Living up to the best

Paul Constant

November 12, 2015

When you edit a book titled The Best American Comics 2015, you are almost certainly setting yourself up for failure. Surely Jonathan Lethem knew this when he signed on for the job. Worse yet, when he agreed to be the editor of the 2015 edition of The Best American Comics, he must have known he was immediately following Scott McCloud’s entry in the series, which is by far the best Best American Comics to ever see publication. (I think McCloud’s entry might be the best book in the entire Best American series of collections, full stop. It was so thoughtful and intelligent and big-hearted that it made other volumes feel perfunctory.)

But Jonathan Lethem is a goddamned genius. His books Motherless Brooklyn and Chronic City are stone-cold modern classics. His other hugely ambitious novels, like Fortress of Solitude, are imperfect but compelling books, flawed magnum opuses that are still well worth your time. And he’s a brilliant reader of comics, a writer who understands that you can’t just use prose to discuss the frisson between words and pictures that make up comics; when Lethem writes about comics, he launches into poetry. He is a disciplined and perceptive writer who also understands the history and practice of comics. Surely Lethem could topple McCloud and produce the new best Best American Comics of all time?

Well, no. No he couldn’t. Sorry to get your hopes up there. Scott McCloud is way better at anthologizing than Lethem is; Lethem even admits in one of his introductions that “from Scott McCloud, last year, I stole the idea of taxonomic chapters…I dug the way it broke up the reading.” Happily for us, books are not a competition. Except for, you know, the Pulitzer and Nobel committees, nobody’s giving out medals here. Lethem acknowledges he’s “walking in some mighty footsteps,” and he admits that “I seemed to prefer 'termite' comics…those that nibbled around the mainstream’s edges.” (In that panel — yes, Lethem drew his introductions as comics, and no, he can’t really draw — Lethem illustrated himself as a termite, with razor teeth.) By acknowledging his goals, he frees himself from those kind of comparisons.

So what we have here is the most Jonathan Lethem-y of all Best American Comics volumes. What does that mean? Well, it means that it’s a relentlessly cerebral collection of comics. Lethem prizes the life of the mind above all else — his novels are more perceptional than emotional — and so there’s an academic distance and curiosity driving his anthology. Comics are still a new enough mainstream medium that there’s a novelty to Lethem’s brainy enthusiasm. It gives the book an eager-to-impress attitude.

So who does Lethem include? He opens the book with excerpts from Roz Chast’s excellent Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? and Jules Feiffer’s disappointing Kill My Mother. Later on, he excerpts some of the best comics to be released in the 2013-2014 window from which he was required to make his selections: Farel Dalrymple’s The Wrenchies, Gabrielle Bell’s The Columbia Diaries, Esther Pearl Watson’s After School, Peter Bagge’s incredible Woman Rebel, Jim Woodring’s FRAN, Ed Piskor’s Hip Hop Family Tree. There’s a shelf’s worth of great comics wedged into this one book; if he set out to create a survey of great recent comics work, Lethem has certainly accomplished his goal.

As a work of diverse representation, it must be said, Best American Comics falls down pretty badly. How bad is it? Well, Lethem broke out a separate chapter for women cartoonists, titled “Raging Her-Moans.” There are other women in the book, but only a handful. Similarly, I don’t know the particulars of all the contributors, but I suspect that the book is overwhelmingly white and straight. It certainly reads that way. The comics field is struggling to include wider arrays of talent, but anyone who has ever been to a convention knows that it’s an industry of largely white men, and so it’s likely that Lethem had to choose the works in the book from a disproportionate collection of work by white men. Hopeully, future editions of Best American Comics will include some sort of a diversity tally of all the comics that were up for consideration for the sake of transparency, so readers can gain a data-rich sense of how far the industry has to go to achieve representational parity.

Look, anthologizing is thankless work. Everyone assesses anthologies with an eye toward what isn’t included, rather than what is. But Lethem doesn’t seem to sweat it. He seems less interested in preparing a time capsule for posterity and more of a mix tape.

And when viewed as something personal like a mix tape, Best American Comics 2015’s genius really comes to light. Lethem places Anders Nilsen’s story “Prometheus,” a silhouetted retelling of the Prometheus story, right next to Julia Gförer’s “Palm Ash,” an account of the story of Simeon from the Gospel of Luke. While Nilsen’s account is broad and lacking detail, Gförer’s art is noodly and packed with tiny little lines. They’re both comics dealing with myth, but they’re the equivalent of putting the acoustic confessional folk song right next to the power ballad on a mix. The loudness of Nilsen’s work brings out the thoughtfulness of Gförer’s.

The book is full of pairings like this: Raymond Pettibon’s lurid paintings next to Henriette Valium’s intensely detailed pages, which resemble a Breughel tableau constructed from neon tubing; Kevin Hodyman’s dialogue-heavy comic strips butted up against Eric Nebel’s wordless comics featuring the mating habits of winged creatures with laser eyes. And Lethem delivers some surprising new discoveries, like Gina Wynbrandt’s amazing “Someone Please Have Sex with Me,” an account of one woman’s desperate attempts to find a sexual partner in the years between 1998 and 2092.

So what we’re looking at here is less of an overview of a medium and more of a statement of what comics can formally do in the year 2015. Lethem, ever the high-concept brainiac, offers up the kind of mission statement that will leave aspiring cartoonists with insomnia for days at a time as they prize apart every page with toothpicks and a magnifying glass, trying to figure out how the contributors managed to pull off exactly that panel transition, or this color effect. As a charge to future generations, Lethem’s Best American Comics is a success. And that’s just fine; nobody, after all, could possibly assemble an anthology that would make everyone happy.

Well, except for Scott McCloud, I mean.

Books in this review:
  • The Best American Comics 2015
    by Jonathan Lethem
    Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
    October 05, 2015
    400 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

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