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Best American Comics

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Best American Comics

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, hardcover

Let’s just admit something we all know in our heart of hearts: Anthologies are a crapshoot. There’s a balancing act that must be maintained when clumping a big pile of unrelated stories into one neat square; content diversity is the name of the game and a lack of that can sink one of these endeavors. Thankfully, this year’s The Best American Comics is a nice collection of 2011’s best and brightest that admirably manages to stay afloat.

Since 2006, the Best American series has chosen one special guest editor to join series editors Jessica Abel and Matt Madden in selecting a book’s worth of outstanding material produced by comics creators from (or working in) North America. This year they chose Alison Bechdel, the creator of the celebrated graphic memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, for the honor. Her partially illustrated introduction entertainingly explains the parameters used by the selection committee and explains any glaring absences from the final product.

The Best American Comics 2011 has few weak links. Selections such as Angie Wang’s Flower Mecha (a goofy, psychedelic strip that pits the author against birds, bees, and pollen) and the name-says-it-all “Anatomy of a Pratfall” from Peter and Maria Hoey’s Coin-Op are short enough that they really shine here. With Flower Mecha, Wang uses flowing, curling lines that work in harmony with her lighthearted adventure tale while the grid formula of “Anatomy” methodically spotlights how multiple converging events on a city street lead to disaster, Buster Keaton-style.

Following suit are a selection of The Great Gatsby parody strips from Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant; Bechdel notes in her introduction that one of the goals of this year’s BAC anthology was to include more contributions from web cartoonists, and there are few funnier or more talented than Beaton. One of the standout pieces from the collection is easily Soixante Neuf by David Lasky and Mairead Case. Inspired by the relationship between musician Serge Gainsbourg and actress Jane Birkin, the 12-page story seamlessly reveals itself to be a flipbook halfway through. While this effect could have felt like a hollow gimmick, it instead perfectly, organically bridges the perspectives of Gainsbourg and Birkin, which literally start at opposite ends and meet in the middle.

The bulk of the collection is made up of snippets from larger graphic novels. Unsurprisingly, the clips from indie comics heavyweights such as Joe Sacco, Chris Ware, Jaime Hernandez, and Jeff Smith read almost like trailers for their respective sources. They’re still great reads, but by necessity (and perhaps design) they leave the reader wanting more.

The only entry in the anthology that falls flat is the glacially paced and anticlimactic excerpt from Julia Gfrörer’s Flesh and Bone, which opens with a compelling satanic forest sequence but ends up slow, talky, and visually inert.

But overall, The Best American Comics 2011 is a strong, enjoyable sampling of top and up-and-coming talent. And if you don’t laugh at the book’s last-page inclusion of Lasky’s “The Ultimate Graphic Novel (In Six Panels),” then there’s just no helping you.

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