Why I Dislike Anthologies

I’ve had a stack of anthologies waiting my attention, some for a year now, and I dread reading them.

I used to love anthologies. They were wonderful ways to discover new artists and sample alternative comics. But now we have the web for that. I know they’re easy for young creators, who only need to put together a few pages instead of a full comic of their own, but not many of them have the experience to create a really satisfying piece in a shorter space.

My least favorite kind of anthology is when a group decides to put out an anthology to draw attention to themselves or even for a charitable purpose. In these cases, the contents can be of widely varying quality. They give the impression that they don’t have many submission guidelines, or that knowing the right people overrides standards of entry, or that good intentions (helping out someone in need) can take the place of good work.

As a reader, it’s tough evaluating them. There’s a tendency to remember the worst stories instead of the best and to judge the value of the cost on that basis. There’s never enough of the good work and too much of the bad. Plus, for a reviewer, they’re an awful lot of work, if you’re going to cover them thoroughly, since every story and its creators needs to be mentioned. In the time it takes to read and write about an anthology of 10 stories, I could cover at least half that many graphic novels or manga volumes.

What do you think? Do you enjoy reading anthologies? Has their time passed or is there still a place for them? What are the really good anthologies today, the ones that put the lie to everything I’ve just said?

34 Responses to “Why I Dislike Anthologies”

  1. L. Nichols Says:

    There are a couple of anthologies that I find myself eager to read each time.

    1) MOME
    2) Always Comix (They’ve been getting better and better)

    But in general, I totally agree. I am often frustrated with anthologies for precisely the reasons you state in paragraph three.

  2. David Oakes Says:

    I like anothologies. As you say, they are a good way to get a taste of an unknown creator. And I prefer short stories to novels, but like to read a lot, so the anthology is the perfect format.

    But you are right, the “sampler” anthology and the “purpose” anthology are not the best examples of the form. Even more than good Writers, anthologies need a good Editor – good work looks bad when it doesn’t “fit the tone” of the book, and poor stories can shine brighter in an appropriate setting. Saddly, there is no “Collection of Collections” that allows you to find new Editors without slogging through their entire library.

  3. ADD Says:

    I always WANT to like an anthology, but more often than not if something doesn’t grab me, I start flipping pages, and before you know it, bam, I’m done.

    I miss the days of Raw and Zero Zero…but I’ll second L’s endorsement of both MOME and Always Comics.

  4. CrispyFloyd Says:

    I like the idea of anthologies more than buying the things themselves. As you say, it all comes down to the value of your purchase, which can’t be guaranteed as it is highly unlikely you will enjoy every single artist and story.

    However, the few that I have bought have been good enough, and introduced me directly to enough artists of which I was previously unaware, to make me appreciate them and not want to see the back of them.

  5. ShadowBanker Says:

    It really depends on the type of anthology, I would say. For example, “Batman: Black and White” is one of my favorites and particularly engrossing for people with minimal exposure to the character. So, more focused anthologies are probably more effective.

  6. Johanna Says:

    Never heard of Always Comix, so this discussion has already been useful to me. Thanks! And yes, I agree that focused/ themed is helpful, especially in evaluating whether to try something. I wonder if this is another case where I need to try harder to focus on the positive, so those are the stories I remember afterwards.

  7. StevenRowe Says:

    i like them, but Shojo Beat was the last one I was reading (unless you include the various Archie comics and digests as anthologies). Of course, I grew up reading magazines – which are by nature anthology. From SF and mystery fiction magazines to non-fiction magazines. The current issue of ARCHAEOLOGY list 7 articles on the cover – even if I dont like one, there’s a lot more. I can even read articles on subjects i dont care for – there’s plenty more. The same is true for comics. I didnt care for the vampire stories in Shojo Beat (I dont care for vampire stories in anything – vampires are usually cornball). but by reading Shojo Beat, i was introduced to stories i would never have read otherwise – lots of stories I would never have read otherwise. Which led to buying other books.
    That’s why i like magazines and anthologies. They may have some stuff I don’t like, but they show me other stuff i might like.

  8. Rob McMonigal Says:

    MOME has been good to me so far, though I noticed some disagree.

    But as far as a “Put the lie” anthology, I’d go with the Flight series.

  9. Johanna Says:

    Flight is very pretty, but I’ve found the story content less than I hoped.

    Steven, I think you’ve hit on something: an anthology magazine is different from a book, and it’s the latter I’m talking about.

  10. James Schee Says:

    Yeah anthologies are such a mixed bag, for every good story in them there are 4 bad ones it seems.

    BTW, the topic made me think of it. Do they still have the SPX Anthology?

  11. Jamie Coville Says:

    The last anthology book I sought out and enjoyed was the DC/Paradox Big Book series.

    Beyond that I’ve bought and read enough crappy charity anthologies too. I’m 99% unlikely to buy one today unless it has really good buzz and it’s something I’ve flipped through and found interesting.

  12. David Wynne Says:

    I’m a little torn. I grew up reading 2000AD and Deadline, so I feel an automatic affection for periodical anthologies; that said, I can’t remember the last time I read one that really fully satisfied me.

    (I feel guilty admitting that, as I’m typing this partrly as a form of procrastination- I ought to be finishing up the art for a story in a friend’s periodical anthology comic…)

    On the other hand, I tend to really enjoy one-off specialised anthologies- I loved Paul Gravett’s Mammoth Book Of Best Crime Comics, and I’d echo the earlier commentor’s sentiment towards the Batman B&W books.

    I’d say you hit the nail pretty squarely on the head when you say that the web has rendered “showcase” anthologies obsolete (I think that’s what you’re saying? It’s early, my reading comprehension may not be up to scratch). But then it could be argued that the web is rendering printed periodicals onsolete full stop.

  13. Pitzer Says:

    My love of anthologies has waned over the years. I still cherish my Taboos and Fly in My Eyes. I obviously loved the Project books, which I think worked extremely well within the cross-polination of talent. Currently, I think Mome is probably doing the best job, although I haven’t read an issue in ages. I flipped through one at MoCCA. Never heard of Always Comix either. And the SPX anthology stopped being published by the fund, since it wasn’t a big moneymaker for them. If a publisher steps up and helps the fund, it may see the light of day again.

  14. Rick Bradford Says:

    Johanna, why is an anthology magazine different from an anthology book? The price? Expectations would be the same, wouldn’t they?

    Also, I’m not sure why you’re compelled to write about every story in an anthology. If all reviewers felt that way I don’t think we’d ever see anthology reviews at all! Of course, a clear editorial vision makes it easier to write about the book as a whole but I think sometimes you just have to focus on whatever’s worth writing *about*.

  15. L. Nichols Says:

    I think Rick is right about not writing about every story in an anthology. If I were reviewing, I would probably just focus on the overall feel, point out some things that I thought were good, talk about what worked and what didn’t.

    I think that if you want to have better editors, maybe some critiquing of how it all was put together would be good. That’s always my biggest complaint about art reviews for group shows lately, too… they seem to be more about recounting what was there and less about how the show was as a whole. For example, PS 1 often has some great artists in their shows, but I *hate* the curation there. Maybe if reviewers actually talked about that, it would help spark some internal conversation with the editors/curators of such group works.

    And to those of you who haven’t heard of Always Comix, it started out as a minicomic anthology, handmade, but they’ve recently gotten large enough to start sending it out to get printed/bound. They put an issue out twice a year. Every issue has a theme (last one was “Evil” and the next one will be “How We Met”). As usual, some stuff is better than others, but I always leave from reading it feeling happier.

  16. darrylayo Says:

    I feel the opposite way! I still really like anthologies and I don’t think that the web replaces them at all. The web requires a bit of directed searching, but an anthology is still a place where you can go to find what you aren’t looking for. The age old quandry of “looking for something new.” How do you find what you don’t already know? Go to a venue for such a thing.

    I also don’t tend to remember bad anthology pieces. I usually remember anthologies by their best work. Not saying that you’re “wrong,” but it’s just a matter of perspective, in my opinion. I don’t care enough about things that I dislike to remember them. In fact I often have fond memories of anthologies that, on a whole, may have been pretty mediocre in retrospect.

    In closing, I would also like to mention Always Comix and Mome. And Papercutter as well!

  17. ed brisson Says:

    In the early 90s, when I stopped reading superhero comics and started to get into “alternative” comics, anthologies were the perfect one stop shop to find artists I’d never heard of.

    I still think that they’re a great way for new artists to start building a name for themselves. Better to create a few shorter works before launching into longer stories.

    I’ve published a few anthologies and I’ve never come across a review where all stories were mentioned, so I don’t think that you have to worry about that. Most reviews just mention a few stand outs (and sometimes a few dogs).

    What you’ve said above (paragraph 4) is probably the most frustrating thing — people tend to remember the worst stories and not the best. And even then, it can be pretty subjective. I’ve read reviews that tear apart some of my favourite stories.

    For my money, the best anthologies out there today are the Papercutter books from Tugboat Press. They’re short, only 30 something pages (I think) and just about always an enjoyable read. I’ve discovered so many new artists through those books, it’s ridiculous.

  18. L. Nichols Says:

    Oh! I totally forgot about Papercutter. I highly recommend them.

  19. Johanna Says:

    Rick, the price, and the format. I buy books I expect to want to keep and reread. Magazines, I’m ok with only reading once so my expectations are less.

    Glad to hear I was expecting too much of a review — I feel better about covering anthologies now, since it seems ok to just talk about some of it.

  20. James Schee Says:

    Only problem I see with covering only part if an anthology, is that inevitably you get those creators whose work you didn’t cover asking why?

  21. Matthew J. Brady Says:

    I’m with you on having difficulty reviewing anthologies; I’m always torn between mentioning everything and talking about just what I liked or found notable. I also have trouble transitioning between talking about different stories, with reviews coming off as a simplistic list.

    Still, I do like reading anthologies. In addition to the ones mentioned, I would also recommend Popgun (although it’s probably similar to Flight, with good art and somewhat insubstantial stories) and Meathaus.

    I would also consider magazine anthologies like Shojo Beat to be a different sort of thing than books, because they feature ongoing serial stories, rather than a bunch of one-shots. That’s my two cents on that issue.

  22. Everyone’s A Critic: A round-up of comic book reviews and thinkpieces | Robot 6 @ Comic Book Resources – Covering Comic Book News and Entertainment Says:

    […] Johanna Draper Carlson does not like anthologies: My least favorite kind of anthology is when a group decides to put out […]

  23. Josh Blair Says:


    I found this post interesting, and rather than posting a lengthy comment here, I decided to post my thoughts on my blog:


  24. Rivkah Says:

    I can second (or third or fourth) the Papercutter anthologies. I picked up a free copy they had at MOCCA, and I’d definitely buy more. Excellent b/w print quality, good diversity of work, and cheap so that you don’t feel jipped if there are a few stories you don’t like.

  25. Mike Kowalczyk Says:

    I still like anthologies. But, with their rise we must also accept that with proliferation comes diluted content. Flight started out great and I continue to buy it if only to read Reagan Lodge, Tony Cliff and Bannister. All of which I would not have found otherwise. Of course, Kazu Kibuishi’s contributions are almost always a treat. There is the AdHouse Books themed anthologies which satisfy. The Telestar project is a frequent read for me. As well as Dark Horse’s De Tales (early Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba works and still their greatest).

    But other copycat/wagon-hoppers like Popgun and MyspaceComics (barring a few very bright spots) are dreadful. Seemingly lost. Unable to find a congruent thread or audience.

    Steel yourselves, readers, against the drek-wealding hordes. Thou shalt find…illumination.

  26. ~chris Says:

    Usually I prefer anthologies to read rather than to purchase, due to the ratio of contents enjoyed versus price paid. But there is another reason I’m wary– first impressions aren’t always reliable. My introductions to Finder and Courtney Crumrin were via anthologies, and I was unimpressed. (The Finder story emphasized the setting instead of the characters, and Courtney was much younger and void of personality). Fortunately I gave each a second chance after others’ recommendations.

  27. Johanna Says:

    Which anthology was Finder in? That takes me back.

    That’s a problem hitting all comics these days — not a lot of money for giving things second chances. And you’re right, sometimes that’s what’s needed for something to click.

  28. ~chris Says:

    I don’t remember the anthology’s title, and I didn’t keep it. I believe I picked it up at APE, which for me was 10 years ago (1999 was the only time I’ve been there), and that it was a floppy. It might have been one of those “comics you should try” collections, with pages selected from previous works…. I remember the Finder selection as an intro to the setting and to what a Finder and a Sin-Eater is.

  29. James Schee Says:

    Could it have been Mythography?

  30. Johanna Says:

    I suspect it was BLIP, a one-shot sampler by the same publisher that was as Chris describes, a “try us out” kind of thing.

  31. James Schee Says:

    Oh yeah I think that was it. I just did a google for Carla’s work in anthologies and Myrhography came up. I think I’d was Mystery Date she did for Mythography.

  32. ~chris Says:

    I’m fairly sure it wasn’t a Mystery Date story, but it was a long time ago….

  33. Rob McMonigal Says:

    Johanna, regarding “second chances”–that’s why I love the library. It gives me a chance to take a flyer on things. Without the library, I’m sure I’d read only within my comfort zone.

    And trust me…I buy a lot, too. So it’s not like I don’t help creators make money. ;)

  34. Colin Tedford Says:

    I co-edit 2 anthology minicomics a year (regional group ones, too boot) and am about to add a 3rd, so I definitely see value in anthologies.

    As others have mentioned, I think anthologies are good for finding new things, and I think are especially useful for helping people new to comics get the lay of the land.

    I think “group” books can be interesting for the way they document particular scenes or regional variations (not surprising, since I co-organize a regional comics group).

    Although I’m not always in the mood for it, for me there’s something special about the way anthologies feel – different styles bumping up against each other, but sometimes still with meaningful connections – they’re like comics mixtapes.

    I just got the new Syncopated (non-fiction comics anthology) and am really digging it so far.




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