[21 October 2007]
Contemporary comics anthologies like the Chris Ware-edited Best American Comics 2007 offer a tempting number of opportunities to make sweeping statements about the nascence of the medium, the prospect of the graphic novel ascending as the new art form of the 21st century, and the possibilities lying before its preeminent artists. Yet Ware’s anthology lends itself better to this kind of self-indulgence than most. More than any other comics anthology compiled thus far, it feels like a genuine effort to craft a truly comprehensive picture of comics as they are today, with a gentle nudging towards the various directions they could possibly go.
Chris Ware has done an admirable job sampling comics from all across the board, including even those that are seemingly at odds with one another—take, for example, Sophie Crumb’s desperate plea for graphic novelists to not “spend ten pages going on and on about taking out the fuckin’ garbage”, which seems to directly contradict Jeffrey Brown’s 42 pages dedicated to tracking down a CD he’s heard in a café. Ware organizes the comics together like a mix-tape, with each blending into the next through a resemblance not so much in content but in style. Like any good mix-tape, the BAC is composed also of tonal highs and lows: it never becomes boring or repetitive, because each comic is followed by another that is similar in style but introduces some new element to push the overall anthology forward.
The comics that Ware has included in the collection all in some way engage not only with their own creation, but also with their own exposition of the possibilities of the graphic medium as a whole. The most interesting results in the book are those that play with the parameters of panels and sequential separation. In Lauren Weinstein’s “Skate Date”, for example, a lack of set panel perimeters makes the action blur together with a surreal, dream-like quality. Weinstein’s “Waiting” demonstrates the compilation aspect of comics—the way that serial actions can be piled chronologically atop one another to stand still as an enormous mess unified by the entire page. The result is sequential and stationary at the same time: a piece of art composed of sequential panels that in turn contribute to a motionless overall picture.
Ivan Brunetti and Jeffrey Brown embody perhaps the most typical trend of modern day comics—that of a boyhood medium appropriated to express adulthood feelings of emotional immaturity. Ivan Brunetti’s opening page-long comic demonstrates one of the ongoing problems for comics—a need to invest both in one’s deepest metaphysical thoughts and one’s basest desires. Brunetti’s comic shows the problem of so much of this work—that both are often strived for with a dissatisfying compound result. Brunetti’s work, like that of so many graphic novelists (including Ware himself) starts with lofty ambitions but again falls back to glum nostalgia and base longings.
Yet with or without their flaws, Brown and Brunetti’s works display the potency of sequential art to reflect on the day-to-day in a delicate yet deeply constructed manner unique to the medium. Comics are most ideal for diary-type reflections because they combine our ability to repeat the simple visual truth we perceive in our day-to-day lives with the written opportunity to introspect on them. Even in the most sentimental of day-to-day reflections there is never the sense of pretentiousness that would come if the same stories were told through film or literature. The formula is most successful when humor is thrown into the mix - comics like Jonathan Bennett’s “Needles and Pins” offer a new view of menial day-in-the-life meanderings that suggest that casual amusement and humor can be as valuable an ingredient in a meaningful work as pretension or gravity.
The Best American Comics 2007 also demonstrates that relationships are still the preeminent subject of many comics. The reasons for this seem obvious - comics have become an ideal space to deposit the moments in a relationship that don’t quite fit anywhere else; the moments that can’t be expressed just in words but in the ebb and flow of gestures and expressions. This is most perfectly captured in Kevin Huizenga’s comic “Glenn in Bed.” On one page, we see Glenn’s darkened room from his perspective as his wife sleeps next to him. The page is composed of shadowy textures and corners all held together by four symmetrical empty voice-bubbles, representing his wife’s sleep-breathing. Glenn’s quaint reflections on loved ones watching each other sleep evolves suddenly into an enormous, dizzying abstract circle composed of pillows, heads, and sleep-breaths—a precise diagram of quiet, night-time thoughts. Huizenga both perfectly portrays a delicate, lost moment in a relationship and offers an abstract, profound illustration of its cyclical nature.
Since graphic novelists aren’t reinventing the wheel, perhaps the main distinction in the different artist’s styles in BAC is their inheritance—whom they choose to take as a jumping-off point. Since comics as an art form combines many pre-existing mediums, the diversity of precedents for graphic novelists is fascinating. While artists like Alison Bechdel, Lynda Barry, Adrian Tomine, and Ben Katchor approach comics from literature, there are an equal number of artists (Anders Nilsen, Gary Panter, Ron Regé, C. Tyler, David Heatley) to approach it from the view of art, both abstract and aesthetic. Meanwhile, the Paper Rad piece seems more spawned out of television and computer media than any sort of literary or artistic precedent, and C.F.‘s “Blond Atchen and the Bumble Boys” seems to take surrealism and, even more specifically, the work of Henry Darger as more of a departure point than any sort of superhero or newspaper comic.
The comics in BAC are above all literary—not in the sense that they rely on language but that they clearly have an agenda in pushing the boundaries of the medium beyond a form of popular entertainment, into the realm of literary depth and experimentation. Naturally, there is an entire contingent of comics that are being ignored here. If there’s a problem with Best American Comics 2007, it’s that the series fails to happily justify its exclusion of popular comics from its consideration. This near-total omission helpfully illustrates the bafflement most readers/critics/artists feel when forced to justify their love of Chris Ware, Adrian Tomine, or David B. with the greater world of Spiderman, The Fantastic Four, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. For the series to successfully continue (and for the world of comics to continue to grow), it must address the relation (or lack thereof) between “superhero et al.” comics and the more literary graphic novel.
But the Best American Comics 2007 wouldn’t be a true representation of the state of contemporary sequential art without these flaws within it. And in essence, the book feels as much a historical document as a simple ‘Best of…’ collection. Reading it, there is a sense of glee and excitement, of all the possibilities it represents, as well as all those it doesn’t. The BAC series is important not just as an introduction to the multitude of contemporary approaches to comics, but also as an affirmation of them.