November 2006

Jeff VanderMeer


Best American Comics, and an Interview with Rebecca Dart

Clearly a lot of thought and love went into the creation of The Best American Comics, this first volume in a new series from Houghton Mifflin. The gold highlights and lovely subdued mystery of the cover match a commitment inside the book to a layout that effectively showcases the content. (Some readers may note a similarity to the McSweeney’s comics volume, a great model.)

Guest editor Harvey Pekar and series editor Anne Elizabeth Moore have assembled an equally attractive collection of thirty-one comics, including work from Kim Deitch, Chris Ware, Alex Robinson, Lynda Berry, Robert Crumb, Ben Katchor, and Rebecca Dart.

Moore says in her preface, that “The collection of work you now hold in your hands is a small army of… examples of insolence. Many of the works are political in nature, disdainful of war, corporate culture, the death penalty, labor rights, and rampant right-wing politics.” This may be true, but there are several apolitical pieces, and the style of illustration varies from simple to complex, from the pseudo-primitive to fine-art sophistication. Sources are as various as McSweeney’s, The Guardian, and World War III Illustrated, among others.

Moore also admits to a preference for “inventive yet accessible graphic storytelling,” but her definition of “accessible” demonstrates great range.

For example, I can’t think of anything I’ve seen in comics or fiction recently (well, maybe Mark Danielewski’s latest novel) as wonderfully odd, as formally experimental, and yet as satisfying as Rebecca Dart’s RabbitHead (see the interview below). This mind-blowing sequence of surreal adventures begins as one narrative thread and branches out into seven threads before collapsing back in on itself. RabbitHead demonstrates a twinned playfulness and seriousness that hooks into your thoughts for days after reading it.

In contrast, Justin Hall’s “True Traveled Tales” draws as little attention to its structure as possible in telling the very human and sad story of the narrator’s encounter with a disturbed woman during a bus tour of Mexico. A realistic yet stylized approach with effective use of black for contrast reflects the weight of the tale being told.

Jonathan Bennett’s “Dance with the Ventures” from Mome uses the simple structure of following a man as he walks around the block near his apartment and yet manages to include childhood memories and a series of commonplace neuroses that somehow take on a mysterious rather than annoying quality.

Lynda Barry’s full- and half-page comic “Two Questions” is about what it means to be a creative person. The style is deceptively simple and yet each frame is so alive with image and motion that you can study a panel for a long time and not exhaust its richness. The honesty of the questions posed by the narrative capture the reader, while grace notes like a recurring octopus delight for their own sake.

Other highlights include the stark desperation of Anders Nilsen’s “The Gift,” the deeply silly adventure riffs of Joel Priddy’s “The Amazing Life of Onion Jack,” the bold, unapologetic “Nakedness and Power” by Seth Tobocman, Terisa Turner, and Leigh Brownhill, and the sobering realism of Joe Sacco’s “Complacency Kills,” to name just a handful.

A few entries do phone it in. Alex Robinson’s Tricked had a really bad pay-off and was mediocre compared to his amazing Box Office Poison, so I was a little surprised to see Tricked excerpted in this volume. There are also no surprises in R. Crumb’s entry and some readers will wonder if his inclusion is for iconic reasons alone. But, in general, this book is alive, vibrant, and engages the world in a variety of ways, from the overtly political to the surreal and the subtle.

I also like what Pekar has to say in his introduction. There’s a kind of absolutist mentality displayed by many year’s best editors that isn’t present in his approach: “Now listen, I’m not claiming these are the absolute best comics issued in a given twelve-month period. I haven’t seen all of the comics published in that time and neither have the hard-working, painstaking people I’m working with. But there’s good, often original stuff in this collection that I hope will open readers’ eyes to the breadth of subject matter that comics can deal with effectively.”

Any year’s best is going reflect a mere sampling of quality, especially in a field as crowded as comics and graphic novels. However, I think Pekar and Moore have done an excellent job of presenting a variety of voices and approaches. It’s an auspicious, raucous, multi-faceted debut and should be on everyone’s holiday shopping list.

The Best American Comics guest edited by Harvey Pekar
Houghton Mifflin
ISBN 0618718745
294 Pages

A Brief Interview with Rebecca Dart, creator of RabbitHead

Can you remember the spark or catalyst that led to RabbitHead?

It was a dark and stormy night... that's a lie, it was the summer of 2004 and I was watching a Polish Movie from 1965 called the Saragossa Manuscript. It's a great movie, a little long and slow in some parts, where a couple of characters start to tell a story and the narrative switched to that story and this continues until you have all these stories that have to wait their turn to be told. I thought this was a really neat structure, but it was easy to get lost and forget who was whom. I thought it would work better as a comic [because] you could have the stories running simultaneously on the same page. So I worked out a structure in thumbnail form and just sort of made up the story as I went along.

I had also just seen [Jodorowsky’s] El Topo on the big screen, and fell in love with the symbolic messages being painted with a western brush.

What graphic novels/comics and books would you say are general influences?

The obvious influences are Chris Ware and Jim Woodring, whose work is a huge inspiration to me. More subtle influences are some oldie but goodies such as Winsor McCay and Gustave Verbeek, who did a great little comic in 1903 called The Incredible Upside-Downs. You read it right side up then turn it around and the art and story continues. It's quite a little gem of a comic.

You’ve worked on a number of animated television shows. What have you learned from working on them, and in what way do those types of jobs inform projects like RabbitHead?

In animation, I work as a location designer, which basically means I have to come up with a style for the backgrounds of any given show. It's loads of fun and I enjoy it. However, it's a lot of work and it leaves me bit brain-fried at the end of the day. When you draw for a living, it's hard to motivate yourself to draw when you get home, which is my main regret about my job. I did RabbitHead when I was in-between contracts, so I had some time off. I sort of rely on these breaks to get personal work done. I also love to do oil paintings, but haven't had much time to sink my teeth into some juicy canvases. 

I haven't had any formal art training, so working in animation taught me discipline, speed, and how to make an image "read" easier. You learn the most by surrounding yourself with artists that are better than you.

To what extent did you intend RabbitHead to be horrific as opposed to darkly humorous? What has reader response been like?

I try to do cute, happy things, I really do, [but] everything just ends up being dark and horrific. It's as if my brightness knob is turned down. However, I think it's always important to have a comedy with a little bit of drama or a drama with a little bit of comedy. It helps prevent stories from taking themselves too seriously.

Reader response to RabbitHead has been very positive, which is great and makes me feel good. One of the great things about doing comics is the one-on-one relationship you have with the reader, compared to animation, which is collaborative. Which is rewarding in its own way, but they are two very different beasts.

When you were creating RabbitHead, how did you draw the various strands of the story?

I did a thumbnail first to work out the structure and the basic story, so I drew the narratives simultaneously. A lot changed as I drew out the finishes and re-worked some things. When the narratives ended, I worked backwards for a few panels to make sure they ended where they were supposed to.

What are you currently working on, and do you plan to continue to experiment with structure and form?

I did a sixteen page story for Rossetta #3, an anthology being published by Alternative Comics. It's another experimental narrative. The thing about experiments is that sometimes they work, [but] most of the time they fail, so it's important to keep them short, so you don't bore your audience. I have ideas for short pieces that mess with standard structure that I'd like to do when I have some time off. However, what I'd really like to do is a straight forward action/adventure tale, because, seriously, I think that is much more challenging.

Next Time

The December column will feature reviews of a cornucopia of comics goodness, including reviews of Magic Moon by Wolfgang and Heike Hohlbein, Kino No Tabi by Keiichi Sigsawa, Monologues for the Coming Plague by Anders Nilsen, The 9/11 Report by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon, Chicken with Plums by Marjane Satrapi, Jokes and the Unconscious by Daphne Gottlieb & Diane DiMassa, Iron West by Doug TenNapel, Fables: 1001 Nights by Bill Willingham, and The Sweeter Side of R. Crumb by Robert Crumb. How will I do that in 750 words? Oh, reader, have a little faith!

Contact Info

Send complaints, compliments, concerns, and rambling rants about how wrong I am to: vanderworld at (I’ll assume you don’t mind being quoted in this column if you send me something.)

Send materials for review to Bookslut and to me at POB 4248, Tallahassee, FL 32315.