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'The Best American Comics 2012' is serious fun

November 21, 2012|By David L. Ulin | Los Angeles Times Book Critic
  • Francoise Mouly, editor of "The Best American Comics 2012," says in her introduction that these days, "comics can tackle any topic."
Francoise Mouly, editor of "The Best American Comics 2012,"… (Sarah Shatz / Houghton Mifflin…)

I can’t imagine a better editor for “The Best American Comics 2012” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 360 pp., $25) than Françoise Mouly. Co-founder (with her husband Art Spiegelman) of the legendary “comix” magazine RAW and long-time art editor of the New Yorker, she has been on the comics scene since before there was a comics scene, and is a key figure in the ongoing evolution of the form.

As she explains in her introduction (itself a four-page strip that appropriates the styles of, among others, Maira Kalman, Roz Chast, Ben Katchor, Charles Burns and Lynda Barry: “When I started RAW magazine, in the '80s … there were mostly superheroes, a few children’s comics … and the dirty, intentionally lowbrow, underground comix. And now … comics can tackle any topic.”

Not all these artists appear in “The Best American Comics 2012,” but they do suggest a context for the book. Essential to that context is Mouly, whose sense of comics extends beyond the traditional.

Indeed, some of the most exciting work here is the least expected, such as Leanne Shapton’s watercolor series “A Month of …” First published in the New York Times, these impressionistic paintings capture in quick strokes a woman swimming, a man sitting in a chair before a bookcase — in other words, “the banalities and quotidian details of daily life.” 

This is not to say that “The Best American Comics 2012” is oblique; its contributors include Jaime Hernandez, Joyce Farmer, Adrian Tomine and Chris Ware. (In keeping with her role as editorial director of Toon Books, which publishes comics for children, Mouly has also included material for young readers, for the first time since "Best American Comics" launched in 2006.)

And yet, perhaps, because I know those artists, what resonates for me most are the discoveries: Christoph Niemann’s sketchbook “Red Eye” — exactly what it sounds like, the record of a trans-Atlantic night flight — or Jonathan Bennett’s excellent slice-of-life one-pagers from the Believer, six of which are sprinkled throughout the book.

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