Tuesday, December 29, 2015


Why do I keep doing this to myself? Among other accomplishments, Albert Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

So why I do I keep reading each annual edition of The Best American Comics and expecting it to be something other than an artsy-fartsy pretentious anthology of comics that are as far from being the best such comics as I am from playing power forward for the Cleveland Cavaliers?

I saved myself $25 by getting The Best American Comics 2015 from my local library system. This year’s guest editor was Jonathan Letham, who gave me some hope with two innovations. First, he divided the various comics and excerpts into sections based on subject matter and other considerations. Second, his introduction to the book and each section were in the form of comics. Raw squibbles that didn’t hold up past the first few, but comics nonetheless. In addition, I was pleased to see the first entry was an excerpt from Roz Chast’s brilliant Can’t We talk About Something More Pleasant? and the next was an excerpt from Jules Feiffer’s good-but-not-brilliant Kill My Mother. It was a good start. More accurately, it was a good start that just increased my yearly dismay with this series.

Series editor Bill Kartalopoulos makes his contempt and disdain for mainstream comics clear from his foreword. Letham reinforces that contempt and disdain in his introductions. Neither has any use for any of the well-told, beautifully-drawn comics stories from Dark Horse, DC, Image, Marvel, Oni or any of a dozen publishers, large and small, I could name. This faux-elitist anthology is oh-so-far above that sort of thing.

Amusingly, a section devoted in part to mocking super-heroes was to include a story by Steve Ditko, whose current work is, to be kind, is best appreciated by Ditko cultists. Ditko refused permission for his work to be included.

In the past when I’ve raised these issues, apologists for The Best American Comics have claimed they were unable to obtain rights to use mainstream material. It’s a lie revealed by the book’s “Notable Comics” listings, which include nary a mainstream story. No Usagi Yojimbo. No Lumberjanes. No Chew. No Ms. Marvel. No Daredevil. No Saga. No The Fade Out. No Fables. No Resident Alien. No any of the dozens of other mainstream comics that are better written and better drawn and more meaningful that 95% of what Kartalopoulos and Letham did include.

Fuck them.

It’s long past time for comics creators and publishers to raise a middle finger to The Best American Comics and create an anthology of their own. Put aside company and professional rivalries and work together. Recruit rotating editors from the many sage commentators who haven’t stuck their heads so artistically up their faux-elitist asses. Maybe make this new annual anthology of the finest American comics a fundraiser for the Hero Initiative.

We need an annual anthology that recognizes great comics by great creators ranging from Derf Backderf and Carol Tyler to Stan Sakai and G. Willow Wilson. And I think we all know I could list over a hundred such worthy creators.

The Best American Comics has failed the greater comics community. We can do better. We should do better. We must do better.

My pledge. Right here and right now. I will buy such an anthology every year without fail. I will promote it in every venue available to me. I will do whatever I can do to make this concept a reality.

It’s not just time for such an annual anthology.

It’s way past time.

I’ll be back soon with more stuff.

© 2015 Tony Isabella


  1. Yikes.

    I've flipped through one of these before, but only once and never again.

    I bet you would be excellent as the head of a board to do this project.

    Why is it that I've heard of every name that you've mentioned except Kartalopoulos and Letham? Are they big names in the comics industry? Maybe I just don't run (or read) in their circles.

    Great article.

  2. Sigh. It really bothers me that Letham would be dismissive of mainstream comics, especially since he borrows from them so much. Like, duder, when you name one of your books "The Fortress of Solitude" and have a story that's partially about a person's obsession with Vision and Scarlet Witch, you're a mainstream comics guy.

  3. will definitely avoid, but was happy you mention resident alien one of my favorites

  4. "It’s long past time for comics creators and publishers to raise a middle finger to The Best American Comics and create an anthology of their own. Put aside company and professional rivalries and work together."

    That might be hard to do. I remember that when Byron Preiss and his editors (I was one) were putting together ibooks, inc.'s "Year's Best Graphic Novels, Comics & Manga" in 2005, both Marvel and DC refused to be involved in any book that gave coverage to the other. In the end, we wound up with just a selection of indie titles.

  5. A decade has passed and I think both of the Big Two have gotten smarter.

  6. I agree that these Best American Comics volumes are junk. However, with so many mainstream comics telling long-form stories, I doubt that a book of excerpts from Marvel/DC/Image/Dark Horse titles would be a very satisfying read, even if all parties consented to create one.

  7. Thanks for the nice shout out, Tony, and thanks for all the wonderful support you’ve given my books… but my work has, in fact, been selected for “BAC” three times in the past five years!

    “BAC” always has some head-scratchers, but I respectfully disagree with your salvo here. This edition of “BAC” has work by Joe Sacco, Roz Chwast, Gabrielle Bell, Ed Piskor, Anders Nillson, Peter Bagge, Jim Woodring and Eleanor Davis. That’s all A-list talent, among the very best the comics art form has to offer.

    The excerpt format used in “BAC” doesn’t really allow for a full (or sometimes even partial) appreciation of the work that is picked. For example, Joe Sacco’s “The Great War” is printed here as a series of splash pages. In its true form, it’s a foldout book that stretches out into one continuous narrative drawing 50 feet long! Trust me, it’s jaw-dropping. The kind of book where I just throw up my hands and say “what’s the point of me even trying to make comics?”

    But the elitist tag you’re using here is off base. These are just folks making comics, out of the sheer love of it. Just because they’re not drawing superdudes, they don’t deserve that label. Josh Bayer, for example, who is included in “BAC,” and whose work is extreme and challenging, is one of the biggest comics fans I know. He’s a huge “Rom, Space Knight” fan– Bill Mantlo’s series from the 80s– and has done his own version, which is INSANE. Bayer has also started writing books with some mainstream old-timers. Herb Trimpe’s last stories before his death were Bayer ones, a crazy superhero homage titled “Crime Destroyer,” which will be coming out soon. He coaxed Trimpe out of retirement and Herb thanked Bayer for making comics fun again for him. Bayer also just done a book with Al Milgrom. Josh, who is another Ohio boy, lives in Harlem and does nothing but make, teach and think about comics. I can’t think of anyone LESS elitist. I want to be him when I grow up.

    Besides, the mission of “BAC’ isn’t to promote corporate product. Do Disney and Warner Bros. really need help with that? There are already a hundred comics sites and blogs that cover those books ad nauseum. “Lumberjanes” and “Saga” would have been worthy picks, I agree. “Saga” has been selected before. As have Paul Pope’s “Batman”, “Scott Pilgrim”, Mazzuccelli’s “Asterios Polyp”, Evan Dorkin, Jill Thompson etc etc. The 2013 edition of “BAC” had FIVE Dark Horse stories. These examples are all culled from the mere three editions I own.

    The problem is, of course, the title, “Best American Comics.” The accurate title would be: “Jonathan Lethem’s Favorite Comics of 2015.” That’s what this annual always is, the personal picks of the guest editor. But, of course, that title isn’t as catchy. Houghton-Mifflin has published its “Best American” series (fiction, nonfiction, short stories etc) since 1915. “Best American Comics” is one of its newer entries. The title is just a marketing ploy, and compared to the weekly avalanche of marketing ploys from Disney and Warner, it’s a pretty benign one.

    As long as people are reading comics, any comics, it’s all good, in my view. And people are! Comics readership overall is exploding, especially women and girls. It’s just that these new readers– again, especially women and girls– aren’t reading many superhero floppies or hanging out in mainstream comic book shops. Can you blame them? For every “Batgirl,” how many other books feature scantily-clad supersluts with giant boobies? And didn’t “Batgirl” just have a rapey variant cover that the geniuses at DC had to yank? I know superhero fans are passionate about their titles, and I love them for that and was one of them when I was a young comics dork, but there’s no conspiracy here by the “Best American crowd”– which I guess, includes me– to drive superhero comics to the fringe of the art form. Frankly, the Big Two and their ally Diamond are doing that themselves very nicely.

    This is the crest of the wave, Tony, a new fabulous era in comics and it’s damn exciting.

  8. I couldn't agree with Derf more in this regard. We did some writing and unpacking of Best American over on Comics Bulletin, and I think we addressed your complaints as well as tried to offer some solutions.

  9. Scott McCloud tried to include Fraction and Aja's Hawkeye in last year's (excellent) Best American Comics volume, but Marvel refused to allow them to run an excerpt.

    1. Re: Hawkeye in BAC 2014

      Paul Constant is half-right. Technically, what happened is that Marvel (predictably) asked for more money than the others. HMH balked at first but I really wanted Hawkeye in the book to anchor the mainstream end of things, so HMH very graciously agreed to pay the higher fee.

      That seemed to solve the problem, until it became clear that by violating the provision that all excerpts agreed to their rate on condition that no one get more, we would have to lose several other excerpts including my "book of the year." So, at the last minute, we sadly had to lose Hawkeye.

      Got to hang out with David Aja twice last year, and made it clear how much I admired what he and Matt were up to with that book, and said so in the print intro to the section that would have included it. I liked the idea of the full spectrum approach for my volume; I just couldn't quite go all the way with that one.

      That said, I think that both Saga and Telgemeier's Drama, which were both in our volume, qualify as what might be called a "new mainstream." Also Richard Thompson, in a perfect world, would have been as mainstream as Charles Schulz. And Allie Brosh has a huge reader base and has been on the Today Show.

      It's hardly just Marvel/DC vs. Fantagraphics anymore. It's infinitely more complex and interesting now.

  10. 'Albert Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”'

    No, he didn't.

    1. Brainy Quotes and The Quotations Page both attribute the quote to Einstein. Can you direct me to a source that attributes it to someone else?

  11. Since my curiosity was piqued, I asked Matt Madden, who was the longtime editor of BAC along with his wife Jessica Abel, about Marvel and DC cooperating. He said when they tried to include Paul Pope's "Batman" in the 2008 edition (which I mistakenly thought happened, but it did not), DC refused. They appealed all the way up the ladder to the top execs and were turned down every step of the way. In subsequent years, they didn't include any DC books specifically because of that, since they assumed (probably rightly) that DC would turn them down, so why waste time and effort.

    So there you go. Couple that with Scott's explanation and you have the answer why Marvel and DC are never represented. Obviously Image and Dark Horse ARE cooperative, since both have works featured periodically.