Gathering Moss:

On Rolling Stone’s Top 50 Non-Superhero Graphic Novels

Last week Rolling Stone released its list of “The 50 Best Non-Superhero Graphic Novels.” Writer Joe Gross wrly notes that assembling such a list is tantamount to placing a large target on his back. A quick review of the comments thread proves his point.

There is a disingenuous note to his defense that his selections could be seen as idiosyncratic or outrageous. It reduces any criticism of the listing itself as simply offended favoritism. Then again we are in the age of, as per Sam Kriss’ recent lampoon, ‘the listicle’: articles designed for ease of reading, either on mobile devices, or a sneaky distraction at the workplace computer, instead of genuine discussion. The purpose of this piece is as much to occupy search engine queries on the question of ‘what is the best graphic novel’ as it is to generate ad revenue.

To be fair, it is a decent selection of fifty titles. The temptation to take issue with what was chosen to feature though is too hard to resist.

Hergé’s Tintin, that charming propagandist for Le Petit Vingtième, features, but modern-day bande dessinée icon Titeuf is nowhere to be seen.

The Antipodes get a high ranking with New Zealander Dylan Horrocks’s Hicksville, and adopted Queenslander Eddie Campbell’s Alec: The Years Have Pants and From Hell listed. Melbourne’s Shaun Tan – whose career has been recognized with awards from Angoulême, the Oscars, and just last month a Golden Ledger – is missing.

Having the likes of Kate Beaton, Charles Burns, Harvey Pekar, Carla Speed McNeil, Joe Sacco and Brandon Graham feature is excellent. That Bryan and Mary Talbot, Glyn Dillon, Nicki Greenberg and Colleen Doran do not feels like a glaring omission.

Alex Robinson’s Box Office Poison was presumably doomed simply because it is about superhero comics (albeit one of the most unsentimental assessments of the superhero comic as a commodity).

However, debates over who should have featured seems like a discussion that simply reduces this whole exercise to subjective sniping back and forth across the fandom trenchlines. Yes, even this piece is a part of this process, using the Rolling Stone listicle as an excuse to promote other creators. (Did you notice that?)

There is a more specific question that bears analysis though. How utterly predictable the top ten listed titles are. Have a look – Marjane Satrapi, Daniel Clowes, David B, Grant Morrison, Alan Moore, Robert Crumb, Alison Bechdel, Art Spiegelman, Chris Ware and Los Bros Hernandez.

“What are the top ten sacred cows of comics, Alex?”

This is not to dispute the excellence of these creators, but their position in relation to their less well-known peers. Ultimately that is what this listicle amounts to – a barometer of column inches associated with these names, not the quality of their work. How is the sustained-cabbalism-meets-Frank-Herbert-fugue of Jodorowsky and Moebius’ Incal so far outside of the top ten, but the druggy pop-utopian and increasingly dated Invisibles ranked in seventh place?

(Sidenote, the battle of the magi is typically pitched as Morrison versus Moore. Why not throw Jodorowsky into the fray? He is adept at mixing mystical esotericism with narrative coherency. Is there not also a suspicion that the two British writers enjoy their positions on this list more due to the fame they earned from their superhero work than the titles lauded here?)

Joe Sacco, Carla Speed McNeil and Stan Sakai are outliers, because their comparative lack of fame affords them to be. Heaven forfend the critical trifecta of Clowes, Crumb and Ware not land in the top ten.

There is something distressing that, of the top ten, only two works listed date from the past decade – Bechdel’s Fun Home and the ongoing Love & Rockets annuals by the Hernandez brothers. These creators made their names in the early eighties. There is a suggestion that the last ten years has featured less innovative work than the preceding three decades (only Crumb’s collected work predates that period). So no Alice in Sunderland, Asterios Polyp, The Nao of Brown, Perry Bible Fellowship or Bone.

It cannot be argued that the list is intended to be a broad overview of the past history of comics either. After all Saga and Sex Criminals feature, both still fresh off the printing press.

I saw Bechdel at a talk given as part of the Adelaide Writers’ Week in March. She managed the impressive feat of stating with hipsterish pique that Fun Home had introduced opionated male post-grads to her work, whereas Dykes To Watch Out For signings had been exclusively women.  Perhaps this was an acknowledgement of the suffocating preciousness that her well-deserved critical fame has attracted?

It was at this point that I shamefacedly raised my hand to ask a question about her use of Joyce in Fun Home and that of Mary Talbot in Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes.

Fun Home illustrates the desperate desire in the ‘graphic novel’ market for respectability. Bechdel’s story is autobiographical in its retelling of her childhood, but also demonstrates what the comic book medium can do. The Bechdel family is depicted as cultured and academic, their appreciation for the likes of Joyce’s Ulysses indicating their attachment to high art. By successfully riffing on the symbolism of Joyce – transposing Greek myth to twentieth century Dublin, just as she applies the Icarus tale to her own life – Bechdel demonstrates how comics collapse the distinction between high and low art.

In that same manner, graphic novels are presented as legitimate art. The comic is synonymous with the capes and tights brigade, sadistic violence and rampant misogyny. The graphic novel does not have the commercial bulwark and decades of canon to prop it up as superhero comics do. So it is celebrated as art – and art is nothing without that stultifying reek of consensus.

The SEO-friendly title of this list aside, its top ten is more appropriate to an introductory college course to ‘graphic narratives’, or something equally insipid. The ranking of these titles is ultimately without risk and weak-kneed in its populism, neither ‘outrageous’ or ‘idiosyncratic’.

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Emmet O’Cuana is a freelance writer, critic, and podcaster based in Melbourne.

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Also by Emmet O'Cuana:

Waxing and Waning: Essays on Moon Knight


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