Loose Canon


My contribution to the Hooded Utilitarian’s International Best Comics Poll is now online in the very last post in the two-week marathon poor Robert Stanley Martin has been conducting over there (ah, the never-ending joy of being last in the alphabet). It has been an interesting project, conducted by Robert with composure and diligence, so I figured I’d add a few words to the discussion here.

Robert has an excellent evaluation of the final list and proposes a number of conclusions one might draw from it. The fascinating thing about comics as an art form right now is that it is such a state of flux, that so much is happening artistically at a time when its popular and cultural stature is also changing radically. I didn’t expect to see this reflected in the final list exactly, which predictably is largely a conservative affair, but it doesn’t reproduce the somewhat stodgy fandom consensus of yesteryear either. Signs of change are creeping in: Watchmen‘s cultural stature has become undeniable; the generation that grew up with Calvin and Hobbes rates it as highly (or higher) than Peanuts, the masterpiece that defined their parents’ generation, Jack Kirby’s “Fourth World” is edging in on the Marvel Age, and Jaime Hernandez is slowly but safely situating himself at the heart of the canon.

The real takeaway from all this, however, is that comics don’t really have a canon. When one looks at the individual contributors’ lists they’re all over the place. Yes, the brief called for ‘favorites’ as well as ‘best,’ prompting many to play loose and fast with their lists and then often apologize that they hadn’t gone for ‘objective’ quality, but is there really a point in making a distinction? It seems to me that beyond a few rock solid classics — Peanuts, Krazy Kat, and perhaps a few other of the top ten — there simply isn’t much of a consensus on what constitutes comics’ greatest works, or even how one might go about conceiving of them in the first place. (Add to this that the list is far from as international in scope as one might have hoped: it’s very predictably Americanocentric and reveals just how spotty the knowledge of other traditions continue to be in America).

Domingos Isabelinho has an article up that points to the problems of definition and how the orthodox institutional framework by which comics have been understood continues to wield strong influence in a time of redefinition — how do we reconcile in a canon a tradition of children’s literature with one of adult concern, and — beyond that — works of art from throughout human history, from cave paintings to Picasso, that share the formal qualities of comics, but aren’t generally considered as such?

And the discussion that spun off from Shaenon Garrity’s survey of the sparsity of female creators on the list pointed to a further challenge to the fledgling comics canon: to what extent is it going to be determined by the patriarchal discourse that has governed much of its history, especially since the art form is now attracting more women creators than any time in its history.

Etc.

There have been quite a few comparisons between this list and the one put together by the editors and contributing writers to The Comics Journal a decade ago, despite their very different premises (half a dozen informed people of similar taste doing top 100s of exclusively English language works vs. over 200 very different and often rather undisciplined listmakers doing top 10s of anything and everything). It is striking how similar they are, but it’s more interesting to think about where they differ. The “new arrivals” in the top 10 (Watterson, Moore, Hernandez; Kirby doesn’t really count) indicate not just whatever bias one might attribute to the TCJ contributors, but that there is a shift happening in how we perceive comics as a tradition and what its greatest achievements might be. I suspect that a similar list made ten years from now will be more substantially different than are these two lists, because whatever canon was formed for comics in the twentieth century is undergoing the same sea change these years that comics themselves are experiencing. This is a period of redefinition and almost everything is up for debate.

16 Responses to “Loose Canon”


  • Lists of this kind or awards aren’t ideas I support. Since they exist there is a temptation to look at them, but only to see what various people are thinking.
    What really doesn’t work about the new best off list is the way it’s structured.
    A list devoted to music structured in the same way would include individual songs, along with albums, and whole bodies of work.
    That kind of structure doesn’t fairly judge the work of an artist who has produced many different things which are well liked by many different people.
    From my point of view it would be indisputable that it would be to an artists credit if different people had different ideas as to what was the best single, work, or period of work by an individual creator.
    I think critical appraisal of art is somewhat similar to the scientific method in the sense that it is very hard to judge a small sample. When looking at a very small body of work it’s difficult to be certain if you’re reading of the work is correct, or how the work would stand up as part of a larger body of work. Something can appear brilliant, and become diminished over time if an artist keeps producing, and what seemed to be original begins to look like par for the course. I have no doubt there are art schools all over the country where students produce things which might look to be brilliantly surreal which in reality are a superficial pose. The reverse is also true as it is hard to judge a single late period Picasso drawing taken out of context.
    In fact the fairly persistent opinion that, “My six year old could draw that,” is based on ignorance of Picasso’s intent, and process.
    At a minimum to have any logical value a list ought to look at a creators body of work.
    There could also be a place for a list limited to single stories, but a list like that wouldn’t be nearly as interesting to me, and would be far more likely to reflect current trends, and break down along group demographics.
    For example the list in question reflects a large number of participants who are fans of 80′s superhero comic books like The Watchmen, and various things by Frank Miller.
    I would assume that in a few years the reputations of Alan Moore and Frank Miller will begin to align with the reputations of Don McGregor, and Michael Fleischer.

  • While I agree that the listmakers showed a preference for the superhero comics they grew up with, that statement is just wildly subjective and flies in the face of the evidence we have: Miller and Moore have much broader and deeper cultural cache than McGregor or Fleischer ever did. Also, they are much more sophisticated as creators.

    Your larger point is true of course, but there are problems with any such list — it’s an exercise in futility, but on the other hand I don’t see how it’s necessarily totally useless for gauging the contours of a canon, and it’s useful for discovering new works or in some cases even rethinking one’s reception of old ones, I think.

  • Sure it’s subjective. I said, “I assume” but you may be correct, only time will tell if the broad influence has penetrated to any depth, or if it will evaporate.
    I have a very low opinion of both Moore and Miller, so that obviously is a factor in my observation.
    I would say that in my circle of social contacts Miller and Moore might as well not exist. I have never heard either of them mentioned which puts them along side other comics creators.

  • Matthias, as you say, such lists are useful for helping us to judge the “contours of the canon”. Perhaps the problematic aspect of list-making is the extent to which the contours solidify in the act of publication. Such lists are never as definitive as they appear, always ripe for re-drafting and reappraisal.

    Lists sometimes have the appearance of statement when in fact they are really conversation.

    For mine, the bias towards American comics obscures some of the richly varied European output. And I think English-language publishing is the poorer for that. So in this sense, tastemakers matter. Though perhaps as the saying goes, all politics is local.

  • I agree with what you’re describing, but am not necessarily opposed to the idea of a canon itself, which I guess is what you’re challenging. Tastemakers do matter, for better or worse.

  • I’m more than a little late to this discussion, but let me address some of what’s been said:

    What really doesn’t work about the new best off list is the way it’s structured. A list devoted to music structured in the same way would include individual songs, along with albums, and whole bodies of work. That kind of structure doesn’t fairly judge the work of an artist who has produced many different things which are well liked by many different people.

    There’s no platonic ideal of a “best of” or canon list. Eclectic approaches are just as valid as more rigid ones. The HU list is eclectic. So was the TCJ one that preceded it. Going afield, the French newspaper Le Monde, when its editors put together a list of the best 100 books of the 20th century, also favored an eclectic approach. Looking at their list, one will find in their top 20, in addition to the novels, two philosophical works, two memoir efforts, two poetry collections, a play, and a comics album.

    Canons are generally identified with classroom reading lists, and those can be pretty eclectic, too. With the syllabus for an American literature survey course, would it be strange to find one made up of, not only novels, but selections like Emerson’s essays, Whitman’s poetry, Hemingway’s short stories, a Frederick Douglass memoir, a Eugene O’Neill play, and an uncategorizable like Toomer’s Cane.

    At a minimum to have any logical value a list ought to look at a creators body of work.

    A creators only list would make for an interesting poll. However, I don’t know how well it would account for the fact that as much as a participant might like a certain work by a creator, he or she might dislike other efforts as much or more. All works by a creator are not equal.

    With a class syllabus, a body-of-work list would be all but impossible. For example, if one studies Picasso in an art history survey class (say, one in post-Renaissance or 20th-century Western art), one is only going to be looking at a handful of efforts.

    On a personal note, I wanted the consensus list to be a guide for people who don’t know much about comics. A list of individual efforts is a lot less daunting for a novice than lists of nothing but entire bodies of work. I think the latter would prove pretty alienating.

    …the list in question reflects a large number of participants who are fans of 80′s superhero comic books like The Watchmen, and various things by Frank Miller. I would assume that in a few years the reputations of Alan Moore and Frank Miller will begin to align with the reputations of Don McGregor, and Michael Fleischer.

    Oh, please. Watchmen, which got by far the most votes of work fitting that description, received 31 votes out of a possible 211. That’s roughly one in seven. And several who did vote for it, including myself, didn’t vote for any other ’80s superhero comics.

    As for ’80s superhero comics, you’ll find all of four in the upper half of the Top 115 list: Watchmen at #4 (31 votes), Batman: The Dark Knight Returns at #18 (15 votes), The Sandman at #22 (14 votes, and it’s pushing things to call it an ’80s superhero comic), and Daredevil: Born Again at #42 (8 votes). The bottom half of the list is a grab-bag of stuff that got at most four and less than seven votes apiece. And even then, you’ll find maybe six additional efforts of that type.

    No matter what your personal likes or dislikes, equating Moore’s and Miller’s achievements with McGregor’s and Fleisher’s is just ludicrous. It also reflects a very blinkered view of comics history. And with Watchmen at least, that myopia extends to the culture beyond comics as well. The establishment view is that it ranks among the best English-language novels of the last quarter-century.

    You also might be interested to know that among the academics who participated–and academics do the most to determine canons over the long haul–Watchmen tied with Maus as the top vote-getter.

    Mike–

    I agree that the list was relatively impoverished when it came to non-English European work. If HU does this again a decade from now, we’re going to make a concerted effort to have more European (not to mention Japanese and Latin American) participants. We’re probably going to try to partner up with sites or magazines in those countries when putting it together.

  • Thanks Robert, for stopping by. You said these things much better than I did or could! As mentioned, I found the list useful and interesting for several reasons — thanks again for doing it!

    Boy is that list from Le Monde weird; much more dissonant (Astérix leading Freud by two places…) and at least as biased in favor of one linguistic area. And Camus as the de facto greatest writer of the 20th century? Hmm…

  • Andreas Geisler

    Hi Matthias :)
    This question fascinates me :

    What is (good) taste?

    Echo: What is a culture?

    Echo: What is a discourse?

    Echo: What is the sum of a billion individual, idiosyncratic humans?

    I get lost in these echoes; but then I find myself in familiar landscapes:

    What is a word?

    What is a meaning?

    For those, at least, I have a shadow of an answer. Ferdinand De Saussure said (he destroyed his writings, so we have him only by his words, as remembered by his students) of meaning, that it is in itself purely amorphous. Without any notion of form.
    Our words have meanings, in the form of _arbitrary_ sections (cuts, slices) of this amorphous non-matter, meaningness.

    Jumping from the shoulder of that giant; I suggest that Canons are _arbitrary_ cuts of the amorphous culture(d)ness.

    A canon can tell us, in concentrate, of the culture it cuts through. It should be obvious that any canon is a subset, and an infinitesimal subset at that. Those that would confine themselves to canons – or confine support to the makers included in the canons – are suffocating themselves; the subset is not itself culture; it cannot provide that which a culture must provide.

    I think canons can be OK, especially where the makers make an effort to confront the hidden curriculum they bring to the matter. That’s an exercise in trying to see one’s own neck in a mirror, most of the time, but for all it’s futility, it does make a person aware of the fact that – yes – the head is attached to the body with such a thing – which, albeit unobserved, is a neck.

    Canons can also be weapons of murder.
    They can be “what makes US right, and THEM wrong”.
    And that sucks.

  • Hi Andreas, good to hear from you! I agree that canons are constructions, but they are only totally arbitrary in a macrocosmic perspective, I would say.

  • It’s an interesting point, though I think the tendency toward privileging the head disproportionately in the period is more straightforwardly an issue of emphasis — it is the area of focus and is therefore made bigger. Kind of like in a lot of caricature.

  • Andreas Geisler

    Arbitrary in Saussure’s sense is quite different from the “random” meaning often suggested today. As a father of structuralism he was acutely aware that each part of a set is dependent upon all other members of the set for it’s value : that applies to the arbitrary cuts of meaning, too, so they’re definitely not random, it’s just that there are an infinite amount of variant choices to cover the same overall purposes.
    If we look at other words with the same root, like arbitration, we see more of the original meaning: I see it as a decision which is both deliberate and ad hoc.
    I especially like the slice-of-the-amorphous image: if we tilt the blade ever so slightly, in any direction, we’ll get a completely different cut, revealing a completely different view of the various strata in the genre to be canonized.
    This is also something the more conscious contributors to any canon selection process will subconsciously pick up on: they know that they’re simply providing “a” list, certainly not “the” list. This is often apparent in their commentary, they feel a need to underscore the subjectiveness of their choices – sometimes they even say that they might have made a different selection on a different day, which is exactly at the core of the arbitrariness: We see a thousand ways to cut the cake, but since we have to choose only one, we do so. That’s also where the “random” meaning often used comes from; if we have no way to qualify our choice of one of the thousand, we feel like we make that choice “at random” – that is not accurate, however, since we’ve already narrowed the selection down to a thousand (the possible valid choices) out of the countless possible random – and mostly invalid – choices.

    It would be neat to have the luxury of quantum physics, where “all possible choices” is a valid choice for some situations – “the cat is dead AND the cat is alive – until you look in the box”.

  • OK, I can buy that. However, what’s interesting is the decisions we make intersubjectively, which coalesce into canons. A certain set of decisions emerge and consolidate themselves, making it hard to extract the blade and start all over again.

  • Andreas Geisler

    Yeah, you got me!
    The averaging involved in drawing on a number of parallel deciders evens things out, strengthens the strong trends and blurs out (some of) the noise, but as you point out above, it also opens wide the gates to geographical or cultural bias. Each person is entitled to his or her own opinion, but when they are compiled, there are undesirable side effects, in the form of bias.

    I think the arbitrariness is a healthy perspective to keep in mind. That it’s always “a” canon, and never “the” canon. Not relativism, though. Pluralism.

    The HU comics canon is already doing its job, btw:
    Can you believe that I never read the Death of Speedy Ortiz?
    When I look at the image up at the top of this page it freaks me out, there’s so much communication, on so many levels, compressed into the situation depicted and its interplay with the text.

  • Ah, you gotta read it! It’s wonderful. Get the Fantagraphics Complete, cheap edition of Jaime’s work, and if you enjoy that — which I’m sure you will — then move on to his brother Gilbert, who is quite different, but also great.

  • I was a huge fan of the beginning of the Locas series, and also of Sopa, independently.
    I just sort of forgot about it at some point, so seeing the pic you chose for this blog made it all come crashing back. Thanks!

    I need to find one of those “Full-time Professional Comics Reader” jobs ;)

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