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Best of the Best: Matt Madden on The Best American Comics 2010

For the past three years, the Best American Comics series, edited by Jessica Abel and Matt Madden, has profiled a diverse and eclectic group of comics work and honored it for its achievements. Also each year, Abel and Madden work with a guest editor to make selections. This year’s edition featured guest editor Neil Gaiman. We talked to Madden about the experience.

How did Neil Gaiman come to be the guest editor this year? Had you asked him to be a part of the Best American Comics before?

The guest editors are chosen in collaboration with our editor, Meagan Stacey, who in turn consults with the higher-ups at HMH. Jessica and I suggested Neil early on in our tenure at BAC (this is our third volume, and we're putting the fourth together as I write this). We knew he would be a popular choice and we like the idea of expanding beyond the world of indie and art comics for our guest editors. We actually approached him right when we started being guest editors in 2007 and it took him a few years to find room in his busy schedule.

How did the three of you work together on the project?

The way the book is put together is that Jessica and I gather and read throughout the year as many of the year's submissions as possible (comics of any format published in North America between September 1, 2009, and August 31, 2010, for this year's volume). We send three or four boxes (and an e-mail or two with webcomics links) in the summer and fall containing about 100 comics (one-pagers to graphic novels) from which the guest editor makes the final choices for the book. Neil is of course always on the road, so the books this year had a particularly adventuresome reading. Some were read in London, many I suspect on trains or planes, others in China, and maybe a few while idling by Neil's beehives.

This was a pretty amazing year for comics, as the works in this book attest. Did this year stand out for you in any way, in terms of quality or diversity of content?

As Jessica and I point out in our foreword, this year was marked not just by quality and diversity but quantity—massive piles of books to read, and so many of them ambitious and engaging.

The works included here range from the very popular (Scott Pilgrim, Asterios Polyp, A.D.) to some more obscure books (Trinity, Punk Rock and Trailer Parks). How did you balance the famous with the lesser-known to ensure that attention was properly paid to a wide range of books?

It's part of our policy as series editors to seek out lesser-known books and new talents as well as the more established and popular works. We read books with an eye to their quality and integrity and also for having something new to say. We may decline to pass along a book by a favorite, well-known author if we feel it's not up to their usual level of quality, and we are always thrilled to find high-quality comics by new or under-appreciated authors like Theo Ellsworth or Derf.

What were some of the criteria you used in picking the works to include here?

Oh, it's hard to generalize…. We look for work that is characterized by a compelling narrative that works in tandem with art. Story is very important but we find lots of interesting nonnarrative or nonlinear work (even if there's not much of that to be found in the current volume). We are mindful of our roles as guides or screeners for the guest editor, and that means we'll pass books along that we feel may appeal to them, books that are getting a lot of critical buzz, books that have clear historical importance, and so on. What we don't do is only send stuff along by artists we like or stories that appeal to our particular sensibilities. We also read a lot of good comics that are not quite ready for prime time—the artwork's just too rough, or the artists are still perfecting their craft. It's disappointing, but its also gratifying to see some of these same artists get better year after year and sometimes make it into Best American Comics or other worthy venues.

Were there works you really would have liked to include but couldn’t for whatever reason?

I was really happy with Neil's choices; pretty much everything I was really hoping would get chosen made it into the book. I think Theo Ellsworth's Capacity (Secret Acres) was one of the most compelling and original comics to come out last year and I was sorry it didn't have the honor of being selected. However, it's very hard to excerpt and in any case, Neil chose Theo's charming short story "Norman Eight's Left Arm."

I was also a big fan of the Abstract Comics anthology Andrei Molotiu edited for Fantagraphics and it's too bad none of that stuff made it in. However, the stories Jessica and I particularly liked are included in the List of Notable Comics in the back of the book—and please remember that starting last year, we began posting that whole list on our website along with links so that you can track down these often rare gems: (the new volume's site should be up soon).

How did you determine the sequencing of the stories included? Is there a mood or vibe you all wanted this book to have as people read through it?

The sequencing of the stories is usually determined by the guest editor. Charles Burns spent a long time mulling over the rhythm of the different comics in the 2009 volume and few people noticed that Lynda Barry ordered her stories alphabetically by author as a way of arbitrarily equalizing the field. Neil was so busy by the time we got to that stage of the design and so many people were involved (Meagan, the HMH designers) that I'm not really sure who decided what, though I think it flows very nicely.

One new feature Jessica and I are developing is introducing title pages where appropriate so that a) comics don't get too cramped and b) excerpts from longer works are clearly marked as such.

Have you seen anything so far that you're eyeing for next year's edition?

Piles and piles of it. We are right now sorting through books and making choices for our Super Secret Next Guest Editor, whose identity we are not yet ready to reveal!

-- John Hogan