Choosing the best comics published throughout the year can be a nerve-wracking task, but this year two veterans have stepped up to the task.
Since 2006, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has been publishing an annual collection "Best American Comics" alongside the many other series they publish. This year's volume is guest edited by Scott McCloud, and taking over this year as the new series editor is Bill Kartolopoulos.
McCloud needs little introduction given his many comics - both non-fiction ("Understanding Comics," "Reinventing Comics") and fiction ("Zot!" "The New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln") - or his status as the originator of the 24-Hour Comic Challenge and one of the principal authors of 1988's Creators Bill of Rights. Kartolopoulos is familiar to many for his work running programming at SPX and MoCCA Festivals and teaching at Parsons and the School of Visual Arts. They spoke to CBR about how the collection came together and their thoughts about where comics are today.
CBR News: How did you end up as guest editor of this year's "Best American Comics?"
Scott McCloud: Matt Madden and Jessica Abel were the series editors for several years, and they had been conversations with me of the possibility of my editing. I was busy working on my new graphic novel. I finally agreed. By then Bill Kartolopoulos had taken over as series editor, so while I didn't get to work with my friends Matt and Jessica, I had a tremendous time working with Bill. He was just a dream to work with and tremendously knowledgable and very conscientious. That was a great working relationship. So the short answer is, it was fine. I had said "No" often enough that it was time to finally say "Yes." Even though the timing could have been a little more cushy, we were able to pull it off, I think with some - I hope - very interesting results.
Bill, I know this is your first year as the series editor. We've met but I was curious about your background and how you got the job.
Bill Kartolopoulos: The first thing I really did publicly was a blog called "Egon" that I started in 2002 and maintained for about four years. At that time Jeff Mason who previously ran the Alternative Comics Publishing Imprint had an interest in relaunching "Indy Magazine." "Indy" went through a few incarnations. Jeff had an interest in reviving it, and based on what I was writing asked me if I wanted to take over as editor. So I relaunched that as an online quarterly. In 2006 I was asked to take over programming for SPX, which became the beginning of a lot of work like that. This year is my ninth year doing programming for SPX. It led to my involvement with the Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival which I co-founded with Dan Nadel and Gabe Fowler. This past year I was hired by the MoCCA festival to do the programming for that event. In 2008 I was asked to teach a graphic novel class at Parsons and taught there for four and half years. This past year I started teaching in the MFA Visual Narrative department for School for Visual Arts teaching comics history.
Matt Madden and Jessica Abel had been the series editors for the "Best American Comics" for six years, and when they decided to accept a two-year residency in France, they relinquished it among other jobs that they had. I seem to have been among the people recommended as potential replacements. I interviewed for the series editor position, and I was very excited when they asked me to take on the job.
What is the process of putting together a book like this?
Kartolopoulos: The process is, I think, relatively standard for all of the titles in the "Best American" series. Typically the way it's developed, each title has a series editor who works on the series for multiple years, and each title also has a guest editor who serves for one year and is typically a somewhat well-known person who brings both a fresh perspective and some attention to the book by virtue of their reputation. The way that it works in my case is that there is an open submissions policy. There's an address where people can send their work and we receive hundreds of submissions that way. It's my job to read everything first. I make a pre-selection that I send to that year's guest editor, and then the guest editor makes the final choices as to which pieces will appear in the volume. Additionally, the guest editor has the latitude to chose pieces on their own that I hadn't selected.
McCloud: If I have something that I'm passionate about and want to bring into the mix and introduce as a possibility, I'm welcome to do that. So if there's something I really like that Bill didn't chose for his initial set, I can do that. When you look at the notable list in the back, the notables are basically that pile. In other words, if I brought anything into the pile, but it didn't wind up being chosen, that wouldn't be in that particular list. Basically Bill's best is the notables list, and my best of the best is what went into the book.
I really enjoyed the way the book was divided into sections and how the book was setup.
Kartolopoulos: Scott really went above and beyond because the guest editor is only required to write one introduction. In this case Scott wrote ten! As a result, between the stuff that's in the book Scott refers to a lot of other artists and titles and historical movements throughout the text, there's a great opportunity for someone to learn about more kinds of comics than just those that are reprinted in the book. I think it can potentially serve as a nice primer for someone who wants to approach it that way.
Scott, you have been very encouraging over the years of young cartoonists and very encouraging and supportive of people so you editing this felt like an extension of what you've done for many years.
McCloud: It is in the sense that most of what I've written about and talked about - in conversation with friends and professionals and in public spaces - is about potential. Even though I'm talking about existing works in this volume, the picture that I hope to present is one of a city of signposts pointing to different possibilities. The work as it exists, I hope, strongly evokes a sense of work that can exist. It's not a matter of just a few more sturdy bound volumes of fine literature being slid up on the bookshelf where they can enhance your living room. [Laughs] It's more just this explosion of light that I hope will inspire others to realize that no matter how peculiar your vision, there's some slice of comics that's there for you. Or some slice of comics that does not yet exist but you can bring into being with your own imagination.
I remember your introduction to the first "Flight" volume years ago.
McCloud: That was ten years ago. That was very future-oriented - partially in a wink and a nudge way because it was written by my disembodied head in a jar from Sri Lanka in 2054. [Laughs] But yeah, it was this idea that that volume was significant - and I think it was, as a harbinger of things to come. Much of that world did indeed come into existence. I'm still very interested to see if I'm going to be right about my male under-representation crisis of 2024. [Laughs] I could be right. It could happen.
You make the point in the book that this is a portrait of where comics are and you seem very enthusiastic about where comics are.
McCloud: I am. If you'd asked me ten years ago, one of my greatest hopes for comics was an influx of diversity, and that's something I think we're beginning to see now. In the last ten years or so that's one of the big takeaways of comics in America. It's almost impossible for me to visualize even the contents of this book - much less than the contents of the entire comics medium and industry - in a single thought. You have to roam around for a while to catch all the different fiefdoms and lands and villages and compounds of this tremendously diverse art form and industry. That's healthy. One can't possibly think of all of the film medium at one time in any given year. You can't think of all the things written in prose in any given year in a single thought. That's where comics has arrived at, too. I think that's great. My latest obsession being especially is all ages comics, which I think bodes well for out future.
Was trying to wrap your head around the diversity of what's out there behind the decision to divide the books into sections?
McCloud: You can go two different ways with "Best American." You can chose fewer excerpts and try hard to make sure that each one exists as a complete self contained story, or you can opt for shorter excerpts and show a more fine grained portrait of the world as a whole. I went for the latter and that affected the structure of the book. When you have lots of little bits, it really help to divide it a little, and so I came up with those divisions. I allowed the categories to happen very organically. I just looked at them long enough until they quietly shuffled themselves into groups.
I did want to ask about the "Kuiper Belt" section because it felt in some ways being on the edge of comics, which is not how you meant to define it but they're on the edge of what the discussion of comics are.
McCloud: In terms of the public eye they're the ones less likely to be doing guest spots on "The Tonight Show" or "Good Morning America." [Laughs] But the avant garde traditionally can be not necessarily that outer edge but also be seen as the front line of change - leading and anticipating the future. It doesn't necessarily have to be a notion of marginalization or distance. It's at the outer perimeter of what people are used to in comics but that's very important because that's how any medium is kept healthy, and growing by all these ideas which may seem strange at one point but later may be swallowed up and metabolized by comics generally.
Some of these comics have not been widely distributed, some are self-published, they may be on the edges of our conversation about comics, but they have a place in that conversation.
McCloud: True. It's a bit of a mixed bag throughout the book. Somebody like Sam Sharpe, that wonderful story about the relationship with a mentally challenged mom appeared in a self-published minicomic. I think in the context of this collection, it's clear what tremendous control and craft Sharpe has going for him. He's a pro. Regardless of his means of distribution or how many thousands of eyeballs he might have at his beck and call, he has the control of a seasoned pro.
You said something similar in your introduction to the last section of the book talking about Sam Alden and his story "Hawaii 1997."
McCloud: I was glad I could end the collection with that. I'm very fond of "Hawaii 1997" and I felt it felt just right putting that at the end of the collection. So much of that piece is anchored in that marvelous haunting ending. Also that notion of the past and the future. Those two pieces in the last chapter are really about our past and our future because Alden-even though it's a comic tinged with nostalgia-represents the future in several crucial ways. One is the fact that the guy is clearly a natural. He has this tremendous understanding of how comics work, but he's also showing us something fairly rough that feels like he's still forming. He's a star where there's still a bit of the oort cloud there. [laughs] You really wonder what his stuff is going to look like in ten years. There's a sense of something still coming together, still forming. Meanwhile Richard Thompson-though hardly an old man-you can't help thinking about the glorious past of the newspaper comics strip and it's current troubles when you look at "Cul de Sac." The fact that Richard had to stop creating that marvelous strip just naturally places a hard edge on the present and the future that compels us to look to the past. I like the way those two pieces talk to each other on the shelf.
You mention at one point in the book that one of your favorite comics of the year, which is not in this book, was "Hawkeye."
McCloud: It is very important to me that everybody know that we did in fact pick "Hawkeye." [Laughs] I'm sure a lot of people looking at the table of contents will be annoyed if they're fans of "Hawkeye" - as I am - they'll be annoyed that it's not there. We did pick "Hawkeye" and it's really nobody's fault, but we ran into rights issues. There's really no villain in this scenario. Everybody was a grown up on this one, but we just wound up painted into a corner and we had to let "Hawkeye" go. It's very sad because that was in a lot of ways when you're going from "Hawkeye" to Erin Curry - that's the spectrum of comics. "Hawkeye" exists at one end of that spectrum and Erin Curry is at the other. It's a little sad that I lost one of those anchors because it throws the collection a little off balance.
One comic in the book is "Depression Part 2" by Allie Brosh and you described it as emblematic of this moment in webcomics.
McCloud: The webcomics section is a little different than the rest of the book. We did not bookmark ten thousand webcomics, read them all, and then systematically chose the best. I think Allie Brosh is a fantastic talent, and I'm very proud to have her in the book, but the webcomics section is meant as an opportunity to talk about where webcomics are from my unique perspective. My perspective is very strange. There's nobody else who comes to webcomics with quite the same filters as I do. It's a personal view of what interesting things are going on right now with American webcomics, but it's by no means comprehensive. There are plenty of amazing artists who don't get mentioned because they're not emblematic of one trend or another. This is my best attempt right now to give some impressions about some of the strange evolutionary trends of the last few years - not just 2013-2014.
I'm a big fan of Brosh's work but I was a little surprised to see her included because-and you mention this-her work doesn't really fit your definition of comics.
McCloud: [Laughs] Yes and, as you say, I mentioned that in my introduction. It doesn't violate my definition of comics, exactly. I don't actually say anything about words and pictures being segregated and if you look, they're very well blended in a lot of panels. It's not all that different for example from Posy Simmonds' work. It arises out of blog rhythms, but there's plenty of just straight up comics in there. As I said, you can make the case that a lot of what Allie Brosh or Andrew Hussie does strictly matches up with my definition. It may surprise people to learn that I am actually not one of the fiercer cops on the beat when it comes to my definition. [Laughs] If something doesn't quite fit I just shrug my shoulders and say, it looks cool, whatever it is.
Kartolopoulos: I was really excited to discover Allie Brosh's work. I saw something from her a couple of years ago but didn't follow her work so when "Depression Part 2" came out, it's something that you would have had to work hard to ignore because so many people were obviously really struck by the work. I got really excited by it because I've taught comics history many times at Parsons for several years, and I'm teaching it at SVA now. I would often talk about online comics and I would show examples of popular comics online ranging from "Penny Arcade" to "Hark, a Vagrant." Then I would show rage comics and especially when you're teaching 18 to 22-year-old students at an art school, they immediately respond to the galvanizing energy.
No one really takes rage comics seriously as cultural productions because they seem so ephemeral. Everybody is treating all of this as casual throwaway stuff, but that was how we treated newspaper comic strips until we started taking them seriously. The whole history of comics in America is, in many cases, a history of work that's considered to be unserious and disposable that despite all that periodically manifests artful qualities or qualities of self-expression. Then Allie Brosh came along, and she's not using the rage comics generator or a meme generator, but she's clearly adapting the aesthetics of those kinds of online comics and using them to get her ideas across. I have a masters in media theory, and that justified all the time I spent getting that degree. [Laughs] It's exactly what you could imagine might happen. The content adapts to the medium and people find ways to use the tools that are available at hand to express themselves. There's probably more to it than that but I was struck it was exactly the kind of depth and humor and memorable content that one wouldn't necessarily expect to see expressed through a style that was typically associated with momentary ephemeral culture.
Scott, you mention this at the end of the book, but you write that we're in a golden age for comics right now.
McCloud: The greatest flaw in the scene right now is simply any time a great cartoonist feels like they can't continue for whatever reason. If there's a crisis out there, it's that. But the existence of so much marvelous work has to brighten our hearts a little. We're seeing the shape of a healthy art form. This is what it looks like. It's confusing and just bafflingly huge. It's accommodating a dizzying assortment of ideals and messages and creative content. That's the way it's supposed to be. Because from that crazy rainforest of different ideas and images, new generations can grow and plant new things. It's still a work in progress and with luck it always will be. I'm 54 years old, and I'm still a work in progress. [Laughs] That's as it should be. If comics ever feel like they've truly arrived, it probably means that their day has passed.
The 2014 Edition of "Best American Comics" is on sale now.