The Best American Comics 2006
I miss anthology comics. That’s not to say that there aren’t any being published today, but are there any great ones out there anymore?
In college, I started collecting back issues of Last Gasp’s Weirdo, one of greatest alternative comics anthology series of all time, which was edited by Robert Crumb, Peter Bagge and Aline Kominsky-Crumb at different tenures. Weirdo was a wildly anarchic collection, but filled with some of the freakiest, offensive cartoonists of the mid-’80s, including the likes of all three of the editors, Justin Green, Diane Noomin, J.R. Williams, Ken Weiner, Dennis Worden, J.D. King, Rory Hayes, Rick Altergott, Carol Tyler and the always brilliant Dori Seda. And that’s just the names I pulled from 3 random samples over at the Grand Comics Database. There was no rhyme or reason to my Weirdo back issue purchases. I’d just find one at a time that had at least one strip I thought I’d enjoy, probably something by Dori or a Crumb fumetti starring her, and bring it home. However, each issue was like a total assault on the senses that would totally turn me on to some other great creator’s work. Sadly, out of that list of names, hardly any produce regular work anymore it seems and, of course, Dori died way too young.
I was also quite the fan of Zero Zero, the mid-’90s Fantagraphics anthology, which was a little more traditional and up-scale than Weirdo. But not by much. It at least featured the work of Mike Diana, Henriette Valium, Max Andersson, Dave Cooper, Al Columbia, Kaz and turned me into a raving fan of Sam Henderson, plus it included some of the greats of the underground, like Spain and Kim Dietch.
Speaking of upscale, here comes the spiffily packaged, first ever Best American Comics collection from Houghton-Mifflin, owners of the “Best” literary brand and of whom it was nice to see them acknowledge comics as a literary form. The guest editor of this edition is the father of the modern autobiographical comic, Harvey Pekar. In his opening editorial, Harvey sets up that these probably are not the best comic strips of the year. They’re just the best of the bunch Harvey picked out of the stack given to him by series editor Anne Elizabeth Moore.
I’ve been reading Harvey for something going on 20 years now, so I was really interested in seeing what he chose. However, I’m not familiar with Anne Elizabeth Moore although she cuts quite the controversial figure in spots around the web. What they picked, though, is pretty good stuff. The best? I dunno, I’d have to go with Harvey on that one.
If it were up to me I would have made the collection a little more anarchic in the vein of Weirdo and Zero Zero, instead it’s a little too skewed towards the liberal, intellectual side. For example, I have to state that it’s a crime against humanity that Sam Henderson is not included in the book. Sam does make it into a back-of-the-book list, “100 Distinguished Comics” as compiled by Moore. It’s almost as if collection is consciously trying to make sure it’s holding up the required literary pedigree as expected by Houghton-Mifflin. The book is enjoyable, but it certainly could have been a little bit more fun.
To pick out some of the highlights, I was thrilled to see a piece by political artist Seth Tobocman, one of the founders of the great World War 3 Illustrated anthology, which is always one of my favorite books every year. I did read Seth’s piece before, co-written with Terisa Turner and Leigh Brownhill, in WW3I, but I had largely forgotten the story of political strife in Nairobi and the strange “naked curse” of African women, so it was very nice to revisit it.
It was also great to see some pieces from underground stalwarts, like Kim Dietch’s “Ready to Die,” a brilliant piece of comics journalism about a man on death row who actually is looking forward to being killed; Gilbert Shelton’s “Wonder Wart-Hog,” one of two superhero parodies in the book; Jamie Hernandez’s “Day By Day With Hopey,” which is a bit of a trifle, but still good; Lloyd Dangle’s fun report from the Republican National Convention; and Robert Crumb’s “Walkin’ The Streets,” a brilliant memoir about Robert’s relationship with his dead brother Charles.
Some younger cartoonists whom I’m not familiar with, but whose work I really enjoyed were Justin Hall’s “La Rubia Loca,” a true-life tale of a bus trip across Mexico gone horribly, horribly wrong; Rebecca Dart’s beautifully illustrated and interestingly experimental “RabbitHead;” Jesse Reklaw’s terrific memoir “Thirteen Cats of My Childhood” — you’ll always get me with a really good cat story; Lilli Carre’s “Adventures of Paul Bunyon,” which reimagines Bunyon as a thoroughly modern angst-ridden male; and the excellent, sparse and nearly wordless “The Gift” by Anders Nilsen.
Also worth mentioning are excerpts from Jessica Abel’s La Perdida, which is probably not the best selection from that graphic story, but nice to see included; and Alex Robinson’s Tricked, Alex probably being the cartoonist I’m least familiar with, but whose stuff I really want to get into. Plus, Joe Sacco’s Iraq adventure tale “Complacency Kills” is a real treat.