Thursday, October 23, 2008

Review: The Best American Comics 2008

If you are interested in being exposed to a wide range of good comic book work, I recommend seeking out the recently-published anthology The Best American Comics 2008 (Lynda Barry, ed., Houghton Mifflin, 2008, 352 pages, $22), which includes contributions from twenty-six creators, some well-known, others relatively unknown but up-and-coming. Like ordering the beer sampler at your favorite micro-brewery, you'll find here a collection of short, well-crafted, interesting comics and an easy way to figure out whether you might like to see more from these creators without blowing your wallet.

Editor Lynda Barry, who contributed her own comic as an introduction (it looks just like her recent book What It Is), picked the comics (or pieces of longer comics) to be included in this volume, and she's done a good job. From Nick Bertozzi's The Salon, a murder-mystery starring famous modernist painters, Barry smartly plucked the segments showing the relationship between Picasso and Georges Braque and their invention of Cubism. Chris Ware's Thanksgiving Series from The New Yorker also is reprinted here, which is nice for me because I wasn't able to see the whole thing when it was originally published. And it really is heartbreaking work.

As one might expect from an editor who is a veteran of alternative weekly strip comics, Barry also selected a number of works from that realm: pages from Alison Bechdel's Dykes to Watch Out For, Derf's The City, Matt Groening's Life in Hell, and Kaz's Underworld all make an appearance here. (At times, reading Best American Comics 2008 felt like reading The Chicago Reader.) Of these, my favorite was Bechdel's -- her talent for characterization, which you can see in her terrific graphic novel Fun Home, really shines here where she has spent years writing these people. Plus, its obvious she just loves these characters, and that always helps me to enjoy a comic book too. I didn't really like the material from Kaz or Derf -- I've never been fond of either's art, and didn't think the writing was very interesting -- but Groening's stuff was fun, exploring childhood and brotherly competition (with good jokes).

I thought Lilli Carre's The Thing About Madeline was fascinating. This comic, which won the 2008 Ignatz Award for Outstanding Story, shows how Madeline, living a humdrum life and spending her evenings drinking at the local bar, finds herself replaced by . . . herself. It's not explained whether the events that Madeline sees are "real" or not, but I thought the story successfully depicted what mental illness might feel like. Carre's new graphic novel The Lagoon just made its debut at SPX, and I'm definitely interested in reading it on the strength of The Thing About Madeline.

(by the way, this comic may be in color in the published book)

Eleanor Davis's Seven Sacks just creeped me right the f*** out. This short tale is about a ferryman bringing several creatures across a river, each one carrying sacks filled with unknown objects. The creatures seemed to come straight out of childhood nightmares and fairy tales.

(this is probably in color too)

Other pieces that stuck with me included Sarah Oleksyk's Graveyard, Jaime Hernandez's Gold Diggers of 1969, and the excerpts from Rick Geary's The Saga of the Bloody Benders and Seth's George Sprott (1894-1975).

As with any kind of endeavor of this nature, there were a few comics here that I didn't care for, but on the whole the book really is a good look at the state of the (non-superhero) comic union. Drink it up.

You can purchase the book here: The Best American Comics 2008 (The Best American Series)

Disclaimer: This review is based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher.


  1. I actually think the other two Best American Comics are better. I think Barry chose really obvious choices and didn't take any risks or introduce comics readers to anything new, and even if you're somewhat new to comics you may have been left in the cold. It just felt like a bunch of complete stories from people I already am familiar with and portions of comics so small it was hard to gain interest.

  2. "It just felt like a bunch of complete stories from people I already am familiar with..."

    Which would be where new readers would probably not be left out in the cold?

    I'm presuming. I haven't gotten my copy of the book, yet.