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Some of the parts

Anthology tells comics’ full story

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For at least 50 years, 10-year-olds paid for comics with allowance money. They carried their books curled in a back blue jeans pocket. They read belly down in the unnatural light that shines on finished basement floors. Like water parks and double-pepperoni pizza and the great debate whether or not Brooke Shields really showed her boobs in The Blue Lagoon, comics worked because they respected their target audience’s essential interests, not least corny jokes, colorful costumes, loud explosions and intergalactic travel. Comic books put children or children’s projections of themselves as adults at the center of action. Good guys triumphed over bad guys. Girls, good or bad, wore extremely tight tops.

Then came Maus—or, more precisely, RAW, the avant-garde comics anthology edited by Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly, first published in 1980. From its pages sprang much of Spiegelman’s book-length Holocaust memoir, 1992 winner of a special Pulitzer Prize. RAW was not the first underground-cum-alternative-cum-art cartoon anthology, and Spiegelman, likewise, had his predecessors. But Maus was the work that made obvious to intelligent readers that comics—Art! Literature! Together! Shazam!—could be about anything. Fifteen years later, it’s one of the suddenly mature form’s two crowning masterpieces. The other is Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, a 2000 family and society novel of Joycean scope and precision by Chris Ware.

Now Ware has been called away from the drawing board to edit The Best American Comics 2007, which includes exactly zero kids stories or superhero adventures. For several reasons, it’s a strange book, and that strangeness speaks, I think, to why reading comics may currently be almost as challenging as it is rewarding.

First, few of the pieces in this book are “whole” works, by which I mean what Aristotle meant: stories with a beginning, a middle and an end. Instead they are excerpts of other complete books or book-length narratives, among them Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Adrian Tomine’s Shortcomings, and Charles Burns’ Black Hole. The excerpt effect is a little like forced channel flipping—we enter a story already in progress and leave long before its conclusion. Closer to form, it’s as if The Best American Short Stories published chapter five of Richard Russo’s new novel or pages 92-114 of the latest Amy Tan. In fact the short story anthology explicitly excludes any work its editors know to be part of a novel in progress.

If The Best American Comics won’t (yet) adopt this code, it’s not Ware’s fault as an editor, but rather as a role model. Since the popular and critical successes of Maus and Jimmy Corrigan, the cartoonists of greatest talent and ambition are putting their best efforts into books rather than one-off strips or episodic stories. What they write and draw, they write and draw for adults. Their work, which simply happens to be composed of sequential boxes of words and pictures rather than text or art alone, demands and rewards many hours of contemplation. While the popular music industry steadily shifts studio time allotment from full-length albums to three-minute singles to ringtone-ready 15-second hooks, literary cartoonists can now count themselves among our nation’s leading advocates for longer attention spans. Is it possible merely to sample their offerings without selling them short?

The Best American Comics is beautiful—more beautiful, for example, than my edition of the Bible or The Riverside Shakespeare or the Everyman Library edition of The Brothers Karamazov. Of the nine current categories in Houghton Mifflin’s annual Best American anthology series only this—the newest—apparently requires hardcover binding, lavishly produced endpapers, a dust jacket and 350 full-color, cardstock-quality pages.

There is such a thing as being too beautiful for pleasure, though, and the medium formerly known as “the funnies” may have grown up faster than its fans. Sight unseen, readers might have anticipated a collection they could take on a bus or train ride, whiling away a commute. They could prop it up on their knees in bed, staying up an hour or two too late each night for a week. Waiting for warmer weather or a cheap flight, they might tote it to the beach with suntan lotion and a sandwich. Well, no. At almost 2 1/2 pounds, a brick like this would shutter commuters’ iPod screens, crush bed-readers’ kneecaps and squash beyond recognition any beachgoer’s unlucky sack lunch. The Best American Comics is built to occupy a coffee table.

I have a better idea, borrowed from the journal McSweeney’s, which surely borrowed it from somewhere else in the happy cannibalism of American culture. My idea is this: The Best American Comics shouldn’t be a book. It should be a bookcase. Each of the 30-some selections should be printed separately in a little stapled pamphlet that would fit inside. Then readers could buy each year’s anthology and invite over their friends. They could order pizza and pour all the pamphlets out on their basement shag carpeting. They could divvy up the comics and sprawl side by side, reading, swapping. When it got late, the crowd could crawl into sleeping bags and use flashlights. They would finish when everyone had read every pamphlet. Any leftover pizza could be eaten cold for breakfast.

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