A Public Service Announcement! ;)

A Public Service Announcement! ;)

Monday, November 03, 2008

Must Read: The Best American Comics 2008

Guest-edited by Lynda Barry, this installment of the Best American Comics series is just as good as the previous two and better than Brunetti's An Anthology of Graphic Fiction volume 1 (I hear a second volume is underway). Barry introduces the text with an ode to comics and cartoons that inspired and confused her and with wording that makes an educator think of Louise Rosenblatt's thoughts on poetry and Reader Response theory.

Barry essentially espouses a transactionalist theory of reading comics when she states, "No matter how carefully a comic strip is constructed, the reader's experience of it cannot be predicted/ There are as many version of each comic strip as there are readers./Where is a comic strip located?/Reading a comic strip more than once seems to change it as well, but of course, it's not the conic strip that is doing the changing." Rosenblatt says of the transaction that takes place between text and reader: "emphasizing the essentially of both reader and text, in contrast to other theories that make one or the other determinate....'Transaction'...permits emphasis on the to-and-fro, spiraling, nonlinear, continuously reciprocal influence or reader and text in the making of meaning. The meaning — the poem — 'happens' during the transaction between the reader and the signs on the page" (source).

Rosenblatt says of reading in general (particularly in reading poetry): "The special meaning, and more particularly, the submerged associations that these words and images have for the individual reader will largely determine what the work communicates to him. The reader brings to the work personality traits, memories of past events, present needs and preoccupations, a particular mood of the moment, and a particular physical condition. These and many other elements in a never-to-be-duplicated combination determine his response to the peculiar contribution of the text."

She defines two forms of reading, efferent and aesthetic, and mentions that most reading is done via a sliding scale between the two types:"despite the mix of private and public aspects of meaning in each stance, the two dominant stances are clearly distinguishable: someone else can read a text efferently for us, and acceptably paraphrase, but no one else can read aesthetically—that is, experience the evocation of—a literary work of art for us."

Barry says in her introduction, "When we notice new things in a story, something is being forgotten that we don't notice./Sometimes not getting the story the way it was intended can be the very thing that makes it usable." Time, experience, lack of both those things, and emotional state are just some of what affects one's reading of a comic, Barry asserts.

The comics Barry has selected certainly lend themselves to aesthetic readings, from those of-the-moment (or of-the-age) works like the selections on war and politics by Alison Bechdel and David Axe and Steve Olexa, to the parables and fables, to Pablo Picasso's naked penis and the wounded bird syndrome of Sarah Oleksyk's copy girl in "Grave-Yard," the collection drips diverse pathemata but never gets so saturated that one has to get away from it from time to time (a weakness of the Brunetti collection, which might as well have had 'insert your own cartoon character here' screaming on an otherwise empty page, "I'm so fucking lonely!!!!" Still, though, the Brunetti is worth purchasing as well).

Besides for "Salon," in which Picasso and friends attempt to find a new essential art, the most enduring comic of the collection for me, beating out the Ware and Yang and Bechdel contributions, is Joseph Lambert's "Turtle Keep it Steady," a retelling of the tortoise and the hare fable and a surprising choice for inclusion due to its simplicity and surface-level lack of seriousness. Full of tender art and little text, the economy of its message makes it all the more powerful: some are great but burn out on their own weakness for success. Better the slow burn, baby, the slow and steady beat.

The Best American Comics 2008 is a must-read for comics fans who like their sequential art with a little less capes and drapes (though it has those too!) and enough diversity of substance to keep one engaged but not overwhelmed with emotion or by common theme.

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