Sunday, October 22, 2006

The actual review

The Best American Comics 2006
Harvey Pekar, Ed.
Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006

I finally had a chance to read most of this, and I have to say that it's a fine collection. Pekar was the "guest editor" for this particular selection in Houghton Mifflin's The Best American series. While I found that I enjoyed his selections, both as individual stories (most of the time) and as a representation of the breadth of work that can be found in American comics, his introduction didn't add anything to the volume: he by turns rants crankily, belabors the obvious, or just bores the reader.

Pekar specifically states in the introduction that "no superhero stuff is included" in the collection; the first piece (and one of my favorites, it turned out) gives lie to that statement. The Amazing Life of Onion Jack is a charming and deceptively simple ten-page strip that is a gentle pastiche of superhero themes and treatments throughout the ages, and it really requires some familiarity with the form to be completely effective. Witness this segment from Jack's "origin":

But, truth to tell, Onion Jack is indeed the only superhero in the book. The rest of the collection comprises mostly black-and-white strips that cover a ranges of genres. The reportage, such as Kim Deitch's Ready to Die, about prisoners on death row, and Joe Sacco's Complacency Kills, about U.S. troops in Iraq, was particularly compelling; Nakedness and Power, a primer on Nigerian oil politics and the protests against it (by Seth Tocoman, Terisa Turner, and Leigh Brownhill) packed nine graphic pages with as much information as a magazine article and was compelling to read.

The autobiographical pieces were less successful. Most of them reminded me of the worst excesses of the black-and-white autobiographical indies of the nineties: they were self-indulgent and interesting only to the authors and perhaps their friends. Johnathan Bennett's Dance with the Ventures (which apparently does have fictional elements) never clicked for me with any universals or common experiences that I could understand or relate to; Jesse Reklaw's Thirteen Cats of My Childhood went on for twenty pages that I found as compelling a scrapbook of pictures of other people's pets. David Lasky's Diary of a Bread Delivery Guy, in comparison, was both clever and short.

Some entries were unclassifiable. Rebecca Dart's Rabbithead has some sort of fantasy narrative to it, but is really just a formalist exercise, albeit a beautifully rendered and intellectually complex one.

There were some sure-fire hits in the mix, and some surprises. You can't go wrong with a Rick Geary one-pager on seduction, and I'll take a Jaime Hernandez locas story (this one centered on Hopey) any length, anywhere, anytime. I was already a bit interested in Alex Robinson; the excerpt from Tricked ratcheted that interest up higher. On the other hand, the excerpt from Jessica Abel's La Perdida just didn't work as an enticement; I'll still get the book, but despite this selection, not because of it. One new-to-me find was Anders Nilsen, whose bleak and moody piece The Gift (sort of Tintin by way of Ingmar Bergman and Sam Peckinpah) made me want to see a lot more of his stuff:

I must admit, there were some pieces I did not read, just from prior bias, particularly Robert Crumb (whom I dislike) and Gilbert Shelton (who just doesn't do anything for me). Truth to tell, Chris Ware falls into this latter category, but I did read (with the help of a bloody magnifying glass) his entry, which was a compilation of short filler-pieces he created for the issue of McSweeney's that he edited. The completed piece is a wonderful short history of comics (if you can see it - why does he make his stuff so damn small?):

There's a lot more in here: a short (color) piece from Ben Katchor, some happy dykes from Alison Bechdel, a post-modern Paul Bunyon from Lili Carre, and, of course, some Lynda Barry are among the other contributions. This is an excellent anthology overall, and one I'll likely work into a classroom someday soon.

1 comment:

John said...

He makes everything so small so that noone will notice that he's a GENIUS!

And to make sure old people can't read his beautiful comics.