Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Ranking Breakdowns

One thing I didn't mention in my review of Breakdowns was its positioning on my early best of 2008 handicapping. I had previously stated that I thought the strongest candidates to top this year's meta-list were (in no particular order) What It Is, All Star Superman, and Bottomless Bellybutton. It's pretty clear that Breakdowns will probably be in the running as well, partly because it's published by a traditional press, one which is (presumably) well-equipped to put review copies in the hands of mainstream critics. More importantly, Art Spiegelman is inarguably one of the most respected cartoonists in the world--I'd guess that he's actually the single most respected.* That reputation, along with the relative mainstream friendliness of "Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!," might propel Breakdowns to the top slot on many year-end lists; it almost guarantees that it will appear on many, many lists from mainstream outlets.

I would consider this a good thing, inasmuch as I would agree with these hypothetical list-makers that Breakdowns is worthy of great acclaim. If I were asked to choose the best comic of the year from the current frontrunners, I would certainly pick Breakdowns. In fact, I'm sort of inclined to pick it as the best comic of 2008, period. It's one of those rare, absolutely essential books, and I don't say that lightly.

So then, why am I only "sort of inclined" to make it my best of 2008? For one thing, the year isn't finished yet--there's another couple of months of releases yet to come, and at least a couple of unreleased books are very, very strong contenders--Nocturnal Conspiracies, a collection of David B's short material from NBM, and Kramers Ergot 7.** But the stronger consideration is this: should I rank a collection of previoiusly published material at #1 for the year?

I had a number of reprints on my best of 2007 list. Actually, half the list consisted of books which contained prevoiusly published material: Notes For a War Story, Phoenix: Sun, Jack Kirby's Fourth World Omnibus, Town Boy, and Alias the Cat. Three of that group were the first available English translations of international work, so I don't feel too bad about including them. That leaves us with Alias the Cat and Jack Kirby's Fourth World Omnibus.

The former was originally published in serialized form by Fantagraphics (I think), making it largely inaccessible to most readers in 2007. I had never read it before, so I was very happy to see it in one collected edition, in a very clever package, reminiscent (at least to me) of The Cat in the Hat or other Dr. Suess books. And it's not all that high on my list at #8. As for the Fourth World collection (#5): on the original list I wrote, "I'm a little loath to include this new series of reprints, since Kirby's Fourth World material has been reprinted several times in numerous formats." That still sounds right. If I were judging these books purely based on quality of content, well, Kirby at his best beats just about anything, short of maybe Kurtzman, Kelly, or Crumb at their peaks. Or maybe Tezuka.

But notice that I didn't put Tezuka's Phoenix: Sun at #1 either. Again, in terms of quality, it would have been justified; no one on my list, with the possible exception of Lat, beats Tezuka as a pure cartoonist. But I'm just not comfortable putting collections of fairly old material so high on a list of this type, even if some of it had not previously been available in English. I'd be sending a message that I don't really agree with, that the best days of the comics medium are behind it. Is that grading on a curve? Yes, kind of, but not exactly. I'm a hopeless antiquarian in many ways, but I'm very bullish on the future of comics. As much as I cherish older, classic work (I'm enjoying the hell out of the Popeye collections, now that I've found time to read them), I'm more excited about the present and future. I want my lists to reflect that kind of excitement.

So, then, what about Breakdowns? All of the material from the original edition comes from the 1970s. The only new addition, "Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!," is itself a couple of years old. I'm quite familiar with most of the older stories; "Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!" is new to me, but that's only because I was too lazy/cheap to track down the issues of the Virginia Quarterly in which it originally appeared. In short, nothing in this book should come as a revelation in and of itself to anyone sufficiently engaged with the comics medium.

And yet, as I write this, I'm sort of leaning towards putting this in my (provisional) top slot for a couple of reasons. First, as I noted in my review, the pairing of "Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!" and the original Breakdowns in a single volume greatly increases the impact of each. Actually, it goes a step further: it almost creates an entirely new work. But that's not so far off from what I had to say about Jack Kirby's Fourth World Omnibus: "Better yet, the sequencing of the stories in published order has given them a new power. You can see Kirby's deft world building, always present yet always subservient to his desire to entertain his readers. And maybe I'm just in a different state of mind 10 years after I last read these stories, but the Fourth World seems so much more vibrant in this format. The Paranoid Pill, Happyland, the Glory Boat, the Hairies--these are some of the best ideas in the history of comics, each one better than the last. It's enough to make me reconsider whether or not this is actually Kirby's best work. I can't recommend these books highly enough."

There's something else, however, that Breakdowns has going for it: Spiegelman is a living, working creator. "Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!" isn't brand new, but it's not that old, either. It's more reflective of the present than the Fourth World omnibus. That's not to say that Kirby's comics are firmly relegated to the past: clearly he has an enormous impact on contemporary artists. Hell, the current Big Event at DC is based on his work. But that's the thing--none of this is an extension of his work; it's all reinterpretations or homages or pastiches. Jack Kirby's presence certainly looms large in 2008, but Art Spiegelman is alive and still producing great comics.*** That means a lot to me, and probably pushes Breakdowns to #1 on my best of 2008 list, barring any further revelations.

The next question: will I be able to resist putting Fantagraphics' new Pogo series at #1 for 2009? I'll probably avoid the temptation for the first volume or two. But what about the later ones, like once we get into Simple J. Malarkey and whatnot? Man, that's some awfully good stuff....

*Anyone want to try to list the other most respected living comics creators among the general English speaking population? After Spiegelman, I'd say (in no particular order) Joe Sacco, Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, Alan Moore, Marjane Satrapi, and Allison Bechdel are probably the top tier. Rutu Modan, Adrian Tomine, and Jaime Hernandez would round out the top 10, IMO. But am I underestimating the mainstream appeal of Gilbert Hernandez, Grant Morrison, Craig Thompson, or Posy Simmonds? What about Robert Crumb--does his history of misogynistic work cancel out his monumental accomplishments in the eyes of the general public (by which I mean the segment of the general public which is willing to think about comics, but not too hard and not for extended periods of time)? Is Stan Lee a part of this discussion? Do people still think about Matt Groening as a cartoonist, rather than a multimedia mogul? How about Gary Trudeau--would the public think to lump him in with the names above?

**Although...I didn't see it in Diamond's solicitations for November or December. I guess I might have missed it if it ended up in the merchandise section or something. Is it still supposed to debut at APE?

***This generally reflects my decision to put Notes For a War Story as high as I did. Coconino originally published it in 2004, only three years before its English translation. And Gipi is an active cartoonist, one of the best in the world. Hopefully one day these sorts of books will appear in an English the same year as their original release, but I'm not too worried about it in terms of list-making.

16 comments:

Jog said...

Alvin mentioned at SPX that Kramers was due in late November or early December... don't know where Diamond has it...

Chris Mautner said...

Honestly? I think you're overestimating how many people actually know who Art Spiegelman is.

Chad Nevett said...

This is a similar problem I often have with "best of" lists for a year. My problem is the lack of recognition available for older works that weren't necessarily rerrinted that year, but you first encountered that year. It's not right to include them on the list, but they also had a big influence. This particularly bugs me when it comes to music where at least half of the albums I buy in a given year were released prior to that year. I understand the distinction, but it's a little frustrating when the best thing you read/saw/heard that year wasn't released that year... it almost seems wrong to give the number one spot to something else. (If any of that makes sense to anyone...)

Dick Hyacinth said...

Chris, you really think that the people making best-of lists for newspapers and magazines don't know who Art Spiegelman is? He was on an episode of the Simpsons, wasn't he? If nothing else, I'm betting the invocation of Maus on the back cover (and, I would assume, in all promotional materials accompanying Breakdowns) would jog folks' memories.

Chad, the thing I first read this year which I've most enjoyed this year was Vampire Loves, which had been sitting on our bookcase for two years (it was supposed to be a gift for someone, but we never ended up giving it). I absolutely loved it; I can't say enough good things about it. I won't put it on this year's list, obviously, but I'll try to make up for it when I make a best of the decade list.

Dick's Brother said...

I believe that Maus is on most school reading lists now. My middle school students recognized a page from Maus blown up and pasted in my classroom. On a side note, most of my students have no clue who Captain America is, but half my class has seen Persepolis. Ah the times they are a changin'.

Alicia said...

I read Maus as part of my sixth grade Holocaust unit. Part of the analysis involved discussing Spiegelman as a creator, just like Elie Wiesel. Mainstream tastemakers, at least, should know who he is.

Alan David Doane said...

sure that the mainstream media know who and how significant Spiegelman is. No question there at all.

I believe KE7 is solicited in the current Previews.

Alan David Doane said...

Hm, that's weird. The first part of my previous post was, "Raw, Maus, and most recently Little Lit ensure that the mainstream press know who Spiegelman is.

Chris Mautner said...

Dick,

Maybe it's a generational thing (I work with a lot of old farts), but I could walk through my newsroom right now and ask people if they knew who Art Spiegelman was, and I'd lay good money down that less than a third would say they did.

And probably even less than that would have actually read the book.

I do think Spiegelman's probably the best known of any American cartoonist barring say Trudeau, but I think that awareness is limited to certain circles.

Dick Hyacinth said...

Well, when you put it that way, I agree.

Chris Mautner said...

And just so I'm clear, I'm talking editors and reporters here, not the guy who cleans the press.

Dick Hyacinth said...

Yeah, that makes sense too. I wasn't trying to suggest that Spiegelman is as well known as Tom Clancy or anything, just that most people entrusted to write about comics for papers and magazines will know who he is, even if only vaguely.

Tucker Stone said...

I've got to second Chris Mautner. I work in advertising, and we have to deal with every major magazine that publishes in the US, and I don't buy the idea that Art Spiegelman is a big name. Maus is big, sure--but the author of Maus? Current Pulitzer and NBA winners for prose aren't even a big draw. A comics one even less so. The majority of my office operates under the impression that comics aren't even an active art form.

On another thing, more of a question: what magazines are actively publishing year-end lists? Beyond the niche stuff like the in-culture mags and off-brand stuff like Geek and Complex, can't most of the "best-of" lists be tracked to companies within the Time Warner family?

Tucker Stone said...

Ah, I just saw your follow-up post to Mautner. Yeah, i'm sure that whoever handles the comics list knows who Art is.

Oh, and while I don't mess around with comics list, my boys and I are fanatical music list compilers, and we cut it pretty hard: if it's a compilation, if it's a reprint, then it don't count. For me, it's not even a question: the fun, hell, the interest, in a "best of 08" list is in exploring what people were doing, creating, at that moment in time. Not what they saw fit to compile at a later date. Same with translations. It's a totally personal line, but I think it makes it more interesting to examine the work against the cultural environment that produced it. I don't think you can do that when you're putting something up against the past, no matter whether it wasn't previously available.

Dick Hyacinth said...

EW and Time certainly publish lists, but so do the Washington Post, New York magazine, Salon (Douglas Wolk), various free alternative weeklies, smaller regional newspapers (Chris Mautner), and general interest websites. I don't remember the exact number of votes from these sources, but it was substantial. Less than comics-oriented sites/pubs, but still quite a few.

I'm sympathetic to your position re: contemporary stuff for list-making purposes, but I can't totally agree. I think that reprints and translations are extremely important, not just in terms of exposing more people to quality material, but in changing the critical discourse and the body of influences future North American cartoonists will draw upon.

I can understand where different critics might be coming from in making these distinctions for themselves, but you really can't deny the impact of I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets last year, or Persepolis four years before. They might not have been produced in 2007 or 2003, but they certainly had an effect on other works being made those years.

Tucker Stone said...

Those are good points, I agree--in comics, unlike music, I think that a work from the past can have a definite impact on the surrounding environment. It's more a case that when I look at a year's worth of art, what interests me about the process of the a best-of list, i'm interested in how that work reacts or speaks to the time it was created out of. When a reprint gets brought in, that obscures the "discussion" and makes it more about the state of the art itself.

If you're going to talk about the comics of 2007, then yes, you've got bring in the Fletcher Hanks stuff. But if you're going to talk about 2007--what that year produced in terms of cultural response, statement or mere existence in the world around it--then Fletcher Hanks isn't really of value. There's nothing that I can learn about the time period from the work, simply because the work has nothing to do with that time period. That doesn't lessen it's quality, and it doesn't change the fact that it was great 07 purchase--but for me, it's impact is more insular, more confined within the culture itself.