Tag Archive for 'Comics canon'

On Comics History and the Canon

Just thought I’d collect links to a number of writings on comics I’ve done over the years on comics history and aesthetics, as well as some of the great or otherwise significant works that have shaped it, here and elsewhere. Hopefully it will be interesting or useful to anybody interested in the subject, not the least students that I’ve bored with it in the seminar room. Anyway, here’s an overview: Continue reading ‘On Comics History and the Canon’

Scheherezade’s Longbox

Just got word from Paul Gravett that his massive 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die is out in the UK, with the American edition to be released on 25 October and other national editions to follow.

Many will be familiar with this popular series covering everything from books to wine. The remarkable thing about the comics one is that it is the first convincing attempt to define an international canon for the art form. The book is of course skewed in favor of work available in English, but Paul has interpreted that limitation in the widest possible way, including an amazingly diverse and international field of comics from Töpffer to the present, including a fair amount never (or not yet) translated into English.

Individual national editions will make replacements, I’m told, which is really to the detriment of a remarkably coherentbook. Paul recruited 67 comics experts from all over the world, making it a wonderfully rich resource. And this is only enhanced by his decision to order the entries chronologically, adding an eye-opening historical dimension to the presentation. In addition to being a great reference, it’s thus also a short (” “) history of of world comics. I really encourage you to take a look at it.

Full disclosure: I was one of the 67, although my contribution is rather small. I wrote the entries on the Danish comics included: Storm P.’s Peter & Ping, Palle Nielsen’s Orpheus & Eurydice, Claus Deleuran’s Rejsen til Saturn, and Nikoline Werdelin’s Homo Metropolis, as well as (somewhat randomly) on Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Strikes Again (aka. DK2).

Check out Paul’s website for more information on the book, its contributors and the comics. He plans to update it regularly with reviews, interviews and supplementary material. For Danish readers, here’s a notice on it for which I provided some comments a couple of months ago.

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.


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.

Picks of the Week

“…when faced with the greatest economic crisis, the greatest levels of economic inequality, and the greatest levels of corporate influence on politics since the Depression, Barack Obama stared into the eyes of history and chose to avert his gaze. Instead of indicting the people whose recklessness wrecked the economy, he put them in charge of it. He never explained that decision to the public — a failure in storytelling as extraordinary as the failure in judgment behind it. Had the president chosen to bend the arc of history, he would have told the public the story of the destruction wrought by the dismantling of the New Deal regulations that had protected them for more than half a century. He would have offered them a counternarrative of how to fix the problem other than the politics of appeasement, one that emphasized creating economic demand and consumer confidence by putting consumers back to work. He would have had to stare down those who had wrecked the economy, and he would have had to tolerate their hatred if not welcome it. But the arc of his temperament just didn’t bend that far.”

– Drew Westen

The picks of the week from around the web.

  • Drew Westen on Obama. Westen’s psychologically informed critique of the president may be a little facile in places, but it poses a number of real questions, such was ‘”What does Obama believe in?,” and locates in them his failure in a time where American democracy is being sorely tested. On a related note, Frank Rich by now month-old inaugural column for New York Magazine is also worth reading, if nothing else for its bravura opening.
  • The International Best Comics Poll at Hooded Utilitarian. An ambitious attempt at identifying a canon of comics involving over two hundred comics professionals. The final list is predictable and deeply flawed, but it’s still a thought-provoking exercise for those of us who like to ponder such things. Compare with The Comics Journal‘s decade-old top 100 list of English-language comics. I’ll have a little more on this later in the week.
  • Get yer Faves!

    Today I received Favorites, the zine Craig Fischer has put together to benefit Team Cul de Sac’s fundraising to support research into Parkinson’s disease. It’s a great little thing I encourage you to buy and read, and not — really! — just because I have a piece in it on Carl Barks.

    You see, Team Cul de Sac is run by Chris Sparks, friend to the great cartoonist behind the comic strip of the same name, Richard Thompson, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2009. Its main project is a massive art book with contributions from a wide range of cartoonists to be published by Andrews McMeel in 2012.

    Favorites is Craig’s and a bunch of other writers about comics’ way of contributing to this worthy cause. It unites thirty-odd such people, each of us writing about “our favorite comic”, whatever that may mean. Here’s the list of contributors: Derek Badman, David Bordwell, Noah Berlatsky, Alex Boney, Matthew J. Brady, Scott Bukatman, Joanna Draper Carlson, Isaac Cates, Rob Clough, Corey Creekmur, Andrew Farago, Craig Fischer, Shaenon K. Garrity, Dustin Harbin, Charles Hatfield, Jeet Heer, Gene Kanneberg Jr., Abhay Khosla, Susan Kirtley, Sean Kleefeld, Costa Koutsoutis, Andrew Mansell, Robert Stanley Martin, Chris Mautner, Joe McCulloch, Anna Merino, Mike Rhode, Jim Rugg, Frank Santoro, Chris Schweizer, Caroline Small, Tom Spurgeon, Ben Towle, and myself.

    Favorites is $5. You can buy it through Team Cul de Sac.

    Cover illo from Favorites by Richard Thompson.