Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

Home > CR Reviews

The Best American Comics 2009
posted November 2, 2009


Creators: Charles Burns, Matt Madden, Jessica Abel, Tim Hensley, Daniel Clowes, Peter Bagge, Kaz, Doug Allen, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Robert Crumb, Michael Kupperman, Dan Zettwoch, Matt Broersma, Adrian Tomine, Mimi Pond, Art Spiegelman, Ron Rege Jr., Gabrielle Bell, Tim Hensley, Gary Panter, Ben Katchor, Jerry Moriarty, CF, David Sandlin, Dash Shaw, Jason Lutes, Tony Millionaire, Sammy Harkham, Chris Ware, Ted Stearn, Laura Park, Jillian Tamaki, Mariko Tamaki, Koren Shadmi, Kevin Huizenga, Tim Hensley, Al Columbia, Gilbert Hernandez, Anders Nilsen, Tim Hensley
Publishing Information: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, hardcover, 332 pages, October 2009
Ordering Numbers: 9780618989652 (ISBN13)

imageThe thing I like most about The Best American Comics series is the massive migraine they inflict upon anyone who tries to figure out exactly what it is they're doing and how well they're doing it. Most passionate comics readers with the ability to do so read the best the medium has to offer (at least in their view) somewhere between two months before the book comes out to two weeks after it hits the stands. Even the books that feel more homework-y than fun are devoured maybe one or two months after the formal release date. Because of the way it's compiled, The Best American Comics 2009 shows up in October 2009 asking you consider its take on the best comics from September 2007 to September 2008 -- the primary textbook for the Billy Pilgrim school of comics criticism. Even if you abandon the mental charley horse-inducing task of figuring out if they got everything that should have gone in into the surely handsome, fancy-looking volume -- did Richard Sala have something worthy out in that time period? did Jaime Hernandez? which issue of Comic Art came out in that time period? where are my pants? -- you're left with a kind of left-handed appreciation of what you have on your lap. It's like getting a photo set back from a wedding or reunion weeks and weeks after the fact: you read these books, you say, "It looks like we had a really good time" and then you put them away on your shelf, finally ready to move on.

imageWhat you're left with is a good book, a kind of shepherding act of all the short stories and easily capsulized graphic novels from a certain period so that they're not all the way lost in the angry wake of the big, bad graphic novels and serious long-form works. Since Matt Madden and Jessica Abel took over as series editors, there seems to be one or two quality surprises that slip in per volume, something most of us completely missed the first time through. This year's it's Mimi Pond's short called "Over Easy," which I think is a piece from a much longer work set sorting through her own experiences working in a California diner but by itself is interesting and charming -- a new voice. Mostly, though, you're reminded in the very best way possible how great comics are right now, how cartoonists like Kaz and Gary Panter and Tony Millionaire and Ben Katchor continue to make work that astonishes even if you're not seeing it, how Michael Kupperman and Dan Zettwoch's recent comics are as visually arresting as they are humorous and humane, respectively, or even just how compelling the narrative rhythms established in works like Shortcomings and Skim. Other than Zettwoch, the cartoonist that seems flattered by inclusion for a work you may have already charged past in the time range is Matt Broersma. I'm not sure the selection advances an argument on his behalf all that much further, but its inclusion will spur many folks -- me included -- to go back and reconsider recent work. All in all, it's a handsome collection that embarrasses no one and flatters many. For those who don't spend their time obsessing over comics with as wide as net as possible, twitching in response to local, immediate stimuli like Joe Cocker mid-song, I can imagine this book being an extremely helpful tool. If you feel you don't need this kind of tool, you'll at least want to read the Charles Burns essay at the front of the book. If it makes any sense at all, I'm glad I have this book, I'm not sure I'd replace it out of pocket, and I'm happy to know it and its cousins both past and future are lurking in various libraries out there.