There is a nice variety of comics represented here, although you notice no superhero stuff is included. I looked at superhero stories but just didn’t run across any that (I thought) were particularly good. If you’re a superhero fan and you’re angry because they aren’t present here, I guess you’ll just have to vent your anger on me.
—Harvey Pekar, from his introduction to The Best American Comics 2006
Legitimacy has been elusive for graphic storytellers. Despite finding a place in bookstores, in sections that border those that house Dickens, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Steinbeck, graphic novelists and comic book creators have struggled to be taken seriously. Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Harvey Pekar, Neil Gaiman, Daniel Clowes, Stan Lee, Bob Kane, Joe Schuster, Jerry Siegel, Jack Kirby, and a multitude of others make up the graphic storytelling elite, but for most people their output is nothing more than “funny books.”
Fortunately, cracks have been developing in that written-in-concrete position. Spiegelman won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1992 for his Holocaust graphic novel Maus. Terry Zwigoff’s 1994 documentary, Crumb, brought the underground work of Robert Crumb to greater attention. Zwigoff’s follow-up, 2001’s Ghost World, was a fairly mainstream adaptation of Clowes’ work. The 2003 film American Splendor, a pastiche of documentary and fiction, told the story of Pekar and the underground comix movement. Spiegelman has embarked on a lecture tour, partly to promote his In the Shadow of No Towers, and partly to educate audiences about the artistic value of graphic novels and comics through the history of the medium. And comics have popped up in curated museum exhibits (Masters of American Comics being exhibited through Jan. 28 at the Newark Museum in Newark, NJ, and the Jewish Museum in New York City; Africacomics at the Studio Museum in Harlem).
But for all the forward momentum those films and lectures and exhibits have created, the most important step might be Best American Comics 2006, the first graphic arts entry in the Best American Series that includes the most exceptional American work in such categories as Non-Required Reading, Short Stories, Sports Writing, Essays, and others. Released in October and guest edited by Pekar, Best American Comics 2006 represents a heretofore elusive acceptance of the medium. Pekar says in his introduction, “While I’m usually not into ‘best of’ collections and awards because of the wide variation of aesthetic tastes, I am happy to be working on this Best American Comics collection because it lends legitimacy to the cause of comics, my medium, and their creators.”
This legitimacy is created by being part of the Best American brand. The series has a long tradition (the first volume, Best American Short Stories, was published in 1915) and an established sense of value. If a piece of writing or literature is found in one of these books, you know it has to be good. And Best American Comics 2006 is good, real good, and mighty impressive.
Whereas the other Best American volumes are soft-cover trade paperbacks, Best American Comics 2006 is hard-back, with a beautiful cover illustration and gold embossing. Included between those hard covers are 320 pages of excerpts, sections, and in some cases full reproductions of graphic novels. There are 30 contributions in the book, some in color, others in black-and-white; some from well-known creators, others from relative unknowns; some elaborately executed, others extraordinarily minimalist. Consistent throughout, though, is Pekar’s reverence for the medium, exemplified by his keen picks for inclusion.
Among the black-and-white entries, Rebecca Dart’s “Rabbithead,” originally published in Rabbithead, is an intricately crafted, beautifully drawn piece of graphic storytelling. But besides being nice to look at, Dart’s story of bizarre creatures and wraith-like shadows populating a fantastical world highlights the possibilities of graphic storytelling.
Beginning with a three-panel sequence of an anthropomorphic rabbit filling in a grave, centered on page 105, followed by two more three-panel pages, Dart suddenly, on page 108, breaks the story into three parallel storylines. Seven pages later, Dart unfurls two more parallel storylines, telling five different yet connected-by-the-circle-of-life stories. The storylines eventually recombine on page 125, and the story ends a few pages later with a three-panel sequence of an unfilled grave that brings “Rabbithead” back to opening images of the story.
Dart’s ambitious contribution can be contrasted with the relative simplicity to the storytelling employed in Kim Deitch’s “Ready to Die,” a color piece originally published in McSweeney’s. The five-page work rather straightforwardly recounts Deitch’s witnessing the execution of Ronald Fitzgerald in 1993 at the Greensville Correctional Facility in Virginia. Using vibrant coloring, especially with reds and blues, Deitch grapples, in a three-act structure, with watching someone be killed and wondering, after talking with Fitzgerald’s family, if the death penalty is cruel or not.
“Ready to Die” is quickly consumed compared to other entries in Best American Comics 2006 (Jesse Reklaw’s “Thirteen Cats of My Childhood” is 20 pages, and Justin Hall’s “La Rubia Loca” is 48 pages), but it highlights a theme that runs throughout the volume: social responsibility. Nearly every piece deals with accountability, some globally, like the stark “Nakedness and Power,” created by Seth Tobocman, Terisa Turner, and Leigh Brownhill, others more personally, like Alex Robinson’s “Thirty-Three.”
What’s obvious after stepping back and observing the totality of Best American Comics 2006 is that, yes, graphic novels should be taken seriously. But, more importantly, that the graphic medium is uniquely equipped to universally relate issues and concerns through images as well as text. This is something that anyone who has read graphic works knows well; for everyone else, this will be revelatory. Comics have been the domain of Spider-Man, Batman, and Superman, yes, but socially conscious work is as important to the medium as tights and capes. And unlike literature, graphic novels aren’t just words that may or may not be understood; the images that go along with the writing say as much, and sometimes more, than the written text.
By virtue of Pekar’s immersion in the comix underground, he’s uniquely equipped to lead newcomers on a tour of the best graphic work of the past year that reveals its depth and breadth. He’s well-equipped to look past the popular “kids stuff” of DC and Marvel and see the bigger picture—and he can make readers do the same. (His introduction, too, is required reading—he distills Spiegelman’s history-of-comics lecture into a couple of engaging, easily-digestable pages.) Anne Elizabeth Moore, the series editor, should be commended for tapping Pekar to be the one to inaugurate the Best American Comics entry in the Best American series.
If Best American Comics 2006 is any indication, this newest addition to the august Best American series has a long, robust future ahead of it. Watching the Best American Comics series grow and blossom will be a treat for (hopefully) years to come.