Wednesday, June 10

The Best American Comics 2008

Lynda Barry, editor
Houghton Mifflin 2008

I'm cross-posting at Guys Lit Wire today.

I have this problem with Summer Reading lists that are doled out by schools. Basically, they suck. They suck the joy of reading right down to the marrow and attempt to equate vacation time with extended education. Either schools should go year-round and quit the pretense or Summer Reading lists need to lighten up. Spend the Summer returning fun the the reading quotient, there'll be plenty of time starting in September for reading the Serious, the Dry, the Meaningful to be analyzed within inches of their pulpy lives.

I've got plenty of suggestions for alternate Summer Reading but today I want to talk about comics, and specifically The Best American Comics of 2008. I've actually wanted to talk about this for months but teetered on the edge of deciding whether or not the collection is appropriate. It's that whole chicken v. egg thing of whether or not some graphic imagery and story elements are appropriate for teens or if they're already seeing them in other places (like movies and TV) and there's little harm involved in comics that do the same thing.

Murder, sex, and drugs are involved, but these are topics often touched on in Young Adult literature. The difference is that when they appear in comics there's this feeling that somehow minors are being corrupted, that "comics" equals "funny" or "humorous" and that anything more is some grand betrayal of morals.

Editor Lynda Berry mentions in her introduction that "If this book had been in my house when I was a kid, I would have found a way to read it in secret." This is exactly what I would have done as a kid, and it got me wondering if that still isn't the best way to discover a world of comics beyond superheroes and other ridiculous over-muscled, tights-wearing vigilantes. On the other hand, shouldn't we have evolved in our thinking that kids shouldn't have to discover these things in secret? Sure, the thrill of doing something forbidden is lost, as is the wonderment that comes with discovery, but comics already have a hard enough time (though it's getting better) with acceptance that maybe that secret reading should be secret no longer.

For anyone who grew up, as I did, looking forward to the comics in the alternative weekly papers, and those who have kept tabs with small press and alternative comics, there are few surprises here. Matt Groening, Nick Bertozzi, Kaz, Jaime Hernandez, Seth, Alison Bechdel, Rick Geary, Chris Ware, Derf... the line-up reads like a brief history of 80s and 90s comics history, and the fact that these folks are still around (and perhaps to some extent largely unknown) may make a larger point about comics history in America. The fact that one "mainstream" comic was chosen - a Batman: Year 100 excerpt was chosen and pulled at the last minute by its publisher makes another point about this collection: there's still a Wild West frontier in comics.

With a wide range of styles and subject matter, the comics Barry has chosen are incredibly strong. Usually with collections like this the pieces I like are outweighed by the number I don't, but here I found only two duds and a couple of marginal pieces and the rest were solid. Subjects cover everything from the opening comic where fratricide is played as a casual punchline to the horrors of the war in Iraq from a journalist to kids playing war and discovering girlie magazines while "invading" a homeless encampment. The four panel strip format flips it's wig with surreality, the Tortoise and the Hare becomes a battle between a rock-steady drummer on the one hand and a party-hearty type on the other, a pair of nocturnal ragamuffins spending the night building a tower of boxes to play hopscotch on, young woman tries to help a drug addict, a man is sanguine about losing his love to a suicidal cult, Cupid's assistant takes over for a day and has cats mating with dogs (literally) in no time... there's something for (and possibly to offend) every sensibility, though that isn't it's purpose.

To those who have felt the short story is dead, I propose that the short story is alive and well in the form of comics. Even as stand-alone excepts from larger works, these stories deliver – not so much a punchline but a promise of a satisfying resolution.

There is always that danger that one person's "best" is another person's worst, but omnibus collections like The Best American Comics series (previous editions edited by Harvey Pekar and Chris Ware) and Flight (now in it's fifth volume, edited by Kazu Kibuishi) are a great ways to sample what's out there and explore the possibilities of storytelling that don't involve nefarious villains plotting to take over the world.

Lynda Barry's advice for how to approach the book is one I wish more adults would encourage in collections. She suggests opening the book to find something of interest – as a kid she would have tried to zoom in on swear words or crazy pictures – and start reading from there. Jump around, find what interests, read in pieces, not all at once. Linear is highly overrated and constricting, not unlike a lot of educational thinking about Summer Reading.

Lighten up and enjoy the experience.

Books mentioned:

The Best American Comics 2008
edited by Lynda Barry
Houghton Mifflin

The Best American Comics 2007
edited by Chris Ware
Houghton Mifflin

The Best American Comics 2006
edited by Harvey Pekar and Anne Elizabeth Moore
Houghton Mifflin

Flight, volumes 1 through 5
edited by Kazu Kibuishi
Villard Books

Batman: Year 100
Paul Pope
DC Comics
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