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The Best American Comics 2007by Chris Ware
Introductionduction First of all, the title: its misleading. Though I havent taken a survey, Id imagine that a good number of the guest editors of all the Best American series have felt compelled to take issue with it, too. To presume that my personal taste de- fines an objective by which all living cartoonists should be judged is absurd. On top of that, any public competition is antithetical to the spirit of real art, and labeling a widely disseminated collection of artwork as the best” veers perilously close to suggesting that artists should gauge what they do against some sort of popularity contest for an ancillary reward— notoriety, money, or even inclusion in an anthology —other than the artwork itself. So while I suppose its probably obvious to the reader that my name as guest editor essentially acts as a sort of aesthetic loophole for the overall series title, it still seems polite and proper to acknowledge it here. In some cases Ive chosen stories or excerpts of stories that fulfill what I think Im regularly looking for from art and literature (which, when boiled down past all the things that dont really matter like a snazzy style and clever writing and accomplished drawing, means telling the truth”). Ive also included work that has stuck in my craw to such a degree that the best I can do is to say that its interesting, or, in a more conversational way, that its made me feel really, really old.
As a cartoonist myself, Ive been quite heartened at the veritable explosion of intriguing work in a medium that as recently as a decade ago seemed marginal and embarrassing. In fact, it has almost gotten to the point now where a cartoonist doesnt have to explain or qualify what he or she does, let alone not have to launch into a thumbnail history of comics as a commercial-cum-artistic medium to family members at Christmastime. Comics are appearing in bookstores as novels and in museums as art. Even more amazing is that this is all because there really does appear to be a concomitant general increase in interest by the public, one of the most tangible bits of evidence being the very book you now hold.
Even the Newspaper of Record,” long proud of its comic-strip-free pages, has gotten into the game. Aside from introducing a regular weekly feature in its magazine pages wherein a single cartoonist is invited to serialize his or her latest graphic novel for approximately thirty weeks (and, it should be noted, where Jaime Hernandezs full color La Maggie La Loca” appeared, inclusion of which in this anthology was precluded by its upcoming collection in a comprehensive art book, despite my editorial wishes), dignified reviews of comics and graphic novels now regularly appear in the New York Times book review pages. But for all this general and encouraging bonhomie, the opinions expressed are not always rah-rah; in a June 2006 roundup of various recent comics in the Times, the reviewer expressed a certain weariness at the creeping sameness” to much of what he was leafing through, semi- or wholly autobiographical sketches of drifting daily life and its quiet epiphanies.” Admittedly, as comics have entered their late adolescence as art/literature, a preponderance of autobiographical work has accrued, beginning with the 1960s and 1970s comics of Justin Green, Aline Kominsky (now Kominsky-Crumb), Harvey Pekar, and, of course, Robert Crumb himself. Art Spiegelman has eloquently expressed the difficulty of understanding both the value of and the means to approaching fiction in his recent Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@#*!” and the three generations of artists C. Tyler, Joe Matt, and Jeffrey Brown have, at least up until now, devoted their oeuvres almost solely to soul-searching self-analyses. I genuinely think that this is a necessity, however, both for the artists and the medium. As cartoonists and comics still attempt to acquaint themselves with not only how to express real human emotion but also try to decide exactly what human emotions are worth expressing, the most facile and immediate way to do it is to write about oneself. Charges of self-indulgence and navel- gazing are inevitable, especially for an artist maturing within an insulated and comparatively worry-free culture such as Americas, but isnt art at least partly a means of finding a way out of oneself and then reporting back? The value of trying to see and feel ones own experience is a necessary step toward understanding what communicates and works in a medium, as well as an important bridge to cross toward completely synthetic, or imaginary, storytelling, should any artist want to cross it. (Though things really arent that different over there, other than the grass is a bit greener——or at least it is if you want it to be.) So in the first part of this anthology there are a number of biographical and autobbbbbiographical selections, ranging from C. Tylers heartbeat-skipping Once, We Ran” to the ideogrammatically immolating couch-time of Ivan Brunetti—with everything in between. For myself, I genuinely think that one of the real responsibilities of an artist and writer (or, more properly, what I look for in writing and art myself) is a clear, honest communication of what it feels like to be alive to people who havent been born yet. Theres a unique emotional rudder that literature and art can provide to a consciousness drifting through life—not something as banal as a roadmap or a rule book—but a sort of sympathetic rut in the road. And whether that rut is real or imaginary, life is a lot harder to get through without it.
Without tilling too much of the same ground that I always seem to turn over whenever I try to write about comics as a medium, I should reiterate that cartooning takes a really, really long time and is hard, lonely work. Pages upon hundreds of pages are drawn and thrown away before any writer or artist eventually finds him- or herself. The reader may even reliably calculate that the time it takes to read a comic strip story to the time it took to draw it is roughly 1:1,000, and Im not exaggerating. At the same time, if any art is to endure, the effort expended on its creation is usurped (and one hopes eventually dwarfed) by the works lasting power. For example, it takes a few days to read War and Peace, which took Tolstoy a few years to write, but it has survived and grown exponentially in strength through many generations of readers. Being so faced with eternity, at some point the artist, writer, or cartoonist has to somehow allow his or her work, for lack of any better metaphor, to take on a life of its own —a necessary step that admits instinct, uncertainty, or faith into the act of creation— what is frequently referred to as taking a risk” in art. Sometimes this yielding can lead to complete failure, other times it can lead to something much larger. I think that in comics its a necessary step in the regular creative process, and, from the works collected in this volume, its something that appears to be happening more and more. The traditional, commercially established mode of scripting” a story and then simply illustrating it does not admit to the endemic potential in comics to literally imagine and see on the page, to say nothing of plumbing areas of imagination and memory that, I think, would otherwise be left inaccessible to words or single pictures alone.
Art in the twentieth century (at least in the West) all but stomped out the idea of storytelling in pictures. Before that, a narrative, whether religious, military, or mythological, practically formed the raison detre for visual arts existence. Altarpieces, through repeated sequential images, told the story of the Stations of the Cross, and giant tapestries and paintings recounted battles and victories for citizens and subsequent generations to admire and fear. But as the notion of art as essentially conceptual sprouted and eventually grew all over the previous centurys museum walls and museum-goers eyes, paintings or drawings that showed something” were increasingly dismissed as sentimental, or, even worse, illustrative.” Theres a certain logic to this, especially if the urge is toward reducing a medium to its absolute barest skin-and-bones essentials in an attempt to discover its innate truth. Unfortunately, the truth of painting and drawing is that theyre actually really great for showing things. (Music, on the other hand, isnt; think of how clunky and disturbing a concrete sound like a car horn is when introduced into a melody line that otherwise seems to be perfectly capturing the ebb and flow of the heart; I dont think its wrong to think that certain art forms might be better at one thing or another.) Comics, on the third hand (and at about the same time all of this was in full swing in the world of visual art), were showing things, lots of things: rape, murder, and other violence—so much so that in the 1950s comic books were forced to self-censor as activist Fredric Wertham suggested that the corruption of American youth could be directly traced to such pictured acts of horror (the story of which, incidentally, is lyrically illuminated in Art Spiegelmans as-of-yet-unproduced opera Drawn to Death). Because of the traditionally narrative basis of the language in which they work, cartoonists are almost always cornered into showing something.” And how lucky weve been! And how lucky painters have been, too, ironically appropriating comic book imagery for decades because it was one of the few permitted territories for visual representation that the art world could stomach, sort of a cake and eat it too” approach. (I, for one, am actually glad they let me eat cake, even if I had to choke down a little theory with it.) Ironically, while intellectually dismantling the reasons that people made pictures in the first place, art historians and art theoreticians also fell all over themselves telling us that we lived in an increasingly media-saturated world, an imagecentric, visually overstuffed, nonverbal, and distracted commercial culture barely able to discern what was real from what was advertised, and I guess to a certain degree they were right; I grew up with a mind snot-packed full of camera-cropped visions of superheroes and spaceships, and its taken me a number of years of school and adulthood to blow my brains free of them all. Additionally, the narrative techniques of filmmaking have in- filtrated our consciousness to the degree that we now dream in crosscuts, close-ups, and long shots. We think nothing of zooming in on something in a photograph or a drawing, slicing off arms and legs and even ears as a way of simulating the focus of consciousness and how our minds categorize and order information. But is this really the best, or even the most accurate, way to reflect how we see” the world? Im certainly no scientist or perceptual researcher, though I think I can say with a fair degree of certainty that the human invention of language evolved as a means of speedily ordering experience, allowing us to collect and organize the wash of perceptual muck that enters our senses into categorizable and reasonably consistent generalities, all as a means for quick action. Without delving too far into didactic nattering any further than Ive already allowed myself, this distinction is more or less what comics are: a language of abbreviated visual words” having its own grammar, syntax, and punctuation.
I recently came across a very odd but captivating idea in the introduction to a new edition of a collection of Alexander Pushkins short stories, in which the author, discussing the rise of prose in Russia as contrasted with that of England, suggested that seventeenth-century Elizabethans (who were, I infer, isolated and essentially rural) thought and spoke mainly in poetry. By the eighteenth century, however, poetry had surrendered to the more blunt clarity of prose, finally culminating in an increasingly urban and industrial nineteenth century, where Victorians talked in fiction.”* The idea that as geography, communication, and society became more tight-knit, individual perceptions and expression began to standardize seems oddly credible to me, despite its broad sweep. And this is more or less exactly the inverse of whats been happening in comics for the last few years. As a medium that was locked into a fairly rigid set of storytelling strictures by a commercial system that encouraged production over insight, the basic balloon over picture” trope hadnt changed for decades. But even a casual flip-through of the pages of this book will demonstrate a highly individual approach by each and every artist, all with the aim of getting at something new or, more precisely, real. Ive said this a few times before, but I wholeheartedly believe that comics are one of the more alive arts currently extant. I eagerly anticipate the newest publications by my favorite cartoonists not only because I love their work, but also so I can see what new approaches to storytelling theyve discovered that I can steal. With the recent rise of self-revelatory comics have come a requisite experimentation and pushing forward of the means of expression available to every artist, to say nothing of younger cartoonists no longer having to begin with the stone tools of superhero comics to try and chip out a personal story. (If this isnt the definition of a living language, then I dont know what is.) Sometimes this experimentation can be as straightforward as grafting a naturalistic or literary sensibility to the traditional mode of cartooning and sometimes it can be a complete reassessment of what comics really are, whether illustrated text, a symbolic language, or a series of uncertainly linked and expressively limned drawings. The younger generation, especially, seems to have taken this latter notion and developed it to such a degree that it leaves a creaky, brittle thinker like myself sitting on the edge of the dance floor, earnestly trying to find the beat. In short, I think this is absolutely great. A few years ago I wouldnt have thought that comics could sustain such wrenching around, but Im delighted to see that as a medium it seems to hold up just fine. The cartoonist Gary Panter has to be given credit more than anyone for this change, in the 1970s and 1980s inventing a new way of visual storytelling that articulated and highlighted the emotional shifts of experience with a pen- on-paper pithing out of synaesthetic sensations of memory into an inseparable alchemy of poetry, calligraphy, and vision that leaves a reader reeling. I think its fair to opine that hes also single-handedly paved the way for an entirely new generation of artists. Two of the more individual ones are the art collective Paper Rad” and C.F., and they appear in this anthology. Whereas for decades it has been the tacit aim of most cartoonists to present a series of pictures that are consistently and clearly linked visually, many of the younger artists make no such concession, allowing for very strange yet oddly real associations and feelings that, to me, are disconcertingly freeing, especially when compared to more conventional and, for lack of a better word, theatrical comics. Reading their work and then returning to a more familiar type of comics is sort of like listening to Louis Armstrong and a Sousa march back-to-back. Personally, I suffered the very traumatizing experience of reading a large chunk of this material and then returning to my drawing table to suddenly sense a great deficit and lack of internal life to my rigid schemata. Like I mentioned earlier: it makes me feel old.
At the same time, a number of cartoonists whom I admire and deeply respect state with relative certainty that a comic strip without a solid, easily grasped story or explicit moral conflict between characters is not worthy of either reading or writing. I guess Im not so sure. I think were at a point now where its becoming clear that comics can accommodate a variety of sensibilities and wildly divergent dispositions, and I wonder whether the more dramatic mode of presenting scenes and situations is necessarily the only approach. In the interests of full disclosure (and risking the above- mentioned accusations of being self-indulgent and navel-gazing), lately I find myself frequently torn between whether Im really” an artist or a writer. I was trained and educated as the former, encouraged into the world of paint- stained pants and a white-walled studio where wild, messy experiments precipitate the incubation of other visual ideas— though Im just as happy to sit at a desk in clean trousers with a sharp pencil and work on a single story for four or five days in a quiet and deliberate manner. In short, Im coming to believe that a cartoonist, unlike the general cliché, is almost—bear with me now—a sort of new species of creator, one who can lean just as easily toward a poetic, painterly, or writerly inclination, but one who thinks and expresses him- or herself primarily in pictures. This might sound crazy, but Im starting to think its true. I am not, however, advocating some empty approach to a nonobjective sort of cartooning such as what happened to painting in the 1960s and 1970s. But as a possible metaphor for memory and recollection, I definitely think that there are many untapped and untried approaches in comics, and ones that are only now starting to be unearthed. At the very least, cartoonists for decades have been making art—and visual art—about life, and thats something to take note of during a period that art historical naysayers and doomsdayers sometimes label as suffering a crisis of representation.” Any good annual anthology should have a sort of desert island condensation to it; even if every single comic produced between August 2005 and August 2006 suddenly and mysteriously vaporized, this book should still at least hint at what was happening during those months. As such, Ive tried to organize it as cleanly and clearly as possible, but a partly visual, partly literary book like this is not simply a matter of lining all the selections up, drizzling them into a layout program, and then pressing print.” Disturbing conjunctions and abrasions of style, approach, and even something as seemingly inconsequential as conflicting colors can affect the readability and emotional effect of an individual story. Also, cartoonists think in panels, pages, and page spreads, frequently composing their stories so that the simple act of turning the page means that a scene change, an emotional shift, or a visual surprise awaits. Thus, maintaining the integrity of a left/right page orientation sometimes required abutting odd bedfellows, inserting blank or colored page stops, or, at least in one obvious case, restructuring. Miriam Katins excerpt from her squarely formatted We Are on Our Own” necessitated the restacking of panels into arrangements that completely destroyed her carefully considered scene changes, here now alluded to by color shifts in the tonalities of the grays. As well, while Adrian Tomines and Gilbert Hernandezs works were originally printed in stark black and white, in these pages the paper has been tinted (with the artists permission, of course) as a means of more clearly defining their respective spaces. Finally, though many of these stories appear in their entirety, some are excerpts from much longer works, and so what serves as an ending may actually simply be the extract coming to an abrupt stop; in every case, however, an eye was kept toward readability and the artists consulted as to the beginnings and ends of their respective excerpts (and, of course, the afterword section allows every artist to explain and/or vent an opinion of the stories selected).
A frequent complaint regarding these sorts of collections (and even recent museum shows) is that there arent enough (or any) women included in them. I should state right here that I am not of the cut of cloth to check an artists genitalia at the door. Nor in the case of this book did I go out in search of a couple of hermaphrodites to even out the score. What I did include, however, was work that I found to be the most interesting, honest, and revealing to be published in the past year, and that collection, as it turned out, included comics from the pens of both sexes. However, those who still feel compelled to tally points for one or another chromosome may wish to note that Alison Bechdels Fun Home was chosen as the best book of the year by Time magazine— the best book, of ALL books, not just the best comic book—and that Marjane Satrapi now ranks as probably one of the best-known and most widely read authors in the United States (though her not living here unfortunately disqualifies her from inclusion in this book). This all brings me to Lynda Barry, who both as a cartoonist and a friend ranks highly in my personal pantheon of greats. I think that her work of all cartoonists was the first to show me how the revelatory experiments of biography can lead into fiction in comics, to say nothing of finding an individual expressive voice in the medium that has had a lasting and powerful influence. The artists Seth and John Porcellino have also both told me on different occasions the profound effect her unpretentious and penetrating work had on them in their formative years. Writing believable fiction in comics (because despite how confessional and autobiographical her work may seem, it is, by and large, fiction) in many ways, I believe, started with her.
I realize as I list off some of the names in this book that Im not only mentioning artists and writers I admire and who have provided either examples or encouragement to me as a cartoonist, Im also pretty much making a list of people whom I consider friends. Some are, in fact, very close friends. The careful reader might even notice a name or two cropping up between and within stories; this shouldnt be read as any in joke or intentional insularity on the part of cartoonists but more as an indication of how closely we all pay attention to each others work, as I mentioned above. As well, because of the great amount of time that cartooning requires, sometimes years pass without a new collected work appearing by any single artist. In light of this, and aside from not being able to include Jaime Hernandezs Times strip in this collection, 2006 was a year in which foremost cartoonist and screenwriter Daniel Clowes unfortunately saw nothing published between the August 2005 and August 2006 eligibility dates for this anthology, and the great Joe Sacco, whose emotionally wrenching and life- changing work renders real parts of the world that the nightly news renders emotionless, continues to work on a new book about the Middle East. Finally, I cant claim that I was able to read everything that was published or available in the last year, though I did try, a difficulty which in and of itself is encouraging, because that only confirms the number of cartoonists and graphic novelists working seems now to be greater than ever before. In fact, I sort of hope that somewhere something was published or is about to be published that makes everything in this book seem outmoded and juvenile— though I guess thats for future guest editors to discover and decide upon.
Lastly, since these prefaces always seem to clatter to their end with a tiresomely long list of thanks (which Im going to avoid here with a blanket, though no less grateful, regards to the patient editors at Houghton Mifflin who have made this new addition to their Best American series tenable), Id additionally like to single out and acknowledge Dave Eggers for his help and encouragement to cartoonists everywhere over the past few years. From his early, kind (and inaugural) reviews of comics for the New York Times to his inviting McSweeneys #13 to be an all-comics anthology to his including cartoonists work as viable contributions to his otherwise all- prose Best American Nonrequired Reading anthologies, its without a doubt that comics legitimacy as an increasingly accepted art form owes a lions share of thanks to him.
* John Bayley, Alexander Pushkin: The Collected Stories, Everymans Library, p. xxii.
Copyright © 2007 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Preface copyright © 2007 by Anne Elizabeth Moore. Introduction copyright © 2007 by Chris Ware. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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