I'm a big fan of comics, graphic storytelling, sequential art, whatever you want to call it, so I was psyched to see the form added to the "Best American" series. This inaugural edition is beautifully produced, with lovely printing, paper, binding, etc. -- equal to the top notch stuff put out by Drawn & Quarterly and other high end indie comics publishers. The contents follow the regular "Best American" series guidelines (published in North America between 1/1/04 and 8/15/05), and its shortlist of 150 candidates was assembled by Punk Planet coeditor Anne Moore. From that list, celebrated comics auteur Harvey Pekar selected his thirty favorite.
With that in mind, the book's true title should probably be "Best American Indie Comics" or "Best American Alternative Comics", since not a single piece from a mainstream comics publishing house is represented. Granted, indie comics need all the help they can get, but this narrow vision is a major flaw. Pekar is very up front about his bias: "...superhero comics still form a division of the science fiction genre, which should not dominate comics any more than they do pose books, film, or television, all versatile forms of expression. While there is no realistic movement in straight [ie. "superhero"] comics, there is one in alternative comics. Realism has been so important in the novel, theater, film, and visual arts. How can mainstream [ie. "superhero"] comics ignore it and other movements that flourish in other art forms? Mainstream comics greatly ignore the medium's potential." While I'm not personally a fan of most superhero comics (give me Joe Sacco or Adrian Tomine any day), this is stunningly ill-informed statement, and especially disappointing coming from someone who ought to know better. Instead of the open-mindedness of a truly alternative scene, Pekar appears intent on invoking some quasi-Maoist criteria of what is truly worthy.
Leaving aside whether or not genre distinctions are even useful labels anymore, Pekar reveals a total and complete ignorance of the state of the non-alternative comics scene. Never mind that many superhero storylines have been thinly veiled critiques of the "real" world, a quick glance at the catalogs of major publishers will reveal all manner of non-"science fiction" material, such as crime, romance, western, etc. Moreover, some of those "movements" he believes superhero comics are ignoring, have been well-embraced by (notably, postmodernism) -- not to mention plenty of artistic innovations. It'd be interesting to know if Moore included any of those in her shortlist of 150. Unfortunately, Pekar appears to be harboring some kind of bitter 1960s vision of mainstream comics, one totally at odds with reality. Pekar's generational bias further shows through in the inclusion of a number of older artists, whose work simply doesn't connect with me at all such as Robert Crumb (yes yes, I _know_ he's a genius), Lynda Barry, and Gilbert Shelton.
That major caveat aside, this is a pretty nice mix of material, although if you've been following alternative comics for the last few years, you'll be seeing some familiar stuff, including usual suspects like Jessica Abel, Jaime Hernandez, Chris Ware, Ben Katchor, Alison Bechdel, and Ivan Brunetti (Notable omission: Tony Millionaire). Highlights include David Heatley's weirdly captivating collection of vignettes about his father, Rebecca Dart's surreal and structurally innovative "Rabbithead", Joe Sacco's ridealong with Marines in Iraq, Lily Carré's novel take on Paul Bunyan, Joel Priddy's hilariously sad take on superheroes "The Amazing Life of Onion Jack" and Jesse Reklaw's memoir via felines "Thirteen Cats of my Childhood." As a whole the anthology is a bit heavy in memoirs and stories which read like memoirs. For example, I wasn't as enamored with Justin Hall's lengthy story of a bus trip in Mexico "La Rubia Loca" or Jonathan Bennett's "Dance with the Ventures" felt pretty derivative, and the excerpt from Alex Robinson's novel Tricked didn't do much for me either.
Overall, this is quick way to get a sense of the possibilities offered by the form (recognizing that you're only seeing the "alternative" angle). There's a broad range of technique and storytelling style. It is true that, as someone else pointed out, that those pieces which have a political angle invariably take a liberal viewpoint. Doesn't bother me, but others may find it tiresome. It's worth pointing out that buried in the contributor bios in the back are "artist's statements" about each peace, some of which provide some interesting context. Overall, a great value and well worth having despite Pekar's limited perspective.