More Better Best
On this episode of the podcast, the Two Guys with PhDs Talking about Comics review The Best American Comics 2014, the latest installment in Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s ambitious anthology series. This follows a previous review show published earlier in the week where the guys spoke with Bill Kartalopoulos, the new editor of the series. But whereas during the interview Derek and Andy learned about the process and backstory to the Best American Comics series, in this episode they plunge into the specifics of this year’s volume and give their own takes on the comics included. They begin with a larger discussion on the concept of “best American comics,” the kind of audiences the annual collections appeal to, and the efforts of the editors in pulling together a select or representative anthology. Here, the guys return to issues they had previously highlighted in their review of The Best American Comics 2013: the predilections and experiences of guest editors, the challenges of being inclusive, as well as the viability of a “best of” anthology. This time around Andy and Derek bandy about definitions of “mainstream” and speculate on the book’s intended audience. Although both feel that this is an intelligent and eclectic collection of comics (first appearing between September 1, 2012, and August 30, 2013), Derek feels that the book might appeal more to academics and the New Yorker crowd than it does to general comic shop-visiting readers. (Returning, once again, to a topic that the guys have discussed many times previously, the unintended bifurcation of comics readership.) Furthermore, he wonders what a volume guest edited by someone enmeshed in mainstream comics – and not just superhero comics – might look like…if that is indeed a direction that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt would sanction. Andy reminds Derek how inclusive this year’s volume is, and that depending on your definition of “mainstream,” McCloud’s includes several comics you could certainly define as “popular.”
But despite these dialectics, both guys agree that this is one of the strongest collections in the series’ run and that the way that McCloud has organized his presentation is compelling. In this year’s volume you have selections from the grand figures of contemporary comics (e.g., R. Crumb, the Hernandez brothers, Charles Burns, Ben Katchor, and Adrian Tomine), all-age and young-adult comics, excerpts from memoir and autobiographical comics, historical works, experimenters of narrative form, abstract and avant-garde comics, and almost as a centerpiece, a selection from what McCloud christens “the book of the year,” Chris Ware’s Building Stories. Webcomics are given their fair share of attention in this volume, and the guys understand McCloud’s decision to highlight and list URLs instead of attempting to reproduce comics from another platform (although they’re not as excited by the one webcomic that does find its way into the collection, an excerpt from Allie Brosh’s “Depression Part Two”). All in all, the guys have a great time discussing the many selections in The Best American Comics 2014, and in doing so, they get all revved up for their own “best of” exercise which they will present in next week’s podcast episode.