This is the beginning of a series of articles on classic works of the DC Universe.
It is the contention of this series that the DC Universe has been around long enough and has produced enough quality material to qualify as having a literary canon – a body of classic stories with real and lasting power.
No one owns any canon. Scholars continue to redefine the canons of every literary period, genre, and medium. As tastes change, the artistic cache of any work may fluctuate. Works that date well or foreshadow the preoccupations of later eras can gain esteem or even entry into a canon, while works that date poorly or no longer seem relevant can lose esteem or even their place within a canon. In fact, multiculturalism and the legitimization of previously marginalized art has sometimes led to premature pronouncements of the death of the very idea of a canon.
While acknowledging that no canon is objective or carved in stone, the concept of the canon remains alive and well. Rather than killing this concept, the expansion of the canon has tended to splinter it into multiple canons, based on one’s concerns. Thus, one can speak of the canon of African-American literature or gay literature, both of which may share some works with the larger literary canon. Indeed, the idea of the canon may be implicit in the concept of artistic quality itself – although one must always recognize the biases and subjectivity inherent in such lists and their justification.
And canons continue to serve useful functions. Without being prescriptive, they aid new readers in familiarizing themselves with large bodies of work. While necessarily subjective, they stir thought, prompting a common debate and elevating its terms. And while always being open to reinterpretation, they create a common discourse for this debate. They offer common reference points that let one quickly illustrate one’s own biases or concerns. These same reference points can also be used to gauge the tropes and merit of other works – which may themselves in time be incorporated into the canon, displacing works that have fared more poorly. Properly understood, canons should encourage literary discourse rather than limit it.
Comics have been increasingly acknowledged as having literary merit, and a few works (such as Maus or Watchmen) have arguably even entered the overall literary canon. Yet the comics canon remains largely undefined. Moreover, the academic and literary elites usually credited with the production of canons continue to marginalize the super-hero genre. Despite this, for better or worse, super-hero narratives have long dominated American comics. True, appraising their literary worth is made more complex by their participation in continuing, corporate narratives, in which isolating a single story can require considerable contextual explanation. But understanding any artistic work requires context, whether historical, political, or generic. And continuing to marginalize these super-hero stories effectively removes much vital American artistic production from serious literary consideration.
This series is a useful corrective to that oversight. It does not aim to provide a revised comics canon that more fairly incorporates super-hero works, nor a canon of all super-hero comics. Instead, it focuses on a more limited canon: works within the DC Universe. Given how the concept of the canon has been splintered into multiple canons, this should not alarm – such a canon has merit in its own right. Moreover, I contend that this more limited canon may build appreciation of these complex, intertextual works, helping others more fully understand these works’ merit within larger canons. Only once we understand these works more fairly, within their proper but difficult contexts, can we discuss which ones deserve a place among the great novels and films of their times.
Why the DC Universe?
There is a good reason for focusing specifically on the DC Universe. DC’s super-heroes not only extend back to 1938 but have an unbroken publishing history, which no other publisher can boast. At least partially because of this, those characters remain more iconic than any other super-heroes in history, possessing real and lasting power on the American cultural landscape. Also, DC began literary experiments earlier than other super-hero publishers and has been more consistent in that experimentation, producing a richer, deeper canon of such works as a result.
Moreover, DC’s prolific output has often kept readers and libraries from understanding this canon. The company’s super-heroes star in a plethora of ongoing series, mini-series, specials, original graphic novels, and collections every month. Book-length collections have proliferated, making historic comics more available. But the classics among these volumes can get lost in the deluge of such collections. A canon needs to be accessible, yet U.S. libraries have struggled to determine which books, out of the largely undifferentiated sea of those available, should be stocked. This situation is hardly improved when some important works remain in print in multiple, sometimes less than ideal editions.
This is not DC’s fault. The publisher has done much to make its classic stories accessible, and it cannot be blamed for marketing its works with superlatives that make it hard to distinguish true classics from “classic” nostalgia. Ultimately, determining such a canon is not a publisher’s responsibility. Nor is such a task even possible for a publisher: canons are determined from outside, by learned consensus, not by publishers or authors themselves.
This series should be understood as a critical celebration of the DC Universe. On the one hand, it seeks to elevate that company’s output to the status of a literary canon. On the other, the very project of this series suggests that, while these characters are often iconic, they are only as great as their stories. Exploring those stories can offer a unique way of exploring the characters, grounded in appreciation of their literary values. I hope new readers fall in love with these characters and their stories. And despite the company’s sales, many readers have still not explored the best that these icons have to offer.
Criteria for Inclusion
Any attempt to describe a canon ought to offer some explanation of its criteria, by which works are selected or excluded, let alone ranked. This explanation need not be overly detailed or prescriptive, but some outline of the criteria used may help illuminate this process.
The most important criterion must always be the artistic quality of the specific work under consideration. Of course, appraising this inherently entails subjectivities. With comics, this is rendered more complex by the nature of the medium itself, which combines words and artwork. How much weight does one place on one or the other? And how much does one privilege the interaction of the two, combining to tell a single, coherent story? Can a beautifully illustrated story with clichéd captions be a masterpiece? Can masterful writing overcome artistic limitations? These are questions generally not faced in evaluating prose, a process that can more easily ignore issues of presentation.
Beyond the issues raised by the medium, others are raised by the continuing nature of corporate, super-hero narratives. Even as the West has come to understand the fallacy of the single author, re-conceptualizing authorship in terms of a web of influence involving editors’ and others’ ideas, Western literature continues to privilege the singular artistic vision; few (openly) co-authored novels are considered classics. Given this fact, how much weight does one place on consistency, either writerly or artistic? This is especially a problem in corporate comics, when artists and writers are frequently replaced in the midst of a story, even (potentially) a classic one. Similarly, even as the West has come to understand that all works can only be understood within a context that is both historical and intertextual, Western literature continues to privilege the myth of the self-contained work; this is one of many reasons sequels are rarely considered classics. Yet in corporate comics, most stories pick up in medias res, in the midst of a larger, often rather haphazard, continuing story.
None of these issues has any definitive or easy answer. In general, I have attempted to be moderate in my answers, for the sake of the rankings within. For example, I have attempted to weigh writing and artwork with some equivalency, being honest about each work’s strengths and weaknesses. Our current understanding of art as inherently collaborative and contextual certainly argues that classics need not be the work of a single writer or team of artists, nor utterly independent from larger narrative context, though I have still given some weight to those ideas.
But beyond the artistic quality of the work itself, that work’s historical importance also needs to be considered. The West continues to privilege innovation, praising works that did things first over later, derivative works that might have done the same things better. While not unproblematic, a work’s historical influence deserves acknowledgement, even if it means that classics may exhibit a somewhat outdated (though still interesting) style.
Historical breadth should also be addressed. Even a cursory look at my choices reveals a preference for works from the 1980s onward. This is largely because so many works from earlier decades date poorly and, while fun, rarely aspired to literary values. In the 1980s, the movement of revisionism within super-hero comics sought to inject those values, and this series may be seen as one sign of that movement’s success. That doesn’t mean I haven’t tried to represent historical breadth, wherever possible. If no work from an earlier era rises to the necessary level of sophistication, that entire era may be reduced to a brief mention at the end of a chapter. But where earlier works exist at this level, I have tried to highlight them.
Finally, some acknowledgement should be made to general consensus. Yes, this is ultimately my list, reflecting a single author’s evaluations. But I’m certainly well aware of my own biases and inherent subjectivity. For this reason, some nod to consensus serves as a useful corrective. Having said this, I underline my reasons for my evaluations in ways that make my own biases clear, and I state where these evaluations may seem surprising to the general consensus.
But while one must attempt to bracket one’s biases, no such list may be utterly objective. I encourage readers to venture forth and buy the works mentioned in this series, but I also wish to apologize in advance to anyone who finds himself disagreeing with my selections. A dime-store novel might be more exciting than a classic (I might also prefer it, on a given day), but there are reasons the classic remains just that. Rest assured that a familiarity with the works mentioned herein is often a necessary precondition of intelligent, informed conversation – not only about DC Comics but about American comics in general.
A Note on Serialization
I originally began the DC Canon back around 2005, and it was highly successful online. Sequart even produced a limited-run book collection in 2006. However, I kept expanding, researching, and revising. I sometimes feel like I’ve rewritten this entire series about five times now. The road’s been long and daunting, but I’m hoping this new iteration will be the final one — barring updates, of course.
In this online version of the series, I won’t be referencing rankings of individual works. I’ll also be discussing a few works that aren’t classics but still deserve discussion in that context. Later, everything I write here will be compiled into book form, with great revision and expansion. That version will not only offer rankings for the works discussed but include many others not discussed here. I hope nonetheless that these articles, placed online and available for free to all, will represent some substantial thoughts on a number of major works, many of which have not been discussed in appropriate depth.
Thank you very much for reading!