Best American Comics 2008

16 May

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.”

Works Cited

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994. Print

Barry, Lynda. The Best American Comics 2008. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008. Print.


Ghost World

10 May

The first time I saw the film Ghost World, I felt that someone had opened my brain and adapted it into a movie.  From the opening segment with Enid dancing to Bollywood musicals to the end when she rides away on the bus, it was constantly hitting the nail on the head.  It was not until two years later that I found out it was adapted from a comic book, and then another four years until I finally got around to reading that comic book, but when I finally did I had the same, if not a stronger reaction to it.

Ghost World, written by Daniel Clowes, centers itself around two young girls, Enid and Rebecca, who have just graduated from high school.  Their lives have come to somewhat of a stand-still and they spend most of their days wandering about aimlessly in an un-named town and questioning what they will do with their lives.  Although the plot seems somewhat pointless, the book is less about what happens and more about the commentary.  Ghost World is revered for what it has to say about popular culture and teenage years.

At the time that I first read Ghost World, I had been living in the San Fernando Valley for almost four years.  The parallels that I found between the valley and the town that the novel takes place in were unbelievable.  The streets, the 50’s themed cafe’s, and the convenience marts were all too familiar.  I thought that he based the images off of real places that I had seen in Northridge and Sherman Oaks, but after investigating, I found out that the town was supposed to be a mixture between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The story also seems to draw parallels to my life and my relationship with my best friend.  The main character’s snarky attitudes towards almost everything in life reminded me of how my best friend and I are.  Some of the things that they said and did were as if it were pulled from out lives.  On the other hand, there were a lot of petty things that both characters indulged in, such as jealousy and lying to each other, which I don’t feel the need to do around my best friend.  These traits, however, are not uncommon amongst the closest of friends and I found it refreshing that Clowes explored the negative sides of friendships.

I have to say that the main draw of this comic is how easy it is to relate to.  Most people go through a period where they feel lost and do not know what they are going to do next with their lives.  A lot of the time, this is in their late teen years or their twenties, and it is something that not a whole lot of authors explore.  To know that I was not the only person who had felt that way was a comfort and gave the comic a deeper meaning to me.  I found answers and comfort in Clowes’ story and recommend it to anyone who is coming to an impasse in their own life.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic

6 May

Fun Home is the autobiographical graphic novel written by Alison Bechdel.  It is about her being raised in Pennsylvania and her father’s suicide as well as about her realizing she is a lesbian and coming out to her family.  There are many themes of sexuality, specifically gay and lesbian, throughout this novel.

I found Fun Home to be one of the most well written comics I have ever read.  The narrative kept my interest up with its structure and story matter.  With most other comics, even my favorite ones, I always reach a point  where the words start to  bore me.  Alison Bechdel’s use of words is similar to reading a book.  She uses description in the passages even though she also draws pictures to show us what she is speaking about.  This all made sense when we watched her process of creating comics in class.  She writes the words in first and later draws the pictures.  I think it would be interesting if she wrote a novel instead of a comic book one day.

One aspect of the book that I enjoyed was the constant references to works of literature.  I love reading books, especially classics, and I would get excited whenever she would speak about a book that I knew well or have read myself.  The fact that she reads so many books might be why her writing in the comic is so much like that of a novel.  I also believe that this is one of the reasons that her words are so well thought and often times witty.  One of my favorite passages was when she was comparing herself to her father.  “I was Spartan to my father’s Athenian. Modern to his Victorian. Butch to his nelly. Utilitarian to his aesthete.”  She later goes on to explain that since her father was a man with feminine tendencies and that she was a girl with masculine tendencies, each was trying to change the other and their relationship was doomed.  Her writing is extremely clever and helps audiences to relate, even if their personal lives were nothing like hers.


26 Apr

My parents introduced me to the film adaptation of this comic in 2008.  They are both immigrants from Iran so naturally the film struck a chord with them and they wanted to share their story in film version with me.  I was blown away by the film and the similarities between the narrative and the real stories that my parents shared with me as I was growing up.  I feel as though I got the history and the details from my father’s stories where as I got the emotional and personal side from my mother’s stories.  The film joined the two for me and put what their lives must have been like in perspective.

A few years later, I spotted the comic version of Persepolis at Earth2.  I continued to eye it as the months went by but never had the urge to commit myself enough to read it.  When I saw it on this class’ reading list, I was excited that I would have a reason to finally read it.

The beginning of the book reminded me exactly of my mother.  She was a bit of a rebellious tomboy in her youth and Marji was no different.  Also, the fact that she was raised by a wealthy family in Tehran, who later lost everything due to the revolution.  My mother’s family is also more modern minded than many in Iran, so the points of views presented in the book were things I am familiar with.  Much like Marji, my mother was also sent away at a young age to find a better education.  She was sent to a Catholic school in England.  She did not get along with the nuns and her stories of her personal encounters with them reminded me of the passages in Persepolis.

Three fourths of the way into the book, I started to dislike it.  Although I understood her isolation and depression, I did not enjoy reading it.  I found myself wanting to shake her and found the comic harder to read.  It started to pick up again for me once she decided to turn her life around after her suicide attempt.  I enjoyed when she would go about town after her return to Iran because I recognized some of the locations she was speaking about from when I visited.  Specifically, I remembered Savafieh Bazaar and how she described Northern Tehran.


22 Apr

When Professor Hatfield said that this was a hard read, I brushed it off.  If I could power through Dostoevsky, I could breeze through anything, especially a comic book.  I did not understand what he was speaking about until about the third chapter in Joe Sacco’s Palestine.  This comic is like running a marathon, but having weights added as you get farther along.

The first thing that struck me as odd was how the text was hard to follow.  It is scattered across the pages and difficult to understand what order you should be reading it.  This comic is also very “wordy.”  This is not necessarily a bad thing as a comic book is still a BOOK, but the subject matter was draining for me.  I have never liked history and have a tendency to tune out when I am being lectured on the subject.  I found myself doing the same whenever Sacco was speaking about people’s view points or the back story on what was happening.  I enjoyed it more when he was portraying his personal experiences with people, but it seemed that for the most part, he kept a distance and tried not to get close to anyone.  He goes into people’s homes, eats their food, drinks their tea but keeps a safe distance, which bothered me.  On page 189 Sacco says “You can eat a refugee’s food and you can sleep in his bed…you can walk in his mud and step over the same dead rats…But wearing his underwear?  You gotta keep some distance.”

The person he interacts with the most is Sameh, and even there I never sensed any connection between them.  This is a large part of why I could not get into his story.  It was so distanced that I felt I was getting the version of everyone’s story that they have been telling over and over again for years.  I wish he would get people to open up more and get a deeper story.

Minicomics Responses

19 Apr

That One Night – Nadine Linares

This comic caught me off guard.  When I first received it and looked at the title and the blurry photo on the front, I thought it was going to be a thriller of some sort and did not think it would be drawn, but instead photos.  When I flipped it open, I was pleasantly surprised to find a cute vampire, wolfman and frankenwoman.  I found it interesting that she chose to portray herself and her friends as monsters.

The comic was pretty short, but she managed to fit an entire night into one page.  It reminded me of my freshman year in the dorms and hearing about all the crazy drinking games people would come up with.  I guess people can be pretty innovative when there’s alcohol and nothing to do.  I liked the design of the panels, especially the circle in the middle.  I thought the dialogue was a little hard to follow though.  I did not know if I was supposed to read the left side first and then the right or if it continued through the circle.

A Hipster’s Guide to Portland – Paul Jeffrey Jr.

I was excited to read this comic right off the bat.  The cover was colorful and it looked like a traditional floppy.  I also was intrigued by the title since I just visited Portland last summer, and I find “hipster” jokes to be some of the best stuff on the internet.  (See photos below)  I was not disappointed as I read through the comic, as the pictures inside were detailed and visually fantastic.  I liked how certain things, like close ups, were extremely detailed while other panels were not.

I liked that the comic features some of Portland’s great spots, like the Chinese garden.  I also liked the flow of the story and how it transitioned from location to location.  My favorite transition was the one from the Chinese garden stones to the record at the concert.

The story itself seemed almost like an excerpt from something else.  It seemed to pick up out of nowhere and had no resolution or real ending.  I do not know if this was the authors intention or not, but that is how it came off to me.  I could see this one being one of the comics in Best American Comics as just a sample of something greater.

In Case of Emergency

The thing that captured my attention with this comic off the bat was how it was on a larger piece of paper than most of the other comics our peers created.  I thought the layout was great, in general.  The artist had a great understanding of intensifying the reader’s experience through the use of panels, especially at the part where he is deciding whether or not to push the “in case of emergency” button.  The artist  used many panels in this scene, opposed to larger ones he used in the earlier part of the comic.  He also had the image get closer to the button and the character in order to create a zoom effect which intensified the scene as well.  I also thought that putting the squat team in the bottom right corner of an otherwise blank page was clever too.  It almost expresses that time has passed, time in which he might have been wondering what the button’s effect was.

The artistic style was one of the better ones in the class.  It was more of a realistic style and it worked well with the story.  I was wondering as I was reading this if the images were made on a computer or if they were hand drawn.  Either way, the creator has talent and I send props their way.

Latency – Jason Christianson

This one hit my funny bone pretty hard.  I play World of Warcraft with my friends every summer (I try not to during school) and I can relate to this comic pretty well.  A few summers ago, I was playing with a bunch of my friends who lived in the same house while I was playing back at my parents house and it was a pain in the butt  to communicate with them since they were all in the same room and I was 30 miles away.  They would plan out strategies but since I couldn’t hear them I would sometimes aggro enemies and make my friends angry.  I can also relate to lagging since my internet at my apartment was horrible and it made playing WOW almost unbearable.

The comic itself was well done, but a little confusing.  At first, I thought that the panel in the middle was another player, but I believe it is supposed to be the enemy in the game.  It took me a minute of staring at the comic to understand what the artist was trying to convey, but once I got it I was chuckling.

Roy The Roach Rides Again – Claire Moles

First off, let me say that I am a sucker for alliterations.  I have always found book and song titles with them more intriguing than normal titles.  Anyway, good job with the cockroach cover, Claire (alliteration!).  The story was something I could relate to since my room mates and I would probably have the same reaction if we found a bug in our home.  The dialogue between the room mates in the story was organic and I could see them behaving like that in real life.

When I first read it, I missed the bug being sucked into the vacuum on the second page.  I had to flip back to see how it ended up in there, but it made sense once I did.  I’m sure that if the artist had more room to draw more of the vacuum, it would have been more apparent upon the first read.  I liked the 3 panel zoom at the end where we find the cock roach still alive in the vacuum conspiring.  The fact that the cock roach was evil and hellbent on getting one of the room mates gave me a kick.

Minicomic Self Reflection

3 Apr

My biggest challenge in creating a minicomic was trying to choose a story to tell.  It took me a long time to choose because I figured that once I decided on one, I would have to commit a lot of time and energy into it.  It wasn’t like an English paper where I could start BSing once I ran out of real point to make.  I actually would have to draw what I was trying to convey and there was no turning back once I started.

I carry around a notepad with me at all times and dedicated a page of it to ideas that would pop into my head for possible minicomics.  I ended up with around ten ideas which I eventually narrowed down to two or three.  At first, I went with an incident where my best friend and I were biking and she fell off her bike.  She kind of laid in the road for 5 minutes moaning while I was freaking out and reverting to how I hated it when I was a child and my friends would fall and cry.  I drew the first frame and then realized that I was hopeless at drawing a bicycle.  It took me 30 minutes just to draw one of them.  I scrapped that idea and resorted to my second choice, which was my daily morning routine with my cat.

It was fairly easy to come up with a story since this is something that happens every day.  Once I came up with a basic story structure, I dived right into the drawing.  I decided to go forth with little planning in order to create more of an authentic feel to it.  I had an extra piece of paper to practice sketching things that might have proven difficult.  I think the hardest part of drawing was making objects look three dimensional.  I doodle all the time in classes, and some of them are pretty neat, but when it came to drawing something in order to make a story out of it, I was out of my league.  I couldn’t just draw anything I wanted, because I needed to draw the objects convincingly enough as to not confuse the reader.  Drawing my room and bed and giving them depth was the worst of it.  I had to experiment with using diagonal lines in order to show vanishing points.  When all is said and done, I am proud that I managed to pull a story off using more than stick figures (barely).

As far as the ending of the comic goes, I decided not to give it a resolution.  I was originally going to have my cat come in and curl up next to me at the end, but as I was drawing my comic, I decided against it.  I thought the ending that I decided to go with was appropriate since in reality, this is still going on every morning.  In fact, that’s how I woke up today. At 6am. And could not get back to sleep.

Another challenge I ran into while making my comic was spacing.  For example, on the page where I come downstairs and feed my cat, the close up on me pouring the food into the bowl is a little too high and to the left.  I feel that it doesn’t flow with where a reader’s eye would go.  The way I constructed that page makes the readers eyes have to dart back and forth like a typewriter but then it feels awkward because I left negative space in the bottom right.  I guess that was the point of this lesson though, to make mistakes and learn from them.  It is easy to read comics and they usually tend to flow naturally, but we don’t give much thought to how meticulously they have constructed the comic to flow in the way that it does.  Making my own comic made me realize that where they put every image and word bubble is completely intentional.  For my first time though, I think it turned out pretty decent.