Tuesday, March 13, 2012
1,001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die - a brief review
First of all, you mustn't. That is, you couldn't read these 1,001 comics, in some cases complete works, in your life, or wouldn't want to, anyway. I know I couldn't, and I've read nothing close to a prose novel in eight years. I skipped around the book too much to give a proper review, so what follows are just some thoughts I have about it.
I want to highlight the two Milton Caniff entries: "Terry and the Pirates" and "Steve Canyon". The description for "Terry" by Fiona Jerome reads more like a research assignment than by someone who has enthusiasm for the strip. I'm not sure where she gets her information that "the strips of the war years are less well regarded by some..." I've never read or heard that, and personally I think those strips are in the peak of Caniff's career. She also writes as if she's just discovering the strip when she says - "His dramatic use of ink brought more life to a tiny black-and-white strip of squares than you'd think possible." How about that? Who knew. My main quibble is with the picture accompanying the entry. Instead of using some strip art or even promotional art, they used the cover to "Terry & the Pirates" #18 from Harvey Comics. "Terry" strips had been reformatted for printing in comic books since 1936. Even after Caniff left the strip in 1946, they were still using reprinting his strips in this series. The cover of this 1949 comic isn't even by Caniff (most likely it's by Lee Elias).
There is no picture for the "Steve Canyon" entry. Entries on their own page get a picture, but sometimes two entries are on a page without a picture. The entry, by David Roach, recounts the amazing origin story of the strip - the boldness it took Caniff to leave "Terry"; how 125 papers bought a strip sight unseen. I'll rest any minor quibbles with the rest of it. It's hard to argue with someone who calls the strip "a masterfully crafted slice of adventure."
Some creators are a beneficiary of format. Herge gets nods for five individual Tintin stories. Is that fair? Someone like Charles Schulz gets one entry for his life's work, but Herge gets five because he released individual albums and not an ongoing serial. This gives some an unfair advantage in the final tally.
So, who gets the most nods? Not surprisingly, critical darling Alan Moore gets the most entries with 12. He's joined by fellow usual suspects Frank Miller (7) and Grant Morrison (6). They've done some fine writing, but Miller's "Dark Knight Strikes Again" is not a must-read. Of course, with criticism it often comes down to personal taste. One reviewer's "recklessly idiosyncratic" is another's sloppy mess.
This isn't a guide to American comic books or superhero comic books. Foreign comics and small press comics get equal if not superior weight. Looking at the last ten years represented in the book, superhero comics get only a superficial nod. Oh, yes, those comics? You mean the ones everybody read? Well, maybe a few of those were really good, if they were on the approved critically acclaimed creator list. Two founders of the Marvel universe - Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, are well represented. They have 8 and 11 mentions, respectively. Kirby gets extra nods for his DC "Fourth World" books and his earlier, pre-Marvel work. Some big names - e.g. George Perez, Bob Haney, Chuck Dixon, Russ Heath, Jim Aparo - get nothing.
The anti-superhero bias can't be dwelled upon. It's a common theme to comics criticism, and perhaps the authors' aim is to steer you to quality, lower selling work that you may have missed. Herein lies what I think is a huge missed opportunity. Here are 1,001 comics that you "must read", but there's no indication of how to get them. For example, nearly the entire output from The Library of American Comics is represented, but from the entries you'd have no notion that they're available. I'm guessing that there wouldn't even be entries for obscure works like "Miss Fury" and "King Aroo" if not for the LOAC and other archival publishers.
All in all, it's an interesting reference for the experienced collector. For the newbie or mass market, it's too much to ingest. For this reader, though I do think it favors some comic snobbery, the immense variety of genres does emphasize one oft-ignored adage: Comics, as both an art form and storytelling medium, are for everyone and can be about anything.