The implied lie behind almost any collection advertised as “the best of” is that the curation is more than a highly subjective sampling. We know the game going in: “The best” sounds so much sexier than “quite eminent” or “highly notable.” Which makes “best of” sound rather like a come-on, as if to say: “Come on — get beneath this hardcover and feast your eyes on this superior body of work!” Yet in the new “Best American Comics 2014” — the latest release from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s anthology series-by-the-subject-matter — guest editor Scott McCloud has found several clever ways to infuse the brash advertising with honesty.
McCloud himself is a cartoonist (the forthcoming “The Sculptor”) and influential comics scholar (“Understanding Comics”) and so knows that the best course is to come clean from the get-go. In the book’s introduction, he playfully composes an Ode to Futility, writing: “Good stuff was left out due to arbitrary circumstance, your editor meant well but probably shouldn’t be trusted on critical matters of judgment.”
His sins of exclusion now absolved, McCloud the thoughtful writer provides a feature too seldom deployed in the “Best American Comics” series (this is the ninth annual volume): chapter introductions that spotlight not only specific top comics, but also the trends they represent. In this inclusive way, he is insightfully pointing to larger industry shifts. Comics is one big tent, and McCloud the Showman wants to direct your eyes to as many rings of work as possible.
(The new series editor, it should be noted, is Bill Kartalopoulos — organizer of the Washington area’s annual Small Press Expo — and he helped scour many a convention floor, classroom and Web site to help cull these selections.)
And oh, what selections they are. McCloud gives fair due to “the usual suspects” of great comics — names like Chris Ware and Charles Burns, R. Crumb and Ben Katchor, Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez. But he also entices us to check out newer stars like YA bestseller Raina Telgemeier (“Drama”) and “art comic” makers like Michael DeForge (“Canadian Royalty”); Web comic head-turners like Allie Brosh (“Depression Part Two”); documentarians like Ed Piskor (“Hip Hop Family Tree” ); and memoirists like Rep. John Lewis (“March” ), the civil rights pioneer. McCloud admits a taste for the strange, whether by waterway (Mark Siegel’s “Sailor Twain”) or space (the gorgeous “Saga” by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples).
And in a selection of special interest to many area readers, McCloud devotes a “memory box” chapter to Richard Thompson , the great Northern Virginia-based creator of “Cul de Sac,” who had to retire his Washington Post-sprung syndicated strip in 2012 as he sought treatment for Parkinson’s disease. “‘Cul de Sac,’ ” the guest editor writes, “captured everything funny and charming and true about the best American comic strips, from Segar to Johnston to Schulz. It was alive, it made you laugh, it popped off the page like a ladybug.”
On second thought, I’d like to amend my reservations about “the best of” in every instance. In the case of Thompson’s strip, the jury is in, and we have a verdict: “Cul de Sac’s” widely acknowledged bestness is beyond all subjectivity.
Cavna is The Washington Post’s graphic-novel reviewer and “Comic Riffs” columnist.
THE BEST AMERICAN COMICS 2014
Edited by Scott McCloud
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
381 pp. $25