Best American Comics?

Each new year, it seems, the genre of “literary comics” (my term of choice is “graphic narratives”) grows and matures just a little bit. Thirty years ago, when the comics medium was dominated mostly by teenage/escapist fare, the most important evolution in the comics medium was the rise of “comix,” a sort of indignant response to the innocent animals and superheroes that many perceived to be the only subjects of comics books. We suddenly had dirty comix, animals engaged in sexual acts, characters whose faces looked like genitalia, anything to change the perception of the medium.

And then the 1980s, and Maus, and a Pulitzer Prize, and the 1990s, and a dozen well-respected graphic novels (even superhero comics receiving serious attention), and the 2000s, and graphic novels reviewed in the pages of the New York Times, and Houghton-Mifflin adding a “Comics” edition to their esteemed “Best American” series, and some literary journals (including The Florida Review, where I’ve worked for several years) adding comics as one of the literary genres we publish. Comics will always have the “kid’s stuff” perception, simply because so much of the market will always be dominated by superheroes and cartoon characters, but at this point, isn’t it foolish to argue that they aren’t respected as a serious artistic medium?

This is the main problem with The Best American Comics 2009. It has the same indignant attitude as the dirty comix of the 1970s, a lot of sexually explicit material, an R. Crumb piece, stuff that seemed appropriate thirty years ago (including an Archie-like piece called “Gropius” that is absolutely annoying, and appears five times in this book) when comics needed to change their perception, but which just seems irrelevant and stupid today.

(Gropius, apparently, is a well-reviewed collection…but at least one other critic agreed with my assessment of the material.)

To be fair, this book also includes some fantastic work from several cartoonists who really appear to be tackling interesting subject matter, and using the medium in a way that truly reflects the current culture. Kevin Huizenga is one of these artists, and his “Ganges” piece–an extended story about a guy caught up in the web bubble of the late ’90s, whose company doesn’t know what it’s doing, and whose employees spend their days and nights immersed in the video game culture–is brilliant, a perfect representation of the rise and fall of Generation X. Truly, it was the highlight of this anthology.

But too often, this book just seemed to be a collage of excerpted work that couldn’t recapture the energy or focus of the original, and stories and art that seemed to try way too hard to be “comix,” a genre that I wonder why we cannot move past. The “Best American Short Stories” series works well because we’re dealing with self-contained stories, not novel excerpts, and until the comics series can avoid the excerpted work, and avoid the temptation to include work that (to be fair) would have been included 15 or 20 years ago, had there been a “Best American Comics” series back then, it will feel disjointed and won’t quite live up to its potential. We don’t need to make up for all the decades during which comics were ignored. If you want to do that, create a “Best American Comics of the Century” (which would be fascinating). No, we need to see how comics are maturing and growing in the past year, and this anthology doesn’t yet feel like it is doing that.

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