A comic made with mylar that contains no words or figures. A detailed graphic memoir of a father's grisly death. Moody blue paintings in comics form. The annual compendium "The Best American Comics" was just released this week by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, featuring some of the most intriguing comics work of 2014.
This includes panels by well-known masters (Chris Ware, Jaime Hernandez, R. Crumb and Aline Kominsky-Crumb), but it also features a lot of new voices: from talented story-tellers to artists who are pushing the boundaries of what a comic book can be. (If you are just getting into comics, this is a great place to start, incidentally, since it offers small-plate tastes of what are usually a lot of very big courses.)
The new book was guest edited by Scott McCloud, author of the essential "Understanding Comics," and overseen by series editor Bill Kartalopoulos, a New York-based critic and educator who has also curated exhibitions about comics.
I spoke with Kartalopoulos over the telephone about some of the lesser-known artists in this year's book. Here's whom he says we should be on the lookout for:
Nina Bunjevac's searing family tale
"Her work in this is a mind-blower," says Kartalopoulos of the excerpt from "August 1977" that is featured in the book. "The story is essentially autobiographical: her father was a Serbian nationalist allied with a nationalist terrorist group. He'd been planning some kind of bombing attack and the bomb he was preparing exploded prematurely, killing him. So the work is her re-imagining of the last moments of her father's life. And there is the high level of skill involved: it's striking work visually, an unusual marriage of obsessively detailed, highly symbolic drawing."
Aidan Koch's blue period
"Aidan is a crucial artist to keep an eye on right now," Kartalopoulos says. "She's part of a rising generation of young comic artists who are just as comfortable with the idea of comics as they are with fine art. They have no distinction on whether the work they make does or doesn't conform to the idea of comics. Her work is a deeply abstracted narrative. She uses all of these very subtle painting techniques to produce something that is more of a meditation than anything else. Yet it is still extremely structured in the way comics are."
C.F.'s hallucinatory sequences
C.F. is how Providence-based Christopher Forgues signs his work. And while he's not by any means new to the scene, he remains somewhat under-the-radar beyond the universe of indie comics. "He started in the 1990s in the Boston area," says Kartalopoulos. "He produced work with Ben Jones under the term 'Paperradio' and he was also associated with the Fort Thunder Collective in Rhode Island."
His work blends the abstract with the figurative with the downright surreal. "Everything is totally hand-made," says Kartalopoulos. "There's pen, ink, watercolor. What's great is the use of color. The bleed-through quality of the paint often resonates with themes of anxiety or things being extended beyond their boundaries. It violates the traditional code of comics where everything is contained by a very clear outline. In that way, he is part of a mini-generation of artists before Aidan, who impressed people by being willing to break from the craft tradition of American comics."
Erin Curry's plastic pages
If some artists are experimenting with form, Curry is also experimenting with material. Her minimalist comic consists of a single volume produced on Mylar sheets.
"With Erin, we're starting to get to work that really has to be seen in person," says Kartalopoulos. "I discovered the piece, known as 'Ambient Air,' on her blog, and only saw it in person for the first time when I met her at a festival in Maryland. It's this abstracted comic that plays with the idea of panels and sequences. So you see these faint circles that play with the idea of the word balloon as containers for text. And since the Mylar has a certain transparency, when you turn the pages, you can still make out what's underneath. This is an effect that, unfortunately, we could only simulate in our book."
Sam Sharpe's poignant storytelling
The interest in genre-bending forms doesn't mean that "Best American Comics" has turned its back on narrative. There are some terrific stories in the book, among them an excerpt of an autobiographical comic by the Chicago-based Sam Sharpe. The collection features an excerpt from his self-published book "Mom," about dealing with his mother's mental illness.
"In some ways, Sam's work reminds me of [Art Spiegelman's] 'Maus,'" says Kartalopoulos. "You have this autobiographical situation and these anthropomorphized animal figures. But that's superficially. Sam has this visual exposition that is informed by classical storytelling but it has these periodic interludes where you have these eerie symmetrical blooming flowers that accompany the text. And even though everything seems naturalistic, if you study it closely, you see that each sentence is intended to convey something about that difficult relationship."
What also struck Kartalopoulos about Sharpe's book was its length: "It's this 40-page, staple-bound comic book. In a situation, where you're dealing with such difficult subject matter — the mental illness of a close family member — I can see someone feeling pressured to do a grand 300-page story. But Sam's book is so restrained and so thoughtful. It's exactly as long as it needs to be."
"The Best American Comics 2014" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; $25) lands in bookstores this week.