Yet Ben Katchor is not only willing to prop himself up onto such a stage, but also, for the 2017 iteration of the “Best American Comics” anthology (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), the acclaimed urban-landscape cartoonist agreeably beats you to the punch by smothering his own editorship in meringue and Boston cream. Because he knows “best” is a half-baked term meant to attract attention and goose sales, he also sets up the reading experience with on-point satire.
The annual “Best American Comics” book — a series edited in recent years by Bill KartalopouIos — has had a who’s-who of comics guest editors since its 2006 launch with Harvey Pekar. But this is the first time I’ve considered recommending the book on the strength of the introduction alone, because it spoofs so many cliched industry conversations so cleanly that the reader is laughing with deep recognition before even getting to the first anthologized comic.
What Katchor is up to here, really, is extending the self-importance of a lone critic’s “best” to absurd conclusions. And so we get a send-up of an official body — in this case, the faux Washington-based U.S. Chamber of Comics — trumpeting the book’s chosen cartoonists as “winning players in the casino of American culture” who live golden lives “comfortably ensconced” in the nation’s higher economic echelons. Next, the Katchor-invented National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Cartoonists issues a self-serious bulletin, titled “I am a Cartoonist, not a Mental Health Problem,” that parodies long-standing debates over the respect due comics and those who make them. And the introduction concludes with an Onion-esque news article that mocks Katchor’s very role as a guest editor.
The introduction’s winking wit, though, serves a sly, ulterior purpose: If you’re won over by the incisive humor of Katchor’s conspiratorially pitched “confessions,” then you’re all the more likely to trust just what he deems “best.” And Katchor — the first cartoonist to bag a MacArthur “genius” grant — is willing to stray far from conventionial forms to recognize great graphic narratives.
The 2017 edition includes some of the usual suspects — such superior storytellers as Gabrielle Bell (“Get Out Your Hankies”), Joe Sacco (“Rent Crisis”) and Kim Deitch (“Shrine of the Monkey God”), striking visualists like Gary Panter (“The Future of Art 25 Years Hence”) and more recently ascendant rock stars like Ed Piskor (“Hip Hop Family Tree”) and Michael DeForge (“Big Kids”).
Yet one way to push back against the familiar expectations of “best” is to seek out self-published work like that of Canadian cartoonist Ben Duncan (“Ball Means, Vol. 1”), who lures you into viscous fever dreams of metamorphosis. Or of Ethan Persoff and Scott Marshall (“John Wilcock, New York Years, 1954-71”), a deftly presented bio-comic that illuminates New York’s underground press movement at midcentury. Or of Tim Lane (“Remembering the Millionaire Hobo”), who unspools a prose-heavy telling of the true life of hobo organizer James Eads How.
“Best American Comics 2017” is an especially distinguished addition to the series because throughout this nearly 400-page taste test, no comic’s storytelling “flavor” is similar to anything that comes before it in the book. Contrasts and composition and levels of abstraction vs. realism vary wildly, lending an air of unpredictability throughout.
For decades, Katchor has had a keen eye for finding the unique small surprises within the larger framework of cityscapes. As a particularly mischievous guest editor, he is just as sharp an observer of the new and of what deserves to be studied closer — forever with a wink.