Jessica Abel and Matt Madden, 2009, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 332 pages, $22
The editors of this anthology have done a very good job of collecting a significant number of terrific comics under one cover.
The book includes some comics that I have read before and really enjoyed, such as "Freaks," by Laura Park (originally published in the AdHouse anthology Superior Showcase #2), and Kevin Huizenga's "Glenn Ganges in Pulverize" (originally published in Ganges #2, which I reviewed here and put on my "Best Comics of 2008" list here). Other pieces that I had previously read and are certainly worthy of inclusion are Gilbert Hernandez's "Papa," from Love and Rockets: New Stories #1, Michael Kupperman's "Indian Spirit Twain & Einstein," from Tales Designed to Thrizzle, and Art Spiegelman's "Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@#*!!," originally published in The Virginia Quarterly Review and recently republished in Breakdowns.
Of the comics in this book that I had not seen before, my favorite is easily Dan Zettwoch's "Spirit Duplicator: Selected Church Bulletin Comics of Darryl Zettwoch, 1968-1998." Zettwoch gives us glimpses of the history of St. Batholomew's Episcopal Church in St. Louis, Missouri, as captured in five weekly church bulletins produced over the course of thirty years by Dan's fictional uncle Darryl, the staff artist for the church. Each page includes a "reproduction" of one of Darryl's comics drawn for the bulletin, along with annotations by Darryl and a few panels discussing the techniques Darryl used to create the strip. Thus, along with the history of this fictional church, Zettwoch gives the reader a primer on the developments in comic-making technology from 1968 to 1998. Zettwoch packs so much information into each page, yet manages to keep the comic lively and funny. I'm definitely going to try to hunt down more stuff from Zettwoch. (Oh right - googling him has reminded me that he shares a website/store with one of my favorite comic creators, Kevin Huizenga. No wonder I liked this comic so much -- the intelligence, love of the medium, and sense of humor seen here is very similar to Huizenga's work. IT ALL MAKES SENSE NOW.)
Another comic that I enjoyed was Gary Panter's "Dal Tokyo," originally published in Riddim. It's a fantasy story set on Mars. Panter obviously has fun creating this comic, and that energy comes through in his drawing. I particularly liked how the panels of each four panel strip share a contiguous background. It's as though Panter is gradually revealing this world he has created, and only after finishing the fourth panel can you pull back and see the entire scene. It's neat stuff.
But I didn't love everything about this book. Tim Hensley's Wally Gropius character appears in four stories throughout this anthology, including the very first and last stories. While editor Charles Burns clearly was taken with these stories, I was not. These comics appear to be comic strip parodies: the art style and colors could come straight out the Sunday funny pages. But they aren't very funny taken at face value, and one story goes well beyond what you'd ever actually see in the newspaper, so I'm guessing Hensley is trying to comment in some way on classic comic strips. What exactly he's getting at is unclear, however. Between the unfunny jokes and lack of any real story, I was left with a sour taste in my mouth. (Hey, look -- here's Dash Shaw with a more positive look at Hensley's work. Sorry, I still don't like it.)
I should note that mercifully, there are fewer representatives this year from the "alternative weekly newspaper comics" world, which tends not to be up my alley. (Last year's Best American Comics 2008 was riddled with entries from that crowd.) Unfortunately Kaz makes an appearance again, bringing along his ugly art and crappy punchlines. No thanks.
Also: not a big fan of Michael Kupperman's cover. Something about that woman's face is just so repellent, it's possible that people might turn away from the book rather than peek inside. It's a shame the illustration on the inside cover was not used as the cover of the book instead. Dan Zettwoch's (there's that guy again) drawing of a nutso highway, complete with cut-away views of each driver -- and each one with an eye popping out reading a comic book -- is really quite fantastic.
There are many other comics collected here, and many are worth reading. Despite a few clunkers, on the whole this book was excellent.
BUY IT: From the publisher here or from Amazon here: The Best American Comics 2009
RELATED: My review of The Best American Comics 2008
Disclaimer: This review is based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher.