Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Best American Comics

I have this problem with Summer Reading lists that are doled out by schools. Basically, they suck. They suck the joy of reading right down to the marrow and attempt to equate vacation time with extended education. Either schools should go year-round and quit the pretense or Summer Reading lists need to lighten up. Spend the Summer returning fun the the reading quotient, there'll be plenty of time starting in September for reading the Serious, the Dry, the Meaningful to be analyzed within inches of their pulpy lives.

I've got plenty of suggestions for alternate Summer Reading but today I want to talk about comics, and specifically The Best American Comics of 2008. I've actually wanted to talk about this for months but teetered on the edge of deciding whether or not the collection is appropriate. It's that whole chicken v. egg thing of whether or not some graphic imagery and story elements are appropriate for teens or if they're already seeing them in other places (like movies and TV) and there's little harm involved in comics that do the same thing.

Murder, sex, and drugs are involved, but these are topics often touched on in Young Adult literature. The difference is that when they appear in comics there's this feeling that somehow minors are being corrupted, that "comics" equals "funny" or "humorous" and that anything more is some grand betrayal of morals.

Editor Lynda Berry mentions in her introduction that "If this book had been in my house when I was a kid, I would have found a way to read it in secret." This is exactly what I would have done as a kid, and it got me wondering if that still isn't the best way to discover a world of comics beyond superheroes and other ridiculous over-muscled, tights-wearing vigilantes. On the other hand, shouldn't we have evolved in our thinking that kids shouldn't have to discover these things in secret? Sure, the thrill of doing something forbidden is lost, as is the wonderment that comes with discovery, but comics already have a hard enough time (though it's getting better) with acceptance that maybe that secret reading should be secret no longer.

For anyone who grew up, as I did, looking forward to the comics in the alternative weekly papers, and those who have kept tabs with small press and alternative comics, there are few surprises here. Matt Groening, Nick Bertozzi, Kaz, Jaime Hernandez, Seth, Alison Bechdel, Rick Geary, Chris Ware, Derf... the line-up reads like a brief history of 80s and 90s comics history, and the fact that these folks are still around (and perhaps to some extent largely unknown) may make a larger point about comics history in America. The fact that one "mainstream" comic was chosen - a Batman: Year 100 excerpt was chosen and pulled at the last minute by its publisher makes another point about this collection: there's still a Wild West frontier in comics.

With a wide range of styles and subject matter, the comics Barry has chosen are incredibly strong. Usually with collections like this the pieces I like are outweighed by the number I don't, but here I found only two duds and a couple of marginal pieces and the rest were solid. Subjects cover everything from the opening comic where fratricide is played as a casual punchline to the horrors of the war in Iraq from a journalist to kids playing war and discovering girlie magazines while "invading" a homeless encampment. The four panel strip format flips it's wig with surreality, the Tortoise and the Hare becomes a battle between a rock-steady drummer on the one hand and a party-hearty type on the other, a pair of nocturnal ragamuffins spending the night building a tower of boxes to play hopscotch on, young woman tries to help a drug addict, a man is sanguine about losing his love to a suicidal cult, Cupid's assistant takes over for a day and has cats mating with dogs (literally) in no time... there's something for (and possibly to offend) every sensibility, though that isn't it's purpose.

To those who have felt the short story is dead, I propose that the short story is alive and well in the form of comics. Even as stand-alone excepts from larger works, these stories deliver – not so much a punchline but a promise of a satisfying resolution.

There is always that danger that one person's "best" is another person's worst, but omnibus collections like The Best American Comics series (previous editions edited by Harvey Pekar and Chris Ware) and Flight (now in it's fifth volume, edited by Kazu Kibuishi) are a great ways to sample what's out there and explore the possibilities of storytelling that don't involve nefarious villains plotting to take over the world.

Lynda Barry's advice for how to approach the book is one I wish more adults would encourage in collections. She suggests opening the book to find something of interest – as a kid she would have tried to zoom in on swear words or crazy pictures – and start reading from there. Jump around, find what interests, read in pieces, not all at once. Linear is highly overrated and constricting, not unlike a lot of educational thinking about Summer Reading.

Lighten up and enjoy the experience.

Books mentioned:

The Best American Comics 2008
edited by Lynda Barry
Houghton Mifflin

The Best American Comics 2007
edited by Chris Ware
Houghton Mifflin

The Best American Comics 2006
edited by Harvey Pekar and Anne Elizabeth Moore
Houghton Mifflin

Flight, volumes 1 through 5
edited by Kazu Kibuishi
Villard Books

Batman: Year 100
Paul Pope
DC Comics


Scott said...

I think our summer reading list offers a nice balance of non-dry books. We are a public library and not a school though. I'd like a few more non-fiction, especially since next year we are going to put more books on the list.

Scott said...

oops forgot to post the link.

david elzey said...

Scott, that's a nice list, and as you note it's for a library and not a school.

My daughters (entering 6th and 8th grade) each came home with a Summer Reading booklet with no fewer than 100 titles in each and a requirement to read and write summaries for four of them in addition to the grade-wide required reading title.

Because the school has to make allowances for reading levels, many of the books are beneath my daughter's abilities, which makes them resistant to reading the titles that remain. Because they are avid readers, they have also already read all the books on the lists that appeal to them. And, because there is a known problem with getting kids to do it until the last minute, kids resist writing their summaries until the end of the summer.

The high school kids have the same thing, only with more books to read.

All this anxiety and drudgery fixated on reading has long bothered me, and its widely accepted and little questioned as an educational practice.

Huh. Sorry about the rant. Like I said, this is a hot topic for me.

Colleen said...

Do you know when this whole reading list thing started David? I graduated in 1986 and there was no such thing then. Is it a product of the '90s? (Although honestly I don't recall reading lists in the early 90s in AK where I worked for a bookstore either. We did have Battle of the Books list but that was during the school year.)

david elzey said...

Colleen, by the late 1980s in CA I saw private schools giving required reading to students. The lists were heavy with classic English and American literature, aimed at giving the schools an edge over public schools by promising all students would be equipped to pass the AP.

Local public school teachers picked it up on an individual basis not long after, initially with AP English classes but then for all students. By the late 1990s (again, this is all CA) schools began adopting the required summer reading lists as part of the curriculum.

Berkeley High School was the first school I was aware of that had a list of more contemporary books – deliberately working away from the traditional canonical white male literature – and I had heard that the elementary schools were doing the same thing.

When we moved to MA in 2004 we found that all elementary schools that our girls might have attended were running well organized lists, and the high school lists were predominantly supplemental reading for pending classes, with school- or grade-wide titles for discussion at the beginning of the year.

It has the appearance of being one of those soft educational reforms originally designed to give certain students (wealthy, private schools) an edge that were adopted as "good practices" by public schools that have since become another burden on educational standards.

At this point, with state and federal governments continually heaping more and more required curriculum onto already overburdened classrooms, I guess it isn't surprising to see content spill into summer in the form of required reading. But if that's the case then schools really ought to move toward year-round and dispense the pretense that things haven't changed in educational standards.

Scott said...

I think our High School here does a pretty good job with required summer reading. Not the most exciting, appeal-to-everyone books. But they read Into the Wild for freshmen. And this year Ender's Game for sophomores. The seniors read Stephen King's On Writing.
I think the Sophomore classes may consider Looking for Alaska in the future.
So, not the worst list ever.