The decade old Best American Comics series has a new look this year, with novelist Jonathan Lethem serving as Guest Editor—the first writer known mostly for prose to do so. (Previous guest editors include cartoonists Scott McCloud, Chris Ware and Lynda Barry.) Acclaimed punk artist Raymond Pettibon supplied this year’s cover, revealed here for the first time. Series Editor Bill Kartalopoulos spoke a bit with PW about this year’s volume, his collaborators and what it says about the current state of comics..
PW Comics World: What concerns and focus did Lethem bring to the book? Most of the other guest editors have been cartoonists, so this is a bit of a change.
Kartalopoulos: Jonathan Lethem turned out to be an amazing Guest Editor. He clearly knows a lot about comics and cartooning. His novels draw on his lifelong love of comic books, he’s written Omega the Unknown for Marvel, and he’s more than familiar with the historical and contemporary landmarks in comics. But as someone who’s not “from” the comics field he brings an entirely fresh perspective to the material from the past year that we considered for the book. He doesn’t bring any baggage to the table about who “should” be included in this volume based on status or popularity or currency. Comics can be so insular sometimes, so we’re lucky to have this kind of attention from someone like Jonathan.
Some might anticipate that Jonathan, as a novelist, would have favored work that hews to “novelistic” literary structures and effects, but that turned out not to be the case. He’s a voracious critical consumer of all kinds of culture; he’s written about music, film, art, comics and more. He is smart enough to recognize that there are things that comics can do that he can’t do in his chosen medium. And he’s perceptive enough to acknowledge those qualities in the work that he considered. Of course comics can also deliver complex and textured narratives, but comics that do that are just one part of the mix Jonathan put together.
PWCW: As the ongoing editor, how do you see the submissions for the book changing? I thought last year's with Scott McCloud was a great snapshot of a very diverse medium—but do you think that what we're seeing develop in the medium at the moment is served by a snapshot approach?
BK: The snapshot or survey approach of last year’s book may have been particular to Scott. His nonfiction books get very deeply into surveying the field, making maps of the territory, and creating analytical categories. The comics field has changed so much since Best American Comics started ten years ago that it seemed like the right idea and I was more than happy to go with it. It was also a nice approach for my first year as Series Editor. It let me take a step back from the terrain even as I jumped into it. It’s probably not the best approach for every volume, nor is that approach going to be temperamentally appropriate for every Guest Editor.
Jonathan gave me no marching orders other than to bring him excellent work. In terms of aesthetics and narrative the work that Jonathan ultimately selected is extremely diverse, but in a way that cuts across the conventional categories we might apply to the field from the inside. Jonathan did take a cue from Scott and divide his volume into sections, but Jonathan’s categories are even more idiosyncratic and impressionistic than Scott’s.
PWCW: How did Pettibon approach doing his cover? He's had kind of an on again off again love affair with comics.
BK: Pettibon engaged the task of coming up with a cover forcefully and with a great passion for comics. Raymond and Jonathan had previously collaborated on a series of pages inspired by George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, which ran in The Believer magazine a couple of years ago, so they’d already bonded over their love of the form.
We were so fortunate to get so much of Raymond’s attention. He went into his studio and churned out a stream of images for us to consider. These were peppered with comics references that anyone who knows this stuff would love, from Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy to Bazooka Joe. But the image we went with for the cover was the hands-down favorite for both Jonathan and me: a ’50s-era greaser wearing X-ray glasses and ogling one of Ad Reinhardt’s black-on-black paintings. The image says so much… it’s a collision between cultural signifiers of mid-century America, the high point of both modernist art and the comic book as mass medium: we see a confrontation between high art and popular art; the argument between abstraction and figuration; the sly suggestion that the comic book refugee is “seeing through” the high art. This is all underlined by the triumphant comic book-inflected figuration and text-image integration of Raymond’s own work, which enjoys such a congenial position in the art world today. What could be better for a comics anthology in 2015?
Raymond also drew a picture of Ignatz Mouse attacking a Carl André sculpture for our back cover, but you’ll have to pick up the book to see that one.