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Interview: Bill Kartalopoulos

The Best American series, published yearly by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, collects a number of the year's best pieces in a particular form, which are selected and curated by a guest editor in conjunction with the series editor. This year, THE BEST AMERICAN COMICS anthology has a new series editor, Bill Kartalopoulos. Read our interview with Kartalopolous, conducted by Dr. Katie Monnin, Associate Professor of Literacy at the University of North Florida, below:

Question: How did you become the Series Editor of THE BEST AMERICAN COMICS 2014?  What is your favorite part about being series editor?

Bill Kartalopoulos: Like a lot of great jobs, becoming Series Editor for THE BEST AMERICAN COMICS was a matter of good qualifications and good timing. Jessica Abel and Matt Madden had been co-Series Editors for six years, working on the 2008 through 2013 volumes. The Series Editor position is an ongoing position, and involves working each year with a different Guest Editor. The job of the Series Editor is to attempt to look at as much of the year’s most interesting work as possible --- largely through submissions, but also by visiting festivals, looking around online, and generally keeping one’s antenna up at all times --- and then boiling it all down to a pre-selection of material to forward to each year’s Guest Editor. From that pool of work, the Guest Editor selects the comics that will appear in each year’s volume (with some latitude to bring in a few pieces they may have discovered on their own).

Matt and Jessica worked with a variety of Guest Editors (including Lynda Barry, Charles Burns, Alison Bechdel, and more) to produce a diverse series of annual books that maintained a high level of quality throughout. I know that they took pride in their work on the series and derived a lot of satisfaction from the experience. But when they had the opportunity to accept a long-term artists’ residency in France, they announced that the 2013 book would be their last volume as Series Editors. I was grateful to be invited by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to interview for the position, and was thrilled to get the job.

The scope of the job is necessarily daunting, but I believe that I came into this position as prepared and as qualified as it’s possible for anyone to be. For years I’ve been constantly tracking new developments in comics in a variety of ways, as a writer, a blogger, an editor, and more. I’ve done a lot of work with comics festivals, which requires a broad familiarity with the field. In 2009 I co-founded the Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival, which ran for four years and was a curated show. We annually received many more applications than the show floor could accommodate, and had to review hundreds of applications and make lots of hard (and sometimes controversial) decisions to select the most outstanding and original work for exhibition at the event. I’ve been the Programming Coordinator for SPX: The Small Press Expo since 2006, organizing a robust programming slate each year (we had twenty-three programming events planned over two days in 2014). SPX’s programming always includes both well-known guests and up-and-coming artists to reflect the diverse and open spirit of the show. I’ve done similar work at the MoCCA Arts Festival and at ICAF.

I’ve also curated a lot of comics-related exhibits, and while curating and editing aren’t exactly the same thing, there is a shared selection process operating there, whether I’m working in two or three dimensions. I also worked for several years as an assistant to Art Spiegelman, which included a lot of work on METAMAUS as well as production work on the first two seasons of Françoise Mouly’s TOON Books line of comics for early readers, so I’ve had a lot of intense first-hand experience with the editing and production processes behind some truly excellent comics-related projects. Plus the general exposure to Art and Françoise’s rigorous editorial process has been invaluable. And, on top of all of that, I’m generally just obsessed with knowing about comics and always want to know about excellent new work.

Having recently received advance copies of THE BEST AMERICAN COMICS 2014 after working on this volume for well over a year, in this highly subjective moment I would say that the best part of being Series Editor is seeing the finished volume and knowing that this beautiful book is about to be seen in lots of bookstores and libraries. But there are many pleasures along the way and it’s impossible to rank them. Reading through submissions and finding a really strong comic that I might not have otherwise seen is always hugely exciting. Those moments are electrifying and validate the countless hours of reading involved. (Scott called this the “orchid hunting” part of the job.) Working with our Guest Editors and productively engaging their sensibilities is more than pleasant; it’s genuinely enriching to me personally and makes me better at my job.

In general, though, the best thing about working on the project is that it’s a high stakes, unyielding test of my own critical sensibilities that forces me to apply my point of view broadly with all of the challenges that entails. Essentially, this process puts criticism into practice towards the production of a strong annual statement, expressed as a carefully considered selection of work. It’s one thing to have personal tastes as a reader, but editing THE BEST AMERICAN COMICS requires much more.

Q: What do you think is the largest obstacle to completing THE BEST AMERICAN COMICS each year?

BK: I don’t know if I’d call it an obstacle, but certainly the biggest challenge is trying to get to the point of feeling confident that I’ve more or less managed to see the bulk of the interesting work that we might want to consider in any given year.

I can’t speak to the experience of other Best American series editors, but my sense is that comics enjoys a much less developed infrastructure than many other areas of publishing covered by these series. There are simply fewer established publishers and journals regularly publishing new work in North America than there are in many areas of prose publishing. As a result there is an endless long tail of small-press and self-published work in comics, which includes a ton of diverse and often excellent work --- work that’s just as good as anything published by more well-known publishers. It’s an open field with few gatekeepers, which means that it absolutely would not represent the field for me to rely on the sensibilities of a relative handful of established editors and publishers. I must look far and wide. Unfortunately, many small publishers and self-publishers don’t always remember to submit their work as a matter of course to THE BEST AMERICAN COMICS, so I spend a lot of time and energy getting the word out, tracking new work, making myself available at Festivals, soliciting submissions from artists and publishers, and consulting with colleagues. Not to mention the potentially infinite task of sifting through the ocean of work that’s been posted online via websites, blogs, and social media platforms.

There’s no “finish line” to this process other than the one provided by deadlines, but I do try to at least feel comfortable that I’ve seen most of the work that I should know about in a given year. I know I’ve developed good instincts and a good network over the years. I also satisfy myself with the confidence that anyone whose work I might have missed will continue to make great comics and will inevitably show up more strongly on my radar in some subsequent year.

Q: What was your working-relationship with Scott McCloud like?  In what ways did you two work together to make sure you did indeed find the best of the best American comics in 2014?

BK: Working with Scott was a great experience for lots of reasons, not least of which are his obvious intelligence and generous spirit. Although he was busy finishing his graphic novel THE SCULPTOR while also working on THE BEST AMERICAN COMICS 2014, Scott was always very available to me, highly focused on the work at hand, open with his thoughts, and really fun to talk to.

Every guest editor brings a different critical point of view to the series. Scott’s approach to the volume was unique because he approached the work both as an engaged reader and, more broadly, as the theorist we all know so well from UNDERSTANDING COMICS and his other books. Scott and I had some good conversations early on that set the tone for this volume. We both agreed that for this volume it would be good to think of the book as a kind of broad snapshot of the year in comics, while maintaining the high standards for which the series is well known. The comics field has become so diverse over the past ten or so years that this kind of stock-taking seemed appropriate for my first volume as Series Editor, and of course this approach brought Scott’s analytical talent as a kind of map-maker into play --- if more idiosyncratically so than in his books about comics.

As people will see when they look at the book, Scott divided the volume into ten thematically organized sections and wrote a short introduction for each one, going way above and beyond the minimum requirements for the job. These aren’t necessarily abstract categories of the kind Scott might have proposed in his more theoretical work; at times they’re more impressionistic categories that were suggested to Scott by the pool of work that we evaluated this past year. For example, there are sections of work for younger readers, historical narratives, family narratives, surrealistic work, avant-garde work, and so on. There’s a nice dynamic between the general and the particular at play here. This highly structured “broad survey” approach also allows the book to function as a good general anthology of contemporary comics, even beyond its status as one volume in an annual series.

I don’t expect future volumes to be structured or conceived in this way at all, but it was a great application of Scott’s way of thinking about comics and a useful first approach for me in this role.

Q: As a Series Editor of this project why do you feel as though this publication is so critical and necessary to publish year after year?

BK: Even though THE BEST AMERICAN COMICS is published on a large scale by an established publisher, the series, like all Best American titles, enjoys complete editorial freedom to make a strong critical statement that enjoys a high degree of visibility. That’s immeasurably valuable, and allows the series to provide a real counterpoint to a commercial publishing landscape in which some works enjoy more publicity and better distribution than others for reasons that don’t necessarily have anything to do with artistic value. As I note in my foreword, the 2014 volume includes work by well-known artists from major publishers alongside self-published work and material that had previously only been posted online via Tumblr. It’s a level playing field, determined only by a sense of outstanding quality. That reflects the world of comics as I experience it, but it’s an image of comics that isn’t as frequently visible in major media outlets, at large book fairs, or in the graphic novel sections of most bookstores. On a year-by-year basis, the series is able to remain fairly up to date with the latest developments in comics across the board and can allow readers to enjoy a true sense of discovery, while also implicitly articulating a sense of independent critical standards that are well worth considering.

Q: Can you tell readers a little bit more about the behind the scenes job of being Series Editor? Thinking of next year’s publication: When do you start thinking about possible editors? When does the editor take on his/her major reading responsibilities, and what is that process like for him or her and the team throughout the year?

BK: I receive and look at work all year round, and send my selections to each year’s Guest Editor in several batches between July and October. The Guest Editor then makes his or her final selections and we begin a nearly year long process that takes us from having a preliminary list of selections in hand to shipping the printed volume to bookstores. There are a lot of pieces to this process including securing permissions, getting files from contributing artists, making design choices, selecting artists to draw cover and endpaper artwork, writing introductory texts, composing an additional list of Notable Works to appear in the volume, and much more. I am very lucky to work closely with a team of outstanding professionals at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt who make each year’s volume possible.

Q: What are your goals for The Best American Comics in the upcoming two years?

BK: To be honest, I think I have the same goals as any other Best American Series Editor: to maintain the quality, diversity and integrity of the series each year, to keep pace with the field, to make sure we’re looking at the most interesting material, and to work respectfully with each year’s Guest Editor.

For this particular series, I’m hopeful that the effort I’ve been expending to drum up submissions will encourage more small publishers and self-publishers to automatically submit new work as a matter of course, so that I can spend a little less time beating the bushes and a little more time thoughtfully considering the massive quantity of work that arrives in our mailbox. I’d love to take this opportunity to note that anyone can submit work at any time to this address:

Bill Kartalopoulos
Series Editor
The Best American Comics
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company
215 Park Avenue South
New York, NY 10003

We accept work all year, and it’s actually a huge benefit to receive work as it’s published so that we have more time to read and consider work over the course of the year. We accept comics in any format and only ask that anyone who submits work labels the material with contact information and date of publication.

Q: How do the Series Editors and yearly Editors get selected?

BK: We are always thinking about possible Guest Editors who will bring a new, informed perspective to the series and will also generate fresh interest among the readership for THE BEST AMERICAN COMICS. The series has had a fantastic run of Guest Editors so far, and we’ve got some really great people lined up for future volumes.

Q: If you had to select a few of your favorite comics from this years The Best American Comics 2014 which would you chose and why?

BK: Sorry, but I couldn’t possibly name favorites! One great thing about Scott’s approach to this volume is that there’s a huge variety of work in THE BEST AMERICAN COMICS 2014, and I believe that nearly any reader can find an easy favorite and a different point of access into the volume. However, I would very much hope that anyone who looks at the book and respects Scott’s point of view would give each and every piece in the book a chance. There’s a huge range of material on display in this volume, and it’s worth remembering that it was all selected by one person who likes and appreciates every comic in the book. I think it would be a real treat for a reader to focus on each piece --- even material that seems unfamiliar --- and think about why Scott may have elected to include this work in the book. That kind of productive engagement is one of the great opportunities afforded to readers by any well-edited anthology, and I would certainly put THE BEST AMERICAN COMICS 2014 in that category.