Probably the best single volume of anthologized comics since the beautiful hardcover McSweeney's #13, The Best American Comics 2006 is edited by American Splendor's Harvey Pekar and thankfully is informed by his understanding and appreciation for autobiographical comics.
Not every strip in here is autobiographical, but Pekar instinctively chooses stories that carry the ring of truth and the patina of lives lived, even if they are about, say, Paul Bunyan wistfully reflecting on his secret dreams, or superhero Onion Jack's eventual fulfillment of a lifelong dream that does not involve beating the hell out of evidoers in tights.
Ah, yes. The tights.
Pekar seems a little behind the curve in his defensive explanation for not including any superhero stories in the book's 250-plus pages. One could argue superhero status for Onion Jack or Paul Bunyan, but both stories are so far above what you would generally consider "real" superhero comics that it's hardly worth the bother. No, Pekar may be trying to ride the fence between the twin readerships the book is likely to attract -- "real" book readers vs. the customers of your local superhero convenience store -- but Harvey, relax: The battle's been won. That this book even exists is proof of that.
Houghton Mifflin assembling an annual collection of the artform's best stories, and allowing someone with some understanding of what might actually constitute quality, is not the start of a revolution, but rather the most recent, obvious victory in a war that has been settled for at least a couple of years now. The public knows about comics as an artform, and while this volume is likely to further confirm the inherent possibilities, it really won't come as much of a surprise to anyone that it exists. It will mainly be bought in stores like Borders or name-your-local-indy-bookshop, not in comic book stores -- but I am sure the 50 or 60 actual, honest-to-Christ real comic book stores will carry this as well. You know, the ones that already have everything else with Pekar's name on it.
And yes, it is a good and particularly readable collection; in some ways, it is superior to the McSweeney's hardcover Chris Ware assembled a year or three back. Not in design, surely, but in that it is entirely comics. No need for high-falutin' essays to drawn in wary non-comics readers. And if there's no Dan Clowes in here, there are peers like Crumb, Ware, Jaime Hernandez and Joe Sacco.
Like the McSweeney's, some of these I've read before. But of course, I am not the ultimate, intended audience for this: The Best American Comics 2006 will make a wonderful gift for your literate friends who are curious about comics or have already dipped their foot in the pool and found the water to their liking.
Standouts in an almost flawless selection of stories include Jesse Reklaw's Thirteen Cats of My Childhood, which entirely delivers on the promise in its title and also manages to provide painfully canny insight into the makeup and eventual disintegration of an American family; one that happened to intersect over time with a baker's dozen of cats, each of which it wittily and engagingly provides biographical sketches of. Excellent.
I had previously dismissed Joel Priddy's Onion Jack story when it appeared in an AdHouse Books Free Comic Book Day release. I must have been in a bad mood that day, or perhaps it was a matter of context. Coming just pages after Pekar's introduction, it seems to serve as both a celebration and indictment of superhero comics as a genre, and worse yet as an avocation. The spare, almost non-existent artwork plays wonderfully against the rich, portentious script. It is a masterfully crafted dish of delicious irony, and serves as a rock-solid anchor to the book's intentions.
A panoply of styles and subjects throughout make for a heady, refreshing collection of comics. Each piece is followed by something utterly different, so anthology fatigue does not set in as it sometimes does when a single theme serves as anthology overlord. Each story is a palate-cleanser: Anders Nilsen's visual haiku offset from the chunky reportage of Kim Deitch; the fussy, detailed faux-realism of Jonathan Bennett giving way to the elegant line of Jaime Hernandez. Summing it all up, the street-level crazy-family reminiscences of Crumb, who finds refuge in remembering long walks and talks with a brother so troubled that he could not stand to stay in this world. Walkin' The Streets is as good as Crumb gets, and therefore as good as comics gets, and therefore utterly suited to close out this volume, a wondrous bookend to the Onion Jack story that led it off.
You might not think that two comics stories could be more dissimilar, but their unifying presence is a reminder that Pekar was the perfect man for the job of assembling this book's final form. No one alive today knows more about what it possible in the artform of comics. Harvey Pekar virtually invented the genre that represents the artform at its best, and as I say, if these stories are not all 100 percent true-to-life -- and clearly, they are not -- each and every one of them reflects the real life experiences, thoughts and perceptions of their creators. Each of their creators has allowed themselves, by their career choices, the freedom to tell the stories they want to tell, in the way they want to tell them. The Best American Comics 2006 is an elegant and entertaining showcase for their very best works, and a genuine signpost on the road to the now-obvious future of comics as an artform. Yes, there's a superhero story in here, but even that one is good, and therefore welcome.