The Best American Comics 2011, edited by Alison Bechdel

The Best American Comics series published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has been going strong since 2006, each year with a different guest editor who chooses the works to be included—last year, it was Neil Gaiman and you can read his take on it here—and managed by the series editors Jessica Abel and Matt Madden. This year’s edition was high on my radar for its guest editor, Alison Bechdel, author of the fabulous long-running series Dykes to Watch Out For and the critically acclaimed graphic memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic.

I was not disappointed.

The review period for inclusion in this anthology is actually a bit odd, running from September 1, 2009 to August 31, 2010, not a true year-to-year divide, but from within that period Bechdel selected nearly thirty entries, followed by series editors Abel and Madden’s three-page longlist of “Notable Comics.” These excerpts and selections range from autobiography to journalism to speculative fiction and everything in between. Bechdel’s tastes are wide-ranging and discerning; there wasn’t a single choice in this volume that I disliked or found aimless, though some were more to my preference than others. I also appreciate that she notes and graphs the persistently low percentage of women contributors, even in her own volume, which runs around 1/3, and puts out a few feelers for more women comic artists and writers to jump into the field feet-first.

This book is definitely an excellent introduction to current comics being published by folks other than the Big Two, no matter what sort of comics you like. Though there is a lean toward “serious” work, there are also things like the Gatsby comics done by Kate Beaton of Hark! A Vagrant fame and “Anatomy of a Pratfall” by Peter and Maria Hoey from Coin-Op. I read it in nearly a single sitting, slipping from one excerpt or short to the next easily thanks to the arrangement of the book itself: aside from a few comics where the title-page is part of the piece, they flow into one another without any blank pages or breathing spaces between. The lack of traditional structure—gaps, title pages, whatnot—is at first disorienting, but after checking back to the table of contents once to make sure the comic I was enjoying hadn’t just suddenly went off the rails but was in fact a new piece, I loved the experience of reading it created.

Speaking of the experience of reading, the inclusion of experimental comics and pieces that are not laid out in the typical left-to-right, top-to-bottom format pleased me immensely. Those pieces are a challenge to read in the best way, such as “Soixante Neuf” by David Lasky and Mairead Case, which when read from one direction is the woman’s side of a romance and when skipped forward, turned upside down, and read in the other direction is the man’s side, with the two then meeting in the center page in the titular position. Others must be read holding the book up on end, lengthwise. Bechdel notes one comic she could not include because of its “business-envelope-sized” pages, but wished she could have, Alexis Frederick’s “The Voyage.”

Bechdel’s vision is the unifying factor behind all of the included pieces, and as she lays it out in her introduction, so I see it throughout the book. Either she’s really good at self-examination (the answer to that is yes; this is Alison Bechdel we’re talking about), or the introduction colored my own reading of the texts. For example, they have a tendency toward liminal spaces, generic indeterminacy, experimentation with form, style, and story; they balance their confident truths with explicit self-examination and self-questioning, as in Joe  Sacco’s stunning and wrenching excerpt from Footnotes in Gaza, and their humor with allusion, parody, and intellectual rigor, as in Gabriel Bell’s “Manifestation,” which actually mentions the possibility of being included in the year’s best collection in its metafictional moment. To the last, these graphic stories are all taking themselves seriously while simultaneously displaying immense affection for and play with the form.

I had fallen behind on my comics reading in the past year, I’ll admit—I hadn’t found much work to tweak my interest and hold it, and I was starting to wonder what was up. I wasn’t finding the good work. Word of mouth was not giving me the gifts I was used to. So, this book came into my hands at the perfect moment, with the perfect message: look at all of these strange, fabulous, talented new works, by old familiar folks and new names entirely.

Some of them will make you cry, like the Joe Sacco excerpts—Footnotes in Gaza is graphic journalism, collecting the first-person accounts of people who survived and witnessed the 1956 massacre of Palestinians in Khan Younis—and some will instill a sensation of clarity and wonder in the way that only acute, laser-sharp observation can, like the short “Weekends Abroad” by Eric Orner, a story about being a gay American Jew in Israel but also about community and communication. Some of them are just goddamn hilarious, like Kate Beaton’s witty Gatsby comics or “Pet Cat” by Joey Alison Sayers. All of them were memorable, beautiful, playing with the limits and possibilities of the form with an obvious love and sense of wonder.

I highly recommend picking up Bechdel’s Best American Comics—and, for that matter, checking out the previous years if you haven’t previously had a chance to. You’ll grow your bookshelf like you wouldn’t even believe; I’ve certainly put a huge number of these excerpted comics and the comics from the “Notable” list at the end on my to-look-for list. In the end, I’ll quote Bechdel on it:

Most of these cartoonists are looking just a little beyond the horizon. […] Whether a piece was originally printed and distributed by a major publishing house or stapled together by its creator, it will tell you something about the world.

Lee Mandelo is a writer, critic and occasional editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. Also, comics. She can be found on Twitter or her website.


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