The Best American Comics 2019. Edited and introduced by Jillian Tamaki; series editor Bill Kartalopoulus. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 978-0358067283 (hardcover), $25. 400 pages. Cover by Sophia Foster-Dimino.
The Best American Comics series does not aim at young readers, and typically includes frankly adult content. However, its editors have included great writers about childhood, such as Lynda Barry and Neil Gaiman, and great makers of comics for young readers, among them Jeff Smith and this year’s editor, Jillian Tamaki. The series’ remit is to provide “a selection of outstanding North American work” (in this case, published between September 1, 2017, and August 31, 2018). The series, one of many Best American samplers published by HMH, has been published annually since 2006, so fourteen volumes have appeared to date (under three different series editors or teams). I’ve taught two of them (Barry’s 2008 volume was a particular fave that I taught again and again, well after 2008). And I am sure I will be teaching this latest one, 2019, which is a particularly well-curated and beautifully designed edition. You couldn’t ask for a more provocative one-stop sampler of excellent contemporary comics
2019 includes a bounty of distinctive work, and, unusually for this series, few pieces I would have omitted in favor of something else (even those are provocative additions to the mix). Tamaki says that she chose comics “that stuck with me, represented something important about comics in this moment, and exemplified excellence of the craft.” In all, there are twenty-five selections, ranging in length from one page to more than thirty (about half are excerpted from longer works). These were selected from about 120 titles that series editor Bill Kartalopoulus (per the series’ SOP) sent to Tamaki. The resulting table of contents draws from diverse sources, including but not limited to self-published minicomix (for example, John Porcellino’s wonderful King-Cat #78), micro-presses (such as Perfectly Acceptable Press and 2dcloud), online comics (such as by artists Angie Wang and Jed McGowan), established alternative comics publishers (Drawn & Quarterly; Fantagraphics; Koyama Press) and children’s book publishers (Groundwood Books; First Second). Graphic novels, memoirs, floppy comic books, and online magazines (for instance The New Yorker, newyorker.com) are all represented. Interestingly, print anthologies contribute only two selections (or three if you count an excerpt from Remy Boydell and Michelle Perez’s The Pervert, first serialized in the anthology Island). Solo-authored pamphlets and books account for a larger piece of the pie.
The works included run the aesthetic range, from rough scrawls to the most elegant of illustrations, from the emphatically handmade (e.g., Lauren Weinstein; Margot Ferrick) to more obviously digital styles (e.g. Angie Wang). Painted, penciled, or inked; mimetically or expressively colored (or uncolored); spare or busy; fictional or nonfictional; straightforwardly narrative or elliptical and nearly abstract—the book embraces, as Tamaki notes, a teeming variety of approaches. I appreciate the way Tamaki and Kartalopoulus have juxtaposed mainstream works for young readers, such as Vera Brosgol’s excellent Be Prepared, with experimental small-press works. I also appreciate the roughly even split of women and men, plus at least one seemingly nonbinary artist, among the contributors.
For the record, I had read about one-third of the selections here before, but hadn’t even heard of several (half a dozen creators in the table of contents were new to me). A few were works I had been anxious to read: much talked-about comics like Lale Westvind’s Grip and Connor Willumsen’s Anti-Gone, both of which made many best-of lists in 2018 but which I had trouble finding locally. Some were comics I had snapped with my phone at festivals or shops but had failed to pick up (for example, Laura Lannes’s By Monday I'll Be Floating in the Hudson with the Other Garbage). So, the book has been an education to me. That’s one of the reasons I so look forward to teaching it.
The book’s foreword, by Kartalopoulus, and its puckish introduction, written and illustrated by Tamaki, balance seriousness and playfulness, a tightrope act carried on by the rest of the book, which ranges from mischief to poignancy to chilly disturbance—a surplus of strong feelings. High points for me include Westvind’s Grip; Weinstein’s “Being an Artist and a Mother”; McGowan’s posthuman SF fable, Uninhabitable; Sophia Foster-Dimino’s bracing memoir of abortion, “Small Mistakes Make Big Problems” (from Comics for Choice); and Angie Wang’s inventive webcomic about food, memory, and identity, “In Search of Water-Boiled Fish” (originally published on eater.com). The excerpts from bigger books, such as Leslie Stein’s Present, Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina, and Boydell and Perez’s The Pervert, work unusually well in this context. While the book presents some of the usual infelicities caused by reformatting diversely-designed works into the series’ standard size, these are minimal and not too distracting (though Wang’s brilliant scrolling layouts and limited animation cycles are sorely missed in the print version of her piece).
In all, Best American Comics 2019 is a terrific volume even by the standards of this series, and, for me, one of the two or three BAC volumes thus far that best lives up to the promise of its title. The team of Tamaki and Kartalopoulus has done excellent work here. Most highly recommended as an exhilarating reminder of what comics, in the here and now, can be.
(This book will join Eleanor Davis’s The Hard Tomorrow and Ezra Claytan Daniels and Ben Passmore’s BTTM FDRS as new textbooks in my Comics class next spring.)