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Charles Burns’s Hubris

Anyone who has even looked at a page or two of Black Hole understands that if someone has earned the right to flip the bird at the comics gods and get away with it, it’s Charles Burns. The guy’s thick black lines never back down and he is about as deft and apparently facile in his command of comic vocabulary as anyone. But, the wild claim that he makes in his introduction for the newest installment of the absurdly titled Best American Comics is alarming. Burns writes, as an explanation for his choices as the “editor” for the most recent edition (the celebrity editor, by the way, who surveys a shortlist, presumably culled by the series editors, Matt Madden and Jessica Abel):

“For the most part, the artists in this book were already well known to me-that’s just the way it works; these days, if you’re a reasonably talented cartoonist, it’s hard to stay under the radar for long.”

Will all due respect, Mr. Burns: Bullshit. One of the things I really appreciate about the comics world is apparent smallness, the seeming approachability of even some of the most revered creators, the respect for little books, homemade projects, and the general friendliness (rather than nervous competitiveness that is more apparent among writers) of the community. So I appreciate where Burns is coming from. But he has taken this feeling to an unfortunate conclusion: the assumption that this small community is all there is. I can personally guarantee there is a whole slew of wonderful work that has yet to come on to his “radar.” The amount of good work being done is growing exponentially, but outlets are still limited and hierarchies still exist, let’s not pretend they don’t. There are trends and fashions and work that people are more comfortable with and other that faces greater resistance. (This should go without saying.) By ignoring this, we’re creating a dangerous precedent for our critical understanding of what comics are. Burns and Madden and Abel certainly put together a book of excellent comics, but to claim this is all there is, that’s profoundly unfortunate.

30 thoughts on “Charles Burns’s Hubris

    1. Lydia Conklin’s MIDDLE OF THE OCEAN. This comic came from nowhere:

      I’d also like to acknowledge the inclusion of comics by creators like Matt Broersma (who seems largely off the North American radar) and David Sandlin (more of a “gallery” artist) in Best American. These editors did a great job. They reached and they’re knowledgeable and curious. And, as such, I’d assume that they are also aware that there’s always something more. And, it simply struck me that this particular line from Burns denies that idea.

    2. Hans Rickheit’s got new work (although admittedly he gets plenty of exposure from Kramers Ergot, which is a far superion anthology imho) , Jesse Moynihan’s Forming is the best thing this side of C.F., he leaves out any of BJ & Frank Santoro’s incredible Cold Heat… I would have liked more PictureBox stuff included, frankly. Plus there’s lots of beautiful “experimental” stuff that is way underground in the vein of C.F. & BJ, though I guess it’s inherently not as “good” as the originals.

      1. Yeah, I would have thought some Cold Heat would have been in there (assuming an issue came out in 2008). The PictureBox camp seemed pretty well represented by CF, Dash Shaw, and Gary Panter. It’s hard for me to remember what they published when.

  1. I agree with your point about thinking that only those artists you know are worthy of knowing, but it strikes me as a misreading of the quote you used from Burns. He’s saying that many of the cartoonists in the collection were familiar to him, not that he included all the cartoonists he knew.

    Also, I haven’t read the full introduction, but his statement strikes me as one likely about the ease of distribution made possible by new media (“these days”)–something which makes new art/artist easier to find, and easier to promote. With this reading, it seems like something difficult to argue with.

    1. Seems to me when he refers to “the” radar as opposed to his radar he’s suggesting that his choices were limited to something objective; his choices were forced because they were what were captured by “the” radar. An alternative list showing what they missed would disprove that supposition.

  2. Sure, Shya, the channels have opened up, and Burns is acknowledging that. But I think he’s overstating his claim. He’s saying that all you need is a modest amount of talent, and then people will have access to your work. Or that all people who are doing work that can be called comics are offering there work through a limited number of American indie comics channels. I’m just saying, it’s necessary to acknowledge that there’s a bigger world out there.

    1. I agree with this– in so many fields, talent will only get you so far… I don’t want to sound overly negative but, to some extent, talent by itself is unremarkable.

      1. Michael and Edward,

        I completely agree with your ideas of the threat of BAC and canon-making. And I think that’s why Burns’s claim slapped me in the face so hard. He is trying to make an argument to justify the word “Best” and the legitimacy of a North American comics canon.

  3. I know very little about comics, but I do like them. One of my favorite stories (graphic or literary or otherwise) is called “Prebaby” in the collection ‘Scrublands’ by the South African Joe Daly. I don’t know if any of his work made it into Burns’ anthology (presumably not as he’s not American), but I wouldn’t have heard of him had a friend not put the book into my hands. Maybe he’s famous, I don’t know, but I like John’s point that there’s a lot of stuff out there that hasn’t been noticed, and ought to be.

  4. Who cares. Only librarians who are trying to be hip read the Best American Comics anthologies. Seriously, Best American Comics, like Best American Short Stories, is just a mechanism that filters some of the medium’s decent-to-good work from any given year and distributes it to mainstream audiences who are only casually interested in comics. Most comics readers I know don’t even read them.

    1. I haven’t looked at a Best American Short Stories in years, and, from what I remember, your description sounds about right. There’s no way I agree with you about the comics. There’s some excellent work in there.

    2. A reason to care might be that it – the Best American series – contributes to a tendency to canonize certain kinds of art at the expense of others.  It might not be taken seriously by all artists, but to the degree that it establishes itself as a sort of curator on the national scale, its existence shouldn’t be taken lightly.  One thing it has going for it is its yearly change in editor.

      1. You’re both right. I didn’t mean to say that there’s nothing excellent in Best American Comics, and I suppose it is problematic that Best American Comics is pretty much despotic in its influence on the contemporary comics canon, as far as most readers go.

        I wonder how you feel about the persistent disclusion of more mainstream work (the likes of Marvel, DC, Vertigo, Image etc.) in BAC. Apparently, Neil Gaiman is the editor for next year, so that could change. I’m no fan of Gaiman, but I’ll be interested to see what he picks.

        1. Wax Lion,

          That’s a great point about the consistent exclusion of genre and commercial comics from BAC. Their absence is the elephant in the room when discussing the book’s comprehensiveness, especially considering the huge space that they occupy in North American comics, in particular (DC, Marvel, and Vertigo are all American companies). I suspect that there are licensing issues that prevent many of these comics from being included. But, if that is so, I think it’s something that should be acknowledged each year.

          1. Yeah, I think I remember reading somwhere that Lynda Barry wanted to include some Batman thing when she edited BAC, but DC wanted too much to license it. Still, I’m pretty sure that that was the only instance of a BAC editor soliciting mainstream work.

            I guess one could make the argument that BASS rarely includes sci-fi/fantasy works, but I don’t really buy it. It just emphasizes how ridiculous it is to have an anthology that allegedly encompasses an entire MEDIUM rather than a genre.

  5. I’mma agree with Wax Lion–
    BAC is pretty bland. It’s a good tool for getting exposed to certain artists, and it was certainly helpful to me in it’s early days when I was just getting into comix, but for someone who reads comix regularly there’s not much to offer there (this year was the first year I realized that everything I liked in the anthology I had already formerly read). While BAC may sell & “influence” at Borders and Barnes & Noble, I think that anthologies like Kramers Ergot & stuff I mentioned above (PictureBox 4 ever) are actually far more influential across the entire comix world (indy & completely self-published underground) (though Burns’s editorial choices finally cross over into that, albeit to a limited degree) than BAC as a series is going to be.

    Also, I’ve also considered a pretty striking degree of difference between comix & comics. Marvel, DC, and Vertigo would fall into the latter, whereas Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly, and PictureBox would fall into the former. Neither is inherently better than the other, but they’re completely different “things” that just happen to be using similar methods (though in many cases the only similarities is that there are illustrations in both), and to combine them would be really too vague of a field. I’d rather the BAC series started taking on abstract comix than superhero comics.

    1. I think Andrei Molotiu’s book should do a lot to help push things in that dirrection, Mike. I’m guessing we’ll see some abstract stuff in the next edition. (By the way, we featured a whole section of abstract comics in the last issue of Action,Yes.)

      Not sure if I see the usefulness of the comics/comix distinction. Maybe it’s because, as a comics artist, I spend a lot time focusing on page composition when reading, and I think, for instance, there’s a lot of similarity between what Jack Kirby did and some of the work in Molotiu’s anthology. I think the similarity of compositional technique breaks down any barrier that might have been established by commercial dissemination or even cultural history.

      1. While I can recognize that there is great stuff within the realm of superhero comics, and I can recognize that the importance of page composition on reading runs across the entire medium, I still think there’s a remarkable difference between Marvel/DC/Vertigo & it’s ilk and Fantagraphics/D&Q/PictureBox no matter how you refer to it. The terms I prefer to use are little more than quick signifiers to differentiate (obviously).

        For example, and perhaps this is a wholly personal bias that I should seek to remedy, but my experience with “superhero comics” has done absolutely nothing for me, so if, for instance, I were to have picked up a BAC anthology when I was in High School (they didn’t exist then, but hypothetically) & flipped through it only to find that it was half filled with superheros, I would undoubtedly have set the anthology down. My aversion to superheros has more to do with machismo and ideas of power & control (and imperialism etc.) than anything related to talent or innovation as an illustrator, author, or designer. When I refer to a divide, it is a more thematic or ideological divide, it’s a shortcut.

        1. Obviously there’s a big difference between “HULK SMASH!” and something like Molotiu’s abstract anthology, but I don’t think it’s fair to say that comics and comix have nothing to do with each other. You’d be surprised how many mainstream writers are well versed in the comix scene. And while I doubt that most comix-style cartoonists keep up with the latest Marvel and DC crossover events, a great deal of them are obviously influenced by and express a lot of reverence for artists like Kirby, Ditko, Decarlo, etc., as well as mainstream, non-superhero cartoonists John Stanley and George Herriman. Seriously, how could Love and Rockets or Eightball exist without Fantastic Four and Archie Comics? Where would Crumb be without EC Comics and Mad Magazine?

          In my mind I’ve always separated contemporary “serious” comics (or comix) into two categories: those clearly influenced by (and responding to) the history of mainstream comics (Burns, Clowes, Los Bros, etc.) and those existing outside of a strictly comics sphere of influence, adopting more of their narrative and visual techniques from film and graphic design–as well as other comics that follow such traditions–like Molotiu and other people whose names I don’t know, because personally that subgenre of comics doesn’t really interest me. Chris Ware is an example of someone who maybe straddles the line. As I said, my tastes incline much more toward the former.

          1. (using my own lexicon here)

            I agree with the first paragraph here, but my point is more that even if comix are influenced historically by comics, why can’t there be an outlet for only comix? There are a million places to find comics everywhere you go. There aren’t a million places to find comix everywhere you go. If the one virtue of the BAC series are that they’re giving a wider range of exposure to nonsuperherocomics, why should we take away space from the unknowns and fill it up with superheros that you can already get everywhere? I mean, it’s not like we all live in Hicksville (I wish).

            1. I get your point. Maybe it’s an issue of semantics. It should be Best American Comix or Best American Indie Comics, then.

  6. Looks like I’m coming a little late to this conversation, but I have some opinions I’d like to share.

    My opinion of BA anthologies in general is not high in the respect that I don’t find them fascinating to read now, BUT I think they are a jumping off point and that they can be eye-opening. I’d like to believe I’m not being pompous when I assume that the general public is not aware of most of the people included in any of their anthologies, but perhaps most aware of the person they choose to edit each yearly collection. Alice Sebold is the editor of this year’s BA Short Stories, for god’s sake. Has anyone ever read a short story by Alice Sebold? Nope. They don’t exist. (I’m, of course, writing hyperbolically – as I’m sure she’s written and published short fiction, but am pretty sure no one who’s serious about short fiction as a form really cares, and I certainly don’t, not even enough to take the time to see if it exists).

    In this series, I think the editor functions as the eye-catcher to a pretty wide audience, in the hopes that more people will pick up the book and expand their horizons. I know that’s how Best American Non-Required Reading worked for me. I was a freshman or so in college and I saw that that guy I liked, Dave Eggers, edited a collection of stuff he liked to read, and then I fell down the rabbit holes of George Saunders and Zyzzyva and Adrian Tomine.

    I guess the point I’m trying to make is that these series might not be as much for people who are knee-deep in culture/ counter-culture (which seems to be fast-becoming, if not already, popular culture), as it is for people who still hear ‘comics’ and think “X-Men” or possibly, the more enlightened ones, “Persepolis.” And it’s possible that these collections work in a similar way to the Grammy’s, (though I think BA is a few steps up from them) where I would be flabbergasted if anyone I knew who called themselves real music followers agreed that Taylor Swift had the best album of the year.

    When I hear Charles Burns say, “For the most part, the artists in this book were already well known to me-that’s just the way it works; these days, if you’re a reasonably talented cartoonist, it’s hard to stay under the radar for long,” I hear him apologizing in a way. His job wasn’t to pick the up and comers, the people who were pretty awesome but still getting their sea-legs. His job was to pick the best. And he’s probably been buddies with most of the people in this collection for forever, and he’s probably sorry to all of the little proteges who he wishes he could have included but who aren’t the launchpads he’s looking for, who are two or three steps down the line. Maybe Charles Burns is smart enough to know that you need to read Art Spiegelman and Gilbert Hernandez and Chris Ware to orient yourself before you can appreciate the worlds of Grant Reynolds and Jeremy Tinder and Corinne Mucha. And maybe he’s also responding to the fact that when he started, his books had to sit next to Superman and, maybe if the bookstore was forward thinking, Sandman, and that was only if there was that one geeky guy on staff who was weirded out and charmed by a dude who buries bones in “Dog Days” or the religious fanaticism of “Burn Again” and snuck those titles into the weekly order.

    Pretty sure it’s easier for comics artists now no matter how you cut it. Most bookstore have more “graphic novels” than they do comics anymore, for sure. And there’s a lot more design/ side-work available seeking a comic-aesthetic, rather than cartoon.

    Charles Burns knows what he’s doing, and he knows what he was asked to do as an editor. He’s explaining where he’s coming from.

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