tl;dr Summary: The book merits a “meh” and is recommended to buy used or to get from the library but not something you want to necessarily keep in your collection, even for reference.
The Best American series and I have an interesting relationship. Something compels me to think I have to read the damn things, thus year after year I buy copy after copy of titles in the series, used/new/eBook, on the premise that I’m going to read them and each year, the books get stacked higher and higher on my to be read shelves, taunting me and of course, never read. (But don’t I look smart with them on my shelves?) When Amazon recently had a one day sale of the Kindle versions of the entire 2011 Best American series for $.99 per title, I snapped up what was available save for Comics (not on Kindle format) and Sports (zzzz). Much like my groaning bookshelves taunting me with unread words, my Kindle app winks at me with updates at its growing collection of books that gather digital dust.1
Now that we have started this review with an oddly charming, yet not terribly related back story of my passive aggressive affair with Best American, let me go into the review of the book.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Best American series, the purpose is to anthologize and introduce a wide range of work in a variety of genres that may go unnoticed (or unappreciated) by the public at large. Each year presents a celebrated guest editor, coupled with the regular series editors, that are big draws in that particular field. In a way Best American is a cheat sheet to being culturally educated. Don’t have time to read all the things? A Best American series has you covered!2
Edited this year by Alison Bechdel, known for Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic and Dykes to Watch Out For, this years entries ranged all the gamut from the existential to the profane to the heartwarming. As someone who is fairly new world of sequential art, new at least in the sense that I dipped my toes into the water and now safely wading in water up to my ankles, I’m naively expecting anthologies such as Best American to help me down that primrose path. When I sat in a panel at C2E2 a few weeks back, one of the presenters mentioned there was something like over a thousand new release titles for graphic novels per year, with most stores maybe getting in a hundred or two. This is, of course, not including single issue books of comics and other works such as manga, which for someone who is geting interested in this world, it is really overwhelming. It’s also exciting because of all the content that you could be missing
Best American Comics 2011 isn’t a bad book, I was enthralled and engaged on various levels, but it’s not an awesome book either. In some of the works, we’re given snippets of story rather then the entire story line, which can be jarring when the editing between artists is not made clear. So if you’re reading a page about rainbows and sunshine and the next page is about dragons and pillaging, and the work between the artists is similar enough, you get really confused on what story is ending and what story is beginning. Additionally, some of the work apparently required explanation, which is provided the back of the book in the introduction to the artists and writers section. Being lead by the artist/writer on what I should be thinking indicates they themselves don’t know what the hell they were doing3 and that irritates me to no end.
And other problem with the work, is that since some of the pieces are taken as snippets, and thus out of the original context, some of the meaning is lost. If this art form, for it is art, is to be understood with the images AND words, moving it from its orignal location, in some instances, loses the intent of the meaning. This wasn’t prevalent in all of the snippets, but in others it was definitely was noticeable.
Maybe, ultimately, I’m disappointed because I didn’t fall in love with any of the characters, writers, or artists in this anthology. I felt like, even ironically, there should be some kind of guarantee with Best American that I will love at least one thing, but I didn’t. My interest was piqued by some of the work showcased but I felt like overall it was too hit or miss. I felt like some of the editing choices were phoned in and as a reader, I picked up on that. I did, however, appreciate that the series editors added a list of notable works for the year, that were not included in the anthology, in the index. The sheer number of titles alone here, many highly regarded, does give me other options to explore.
1. This smells like a new project. And yes, I concede that I’m hoarding Kindle books but in my defense, they were (mostly all of them) free! And they are (mostly all of them) classics! Except for that bad free porn I downloaded, which scared my eyes and brain, but that is neither here nor there.
2. Which explains why I am totally into this series. A lot.
3. I have a vague crankypants attitude towards Salman Rushdie for this very reason, In a fairy recently interview, someone asked Rushdie his thoughts were on critics or people who were not fond of his work and he stated that he hoped one day their tastes would be sophisticated enough to enjoy him.