What defines a good comic? What differentiates a well-done comic from a bad one? What factors are weighed when determining which comics are good and which are bad? These are important questions to ask your self when reading a collection that has dubbed itself The Best American Comics of 2008.
To determine the answer to these questions we will have to go to the basics and ask ourselves what exactly we consider to be a comic. As Scott McCloud demonstrated in Understanding Comics, defining a comic is no easy task. We must consider what differentiates a work of classic art, or even harder, something like hieroglyphics to what you might find in the Sunday paper. After many alterations, McCould sums up comics as “Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.” Although this definition cuts out most classical paintings and one-panel comics, it also can extend the definition to include art found on the walls in pyramids and even cave art. Thankfully, Best American Comics narrows their selections down to “stand-alone mini-comics…single issues of ongoing series, graphic novels and nonfiction comics as well as Web comics.” All of the work that they view is only from North America and published in English. The guest editor, Linda Barry, decided to narrow it down even further. She also excluded daily strips and editorial cartoons for the 2008 edition.
Although it might seem that they have narrowed down the amount of comics they are receiving, they still feature comics from all genres. The series editors Jessica Abel and Matt Madden write that “The wonder of the comics world is that it’s so big, and that it continues to grow. This volume (Best American Comics 2008) reflects that diversity admirably.” The question still is how do they narrow thousands of comics down to less than thirty? How the process usually works is that the series editors sort through all of the submissions and select about 150 of the best ones to send to the editor who then chooses which comics make the cut. However, in the 2008 series, things were run a little differently. Since the guest editor, Linda Barry, had such a passion for the craft of comics, she insisted that the series editors send every single submission her way. Abel and Madden write that “we don’t simply choose our personal favorites; rather we try to consider each work on its own terms and ask if it is compelling or interesting…regardless of style, format, or subject matter.” The guest editor however seems to stamp their personal style and taste on the selections. It is why there is a new guest editor for every volume, but it raises the question: Are these truly the best American comics of that given year?
To say that one comic deserves more praise than another is subjective to the person reading the comics as everyone has different experiences and view points. For example, while one person might love a comic about baseball since it is their favorite sport, another person might hate it because they dislike sports in general. As Abel and Madden put it, “the best examples of North American comics…may mean very different things to different readers, and to different creators.” So how do we define what is better than another? With comics, if we want to melt them to their most basic elements, we can narrow it down to narrative and art. As far as narrative is concerned, it is fairly simple to be able to tell what stories are more enjoyable. We are used to reading books and viewing films and determining which has the better story. The art of comics is a much harder thing to scale. We cannot merely look for which comics have the most realistic looking art, because that is not always the illustrator’s intention. If Charlie Brown were to be painted in a realistic style, it would take away the charm and the feel that the artist was trying to instill within us. Is it fair to say that the art in Joe Sacco’s Palestine is more well-done than that in Charlie Brown? Of course it is, but the point is moot since much would be lost if Charlie Brown was drawn with as much detail as Sacco included in his work. We would spend time admiring the beautiful detail and surroundings of Charlie and his friends instead of focusing on the point or life lesson being made in the panels. The fine art style works for Palestine because the story is about a journalist in another country, and the details of the main character’s surroundings submerge us into the busy, gritty life of the city of Palestine.
Looking through the selection from Best American Comics 2008, one can see that they were striving to deliver the reader a variety of comic styles. To think that works so different such as Cupids Day Off and War-Fix are both included in this book shows us the diversity they were aiming for. While both comics portray an entirely different side of the spectrum, they both showcase fantastic story telling and visual aesthetics. However, we cannot compare the two to each other. Almost everything about the two comics are opposite, from the coloring to the story genre. I believe that they created genre categories and chose the best submissions in each in order to showcase a little of everything. So, while Matt Groening’s work might have some of the most basic art on the scene, it is still included because of it’s fantastic writing that trumped over a lot of the weekly strip style comics that year. The series editors say that while reading all of the submissions, they “try to read the work in the spirit in which it was created” as to find the best examples from the wide variety that American comics have to offer.
Since only one person ultimately decides which comics make it into these volumes, it is inaccurate to call them the best comics of a given year. These volumes are just the opinion of one person. The guest editor’s personal tastes can be found all over the book, from the front cover, to the intro, to the comics inside of it. While the comics included were probably among the best that came out that year, there were probably hundreds left out that some people would find just as well done, if not better. As Linda Barry teases, maybe they should have named the book “The Best North American Comics That Happened to be Seen in 2008.”
McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994. Print
Barry, Lynda. The Best American Comics 2008. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008. Print.