The title of the anthology is misleading. It’s not the best comics of 2011 (where’s Marzi?): the entries are chosen from graphic novels, pamphlet comics, newspapers, magazines, mini-comics and webcomics published between September 1, 2009 and August 31, 2010. But never mind. The book provides a window into what Alison Bechdel (of Fun Home and Dykes to Watch Out For fame) views as the best comics for that period, as sent to her by the series editors, Jessica Abel and Matt Madden. Her choices are idiosyncratic but are truly the best—from her point of view.
A word of warning for those not familiar with the format: despite the fact that these are called comics, they aren’t the funny pages. The stories are about adult matters for an adult audience. And Bechdel’s selections do lean towards the darker side.
The subject matter can be dark enough to make some stories hard to read—Joe Sacco covers a massacre of Palestinian men in 1956; Chris Ware follows the consequences of a parent physically abusing his child; Jaime Hernandez describes repeated sexual abuse between children; Julia Gfrörer portrays a man in love with a dead woman who wants to be killed by a witch. The art, too, can be unsettling—in Michael DeForge’s fantastic world an imaginary beast gives up its teeth and skin to transform a creature into a parody of a pin-up girl.
But there is plenty of humor as well. Kevin Mutch explores the meaning of quantum mechanics in a bar/diner filled with zombies. Joey Alison Sayers follows the misadventures of a syndicated comic strip over time. Kate Beaton tells you probably everything you want to know about the Great Gatsby—if you paid attention. David Sayers gives the funniest rendition of comics tropes in six succinct panels.
And in between the tough subjects and hilarity, there are love stories, psychedelic wonders, art and feminism, science fiction, history, fantasy, memoirs, all the oddities that come when writers and artists explore the human condition.
No one will like all the selections. That’s only to be expected. (I was less than fond of Dash Shaw’s off-kilter world.) But the overall effect of the compilation is to give a sense of the richness of the comics realm. As Alison Bechdel explains in her introduction:
Most of these cartoonists are looking just a little beyond the horizon. It doesn’t take anything away from comics to recognize that some of what you read here is also great literature.