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The Best American Comics 2014

Review

The Best American Comics 2014

Anthologies, from what I can tell, are quite the tricky thing. I’m nearly certain that every introduction, preface or foreword to each anthology I’ve ever read has pointedly noted the sheer impossibility of compiling the perfect collection --- a sort of insurance policy against the inevitable omission of some worthy work. Rita Dove’s terrific anthology of 20th Century American poetry for Penguin is a prime, if particularly self-aware, example of this tendency, while Nicholson Baker’s first Paul Chowder novel, THE ANTHOLOGIST, is practically a 250-page apology from the protagonist about his own bungled attempt to anthologize poetry. (The only thing harder for poets than actually writing poems seems to be collecting them.)

Scott McCloud’s own introduction to THE BEST AMERICAN COMICS 2014 plays a new melody over a very familiar set of chord progressions: “‘Best’ is hopelessly subjective, good stuff was left out due to arbitrary circumstance, your editor meant well but probably shouldn’t be trusted on critical matters of judgment, … the meaning of “American” would take about ten thousand words to explain, it’s all a sham, woe is me, all human endeavor is meaningless.”

He then proceeds to lovingly lay out one of the most wide-ranging surveys of contemporary comics you or I will likely ever have the pleasure to read.

“I read comics with a frequency to which most adults would never admit --- and shame on them, says McCloud, says I --- and yet the likelihood of my stumbling upon these staggering talents without McCloud’s gentle prodding is slim at best.” 

Let’s be real here: McCloud is no slouch when it comes to sequential art. We’re talking about a man who effectively jumpstarted contemporary comics criticism and played a major role in helping the mainstream publishing industry look at this oft-maligned art form in a new light. Next to the names of past guest editors in the series --- Chris Ware, Neil Gaiman, Alison Bechdel, Jeff Smith, Harvey Pekar, Françoise Mouly, Lynda Barry, Charles Burns --- McCloud’s looks right at home. And so does his anthology, yet another pitch perfect entry in this series, and the first with Bill Kartalopolous at the helm as series editor. (To read an interview with Kartalopolous conducted by University of South Florida’s Dr. Katie Monnin, click here.)

As was the case with earlier installments, this collection includes a few big names --- Raina Telgemeier, Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, R. Crumb and Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Brian K. Vaughan and the aforementioned Ware and Burns all make appearances --- but focuses primarily on the deep recesses of indie comics, and for good reason. Most art addicts, regardless of their form of choice, will tell you that the best stuff is often buried by the establishment, which itself is composed primarily of those onetime indies who caught their lucky breaks. As McCloud notes, the Internet can help to erase that obscurity, as his inclusion of Alexandra Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half webcomic illustrates. And Michael DeForge, whose bizarrely beautiful Lose is excerpted here, has found a wider audience through Cartoon Network’s all-ages masterpiece Adventure Time.

But Sam Alden’s roughly penciled Hawaii 1997, holding as it does those twin aches of memory and regret? Lale Westvind’s brightly bursting avant garde pulp? Aidan Koch’s abstract, nearly monochromatic watercolors? The cluttered, extravagant sci-fi fantasies of Victor Cayro? I read comics with a frequency to which most adults would never admit --- and shame on them, says McCloud, says I --- and yet the likelihood of my stumbling upon these staggering talents without McCloud’s gentle prodding is slim at best.

“They say the ‘Golden Age of Comics’ is whenever you were ten years old,” McCloud writes. “I know what they mean, I get it, I do. Nostalgia is a powerful thing. But every time I hear someone say it, I want to call bullshit. I've read a metric ton of comics over four decades, and I can say without hesitation that compared to the era we're in right now, comics sucked when I was ten. And that's when Kirby was still drawing Fantastic Four!"

After reading THE BEST AMERICAN COMICS 2014, I can say without hesitation that compared to the era we’re in right now, comics sucked when I was ten. And that’s when Azzarello was still writing 100 BULLETS!

Reviewed by on October 7, 2014

The Best American Comics 2014
by Bill Kartalopoulos and Scott McCloud