Last year’s version of Best American Comics was edited by Charles Burns, a connoisseur of the “underground” comics scene; not surprisingly, many of his picks reflected the left-field nature of his taste. There was weirdness aplenty in such strips as ‘Hillbillys ‘R’ Dumb” by Doug Allen, Ron Regé Jr’s eye-watering “Against Pain,” or the primitivist absurdity of Gary Panter’s “Dal Tokyo”. Non-linear storytelling verging on incoherence was included rather too often, while elsewhere, strangeness for its own sake seemed the order of the day. The resulting anthology was not especially memorable, at least not for the right reasons.
This time around, series editors Jessica Abel and Matt Madden have gone with a trusted, if more mainstream, name in Neil Gaiman, well-known fiction author and revered writer of the seminal ’90s book, Sandman. Gaiman brings a certain gravitas to the proceedings, but more importantly, he returns the series to its emphasis on storytelling. As he says in his introduction, “I’ve tried to find sequences that worked on their own, that gave a flavor of a book, that would interest, intrigue or irritate you enough that they would perhaps send you out to buy the whole thing.” In this he has succeeded admirably.
It is with some relief that the reader leafs through these pages and finds that, indeed, story has taken pride of place in this collection. There are fewer page-long strips and panels, and many more lengthy excerpts, including one from Josh Neufeld’s A.D., an account of New Orleans in the wake of hurricane Katrina (although no sample from the superior Katrina story Dark Rain, perhaps because it was relieased on DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint). David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp enjoys a meaty extract, as well it should, that 344-page tome being one of the most complex and thought-provoking titles of the year. The titular character is a university professor of philosophy who undergoes a series of crises; this extract, taken from near the beginning of the book, is enough to pique the reader’s interest without giving away major plot points.
There is much more to enjoy here. Chris Ware, who was one of the bright spots in last year’s anthology, returns this year with an even longer story. His 21-page extract from Acme Novelty Library features a compelling story of contemporary existential angst married to meticulous, text-heavy art and intricate layouts. “Ex Communication” by Todd Brower and Steve MacIsaac cleverly overlays the simultaneous thoughts and spoken words of a pair of former lovers who have gotten together to catch up. Michael Cho’s “Trinity” turns to history for its material in its parsing of the Manhattan Project’s development of the atomic bomb, relying on muted colors except for one startling page, while Brian Lee O’Malley’s ultra-cartoony Scott Pilgrim vs. the Universe will be a revelation to anyone who only knows the movie.
As ever, the range of styles varies widely. The split between color and black and white appears roughly 50-50, while art styles range from Robert Crumb’s sketchy, busy line work in The Book of Genesis (yup, Adam and Eve) to the muted colors and cartoon lines of Omega the Unknown by Jonathan Lethem (yup, the novelist) and Farel Dalrymple, to the dynamic, manga-inspired illustrations for Fred Chao’s Johnny Hiro. There are watercolors and pen-and-ink sketches; scruffy linework and meticulous finishes. In short, something for everyone, which is appropriate for a collection of this type.
Despite the scattergun approach to this series, which ensures exposure for a variety of lesser-known writers and artists, women remain woefully under-represented. This reflects a similar pattern in mainstream US comics, which are overwhelmingly male dominated, as is their audience. This has led to endless chicken-and-egg head-scratching; do fewer women create comics because fewer girls grow up reading comics, or do fewer girls read comics because fewer women are writing them? Or is there no connection at all between the creators and the audience? (That seems unlikely.) Whatever the reason, the unwelcome pattern seems to continue in the alt-comics realm, as well. Last year’s anthology collected a whopping five women out of 36 contributors; this year it’s three out of 25.
That said, Lilli Carré’s The Lagoon is worth singling out, not because it is written by a woman, but for its dreamy, disturbing storyline and striking artwork. Carré’s use of heavy blacks and stark whites, combined with a sense of line that never runs exactly straight, adds up to a starkly powerful style reminiscent of wood-block prints. The story of a strange marsh creature whose song lures sleepers to the swamp is oddly disturbing without falling into cliché. In this case, Gaiman’s mission to send the reader in search of more is likely to succeed.
In the end, the reader is left with a strong impression of comics—or graphic novels, if you must—as a medium of storytelling that not only enjoys great future potential but also a lively and engaging present.