Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 294 (11/24) -- Top Shelf Asks The Big Questions

Anthologies are difficult to review to begin with, and seven-year-old anthologies doubly so. Add to that the fact that Top Shelf Asks the Big Questions was, in hindsight, the book that showed that the publishing company Top Shelf was, well, to be blunt, really Top Shelf, and you'd need someone vastly better versed in all of the ins and outs of the indy comics scene of the past decade to really do it justice.

Sadly, what you have is me, so I'll try to be brief instead of blundering around for an extended period. It's not that Asks the Big Questions is a perfect anthology -- I didn't think that everything in it works, and it has an awful lot of random prose for a comics anthology -- but that everything in it is pitched at the same high level of ambition, that it's casually international just because that's how it should be (with a section on "the New Swiss Scene," plus other works scattered throughout), and because it's just big enough and full enough (over 300 pages) to be a whole world of comics of its own.

There aren't a lot of cartoonists I recognized in Asks the Big Questions -- partially a result of that international focus, partially because I haven't paid enough attention to this end of the comics market, and partially because people are always dropping in and out -- but there's a good Jason story, a minor Alan Moore/Melinda Gebbe strip, an excellent James Kochalka to close it out, and several other notable works. It's imperfect in the hard-to-navigate ways far too many anthologies are, as well: there's no table of contents, the list of contributors is buried near the end and not browsable or particularly readable, and the credits for each story are too-discretely placed at the bottom of the first page. What that means, of course, is that the reader finds himself dropping back, asking himself, "Who did this one? This style isn't familiar either!" over and over again, and finding a lot of new and exciting names. (Well, they were new and exciting in 2003, and they're new and exciting if your experience is more in the ground-level indies, as mine is -- I'm sure there's a sizable audience for whom all of these names were old hat even in 2003.)

Asks the Big Questions is schizophrenic in one very interesting way: it feels almost evenly divided between pantomime strips (and not just the ones from the international crowd) and very wordy pieces, both the text features (a history of the New Swiss Scene, an interview with David Chelsea, etc.) and a smattering of stories that are very text-heavy themselves. Perhaps someone shook Asks the Big Questions very hard, and the words settled unevenly? My silly fancies aside, Asks the Big Questions is still an exciting, well-curated look at the world of possibilities of comics, even this many years later. The next time Top Shelf has one of their awesome sales, I'd recommend grabbing a copy and checking it out.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

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