SCOTT McCLOUD knows that “best” is an impossible term. He also knows that anything less — “notable”? “eminent”? — is far too great a hedge to sound sexy.
And so McCloud, the much-more-than-notable comics scholar (“Understanding Comics”) and cartoonist (next February’s “The Sculptor”), humbly bows to the anthology series title in guest-editing “The Best American Comics 2014″ (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), which comes out today — even while forewarning us with an “Ode to Futility” about the brash act of declaring any curation “the best.”
For years, cartoonists/educators Jessica Abel and Matt Madden have done a more-than-eminent job in shepherding the “Best American Comics” series, in part by landing a who’s-who of comics greats — from the inaugural’s Harvey Pekar to last year’s Jeff Smith — who, as guest editors, help spotlight both the old guard and the rising stars. But in the best of transitions, Abel and Madden have chosen their successor wisely, passing the baton to new series editor Bill Kartalopoulos, who in turn picked the Eisner-winning McCloud for the guest assignment.
The result of this double-first for “Best American Comics 2014″ is a wide-ranging journey of several-dozen comics and interstitial text pieces that thoroughly engage the lifetime comics reader and the uninitiated alike. This “utopian project,” as Kartalopoulos calls it, is one splendidly eclectic trek, with McCloud as our especially articulate Sherpa.
“Throughout our process, Scott was an insightful, funny, open and generous collaborator,” Kartalopoulos tells The Post’s Comic Riffs. “Early on, we had some good conversations about the book, and we both very quickly agreed that it would be valuable for the 2014 volume to try to provide a broad snapshot of the comics field while also fulfilling the book’s primary mission of offering a selection of the year’s most outstanding comics.”
Kartalopoulos also praises how McCloud divided the book by thematic category, and then wrote short text pieces to introduce each of 10 sections. “We really get both sides of Scott McCloud with this book: His selections reflect his critical tastes as an engaged reader, and the structure he devised demonstrates the analytical intelligence that we all know so well from ‘Understanding Comics’ and his other books,” says Kartalopoulous, who has directed programming for SPX: Small Press Expo and the MoCCA festival. “As a result, I think he’s crafted something that has the potential to function for many readers as a general anthology of contemporary comics, even beyond its status as one volume in an annual series.”
Comic Riffs caught up with McCloud — just before he launched off on his own trek to several continents — to talk about both the serious sense of mission and the joyful sense of engagement in editing “Best American Comics 2014″:
MICHAEL CAVNA: Congratulations on this book, Scott. First, I’ve got to say, I’m struck by the ways in which you made this book engaging — how you break through the sense that you’re judging from a cool distance and are instead passionate about comics. Or put another way: Your essays and your choices reek of fandom.
SCOTT McCLOUD: I’m encouraged to hear that. From the beginning, I think I steered clear of the notion of being the arbiter of taste. In fact, some of the arguments against “Understanding Comics” back in the ’90s was that I had not instructed the public on how to tell good comics from bad comics. … People saw the value-neutral description of comics as somehow lacking a passion for what makes great comics great. I just wanted to unlock what each individual artist could do with the form. I didn’t want to prescribe certain set paths.
MC: We have sort a double-first with you and Bill embarking on this together — so that must have been a bit of a different working relationship. [As you write in the introduction], approaching Jaime [Hernandez] to be the cover artist, for instance, was a teamwork [approach].
SM: Yeah, very much so. … The series editor does pick that first gargantuan pile of comics for the guest editor to go through. That was true in Jessica [Abel] and Matt [Madden’s] era, as well. It’s hard to say the difference. … but my guess is that, Bill felt to me a bit like an embedded reporter. He was doing field work. He was almost like Alan Lomax — just going from SPX to MoCCA to APE … and finding these often relatively obscure, one-off comics that he felt were worthy of consideration. He had a strong — for lack of a better term — “art comics” sensibility to him. And I brought to the table maybe a slightly larger radius on the pop end of things.
But he certainly wasn’t allergic to all-ages comics or adventure comics or superhero comics. He was very, very supportive of the few things that I was able to find that he hadn’t. He did such a good job that there wasn’t much that I could find that eluded him. And so what we had, just in our natural inclinations — we had range from the start. And I had said, in my very first email to him — I said I wanted to find [a broad range]. … To some extent, he even went beyond that spectrum. Like Erin Curry (“Ambient Air, Part II”). Where even Michael DeForge (“Canadian Royalty”) felt a little more centrist. And that’s terrific. I feel as if I was able to push the envelope a little, in large part, because Bill was there with such a keen eye for such a long time.
MC: I would love, by the way, to see David Lasky illustrate Bill *as* Alan Lomax.
SM: [laughs] That would be just the perfect look for that.
[Note: Lasky is included in “Best American Comics 2014″ with an excerpt from “The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song," written by Frank M. Young.]
MC: Is this the first time you’ve been asked to do [the book], or have you ever been asked and you’ve said: “Eh, no, too much going on”?
SM: This would have been, I think, the third or fourth year. Matt and Jessica had first approached me. I think I put them off twice. That was because I was working on the graphic novel (“The Sculptor,” due out early next year). And of course I foolishly thought that the graphic novel would be completely done. This last spring was quite probably the busiest time of my life. The two books and teaching and traveling. … It was an insane time.
MC: What you touched on before addresses the sheer volume [of comics] to be read. How did you approach this — beyond Bill, did you ask friends for recommendations?
SM: Yes. I felt that I had been disconnected for years, so one of the things I wanted to do was walk the [Comic-Con] floor in San Diego and other shows and just randomly talk to people. And see what were some of the things that popped out to them. I never had the particular notion that I must not be contaminated by other sources. I’m more than happy to take the temperature of the room. And usually the way I look at it, if something is getting more than a couple I know excited, and I don’t yet get it, or haven’t yet [seen it], then I owe it to myself to give it a look, or even a second look. To see if there’s something there that I don’t particularly get.
I think as we age, it’s very easy for us to settle into a particular set of aesthetic criteria that allow us to just shrug off anything genuinely new. Like with music. In college, your roommate is blasting it; they’re playing it in the coffee shops and what not. You can’t get away from that stuff. But then you get control over your own musical environment. And the truth is that with any song or comic that you’re going to learn to love — it takes a few listens or views to power up. On the first viewing, on the first listen, you don’t necessarily get the breadth of what’s going on there. You’ve got to come back and come back. So I try to be diligent. and dive back in again.
MC: Compare that to: Remember when you were a kid, and you would [so readily] digest every new comic?
SM: Our ability to process that newness diminishes or changes over time. It’s the only [explanation for] why generation after generation proclaims their children’s music “noise.” Clearly some process is going on. And clearly if you want to combat that yourself, you must do so through conscious effort. If 95 percent of people go down that road, that means the unconscious result — the result of just leaving it alone and doing what comes naturally — essentially hates anything new past a certain age.
MC: It’s true. You have to seek it out or surround yourself with people who say, “Look at THIS!”
SM: That was something Eisner did [to stay fresh].
MC: So, let me ask you about the cover. It’s such a joyful cover by Jaime. It eases me into my 10-year-old mind…right down to the Band-Aid on the knee. Could you talk about Jaime’s art?
SM: We were delighted when Jaime agreed to do the cover. It’s has such a fresh and instant quality to it. In fact, you have this giant of “alternative comics” — for lack of a better world — of the last 30 years taking a childlike approach to it that connects its history. The only downside [to that] is that with [hit YA creator] Raina Telgemeier doing the end-papers, it doesn’t necessarily [prepare the reader] for Aline Kominsky-Crumb’s [sexually explicit] comic [“High Road to the Schmuck Seat"].
MC: That’s right — you go from [Telgemeier’s] “Drama” to “Senior Sex.”
SM: It is a bit jarring. … [Laughs] Maybe we’ll make the next Banned Books List.
MC: You talk in the intro about the Ode to Futility [in proclaiming to decide all the year’s “best" comics], which such previous guest editors as Neil Gaiman essentially nodded to in their introduction. That does nicely disarm the reader — and “best” is such a loaded word to begin with. Could you talk about the Ode to Futility, and how you take us on this book’s trip as a docent and a guide, and not as the final arbiter?
SM: Yeah, it’s like the old saw about how the wise man realizes how little he knows. The more you delve into the project, the more you can [realize] your own ignorance. [This book] was a convenient opportunity for me to curtail that ignorance and become acquainted with some of the aspects that I’d strayed away from. And at this point, the Ode is a ritual. You have to do some variation on the Ode to Futility. At this point, it’s boilerplate that you can slip in there.
MC: Next year, they can just include those words on a bookmark, free with every edition.
SM: [Laughs] It’s like: “Any similarity to persons living or dead.”
MC: Without slighting anyone else, were there any personal slam-dunk [selections] for you going in?
SM: To me, the two top slam-dunks were [Chris Ware’s] “Building Stories” and [Telgemeier’s] “Drama.” There were 16 or so comics that I knew were going to make the cut from very early on. But if you told me that “Best American Comics” was cut back and was only allowed … to have two comics, I think “Building Stories” and “Drama” would actually be a pretty good representation of the kind of range there is.
But clearly, with more choices, and more pages, we were able to head out in several different dimensions. You know: Diversity of form. Diversity of content. Diversity of political or social views. And diversity of even the most fundamental issues of format, like web vs. print.
MC: Could you talk about your webcomic picks?
SM: The webcomic category was problematic. … Webcomics generally was a source of enormous passion for me 10 years ago. But while working on the graphic novel (“The Sculptor”), I drifted so far from the scene that I practically got whiplash [coming back to it]. … But one of the most interesting, most out there, is Allie Brosh (“Depression, Part Two”), whose work causes you to recalibrate [the parameters] of the book.
MC: So let me offer a big thank-you for organizing this book how you did. As much as I’ve enjoyed every book in the series, one of the biggest frustrations in some years was a less clear organizing principle. Could you talk about the “vital areas of expression” — to quote the book — that serve as your organizing principle. Because of those and the essays — which [set up] each section — overall, this was perhaps the most “reader-friendly” edition yet.
SM: I appreciate the term “reader-friendly. ” I am the only “Best American Comics” editor [however] who actually berated my reader for not reading it in order.
MC: [laughs] But each mini-essay that serves as a chapter break is a great window — gives a real sense — into how you approached your selections.
SM: Some categories were very obvious and others weren’t. … Some just naturally fell together. I noticed when I have one section titled, “Strange Adventures” and another titled, “Even Stranger Adventures,” I have an [appetite] for the strange. … Even without a couple of strange linchpins [like Jim Woodring and the relatively newer Jesse Jacobs], I managed to find some very weird stuff.
The challenge in writing the text pieces was to paint a portrait of this organism that I saw in front of me. … I tried to approach them as if they’d grown there, like I was a naturalist. … You want it to be an organic process, if you can. … I would just as soon have some of them feel a little wild — a little hard to contain. Hopefully I’ve managed to pull that off.
MC: You start out one section by saying, “Girls read.” … [In 2009 in San Diego] Stan Sakai said that 30 years ago at Comic-Con, he used to be one of the few who brought his whole family. … We know things have changed [in terms of comics readership by gender], but it still needs to be said. Could you talk some about that section?
SM: Sure. There’s sort of a generational lag where women are concerned in comics. Women as part of the [comics] community are getting very close to 50 percent. But there’s also that lag time where artists like Crumb or Daniel Clowes or Jaime Hernandez have been at it for 30 years. Artists like Jillian Tamaki just haven’t been at it as long, so when Tamaki’s work just really blossomed — both Tamakis [including cousin Mariko Tamaki] — when they really blossomed in something like “This One Summer,” you’re getting a sense of just how much potential energy is located in these creative minds. You realize that [roughly half] of the creative community is a volcano that hasn’t necessarily erupted yet. They’re the equivalent of Chris Ware when he was doing “Floyd Farland,” or Dan Clowes. Those guys, when compared to the giants of their day, might have suffered in comparison. But they had just as much in store for us. They just hadn’t been around long enough to do the big stuff. And so, the revolution is already here. It’s just revving up over the course of the next decade or so.
And so, the “Girls Read” section has a lot to do with what I think the great demographic time-bomb of comics is. That delayed effect of the manga kids, and the multiplier effect of the tremendously important all-ages movement right now, is inevitably going to result in a majority-female industry in 10 years. And I think we’ll be better off for it.
MC: It’s curious to see how people have picked up and interpreted [your idea of] “the infinite canvas,’ and the presence of “xkcd” creator Randall Munroe in your book — with his extended work — comes to mind. Could you talk a bit about where we are with that, as it relates to the book?
SM: Well, at the heart of it is this idea that space equals time in comics. And that we’re all drawing temporal maps. I thought it might be interesting to not split them into these little rectangles we call pages. It’s interesting because there have been a lot of interesting examples of that happening abroad. It’s just that it’s not American comics. But I’ve kept my eye on people doing these.. in Germany, in Norway, in Australia, in Korea [and on such European cartoonists as Boulet]. The idea has taken hold at some markets. Most digital comics are scrollers in Korea.
The thing is, there is some sadness in there, because I was so excited at the possibilities in the late ’90s, and I thought for sure that that particular revolution would be on a fast track — and it’s just the reverse. Eventually, without a reliable financial structure to support these experimental webcomics, a lot of people just turn away and get a real job, or start doing three-panel gag strips. Those have an economic model that works. I was a little sad when I turned away from the scene. … This does not mean that the gag strips are not a very successful, entertaining, vital and creative part of comics — they are. And I’m glad that they have some of the same sort of vitality that we associate with early 20th-century newspaper comics. But I was a creature of the long stuff. Graphic novels and full-length stories. And I feel that in a lot] of ways we’re still trying to find a model for the creators of such cartoons that is sustaining. The fact that it’s 2014 and we’re still struggling with that.
Ahhhh, well. So I made a graphic novel. [Laughs] I just wandered off and spent five years doing a book designed for print.
MC: You mentioned Chris Ware earlier: It’s striking to print “Building Stories” sideways in [“Best American Comics"] — even the essay is sideways. [The reader] has to experience it in a different way.
SM: It’s a lateral move. The making of [Ware’s] book is a lateral move, and so we should make a lateral move, too. Of course, this was a thoroughly practical solution to the problem of having to rotate the reader’s eye — to run it sideways. … I didn’t want to shrink it down much. You know, this is such a formally inventive book [by Ware] — let’s recalibrate our senses.
MC: And then, I think, the most challenging, as we get smaller and smaller is the [Gerald] Jablonski (“Howdy”). I almost wanted a fold-out.
SM:That’s that section of fairly short excerpts that push the limit, and that comic pushes the labor-intensive limit. The obsessive quality of almost outsider art to me was one of several superlatives that these comics could exemplify, so that there was that sense that each one became this mad, screaming signpost pointing to all the different corners of the universe. That to me seemed like an appropriate evocation of the eternal avant-garde — that the cartoonist will always push the envelope in one way or another.
MC: One section that is near-and-dear to my heart is the Richard Thompson (“Cul de Sac”) “memory box.” … The fact that you take this time to write about Richard specifically. … As you write, we’re taking the time to appreciate Jaime [Hernandez], who seems busier than ever after 30 years, but Richard’s case of appreciation seems the opposite, since we’ll have no new work. Could you talk a little bit about writing that section?
SM:Yeah. Sometimes we can most clearly see the arc of a career when it comes to a close. [Bill] Watterson chose to end “Calvin and Hobbes” and [the books] began a decade-long process of having a rich conversation on shelves all over the world till it had become one of the treasured and valued collections out there. Richard’s career was similarly bracketed, but by fate, and way too soon. But nevertheless, I think maybe it’s somewhat helpful to [his having] earned the admiration of Watterson, because it also reminds else that, well, everything does end — sometimes by the will of the person making it, and sometimes by life stepping in.
[NOTE: The comics creators included in “The Best American Comics 2014″ are: Sam Alden, Isabelle Arsenault, Andrew Aydin, Fanny Britt, Allie Brosh, Nina Bunjevac, Charles Burns, Victor Cayro, R. Crumb, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Erin Curry, Michael DeForge, G.W. Duncanson, Theo Ellsworth, C.F., Brandon Graham, Tom Hart, Gilbert Hernandez, Jaime Hernandez, Gerald Jablonski, Ben Katchor, Miriam Katin, Aidan Koch, David Lasky, Rep. John Lewis, Ted May, Onsmith, Ed Piskor, Nate Powell, Ron Rege Jr., Sam Sharpe, Mark Siegel, Fiona Staples, Raina Telgemeier, Richard Thompson, Adrian Tomine, Brian K. Vaughan, Chris Ware, Lale Westvind and Frank M. Young.]