Sunday, June 22, 2008

Comics: Better than "best."

Tagging your anthology "best of", whether it is a greatest hits CD or a genre-centric compilation or a cookbook, is always a losing proposition. At best, editors treat the label as a marketing burden and freely hone-up to how impossible it will be to live up to the implication. For what might rank as the very limit of editorial self-flagellation regarding the use of "best of," check out David Foster Wallace's self-deconstructing introduction to The Best American Essays 2007, a performance that would well rank as the finest parody of modern liberal academic intellectual paralysis if the reader could shake the notion that Wallace thinks this sort of masturbatory tail-chasing is actually the essence of insight.

At worst, one gets the feeling that the editors knowingly devalue the word. Like "victim," its ever-cheapening modern usage invites abuse by the cynical. The exemplars in this category were the folks at Mammoth, who seemed to put out a doorstop-sized Best of Some Genre or Another every four days. I don't think you can have visited a mid- to large-sized bookstore and not have run into these things: Mammoth Books of Best New Horror, of Best British Mysteries, Best New Sci-Fi, Best New Erotica, and so on. I've worked my way through a couple of these anthos before and the results have always been mixed, with the scales slightly tipped in favor of disappointment. Consequently, when I saw that Mammoth was responsible for a line of comics-related "best of" anthologies, I did not hold high hopes.

Happily, the folks at Mammoth took advantage of my nonchalance to, ninja-style, sneak up on me and kick my ass.

The first of the "best of" comic anthos I picked up was The Mammoth Book of Best War Comics. Read the Amazon reviews of this 500+ page brick of comic goodness and you'll find a common theme: "This isn't the best of! Where's Sgt. Rock? Where's Haunted Tank? Ye Gods! What are you trying to pull here mine editor Mammothy?" This is, I guess, fair. The book is not a collection of fan faves. I suspect that economic played a part in this. What with success of the phonebook-sized Showcase editions converting the back catalog of the Big Two in a surprisingly productive gold mine, near forgotten war comics are suddenly valued properties. More than the capitalist illogic of property right, however, the real reason for the lack of the usual suspects is that the editor of War Comics did something mo' better than a re-run of shop-worn classics. David Kendall produced an anthology meant to not only showcase some of the best comic art about the theme of combat, but to expand the very notion of what war comic was. This is one anthology features manga about the dropping of the atomic bomb, gung-ho post-World War II Brit heroic "realism," '60s underground surrealism abut 'Nam, a fantastically weird children's tale about the Falklands conflict, nightmares about wars still to come, and more. There are acknowledged masterworks, such as Eisner's Last Days in Vietnam and Mill's and Colquhoun's unbelievable Charley's War (perhaps the single greatest comic art statement about men in combat), and surprising choices, such as the Russian artist Askold Akishin and Sweden's Fabian Goranson. Critics who bitch about the lack of The Unknown Soldier are right about the antho for all the wrong reasons. They're like movie-goers who stumble out of Apocalypse Now complaining that it was no The Green Berets. There are some real problems with the Mammoth book. Some of the reprinting is atrocious and seeing some of the fine art so muddied is a distracting frustration. There's also a seemingly random selection of color plates that actually cut out before one of the color stories ends. What's going on there? The cover's pretty cheesy too. That's not so good. Still, in terms of selection, the Mammoth anthology represents not just a solid look at war comics, but a significant contribution to comic's history and appreciation. If I was the Mayor of Comic Business Town, serious fans of the medium would have found War Comics on their required reading list.

Which brings us, Screamers and Screamette's, to The Mammoth Book of Best Horror Comics a 500+ page doorstop that has the unenviable task of following on the heels of its more martial sister-tome. Is Best Horror Comics another triumph?

The Mammoth Book of Best Horror Comics is not the essential volume the War Comics is; but it a success on its own terms. Partially, this distinction between the two volumes has to do with a shift in editorial focus. Instead of trying to bush the boundaries of what constitutes the genre, Best Horror makes and effort to establish the long and unbroken history of the horror comic, making an argument for its status as crucial comic genre, perhaps second only to the enduring superhero genre. With this more narrow focus, readers are not going to have their notions of the genre transformed. But they will get a interesting, if necessarily incomplete, tour of the history of scare stories in the comic rags.

MBHC will start with a surprise selection for many comic fans. Editor Peter Normanton begins his historical overview nearly a full decade before the '50s boom most of us identify as horror comic's Big Bang. In the war years, anthology comics would plunder well-known short stories for ready material. In the case of 1944's "Famous Tale of Terror," from Yellowjacket Comics, it's Poe's "The Black Cat" that gets the comics treatment. From this interesting start, the book divides horror comics into four broad periods: a golden age in the 1950s, a revival period in the 1960s and 1970s, a period of decline in the '80s and '90s, followed by a second revival in the early 21st century.

Unsurprisingly, the first two sections are the strongest. These are widely admitted to be the golden and silver ages of horror comics. In fact, just the look of these works is so synonymous with "horror comics" that almost anything you chose is going to feel iconic. Not that the editor takes advantage of this to phone it in. The selections from the first two great periods of comic horror are consistently solid, often great. Regular readers of LoTT-D member blog The Horrors of It All will recognize some the material from the '50s. Fans will recognize the talent of luminaries like Jack Cole, Don Heck, Rudy Palais, Jack Katz, and Jerry Iger.

The selections from the last two periods are more spotty. This is almost necessarily so, as the premise of the last two periods is that horror entered an era of slim-pickings and that the new era has just started up. In the former case, you take what you can get. In the latter, nothing's yet attained the critical patina of "classic" yet. Still, even if we grant those difficulties, it is only in these later sections that we start to get some duds. Most notably a couple of stories that rely on photomontage techniques or drawn-over photos to create their visuals. Though these techniques were popular throughout the 60s and 70s in some Mexican comics, they have never really caught on in the US. I have a complex and nuanced theory as to why this is. My theory goes like this: it looks like crap, that's why. The talent in these later sections includes Steve Niles, Mike Ploog, and Arthur Suydam.

Best Horror dumps the whole color plate thing – which is fine with me considering that they were somewhat wasted in Best War. Though there are some problems with the quality of the reprints, I think Best Horror is an improvement over the previous collection. Scholars and hard-core fans will want to seek out the originals, of course, but more casual fans and first time readers wouldn't find themselves distracted by QC problems.

While less ambitious than Best War Comics, Best Horror is, in its own way, no less successful. Fans of horror comics have had histories and overviews to read before (notably Sennitt's Ghastly Horror), but this is the first comic anthology that covers the same ground. People will always quibble about what should have made the cut. It comes with the territory when you slap "best" on anything. But that's nitpicking. The real goal of "best" isn't to establish a canon or showcase new and hot writers. Instead, it sets a timeline for the development and evolution of horror comics and makes a case for the genre's enduring importance. Great and ghastly stuff.

The Mammoth Book of Best Horror Comics is published by Running Press and it is going to set you back about 18 clams. It's out now.

4 comments:

AndyDecker said...

this sounds good. Thanks for the tip!

cattleworks said...

This is one of the few times I actually heard about something available at the bookstore, horror-wise, BEFORE you turned me onto it with a review here.
I picked this up months ago, startled by its huge-ass size, and totally hooked by the subject matter.

Following my usual MO, yes, I bought it, and hell yeah, I have not read it yet.

But I feel vindicated by my typically impulsive purchasing habits with your (usual) thoughtful and appreciative review.
Aha! I win!

Although, still, despite my being ahead of the ANTSS' curve this one time, I'm STILL actually behind: that WAR COMICS anthology sounds really good, too!

Dammit!

CRwM said...

Andy,

My pleasure. I hope you dig it.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Cattle,

'Sup, amigo?

I'm slowly working my way through the anthology myself. I kinda of jump around at random through the book, rather than following the chronological thread.

I highly recommend the War Comics anthology too. I don't know about the manga one (I'm no big fan of manga books, so I'm probably not the the one to review that).