The Best American Comics of 2011 edited by Alison Bechdel

wilsonknut.comThe Best American Comics 2011 is the first comic anthology I’ve read.  It convinced me that the comic medium is not well suited for “best of” anthologies, unless the comic is intentionally written to be ingested as a very short piece, like David Lasky’s six-panel “The Ultimate Graphic Novel.”  An excerpt from a graphic novel just doesn’t do the work justice.  What this anthology did was show me I need to get these graphic novels and read them in their entirety.

Comic fans will be familiar with the best, and most obvious, selections: an excerpt from Joe Sacco’s Footnotes in Gaza and Chris Ware’s Jordan W. Lint to the Age 65.  Joe Sacco is a master of investigative journalism in the comic medium.  His excerpt in the anthology details a massacre of Palestinian men by the Israelis in 1956. He then questions the reliability of memory when trying to discover the facts of the event.  Chris Ware is doing some of the most stylistically imaginative work in comics while examining the sad mess people make of their lives.

wilsonknut.comwilsonknut.comwilsonknut.comThere are some great surprises in this anthology too.  Angie Wang’s short piece “Flower Mecha” is artistically beautiful and strange.  Pollen is ruining a woman’s picnic and she fights it off in a hallucinatory mix of art deco and manga.  Michael Defarge’s “Queen” is even stranger.  A black glob of a creature walks through a strange alien world picking up pieces of mushrooms, flora, and landscape to turn itself into a freakish woman.  Both of these pieces are surprisingly interesting, but I’m not sure they are the best of the past year.  Looking at the notable mention list at the end of the anthology makes me wonder if there isn’t something better that tells a story using the full capabilities of the comic medium.

wilsonknut.comwilsonknut.comwilsonknut.com

The mix of history and memoir in “Little House in the Big City” by Sabrina Jones was intriguing.  The mix of history and fictional mystery in “The Mad Scientist” excerpt from RASL by Jeff Smith made me immediately want to read the entire series.  “Winter,” an excerpt from Refresh, Refresh by Danica Novgodorrodov, Benjamin Percy, and James Ponsoldt has a great abstract watercolor dream sequence in the middle, but the excerpt simply doesn’t give enough of the story to stand on its own.  It’s another one I want to read in its entirety.  Kate Beaton’s take on The Great Gatsby is hilarious.

Alison Bechdel is the guest editor for this year’s anthology.  She mentions in her introduction that there is a metafiction theme in many of the selections.  The best example would be “Pet Cat” by Joey Alison Sayers.  Sayers documents the history of a comic strip in its many incarnations until finally God takes over the writing of the strip.  The satire comments on how artists are disrespected and exploited.

wilsonknut.comwilsonknut.comwilsonknut.com

The anthology was an interesting read, and it pointed me to some works that I wouldn’t have known otherwise.  I do have a gripe, and I’m sure I’ll get ripped by someone for it, because Bechdel is well respected as a writer and artist.  The problem is there’s no hiding her subjectivity or agenda in this anthology.  Many of the chosen selections highlight an obvious feminist and gay perspective.  “Flower Mecha” and “Queen” are perhaps overt feminist symbolism.  Other selections, like “Manifestation” by Gabrielle Bell (which opens the book) and “Weekends Abroad” by Eric Orner, are manifestly feminist and gay, respectively.  Again, I look at the list of notable mentions and wonder if there isn’t quite a few on that list that are better comics overall.  When the subjectivity is so obvious, I think we have to question is this really an anthology of the best comics in 2011?  I understand that an anthology of this sort with a guest editor will never completely escape subjectivity, but I’d like to see some semblance of trying to find a true “best” based on the quality of the work and not some other criterion.  Don’t get me wrong.  There are quite a few selections in this anthology that deserve to be here.

Supergods by Grant Morrison

Supergods | wilsonknut.comWhat Morrison does very well in Supergods is offer an analytical history of superhero comics from the perspective of a fan and talented insider. The book is organized chronologically and progresses through the Golden Age, Silver Age, Dark Age, and Renaissance. Unfortunately, Morrison interjects his own memoir and belief systems, which are not all about comics. The book reads as if it should be two or three separate books, and the further Morrison gets away from analyzing the history of superhero comics, the more disjointed the book becomes.

Being human

Supergods is subtitled, “What masked vigilantes, miraculous mutants, and a sun god from Smallville can teach us about being human.” That sounds like a great germinating idea for a critical examination of superhero comics. The first section of the twenty-six chapter, 426 page book comes the closest to living up to the subtitle. Morrison begins at the logical beginning:

In Superman, some of the loftiest aspirations of our species came hurtling down from imagination’s bright heaven to collide with the lowest form of entertainment—and from their union, something powerful and resonant was born, albeit in its underwear. Superman was the ferocious attempt of two young men to show us ourselves at our very best.

Golden Age

Morrison goes on to write an engrossing analysis of the Golden Age of comics. He discusses the creation of Superman, Batman, Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, and the small cast of popular early superheroes. He includes the perfect amount of historical context, pop references, and commentary on the writers and artists to keep the book from becoming overly academic. I found his detailed analyses of the covers of the first issues of Superman, Batman, and Fantastic Four fascinating. Morrison’s prose is full of hyperbole, and his imagery keeps the discussion lively, although at times it’s self-indulgent. At the end of the Golden Age section, he writes:

Alone at night, in the midst of unprecedented luxury after a successfully won World War, Americans were more frightened than ever before… There was the space race, with its launch into the limitless unknown, and Kinsey’s groundbreaking surveys into the sexual habits of Americans, opening the dripping treasure chest of a buttoned-up country’s inner life, revealing a sleep world of polychromatic polymorphous perversity acted out behind a camouflage of pipe-smoking patriarchs and Stepford wives. There were as many different kinds of fear as there were brands of gum.

silver age

As the book moves into the Silver Age section, Morrison examines the fifties and sixties era comics. He looks at them in the context of the growing popularity of psychoanalysis and the space race. Along those same lines, He injects his own initiation to comics, but this quickly turns from comics to his family life, his belief systems regarding time, the fifth dimension, and the multiverse. At that point Morrison begins to interrupt the analysis of superhero comics with his own memoir. Morrison had many identity crises. He performed drug inspired occult experiments, and dove into new age philosophy.

weirdness

Morrison’s career takes off in the Dark Age and Renaissance. His memoir takes over, and the organization and logic of the book are derailed. He writes:

If I found some dangerous or interesting ritual in a book, I’d give it a go to see what effect it would have on my consciousness. The results were never less than revelatory. Psychedelics gave these experiences the fidelity of a Star Trek 3-D holodeck experience. Demons and angels had faces now of white-hot, razor-edged purity or grotesque puzzle box monstrosity… I have no really explanations for a lot of this but numerous speculations that may find their way into another book one day. I simply allowed all this to happen under some vague direction from a diamond-interior Protestant straight-edge self that seemed to never lose control.

Morrison says that his “Protestant straight-edge self” never lost control while he was taking drugs and performing occult experiments. That seems completely illogical to me, especially since he claims to have rejected the Bible at an early age. He also completely botches the central theme of the Gospel message early in the book.

Alan moore and frank miller

Between the memoir sections in the last half, Morrison gives an excellent analysis of Alan Moore and Frank Miller’s work. Yet, he could not restrain himself from including his previously mentioned “speculations” about his mystical experiences. Morrison explains that a life-changing drug induced epiphany he had in Kathmandu gave him his “very own superpower.” He can now “’see’ 5-D perspective.” The last section of the book discusses his “experiments” and explains his new found understanding of time and the universe. His analysis of more recent comics is painfully thin and focuses on his own work. The end of the book loses all coherence. A whole chapter is dedicated to movie adaptations, rather than following the established chronological order of the book.

The history and analysis of superhero comics is excellent, but after the Silver Age, the reader has to pick through the new age philosophy and identity-crisis memoir to find the good stuff. I’m sure there are readers, especially diehard fans of Morrison, who will find the memoir and personal philosophy interesting. But as Morrison even seems to recognize, those topics would be better suited for another book. Check it out here.

Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life by Bryan Lee O’Malley

can one describe Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life?  Hipster-absurdist-arcade-kung-fu-musical?  Whatever you want to call it, the book exudes coolness, and it’s not the pretentious brand of hipster coolness.  It’s a goofy, kind of stupid and fun coolness.

Scott, 23-years-old, announces that he is dating a high school girl, Knives.  He’s in a band and doesn’t have a job.  He epitomizes the laid-back slacker mentality.  His friends give him grief about the relationship, but before things get hot and heavy with Knives, Scott falls for Ramona, a rollerblading delivery girl.  As the story progresses, the absurdity increases.

Both girls show up at the band’s show, which causes problems.  The real problem, however, is that Ramona’s ex-boyfriend also shows up.  He’s able to summon some kind of demon-girl fighters, and an arcade style kung-fu battle, partially set to a musical, breaks out.  The premise for the rest of the series is established.  Scott will have to fight Ramona’s seven ex-boyfriends if he truly loves her.

The story is a take on the classic medieval epic, but Bryan Lee O’Malley fills it with tributes to manga, retro arcade games, music, sit-coms, and slacker attitude.  There is humor throughout.  It’s a perfect mix of realism and absurdity.  It’s just fun.