While I’m usually not into best of ” collections and awards because of the wide variation in aesthetic taste, I am happy to be working on this Best American Comics collection because it lends legitimacy to the cause of comics, my medium, and their creators. The first Best American Short Stories was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1915, and they’ve been coming out annually ever since then. Recently they’ve been printing more offbeat titles, e.g., The Best American Nonrequired Reading, which contained comic book stories, but this is the first Houghton Mifflin volume devoted solely to best American comics, and it couldn’t happen at a better time.
In case you haven’t noticed, dime stores and drugstores don’t sell comics anymore. Their very existence is being threatened. Kids, traditionally the main supporters of comics, are spending their money on video games now. Comics get less and less space in newspaper funny pages, and the number of comic book shops is shrinking. Alternative comic book creators are having an increasingly difficult time getting their works distributed. Once there were several wholesalers that specialized in handling alternative comics; now there are none of any size. At the 2005 Small Press Expo in Bethesda, Maryland, a number of young cartoon artists gave me samples of their work, and, happily, some were quite good, even original. But I’d never heard of many of the people who produced them. How to get stuff like this to a general audience?
Graphic novels may offer a way out. The ones that are issued by large publishers have a chance to be sold in book book” stores, in addition to the vanishing comic book shops. With comic book stores closing and no viable distribution system in place for small-press comics, it would seem that graphic novels (relatively thick, square-spined comic books that don’t have to be fiction) may be the only way for comics to survive. It’s been difficult for them to gain acceptability and respect from the general public throughout their history. However, graphic novels are getting more attention in the press these days. The book departments of large-circulation newspapers and slick magazines review graphic novels, while ignoring conventional, pamphlet-sized comics, which they consider too small and inexpensive to publicize no matter how good their content. And book book” publishers are more willing to produce nonsuperhero comics, which are often aimed at adult readers, than are comics publishers.
Where have modern comics come from? Comics began to make an impact in American newspapers during the 1890s, when one feature, The Yellow Kid, became so popular that its ownership was contested by two papers. Some of the early newspaper comics were quite arty, like Little Nemo, which forecast the surrealist art movement, and The Kin-der-Kids by modernist painter Lyonel Feininger. For decades comics grew like weeds, becoming among the most popular of newspaper features. Their content was far more varied than the matter dealt with in what became known as mainstream comics, which were about the crazy exploits of spinach-fueled strongman Popeye, or dealing with more mundane matters, as in Gasoline Alley or J. R. Williams’s Out Our Way. There were sci-fi comics (Flash Gordon) and soap opera comics (Mary Worth). In the mid 1930s, enterprising publishers began reprinting newspaper strips in pamphlet or magazine-sized forms called comic books. But the content of these books changed considerably as original features such as Superman were introduced in them. Superman, a costumed superhero with a host of extraordinary (super) powers, became extremely popular and gave rise to a raft of other costumed heroes: Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, and the like. Although there were some fine types of other comics available in the 1940s, such as Little Lulu and Carl Barks’s Walt Disney Comics, superheroes were and remain the matinee idols of comic fans. I remember being crazy about them myself as a first-grader, but after a few years I tired of their predictability they were formulaicand turned to novels for enjoyment.
In 1954 a crusade against violence and sexuality in comics led to their near annihilation. There was one very positive movement going on then, however, led by writer, illustrator, and editor Harvey Kurtzman at EC Comics. He began with some relatively realistic war titles, Two-fisted Tales and Frontline Combat, then inaugurated the revolutionary humor comic, Mad. Mad contained in abundance a quality previously rare in comic bookssatire.
In 1962 a fellow named Robert Crumb moved into my Cleveland, Ohio, neighborhood. Like me, he was a jazz record collector, and we soon got to be good friends. Howeveer, Crumb was also a cartoonist. I remembered my days as a comic book fanatic and took a look at his work, curious as to what he was up to. What I saw astounded me. Crumb had been influenced by Mad, but, unlike Kurtzman, he didn’t just parody TV shows, movies, other comics, and print advertisements; he satirized real life. The first day I met him, he showed me a book he was working on, his Big Yum Yum Book. Its protagonist was a frog named Ogden, who was attending a university and trying to get in with the in crowd,” i.e., the beatniks.
Wow! It occurred to me that if material like this could appear in comics, there was no limit to what you could do with them. They could be like novels and films. The only thing limiting the growth of comics was the people who produced them, from the artists and writers to the publishers, who couldn’t see comics as anything but a medium for kids. But help was on the way. People like Crumb, Frank Stack, and Gilbert Shelton began producing underground” comic book stories. A lot of them focused on sex, drugs, and the new counterculture; there was much uncharted territory still to cover, but at least there were no superheroes.
These men and others such as Spain Rodriguez and S. Clay Wilson coalesced into an alternative comic book movement, which got a lot of support from the emerging hippie counterculture. Thus, a new type of comic was created, though it has not to this day received the amount of attention and financial support it has deserved.
Alternative comics went through a sales slump in the 1970s, due to the end of the Vietnam War. It turned out that when the draft ended, a lot of people in the counterculture became yuppies and the market for underground comics shrank markedly.
Undergrounds made a comeback in the 1980s, but then slumped again financially.
Head shops are virtually extinct right now, and few retail comic book stores carry underground titles; consequently they are difficult to locate even for people with an interest in them.
From the 1960s to the present, superhero comics like Spider Man, The Fantastic Four, and X-Men remained the most popular. This was absurd. Without dealing with the merits of current superhero comics, they still form a division of the science fiction genre, which should not dominate comics any more than they do prose books, films, or television, all versatile forms of expression. While there is no realistic movement in straight comics, there is one in alternative comics. Realism has been so important in the novel, theater, film, and visual arts. How can mainstream comics ignore it and other movements that flourish in other art forms? Mainstream comics greatly ignore the medium’s potential.
In any event, there is a nice variety of comics represented here, although you notice no superhero stuff is included. I looked at superhero stories but just didn’t run across any that (I thought) were particularly good. If you’re a superhero fan and you’re angry because they aren’t present here, I guess you’ll just have to vent your anger on me.
The length of these stories ranges from one to over forty pages. I dig the one-pagers in here. Man, I know what Rick Geary’s Recollection of Seduction” is about. Like you’re the kind of guy who has a tough time keeping a relationship or a marriage going. Then, out of a clear blue sky, a nice-looking, intelligent woman makes a pass at you, but you’re so dumbfounded you don’t follow through. Years later things are still rough, and one day you think of how you messed up with this girldidn’t even give it a chanceand you want to bash your head against the wall.
Ivan Brunetti’s poetic piece tells a story wordlessly. The mouse protagonist is obsessed by a female who doesn’t return his affection. He tries painting her, to get her off his mind. When that doesn’t work, he paints other things, such as a single dot on a canvas. But he still can’t remove her from his system. Note how cleverly Brunetti structures this piece, using just a few colors but engaging the attention of his readers throughout.
In Goner Pillow Company,” Ben Katchor follows the ups and downs in the career of Brooklyn pillow manufacturer Aaron Goner, exhibiting a wonderfully subtle sense of humor.
Hob’s The Supervisor” deals with a nasty supervisor who tries to hassle his employees but in the end is humbled. Let that be a lesson to us all. Then there’s David Lasky’s one-pager Diary of a Bread Delivery Guy,” which contains his wry and perceptive observations about Econoline vehicles and has a really clever layout.
Some of the stars of the 1960s underground comic movement are still producing top-notch stuff today. Zap comics was perhaps the leading underground anthology at one time, and it’s still occasionally published. Crumb’s Walkin’ the Streets” represents one of his better autobiographical stories. It deals with his late teen years and relationship with his brother Charles, who had a profound influence on him. Perhaps the most striking portion of the narration has to do with the Crumb brothers visiting an African American Holy Roller church and the attempts of the congregation to save their souls.
There’s also a Zap Wonder Wart-Hog story here by Shelton (The Wart-Hog That Came In from the Cold”), who is best known for his Freak Brothers syndicated strips. Shelton began publishing Wonder Wart-Hog in the early 1960s for the University of Texas humor magazine, The Texas Ranger. It is a sort of funky parody of Superman, with Wonder Wart-Hog having a civilian identity, the mild-mannered reporter Philbert Desanex. It’s good to see that Shelton hasn’t abandoned this amusing strip after all these years.
Another veteran of the early underground comics movement, Kim Deitch, is represented by Ready to Die,” his eyewitness account of the execution by lethal injection of murderer Ronald Fitzgerald at a Virginia penal institution. Fitzgerald snapped and went on a horrible murdering, raping, robbing spree. Deitch found that he liked Fitzgerald, and that Fitzgerald felt he deserved the punishment he received for his crimes. Deitch’s understated text works well in this context.
The 1980s and 1990s saw the rise of some alternative comic book artists who managed to attain at least some national recognition. Beginning in the early 1980s, there was an upswing in interest for underground comics. Among the most well known were those done by the Hernandez brothers, Gilberto and Jaime. Jaime is represented here by Day by Day with Hopey,” which is a day-in-the-life-type story. Cute Chicana Hopey does some glasses shopping and becomes intrigued by the saleswoman, who has a knack for immediately picking out the right frames for her customers. Hopey goes home and discusses the saleswoman with her roommate, Rosie, who doesn’t seem too jealous. However, Rosie ends the story by asking Hopey, Can we have a kid someday?” Lesbian life is viewed from a female point of view in Alison Bechdel’s superb syndicated strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, from which Only Disconnect” is taken. Here one half of a lesbian couple is sternly lecturing the other about the enormous bills she’s running up on her charge card. The latter interrupts to propose marriage to the former and is met with the response, Is this a proposal or some kind of postmodern intimacy avoidance strategy?” Many of Bechdel’s strips have been collected in paperback editions. Note the counterpoint of some inane George Bush TV remarks in the background. Bechdel is very sharp politically.
Lynda Barry, one of the most popular of the alternative syndicated cartoonists, in Two Questions” writes about how she got into overintellectualizing instead of letting lines and pictures and ideas just flow from her. I don’t know if everybody does their best work the way she does, but, in any event, she writes an amusing and insightful strip about creativity.
Joe Sacco, a topnotch journalist as well as cartoonist, gained attention with his superb book Palestine, which he wrote after living with Palestinian Arabs, and he followed it up with notable books dealing with the Bosnian civil war. In Complacency Kills,” Sacco reports intelligently and economically about being on patrol with American troops in Iraq.
One of today’s most talked-about cartoonists, Chris Ware, demonstrates his cleverness in Comics: A History.” Here Ware deals with comics from the Neanderthal era to the present, with stops in Sumer, Egypt, ancient Rome, the Middle Ages, you name it.
A Street-Level View of the Republican National Convention” is done by another syndicated artist, Lloyd Dangle. Dangle deserves praise for his directness in pointing out what a bunch of dangerous morons George Bush and his supporters are.
David Heatley’s Portrait of My Dad” consists of four pages of vignette strips about the seemingly tragicomic life of Heatley’s father, who has a knack for saying things that don’t come off the way he wants them to. His kind of clumsy, off-the-wall comments provide a lot of laughs, but Heatley shows respect for him and presents him as a troubled but sympathetic parent. His layouts, which feature tiny panels, are fresh.
Thirty-three” by Alex Robinson is an affecting tale of a long-lost daughter being reunited with her father. It’s a moving but not corny story and features Robinson’s strong, direct illustration.
I really like Jonathan Bennett’s complex shaggy-dog piece Dance with the Ventures” a lot, and, being a long-time record collector, can strongly identify with it. From his apartment the protagonist spots a stack of LPs sitting on the street waiting to be picked up with other trash and garbage. Instead of bolting right to them, he takes his time, and when he arrives finds that someone else has beaten him to the junk pile. He tries to be cool about it and walks away, as does the other guy, only to bolt back and find the other cat has returned too, about a second ahead of him. The fear he feels hoping the competitor won’t pick up something desirable while he stands there helplessly is palpable.
The Executive Hour” by Tom Hart has a first-person narrative by a business executive who parodies himself. Going to work at six a.m., he thinks, This is the twilight time before the labor din and mediocrity morass drown everything out. Rockefeller, Mellon, Forbes, and Father all did their work in this hourin the twilight time that belongs to us survivors. To us men who choose.” In Anders Nilsen’s sparsely worded, enigmatic The Gift” we encounter a young man with a bundle of his belongings standing next to a large pipeline. Lying next to him near a crashed helicopter and apparently badly wounded is a somewhat older fellow. The older man begs the younger man to shoot him and put him out of his misery, but the latter can’t bring himself to do that. Then the young man climbs on top of the pipeline, staring into space and saying, We were never going anywhere, were we?” Later he returns to the older man to find him challenging a teenager. Both have weapons, but they relent. Finally the younger man shoots the older one. The teenager comes back and the younger guy gives him some of his possessions, including a teddy bear. The teenager mounts his horse and rides away and finally the young man leaves too. The whole drama plays out on a wasteland and leaves me with a feeling of desolation.
Joel Priddy does a clever send-up of superheroes in The Amazing Life of Onion Jack,” following Jack’s life from cradle to grave, by which time he has also managed to become the world’s greatest chef.” Chemical Plant/Another World,” taken from John Porcellino’s Diary of a Mosquito Abatement Man series, finds the mosquito man driving his truck into a chemical plant full of towers, catwalks, wires, and pipes. He explores this mass of machinery as it hisses and steams, wondering if he’s dreaming or not. The piece has an eerie, surreal quality.
The longest story in the book, La Rubia Loca,” very well crafted by Justin Hall, is told by Sarah, a woman in her mid-thirties and down on her luck, who tries to get away from it all by taking a bus tour of northern Mexico. Another passenger is a mentally ill Swiss woman whose native language is German. Sarah and the two bus drivers quickly see that the woman needs medical attention, and fast, but do not want to turn her in to a Mexican hospital, because inmates of Mexican mental hospitals sometimes never get out. It’s a tale of Sarah and the two drivers trying to get the Swiss woman onto a plane to San Francisco, where help awaits, without attracting the attention of the Mexican authorities. Hall’s storytelling is sensitive and has fine continuity.
Rebecca Dart tells Rabbit Head” wordlessly, the protagonist being a human female with a rabbit’s head. Although there is no text, Dart’s drawing alone makes this a top story. Its characters look like they came out of a book of fantasy, or even a nightmare; they resemble mythological beasts. The panels in RabbitHead” are often quite small. Perhaps this is Dart’s way of making viewers concentrate more on the actions of the characters. It’s a fine, abstract piece of work.
Nakedness and Power,” a collaboration by Seth Tobocman, Terisa Turner, and Leigh Brownhill, has to do with the abuses suffered by poor Africans at the hands of corporations and national governments in Kenya and Nigeria. In particular, the courage and ingenuity of women in leading protests against these corrupt institutions is highlighted. The authors show that even poor and working-class people can make a significant difference when combating the forces of capitalist greed.
Lilli Carré displays a subtle sense of humor in Adventures of Paul Bunyan & His Ox, Babe.” Paul and Babe are out in the woods knocking down trees and stop for lunch to have a serious conversation. Paul speaks from the depths of his soul. Babe asks him about hanging out with me and a few of the boys at a local tavern,” and Paul nixes the idea, saying he’d rather curl up with a good book. Turns out he’s reading Proust. Then Paul expounds on his troubles with the ladies. They make lewd remarks about his size, and when he kisses them he gets them all wet. He says he feels like the guy in Of Mice and Men. Paul and Babe go back and forth about the idea of him finding a place where he’d be looked upon as normal. Their conversation is cut short by the whistle calling them back to work, but if you think you know what Paul Bunyan was really about, better check out this story.
Thirteen Cats of My Childhood” gives Jesse Reklaw a chance to talk about the large number of cats he’s had in his family, and, while he’s at it, to write an autobiographical story about growing up in various California locations. His family appears to be close knit when he’s little, but as he grows older, differences develop. By the time he’s in his late teens, his parents have divorced and his mother has remarried. It’s a moving, bittersweet tale.
Kurt Wolfgang’s Passing Before Life’s Very Eyes” concerns the last hours of a man who’s dying in the hospital. He has a hallucination and revisits his past experiences. In it, a guy turns up to tell him that this dream contains his last moments before he dies. He’s outraged that he’s not going to heaven but tries to come to terms with the situation as the story ends.
Jessica Abel writes about Carla, a young woman who’s teaching in Mexico and staying there over the Christmas/New Year holiday. She’s bored. Her drug-dealing boyfriend comes in and she tries to get something going with him, but he blows her off. Following this, a girlfriend comes in and Carla, still stung by the way her roommate has treated her, gets into an argument with her female acquaintance, who abruptly leaves, despite Carla’s attempts to mend the misunderstanding.
Busted!”, Esther Pearl Watson’s story about a nutty African American kid talking to his reflection in the school trophy case, is funny and admirable for the accuracy of her dialogue. She’s subtitled it Wayne Is Insane,” which seems to be on the money. Another very amusing story, Olivia Schanzer’s Solidarity Forever,” opens, The chain known as Super Food Mart has employed the bums of one West Texas town to tamp down their dumpsters. The repercussions have been felt by a group of bikers who have been dealing speed behind that same dumpster for the last thirty years.” Shades of Gilbert Shelton.
Now listen, I’m not claiming these are the absolute best comics issued in a given twelve-month period. I haven’t seen all the comics published in that time and neither have the hard-working, painstaking people I’m working with. But there’s good, often original stuff in this collection that I hope will open readers’ eyes to the breadth of subject matter that comics can deal with effectively. I hope you can understand, even if you don’t like every choice in this collection, that they don’t have to be about costumed superheroes, cute little kids, and talking animals. Nakedness and Power,” for example, is a dead serious essay about some significant political problems. Though he relies more on humor, Lloyd Dangle makes valid, important political observations in his piece. Political cartoons shouldn’t have to be limited to the one-panel drawings you see on editorial pages. They can be long narratives.
Then, too, comics can be about quotidian life, like Thirteen Cats of My Childhood,” Diary of a Bread Delivery Man,” and Busted!” I have always maintained that there were more gripping dramas and hilarious occurrences in everyday life than you see coming from high-budget films and sitcoms. Check out Esther Pearl Watson’s Busted!” She might’ve written down exactly what Wayne was saying, then made a slice-of-life comic about it from her notes. Fine. If you see funny things like that happening in your everyday lives, write them down and let us all benefit from your observations. Quotidian life is too often ignored by prose as well as comics writers. If you’re into avant-garde work, read RabbitHead” or The Gift,” both thought-provoking selections. Think about the variety exhibited in this collection. Stories range from fantasies (RabbitHead”) to hard-hitting political nonfiction. There’s some fine satire, as in The Amazing Life of Onion Jack,” and subtle realism, such as Dance with the Ventures.” Rick Geary’s drawing is technically brilliant, John Porcellino’s deceptively simple. Justin Hall’s La Rubia Loca” is highly dramatic, David Heatley’s Portrait of My Dad” understated. The point is, so much territory has been covered, and covered at least competently. If this variety of stories can be done in comics, they can be done brilliantly. That’s what doubters-about-comics have to keep in mind. Right now comics are understaffed. Too many excellent writers and illustrators don’t even consider the medium when looking for an outlet for their work. The comics-is-for-kids attitude remains difficult to overcome. This collection should have some influence in combating it, though. Give it a shot, you may be pleasantly surprised.
Copyright © 2006 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Introduction copyright © 2006 by Harvey Pekar. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.