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What were your first experiences with comics like? Like a lot of people my age, I grew up buying and reading superhero comic books from local stores—principally the grocery store, which stocked new Marvel and DC comics in its magazine section. I was always happy to accompany my parents there so I could hang out near the magazine rack while they shopped. Back then, I would measure out my allowance in increments of 75 cents—the cover price of a typical comic book—and deliberate over which one to buy. Today, those kinds of comic books are mostly available in isolated specialty shops, while graphic novel and manga sections in bookstores—along with online comics—have created completely different ways for people to get into the art form.

A lot of kids who went through a comics phase lost interest after a while, but my interest stayed through high school and into college. Fortunately by the time I was in college, there was a great body of more mature work by artists like Daniel Clowes, Robert Crumb, Julie Doucet, the Hernandez brothers and Art Spiegelman for me to discover. By the time I finished college, I had begun to explore the larger range of themes and styles available in comics. I also started to become interested in the comics form and its history and aesthetics. As the field keeps growing and evolving, I can say that, looking back, I was very lucky to develop an initial interest that became a lifelong fascination. And fortunately, the form and the field are rich enough today to sustain that level of ongoing attention.
It’s vital for everyone involved with comics to have as broad of an international perspective as possible because there are many rich comics cultures around the world.”

As series editor for The Best American Comics, do you try to cater to all types of comics readers, from the casual to those with a taste for the avant-garde, when making your initial comics selections? Not consciously, although that often ends up being the result. Part of my job is to receive and read the many hundreds of comics that come to us every year through our open submission process. Beyond that, I spend a lot of time and energy looking around and reaching out to artists and publishers to make sure we are catching any intriguing work that hasn’t already come to us as a submission. I end up with a huge pool of work to consider, and then I make a preselection of about 120 pieces that I send to our guest editor each year for consideration. That person then chooses approximately 30 pieces that will be included in the final book, while also retaining some freedom to pull in work that she or he may have personally discovered. The comics field is so vibrant these days and our guest editors have such acute and open minds that each year’s volume, almost by default, ends up having something to offer to many different kinds of readers.

How does each Best American Comics you’ve worked on reflect the tastes of its guest editor—Scott McCloud, Roz Chast and Jonathan Lethem? The series editor role on the Best American titles is an unusual one. I spend a lot of time each year on this project, but at the end of the day, someone else makes the final selections for each year’s book. Frankly, the job requires a little ego suppression! But actually—and it’s no surprise—collaborating with people like Scott, Roz and Jonathan has turned out to be one of the most interesting and enriching parts of the job. Personally, I consider my work to have been successful if the book maintains a generally high level of quality while strongly reflecting the unique point of view of each year’s guest editor. And I can say that even though there’s a certain amount of consistency from volume to volume, each book that I’ve worked on really does have a very different overall vibe and feel like that particular guest editor’s take on contemporary comics.

Scott McCloud’s work on The Best American Comics 2014 is a good example. Anyone who’s read his book Understanding Comics knows that Scott is an analytical thinker, so he completely restructured his volume into topically organized categories to give the reader a guided tour of the contemporary comics scene. Jonathan Lethem liked the topical approach Scott took, but organized his volume into more idiosyncratic sections, giving the reader a more intuitive mixtape of comics.

How do you read comics differently than you would a book or a painting? What’s so stimulating about comics is that they’re a bit like both. The phrase graphic novel sort of suggests that, but it’s often taken too literally. Comics at their best aren’t merely heavily illustrated narratives. On a page by page basis, comics balance the linearity of prose against the compositional integrity of painting. This quality is manifest in diverse and brilliant ways throughout comics history, from the nineteenth-century work of Rodolphe Töpffer to the early comic strips of Winsor McCay and George Herriman down to contemporary artists ranging from Chris Ware to Aidan Koch. Comics tend to break things down into individual panels, but their ultimate meaning is produced by the dynamic that exists between and among them.

Why did you think it was important to publish an English translation of the French graphic novel Panier de singe, by Florent Ruppert and Jérôme Mulot? I had never seen a book of comics like Ruppert and Mulot’s, and no American publisher was planning to publish it. I knew people had to see it, so I published it myself in English as Barrel of Monkeys.

Around the same time, I got the job as series editor for Best American Comics and it became difficult to imagine publishing more books on my own as well as teaching, working on festivals, etc. But I have worked on some individual editing projects for other publishers, and I may get back to working on independent projects again soon. In the meantime, I have always tried to represent international perspectives in my work on comics, including in my writing and editing work for other venues, and especially through my involvement with comics festivals and conferences. Working on programming for events including the Small Press Expo, the MoCCA Arts Festival and others, I have brought guests from Belgium, Finland, France, Greece and other places to participate in discourse about comics and to share their work with US readers who might not normally have access to it. It’s vital for everyone involved with comics to have as broad of an international perspective as possible because there are many rich comics cultures around the world.

You organized the programming for this year’s MoCCA, hosted annually by the Society of Illustrators, and also helped invite several international guests. How did these times of turbulent politics shape the programming? In order to serve as a forum for the kinds of conversations about comics that people are having right now, we absolutely had to find ways to address the role that art might play in responding to current events. That’s undoubtedly a question that’s on the minds of a lot of people in the community who will be coming back to MoCCA this year.

We’re very fortunate to have with us this year Edel Rodriguez, who gained notice for his striking covers for Time and Der Spiegel during the election and afterwards, and he’ll be appearing in conversation with political artist Steve Brodner. In another panel, New Yorker art editor Françoise Mouly will appear with Nadja Spiegelman to discuss RESIST!, the comics and cartooning newspaper they produced between the election and the inauguration and distributed freely at the Women’s March on Washington and across the country. These conversations and others will address a lot of relevant questions, and perhaps model approaches that may be available to artists who want their work to directly serve their ideals. These can’t be the only conversations that take place around these issues, but they will allow a community of people to hear from others who have good experience thinking about these questions.

In a more abstract way, the presence of international guests becomes even more important in these circumstances. Contact with other cultures in any context should have the effect of broadening perspectives and maintaining a spirit of openness and curiosity. That spirit of openness is an antidote to ethnocentrism or jingoism and takes the side of building bridges rather than walls.

What advice do you have for a young creative who’s tackling her first comic? One great thing about comics is that there are few barriers to participation. A pencil and a piece of paper are enough to get started, and there’s a very open grassroots community of independent artists and publishers that can be quite welcoming. And because both the form and the field are so open, I would encourage anyone to take that freedom and run with it, in terms of style, aesthetics and expression. Although the comics field is currently vibrant and always growing, it’s still kind of a niche form compared to film, video games or the Internet. There are some downsides to that, but the benefit is that it’s really possible to manifest a pure, unique and elaborate vision with modest resources. The responsibility is then on the artists to keep pushing themselves and their work.
Bill Kartalopoulos is a comics critic, educator, curator and editor. He is the series editor for the number-one New York Times–best selling series The Best American Comics, published annually by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. He currently teaches classes about comics and graphic novels at Parsons School of Design and comics history in the MFA visual narrative program at the School of Visual Arts. He is the programming director for the MoCCA Arts Festival and has organized many other comics events in the United States. Kartalopoulos is currently writing a book about comics, to be published by Princeton University Press. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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