“The Best American Comics” is unusual in two respects. For one, it’s more egalitarian than any other volume of the Best American Series. Grant Snider’s introspective webcomics stand deservingly by Alison Bechdel’s excellent and complex graphic novel “Are You My Mother?” But alas, the comics content is less likely to stand alone. The pieces that work best in the 2013 edition are the ones that are either self-contained, like a daily newspaper strip, or make the reader want to rush out and buy the whole work.
Comics’ best attribute is their ability to tell simultaneous narratives with words and images. And they’re like any medium where words are secondary: there are people who groove with a song’s melody, and people who only care for lyrics. The excerpts from “Rachel Rising” and “Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller,” both with captions, had just enough story arc to make this reader pencil down their names for future, full-length purchase. Language-less strips have a special challenge, and less ways to clue the reader into the context. It’s easy to give up on them and just skip ahead while vaguely admiring the art. About one-fourth of Best American Comics feels like this, but a beautiful exception is “Grainne Ni Mhaille” by Colleen Doran and Derek McCullough, which tells an Irish immigrant family’s trials via Doran’s gorgeous super-hero style illustration.
What else works? The lightly amusing “Fun Strips” by Evan Dorkin, where each four-panel strip has a punch line doused in blood and gore. “American Elf” by James Kochalka, crude illustrations of the tenderness of raising a son. Derf Backderf’s “My Friend Dahmer,” which is exactly what it sounds like and a fascinating tale to tell in any medium, but makes full use of the comic form to say two things at once. And Jesse Jacobs’ weirdly hilarious, painstakingly hatched, and oddly pathetic “The Divine Manifestion of a Singular Impulse,” where dinosaurs and animals are just class projects for swirling celestial art students. There seems to be a mythic tone about “The Best American Comics 2013,” which abounds in creation myths, epic quests, alternate futures and pivotal moments in history. Editors Jessica Abel, Matt Madden and Jeff Smith excel in creating a seamless narrative of subject, much appreciated in a collection of such wild variance.
“The Best American Comics 2013” feels like the plate of tiny desserts upscale restaurants bring out to their patrons. Almost all options look appetizing, but you can’t order every single one. And why get the sampler when whole pies await? (Liz Baudler)
“The Best American Comics 2013”
Edited by Jessica Abel, Matt Madden and Jeff Smith
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 400 pages, $25