotes about experiencing comics like The Family Circus and the strips in Playboy as a child, and other ruminations on how we experience comics, but I don't think it holds together too well, and the complicated layouts are hard to read without enriching the reading experience at all.  I know people like her comics and all, but she just doesn't do anything for me.

But she's just the editor.  Let's look at the actual "best American comics of 2008" (which, it should be noted, came out between the eligibility dates of August 31, 2006 to September 1, 2007):

"Burden"
By Graham Annable

This is a good little story about a guy taking care of his brother's business after he moved away.  Or is it?  In the end, we find out that something else is going on that colors everything we've seen up to that point.  It's pretty nicely done; Graham Annable has a cartoony look that belies his background in animation; he does a great job of expressing subtle emotion without being realistically detailed.  I love this page, in which the main character visits his dad, who is distracted by a handheld video game:



Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Yeah, I would say so.

War Fix (excerpt)
By David Axe and Steve Olexa

I reviewed this book back in the spring of 2007, and I thought it was quite good, a fascinating look at the pursuit of the adrenaline rush brought on by war journalism.  I was surprised that more people didn't talk about it, but maybe its inclusion here will get more discussion started.  In this excerpt, we see writer David Axe leave for Iraq and experience the horrors of war firsthand.  It's a pretty good example of the book's contents, and it really showcases Steve Olexa's complex artwork.  In fact, it's one of the few stories here to use non-traditional layouts; nearly every other story is composed of rectangular grids of panels, with little variation.  A lot of "artcomix" stick to this simple structure, but artists in the mainstream (including the non-superheroic offshoots that aren't quite "indie" enough to normally be considered for a book like this) often seem to try to mix up the panel layouts and experiment with the form a bit.  I happen to like that sort of thing quite a bit, and I definitely would have preferred to see more "realistic" artwork in the book.  But that's more about my tastes than any measure of quality.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Yes, and I recommend reading the book if you haven't had the chance.

"Trouble"
By T. Edward Bak

And now we get to the complaints.  This is apparently supposed to be a slice-of-life story, but it's not a very good one.  Two teenage girls lay around, watch TV, yell at a younger brother, discuss sex, and wrestle.  But not in a compelling manner or anything; no, it's a plotless bit of fluff that is probably supposed to be realistic, and the main interest is probably the frank discussion of sexuality and the swearing, but it's just boring.  The ugly art doesn't help either; it looks like it was done with a kids' marker set:



This is the kind of thing that pisses people off about anthologies like this.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Definitely not.  In fact, there are at least three better choices that cover similar subject matter in the "Notable Comics" section at the back of the book: Gabrielle Bell's "Hit Me", Ariel Schrag's "Shit", and Lauren Weinstein's "Horse Camp", all of which were in the Stuck in the Middle anthology (which I reviewed here).

Strips from Dykes to Watch Out For
By Alison Bechdel

Here we've got six somewhat random chapters of Alison Bechdel's biweekly strip from between August 9, 2006 and February 21, 2007.  As Bechdel states in the book's endnotes, she tries to keep the storylines of about a dozen characters running in real time while still injecting current news and politics into the background (or foreground) of the story.  It's kind of hard to tell from the excerpts here, but it seems like she does a good job of it.  The problem is, what we see is pretty limited; to get the full effect, you probably have to either read the strip as it comes out or comsume it in large chunks at once.  But it's obviously good work, so you can't fault the editors for wanting to include it.  I wonder if they made the best selections though; the most compelling storyline that we get a glimpse of involves two characters nearing a possible dissolution of their relationship, but there are also some strips included that don't even involve them.  Why were these particular strips selected?  Was it an attempt to showcase as many characters as possible?  It might have been better to try to focus on one storyline, to give the best demonstration of Bechdel's storytelling.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Maybe?  Probably?  Bechdel has been included in all three extant volumes of this series, and while she definitely deserved it for Fun Home last year, the editors don't make the best case for her inclusion with this selection.  If you're going to include a strip that runs in alternative weeklies, how about Keith Knight? 

The Salon (excerpt)
By Nick Bertozzi

But here's one I can definitely get behind.  This was one of my favorite books from last year (here's my review), and it certainly deserves any attention it hasn't already gotten.  Bertozzi's tale of art, murder, and magical absinthe was fascinating, and the excerpt chosen here is one of my favorite bits from the book, in which Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque work out some art theories that eventually led to the development of Cubism.  And, I'm happy to say, the excerpt also includes the infamous nude scene that got a retailer arrested for distributing obscene materials to a minor.  They didn't let the idiots scare them away from it; good for them.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Yes.

"The Thing about Madeline"
By Lilli Carre

This short story sees a woman who has an alcohol problem come home one night to discover another version of herself sleeping in her bed.  Her other self ends up taking over her life, and she gets forced out and strikes off to start anew.  It's really nicely done; Carre introduces the character just enough to make us care about her, so the ensuing weirdness really strikes a note of horror.  I really like the loose-limbed expressiveness of the characters, and the way Madeline becomes more and more disheveled as she loses control of her life is wonderfully sad:



What's the story about?  I'm not sure exactly, but it might be looking at the way people can settle into a rut to such a point that they don't even recognize themselves anymore, and the only way out of it is to reinvent yourself completely.  Or that might be hokum; the story is still really good.  

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  I would say yes.  The 2006 volume of this series had an excerpt of Carre's Tales of Woodsman Pete, and I wasn't too impressed with that, but this has made me completely reevaluate her.  I'll have to try to read more of her comics.

"Hopscotch"
By Martin Cendreda

This is a short one, only four pages long.  It's about two kids who are apparently homeless, hiding from adults by day and emerging at night to play in the streets, building fabulous structures out of discarded boxes.  It's a joyful little story, and Cendreda has some nice, expressive energy:



Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Eh, it's pretty lightweight.  I don't know if Cendreda's art is so dazzling that you have to recognize this as better than almost everything out there.  But it's definitely not bad.  It's a cute, fun story, and I can't fault it for that.

"The Monkey and the Crab"
By Shawn Cheng and Sara Edward-Corbett

In what is apparently an adaptation of a Japanese folk tale, a monkey cons a crab out of a dumpling in exchange for a persimmon seed, since the seed can be planted to grow a tree that will yield more persimmons.  But when the tree grows, the monkey comes and steals the fruit and murders the crab.  Then the crab's son and his friends (an egg, a bee, a pile of poop, and a, um, fondue pot?) plot justice/revenge against the monkey.  I'm not sure what the point of this is; maybe the original tale has some sort of moral (beware of crafty people who want to take advantage of you?  Revenge is never satisfying?), but it seems like just an exercise in weirdness here.  The art style is minimalist, with blank white backgrounds surrounding the characters, but Cheng and Edward-Corbett do give the creatures a good expressiveness:



The two creators split the art duties, with Cheng illustrating the first half of the story and Edward-Corbett handling the rest, but they share a similar enough of a style that it's not too noticeable of a switch.  Overall, it's a decent story, but kind of arbitrarily strange.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Again, it's not bad, but I certainly wouldn't classify it as better than almost everything else out there.  That's my damn opinion, take it or leave it.

"Seven Sacks"
By Eleanor Davis

I've heard that Eleanor Davis is a really good young cartoonist, and this story (along with the cover of this volume) proves that popular opinion is correct.  It's a short tale, in which a ferryman carries a series of increasingly disturbing-looking creatures across a river, all of whom are carrying sacks containing something alive (one of them says it's rabbits).  They all seem to be going to some sort of gathering; what could it be?  We never find out, but we experience the freakiness of the situation along with the ferryman, and wonder if he should have done anything to find out what was going on or stop it.  Davis does a great job, giving the characters a nice expressiveness, which is especially impressive with the ferryman, who isn't drawn with a high level of detail.  But she really makes you feel what is going through his head, through the simple addition of a tiny sweat drop, or widened or narrowed eyes.  And the creatures are especially well done, looking increasingly weird and scary.  The backgrounds are beautiful, making it look like a placid, autumnal forest, which is all the more unsettling when all the strangeness enters the picture:



It's a very effective piece, perfectly paced for maximum effectiveness.  Nicely done.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Certainly.  Davis is definitely one to watch.

Strips from The City
By Derf

Another selection of the kind of strips that run in alternative weeklies.  I'm not too impressed by this one though; it seems to be about politics and current events, with occasional stops in the territory of the observation of the strange people the creator has seen.  But you know you're in dnagerous territory when the first strip compares George W. Bush to Hitler (specifically, the waning days of the Bush administration to Hitler in the bunker, with Bush urging his "troops" to fight on through a Fox News microphone).  Even if the art was excellent, that sort of thing would make me roll my eyes and check to see how long this section lasts.  But the art here is anything but; it's all lumpy, ugly people against poorly defined backgrounds.  Not a strip that I would seek out eagerly each week.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  I say no.

The Saga of the Bloody Benders (excerpt)
By Rick Geary

Rick Geary's Treasury of Victorian Murder series is great, presenting grim, true historical tales in a very matter-of-fact manner and using his detailed-yet-offputting art style to give the stories maximum creepiness.  This is a good one, about a family of strange immigrants in Kansas who murdered and robbed several travelers before disappearing.  The excerpt here covers a good section of the story but leaves you wanting to find out the details of what happened.  It's a great tease for the rest of the book.  Yes, this is good comics.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Yes.  Rick Geary is great.

Strips from Will and Abe's Guide to the Universe
By Matt Groening

I haven't really liked what I've read of Matt Groening's Life in Hell strip, but I had never seen his strips starring his sons.  That's too bad; I loved these selections, which do a great job of showing the weird logic in the way kids see the world, and how funny it can be to have them describe what is important or interesting to them.  I loved it; I'll have to check out the collected version of these strips if I get the chance.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Sure, although this is the third (and not the last) alternative weekly strip in this volume.  Are the comics in those newspapers really that great?

"Mammalogy"
By Eric Haven

This starts out as a silent, prehistoric nature story, as a dinosaur chases a little rodent around.  That's interesting enough, but then we flash forward to the present day for a dumb story in which a superhero named The Mongoose fights a lizard monster.  Ha ha, aren't superheroes lame?  I'm sure the anatomy and action are supposed to look incorrect and awkward, because you have to emphasize the fact that guys in tights are stupid:



There is one funny line, in which the girl being rescued asks if the furry-costumed Mongoose is a "furvert", but other than that, this is pretty boring.  There's also a pointless framing sequence around the superhero bit, in which a pudgy, bespectacled guy (apparently an author stand-in) watches the fight on TV.  I guess this is supposed to be about the eternal war between reptiles and mammals, but whatever.  It's not a good story.  Maybe if Haven had stuck with the dinosaurs, he would have had something.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  God, no.  Indie comics shouldn't have to be about how lame superheroes are anymore.  Move on already, people.

"Gold Diggers of 1969"
By Jaime Hernandez

In this flashback to the childhood of Maggie, one of the main characters in Jaime Hernandez's "Locas" stories, we see her tag along as her mother worries about paying bills and taking care of her kids, since her husband is always away on business, and she is about to give birth again.  It's a nice look at the characters' past; in addition to Maggie and her mom and sister, we also see a teenage Izzy and Blanca and Maggie's aunt Vicki, who is already busy being a wrestler.  The story is probably most effective for those who are familiar with the characters, but even newcomers should be able to relate with a woman who is worried about providing for her children and the way she relies on family and community.  Jaime uses a neat art style here, stripping his level of detail down to minimal levels and presenting the story in tiny panels, with the characters appearing as more cartoony, even super-deformed versions of themselves:



But he still has enough mastery of cartooning to make the characters wonderfully expressive.  Look at the way that little line under Maggie's mom's eye gives her a look of exhaustion.  Wow.  Any visit with these characters is nice, but Jaime uses every chance to deepen their personalities and build on their rich history.  Great stuff.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Yes.  Jaime Hernandez is a master.

Strips from Underworld
By Kaz

I generally like what I've read of Underworld, but these are not very good.  Ugly characters say nonsensical things, and sometimes it's mildly funny.  The cartooning is decent, but nothing to write home about.  This one amused me though:



I guess this is supposed to be silly cartoons for adults, but the adult aspect is pretty much limited to some violence or naughty words.  Yawn.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  I say no.  Another alternative weekly strip?  Come on.

"Cousin Grampa"
By Michael Kupperman

Michael Kupperman's Tales Designed to Thrizzle is some really funny stuff, but this story seems to have been chosen because it is surreal and impenetrable, and thus more artsy.  An old man wanders past some weird stuff and ignores it, choosing to watch TV instead.  Compared to the laugh riot that Kupperman can deliver, this one is pretty boring.  If it was my only exposure to Kupperman, I wouldn't bother reading anything else by him.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  I'll say no.  Kupperman has much better stuff than this.

"Turtle, Keep it Steady"
By Joseph Lambert

Now this one I like.  It's a version of the old tortoise-and-hare story, with the competitors playing drums.  The turtle lays down a steady beat, but the rabbit goes nuts, pounding out a frenzied rhythm while drinking and making out with a girl rabbit at the same time.  Guess who wins?  There's not much to it, but Lambert makes it enormously entertaining by giving all the animals (both the performers and the bystanders who dance to the beat) a nice expressiveness.  He also comes up with a nifty depiction of the rhythm, with word balloons containing abstract shapes that represent the beats:



Yeah!  That's pretty cool.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  I'll say yes.  It's pretty short and inconsequential, but with neat comics ideas, fun characters, and a cool atmosphere, what else do you need?

"Cupid's Day Off"
By Evan Larson

Cupid, who has begun to take his job too seriously, treating it like he's on military assignment, decides to take a vacation, leaving the equipment in the hands of his assistant with instructions to mess with it.  But she feels bad about all the unhappiness in the world, so she decides to remedy it by shooting everything she sees with cupid arrows.  This leads to some enormously funny bits:



When Cupid finds out, he's pissed.  What will he do?  It's a pretty funny little strip, and Larson has a nice, cartoony style that fits the story perfectly.  Fun stuff.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Maybe?  Light and inconsequential again, but still pretty enjoyable.

Berlin (excerpt)
By Jason Lutes

I had heard that Jason Lutes' series was quite good, but until now, I had never read any of it.  After this excerpt, I feel that it is imperative that I get my hands on the series as soon as I can.  It's a really well-done historical comic, looking at the titular city in the 1920s and 30s.  We see people struggling with poverty and the collapse of the banks, the rise of National Socialism, and the prevalence of anti-Semitism.  Even in this small sample, it's a good portrait of the contents of the series, exhibiting Lutes' grasp of character and setting, and his well-defined artwork.  He gets the locales down really well, and the characters look realistic, like we're watching real people live their lives.  Plus, there's humor and action:



Yeah, I've gotta read more of this.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  I think it's safe to say yes.

Percy Gloom (excerpt)
By Cathy Malkasian

I heard this was a really good graphic novel, but I never got a chance to read it.  I hope to rectify that someday, and this excerpt only makes me want to do it soon.  We see the title character as he reminisces about his wife, whom he loved deeply.  But she joined a cult called the Funnelheads, and she ended up dying in a suicide ritual.  It's a sad story, and Malkasian's expressive linework gives Percy and those around him real feeling, even when using such a cartoony style:



Again, I gotta read more of this.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Again again, I think it's safe to say yes.

"The Teachers Edition." (excerpt)
By John Meijas

This looks to be a minicomic about teaching art at an elementary school in the Bronx, which does seem to be a good subject for a comic.  And what we get here is a nice story, but I hate the ugly sort-of-cubist art style that Meijas uses:



I do think he captures some interesting moments here, but he ruins most of them with the art, which just turns me off.  Eh, maybe it's just me.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  I'm conflicted, since I do think it has the seed of something really good, and maybe the art is just not to my tastes.  So, maybe, depending on whether you can live with/actually enjoy the art?

"Graveyard"
By Sarah Oleksyk

A young woman works the night shift at an all-night print shop, and she befriends a homeless junkie, even becoming attracted to him.  She tries to help him out, and it seems like she might be making a difference, but as often happens, the addiction gets the better of him.  It's a really sad tale, and it's all too real, looking at the toll that drug addiction can take not only on the users, but also the people who care about them.  Oleksyk sells it really well, doing a great job of capturing the movements and expressions of her characters:



It's quite good; I've gotta see if I can check out some more of her work.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Definitely.  Weighty subject matter sways me, I guess.  But the excellent cartooning and good grasp of character certainly helps too.

"The Forbidden Zone"
By Kevin Pyle

This story takes an interesting approach, presenting the imaginary adventures of some kids as if they were soldiers in a war comic, but occasionally dropping back to the "real world" narrative:



It's an interesting idea, and there's some decent character work with the kids, but there's not much to it.  I think this is part of an ongoing story in Pyle's book (series?) Blindspot, but there's little indication of that here, so the story has to stand alone, it seems.  And it kind of fails on that level, abruptly ending with no real resolution.  But that could be seen as realistic, since adventures end when kids have to go home for the day.  

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Not quite.  Beyond the "war comics" idea, there's not enough there to be especially good.  A nifty gimmick does not a great comic make.

George Sprott (1894-1975) (excerpt)
By Seth

I haven't read much of Seth's work, not because I dislike him or anything, but because what I've read of his doesn't make me want to rush out and get my hands on his comics as soon as possible.  But this excerpt of his strip that ran in The New York Times Magazine changes that; it's excellent.  It's a look at the life of the title character, an explorer, writer, and TV host, told in one-page strips composed of tiny panels that seem filled with life and detail, even in their cartoony simplicity.  Seth makes the accumulation of details about Sprott's life fascinating and compelling, presenting his story with some nicely-designed pages and good character art.  Here, we mostly get interviews with acquaintances and relatives, along with some first-person reflection on life and some funny struggling by an omniscient narrator to communicate the essence of Sprott's life, but failing, only managing to recount the dry facts.  Even in this small portion of the story, we get some really poignant stuff, like the remnants of Sprott's life left over in the hotel room where he lived:



And there's much more.  Man, that's another cartoonist I've got to try to read more of.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Yes. 

"The Thanksgiving Series"
By Chris Ware

This series of five New Yorker covers (which Ware collected as Acme Novelty Library #18.5) get presented here in their entirety, printed sideways for awkward reading.  In typical Ware fashion, it's a nice collection of stories (or images that tell stories), looking at the lives of people and their families around the holidays.  There is one misstep though, and that's the fourth installment, which sees a pigeon named Penrod get berated by his wife to go collect food.  I usually enjoy the goofy stories where Ware anthropomorphizes animals or objects to an absurd degree (like "Branford, the Best Bee in the World", from Acme #17), but this one seems especially nonsensical (pigeons are afraid to go outside on Thanksgiving, because birds die on that day, I guess?) and pointless, and it interrupts the flow of the human story that the rest of the covers are telling.  Seems like a waste of space.

But Ware redeems himself with the last entry, which is a highly detailed look at the life of the older brother of an old man who appeared on the other covers.  The brother died in World War II, and the page collects a bunch of memories about him from his brother, with the little stories cascading down the page in tiny fragments.  It's beautiful and emotionally affecting, everything that Ware does so well:



Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Yes, although the only essential page is the last one.  Still, Ware is a genius, and even if the other pages aren't perfect, this one more than makes up for them.

American Born Chinese (excerpt)
By Gene Luen Yang

This is another of the books that I really liked in 2007, presenting three interlinked stories that deal with the subtle and unsubtle racism that Asian-Americans deal with.  The excerpt here is a section from the most autobiographical of the stories, about a boy who wants to fit in with the other kids, and thus resists the friendship of a new kid who is a recent immigrant to the U.S., since he wants to distance himself from that which makes him different from the other kids.  It's a good bit of the story, and it makes you want to read the rest of the book.  Hopefully, people won't be put off by the fantasy and outrageously offensive sit-comminess of the other parts of the book.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Sure.  Here's my review, for my full opinion on the book. 

So overall, that makes (approximately) 18 stories out of 26 that I think qualify for the description in the book's title.  Not a bad percentage, really, considering differences in taste.  Would I make any changes?  Well, obviously I would select a different lineup if I was in charge (you can see my picks for the best comics of 2007 for a lot of what would probably make it), and there are a few here that I think definitely do not belong, but it's a good collection, better than the 2006 edition, and probably better than 2007 (I didn't read that one, but I didn't think the list of inclusions was really up my alley).  It's definitely worth a read.