On Canons, Critics, Consensus, and Comics, Part 2

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 IslandRhapsody 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.[1] 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.


[1] 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.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Greg Carpenter is a writer, teacher, and recovering coffee addict. He received his Ph.D. in English from the University of Mississippi and has published essays on a variety of writers including Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Jerry Robinson, August Wilson, and Tennessee Williams. He is currently writing a book on comics for Sequart and is a frequent contributor to PopMatters. He has taught a wide variety of classes, including Comics, Modern American Literature, Shakespeare, and Screenwriting/Playwriting. He currently teaches at a university in Nashville. He also holds an M.A. from the University of Missouri-Columbia and a B.A. from Arkansas State University. You can follow him on Twitter @tgregcarpenter.

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12 Comments

  1. Another interpretation might be that, rather than transcending the medium, those first four works demonstrated the potential of the medium in ways that others don’t.

  2. paul bond says:

    Another way to approach the idea of a comics canon would be to derive it from syllabi of courses on comics and graphics novels. That would be closer to my idea of a canon. I suspect the titles would partly duplicate the list you have, but that there would be fewer mainstream Marvel/DC comic book titles and more things that the non-fan might be willing to accept as literary.

    • That’s an intriguing idea–I look forward to the day when more syllabi are public, and it would certainly be fascinating to see what comics are being taught the most. However, speaking as someone who spends some of my time in the world of academics, I shudder at the idea of giving too much power to the academics. :)

      In all seriousness, there are also many reasons that professors put things on a syllabus that have nothing to do with their assessment of that particular work’s value. Some things are more “teachable,” some work better in conjunction with other texts, some reflect ideas that the professor plans to address in the class as a whole, some are topical, and so on.

      To give an example, I took a film class in graduate school where one of the films we watched was Robert Montgomery’s The Lady in the Lake. The whole film is shot from the point of view of Montgomery, who was playing Phillip Marlowe. It’s not a terrible film, but there are far more interesting examples of film noir and far more interesting adaptations of Raymond Chandler. We just watched it because of the technical gimmick.

  3. I remember, years ago, when The Comics Journal did it’s 100 Best Comics Ever issue, thinking how it ranked absurdly highly (from my point of view) a lot of 1960s material and some pretty spotty indy work. Because, obviously, the people behind The Comics Journal came from the 1960s era and had a well-demonstrated bias towards indy comics. If you look just at mainstream or super-hero works, there was relatively little on the list from after the 1960s, and even these were ranked way lower than made any sense to me, sometimes appearing right after an entry that I couldn’t imagine should be on the list at all.

    Similarly, the Rolling Stone lists of best songs are just absurdly weighted (again, from my point of view) towards the 1960s. Half the songs on the list from that era are disposable trash to me, included on the list for reasons of nostalgia and that they’ve been played over and over again in a million movies and commercials, so they’re part of the American fabric. But a lot of them aren’t really that good. But of course, this reflects how Rolling Stone comes out of this era. And its attempts to include more recent songs are often laughable (again, to me) because they seem almost random, like someone trying too hard and randomly picking a popular R&B song to seem inclusive, rather than picking something that’s actually, you know, good.

    I think some of the preference for revisionism here at Sequart is similar. A lot of us got into comics as part of the 1980s boom in mainstream comics sophistication. Even those of us who got into comics in the 1990s got into comics in the shadow of this literary boom, which has cast a long shadow. For people who got into comics in the 2000s, maybe they started with Planetary or something, but they soon heard “You’ve got to check out Watchmen!” Of course, I think we all grow out from this into independent comics and wind up checking out Steranko and 1960s Marvel, etc. But my point is that there’s some generational bias at work here, just as there is with The Comics Journal. Furthermore, whereas The Comics Journal was often pretty hostile towards mainstream and super-hero comics, Sequart people don’t tend to have the same bias; we’re friendly towards the mainstream and towards super-heroes, even if we tend to be conscious of the fact that this material is limited and that it’s important to reach beyond it.

    I may be completely wrong in all of this. But it’s my own take, from my own limited perspective, on how this particular list played out.

    However, this doesn’t invalidate your point about how these super-hero works are expected to transcend the genre. I think that’s right on.

    • I remember seeing that Comics Journal list years ago as well and had a similar reaction–especially about the ways in which their editorial ideology was transparent in the selections. And you may be right about the generational issues here. It’s just interesting to me that if it is a generational bias at work–one that privileges the revisionist era, I don’t yet see it fading. As you note, even more recent books seem to lead everyone back to the ’80s. Maybe Manga-influenced works will define the next movement? Just grasping at straws here.

      But the one thing about the Comics Journal list that I think is problematic is the size. I love those long lists–loved the AFI Top 100 Film list too–but I think the longer the list the greater the level of eccentricity. No matter how many people are involved, there comes a point in every list where there is no longer any real consensus and the results become statistically less significant.

      Take this poll. Once you get past the first eight titles, I start to lose interest. It’s not because the other titles aren’t good–they’re all great–but because if we’re only talking about four people listing it out of 25, it feels a bit random. If 17 people list Watchmen, then it’s pretty clear that as a group we feel pretty strongly about it. Likewise, if 10 out of 25 mention Sandman, that still feels pretty significant. But at a certain point, when a mention by a single critic makes a huge difference in the final standings, I don’t think you can take it all that seriously.

      That’s what I think happens in the extra long polls. Sooner or later, you reach a point where too much weight is being given to relatively random selections. That’s why I was curious to see something modeled after the Sight & Sound polls. Sigh, but I’m not a mathematician and have already thought more about statistics than I hope to do for the rest of the year. :)

  4. David Balan says:

    I agree with Rob – I think in many ways, those ‘top four’ comics demonstrate something about comics that’s very SPECIFIC to comics. It’s kind of hard to imagine those comics functioning properly as movies or novels. They tried with one (Watchmen) but in my opinion, it wasn’t much of a success.

    Interestingly, I see this trend in a lot of art criticism. Oftentimes, art that really takes advantage of the unique capabilities of its medium is very lauded by scholars, and even venerated by the general public. But curiously, there are a lot of people who don’t LIKE that work as much as other works.

    For example, I dislike The Dark Knight Returns. I think the story was mediocre at best. But it’s hard to deny its importance or its graphic influence. When someone asks me about comics that are IMPORTANT vs. comics that I LIKE, the answers are often different. (As you went over in the first article)

    Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter don’t really break new ground in the medium of the novel. But I’ll be god damned if they’re not VERY popular (just look at a best-selling book list), and have been so for a considerable amount of time, especially LotR.

    I work at an Art Museum, and I see this trend there too. Oftentimes (not always, but often) the most important and historically significant paintings that really pushed new ground in painting and established (for whatever time period) what a painting could do that nothing else could – are not all that well liked by the general populace. They’re respected, but not well liked. We remember them, but we don’t think of them as fondly as we may about other things.

    Just a theory. I think that comics (or any art form) which decidedly takes full advantage of the unique concerns of its medium tends to be categorized as important and effective, even if it’s actually less entertaining and more just intellectually stimulating or novel.

    • Rob and David, I had written a longer response, but somehow my computer logged me out when I tried to post and I lost it. So now you get the tired, terse response instead. :)

      In short, I like the theory you two are proposing. It reminds me of what Alan Moore often used to say in interviews. His goal in those early days was to try to do things in comics that you couldn’t do in other mediums, using all the unique tools and features of comics to tell a story.

  5. Although I applaud your goals, bringing up the lack of a comics canon and then asking 25 contributors to form one was always going to be a circular problem. This isn’t to point out any fault on the part of the contributors, all of whom I assume are fairly intelligent. I’m not even excluding superhero comics from the conversation because they have proved time and again to be an excellent place to show exactly what comics can do.
    But perhaps with a canon, what we’re really trying to do is to elevate the best of the best, to form an “essential” reading. And unless we take in the whole of comics, it’s very difficult to get anywhere near where we want to be. I’m glad that you address the fact that most of your sample provided comics from the latter half of the twentieth century and onwards, with a few exceptions of course. And on that note, even fewer were originally written in another language. And still fewer have women as a part of the creative team.
    I think what your study brings to light isn’t so much the lack of a comics canon as the lack of adequate, accessible, and affordable archives of comics before about the 1960s. Comics, although not a new medium, are a new medium to widespread academic study. In order to access works from creators like Winsor McCay, Carl Barks, or heck, even Robert Crumb, you have to know what you’re looking for. General knowledge of creators, who represent only the tiniest fraction of work available in the comics medium, is frankly quite difficult to find. And when you do find it, out-of-print prices make some of these works almost impossible to afford.
    One of my goals for graduate school is to come out teaching comics from a historical perspective. If possible, I would like to split courses into different eras (TwoMorrows’ Comic Book Chronicles has been very helpful in this regard.) Much in the same way we would separate American Literature into multiple sections, we should really look at the way comics have evolved over time. By seeing gradual shifts in the medium, we can begin to appreciate how comics work and what they can actually do.
    And of course, this plan wouldn’t be able to include everything. And why would it? If we’re to study comics in the same way we study other media, we need to treat them not as a subset of the English department, but as a medium with its own freedoms and its own ways of expressing the human experience. An ideal course listing for a comics class shouldn’t be “Comics and Sequential Narrative,” which will never even scratch the surface, but rather “American Comics from the 1960s,” “Japanese Post-War Comics,” “Existentialism in Comics,” “Comics and the Creative Process,” etc. Why stop at a canon when there’s just so much to read?
    Also, please note that I mean no disrespect on the part of the author or the contributors to the study. I’m not railing against any person in particular. I’m just trying to build my own framework for how to teach comics. And although I love superheroes as much as the next person, I feel that such canons will only overshadow other exemplars of the medium that have the misfortune of not starring men in capes.

  6. I apologize for any typos. I wrote this in a frenzy.

    • Kenneth, frenzied writing is always the best. :)

      I also agree with you about the difficulty of book access. In fact, I’ve a hunch that had this poll been conducted a year later, Miracleman, which is finally going to be reprinted this year, would’ve ranked higher–especially given the obvious interests of a lot of the contributors.

      In fact, to be honest, when we think about college classes it’s easy to forget about the practical problems that arise. Believe it or not, for years I couldn’t figure out how to teach a comics class because I couldn’t settle on what books to order. There weren’t many anthologies and I wasn’t crazy about the ones that were out there. But with trades costing 20 bucks or more apiece, it was always hard to settle on enough works to fill a semester without breaking the bank.

      In the same way, while I love your idea of breaking things down into several different comics courses with different periods, modeled after the way we teach American literature, I fear that the realities of course offerings would be prohibitive. Until we see more degree offerings in comics studies, or at least more minors in comics being offered, most of us will be lucky to see even a single college course in comics. Because of that, many of the courses wind up becoming those imperfect, one-size-fits-all beasts where you try to do everything. But maybe someday . . .

  7. Azevedo says:

    Are we going to repeat this poll in ten years, Sight and Sound-style? It’s certainly closer to how I feel about a comics canon than The Comics Journal’s list and I was born in 1989, so that would confirm Julian Darius’ hypothesis about revisionism’s long shadow.

  8. Have you guys thought on the wild, crazy possibility that the 80s were actually a really good decade for comics, interesting formal experiments and themes were presented and explored, and some really, really good comics came up during that time, and that’s why they were chosen?

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