FIGHT! Tony Isabella vs Best American Comics, Heidi MacDonald and Derf Backderf

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Art by Mat Brinkmann from Cretin Keep On Creep’n Creek

Please note the “FIGHT!” title is a joke—Tony is a wonderful human being, and we’re just having a good old fashioned argument, like friends do. But this is the internet and we must ratchet up the appearance of conflict so….

A few weeks ago, Tony wrote about how he did not like the contents of Best American Comics 2015. His comment went up to and including “Fuck them.” Tony felt the contents did not reflect the excellent work being created by Marvel, DC Dark Horse and other “front of the Diamond catalog” publishers. I had a brief comment on it in a link round-up, calling this an 80s attitude, and Derf, despite earning praise from his fellow Ohio-an, defended the book in his own comment:

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.

The BAC series is currently edited by Bill Kartalopoulos, who chooses the gust editor for each year. For 2015 it was novelist Jonathan Lethem, whose work often references comics, and who adopted Omega the Unknown in a criminally OOP series from Marvel. (But you can buy it for u under $10 in that link.) The contents of this years BAC were definitely towards the hardcore indie side, but mostly cartoonists who have attracted solid critical acclaim. In case you’re wondering, here’s the TOC, courtesy of Bill K:

The Best American Comics 2015
Jonathan Lethem, Guest Editor
Bill Kartalopoulos, Series Editor

Table of Contents

ROZ CHAST
Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (Excerpt)

JULES FEIFFER
Kill My Mother (Excerpt)

JOSH BAYER
Theth (Excerpt)

R. SIKORYAK
Sadistic Comics

DIANE OBOMSAWIN
Mathilde’s Story from On Loving Women

BEN DUNCAN
Blane Throttle (Excerpt)

FAREL DALRYMPLE
The Wrenchies (Excerpt)

ANDERS NILSEN
Prometheus

JULIA GFRÖRER
Palm Ash

MEGAN KELSO
The Good Witch, 1947
L
ELEANOR DAVIS
No Tears, No Sorrow

ANDY BURKHOLDER
Pretty Smart

GABRIELLE BELL
The Colombia Diaries, Sept 14—16 (Excerpt

RAYMOND PETTIBON
No Title (I Was Fumbling), No Title (The Credits Rolled), and No Title (As We Can)

HENRIETTE VALIUM
Lâcher de Chiens

RON REGÉ, JR.
Pythagoras

DAVID SANDLIN
76 Manifestations of American Destiny (Excerpt)

MAT BRINKMAN
Cretin Keep On Creep’n Creek

ROSAIRE APPEL
briefly, before dawn

ED PISKOR
selections from Hip Hop Family Tree

PETER BAGGE
Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story(Excerpt)

JOE SACCO
The Great War (Excerpt)

JIM WOODRING
FRAN (Excerpt)

COLE CLOSSER
Little Tommy Lost: Book One (Excerpt)

ALABASTER
Mimi and the Wolves (Excerpt)

JESSE JACOBS
Pockets of Temporal Disruptions (Excerpt) from Safari Honeymoon

ADAM BUTTRICK
Misliving Amended

ANYA ULINICH
My Year of Unreasonable Grief (Part Four), (Excerpt) from Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel

GINA WYNBRANDT
Someone Please Have Sex With Me

ESTHER PEARL WATSON
After School (Excerpt) from Unlovable, Vol. 3

MATTHEW THURBER
INFOMANIACS (Excerpt)

NOEL FREIBERT
Cross Delivery, Screw Style, How did you get in the hole? The Pen, and We Can’t Sleep from the hole

BLAISE LARMEE
Comets Comets

A. DEGEN
Crime Chime Noir

ANYA DAVIDSON
No Class (Excerpt) from School Spirits

KEVIN HOOYMAN
Net Gain, Swiping at Branches, and The Perfect Match

ERIK NEBEL
Behold the Sexy Man! from Well Come

Definitely some challenging work, but along side people like Roz Chast, Jules Feiffer, Peter Bagge, Jim Woodring, Ed Piskor and Joe Sacco. I would say this year’s edition leaned towards the “noodly fantasy” school of Post Fort Thunder with folks like Chippendale, Thurber, Jacobs, Rege and Vallium. But still valid, honorable work. And in the end, can ALL the year’s best comics be encapsulated in a single volume?

Isabella did not take my savage attack laying down and responded at length. He points out that he has pretty wide ranging taste — definitely true — and often reviews material from “indie” publishers. One thing I do disagree with, though, is that Marvel and DC welcome inclusion in this book. It’s my understanding that in the past both Marvel and DC declined to have work they published included in the volume, for whatever reasons. Tony also took exception to my branding this an “80s argument” but, as noted by former Comics Journal editor Robert Boyd in a further discussion of this on a FB thread started by Derf, this is a classic argument from the olden days, when TCJ and a few other outlets insisted on covering the then expanding alternative scene and lauding it instead of whatever Marvel and DC were putting out.

This is really an old school ’00s blog squabble, and I see fewer and fewer people suggesting that “their” kind of comics are the only ones. Marvel and DC have been increasingly invaded by people who grew up reading indie comics, and the sensibilities are both much more integrated AND much more “live and let live” than back in the day.

Isabella also wrote:

Here’s another question. Compare the artsy-fartsy stuff lauded in Best American Comics 2015 to the artsy-fartsy stuff published back in the 1980s. I’m not seeing any growth there. It’s pretty much the same stuff.

Now compare recent Hawkeye comic books with Hawkeye comics from the 1980s. Or the current Ms. Marvel comics with the Ms. Marvel comic books from the 1980s. Better writing, most interesting characters, more distinctive art, bolder storytelling.

Confession. I went to Marvel for those examples because monolithic Marvel is the boogyman of the elitists.

I’ll put my commitment to diversity in comics on the line against the Best American Comics crowd any day. I enjoy and will continue to enjoy comics of all kinds, from all over the world and focusing on all sorts of subjects. My blogs and my columns support this claim.

Basically, there are very few comics elitists left. (I do know Bill K. is a man of strong beliefs and convictions, but he puts his money where his mouth is, and I can’t wait to read his history of comics.) Granted there will always be snobs on both sides of the files who think that everything on the other wise is trash or twaddle. But what we have now mostly is “readers”. Marvel has absolutely been catering to these readers, putting out books with more “indie” sensibilities like Squirrel Girl and anything Skottie Young draws, to name but two. DC’s been trying more as well, even if they haven’t had as many hits right out of the box.

Also, I don’t think today’s “good” superhero books are any better than the “good” superhero books of the past. There were always outliers, although often based on the tastes of the time. Before Fraction’s Hawekeye there was Miller Daredevil and McGregors Black Panther, etc etc. Are there MORE “good” superhero books? I’m tempted to say yes, but when I pick up a superhero book to read I can’t get past the first page most of the time. There are still many crappy superhero comics made to fit deadlines and event plans.

I do think the “us vs. them” attitude is very old school. We’ve developed MANY markets for comics, and people don’t feel as defensive about their position as before. So even though I kinda started this fight, I don’t think it’s very relevant at all. Best American Comics represents the tastes of only two people each year, and every volume has a distinct approach. As all the “best of ” lists I’ve been compiling here over the last month, including The Beat staff’s own, comics READERS have wide ranging tastes, and there is room for many different kinds of quality. I’m sure Tony and I agree on that.

Comments

  1. Derf Backderf says

    A classic comix fight: each of us with our eyes closed and heads back and slapping rapidly at each other…

    It’s more a respectful debate, than a “fight.” I like Tony and I’ve read his columns for years, all the way back to the old Buyer’s Guide in the Eighties. He’s always been one of the mainstreamy guys most open to new types of comics, and I’m not saying that because he just gave a glowing review to my new book, Trashed, or lauded me here in his BAC takedown. I just think he missed the mark. BAC is certainly fair game for criticism, that’s not the point, I just think but the vehemence of his rant was a bit much. I know and respect quite a few of the creators in this year’s BAC, so I raised my hand and made my case.

  2. Rob Salkowitz says

    I dunno, if you look at that table of contents, you’ll see that Lethem and BAC this year were looking exclusively at solo creators, whereas just about everything done not just by DC and Marvel, but also Image, Dark Horse, Boom! and IDW are done by writer/artist teams. So, no “Bitch Planet,” no “Saga,” no “March,” no “Lumberjanes.” If you don’t view comics as a collaborative artform, you’re going to miss a lot of the “best” work.done in any given year.

  3. Hunter says

    Derf has a press persona and his usual one. He’s the same guy who has outbursts at shows because other, better guests, have a schedule to keep even though he’s had a good two years since the French have made him a darling. But he thrives on whining and has the attitude of a bitter suburban teenager wearing a heavy metal shirt. Derf is the sort of guy who probably went to the Mall when he was younger, just so he could stand against the wall and mock and criticize the passerby.

    Isabella is a marginal talent whose blog entries far outweigh his actual comic scripts in terms of accessibility and entertainment. Perhaps this is because he has more of a chance to insert himself into the narrative. Poor Tony. Without his life-defining struggle against DC to elicit his passive-aggressive and whiny remarks, he seems to be without purpose.

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