Impressions on The Best American Comics 2006 (Ed. Harvey Pekar)

(Spoiler Alert: Comics Can Be About More Than Superheroes)

For the first few years that I read comics, I mostly stuck to superhero fare. As I’ve said before, that was really because superhero comics published by Marvel and DC were the only books I could find in Belize, and among those there was very little variety. Once I read Craig Thompson’s Blankets though, it became evident that there was an entire realm of the comic book medium that had nothing to do with Batman, Daredevil, and the Avengers. So while I continued to read superhero comics, I tried to also pick up these ‘underground’ comics whenever possible (I’m never quite sure what qualifies as underground really other than they probably don’t lead to movies that rake in millions). However, I often find myself really enjoying some creator’s works, and investing my time and money into collecting and reading only their work (the aforementioned Craig Thompson, Chris Ware, and the like). Therefore I figured that reading an anthology series would be a good way for me to familiarize myself with a variety of contemporary creators currently involved in the medium. Having already read Ivan Brunetti’s wonderful anthology, I decided that I’d give The Best American Comics series a shot as its annual publication would allow me to see what creators have cropped up in the past few years, and given that the series only began publication in 2006, it wouldn’t take more than a year for me to catch up with it.

This first installment is edited by one of alternative comics most humorous writers, the late Harvey Pekar, the man behind the often-autobiographical American Splendor series. Reading his introduction, I was a bit turned off at his general dismissal of superhero comics. I recognize though that the genre is often less interested in the sort of experimentation and character development than it is in fan-service and bombast. That said, unlike Pekar, I could do with some bombast in my comic reading once in a while, and think that some of the work being done in contemporary superhero comics is on par with the work of the underground ‘realist’ comics Pekar touts.

            Despite that though, I thoroughly enjoyed Pekar’s selections as they covered a wide breadth of art styles, lengths, themes and forms. Its arrangement works so well, starting off with a fun story by Joel Priddy titled “The Amazing Life of Onion Jack,” a simply drawn comic that parodies superhero clichés in a strangely heartwarming story about a superhero with a misshapen head who’d rather be a chef, but can’t ignore his call to beat up the baddies. Along with Priddy’s comic, there are a couple others that tell relatively fantastical stories, such as the very funny “Adventures of Paul Bunyan and His Ox, Babe” by Lilli Carré that gives us a new take on the folk hero. Then there’s Rebecca Dart’s “Rabbit Head” that tracks the interweaving tales of the title character along with the strange creatures with whom she crosses paths. It’s a comic that uses panel layouts in an interesting way with the character’s narratives merging and bursting away page by page.

Then there are the slice of life stories, Pekar calls them ‘quotidian,’ like Kim Deitch’s non-fiction comic “Ready To Die” about a death row inmate that the narrator gets along with well who’s accepted his fate after committing an extended murder spree, following a nervous breakdown. However, not all of these quotidian narratives deal with tragedy. As Pekar notes, the power of these stories is in the author’s observations of everyday life, and sometimes life even in its duller moments can be sources of great humor. This is seen in David Lasky’s “Diary of A Bread Delivery Guy” where the author ruminates on the perspective the eponymous job provided him with, including the odd union of white vans to which he belongs. And even though Ivan Brunetti’s one-page untitled comic features a mouse protagonist, the story of unrequited love hits as hard as any similar human tale with Brunetti exemplifying the power of visual narrative in conveying emotional turmoil.

What I had not read much of prior to this anthology were the large number of extended political cartoons that were actually really surprising in their quality as their single-panel cousins normally featured in newspapers of old could rarely evoke anything more than an eye-roll whenever I saw them (Comedy BangBang pokes fun at this type of ‘intellectual cartoonist’ in one of their best episodes). Lloyd Dangle’s “A Street-level View Of the Republican Convention” illustrates the mood in large liberal cities like New York, especially political demonstrations, when douchey wealthy Republicans arrive. The most striking comic however, is the collaborative true life story, “Nakedness and Power,” a thoroughly researched comic that connects women’s political demonstration in Africa with those in the United States that were all done in response to the oil and gas industry. Without ever coming off as preachy, the comic conveys a brilliant message about the potential power of people in resisting the forces of seemingly unstoppable corporations.

While I did not enjoy some comics as much as others, I can easily chalk that up to stylistic preference. For instance “La Rubia Loca” is a serviceable comic, but it takes up a large portion of the anthology that could have been used to increase the variety of pieces. Had I had read it on its own though, I think I would’ve enjoyed it a lot more. I’m probably going to read a novel or two this month, and hopefully get started on the next volume in May. Here’s hoping that the variety of comics continues to expand.

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