“The Best American Comics” books began in 2006. The series is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, publishers of “The Best American Short Stories” for almost a century. While any “best of” list is inherently subjective, this year’s book, guest edited by Alison Bechdel, includes work by Kate Beaton, Gabrielle Bell, Jaime Hernandez, Paul Pope, Joe Sacco, Jeff Smith and Chris Ware. The list of Notable Comics includes “Scalped,” “Criminal,” “The Unwritten,” “Unknown Soldier,” “King City” and “Scott Pilgrim.”
The “Best American Comics” series editors are cartoonists Jessica Abel (“La Perdida,” “Artbabe”) and Matt Madden (“99 Ways to Tell a Story,” “Odds Off”). In addition to the series, the real life couple teach at New York City’s School of Visual Arts and have also written one of the best textbooks about comics, “Drawing Words and Writing Pictures,” published by First Second Books in 2008. The pair took time out of their busy schedules to speak with CBR News about “The Best American Comics” series, what their role as series editors entails, why the notables list is so important and why superhero books so rarely make the list.
CBR News: How did you both first become involved in the “Best American Comics” series and what exactly is your role as series editors?
Jessica Abel: I was approached by the then-house editor from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt who asked me to take over the series editor job. I said I would do it if I could get help from Matt. What that means is that we are responsible for collecting and reviewing as many comics published by North Americans as possible and choosing the short list, basically, to send to a guest editor. And then we do a lot of administrative work and other stuff that’s not worth getting into, but that’s the main gist of the job.
When you say the short list, is that essentially the comics included and the list of Notable Comics listed in the back of the volume?
Abel: Pretty much.
Matt Madden: Sometimes what I like about the Notables is that it gives it more breathing room to the series. There’s work that’s not going to qualify as “the best of” because maybe it’s a little rough around the edges, maybe the drawing’s not quite there, but it has some spark of ambition or creativity or really good storytelling that we want to recognize. There are books like that which we don’t send to the guest editor because we know it’s not that level of polish, but there are a certain number of titles like that in the Notable Comics list.
Having done this for a few years, is there anything that stands out as far as larger trends you’ve seen in recent years?
Madden: Michael DeForge. He’s a new trend. We’d never heard of them two years ago. He’s in his early twenties and is one of these rare talents who I’m sure has been working at it since he was very young, but he seemed to spring fully formed two years ago. It seems like every week there’s an amazing innovative new comic from him appearing in some anthology or website, on his blog. It’s bewildering to keep up with. That’s the big new trend in comics.
Abel: We’ve done it for a while and there was definitely a major trend a few years ago for everything to be cute. Even things you wouldn’t really expect to be cute were done nice and cute. That’s fading a little bit. There’s not as much cute for cute’s sake stuff. And now there’s definitely a lot of people who were very influenced by the successors of the Fort Thunder movement. There’s a lot of that stuff coming down now. You see these told very straight kind of space stories–
Madden: –With Dungeons and Dragons elements thrown in. Video games, role playing, stoner humor thrown in with some hip hop references. That [description] would be a parody of it–
Abel: –And a really simple drawing style. Almost childish–
Madden: –Which is clearly directly influenced by Brian Chippendale and Mat Brinkman and CF, Christopher Forgues.
The two of you also teach and you see work by younger people starting out. Have you a difference in the people coming up and their influences and how they think about comics?
Abel: There’s more diversity now than there used to be.
Madden: Especially with women. There’s a lot more women.
Abel: I just mean among people and their influences, but yeah, there are a lot more women.
Madden: We’ve been teaching for ten years and even when we started in 2001, I was surprised at the diversity of interests and influences that I saw in kids. I thought you’d have a lot of superhero kids and a few manga kids and one kid who was into underground comics in every class but it was much more varied than that and there’s much more crossover. People are into various different things and that’s only increased. There are just so many different currents of influence that it’s hard to pin down any dominant trend among our students, I would say.
Abel: I would say it’s still rare to find people who are coming in with a very idiosyncratic reading, but it’s not as rare as it used to be. We went through a long phase where the majority of students coming in influenced by manga and I don’t think that’s the case anymore. There are plenty of people still influenced by manga, but it’s not the majority.
Madden: I definitely agree to that. A negative trend is a decline in the overwhelming influence of manga that we saw five or six years ago. It’s still there but it’s settled in along with superhero comics and independent comics as one of a variety of kinds of comics that kids are influenced from and trying to emulate.
Abel: We’ve never had much in the way of strictly speaking superheroes. That’s never been a strong presence in our classes. There are definitely manly adventure comics, just not superhero types.
Madden: If anything, my original guess that there would be like one kid who’s into underground comics, it tend[s] to be the opposite. We have one or two kids in every class that want to do something more mainstream — if not superheroes then action stuff of some sort. It’s not a dominant trend at all. Not at SVA, anyway.
Do you think part of that has to do with where you teach?
Abel: I think that the demographic at SVA is fairly representative of what the youth is into.
Madden: For better or worse, most of these kids are not saying, “Oh, Gary Panter teaches at SVA, I’m going to go there and do art comics.” They don’t know who any of us are. Even the ones who are into indie comics. They might have heard of Gary or Dave Mazzuchelli, but the rest of us, they wouldn’t know us from their high school art teacher, so they’re not coming to SVA on that criterion. Whereas the Kubert School, which is more like a trade school, where people go to learn to draw mainstream comics, but we have Klaus Jansen and Phil Jimenez and people who are doing mainstream style cartooning teaching, so people are finding what they want there. I don’t know that there’s a profile of a certain kind of artist who wants to come to SVA.
You both wrote a great textbook, “Drawing Words and Writing Pictures,” a few years back. What has the response been to the book?
Abel: I’d say really positive. People have been excited about it. We wish more people knew that it was there. We feel like it hasn’t gotten the penetration it ought to for people trying to learn comics, but when people pick it up, they’re very pleased. They want more of it, which is why we’re doing another book. I haven’t had anybody say, “This shouldn’t be here” or “It shouldn’t be done this way.”
Madden: I’d go further and say we’ve had nothing but stellar reviews from users and more importantly for both of us, from our peers, from our friends, other cartoonists who teach and other art teachers have been very complimentary and find it a very useful resource. That unfortunately has not been matched yet by adoption into schools and public awareness of the work. Having a second book, the second book called “Mastering Comics,” which is going to come out in the spring. That’s a continuation of the first book and also building on some of the skills but also talking about new stuff like color and perspectives and webcomics and professional practice. We have our website dw-wp.com and we’re always putting up original material. We designed it to be something that will have a real longevity, and not just be a kind of bookshelf thing but a really integral resource that everyone who’s interested in comics can use.
One of the things I enjoyed about the book is that it’s very practical. It’s not abstract or theoretical.
Madden: I’ve been listening to these philosophy podcasts and I was listening to one about Pascal and his ideas about religiosity. He was basically arguing that rather than convince yourself that god exists, he actually didn’t believe in god, but he believed in the practice of religion. He said that to really find religion and find god you just had to start going through the motions and learn how to do it. You had to learn the prayers, had to get on your knees when the priest said so, sing the right songs and eventually the profundity and the meaning of it would come to you. I guess we’re doing something similar with this book where it’s very starting from very practical matters. There’s not a lot of theory or deep essays about the meaning of art and life. It’s more about, just learn all this stuff and practice it and you’ll start to see what it all means for yourself.
Matt, I wanted to bring up your book “99 Ways To Tell a Story” and how in some ways that seems like the precursor to the textbook.
Madden: Very much so. Not in original design. I did that book as a creative project and a creative challenge to myself, but as I was working on it I could certainly see that it would have educational value. It’s also a book that has gotten really good reviews and translated into a bunch of languages and used in not just comics classes but literature and filmmaking classes, but it’s not a didactic book. It doesn’t have a lot of exercises. It’s something that gives you ideas. When my agent was shopping it around, there were a number of publishers who passed on it saying it was a little too offbeat but said, “If you could get this guy to do a ‘how to make graphic novels’ book, we’re definitely interested.” For my part, I always felt like I wanted to do a textbook maybe when I was much older after I had retired from cartooning. Talking it over with Jessica and our agent we realized that the time to strike was now. We decided we had these years of teaching experience and we decided to dive in and do the book. So yeah, there’s definitely a connection there.
Just the way you phrased that, you would create a textbook after you retired, it has been a while since either of you came out with a book.
Madden: It takes a lot of work just to make it good. It’s a big project and we’re doing a second one. On top of our teaching schedules. It’s a very full plate of work that’s all comics-related, but yeah, it makes it very hard to keep going on our own work. We were talking this morning and realizing that I have tons of comics, but nothing ready to publish. So at some point in the future, there’s going to be this sudden deluge of Matt Madden comics when I finally get around to finishing all the stuff that I’ve been tinkering on in my spare time over the last five years.
Jessica, it’s been about six years or so since “La Perdida” came out from Pantheon, and I know that you co-wrote “Life Sucks” which came out a few years ago.
Abel: I’m working on a new comic. I’m just getting started on it, really. It took a really long time to be ready to go there.
Madden: We also had two babies in the past four years so that’s added to our distractions from personal creative work.
Just to return to the “Best American Comics,” did you want to talk a little about what’s in the book, the diversity of projects that people will see there?
Abel: No, not really. [Laughs]
Madden: [Laughs] I would say the one thing that tends to get people’s backs up about the “Best American” series is who decides what’s the best and that sort of thing. It’s a title that obviously has marketing advantages. It’s snappy and it’s great to be associated with “The Best American” short stories and essays that have this very long history in publishing, but the fact is that “best” is a very problematic terms to thrown around. We think of it more as a bunch of comics that came out this year, we took a big pile of them that we liked and gave them to our guest editor and of that selection, they chose a bunch that they liked in a mashup of their taste and their ideas of what are good comics and we hope you enjoy it. It’s a good cross section of what’s going on in the world of comics today.
Abel: Especially once you add them all together. You look at not just this volume but all the volumes together, you see trends and you start to understand something about who the guest editor is and their choices and I think that’s a valuable part of the dialogue in comics in general.
Madden: And we put a lot of work, probably more than other series editors in the different “Best American” books, into our list of notable comics in the back of the book because as a list by itself it’s not all that useful because a lot of the things are obscure minicomics or things that appeared in small anthologies or journals so we made a real effort to make that stuff accessible by having on the “Best American Comics” website a hotlink version of the whole list that has as best as we can information on how to find the book or where to read it online if it was a webcomic or on somebody’s blog. We also did capsule reviews of all the comics listed last year on the drawing words and writing pictures website at dw-wp.com.
As a final question, is there any type of comic or approach you’d like to see more or hope to see less of in the years to come?
Madden: I have the same answer for both, which is superhero comics. [Laughs] I don’t like superhero comics. When I try to read them, I don’t feel like I have the background or the perspective to judge them well. It would basically take getting a new series editor, which will happen someday, or bringing in a guest editor who’s really steeped in that world. We thought when Neil Gaiman came in that he might get a few high quality superhero stories in there, but he declined. He didn’t pick anything that was that different from Charles Burns chose in terms of the types of comics he looked at. I feel like superhero comics at this point [are] as segregated as ever from the rest of the world of comics. I feel like indie comics and webcomics and manga have more interaction than the superhero world with the rest of the world of comics. It would almost require a separate “Best American Superhero Comics” volume. Jessica especially does really good due diligence of trying to read some of the superhero comics that are coming out that are getting good critical response and the Vertigo stuff. We do send some of that stuff to guest editors and some of it ends up in the notables.
Abel: Especially some of the Vertigo stuff. The problem with superheroes is it’s not a personal taste so much as it just requires so much insider knowledge to read these things. They don’t stand on their own. There have been about three superhero comics, maybe two, in the past five years that stand on their own. That you can just read and not have to know what happened in issue #56 and ever since. It’s a real problem, I think, and it’s a problem for the industry. How do you get into this stuff if you’re not into it already? I’ll have to look at the New 52 stuff this year and see if they’ve managed to reboot in such a way that it’s readable. I’m sure it’s simpler than it was. And that’s a real problem. For me, I would really like to see more hard scifi. I think there should be more sci-fi in comics. There’s hardly any. Just because I like it.
What were those few superhero comics that you think stood out?
Abel: “Batman: Year 100” was one that was totally readable, as long as you knew who Batman was you could do it. That actually got picked and then DC wouldn’t let us use it. I think at this point it would be less of a problem having had Neil Gaiman as one of the guest editors and with the series having been around for this long, but they just refused and wouldn’t let us use it.
Everybody was talking about “All-Star Superman,” which wasn’t American by the way, the artist and writer were not American and so it was ineligible, but I read it, and it took me way too long to figure out what the hell was going on. It did not make sense to me. I could figure it out. The information was there, unlike in some superhero comics, but it wasn’t the kind of thing where you can just plunge into this fantasy world, which it kind of was when I was reading superheroes when I was a teenager. It’s changed a lot. The stuff Ed Brubaker is doing, “Incognito,” is not really fully in the superhero world. It refers to it, but that’s fully readable and fun.