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The Best American Comics 2008 55

eldavojohn writes "The Best American Comics of 2008 was a book I purchased on impulse. Not being a graphic novel or even political cartoon fan, I read the introduction at a bookstore (which was, itself, a comic strip) and decided to give it a try. I expected to find humor. What I found was not only humor but sadness, anxiety, insight, happiness, remorse and a gamut of human emotions. I expected black ink on white paper. What I found was water color, wood cuts, cubism and even a comic about the start of cubism. In short, I was pleasantly surprised to find the Americana here that I had previously relegated only to historical novels." Read on for the rest of eldavojohn's review.
The Best American Comics 2008
author Lynda Barry
pages 352
publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
rating 7/10
reviewer eldavojohn
ISBN 9780618989768
summary Collection of the best American comics of 2008.
The name of this book is going to be hard to digest as your best DC, Marvel and Image comics are nowhere to be found in this book. If you claim it's because there's no way the price of this book could cover these big name titles, you may be on to something. But I found this to be a refreshing and complex addition to what I knew comic books to be. Nowhere would I find the black and white world of Superman or the Gotham City of Batman but in their places stories more akin to Maus and Persepolis.

The book itself is a collection of clippings from comics released in 2008. Some are more complete than others. Prior to this book, I had never heard of any of these names. But several of these comics gave me reason to look up the authors and actually purchase more of their works.

Instead of reviewing each comic, I will relate what I recall a week after reading it and the permanent impressions it left on me. The first comic, Burden caught me off guard as it starts out as an endearing story about a brother making amends for his no-good dead-beat brother Charlie. Charlie seems to have led a less than desirable life dodging rent, stealing from loved ones and leaving his father to rot in a home. This beautiful story crumbles away to a horrific end in the final page as Charlie's brother says goodbye to him.

There were a few comics related to the war in Iraq. The first (David Axe's autobiographical War-Fix) being a reporter who seems to go to Iraq out of boredom or some strange driving force despite his clear inability to cope with the nature of war. Another comic dealt with the political debate here and the Left's political views.

Some of the comics had a more timeless folklore aspect to them. One was a reincarnation of an old Japanese proverb called The Crab and the Monkey but had a sobering ending that I did not recall from the original proverb. Another entitled Turtle Keep It Steady by Joseph Lambert had little to no text and retold the fable of The Tortoise and the Hare. It also explored the merits of consistency in friends and those around you in a very simple way. Seven Sacks left me confused and concerned that I had missed some myth or fable allusion through the whole story. The story is well illustrated and may cause one to wonder what responsibility this boatman has in delivering unsavory characters across a river to possibly carry out devious acts while holding bags that make noises.

Several comics were purely historical. The Saga of the Bloody Benders is one part homicide case and one part legend. The story takes a historical account of a family of settlers that brutally murdered and waylaid dozens of innocent people in 1870s Kansas. The story recalls a simpler time and notes how peculiar all the signs pointed to the Bender family yet no one implicated them. Another comic Berlin recalled a German viewpoint of the May Day Massacre of 1928 and the Reichstag elections of 1930. So rarely is a story told from the unpopular side of a historical conflict.

One of the comics took a look at Picasso's beginning as an artist discovering cubism. I do not know enough of the true to story to know if it is historically accurate but it certainly cast Picasso in a ... different light.

One of my least favorite parts of the books was a set of Matt Groening's "Life in Hell." Some of it is cute and childishly funny. Most of it is inane and a bit tedious to read. While this repetition may be humorous, it pales in comparison to the other emotions displayed in the book.

Eric Haven's Mammology is humorous on several different levels and is layered to include evolutionary commentary on mammals versus reptiles. Cathy Malkasian's Percy Gloom is an interesting commentary on a group of people called "Funnelheads" that clearly become an analogy for a cult of worshipers.

One of my favorite comics was a woodcut done in cubism by a Bronx art teacher named John Mejias. I showed this comic to a friend who teaches ESL in the Bronx and she laughed at several panes discussing the inside jokes of "what you should do" in each of the situations that Mejias was lampooning. Personally I found the clipping from Mejias The Teachers Edition to be heart touching asking in the end how he is to teach students art when every assignment is graded to a standard with no room for individuality or self expression.

I omitted more than a few comics that didn't strike me as that great. There are lengthy comics about the life an older TV show host, a few selections from The New Yorker, a comic about an ostracized Chinese student in America and I'm certain I'm missing many others in this 352 page hardcover book.

This comic spans so many different kinds and styles that it seems like it would be a great addition to any collection for the $15 it costs.

You can purchase The Best American Comics 2008 from Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.


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The Best American Comics 2008

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    however it came off a little edgy.

  • Is it clobberin' time?
    • The greatest (Canadian) comic writer of all time... "A 4 hour video of you masturbating does not count as a master's thesis in film study." In fact, that may be my new signature :)
  • by Anonymous Coward

    When I was a kid, I could buy comics at the grocery store, drug store, and just about anywhere. Now that I have kids, I wanted to go get them comics and I could not find comics anywhere though eventually, I found a small rack at Borders.

    So where have all the comics gone?

    • As I understand it, comics were popular, but not routinely bought. Kids would park themselves near the rack and read them, but little actually got purchased. Parents would buy them for their kids (thanks Mom!) but, increasingly in the late 80s, fewer and fewer would be sold. So stores did what stores do with something that takes up space, but doesn't produce adequate profit: they got rid of them.

      I still like comics, but at $3.00 a shot and the monthly grind that I am no longer interested in dealing with

      • by PCM2 ( 4486 )

        I doubt the retailers cared. Consider these scenarios:

        - Mom needs to go shopping, but she also needs to watch the kids. That means she has to drag the kids to the supermarket, but the kids always make a big fuss. Aha, but wait! The supermarket has a rack of comic books. Plop the kids in front of the comics, et voila! They sit there quietly for the next hour. Net effect: Mom goes shopping, and she takes her time about it.

        - Kids get off school, but mom doesn't get home from work for another hour or two. So th

    • by PCM2 ( 4486 ) on Wednesday May 06, 2009 @03:49PM (#27850293) Homepage

      Two things happened:

      1. The prices went up.
      2. The old distribution system collapsed.

      In the old days, comics were cheap. They were printed poorly on cheap newsprint and they cost less than a dollar. (When I started reading comics, a new issue cost a quarter.) Unfortunately, there were a number of paper shortages in the 1980s and 90s that sent the price of the type of pulp newsprint that comics were printed on up through the roof. Simply put, with the price of paper going up and the improvements in printing technology over the years, eventually you could print high-quality comics on good white paper for about the same price as you could print them on newsprint -- which is to say, about ten times more than they cost in the late 70s.

      Meanwhile, as the prices went up, the audience for comics was steadily shrinking. Movies, TV, and videogames were all competing with comics for kids' attention. Even though the quality of the printing was getting better, comics sales just couldn't match the highs of the late 60s and 70s. And this was a problem, because magazine publishing can be a fairly risky business, and that was how comics were being distributed at the time -- like magazines.

      Magazines, typically, are considered "returnable." A retailer orders a magazine, tells the publisher how many copies he thinks he might sell, and the publisher sends that many copies. But if the copies don't sell, the retailer is allowed to send the unsold copies back to the publisher. But because the cost of shipping back whole copies effectively means the retailer is paying for unsold goods, however, they compromise. Instead of sending back whole magazines, the retailer can tear the covers off the magazines and just send the covers back. The inside pages are supposed to be destroyed.

      That was how comics worked when you bought them in the supermarket or a 7-11. Any unsold copies had the covers ripped off and the insides pulped. But because the cover price of a comic book was less than a dollar anyway, any comics that were returned really hit the publisher hard. Publishers needed to be sure they'd sell a certain number of copies to break even, and for a lot of titles, those numbers just weren't there anymore.

      The 1980s, however, saw the rise of comics fandom. College students and folks in their 30s were reading comics, which led to two new phenomena. One, comic book conventions appeared in virtually every major city. And two, the first comic book stores appeared.

      Initially, the main purpose of comic book stores was to buy nice, pristine copies of new issues that hadn't been pawed by kids on the spinning racks, and also to buy back issues. But the comics publishers saw a new opportunity in comic book stores. They realized that they could print up their comics on good quality paper, at a slightly higher price than was customary in the 7-11s, and sell them directly to the comic book stores for sale to the fan audience. More importantly, the comics they distributed to comic book stores would be non-returnable. In other words, a comic book ordered by a comic book store was a hard sale, where a comic book ordered for sale on a magazine rack was essentially being sold on consignment.

      Sales continued to dwindle, and eventually the magazine distributors who used to carry comic books didn't see any profit in it anymore. The magazine-rack comics market effectively disappeared. In its place were a number of distributors that handled nothing but comics and related memorabilia, and they sold exclusively to comic book stores and other retailers who were willing to handle their merchandise on non-returnable terms.

      That's the situation that you're left with today. So if you're surprised that Borders seems to be the only place that still racks comics, don't be -- Borders is probably one of the only chains big enough to be able to cut a deal that makes it feasible for it to deal in non-returnable magazines (which is, in essence, what comics are).

      The moral of the story is: If you want comics, go to a comic book store.

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by GamerCowboy ( 954246 )

        Interesting abridged history of comic book publishing there.

        Just wanted to add though that for those in Asia where comics (not just mangas) have a small but dedicated cult following, there's another big bookstore that carries comics — Kinokuniya. Here in Dubai, Kinokuniya in the new Dubai Mall is the only place that stocks a healthy collection of graphic novels.

        • Graphic Novels work rather differently than comic books here in the US. Most bookstores will carry those. Some of them carry a whole wall of them, both US comics and translated Japanese manga, like my local Barnes & Noble.

      • I highly recommend Comic Book Comics [] for anyone wanting the inside dope on the history of comics. Twisted tales indeed!
  • You'd never heard of Matt Groening, yet you post stories on slashdot?
    • by gnick ( 1211984 )

      He never said that he'd heard of Groening. The cartoons that have come from his work are a lot of fun, but Life in Hell was pretty brutal. Really, even the Tracey Ulman shorts were nothing to brag about. And I say that as a very committed and dedicated Simpsons fan.

      I for one welcome our luke-warm Life in Hell introductees.

      • Prior to this book, I had never heard of any of these names.

        Matt Groening is one of "these names."

      • Introducing people to Life In Hell would be a lot easier if Groening put them online. Still waiting! ( AUUUGH!
  • Unlike the submitter, I've heard of at least half of the authors on the list: Jaime Hernandez, Rick Geary, Matt Groening, Alison Bechdel, Mark Kupperberg, Derf, Jason Lutes, Paul Pope, Kaz, Seth, Chris Ware ... anyone who has followed "indie" comics for any length of time will find these names all too familiar.

    It makes me wonder: Are these really the "best" that American comics has to offer? The submitter hits on the fact that the bulk of the comics that reach U.S. readers are superhero stories from two or

    • by eldavojohn ( 898314 ) * <eldavojohn AT gmail DOT com> on Wednesday May 06, 2009 @04:03PM (#27850445) Journal

      Are these really the "best" that American comics has to offer? The submitter hits on the fact that the bulk of the comics that reach U.S. readers are superhero stories from two or three big publishers. The list of authors represented in this book reads like a roster of the exceptions to the rule -- the people who have made names for themselves by getting their offbeat comics published, usually by one or two or three of the better-funded "indie" publishers (Fantagraphics, Top Shelf, Last Gasp). What about the comics that simply aren't reaching an audience because they weren't created by a known "name"? Was any attempt made to hunt them down and represent them in this book? Or is this just the same old club, getting together and congratulating themselves yet again?

      Disclaimer: I'm the submitter.

      I'm sorry you feel that way about this book. I thoroughly enjoyed it, perhaps it was made for me and not for you. But I will cherish it and probably look for 2006, 2007 and 2009 when it comes out.

      If you know of such truly indie unheard of comics, the link on the summary has a submission page [] for suggestions of Lynda Barry and Co. to consider.

      • The author must be North American (i.e., from Canada, the United States, or Mexico).
      • Work published between September 1, 2007, and August 31, 2008, is eligible for the 2009 volume.
      • The 2010 volume will cover work published from 9/1/08 through 8/31/09, and so on.
      • Individual issues, collections, original graphic novels, and self--published comics (including mini-comics) are eligible for consideration.
      • We must see your comics in order to consider them! Please send one copy of each book you publish to us at the address below.
      • Please label each book submitted with contact information and release date. If this information isn't clearly printed in the book, you must write it on a Post--it note and stick that on the cover.

      Also for the people tagging this article XKCD and Sinfest, webcomics are eligible:

      Are Web comics eligible?
      Yes, Web comics are eligible, if they were first posted within the eligibility dates (September 1, 2007, through August 31, 2008, for this next edition). Send hard copy, carefully labeled as to date of first posting and URL, to us at the Houghton Mifflin address.

      Nothing would make me happier than to see a mom and pop printing press featured in one of these books. I ordered two things from Paping on the cheap and their website gave me reason to believe they do all the woodcuts by hand.

      I love that.

    • by Miseph ( 979059 )

      You'll see that in a lot of art forms... the same few big names, popular enough that you've heard of them but indie enough to still have "cred", showing up in the big anthologies. You'll also notice that these circles aren't static, or impossible to break into for a talented newcomer, but there's rarely an enormous flood of new names getting into it because, frankly, it takes a lot of talent to get in.

      I guess you can look at it as a bunch of big names patting each other on the back, but the truth is that ye

  • I have nothing against comic books, and it is possible that I have been unfairly dismissing them as childish. But why is there a review of a comic book in slashdot?
  • I have seen this before at a local book store. I am not a big comic guy myself but I like some of the styles in some very odd comics. This book does have several strips that have very interesting styles and some of them are not too bad to read either. What is the harm in looking at something new? The worst thing that can happen is you kill some brain cells and you lose 15 minutes of your life. ;) Just my 2 pennies.
  • why the surprise? (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward
    I love the way the author seems surprised by his reactions. Comics ain't for kids no more, and they haven't been for years and years. I never understood why top-notch text was called "prose" and top-notch drawing were called "art", but putting the two together was always deemed "crap".
    • by Ungrounded Lightning ( 62228 ) on Wednesday May 06, 2009 @05:13PM (#27851533) Journal

      I never understood why top-notch text was called "prose" and top-notch drawing were called "art", but putting the two together was always deemed "crap".

      Because the people doing the namecalling had a vested interest in their own art establishment?

      IMHO graphic novels have precisely the same relation to novels as stage plays and motion pictures have to oral storytelling. Sure there's a Sturgeon's Law fraction of junk out there. But that in no way diminishes the quality of the good stuff.

      = = = =

      Note that they talked the same trash about Science Fiction, too. But there you can find another reason:

      Mainstream Fiction is an artform that serves as a platform for propagandizing the non-technical masses. The central message is "It may be going to hell all around you, but if you try to fix it you'll just make it worse. Let the officials handle it, leave it alone, and suffer in silence."

      Science Fiction is an artform for the techies who design, build, operate, and improve the infrastructure, where such a mindset would be a disaster. SF's central message is generally "Your application of intelligence to virtually any problem may solve it, to the benefit of yourself and humanity." (Except for the dystopian variant, which amounts to "If you break it THIS way it will be too broken to fix, so watch it!").

      The techies are an isolated part of the population - especially in the institutes of advanced learning - and the "art establishment" is in charge of much of the rest of it. They truly believe that SF is a form of "escapist porn". ("Escapism" being an alleged sin consisting of getting yourself out from under the thumbs of your rulers and the trouble they cause - and in the process no longer "contributing to society" as much as you are expected to do.) So they slam it to try to keep their own charges indoctrinated in their own mind set and away from that of the techies.

      Superhero comics ("There is evil and there is virtue in fighting it. You can - at least temporarily - hold it at bay and prevent greater disasters than if it were allowed to run rampant."), graphic novels (which can examine and take virtually any viewpoint but often take empowering ones), and other comic forms have content that deviates from politically-correct conformism. So of course it's "not art" according to that pack of group-thinkers.

  • A comic book IS NOT a graphic novel. I am sick and tired of people trying to 'shine up' what is essentially crap.

    1. 'Illustrations' pass for washed-out commercial hackwork more suited for truck stop restrooms, and nothing else.
    2. 'Illustrations' do not consist of POW!, BOOM! RATATATATT!, BLAM!, or any other such nonsense.
    3. 'Storylines' are shallow, simplistic, cheap, generic, and recycled from comic book to comic book.
    4. Sold with the intent to maximize profits and minimize costs.
    5. So simple even a 2nd gr

    • by readin ( 838620 )
      I always thought Scrooge McDuck was in comic books. Now I learn he was in graphic novels. Wow!
    • by PCM2 ( 4486 ) on Wednesday May 06, 2009 @11:17PM (#27855201) Homepage

      This is a very strange kind of troll. It's either extremely well done or just downright bizarre. I have decided to respond.

      1. 'Illustrations' pass for washed-out commercial hackwork more suited for truck stop restrooms, and nothing else.

      I think you mean that the other way around. But without calling out the names of any particular artist whose work you find distasteful, it's kind of hard to respond to your comment.

      2. 'Illustrations' do not consist of POW!, BOOM! RATATATATT!, BLAM!, or any other such nonsense.

      Roy Lichtenstein thought they did. But it's strange that you should bring this up, since comparatively few modern comic books bother to put in the sound effects anymore. They don't often do thought balloons, either. It's a stylistic preference that I suspect comes from the influence of film on the medium. Anything labeled a "graphic novel" is even less likely to include sound effects than the common comic book. When's the last time you saw one of these things you claim to hate so much?

      3. 'Storylines' are shallow, simplistic, cheap, generic, and recycled from comic book to comic book.

      That's true. But not from graphic novel to graphic novel. Who was it who told you that nobody made a distinction between the two?

      4. Sold with the intent to maximize profits and minimize costs.

      This seems to be a goal of just about any business in existence. If you're claiming that comic book publishers do this more than anyone else, however, you seem to be arguing ad hominem. Got any evidence?

      5. So simple even a 2nd grader could read and follow it.....And they do.

      You mean like Anne of Green Gables? Then again, that's sold over 50 million copies. Talk about maximizing profit for minimal costs!

      Overall your post seems very strange and disjointed. You claim that comic books are not graphic novels -- and most sensible people agree -- but then go on to claim that graphic novels are nothing like real novels and that real novels are more like episodic gag newspaper comics. I have to question what your experience of reading novels has been if you believe this to be the case. Calvin and Hobbes, for instance, while being a fine example of truly brilliant cartooning, has none of the characteristics of a novel. []

      Novels are like fine wines, whereas comic books are the literary equivalent of bathtub gin, while good graphic novels compare favorably to prose novels.

      But then, as I said earlier, I know you're just trolling.

      BTW, if art that resembles more classical illustration is your cup o' tea, you should head to Europe sometime and check out the Franco-Belgian comics scene.

    • You, sir, are a pretentious dumbass. It's hilarious that you seem to think that for a work to have value, it must have value to you personally. It's also funny that you hold an opinion of the difference between "graphic novels" and "comic books" that's not "one's longer than the other." Of course, the fact that you mention three boring and unimaginative comic strips as examples of graphic novels throws any credibility you had out the window. Might as well admit you like Garfield and get that out of the wa
  • ...scored 7/10? I can't honestly recall one being scored otherwise.

    Why doesn't /. just migrate to a 5 point system so all of the reviews will be 4/5? Then at least they'll be shaking things up a bit.

  • Until I can get affordable reprints of Carl Barks's Scrooge McDuck [] in the United States (or anywhere else), or until they start making something that rises to that level of quality, who cares about American comics?
    • by PCM2 ( 4486 )

      What about the reprints from Gemstone Publishing? [] Are they not affordable enough for you?

      • by readin ( 838620 )
        I believe Gemstone is the one I bought a $100 subscription from. Some of the Barks stories had been reworked and uglified. Most of the non-Barks stories were just trash that sullied a good duck's name. I bought the subscription in part to teach some values to my kids, but the European stories were about a different duck - a 2d caricature with no morals, and no sense of duty - a crass figure to be hated rather than respected.
    • by PCM2 ( 4486 )

      Also, Gladstone Publishing [] still has back-stock remaining of its cardboard-bound reprints in album format. They are more expensive but many are all-Barks. Really, this material is not difficult to find in the U.S. if you've ever tried to look. Ask at your local comic book store.

    • by anss123 ( 985305 )

      Until I can get affordable reprints of Carl Barks's Scrooge McDuck in the United States (or anywhere else), or until they start making something that rises to that level of quality, who cares about American comics?

      Got that collection for xmas a few years back. Highly recommend it. There's also a supplement volume but those stories are not up to the quality of the originals. Another good one is the "gone by the wind" parody; sadly I've lost my copy and no longer recall the actual title.

      • by anss123 ( 985305 )
        Come to think of it I'm talking about Don Rosa. I got the Carl Barks's stories before I could read properly and I remember reading them over and over. My favorite was the story where they are shipwrecked on that island with a loony and a giant squid. I still have those books... must be 40-50 years old by now. Hmm, perhaps I should find some kid to give them to.
        • by readin ( 838620 )
          Don Rosa did a life and times series about Scrooge that was pretty good. It brought tears to my eyes. I haven't finished the second volume because I'll hate for it to be over.

          I read some that were reprinted in the 1970s, and I read some of 10 cent dell comics that were printed in the 1950s. They were all good.
  • Maybe it's just me, but I'd have thought

    Not being a graphic novel or even political cartoon fan

    should have been

    Not being a policital cartoon, or even a graphic novel fan

  • I got a copy of the first BAC edition of 2006: [] for Christmas last year. It was pretty fun. They draw from Canada, the USA, and Mexico, so really it should be "North American" rather than "American".

"I prefer the blunted cudgels of the followers of the Serpent God." -- Sean Doran the Younger