Having just wrapped up the research-and-writing portion of a substantial side project (rent and groceries being something of a distraction), I finally got the time to sit back with "The Best American Comics 2014," which, I want to start by saying, I recommend.
There's a lot of "Your Mileage May Vary" in that recommendation, however, starting with a couple of important formatting issues:
1. It's not comic-strip oriented nor is it about superhero comic books. Just so you know.
2. Because it is, for the most part, an overview of extended works, there are short excerpts and longer excerpts, but don't expect to read whole pieces very often. That's not a flaw, just a feature.
3. Editor Scott McCloud starts right out with this:
Which could well provoke the response "Who the hell do you think you are?" but then the obvious answer is "Scott McCloud," which you should have known when you bought the book.
McCloud is a lecturer by nature and made his bones with "Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art," which is well-respected and something of a foundation piece. It's also what I term a "graphic lecture" in which an often-autobiographical cartoon character tells you things, with illustrations.
"The Best American Comics 2014" is divided into chapters introduced with short (two pages or so) (textual) discussions of what you're about to see and why. McCloud doesn't waste your time: He makes his points lucidly and then turns it over to the featured works.
It's not "homework" to read this, but he's right: It's not a book for dipping into at random for a few minutes at a time: It's a well-documented, very generously illustrated look at where the art form is at.
If that's a topic that interests you, this should be on the must-have list. Excellent holiday gift as well.
Yeah, you can hear that other shoe hovering overhead, can't you?
Something struck me in reading this, not about the book but about the state-of-the-art-form he describes.
It comes under the general topic of whether cartooning risks going so "insider" that it becomes like poetry -- a once popular art form now of interest chiefly among its own navel-gazing practitioners.
As a non-artist, I would rather see a compelling story with mediocre illustrations than a mediocre story with really good artwork.
Actually, what I'd really like is for that good storyteller whose art doesn't quite make it and that talented artist with nothing to say to collaborate on something wonderful, but Harvey Pekar is dead so I guess that's over.
What I'm seeing is art-for-art's-sake, plus a lot of affectless Emo, if such a thing is possible.
As for the art, the dancing mushrooms in Zap! never seemed more to me than filler to make the page count come out right. I'm willing to be wrong on that, but you hear a lot more people wax nostalgic for Fritz and Mr. Natural than for the dancing mushrooms, and I suspect the stories were what was selling the comic.
I'm sure I'd feel differently about this if I were an artist. But that's what I mean by hoping comics don't become what poetry has become: A bunch of people trading chap books back and forth and nobody else giving a damn.
I've already invoked the name of Harvey Pekar, so I'm certainly not saying that every story has to feature swashbuckling superheroes or even cartoon mice headed for concentration camps.
American Splendor could make a cartoon out of Harvey buying a loaf of bread, but it would be infused with his often-objectionable attitude and behavior, and if it included a page-and-a-half of him walking to the bodega, we'd get to hear what he was thinking.
I don't know where Harvey the Person and Harvey the Cartoon Character crossed over, but he managed to make the mundane fascinating, with the brilliant crescendo being when he forced the reader to take sides either with that asshole David Letterman or that asshole Harvey Pekar.
Without that kind of insight, a page-and-a-half of someone walking down a road, or sitting in a chair, or eating a sandwich, is an art study, not a cartoon. And 250 pages of someone feeling nothing and doing nothing and thinking nothing is not a graphic novel. It's a sketchbook.
A couple of days ago, (in discussing a cartoon I think has been massively misinterpreted in a way relevant to this discussion) I mentioned a critic who, at my request, savaged my collegiate novel, breaking me away from trying to be what I thought a writer was supposed to be and helping to put me on the road to writing what I loved and was good at, bless his cantankerous heart. I've since dug up the thing and, man, it is some hard reading even 32 years later.
Here's part of what he said about setting and characters that applies not only to the art-without-story genre but also to a whole lot of self-confessional web comics and others in which millennials drink coffee and talk about stuff:
Everybody went to college ... it's not news, it's not drama, and no one wants to read pages and pages about a fellow meeting his new roommate, registering for classes, worrying about how to meet girls. That stuff is commonplace -- which is very different from being universal. It is simply crushingly, embarrassingly boring.
(Admittedly Joyce concocted Ulysses from the most banal, quotidian events in the life of Bloom and Stephen, but that commonplace material had an exotic richness for non-Irish readers, and was supported by surpassingly elegant prose, plus many ingenious tricks with point of view, plus other felicities.)
Pam was only a name. Larry was little more. Same for Paul and Ellen and the rest. They never took solid, convincing shape for me. Now this business of character-portrayal -- which characters do or do not "come alive" -- can admittedly be very subjective. It doesn't depend on how much information the author supplies. Perhaps rather the quality, the vividness, the plausibility yet uniqueness, of that biographical information. Some writers can sketch a good character with one phrase. I don't claim to be able to state why your characters don't work for me. But they don't. They seem just so many male and female variations on the type "Average Immature College Kid."
As I read through some -- certainly not all, but too many -- of the pieces being held up as exemplars in this volume, it reminded me of that critique, that everyone has been to college and that I was bringing nothing new or interesting to the experience.
Oddly enough, the most compelling self-examination -- and my favorite piece in the book -- was not going for the Emo take, nor was it relying on stupefying draftsmanship to compensate for lack of action.
"Allie Brosh's 'Hyperbole and a Half' may be the most jarring to traditional sensibilities, with its sloppy, scribbly style, but it's also proven tremendously accessible and wildly popular both inside and outside comics fandom." -- Scott McCloud
"Exactimundo." -- me