Thursday, March 15, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #74: The Best American Comics, 2015 and 2016, edited by Jonathan Lethem and Roz Chast

A couple of weeks ago (if I'm looking at the written-but-unpublished buffer correctly) I wrote about the Jeff Smith-edited Best American Comics 2013, and talked about "the usual suspects" and how that annual book could be counted on to give a general view of the comics field any year, and recommended any annual volume to any reader.

This is because I'd forgotten how radically they can vary.

Now, the series editor did also change between 2013 and 2015 -- Bill Kartalopolous took over from Jessica Abel and Matt Madden with the 2014 Scott McCloud-edited book -- but I think the guest editor is the biggest piece of the puzzle. A guest editor who comes out of a certain wing of comics will tend to know and enjoy that world -- and learn to love other things during the editing, sure, but essential tastes don't change that much that quickly. When a guest editor is chosen who isn't from any specific wing of comics, because he's from an only loosely connected field, then it's anyone's guess where he'll come down.

It's not true that comics always comes down to a battle between Story and Art. At their best, comics use both brilliantly, and meld the two inescapable together into one visual storytelling thing. But, if it were true, Jonathan Lethem would be firmly on the Art side, and I would just as firmly on the Story side. (Roz Chast, from a wing of comics that doesn't show up much in this context -- the dwindling world of magazine single panels -- seems to be firmly on the cartooning side, which is both and neither.)

But I should introduce the books before I go any further. This series has been coming out for a little more than ten years now, with three different series editors and a new guest editor each year. The series editor tries to see "everything" eligible -- comics by cartoonists and teams either currently resident in North America or from here -- and passes on about a hundred stories/books/projects to the guest editor, who culls a final list from that and his/her own reading. And then the publisher, Houghton Mifflin, has to try to get the rights to reprint those, which doesn't always happen. (The Lethem volume seems to have lost one story to lawyers in general -- too close to someone else's IP -- and another story that the creator wouldn't allow to be reprinted. That's how it happens with Best of the Year books, even if the dirty laundry only rarely makes it out where the audience can see.) Houghton Mifflin has been doing "Best American" books for a century, starting with Best American Short Stories and proliferating more and more over the last three decades.

Best American Comics 2015 was edited by novelist and occasional comics writer (Omega the Unknown) Jonathan Lethem, who I met briefly at a SFWA reception a million years ago, back when he was a SF writer and I was a SF editor. Roz Chast edited Best American Comics 2016; she's been a New Yorker mainstay for several decades and has committed graphic memoir with Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

As I think back on it, Best American Comics does occasionally dive into the aggressively artsy -- there was a lot of Fort Thunder-ish stuff in the early volumes -- but it's usually more middle-of-the-road. But Lethem in particular doesn't like the middle of any road: his book includes more weirder, further out, and actually difficult-to-read comics. (His cover is by Raymond Pettibon, a gallery painter who incorporates comics elements but is not a comics creator by the definition of anyone not named Jonathan Lethem. Pettibon also contributes a few "comics" -- actually paintings, and, even worse, all dated before the year supposedly memorialized here -- which I found impossible to actually read. I mean the words were physically that small/twisted/badly laid out that I couldn't get my aging eyes to make them coherent.) Lethem has some other bold choices, but Pettibon is the only one I'd actually object to -- some stories aren't too my taste, or not what I think that creator can do at his/her best, but nothing else felt totally out of place like Pettibon.

Chast's volume is more typical -- I don't want to say "middle of the road," since that sounds bland or reductive, but she's driving on the road all the time, at least. Lethem goes from the road to careening off a cliff semi-randomly, which is interesting and exciting but means he throws in a number of things that this particular reader was not impressed with.

Anyway, this is a great series, but -- which I didn't think about, or articulate, with the 2013 book -- the guest editor really matters. With a decade of them behind us, a reader can find the editor most sympatico to her worldview -- maybe Lynda Barry, maybe Neil Gaiman, maybe Scott McCloud -- and start with that book. Good stories don't date, so you don't have to grab the most recent book.

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