Friday, October 26, 2007

Best American Comics of 2007

Editor's Note: This post was up for a few hours yesterday and was removed to give me a chance to clear up some points and possibly give the post a bit more coherence.

Recently popular comic blogger Heidi MacDonald (aka: The Beat) took some lumps after posting on her site an actual opinion essay. This was followed by MacDonald displaying a willingness to unburn bridges, etc...

Basically, Heidi pointed out that Chris Ware had put together a book called "Best American Comics 2007" which was filled with a lot of stuff that was Indie comics, that could be construed as not too dissimilar to Ware's own work. For those with , he's responsible for landmark comic "Jimmy Corrigan", as well as the Acme Novelty Library and the very fun to look at Quimby the Mouse.

She then went on to state that she didn't feel that Ware and his pals were making the best American comics. The reason presented was that the ability of these writers and artists to construct a compelling narrative was often found wanting. She said she wanted a story.

I read The Beat on a regular basis, and have rolled my eyes at Heidi's snarky sniping of superhero comics, but also understand there's context there and do not expect her tastes to match my own. The same sort of complaints regarding superhero comics crop up online amongst the indie comics crowd, of which MacDonald has seemingly been identifying with, especially since she jumped from Comicon.con to Publisher's Weekly.

Before I go any further, this is my opinion, so, you know... whatever.

Ware is a master of form, and has managed to create unique comic experiences with each work I've picked up. He's sort of the consummate comic fiend's comic. He plays with the form in intricate and fascinating ways, both subtle and less so, with a unique understanding of how the medium can be manipulated.

But... and here's sorta where I agree with MacDonald. With all the artistic expertise in the world at his fingertips, I still never felt more engaged than being wowed by the form of Ware's comics. There just wasn't much to the narrative to make it particularly page turning. It's about a mopey guy who had a rotten life and sorta tries to do something about it, but, whatever...

If you dig a good Todd Solondz movie, I may have a comic to recommend.

It's a delicate thing, because I do genuinely appreciate Ware's work and vision, but I'm simply not engaged by the misanthropic comics he puts together. At least Eisner figured out how to tell the story of an unlucky soul in a few pages.

The sad, unlucky soul as protagonist is also the focus of the work of Daniel Clowes, and it seems the success of these two opened a path for comics about sad sacks being an end unto themselves, and often with far less artistry than the two guys I've menioned above.

This is, of course, a small fraction of the indie spectrum, which contains an infinite number of genres and genre-less comics.

Here's the thing... from reading blogs like The Beat and Journalista!, one would get the impression that there's this huge industry of independent comics where lives were being bought and sold, and all the world hung on the opinion of what someone like Chris Ware thought were the best comics of 2007. This, of course, isn't the case. Not just in popular culture, but in comic shops and in the larger book publishing industry.

Exact distribution numbers are somewhat hard to figure, as I'm not sure where to dig up Fantagraphics distribution versus Diamond, nor do I have any knowledge of Indie comic distribution channels.

All that said, distribution isn't the point of The Best (American) Comics of 2007. Artistic merit and writing come into play somewhere.

So, really, now you're talking subjective criteria. That's okay. I don't necessarily think that the stories listed in The Greatest Superman Stories Ever Told are, necessarily, the Greatest Superman Stories Ever Told, either. But that's a publisher putting their name on a collection and putting as much out there about themselves as the comics included in the collection.

If you actually clicked on the links above to MacDonald's post, you'd notice over one hundred comments, many of them extremely heated. MacDonald may have done herself a disservice by not better framing her argument, and certainly by refusing to name names. But, really, in her line of work and with the vitriol tossed her way, can you blame her? If she knew it were coming? And did she know that this was going to put a ding in her career and reputation as indie comic fans, creators and critics each stepped up to the plate to take a shot at her?

If she didn't know that was going to happen, she hasn't been paying attention to her own work since the inception of her blog.

But was she necessarily wrong? Or did she just point out that the Emperor was parading down 5th Avenue in his tidy whities?

The folks who got rankled, like Tom Spurgeon, are more or less arbiters of the indie comic scene. Of late, its been the indie comics that get the faint praise of the literary establishment when they take notice of a book like "Jimmy Corrigan", and the occasional cross over hit like the deserving "Fun House" or "Persepolis" ("Fun House" made a critic's list or two last year under the "book" category, but went largely unnoticed in most comic shops. Likewise, Persepolis was winning awards, and I've seen it all but ignored in most comic shops. Likely any tie-in with the feature animated film of Persepolis will appear at Barnes & Noble long before it appears at Slappy's Comics Universe). Whether the indie comic reviewers and blogging press had anything to do with the discovery of those comics, or that those comics reflected pre-existing tastes of the literary establishment is a tough call.

Artistic commendation is worthy of striving for, so I don't want to dismiss any praise anybody has received from folks outside of the comic-sphere. And, honestly, I haven't seen the damn book that MacDonald is discussing, so I can't answer my own questions on this one.

But the fanboy behavior that the Indie-fans drum up in the comments makes the usual Gwen Stacey-related Spidey post on Newsarama look like a blip.

Unfortunately, Heidi is in a professional position where she CAN'T name names. She's not in the easy position of the critic as a face for Publisher's Weekly and as a blog manager. People give Matt Brady a hard time for not giving creators and the Big 2 the business, but... seriously, how long before that fatted calf would disappear if he decided to take Joe Quesada to task for every slight superhero fans believe he should answer for?

As does Matt Brady, so does Heidi.

Meanwhile, Tom Spurgeon and Co. are in a comfortable position where the artists and writers need them far more than Tom needs the creators. Any exposure is good exposure in small publishing where no marketing or advertising budget exists. As readers of The Comics Reporter, etc... make their decisions for purchases based upon comments on sites like Spurgeons or from other journals, its a different balance of power.

The bottom line in this case seems not to be that Heidi pointed out that some comics which get the indie street cred maybe aren't all that good (that's no secret), or even that Heidi may have divergent taste from the arbiters of the self-appointed comic literary meritocracy.

A recent post at Chronological Snobbery takes a pass through Chuck Klosterman-land to dish up a reminder of how hipsters and taste-makers believe their subjective tastes to be better informed than that of pretty much everyone else. While the Chron Snob post is interested in the legacy of 1980's hair band Ratt, it seemed to echo some of the same traits of the Best American Comics argument, albeit in a medium which even the people inside of the fanbase find divisive and geeky.

Success breeds contempt in any industry. Whether "SexyBack" is a good song or not is going to be diluted by the insistence that anything that popular was made for the masses and therefore not worthy of note. For more on the Klosterman ponderings, go here.

Comics being an almost sealed system, DC and Marvel are bigger kids on the block, and are therefore "mainstream", despite the small audience compared to almost any other medium. There's a built in snark factor for the crowd who loudly refuses to be associated with the super medium.

It doesn't seem that Ware and Anne Elizabeth Moore meant the name of their collection ironically, but the book reflects little outside of the tastes of a niche within the already nichey world of comics. All things being equal, it's either a ballsy or arrogant statement to assume that your taste in comics is going to define the best of the year, I don't care how diverse your buying habits. It's probably somewhat fair to state that a lot of what went into the volume is a lot of the same, as Heidi suggests. After all, its fair to say the same of DC's output, tentacle porn, or anything that someone has tried to dub with a genre name. Indie comics have remained mostly genre-free in the same way that "college music" did until a marketing exec dubbed Nirvana and Pearl Jam as "alternative" in 1992 or 3 (and, unlike electronica, the name stuck). Staying under the radar gives you the advantage of staying out of a category unless you're seeking one.

Most likely publisher Houghton-Mifflin can't get the reprint rights to most of DC and Marvel's stuff, anyway. If DC were interested in a best of the year, they quit printing their Blue Ribbon digests a long time ago. Not to mention the fact that a self-contained, single issue story in this era in a post Bendis superhero comic is far more the exception than the rule.

Not that Moore and Ware would consider those sorts of stories, but...

Is Heidi correct in asserting that the kids these days can't tell a story?

Oh, hell. I think (thus, my opinion) more DC writers fit that profile than not, just as 90% of any medium isn't all that great (including independently produced comix).

It's just a bitch to buy a $2.99 comic, get home and say "That was it?" Moreso when its an expensive graphic novel or indie comic that you wanted to take a risk on. Like any movie that's getting good reviews, its always an interesting venture to see what and why a comic is getting hyped outside of superhero circles. (my personal theory: With stunning regularity, the comics are about outsiders trying to make good and overcome their traumatic past. Sort of the same formula as Spider-Man and Batman, only without the spandex and web-shooters.)

Just as even the best comics of 2007 come at a price of $22. Is $22 the price of finding out if a tree falls in the woods, does it make a noise?


J.S. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
J.S. said...

I only understood half of what you said, but I think that both the more artistic stuff (indie or whatever) and the more straight ahead storytelling are interdependent (I'm mostly saying this by drawing an analogy to music). People don't want all nontraditional indie stuff all the time (the most popular, long lasting stories of our culture tend to exist in more traditional,easily understood formats and narratives that are more readily digestible by the masses), but sometimes readers do want more artistic stuff, and more importantly, some of the better aspects of the indie stuff get incorporated into the more traditional stuff over time and help the more traditional mediums to grow and broaden. The indie stuff grows out of the traditional, but it also changes what traiditional is. Saying that a bunch of indie material constitutes the best stuff of the year might be annoying to some readers, but you have to ask yourself exactly what "best" means when applied to a title like that. Does best mean the most enjoyable read? the most thought provoking read? the comic that employs the most groundbreaking techniques (mechanisms likely to be adopted in future works)? Naming something as "the best" indicates that it's the best AT SOMETHING. I think the real argument here is over what sort of criteria a comic has to meet in order to be labelled as the best (which is a particularly interesting discussion with comics b/c I think comics are important to their readers for very different reasons, and there's probably a big struggle going on right now over what direction comics should be moving in as an art form). Labelling something unequivocally as "the best" is almost always an act that's meant to draw controversy and generate discussion, and obviously that's what this guy has done. And insofar as he's meant to generate curiosity, he's been successful. I, for one, would be quite curoius to get my hands on that book and take a look at something that has generated so much heated discussion.

Of course the possibility exists that I've just totally missed the point of this post. I don't read a lot of comics (though I'm always open to finding and reading good ones).

The League said...

I don't disagree at all about the positive effects of the indie comic or indie artform upon the mainstream.

MacDonald's post was mostly about how Ware and Moore's selections reflect a certain taste, and she doesn't think those kinds of comics necessarily reflect much in the way of storytelling. Its certainly selling MacDonald short if I gave the impression she doesn't have diverse tastes, or that she doesn't have knowledge of what Ware put into his collection. If anything, the issue was how narrowly Ware defined what constituted the best comics.

To oversimplify: It would be a bit like if someone put out a "Best Music 2007" album and included only electronic music.

I'm not saying electronic music isn't good, or that it doesn't have a lot offer or that it can't inform rock, opera, country or what have you, but its unlikely that all of the best music of 2007 was from the electronic music section at Hastings.

If I was trying to make any point, I guess, its that the electronic music nuts have somehow managed to dub themselves critical darlings, and gotten awful pissy when someone pointed out that electronic music maybe wasn't the only music to pick from, and it might even be a bit boring.

Anonymous said...

The title, if not ironic, is an exaggeration. Just like with indie music, there are good indie bands, and really lousy one. Part of the problem is that the term "indie" or "independent" has come to describe a genre of music or art when that is far too broad a label, particularly when it was originally understood to be something - regardless of genre - that is separate and apart from the studio system, major labels, or the big comics publishers. That said, there are some really awful indie comics, and as with movies, some times a title is independent because it is really, really bad. They are, as they say, independent for a reason. If a publisher has the temerity to entitle a publication "Best American Comics of 2007," the implication is pretty clear that the only qualification to appear within its pages is that the material is from comics, American, from 2007, and the best. To then publish only indie comics seems a bit pretentious, especially considering that Marvel and DC occasionally and accidentally publish a pretty darn good narrative now and then. Heck, even IDW does!

T.S.T. said...

As I mentioned below, I am a satisfied owner of Ware's edition of Best American Comics. But I take no offense at Heidi's post. I think her opinions were voiced respectably enough, even if I differ in my own conclusions. I take her comments to be an expression of taste, of preference. So also do I take Ware's selections for his edition of the collection. I, personally, bought the book precisely BECAUSE I expected it to be a partisan expression of the editor's leanings. I like Chris Ware, and I wanted to see what he liked.

The book might as well have been titled "Chris Ware's Favorite Comics 2007." Who, familiar with the "Best American X of Year X," series of books expects anything else? (I'm a sucker for the series, incidentally, always looking forward to Best American Nonrequired Reading from Dave Eggers, which is usually well worth the cover price. The Essays collection, this year edited by David Foster Wallace, has tempted me to give it to every single person on my Christmas shopping list.)

Anyway, if Heidi dislikes the body of comics represented in CW's book, fine by me. If she somehow thinks that the book misrepresents itself and/or fails because of its title, well, that's just silly. To do so would be to incriminate herself, in my opinion, to suggest that she's either generally naive or particularly uninformed about the context of the Best American X series.

The League said...

I think she's sort of meta-commenting on the title of the book. Given her career in publishing, I find it unlikely didn't know about the series.

I think part of her alarm is that Ware's tastes may be so insular, reflecting only what he, himself creates.

Now, a quick look at the list of contributors tells me there are well respected comix makers in this book. You include Spiegelman, and I have a hard time criticizing.

But, as comics mature into a form which is trying to reach a spectrum outside of children and college kids, I think there's a real concern that maybe even some of the best respected comics are respected for form over story-telling. Personally, I love looking at Jimmy Corrigan or Quimby the mouse, and portions of both are genuinely moving. But as a story? Is it compelling? Of that, I'm not sure.

She seems to simply be unforgiving of Ware for showing a lack of respect for other comic producers who trend toward the literal story rather than the design.