Saturday, September 15, 2007

A Comparison of The Best American Comics 2006 and An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, & True Stories

I started this post months ago, wrote a lot of it, and bogged down in the story-by-story notes. Since Best American Comics 2007 is being published in less than a month, this comparison will very quickly be pointless, if it isn't already. It should have been done last fall, for its own purposes. Anyway, I've finished it up tonight to post:

I recently finished the Ivan Brunetti-edited An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, & True Stories, after reading it on and off for a couple of months. I read that partially overlapping with The Best American Comics 2006, edited by Harvey Pekar (guest editor this first year) and Anne Elizabeth Moore (series editor). For some reason, these two books seem to be opposing each other among the lit-comics crowd, even though they're not doing the same thing. (Anthology intends to be a teaching book for college classes on the graphic novel -- or for modern culture/literature classes that have a unit on graphic novels, while Best American is a brand extension from Houghton Mifflin, joining the Best American Short Stories/Essays/Sports Writing/Etc. empire. Anthology covers more or less the second half of the twentieth century, and the '80s and '90s in particular, while Best American covers January 1, 2004 to August 15, 2005.)

So, instead of doing my usual thoughts on Anthology, I decided to instead do a compare-and-contrast for both books.

First, Best American Comics 2006 is a hardcover, without dust jacket but in quarter-cloth, with a handsome but unspectacular cover (designed by Christopher Moisan with illustrations by Lilli Carre). It was published by Houghton Mifflin, who have an extensive list of "Best American" books in various genres -- and this book seems to generally follow that meta-series' trade dress.

It contains:
  • a useful preface about the series and comics in general by general editor Moore
  • an introduction, mostly about the individual pieces chosen, by guest editor Pekar
  • "The Amazing Life of Onion Jack" by Joel Priddy (10 pages)
    A cute nearly-stick-figure story that takes superhero ideas and goes somewhere more interesting with them.
  • "Ready to Die" by Kim Deitch (6 pages)
    Reportage about the execution of a murderer; not what you'd expect from Deitch, but powerful.
  • "The Gift" by Anders Nilsen (18 pages)
    A deliberately in medias res and minimalist (hardly any backgrounds, no borders, crude lettering) story about violence.
  • "Adventures of Paul Bunyan & His Ox" by Lilli Carre (8 pages)
    A very literary take on the mythic duo, full of conversation, but solid.
  • "Diary of a Bread Delivery Guy" by David Lasky (1 page)
    A nice slice-of-life piece.
  • "Goner Pillow Company" by Ben Kachor (2 pages)
    I always feel that there's some secret subtext behind Kachor's comics that I just don't get -- either that, or he's like Gertrude Stein's Oakland.
  • "Only Disconnect" by Alison Bechdel (Dykes to Watch Out for strips, 1 page)
    A piece of middle from a much longer story. Works as a vignette, though.
  • "Complacency Kills" by Joe Sacco (8 pages)
    Tight, well-presented reportage on the Iraqi War.
  • "La Rubia Loca" by Justin Hall (48 pages)
    A full story, not part of anything else (as far as I can tell), with enough room to do what it needs to do. Quite impressive.
  • "Comics: A History" by Chris Ware (2 pages)
    Somewhat true, somewhat flippant, and all Ware-ized: made despondently cartoony and depressingly well designed.
  • "Rabbithead" by Rebecca Dart (25 pages)
    A mostly successful attempt to tell multiple stories, all wordlessly, in the same unreal realm and starting from the same action. Inventive and technically impressive.
  • "Untitled" by Ivan Brunetti (1 page)
    A wordless comic about art that comes off a bit like second-rate Chris Ware.
  • "Dance with the Ventures" by Jonathan Bennett (12 pages)
    Another autobiographical story about a cartoonist obsessed with particular bits of past culture and who considers himself a failure; done pretty well, but I could do without reading that particular story again for about the next hundred years.
  • "Day by Day with Hopey: Tuesday Is Whose Day?" by Jaime Hernandez (4 pages)
    Hopey flirts with various women -- a decent character piece, but I bet you have to know who Hopey is for it to really work.
  • "Busted!" by Esther Pearl Watson (7 pages)
    A really weird autobiographical strip about a really weird person (not the cartoonist) drawn in a primitive style that made my eyes itch.
  • "Chemical Plant/Another World" by John Porcellino (7 pages)
    A very loose, cartoony style works well for a real-life tale.
  • "Portrait of My Dad" by David Heatley" (5 pages)
    Autobio comics, subtype 3C: tiny panels, primitivist art, loser cartoonist, crazy family.
  • "A Street-Level View of the Republican National Convention" by Lloyd Dangle (2 pages)
    He's against it.
  • "The Supervisor" by Hob (1 page)
    Vignette from someone else's life -- incisive but doesn't really go anywhere.
  • "Wonder Wart-Hog: The Wart-Hog That Came in from the Cold" by Gilbert Shelton (8 pages)
    Embarrassingly puerile, retro in the worst way, and laughable in its politics.
  • "Solidarity Forever" by Olivia Schanzer (2 pages)
    I can't even begin to describe it.
  • "Thirty-Three" by Alex Robinson (from Tricked, 10 pages)
    Character-driven storytelling; done well, though clearly part of a larger story.
  • "Missing" by Jessica Abel (from La Perdida, 14 pages)
    Doesn't entirely work out of context, though the art is nice and the dialogue works very well.
  • "Nakedness and Power" by Seth Tobocman, Terisa Turner, and Leigh Brownhill (9 pages)
    Did you know Kenya had become a Utopia due to the power of Woman Unleashed? Neither did I. Agitprop, in an appropriate style and tone of voice, but I wasn't sure if I could believe any of it.
  • "Recollection of Seduction" by Rick Geary (1 page)
    A wonderful anecdotal story by a master. I wish Geary did more short strips.
  • "The Executive Hour" by Tom Hart (6 pages)
    The author is a leftist, and wants you to be absolutely certain of that fact.
  • "Passing Before Life's Very Eyes" by Kurt Wolfgang (13 pages)
    An old man dies, and looks over his life. The grotesque art style doesn't entirely help, but it's a strong story.
  • "Thirteen Cats of my Childhood" by Jesse Reklaw (20 pages)
    Very slice-of-life storytelling, and very appealing.
  • "Two Questions" by Lynda Barry (12 pages)
    I'm afraid Barry's appeal has always been lost on me: I can't stand her art, and I can't stand her characters. This is the same sort of thing she always does, and that's about all I can say about it.
  • "Walkin' the Streets" by Robert Crumb (13 pages)
    A minor autobiographical work, mostly about Crumb's early years.
  • the backmatter has extensive, useful notes on the contributors, arranged alphabetically, including their own thoughts on the stories included. After that is the full list of "100 distinguished comics" from the above time period, the list Moore made as a first cut of all of the work she saw from the period covered and sent to Pekar for him to make the selections in the book
So that's 276 pages of comics, including thirty separate stories or excerpts, for $22.00. (For obsessives like me, that's 8 cents a page.) No cartoonists appear twice in Best American, and there's no obvious organizational principle. (Of course, there usually isn't, with a "Best of," and there doesn't need to be.) Pekar is obviously tending toward the autobiographical and the political (as long as it agrees with him); that's pretty much what we expected.

On the other side, An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, & True Stories is burdened by a terribly unwieldy title, but the book's cover design (by Seth, including comics on the back cover and flaps) is much more engaging than Best American Comics's. Anthology is a jacketed hardcover from the Yale University Press. And this one contains:
  • three pages of comics in lieu of a title page, looking like scribbles in a kid's notebook, with no title or artist listed I can find
  • an artistically interesting but useless table of contents, done entirely as thumbnail sketches
  • an odd and not very useful introduction by Brunetti
  • "Life Is So Full of Whimsical Little Nuances" by Sam Henderson (1 page)
    If The Far Side were crudely drawn and scatalogical...
  • two single-page cartoons and "Love's Savage Fury" by Mark Newgarden (6 pages total)
    Deconstruction at its best and worst; if I had been editing this book, I would have put these very formalist strips much further back (if I used them at all).
  • "Underworld" by Kaz (2 strips to a page, 6 pages)
    Late '80s pseudo-underground ennui for college students; Kaz does draw great grotesques, though.
  • "Maakies" by Tony Millionaire (2 strips to a page, 3 pages)
    The usual despair drawn in a faux 1900s newspaper engraving style. I always think I should like this strip more than I do.
  • two full-page "Griffith Observatory" strips and three "Zippy the Pinhead" strips by Bill Griffith (3 pages)
    Griffy likes old things; Zippy likes insane things. Stir well.
  • "The Boy Who Loved Comics" by David Mazzucchelli (2 pages)
    Very self-referential, and I don't quite get it. (One might need to be a cartoonist to get it, actually.)
  • "Abstract Thought is a Warm Puppy" by Art Spiegelman (3 pages)
    The first really great work in the book; Spiegelman's personal history and take on Peanuts.
  • "Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, Lucy..." by Chris Ware (1 page)
    More or less the same thing, though less knowing and comprehensive.
  • "Good Grief!" by Seth (1 page)
    Seth illustrates a few lines of Schulz narration.
  • "Developing a Comic Strip" (essay) by Charles M. Schulz (3 pages)
    Just what it says. It seems to be full of good advice and thoughtful reflection.
  • "Good Ol' Gregor Brown" by R. Sikoryak (2 pages)
    Kafka's Metamorphosis told as Penauts strips. Works pretty well, actually.
  • "Barnaby" by Crockett Johnson (5 strips, presented age-faded and browned on the page, 1 page)
    Other than being shown as an artifact rather than as art (like all of the contemporary pieces), this is OK: I don't love Barnaby, as some do, but it's amusing.
  • strips from "The Sketchbook Diaries" by James Kochalka (3 pages)
    Slices of life, drawn day-by-day. They work better when presented in a larger size, though.
  • "Ernie Pook's Comeek" by Lynda Barry (3 strips on 3 pages)
    See above for my take on Barry; I'm afraid all of her stuff is equally unappealing to me.
  • "Smell" by Lynda Barry (3 pages)
  • excerpts from Boys by Ron Rege, Jr. with Joan Reidy (5 pages)
    Primitive-looking (but heavily designed) strips about sex from a young woman's point of view.
  • 1 page each (faded, presented as historical artifacts rather than as "art" like the rest of the book) of George Herriman's "Krazy Kat," Cliff Sterrett's "Polly and Her Pals," "Frank King's "Gasoline Alley," Otto Soglow's "The Ambassador," and Lyonel Feininger's "The Kin-der Kids" (5 pages)
    I didn't love any of these.
  • one painting by Henry Darger, related to his "Child Slave Rebellion" novel/painting sequence, with accompanying unsigned essay (2 pages)
    Bizarre in the best way, though not really comics. Yes, many modern artists (and cartoonists) have been influenced by Darger, but this book doesn't make that case, and slipping his stuff randomly into the middle makes little sense.
  • "Terror from the Grave" by Rory Hayes (1 page)
    Weird, late-'80s looking horror comic with too many panels in too small a space.
  • "Of What Use Is a Bunch?" by Aline Komisky-Crumb (3 pages)
    I don't really get her, either.
  • excerpt from Agony by Mark Beyer (5 pages)
    Horrible things happen to Amy and Jordan, over and over. Ho hum.
  • "Oaf" by Mat Brinkman (4 pages)
    A bizarre wordless story that has some power, but which I suspect its author considers a metaphor for something Important.
  • "Frank's Fish" by Jim Woodring (3 pages)
    Indescribable as usual, but definitely...something.
  • excerpt from Oedipus Junior by Peter Bagge (wordless "Junior" stories, 4 pages)
    I think Bagge got much better than this, later, but it shows his wonderfully loose cartoony style well.
  • excerpt from The King of Persia by Walt Holcombe (2 pages)
    An old guy dances, in a wordless vignette. The art is angularly appealing, but what's the point of running two pages of something?
  • "Shakyamuni" and "Untitled" by Ivan Brunetti (2 pages)
    Putting yourself in your own anthology is a sin. Doing so with minor pieces is a mortal sin.
  • "Here" by Richard McGuire (6 pages)
    Terribly, intensely formalist, but effective. It does feel more like an art installation than a comics piece, though -- it would work better on successive walls of a gallery.
  • cover for the June 1947 issue of The Record Changer by Gene Deitch (1 page)
    Brunetti is just grabbing random things from under his bed at this point.
  • "Hey Look!" by Harvey Kurtzman (1 page)
    A fine piece from a master...and, of course, it''s presented age-faded so we don't forget that it's old. Why does Brunetti keep doing this?
  • "Night Delivery," "Gloom," and "One of the Wonders of the World" by Richard Sala (4 pages)
    Sala's forte is long, intricate plots, so running three very short stories does not show his strong points. These are reasonably representative of his artistic and thematic strengths, but that's about it.
  • "Sof' Boy" by Archer Prewitt (4 pages)
    Oh God, not another naif. I can't stand it. The art is nicely detailed, though.
  • "Vaughn" by Wayne White (3 pages)
    Tiny little panels, scatology, crude drawings, attempts to "subvert" classic strip-cartoon premises and ideas. Again.
  • "Snoot Grolo" by J. Bradley Johnson (3 pages)
    More grotesques subverting the dominant paradigm or some-such nonsense.
  • excerpt from Jimbo in Purgatory by Gary Panter (8 pages)
    I usually appreciate Panter's primitivist art, and sometimes I can make sense of his stories...but not here.
  • excerpt from "Curse of the Molemen" by Charles Burns (8 pages)
    Burns is excellent, but a full story -- or a relatively complete chapter from Black Hole -- would have been better.
  • "Young Ledicker" by Kim Deitch (10 pages)
    Dietch in top form, and it even works well out of context. Finally, a good choice for a good cartoonist.
  • "Troubles With Gassel" by Terry Zwigoff and Robert Armstrong (2 pages)
    Apparently about a fictional character, but feels like an autobio comic. If it's not true, it's pretty pointless.
  • "Jack Survives" by Jerry Moriarty (3 pages)
    Very dark, woodcut-looking slabs of black, in which '50s types refuse to emote, and hardly speak.
  • excerpts from Cheap Novelties by Ben Kachor (8 pages of "Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer" strips)
    Let's talk about retail signage and storefronts for a while, until we've all lost track of anything interesting or important.
  • excerpt from Maus I: My Father Bleeds History by Art Spiegelman (13 pages)
    A piece of one of the high points of modern comics, and it works as a separate piece.
  • excerpt from Berlin by Jason Lutes (4 pages)
    Really just a vignette; doesn't give a sense of the larger work.
  • excerpt from The Golem's Mighty Swing by James Sturm (5 pages)
    Nice storytelling, but utterly out of context.
  • excerpt from Passionate Journey by Frans Masereel (8 originally full-page woodcuts on two pages)
    Historically (and artistically) interesting.
  • excerpt from Somersaulting by Sammy Markham (3 pages)
    Very slice-of-life, and I get the feeling that this, too, does not give a good sense of the larger work.
  • excerpt from "Hawaiian Getaway" by Adrian Tomine (8 pages)
    Badly socialized young Asian-Americans in Northern California, viewed dispassionately but with understanding, as usual for Tomine.
  • "A Little Story" by Gilbert Hernandez (6 pages)
    A little slice of Palomar, which works out of context.
  • "Flies on the Ceiling" by Jaime Hernandez (15 pages)
    A great, great story -- in all ways -- that's tangental enough to Hernandez's major works that it's perfect as an introduction.
  • excerpt from Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary by Justin Green (10 pages)
    I presume this is autobiographical. Brown/Green is both utterly insane, and from the hallowed fictional ridiculously Catholic family. This didn't work for me on any level.
  • "Fun Things to Do with Little Girls" by Phoebe Glockner (3 pages)
    Glockner had an unpleasant stepfather. We see one aspect of his unpleasantness.
  • "Visitors in the Night" by Debbie Drechsler (6 pages)
    A creepy tale of incest, in an appropriately Gorey-meets-Sala art style.
  • excerpt from I Never Liked You by Chester Brown (9 pages)
    Panels float loosely on the pages -- mostly clustered in the middle, but not gridded -- in this story of childhood nastiness.
  • excerpt from The Poor Bastard by Joe Matt (9 pages)
    Ends very abruptly, but otherwise is a decent introduction to Matt's work.
  • excerpt from It's a Good Life, If You Don't Weaken by Seth (14 pages)
    Atmospheric and quiet; I'm not sure if it's a great excerpt, but it works reasonably well.
  • excerpt from My New York Diary by Julie Doucet (8 pages)
    Yet another excerpt -- this one has a beginning (unlike most of them) but has no real end. So it's not actually a story, but it's OK as a piece of story.
  • excerpt from Clumsy by Jeffrey Brown (2 pages per Anthology page, 4 pages)
    I'm not sure if Brown is deliberately being primitive and minor-key in his single-page stories, or if that's just the way he knows how to work. It's OK in small doses, like here, but gets annoying at greater length.
  • excerpts from King-Cat No. 63 by John Porcellino (4 pages per Anthology page, 4 pages)
    Small-scale comics, with a very loose, cartoony line, that work well.
  • "A Paragraph by Saul Bellow (1915-2005)" by John Hankiewicz (2 pages)
    The cartoonist, a literature professor, really really likes one paragraph of description in The Adventures of Augie Marsh.
  • "Torrential" by Jonathan Bennett (9 pages per Anthology page, 2 pages)
    An entire slice-of-life small-press pamphlet -- well-told but very minor.
  • "Northern California" by David Heatley (3 pages)
    I think this is the record of a dream -- or maybe more than one -- but it's not clear. And that, of course, is a problem.
  • "Cecil and Jordan in New York" by Gabrielle Bell (4 pages)
    A small, magic-realist story that's OK but not spectacular.
  • excerpt from The Sunset by Kevin Huizenga (3 pages)
    Lots of formalist drawing stuff is going on, and I can't make any sense of it. Looks purty, though.
  • "Black Cherry" by Michael Dougan (3 pages)
    An autobiographical anecdote -- pleasant but doesn't really go anywhere.
  • "The Tub" by Lauren R. Weinstein (3 pages)
    Weinstein had a horrible childhood, which she apparently recounted in ugly, oddly-colored art. This is one anecdote out of a longer book.
  • "Gone" by Carol Tyler (7 pages)
    Metafiction with a bit of actual fiction (or non-fiction) embedded in the middle. The art is nice, but the narration strains a lot.
  • "A Short History of America" by Robert Crumb (4 pages)
    Stuff gets built. Crumb disapproves. It was on every other hippie's dorm-room wall in 1972.
  • "Uncle Bob's Mid-Life Crisis" by Robert Crumb (8 pages)
    Autobio comics from a couple of decades ago; too many panels on a page for my money, but it does get into the cartoonist's head well.
  • "Jelly Roll Morton's Voodoo Curse" by Robert Crumb (6 pages)
    Crumb uses blacks a lot more effectively here than in his autobio pieces, telling a historical story about a bandleader and music producer in the late '20s.
  • "Where Has it Gone, All the Beautiful Music of Our Grandparents?" by Robert Crumb (5 pages)
    Crumb is yet another cartoonist -- OK, he's the epitome, and the original of the cartoonist -- who hates the modern world and fixates on specific cultural artifacts of the past. And this is one of his most famous expressions of that feeling.
  • "Lunch With Carmella" by Harvey Pekar and Robert Crumb (4 pages)
    Early Pekar autobio comics.
  • "Hypothetical Quandary" by Harvey Pekar and Robert Crumb (3 pages)
    Ditto, but a number of years later, with an art style more like the Jelly-Roll Morton piece.
  • excerpt from Soba by Joe Sacco (8 pages)
    An anecdote from Safe Area Gorazde, starting in the middle and ending in the middle. I appreciate the idea of wanting Sacco to be in a book like this, but I'd have preferred using something with more of the attributes of a story.
  • "The Ethel Catherwood Story" by David Collier (14 pages)
    The true story of an Olympic champion high-jumper from Canada, as narrated by a guy with an oddly tiny head.
  • "Scott Joplin" by Chris Ware (1 page)
    Ware, as always, is obsessed with loneliness, death, and despair.
  • excerpt from Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware (12 pages)
    More loneliness and despair, with a pseudo-beginning and end. This works better than most of the excerpts in this book.
  • "Thrilling Adventure Stories" by Chris Ware (6 pages)
    Remembrances of being a young, comics-obsessed, socially-awkward kid, presented as the dialogue and narration in a super-hero strip. A nice idea that doesn't really succeed the way it wants to.
  • excerpt from Building Stories by Chris Ware (3 pages)
    Ware is still a heavily formal cartoonist and concerned intensely with a few specific (negative) emotions, but Building Stories might -- might -- just give him a chance to show a little more range. (I certainly hope so.) These pages, like all ofit I've seen so far, are excellent.
  • "A Feeling" and "An Idea" by Chris Ware (1 page each)
    More short stories related to Building Stories.
  • "Gynecology" by Daniel Clowes (22 pages)
    A good representative Clowes story, in its entirety.
  • edited version of "The Fallen World of Daniel Clowes" by Daniel Raeburn (interview, 1 pages)
    A very stilted dissection of the previous story. It's not very useful.
  • "190 Dublin Street" by Seth (1 page)
    Pure atmosphere -- nice, but disposable.
  • and then two pages of short contributors' biographies; these are just fine for what they are, but not as useful or interesting as the bios in Best American. They also don't make up for having a useless table of contents.
Anthology, then, has a total of 388 pages of comics for $28.00. (Again being obsessive: 7.2 cents per page, a bit cheaper than Best American.) There are 91 pieces in the book, including the pre-introduction scribbles and the two essays, but many of those are very short. (And my count could be disputed -- I'm basically counting everything with a different title as a separate thing -- but, still, Anthology clearly has many more pieces, and shorter pieces, than Best American does.) Anthology also has no obvious structure, but it's a problem here, since this is a historical anthology -- it should have some sort of structure, if only an implicit historicism. Instead, it starts with a very abstract comic, moves pretty quickly into a clump of Peanuts-inspired stories for no obvious reason, and then meanders its way along from there. There is a lot of good stuff here, but Brunetti has made no attempt to connect any of it, and so it feels a bit like a trackless wilderness. It is designed as a teaching anthology, but that didn't mean it should have been constructed to require a strong teacher's hand to lead readers through it.

I can't really reccomend Anthology, despite its strengths: it's so disjointed and random that it's hard to simply work through. It's possibly of interest as a sampler, but -- if you like any appreciable fraction of the works in here -- you'll end up buying the full versions of the excerpts in Anthology anyway, so there's no reason not to start with Maus, or La Perdita, or Music for Mechanics, or (God help you) Binky Brown. Best American does have a definite slant, attributable to the guest editor, but it also focuses more on complete stories, and on lesser-known names. It's simply a more interesting and useful book for anyone who already knows anything about modern non-longjohns comics.


Stephen said...

Interesting comparison. I think a number of your criticisms of the Brunetti anthology hit the mark.

I do think you underestimate the Crumb Short History of America, though. I explain why in some detail here if you're interested.

Anonymous said...

Actually, Brunetti did go about constructing the anthology with a specific plan - can't remember if he indicated this in the introduction, or in an interview or the topic, though. In any case, he viewed it as illustrating a progression from simple gag strips to long form works - also, I believe almost every piece is in some way tangentally related to the piece that preceeded it through content or style - admittedly, a subtle method of ordering, but one I enjoyed -

For that matter, I enjoyed the Brunetti anthology overall because I felt it had quite a strong emphasis on formalism/stylistic innovation over narrative in comics - both a reflection of my Brunetti's interest, and my own. I suspect from some of your judgements that you may be more interested in comics as a means of storytelling - in which case your judgement is understandable.

Oh, and one final observation - I generally dislike Lynda Barry too, but I was pleasantly suprised with 100 Demons - so give that a browse if you're ever in the mood to revise your opinion -

Travis McGee

Anonymous said...

Oh ... and excuse the 'my Brunetti' howler in the second paragraph .. I'm not trying to claim ownership!

Travis Mcgee

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