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What a Year: Alison Bechdel

What do you say about a year like 2011? If you’re talking comics…plenty. Alison Bechdel, who this year joins Jessica Abel and Matt Madden to edit the annual anthology The Best American Comics,discusses her favorites, what she looks for in a best comic, and much more.

How’d you get involved with editing The Best American Comics 2011?
Well, the series editors Jessica and Matt asked me, and I said, Hell, yes. 
What kind of criteria did you use when you approached it? How did you choose which comics you thought made the cut?
I was looking for comics that made me feel excited about what comics could do. Jessica and Matt encourage the guest editors to be idiosyncratic because they want each edition in the series to have its own distinct feel. So that freed me up. I didn't feel like I had to judge what was "best" according to some abstract standard. I picked the stuff I liked. 
What did you think of this past year in terms of comics quality? Was this, in your opinion, a better year for comics than previous ones?
I was pretty staggered by how much good stuff there was. The field has been expanding exponentially in recent years. It's not just that there are more and more people doing comics, therefore more good comics. It's that all this intensified activity is raising the bar. I write in my introduction about how in a way this is disconcerting. When I began cartooning in the 1980s, a great part of the appeal for me was the lack of aesthetic criteria. Comics was a place where you could do what you wanted without a lot of critics peering over your shoulder. Those days are gone. But it's very exciting to watch graphic narrative evolving at this rapid pace.
Are there any surprising selections that you can reveal? Some choices that people would not necessarily expect?
I hadn't really been keeping up as well as I might have with new artists in recent years. I expected to see great work from people like Sacco, Ware, and Hernandez. But as I worked my way through the pile, I found myself repeatedly saying, "Where did THIS punk come from?" All these great young artists had apparently sprung fully grown from nowhere. John Pham was one of those. His work is really amazing. The volume includes a short memoir piece by him, which is excellent, but I wanted to run an excerpt from his amazing outer space saga, Sub Life. We couldn't make it fit into the book, though—it depended on a vertical orientation to read properly.
Books like this always shine a spotlight on how comics is a format and not a genre. Does that make creating an anthology like this a more difficult task, since it’s almost impossible to create a cohesive theme?
Yes. I was starting to feel a bit schizophrenic for a while there, trying to bring all this very different material together between two covers. Fiction, science fiction, journalism, memoir. "Comics" as a rubric began to seem rather thin and insubstantial. But I found different little sub-themes that helped me to wrap my mind around the book. There are several comics ABOUT comics, comics that interrogate the form in one way or other. But sadly, we were unable to run the best example of this. Michael DeForge did this great piece about a sort of cartoon hell, or id, populated by all these classic cartoon characters like Nancy, and at the last minute that turned out to be a legal problem. There were also many pieces that were combos of different genres. Gabrielle Bell and Gabby Schulz both did interesting pieces that were part memoir, part essay. I find that kind of hybridity very exciting.
With digital comics, webcomics, indie comics, and mainstream comics all branching out in so many directions, how much time did you have to spend tracking down the candidates for this collection?
Well, to be perfectly honest, it was Jessica and Matt who did the heavy lifting. They culled through everything that was published or uploaded or peddled on a street corner within the given time frame. Then out of all that, they sent me a crate of around 100 books. Actually, I don't know what percentage got passed on to me—I should find out, it would be interesting to know. I admire Lynda Barry because the year she edited BAC, she said no way, I'm gonna read EVERYTHING, and she did. But I just didn't have the time.
Are there any comics you really wanted to include here but couldn’t, for whatever reason?
Yes. There were a lot of things like the John Pham outer space piece that physically wouldn't fit. For example, many innovative little hand-bound minicomics did brilliant things with the form of the book itself. And that just couldn't translate to this big stolid horizontal hardcover volume. There were also a number of pieces that just felt excerpt-proof, where it was impossible to find a selection that stood on its own because the book as a whole was just so tightly written and designed. Dan Clowes' Wilson was one of those. And James Sturm's Market Day.
What are you working on next? Anything coming up that you would like to let us know about?
I'm working on a memoir about my mother, which is kind of a companion piece to the memoir about my father that came out in 2006, Fun Home. This one is calledAre You My Mother. It's been a long haul. I had a really hard time writing this book, and over the years it has morphed a lot from my original conception. I think a big reason for that is that my mother is alive, unlike my father, and will see this book. That's a pretty daunting prospect. Several years in, I realized that I was skirting the real issues. So I had to kind of start over to write more directly about my mom. Now I've taken so long with the writing that I have to draw at a superhuman pace in order to make my deadline. But it's a great relief to be drawing at long last.