On Canons, Critics, Consensus, and Comics, Part 1

The semester was nearly over.  As a class, we had spent nearly four months reading and discussing comics, and now, in the final two weeks of the term, each student was delivering an oral presentation on a comic not covered in class.   As I sat in the back of the room typing notes, one of the last students was talking to everyone about Mark Waid and Alex Ross’s Kingdom Come, explaining how the book fit into the traditions of both revisionism and reconstruction.  It was a fine presentation, with references to everyone from Jacques Derrida to Julian Darius.

Then he opened the floor to questions.

There were all sorts of possible questions.  The teacher part of me wondered if anyone would ask for a more detailed definition of “reconstruction.”  The geek part of me wondered if he had read Alan Moore’s unpublished script of Twilight of the Superheroes.  But nothing could’ve prepared me for the first real question.

The room was darkened for PowerPoint, so the question came from an unidentified, disembodied voice that asked simply, “How did you find this book?”

I chuckled, but the rest of the class took the question quite seriously.  So did the student-presenter.  He carefully explained that he had a friend who had recommended it and that it was also one of the titles on “Dr. Carpenter’s” supplemental list.  Everyone seemed content and then moved on.

Everyone except me.

Something about that question bugged me.  Each time I teach a class on comics, I’m reminded of the vast gulf that lies between those of us who have made reading comics a regular part of our lives and those who haven’t.  There are all sorts of little things we regular comics readers take for granted, from fundamentals like the proper order to read panels on a page to the more geekishly complex like knowing how many Robins are fluttering around in current Gotham continuity.

But perhaps one of the easiest things for most of us long-time readers is knowing what to read.  In fact, I would guess that most of us have mental lists of comics we eventually plan to read that are as long and hopelessly optimistic as our equally overstuffed Netflix queues.  But for those who don’t regularly read comics or who are relatively new to the form, knowing what to read can be extremely intimidating.

With literature, this problem of knowing what to read is a bit easier.  For centuries, ambitious readers have been able to pick titles from the literary canon—those famous and revered books that, as Samuel Johnson once said, “excel by their allurement and delight; by their power of attracting and detaining the attention.”

Funny thing about that legendary Western Canon though.  It’s not real.  There is no literary canon.  Never was, never will be.  There is also no official list of which books qualify as “literature” and which ones don’t.  And there is no single person you can ask.  Not even Siri.

And yet, everyone seems to operate as if there is such a canon. You hear the conversations on college campuses all the time.

“Is Shakespeare in the canon?”

“Why of course he is.  Such a silly question.”

“How about John Steinbeck?”

“Used to be.  Not so much anymore.”

“Hmmm.  What about Troilus and Cressida?”

“The Shakespeare play?  Of course.  It’s Shakespeare.”

“But I didn’t think many people liked it.”

“Well no, they don’t.”

“Now I’m confused.”

Indeed.  The more seriously one takes the canon, the more confusing it gets.  That’s what happens when you try to define something that doesn’t exist.  But as a concept, it’s quite influential.  Becoming a member of this phantom Book-of-the-Ages Club means that a book will be read, studied, and written about.  It will be included in literary anthologies and taught in classrooms.  Any book with the perception of being canonical almost automatically enjoys a long shelf life.

That’s a lot of power for something that isn’t real.

But the canon has more than simple existential problems.  For generations, the primary gatekeepers of this Invisible College library were white, male academics, and the standards they applied to works usually reflected the aesthetics of white, academic men.  Over the years, the authors in the phantom canon were about as diverse as all those 19th century American presidents with the strange, bushy sideburns.  In short, because the gatekeepers lacked diversity, the canon became inherently both sexist and racist.

The solution has been to enlarge the canon over time, like Star Trek’s V-GER, so that both under-represented voices as well as marginalized genre writers like Raymond Chandler, Ray Bradbury, and H. P. Lovecraft can get their member jackets.  Today, the perceived literary canon consists of an ever-increasing number of sub-canons and counter-canons.

Does all of this sound chaotic?  Doesn’t really matter.  ‘Cause remember:  there is no literary canon.

But considering its association with racism and sexism, the canon has become a bit of a dirty word.  The people who defend the notion of the canon most loudly and passionately are also often the same people who tend to love Charlton Heston movies and listen to the Percy Faith Orchestra.

All of which is to say, I’m not particularly fond of canon discussions.  We all create canons in our own image, and in a post-modern world where everything from a cereal box to a t-shirt is a potential text, the idea of a literary canon is kinda irrelevant.

Yet, here I am, talking canons—in particular, talking about the lack of a clearly defined canon for comics.  Why on earth would anyone want to introduce a flawed, abstract concept like the canon to a medium that hasn’t yet become over-burdened by it?  It feels a bit like giving a child a pack of cigarettes.

That’s when I think of Kingdom Come.  And I think of my class full of talented junior and senior college students, most of them English majors, all eager to learn more about this emerging medium of comics.  They see comics in Barnes & Noble, they see comics characters in the multiplex, and they want to know what it’s all about.  But they have almost no idea what to read.

We comics readers sometimes forget just how intimidating and inaccessible this medium can be to newcomers.  The entry points are few and far between, and frankly we seem content to let the entire medium be defined by corporate marketing decisions and mass media.  For an intelligent reader with no background in comics, one might easily assume that, say, Iron Man books were probably among the best comics ever published.  Now I like Demon in a Bottle and Extremis as well as the next person, but I would hate to see someone grab a random Iron Man collection from the past fifty years and think they were reading some of the best stuff ever published.

One way to help guide new readers are awards, and the comics industry certainly has several sets of awards, but whereas most people know to look up the Oscars, how many people would even know to Google the Eisners or the Harveys or the Eagle Awards?

This is where canon formation can be helpful.  A loosely defined canon helps suggest not only what texts we regard as essential but also what we expect of the medium.  A canon tells us about both the medium and ourselves.  And with more readers expressing curiosity about comics and more teachers working comics into their curricula, a bit of low-key canon formation can be quite useful.

Since a canon is really just a concept, no single list can ever be definitive.  What is needed is some consensus.  In this sense, a single person’s list on Amazon, Goodreads, or elsewhere reveals very little, but consensus-based lists can carry considerably more weight.  There have been a few notable attempts at generating lists.  A few years ago, Time published a list of the Top Ten Graphic Novels by Lev Grossman, and last year DC Comics released a list of Essential DC Graphic Novels, but neither list is authoritative.  The Time list is good but also personal to Grossman, and DC’s list, much of which seems reasonable to me, is seriously marred by the inclusion of a handful of works the company was clearly promoting in order to sell other, contemporary titles.  Such are the conflicts of interest in leaving canon building to corporate marketing departments.

Over at Comic Book Resources, Brian Cronin has published several wonderful reader polls with long lists of popular stories in all sorts of categories, including a recent list of the Top 100 Comic Book Storylines. These, too, provide a sense of what readers tend to remember and admire the most.

But what if we could also generate a list from a smaller pool of voters who could be a bit more deliberate and self-conscious in their choices?  I love fan polls and think they have definite value, but the tabulated fan voting at the Internet Movie Database would have you believe that The Shawshank Redemption (unquestionably a fine film) is the single greatest work of cinematic art in history.

Could there be a different way of compiling a list of great comics?

This got me to thinking.  Every ten years the editors of the British film magazine, Sight & Sound, conduct an international poll of film critics and directors, asking them to rank the ten best films and ten best directors of all time.  The list has come to reflect overall critical opinion far better than Tomatometer scores, IMDb ratings, or Netflix stars.  Want to know if Ingmar Bergman’s reputation is rising or falling?  Track him in the Sight & Sound polls.

So why not do something similar with comics?  Sounds like a good idea, but trying to co-ordinate an international poll of comics critics and professionals would be a logistical nightmare for someone with a day job.  So I wondered if there was a way to do something similar in concept but smaller in scope.  Something a little more half-baked.  I’m good at half-baked.

In December, I asked Mike Phillips to help me contact people who had worked with Sequart, either through the Website or with their books.  The rules were pretty simple and intentionally vague.  Rank the ten greatest comics of all time and the ten most important comics creators.  This was all very informal and participation was voluntary.  No one was expected to belabor his or her choices.  I completed my two lists in about 15-20 minutes.

The polling procedure was never intended to be scientific, nor was the poll itself designed to be any kind of definitive statement by the Sequart organization.  Instead, I was looking for a snapshot—a frozen moment in time, reflecting the attitudes of the types of people who were driven to write for Sequart—scholars, critics, and creators.

Would there be any kind of a consensus?  Would there be any significant differences from the various other “Greatest Comics” lists?  If a comics canon is currently being formed, what kind of canon might it be?

Next Monday we’ll take a look at the results and together we’ll see if we can make any sense out of them.

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Greg Carpenter is a writer, teacher, and recovering coffee addict. He is the author of The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer. In addition to producing a weekly column for Sequart for almost two years, he has also written for RogerEbert.com and PopMatters. He has published essays on a variety of writers and artists including Moore, Gaiman, Morrison, Jerry Robinson, August Wilson, and Tennessee Williams, and he has taught a wide variety of classes, including Comics, Shakespeare, Modern American Literature, and Screenwriting/Playwriting. He currently teaches at a university in Nashville.

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Also by Greg Carpenter:

The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer



  1. There was an ongoing debate in my school of similar intensity involving “genre.” I never took the arguments seriously, only because these category creations seem inevitable, especially in Western Civ. I played devils advocate a lot at my school, asking the teacher what gave him the right to say there was not such thing as a category. But now I wish that I was able to take one of your classes. It would have been really rewarding to discuss comic books in academia.

  2. The notion of comics being discussed academically is amazing to me and makes me wish, in some ways, I attended college 15 years later.

    As far as the idea of a canon goes, I feel that’s always something that becomes so hotly contested the more people attempt to define it. For a recent example, although one with a slightly different take on the term, just look at the New 52 and how much inquiry has gone into what “still counts” or what is “still canon” from the Old DCU.

    As for the notion of a canon of MUST READ comics, it’s definitely a topic ripe for discussion and I greatly anticipate the results of the poll. I foresee a list mixed with individual personal favorites and those that have a historical impact on the field as a whole, the ones that changed the game.

    • I just wanted to say that you’re confusing two different meanings of the word “canon”. This article is about a canon of literature, meaning the somewhat imaginary list of important works and authors that would define literature at its best. He is trying to compile a canon of this sort for comics. When you mentioned the new 52 and what “still counts” or what is “still canon”, you’re talking about what events and characters from the Old DCU still count as having happened or existed in the new version of events, the New 52. What events and characters are still “canonical” as in are they still true? The two versions of canon don’t have much in common.

  3. Fascinating subject. And I assure you, this is the first time I’ve read a phrase like “references to everyone from Jacques Derrida to Julian Darius!”

    Welcome aboard, Greg! We’re glad to have you here, hopefully for a long time!

  4. I can’t wait to see the results.

    I have my own issues with the notion of a canon, but I do agree that it’s a helpful starting point for new readers. I just hope it’s not bogged down with comics from the big two. That’s not to say that mainstream comics don’t warrant discussion. Everything warrants discussion on some level. But it would be a shame to see the larger world of comics closed off by those at the forefront.

    I look forward to part two!

  5. Also looking forward for part two. I want to see these lists. But I already love comics.

    Comic book fans seem to believe that civilians are just one Watchmen-read away from becoming true believers, but that’s ridiculous. Why don’t you forget about introducing your students to the canon and simply appear one day with dozens of tpbs, let them take a look and choose one to take home for a week? Some good, same bad, some stuff you don’t read… Just lots of different comics. Watchmen may be there, sure, but also Donald Duck, Prince Valiant, Spandex, Asterix, Calvin and Hobbes, erotic, manga… Old romance, crime, horror or sci-fi comics. And new stuff, superheroes, indies and stuff for kids. You do it quite a few times and eventually most of them will pick up something that they will really like, and they’ll want more. You don’t have to like it, they do. Once they start enjoying the medium, it should become easier to take it more seriously and to truly explore it.

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