“As Radical as I Might Ever Have Hoped”: Jonathan Lethem on The Best American Comics 2015

BAC_coverJonathan Lethem’s record as a novelist (Motherless Brooklyn; The Fortress of Solitude; Gun, with Occasional Music) all but guarantees readers don’t think of him first as a cultural critic. This is a good problem to have. But in books such as Fear of Music and They Live and The Disappointment Artist, Lethem displays a pop-culture acumen that spans genres and mediums. He recently brought his insights to the Best American Comics series, selecting pieces for the 2015 edition at the invitation of series editor Bill Kartalopoulos. Lethem and I spoke in September about the process of assembling the collection. If an anthology gives a useful window into a larger practice—a window with, as Lethem notes, certain limitations—then I hope our conversation gives a limited-but-useful look into The Best American Comics 2015 [1]: a book full of varied, provocative feats of cartooning, and the most delightfully strange comics collection pitched at the casual comics audience in recent memory.

Hunter: I want to begin by asking how you’d compare the process of curating this anthology to the process of assembling a piece like “The Ecstasy of Influence”, in terms of balancing different elements or making an argument.

Jonathan Lethem: That’s really great; I like that suggestion. Do you mean the essay itself, “The Ecstasy of Influence,” or the whole book?

The essay itself.

Honestly, making that essay was most like when I was a kid—I would cut up magazines and comic books and put in word balloons and try to make surrealist comic strips out of them. [“The Ecstasy of Influence”] was really collage work, which is different from curatorial work: putting things together so they resonate and flow but still have their own discrete identities. Even though I came out at the end and identified all the quotations in [“Ecstasy”], I was really doing a kind of violence. I was subsuming those voices to this other object, this bizarro verbal artifact. A collage doesn’t leave the source materials intact.

So [editing The Best American Comics] is much more like being asked to make a mix tape for someone at a party. Or like assembling the larger book The Ecstasy of Influence, which was a puzzle—trying to balance elements, major and minor pieces of writing, out of a much vaster pile of available potential ingredients. And some things I liked didn’t fit once the book began to take shape. That was also true of [Best American Comics]. Things I wasn’t sure about came to live in context and seemed like they were speaking to me in an interesting way.

In Bill’s foreword to this edition, he mentions paracomics—comics at a remove from the field—and the magnitude of that presence really does set this volume apart from the others. Of course, Chapter Five in particular ["You Might Even Hang Them on Your Wall"]. So I was curious how much your work on the collection left you wrestling with the orthodoxies of the form. If, for instance, you’d have a harder time defining comics now.

That’s a great question too. One thing I should say to set the ground for replying is that you, given your position and your continuous critical engagement—and Bill Kartalopoulos, because of his continuing work—are more saturated, more in touch with what the wider field looked like in the years leading up to this effort. And I really did my best to disclose this in my introduction. I think about comics a lot, and I’ve related to comics intensely since I’ve discovered them. I’ve tried to make them—I got to work for Marvel to write a borderline-mainstream comic—but I’m not even close to being a pretender to having a comprehensive critical take. I’m not Scott McCloud, as far as guest editors go. I don’t read comics broadly or systematically enough. I kind of use them for my own purposes—they’re a fuel and a fascination—but I just read so many more to put together this year’s compilation than I’d read in a long, long time. It’s almost left for you to tell me, or for other people to respond to the book and tell me how centered (or not centered) the result looks to them.

I was met with a tremendous amount of material here that messed with my expectations, and I was really excited to—I’ll just go down the list. I’m so excited that something like that Adam Buttrick work [“Misliving Ammended”] exists. It’s so familiar and so dislocating at the same time. It builds on everything I understand comics to be, but it just seems to be so free in its relation to the definition. There were enough pieces like that that I began to feel like I was really being schooled—that comics was bigger and a more radical field and context. As radical as I might ever have hoped, and it made home for all this incredible stuff. And that started to seem like the new center to me. Things that didn’t have some formal breakdown [or] some degree of paracomics—it’s like when rock ’n’ roll got feedback in it, and no song sounded as awake or alive if it didn’t have a little bit of feedback. I just felt like, “This is great. This is what comics want to become, and they’ve done it. Or they’re doing it.”

But again, something I was trying to be transparent with: I come out of a fine-arts background, in a weird way. My dad was a painter and I studied fine art and went to museums as a kid, and so from the very first, I was looking at comics at the same time I was looking at Roy Lichtenstein paintings that appropriated panels. The day that I first saw Philip Guston’s hooded guys, at some semiconscious level I clicked because it related to the way that I loved R. Crumb. I have never been very impressed with the quarantines that keep these things apart. Seeing so many people actively destroying those quarantines in the way they make their work, it just seems natural to me. I came pre-formatted to dig it.

And it was Bill’s second year [as series editor], and it represents something that he’s really excited about. It wasn’t just that he put them in front of me—our conversations about some of the forays that people were taking got really animated. It was very early on, the idea that we’d get Raymond Pettibon into the book. Bill was like, “I kinda feel like these are comics.” And I was like, “Yeah! Of course they are!” I happened to know Raymond and to have worked with him, and I said, “I bet he’ll let us put them in a context as comics. So let’s ask.” [Pettibon’s work] wasn’t a late entry. It was central to, as Bill and I worked together, what we were excited about.

The range of departures is one of the most interesting things. With Pettibon, there are readily apparent departures from the comics form, but even that Anders Nilsen piece, “Prometheus”—the relationship between art and text there is arguably closer to that of a picture book. Or a Kara Walker piece, for that matter.

Noel Freibert, Screw Style

Well, that’s the thing. This pressure is coming from inside what you’d call the culture or subculture of comics—the underground of comics, if that’s even a meaningful thing to say anymore. I don’t think Noel Freibert’s working his way into comics from the outside. I think he’s erupting totally from inside a version of the existing comics world.

If I thought that this subversion, this pressure, was only coming from me and Bill taking someone who’s exhibited at a gallery—Raymond Pettibon—and insisting it upon the idea of comics, it would feel quite artificial.

There’s a book on my shelf called Abstract Comics [2], a nice coffee table book that came out a few years ago. It almost exclusively consists of stuff that, when you look at it, you’re like, “Nah.” One of those Theodoric of York moments: “This could be amazing! Comics! Abstract comics! Look, a whole book full of proposals for an idea of a future where comics could be abstract!” And you’re looking at it, and you’re like, “I don’t think so. I’m really glad you tried.” And if [Best American Comics] were all that, me and Bill fancying that we were going to wreck everyone’s idea of comics by jamming a lot of gallery art into the viewfinder, I think that would be ... unfortunate. But when I see the way that Pettibon is resonating alongside these eruptions from within—Jim Woodring, you know? What is going on? What is that?

I had a question about the Noel Freibert piece. When you first encountered a submission, how much context did you have? For me, those pieces [“Cross Delivery,” “Screw Style,” “How did you get in the hole?” “The Pen,” and “We Can’t Sleep”] are disorienting, and reading Noel’s statement in the back doesn’t demystify them entirely, but it does demystify them significantly.

Well, I saw a whole lot of Freibert’s work. Instead of pointing me to one of Freibert’s modes, Bill dumped a lot of really varying examples. I guess Freibert is working a lot, so there was a lot of stuff that fell in that calendar year. I actually don’t think this is the work of Freibert’s that Bill was expecting me to take on. There was some other stuff that was a little more graphically extreme but less politically overt. It only needed mentioning for me that this had political context ... Which, I’m now looking at his remarks, and he doesn’t allude to that at all. He doesn’t need to.

This is something that I’m just forced to be candid about. I think it’s really hard to find American artists in any medium who are doing work that touches the dark heart of things like the incarceration nation. So I felt seared by Freibert’s way of thinking about war and prisoners. It was the work of his that immediately meant the most to me, even if some of the other examples jumped off the page in a more dynamic way. This stuff created a sense of discomfort and complicity in the reader that rivals William S. Burroughs's intensity.

While we’re still talking about the orthodoxies of comics, there are few things more familiar to the form than the superhero. In Chapter Two, we get a series of alternative cartoonists on that tradition. You being someone who grew up reading those books and who later revived a Steve Gerber character, was it mainly the sense of play in these pieces that appealed to you? Or did any of these entries prompt some real reflection about that tradition?

Josh Bayer, Theth
Josh Bayer, Theth

If I’m really straight about my relationship to the incredible, obnoxious prominence of superheroes in our culture right now, it mostly just bums me out. I hate the movies. I really don’t go the Marvel movies anymore, ’cause I just know it’s going to make me feel really weary. I know that makes me a curmudgeon, that it’s supposed to be good fun and this triumphant, I-told-you-so moment for anyone who grew up with these iconographies—that now they prevail so completely. They’re the default mainstream entertainment mythos.

I’m just not on board. I can’t get there, and partly because the superheroes with which I identified were already kind of mannerist, third- or fourth-tier baroque superheroes. I was reading in the age of, well, Steve Gerber, Jim Starlin, Kirby’s return [to Marvel in the mid-seventies]—the weird things he did with Captain America, the weird things he’d done just before that with New Gods. I can no longer take them straight.

It’s natural to me that people are going to mess around with the familiar faces, the way the Fantastic Four crop up in Ben Duncan’s thing, but that they’re going to also crop up in ways that are hostile or tortured. Literally being tortured in R. Sikoryak’s work. The person who speaks the most to the way I feel about them is Josh Bayer. I just love the way he’s appropriating the stuff to turn his own autobiographical dread inside out by imposing it on these ostensible superhero characters. And it’s so great that he’s not working with Batman and Superman but the actual comics he was saddled with: Micronauts or whatever.

You could read too much into this, but Rom was birthed in Marvel comics as a result of the license to do Micronauts pieces[3], so there’s been some erasure of the character in Marvel books after they lost the license.

This goes to some of my feeling about intellectual property, which I bumped into in a couple of different places, specifically around the Wonder Woman stuff. I’m a really strong believer that these things enter into a kind of public space at a certain point, which is not at all to ... I’ve also simultaneously felt defiant on behalf of creators' rights. Comics is a site where there are so many criminally exploited creators' rights. At the same time, I really feel moved by the way these things can end up in a strange, squalid, belonging to everyone and no one—the way the idea of who Captain Marvel is ends up contested in all these lawsuits.

It corresponds to my feeling about the way iconographies develop in culture. So I want to go to war on behalf of individual creators who should’ve been treated better in the first place, but also to war against the sealant corporations put on these images. The way Wonder Woman becomes something no one can play with, or the way Mickey Mouse becomes something we have to believe isn’t actually connected to Felix the Cat and Oswald the Rabbit—some sacred property.

With the third chapter in the book, “Storytellers”, but also the larger anthology, I was wondering if certain pieces were especially hard to excerpt.

Matthew Thurber, Infomaniacs

I know, it’s really tricky, though actually only the Farel Dalrymple [piece in “Storytellers”] is an excerpt from a longer sequence. But the problem isn’t limited to Chapter Three. I struggled enormously with how to isolate a sequence from Anya Ulinich. And Matthew Thurber, Infomaniacs ... I erred, in some cases—Anya Davidson especially—in just going long. Just giving over a lot of pages. Because I wanted to provide some chance for readers to immerse themselves. But there’s no question it’s a compromise.

And then they’re compromises from another angle too: when you’ve got something physically specific and enormous like Joe Sacco’s [“The Great War”]. Even more of a crisis was created by the gigantic David Sandlin object [“76 Manifestations of American Destiny”]. I don’t know if you’ve see that in person—they’re beautiful pages in the book, but it does no justice at all to the fact of this thing. He made a comic book that’s a crazy, unfolding, monstrous object—you can’t read it like a book.

Reading that in the anthology—I have not seen it in person—I had the suspicion it was akin to watching the new Mad Max on my laptop or something.

I think that’s the problem with that piece, yeah. So at some level, you have to say, “We’re honoring things.” Best American, a year’s best anthology, what are you doing? You’re giving a combination of complete experiences and samples—like you say, little cell phone windows into things that can’t really be held on a cell phone. And there’s almost a nonfiction element, a journalistic presentation: “Look! These things all exist. This is a really amazing array of ways people are going about trying to say something, and we just want to let you know they all exist.” Mixed purposes create mixed results. I can’t defend it any better than that.

One feature of the collection I liked a lot is that you have Chapter Six—cartoonists’ depictions of history—followed by Chapter Seven, which in some respects is about the history of cartooning. Not only with neoteny[4] being a feature of comics since at least the start of the twentieth century, but I think in Woodring’s work you can see not only the echoes of the underground but also Ernie Bushmiller, Krazy Kat ... And with Little Tommy Lost, this amazing recreation of the style and syntax of old strips.

There’s a really underdeveloped thesis behind the question I’m about to ask, but with the cute tradition having such resilience, I wanted to know how clearly you see in “Working the Cute Nerve” a chapter about how cartooning sees itself.

That’s dynamite. I’m really interested in the idea of art forms themselves as potentially neotenous. And the importance that cartooning has taken on in our culture—and the resurgence of the animated film, too. When I was a kid, Disney feature-length animations might have interested us, but they were definitely a thing of the past. And now, every kid grows up with Pixar. So what is this power of the cartoon? Which includes neoteny, which includes the idea of childhood—literally, the physical proportions.

But neoteny itself is a kind of adamant preservation of some childlike sensation—depicting reality by decanting it into a cartoon style. This is where you really need [Scott] McCloud, not me. But it connects to hieroglyphs and to the development of language itself. The way things are taken out of the chaos of pure sensation, the overwhelming report that our senses and our consciousness make of this experience of being, and tries to distill it into some kind of language.

Comics and their neotenous properties are in themselves a kind of demand that we notice ourselves making everything into a cartoon, right? It’s how we cope.

I think this collection raises the question of whether, if reality is a nail, comics has a hammer, or if there’s all variety of tools being picked up more frequently now within the medium.

Kevin Hooyman, Net Gain
Kevin Hooyman, Net Gain

That’s great. I really want to see you advance this thesis, for sure. For me, it’s one of the things that unifies the strangest [elements of the collection]. You cannot overstate how little I was expecting, for instance, to encounter Gina Wynbrandt’s “Please Have Sex with Me.” Or to see the contemporary confusion of our life of interfaces, our life of screens, see the way Matthew Thurber was managing this angst through Infomaniacs. All the way to the crazy intensity of Kevin Hooyman. What a wild genius. What is he doing? Of course, he’s working the cute nerve too in a certain way, but he’s also distilled some element of R. Crumb or some other underground thing. Those Hooyman pieces are as much like psychedelic music as they are like other comics I’ve read. Kind of like listening to Nick Drake or something.

I’m glad you mentioned Wynbrandt . Comparing Chapter Eight—the comics are all so funny—to Chapter Four, you see subjectivity at work in all those pieces, but the links between the pieces in “Voices” are not as immediately clear as they are in “Raging Her-Moans”. It made me wonder what chapters took the longest time to coalesce.

Well, you’re knocking on the right door by pointing at Chapter Four. The really definite things—“Here are détourned superheroes. Here are the things making a vibrant social or political commentary (Chapter Nine)”. Those things or Chapter Five—“You Might Even Hang Them on Your Wall,” about a visual art experience—those were easier. And they were there first.

How to sort out pieces that were in some ways more traditional, that weren’t defiantly arguing for some kind of classification, in a chapter like “Voices” ... I don’t want to say it was something that I backed into, a catch-all for what was left after everything else had a category, but it’s really confusing, what went into Chapter Three rather than Chapter Four. And I started to realize that I believed in it enough to make the distinction.

In fact, the irony is, Chapter Four—which seems quiet in a way, with Eleanor Davis, Andy Burkholder, Gabrielle Bell—in some other person’s take on this particular year in comics, it could’ve been enormous. The book could’ve been dominated by it. Because so many people are using comics right now to tell intimate, essayistic ... We can dispense with presuming we know whether something’s autobiographical, but things that feel like they’re hewed by autobiographical circumstance, whether they really are or not.

Actually, my patience can be very short for it. And I know there’s outstanding, outstanding work in that mode. In many people’s view, it’s the very center of the present graphic novel revolution. I’m totally in awe of the great achievements there: Fun Home or Blankets. But there’s a lot being done that’s fine—just fine. It fills the grown-up tables at the comic book store. On the whole, I didn’t talk about my resistance to it the way I talked about my resistance to contemporary, mainstream superhero comics ... but I had a certain resistance. The book was my statement to make, and I wasn’t going to overturn the predominance of that mode by voting against it with my one-year statement, so I just had to admit that I was less into it than the world is.

With cartoonists like Bell and Davis being the people left standing in that respect, to me, Chapter Four had a funny second identity. You mention in the introduction Chester Brown and Chris Ware, these cartoonists who are secure in their positions, and I think of Bell and Davis as cartoonists from a generation or so later who are a lock for the canon.

That’s right. And I really did regard myself as lucky. As I said in the introduction, I didn’t get hit with, “Oh, Ben Katchor has a major book out, Ware has a new book this year, there’s a new Bechdel.” I’m as responsive to those achievements as anyone, and I would’ve been really excited to have been an editor picking out a chunk of a new Katchor book or Alison Bechdel book. But my position was a much more interesting one, as it happened.

Anya Davidson, No Class
Anya Davidson, No Class

One more question: When I reached the Kevin Hooyman piece in the final chapter, the soothing, sedate textures of the linework really affected me. Like, the Anya Davidson piece right before—I think she is amazing, but by comparison, her work is more intense and asks more of you. So I’m curious what the most purely pleasurable reads are for you.

Ah, that’s really interesting. I did put those at the end because they had, in their different ways, entranced me and taken me the furthest out of my critical self. Definitely, Anya’s line is very jangly, and I can make critical assessments of it. I see this marvelous connection to Steve Ditko and Gary Panter simultaneously—“I didn’t know that could happen! That’s so great!”—but the energy, when I give myself over to reading the Davidson pages, it puts me back in the pure fan position. “What the fuck!? She’s just doing whatever she wants to do!”

It reminds me of reading R. Crumb when I was thirteen—arguably too young—and watching him obviously just gratifying his own impulses page to page. But also, his narrative power and the entrancing power of his drawing were so persuasive that it created form and meaning. That’s some of what I felt with Anya Davidson.

And then Hooyman—I just feel like I’m really stoned. I have to give it over to anyone who can take me so far into intuition and a somatic sense of wonder. He’s really funny, and there’s no point at which he doesn’t remind me that he’s aware of how ridiculous it all is, but the seduction into the sensory experience of his characters and the way they dwell ... He’s feeling himself into their bodies, and then it’s like he’s feeling his way into your body. And the world—this guy and his creature, when you turn the page and they start sailing up the lagoon or whatever it is, you’re immersed.

This is also true, in another way, in the super pure Erik Nebel [piece]. This is what we all drew in our dreams when we were seven or eight. But he’s just making it happen. It’s so great—it’s such pure comics, you know? So I was really thrilled about all those discoveries. ... What was the question? I lost it.

The most purely pleasurable reads.

Well, I rave about how much I love Infomaniacs—I think I already did to you once. The kinds of lively awareness that he cultivates in the reader, and then the ferocity of the dumb laughs when he goes for the dumb laugh. That’s not to be overlooked.

I think with a lot of readers, there’s a baseline resistance to too many mentions of the Internet or social media in a work of fiction, even if it’s a contemporary setting. Easy to bristle at that. But he clears that hurdle by such a wide margin.

He’s actually able to make you aware of how mixed up you are, by having his characters mingle Internet things into reality. “I’m going into the cloud now.” “You can’t! Everything’s been uploaded!” And then she paintbrushes his face. Thurber excavates your nausea that you’re managing so continuously that you stop noticing that it’s nausea.  And he puts you back in contact with it. “God damn, these screens are messing with me!” I think it’s a great accomplishment.

But a lot of these things gave me joy. The field is awesome now. I hope that people can feel it through this awkward lens. The anthology is such an inarticulate tool, but anyone who seeks out more Josh Bayer—so many great examples. There are a lot of things I’ll be reading differently now as a result of these encounters.


1 Table of contents available at the link.

2 The 2009 anthology compiled by Andrei Molotiu, currently out of print.

3 Correction: Scott Dankman, Richard C. Levy, and Bryan L. McCoy created the Rom design prior to the character’s licensing to Marvel.

4 The retention of juvenile traits in an adult being (or, in this case, within a work’s character designs or its larger sensibility).