“vague, debatable, slippery, disingenuous”

October 14, 2007

When you feel ready, I want you to use these dolls show me how Houghton Mifflin hurt the comics you love.

Okay, that’s kind of tacky as opening gambits go, but you can count me among those baffled by Heidi MacDonald’s piece on the apparent tyranny of the highbrow as embodied by The Best American Comics 2007, edited by Chris Ware and published by Houghton-Mifflin.

The thing that really throws me is the level of currency imposed on the anthology, which I really don’t think is borne out by the reality. Title aside, does anyone actually think this book is meant to be a wide-ranging evaluation of a year’s worth of comics?

Here’s a bit from the press release for the 2006 edition:

“Series editor Anne Elizabeth Moore has a gift for seeking out relatively unknown writers who are doing amazing work and deserve recognition. In addition to better-known comic artists, she was able to find rare work that mainstream readers might not otherwise discover.”

So it serves kind of a missionary function, placing worthy but not necessarily commercial creators in a somewhat brighter spotlight. And there seems to be a fair amount of consensus among the editors that the series’ title is sort of unfortunate hyperbole. Here’s a passage from Ware’s introduction to the 2007 edition, which Chris Butcher referenced fairly extensively in his review of the collection:

“First of all, the title: it’s misleading. Though I haven’t taken a survey, I’d imagine that a good number of the guest editors of all the Best American series have felt compelled to take issue with it, too. To presume that my personal taste defines an objective by which all living cartoonists should be judged is absurd. On top of that, any public competition is antithetical to the spirit of real art, and labeling a widely disseminated collection of artwork as ‘the best’ veers perilously close to suggesting that artists should gauge what they do against some sort of popularity contest for an ancillary reward — notoriety, money, or even inclusion in an anthology — other than the artwork itself.”

Okay, it’s probably easier to minimize the critical popularity contest when you’ve been winning it for most of your creative life, but Ware is right about the level of discomfort with “Best” among his peers. Harvey Pekar, editor of the 2006 edition of the comics collection, put it a little less generously, but he made essentially the same point:

“Now listen, I’m not claiming these are the absolute best comics issued in a given twelve-month period. I haven’t seen all the comics published in that time and neither have the hard-working, painstaking people I’m working with. But there’s good, often original stuff in this collection that I hope will open readers’ eyes to the breadth of subject matter that comics can deal with effectively. I hope you can understand, even if you don’t like every choice in this collection, that they don’t have to be about costumed superheroes, cute little kids, and talking animals.”

My favorite disclaimer, at least of the ones available on Houghton-Mifflin’s site, comes from David Foster Wallace, editor of The Best American Essays 2007:

“I feel free to state an emergent truth that I maybe wouldn’t if I thought that the book’s sales could really be hurt or its essays’ audience scared away. This truth is that just about every important word on The Best American Essays 2007’s front cover turns out to be vague, debatable, slippery, disingenuous, or else ‘true’ only in certain contexts that are themselves slippery and hard to sort out or make sense of — and that in general the whole project of an anthology like this requires a degree of credulity and submission on the part of the reader that might appear, at first, to be almost un- American.”

Houghton-Mifflin has been publishing “Best American” books since 1915; I mean, they’ve trademarked “Best American.” It’s a prestige gimmick and a brand identifier that’s been in place for 92 years, and while the title isn’t ideal, it’s no more worthy of outrage than, say, the slate of nominees for the Wizard Fan Awards. Each has its target audience, and each has its aims.

But beyond the semantic issues, there’s what I perceive to be the market reality of the collection. I honestly don’t believe the collections have that much power. They may induce some of the Fresh Air crowd, who saw Ware’s cartoons in the New York Times Magazine or went to see American Splendor, to pick them up and, at a stretch, to seek out other works by the featured creators, assuming they can find them with the same ease involved in picking up the latest issue of Dwell. And that’s great, because the collections feature talented creators “who readers might not otherwise discover.” But I really, really don’t believe it has the kind of crushing taste-making force that MacDonald seems to bestow upon it. I don’t think the existence of a clumsily named series hampers the popularity of the burgeoning array of more mainstream books. The “Best American” series seems to not even expect to compete

The best evidence of my argument is the actual physical placement of the books in the series when I’ve seen them in chain stores. They’re generally stacked on the tables in the graphic novel section for a bit before being shelved with the rest of the books, so they do get some face-out time for browsers. But they’re on that table with DC’s 52 collections or the pulchritude of the busty Anita Blake or Bone trade paperbacks or collections of classic comic strips or the work of Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez or Lat or whoever else, and the table itself is perhaps slightly obscured by the Naruto stand-alone display or the Tokyopop spinner rack filled with licensed and original manga. In other words, it’s sitting in a sea of material aimed at just about every elevation of brow, affixed to the heads of people in just about every demographic. If anything, it’s overshadowed by the crushing mass of fun and exciting comics that Ware didn’t mention because it wasn’t his mandate.

I honestly don’t think anything is wilting in its chilling shadow. I don’t think it has the intent to do that, and from what I can tell, the guest editors would cringe if that were the result. It doesn’t seem to be telling anyone to read these comics instead, but in addition, and that’s fine. Really.