I still am excited about comics as a literary art, and thrilled when Rhian brought home the new Best American Comics 2007, edited by the great Chris Ware. If Pekar had put together a great collection, then Ware--perhaps my favorite cartoonist--ought to put together something brilliant.
I don't think this year's anthology is as strong as last year's, though. Without question, there are some great moments, but overall it feels a bit slack. Ware, in his introduction, issues a non-apology for the problem, which he explains by quoting a New York Times critic*, who referred to a
"creeping sameness" to much of what he was leafing through, "semi- or wholly autobiographical sketches of drifting daily life and its quiet epiphanies." Admittedly, as comics have entered their late adolescence as art/literature, a preponderance of autobiographical work has accrued.
Ware goes on to defend autobiography, which is not what the critic was complaining about--rather, he was complaining about really boring autobiography, for which there is no good defense.
There is some fantastic autobiography here--an excerpt from of what became Alison Bechdel's stunning Fun Home, and several genuinely strange and fascinating episodes from David Heatley's series of illustrated dreams. But there are some clunkers, too, most notably a series by the ordinarily excellent Jeffrey Brown, in which he basically goes to various record stores, buys lots of indie rock CD's, then listens to them while thinking about his ex-girlfriend.
Late adolesence or not, navel-gazing is never interesting. The analysis of self is interesting (see: Philip Roth), but the bar has been set too low for comics, and it's time for the form to grow up.
Of course, it already is growing up. A few of these comics are extraordinarily, gratifyingly strange--C. F.'s "Blond Atchen and the Bumble Boys" springs to mind, with its Henry-Dargeresque pencil-and-paint style, as do the post-apocalyptic fuzzed-out scribbles of Gary Panter. These comics delight in their willingness to reshape certain conventions of the form, or abandon linear narrative when it suits the material; their meaning is elusive, but they are never vague in their presentation of detail.
I suspect that Ware has included some cartoonists for who they are and what they represent to him, rather than whether they were at their best this year. That's OK. Everything in here is diverting, and that's more than anyone can hope for in an anthology of this kind. The fact that some of it is actually stunning is merely a bonus.
*It's John Hodgman, in case you were wondering.