As I explained in last week’s column, I recently asked my fellow Sequart contributors to answer the following question: “What are the 10 greatest works in the history of the comics medium, and who are the 10 most important creators?”
Now that sentence probably strikes most of you as either really intriguing or horribly stupid. On the one hand, since we’re all conditioned to pay attention to lists these days, there’s something compelling about trying to draft the ultimate list of great comics. However, there are also plenty of reasons to sneer and walk away.
The problem is that the central question is too broad, too vague, and utterly impossible to answer with any intellectual credibility. Imagine trying to rank the ten greatest pieces of music of all time but being given no further criteria. Would you choose Beethoven’s symphonies? Abbey Road? “Vesti la Giubba?” The theme song to Gilligan’s Island? Rhapsody in Blue? It’s a bit absurd.
In the case of the comics poll, it means that at some point each voter has to take a deep breath and try to compare the relative merits of fifty years worth of Peanuts versus Swamp Thing #21. Which would you say is greater: Maus or Krazy Kat? It’s one thing to be asked to compare apples and oranges, but this is more like having to rank the ten greatest things you can buy at a grocery store. Which would you rank higher: organic bananas or AAA batteries?
Needless to say, when I sent out the email I felt a little like one of those obnoxious barkers for a rigged carnival game. I was asking people to play, but the game wasn’t really winnable. A few participants felt good about their selections, but more of them expressed frustration and doubt, often including justifications for their choices.
What kind of criteria were voters supposed to use? Was this a poll of the most historically important works? The most influential? The most aesthetically pleasing? One writer included a long, detailed justification for selecting purely subjective, personal favorites, arguing pretty convincingly that any of us could list what we thought we were supposed to include, a fact which kind of defeats the point of a poll in the first place.
But I left the instructions vague because it was important not to try to control the direction of the poll. Since a canon is merely a concept reflecting critical consensus, it has to develop as organically as possible. Thus, it was necessary for each voter to feel his or her way through these issues and do what seemed right. Any developing canon needs to take on a will of its own and be what it wants to be. So however people chose to construct their lists was how the lists needed to be constructed.
But enough mysticism and theory. Let’s talk details. There were ultimately 25 writers who agreed to participate. Below you will find two separate lists of results—the first list is based on the number of writers who included each title and the second list attempts to assign emphasis or weight to those selections. In other words, if a voter ranked a book at the top of his or her list that book would get more points than one listed at the bottom. However, not every writer appeared to rank his or her choices as requested, so when it came time for me to tabulate I wound up using one part math to every two parts voodoo. For that reason, I have less confidence in the legitimacy of the weighted list, but as you’ll see, the two polls wound up aligning fairly closely anyway.
I should also mention that this poll was voluntary and decidedly unscientific. It’s meant to be a snapshot of the attitudes of the types of people—scholars, critics, and creators—who contribute to Sequart. Since it was not a scientific poll, I collected no demographic information regarding age, nationality, ethnicity, sexual orientation, economic status, education, or gender. However, based on the first names of the people who emailed me, I fear there was a serious shortage of double-X chromosomes. I mention this primarily because, as I wrote last week, the idea of the Western canon in literature has always been marred, in part, because the gatekeepers were originally all men. Looking over this effort at defining a comics canon, I’m reminded of that line from the Who: “Meet the new boss / Same as the old boss.”
Regardless, beyond what I’ve mentioned, there weren’t any other ground rules. Participants could choose anything that was definable: single issues, longer story arcs, sustained creator runs, graphic novels, or comic strips. In most cases, I tried to combine separate entries where doing so seemed logical. Thus, a vote for something like Swamp Thing #21 was folded into the votes for Alan Moore’s entire run on Swamp Thing, and votes for Steve Ditko’s run on The Amazing Spider-Man were lumped with those for all of Stan Lee’s time on the title.
So without further ado, here are the top results for the greatest comics of all time.
|Ranked by number of votes||Ranked by weighted score|
|1. Watchmen (17 votes)||1. Watchmen (131 points)|
|2. Dark Knight Returns (13)||2. Dark Knight Returns (84)|
|3. Maus (10 votes)||3. Maus (78)|
|–. The Sandman (10)||4. The Sandman (70)|
|5. Swamp Thing by Moore, et al (7)||5. Swamp Thing by Moore, et al. (40)|
|6. Fantastic Four by Lee/Kirby (6)||6. Fantastic Four by Lee/Kirby (38)|
|7. Spider-Man by Lee, Ditko, et al. (5)||7. Krazy Kat (31)|
|–. Peanuts (5)||8. Spider-Man by Lee, Ditko, et al (38)|
|9. Krazy Kat (4)||9. All-Star Superman (26)|
|–. All-Star Superman (4)||10. Peanuts (25)|
|–. X-Men by Claremont, Byrne, et al. (4)||11. X-Men by Claremont, Byrne, et al. (24)|
|–. Fourth World Saga by Kirby (4)||12. Fourth World Saga by Kirby (23)|
|–. Cerebus (4)||–. The Spirit (23)|
|–. Miracleman (4)||14. Cerebus (22)|
|–. Tintin (4)||15. The Invisibles (20)|
|–. Promethea (4)||16. Doom Patrol by Morrison (19)|
|–. Love and Rockets||17. A Contract with God (18)|
Besides the fact that the two polls wound up reflecting each other pretty consistently for the first dozen titles, the first thing that jumped out at me is that the top five works all appeared (or at least debuted) within a five-year period from 1984 to 1989. The clear dominance of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns is a little surprising given that both have been experiencing some critical backlash over the last few years. This is especially true of The Dark Knight Returns. But the fact that the top five were all published at nearly the same time is pretty striking.
Could it be that a significant portion of the writers polled came of age during the mid-to-late ’80s and have a nostalgic affection for the comics of that era? Possibly. As someone who generally hates nostalgia, I have found myself asking this same question every time I’ve ordered books for my comics class and stared at these same titles. But I really don’t think it’s nostalgia driving these books to the top.
Instead, I think there’s something else here. So what else can we deduce from these lists? Well, with the exception of Maus, the other four books are all signature works of the revisionist movement of the ’80s—a time when mainstream comics successfully reached out to adult readers and became “literary,” if you will.
If fact, if you look at the seventeen works that received votes from at least four or more writers, you’ll notice that eleven of them are essentially part of the mainstream comics tradition of popular genres. Of the remaining six, Peanuts and Krazy Kat represent newspaper strips, while Tintin occupies its own, difficult-to-categorize space. The other three works, Maus, Cerebus, and Love and Rockets, represent the tradition of independent art comics. The fact that there are only three that ranked highly is a little surprising, considering what’s missing—Jimmy Corrigan, From Hell, Ghost World, Persepolis, Palestine, American Splendor . . .
So it would seem that the voters’ real enthusiasm is not for nostalgia but rather for mainstream comics that transcend genre and aim for older readers. Thus, it’s not surprising to find so many works from the height of the revisionist era.
But perhaps that conclusion, too, is flawed. Let’s consider what I think is the other most striking characteristic of the lists—a feature that takes us back to our discussion from last week about consensus. Looking at the vote breakdowns, there are clearly “tiers.” The top tier includes the first four titles, Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, Maus, and Sandman. If we’re looking for consensus, these four titles certainly fit the bill.
You could also argue that there is a second tier comprised of Swamp Thing, Fantastic Four, The Amazing Spider-Man, and Peanuts, but the list really begins to bottleneck after that. Even with my decision to condense some votes, there were still 122 books that received votes.
If my second hypothesis was correct—that the voters were primarily interested in mainstream comics that transcend their genres—then one would expect to see a heavy focus on additional mainstream comics throughout the rest of the poll. In fact, one might even expect the mainstream dominance to increase with all the remaining nominees. But that’s not the case. The deeper into the 122 books you go, the greater the number of newspaper strips, Golden and Silver Age comics, Manga, European comics, and independent art comics.
In fact, the breadth of the selections was, in many ways, anticipated by the first person to submit a list. That writer chose as his first selection, “The First Cave painting.” That set the stage for all the incoming lists, and the choices ranged wildly with everything from Terry and the Pirates to Casanova, and with both highly specific entries like The Brave and the Bold #118, and wildly generic ones like Harvey Kurtzman’s EC work.
So what does all of this suggest? Perhaps it’s easier to single out those transcendent mainstream works precisely because they transcend. Is it possible for many of the acclaimed art comics of the modern era like Blankets or Asterios Polyp or Black Hole to transcend anything? Adult-oriented art comics have already been around for 45 years or more, so what’s left to transcend? Most of the barriers have been broken down already, so unless those books transcend the entire comics medium, it’s harder for them to gain the extra attention needed to push them to the top of this type of poll no matter how good they are.
If this is what’s really going on with these lists, then the presence of Maus also seems to fit. Maus has, for several years now, been the ultimate comic for people who don’t read comics. In a sense, Maus is for the comics medium what Watchmen and the others are for genre comics.
So what am I getting at? What I see most clearly in this poll is a desire to name books that transcend their original labels. If this is true, if this is what we’re looking for from the best comics, then it would seem to imply that we still approach comics from an insecure, defensive posture. We like them, but we still want validation so we subconsciously gravitate towards anything that seems more than itself. We’re still looking for that dream date that “cleans up good” so we can bring her or him home to Mom and Dad and say, “See who I found?”
Perhaps I’m making too much of this, but do we expect our novels, plays, poems, and films to transcend their respective mediums? If not, then it makes me wonder what the results would be here if we followed the advice of the voter who advocated for simply choosing one’s personal favorites. Would the top choices still have this transcendent characteristic in common?
I should probably add, as I poke around here with this amateur psychological analysis that’s probably closer to Lucy Van Pelt than Sigmund Freud, that I am also talking about myself. Those four books in the top tier were among my first choices as well, and many of my other choices, such as Understanding Comics, still fit this description of transcendence.
None of this means that these core works shouldn’t be thought of as among the greatest. I think they clearly should be. I’m just trying to figure out what it means. I think it’s important for us to reflect on what we gravitate towards on lists like this and, perhaps more importantly, why we gravitate towards them.
In this case, we have a clear consensus on a tiny core set of works, and collectively, we seem to approach comics with an insecurity that is shaping our perceptions of what makes up a comics canon. That’s my best takeaway for today. But perhaps some of you see something different here? I probably will tomorrow.
Next week, we’ll wrap up this look at the canon by examining the other part of the poll—ranking the most important creators in the history of the medium. I think we may see some different considerations at work in that poll.
 Technically, individual installments of Maus appeared earlier, but the collected first volume, published in 1986, was really the first time most readers became aware of it.