Mar 14, 2014

Notes Toward a Comic Book Canon: A Field Reading List and Rationale



(Note: This was a final assignment in a graduate course on comics and graphic novels.  We were tasked with creating a candidacy reading list for the field of comics and graphic novels, and rationales for our choices.  It was one of the more difficult things I've had to do in grad school, but ultimately very rewarding.)
           The construction of a canonical reading list is, of course, a challenge fraught with uncertainty.  I have been reading comics, in pamphlet or graphic novel format, for over 30 years now, and have barely scratched the surface of what the medium offers.  I privilege the superhero as my favourite of the genres of the comic book, but to have spent the last 30 years reading only one genre in any medium would point, perhaps, to pathology in the reader, and certainly to an ignorance of the potential of the medium as a whole.  Regardless, this attempt at a canonical field reading list is in many ways a purely subjective exercise, based on my experience of the medium and its stories.  A true canon (whatever that might be) would require a longer list, a longer conversation, and certainly more than one person’s opinion.  But this is my opinion, for what it is worth, on how one might experience some of the breadth of the medium of the comic.  In preparing the list and the rationale, I keep in mind Thierry Groensteen’s assertion about his system of comics, that “[a]ll theoretical generalizations [have to be] cognizant of the trap of dogmatism” (Groensteen 20).  I strive not to be dogmatic, but suggestive.
            The list is arranged in broad categories, and then roughly chronologically within those categories.  This is not in an attempt to direct the order of reading, simply a tool for my own organizational purposes.  There is a mix of theory and primary texts, with primary texts in bold in the list.  The earliest text is Stephen Bateman’s A Christall Glass of Christian Reformation, from 1569, and the latest China Miéville and Alberto Ponticelli’s 2013 superhero series Dial H.  Laying aside subjectivity for a moment, this span of time demonstrates the other fundamental problem in constructing a canonical list.  Even by my conservative estimate, the history of comics covers over 400 years.  Add to this the debate over exactly what constitutes a comic, and canonical delineation becomes near impossible[1]. 
These debates acknowledged, I will proceed.  Entries preceded by an asterisk in the present list are pieces that I believe are fundamental to an understanding of the medium in some way, and are hence unnegotiable in the reading list.  Some cases provide the option of a choice.  In these cases, the text I have provided is simply representative of a larger body of work that I feel is important (for example, Manara’s presence on the list is representative of the influence of Heavy Metal Magazine on North American comics creators and readers).  Other cases (such as Jeff Smith’s Bone: Out From Boneville) are placed in one category, but obviously have ramifications outside of this category.  I will elucidate such ramifications in the rationale that follows each section of the list.   Overall, then, I will offer commentary on each broad category, with brief notes on why I would argue that each work belongs on the reading list, with emphasis on the asterisked works that I believe are vital components in a comics studies candidacy reading list. 
Theory
1. *“Essay on Physiognomy” – Rodolphe Töpffer
2. *Comics and Sequential Art – Will Eisner
3. “Writing for Comics” – Alan Moore
4. *Understanding Comics – Scott McCloud
5. *The System of Comics – Thierry Groensteen
            We must begin with theory.  One of the major concerns of comics studies scholars is the theoretical definition of the medium.  In this section I have included a small range of critical discourse about the nature and processes of comics.  Töpffer’s essay should certainly be included, not solely for its historical significance, but also for his foundational thinking on how the medium differs from other literary media.  His claim that “the picture-story, which critics disregard and scholars scarcely notice, has great influence at all times, perhaps even more than written literature” (Töpffer 3) is still relevant enough that it might have been drawn from a text in 2013 rather than 1845.
            The inclusion of both the McCloud and Eisner texts also serve a somewhat historical function, as they are amongst the earliest critical texts on comics to have gained significant academic traction.  In a discipline such as comics studies, I think it is important that we listen to the considered opinions of practitioners of the art, even if they are not scholars themselves, and their works not considered scholarly.  McCloud’s Understanding Comics in particular has exerted a significant influence on academic thought in comics studies, drawing both praise and disagreement, but, most importantly, provoking discussion.  Eisner’s work “diagnose[s] the form itself...dismantl[ing] the complex components of the medium” (Eisner xii) from the distinct point of view of an acknowledged master of the form.  From these two lay-scholars, I move to the work of Thierry Groensteen, whose semiologically-inflected vision of how comics work brings the theoretical discussion into a dialogue with traditional critical theory.  This juxtaposition of scholarly and non-scholarly writings provides a good basis for understanding the form from multiple perspectives, as well as acknowledging the historical lineage of critical comics studies thought.
            The one optional text in this section is Alan Moore’s 1985 essay “Writing for Comics.”  The other writers in this section focus, for the most part, on the combination of words and pictures, privileging, in some cases, the image over the word.  The inclusion of Moore reminds us that many stories begin with a script, or at least an idea, and even if an artist simply begins to draw with a story in mind, it is still a form of writing.  Moore’s essay also addresses the collaborative nature of the medium in a way that the prior theoretical pieces do not.
History
6. “Definitions and Descriptions of Emblem-Books” – Peter Daly and Elizabeth Morelli
7. *The Origins of Comics – Thierry Smolderen
8. “The American Comic Book: 1883 - 1938” – Robert Beerbohm and Richard Olson
9. “The American Comic Book: 1929 – Present” – Robert Beerbohm and Richard Olson
10. A Christall Glass of Christian Reformation, selections – Stephen Bateman and various artists (or one other representative pictorial emblem book)
11. *“A Harlot’s Progress” – William Hogarth
12. “Marriage à-la-mode” – William Hogarth
13. *Songs of Innocence and of Experience – William Blake
14. *“Histoire de M. Crèpin” – Rodolphe Töpffer
15. “Die Passion Eines Manschen” (The Passion of a Man) – Frans Masereel
16. Promethea #12: “Metaphore” – Alan Moore and J.H. Williams III
            The history of the comics form is almost as varied as its theoretical conceptions.  Thierry Smolderen’s forthcoming (in translation) The Origin of Comics is indispensable in this section, outlining from Hogarth to McKay the technical and cultural evolution of the form.  I would add to this history Daly and Morelli’s work on emblem books, and an example of one in Stephen Bateman’s 1569 A Christall Glass of Christian Reformation[2].  The two Beerbohm texts, often reprinted in the Overstreet guides, provide a brief overview of the twentieth century state of North American comics.  It is of course possible that a more academically rigorous analysis of the twentieth and twenty-first century history of comic books is available, and as such these two articles are not required, only suggested.  The remaining primary texts cover a range of historical periods, presenting sequential art and picture/word combinations that are traditionally considered as forerunners to the contemporary comic book.  The inclusion here of Moore and Williams’ “Metaphore” from Promethea is in conjunction with the inclusion of the emblem book.  I have argued elsewhere that this particular issue of the series is in fact an emblem book itself, and so I think it should be read here, in conjunction with Daly and Morelli, and with Bateman, so that the lineage to this sixteenth century art form is made explicit.
            It is important here to include at least one of Töpffer’s works, and I have listed it by its French title, as opposed to its English translation.  Not only is Töpffer’s critical thought on the medium vital to our theoretical and historical understandings, but his artistic contributions in his picture stories are also important.  Either translated or untranslated is acceptable, as the problems of translated texts are dealt with further down the list in the “International” section.  Masereel’s “Die Passion Eines Manschen” is included, as are Hogarth’s and Blake’s works, all of these as examples of early sequential art stories and word-picture combinations.  The descendants of such works might be seen in Vaughn-James’ The Cage and Niffenegger’s The Three Incestuous Sisters.  It is important the we note from these historical works and the contemporary works that follow them that a comic isn’t always the nine-panel grid of Watchmen.  The telling of stories with sequential pictures, with or without words, broadly fits this medium.  We should not limit that which we acknowledge in comics studies.
Comic Strips
17. *“Caricature” – David Carrier
18. Men, Women and Dogs – James Thurber (or any collection of single-panel comics, e.g. The Far Side)
19. *Krazy Kat (1 year worth of strips) – George Herriman
20. *Peanuts (1 year worth of strips) – Charles Schultz
21. My Crowd – Charles Addams (or any collection of single-panel comics, e.g. The Far Side)
22. Bloom County (1 year worth of strips) – Berke Breathed
23. Calvin and Hobbes (1 year worth of strips) – Bill Watterson
24. The Boondocks: Because I Know You Don’t Read the Newspaper – Aaron McGruder
            Before the pamphlet periodical, the comic strip “shape[d] the future of the form for more than a century” (Smolderen 75).  The comic strip provided, and continues to provide, an important stepping stone between the early days of the medium and the graphic novels we now attempt to canonize in our institutions.  This section of the list includes strips both historical and contemporary, though only Krazy Kat and Peanuts are required primary texts, having the weight of both critical and popular opinion in their support.  Carrier’s article speaks to the single panel comic and points to ways that we might incorporate these comics into the theory that often more closely scrutinizes strip or periodical comics.  I include Thurber’s and Addams’ works on this list as examples of the single panel comic, and also to highlight the literary pedigree that single-panel comics achieved very early in the history of the medium (having been culled from that most “literary” of magazines, The New Yorker).  These single-panel collections could be easily replaced by others (collections from Playboy, or treasury editions of The Far Side, for example), the important point being to recognize this less-prominent branch of the medium.
            The balance of the strips are culled from those that have achieved contemporary popular success.  Comic strips, at least before the advent of the internet, enjoyed a far wider readership than periodical comics as a result of their inclusion in major newspapers.  Thus, such works as Calvin and Hobbes or Bloom County drew far more popular praise than contemporaneous comic books.  Though the comics pages of newspapers continue to attest to the strip as a venue of choice for some comics artists, it is quickly being supplanted by the web comic.  Regardless, strips mark a vital part of the medium, and though we may not see the likes of Peanuts again in newspapers, the constant collection and redistribution of such strips speaks to their importance to the medium. 
These collections of strips highlight differences of narratology and composition for this particular branch of the medium, as we see the necessity of daily or weekly punch lines, and, in the single-panel comic, the relationship between picture and caption.  Groensteen’s spatio-topia of the comic album, the “invent[ion of] a scenario that can be incarnated in this medium” (Groensteen 22) is very different for the comic strip.  Like the proto-comics of the “History” section, and the comics included below in the “Experimental” section, the strips demonstrate the versatility of the medium, and the vastness of its boundaries.
Webcomics
25. *A Softer World (http://asofterworld.com/) – Joey Comeau and Emily Horne   
27. Garfield Minus Garfield (http://garfieldminusgarfield.net/) – Dan Walsh and Jim Davis
28. Hobbes and Bacon (http://www.tofeklund.net/?p=1173) – Dan and Tom Heyerman
29. Homestuck (http://www.mspaintadventures.com/?s=6) – Andrew Hussie
            In Reinventing Comics, published in 2000, Scott McCloud offers that once the “bandwidth barrier falls...comics will have found its native soil at last” (McCloud, Reinventing 231), a native soil that is no longer constrained to pages, panels, linearity, or corporate distribution.  His assertion is in the process of being proven or disproven, and though many web comics still adhere to the panel-based format, what internet publishing has changed is the distribution model, another of the comics revolutions that McCloud foresees in Reinventing.  A huge amount of material, some good and some bad, is now available to readers willing to put in the time to find it (which really is not so different from the experience of a comic book store).  Such works as Andrew Hussie’s voluminous and increasingly mutlimedia Homestuck, or the ever-popular and subversive Cyanide and Happiness demonstrate the virtues and advantages of web publishing. 
            Webcomics also owe a great deal to the comic strip, having in many ways supplanted it, and as such I include on this list web comics that grow directly from prior comic strips.  Dan Walsh’s Garfield Without Garfield offers a look at how digital technology and notions of remixing have appropriated Jim Davis’ beloved strip and made it new.  The same holds true for the Heyermans’ Hobbes and Bacon, a continuation of Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes.  It is hard to imagine either of these comics existing in a pre-digital era, and even if they did it would be in much cruder, and much less-accessible forms.  The web has allowed these kinds of pastiches and remixes to achieve a much broader recognition and acceptance than would be possible pre-Internet.  Yungbluth’s Clarissa also owes a debt to comic strips, borrowing a Calvin and Hobbes-ian art style, though Clarissa demonstrates the extremely dark uses to which comic strip-style art can be put.  It shares with Walsh’s and the Heyermans’ strips the advantage of its web-related availability.  The content of the comic is so dark that it is hard to imagine it being presented in a print form for as wide an audience as it currently commands.
            The single required text in this section, Comeau and Horne’s A Softer World, offers one of the few entries (Vaughn-James’ The Cage being the other possible candidate) of what I would term “comics poetry.”  The strip offers no real narrative or characterization, simply a combination of words and visual images that produces emotional response.  The visual imagery is most often photography, but manipulated in such a way that it evokes rather than depicts.  This manipulation is reminiscent of something Douglas Wolk points out in Reading Comics:
The most significant fact about comics is so obvious it’s easy to overlook: they are drawn.  That means that what they show are things and people, real or imagined, moving in space and changing over time, as transformed through somebody’s eye or hand. (Wolk, emphasis in original 118)
He goes on to note that the “chief tools” of cartooning “are distortion and symbolic abstraction” (120), which seems an apt description of the photography of A Softer World.  So the tools for both digital manipulation and digital distribution open up a wider range of modes of expression that we can characterize as comics.  In a print culture, A Softer World might be a book of photography, albeit manipulated photography.  In a web culture, it is a comic.
Canadian Content
30. *Invaders from the North – John Bell
31. *Cerebus: High Society – Dave Sim
32. Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life – Bryan Lee O’Malley
33. Northwest Passage – Scott Chantler
34. *Wimbledon Green - Seth
35. Skim – Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki
            Canadian cartoonist Seth opens his foreword to John Bell’s Invaders from the North with the statement “Canada, as a nation, doesn’t seem very interested in its popular culture” (Seth 9).  While it may be a sad but true statement, Bell goes on to tell us that “English Canadian comic books first appeared in 1941” (Bell 16), so though we may not pay much attention to our popular culture, it does not mean we don’t have one.  The separation of Canadian comics from the rest of the list is based solely on the fact that the list is being prepared in Canada.  Were this a candidacy list for an institution in the United States, or Great Britain, Canadian comics would be included in the following section on “International Comics.”  I feel, however, it is incumbent upon me to distinguish some of the great Canadian works in order that we might combat Seth’s assertion.
            Dave Sim is ostensibly one of the best-known, and one of the most highly-regarded, Canadian cartoonists, despite his legendary slide into misogyny and religious fundamentalism.  The High Society volume of Cerebus represents a high point in a series full of high points.  It showcases Sim’s artistic and narrative abilities, and offers some particularly biting criticism of the democratic electoral process.  It is also one of the last times in the series that Cerebus embraces its humorous side before becoming a dark and philosophically ponderous work.  On the other hand, O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim embraces its comedy throughout, as the first volume in the series attests.  The videogame-inspired work also points toward an interesting convergence of comic and videogame tropes, and the potential for storytelling that emerges from the confluence of the two.  A similar convergence of tropes is seen in Hussie’s web comic Homestuck.
            Northwest Passage and Skim dip into historic and social tensions evident in Canadian culture.  Chandler’s work looks at early settlement in Canada from the point of view of a rollicking adventure story, injecting some excitement into a subject that, if my own experience is any attestation, was dry and dull when taught in public school.  Jillian and Mariko Tamaki’s Skim hits the same kinds of notes as Gene Yang’s American Born Chinese, but with a decidedly darker vision.  Issues of both gender and ethnic prejudice play out against the backdrop of nineties Toronto, and shows that the Breakfast Club-like angst of teenagers is not solely relegated to our neighbours to the south.
            In the following section on comics from around the world, I bring up problems of translation, and specifically whether or not we need to somehow translate images from other countries and cultures in order that we properly understand a text.  This small selection of Canadian comics offers a group of texts that we, as Canadians, are in a unique position to appreciate.  Not only are the texts set in, or call attention to, our country and our cities, but they were produced within the culture that we call our own.  As members of that culture, these works speak to us in ways that they would speak to no one else, even other English-speaking readers.  One glaring omission from this section of the list, however, is the lack of any bandes dessinees from Quebec.  I have not encountered any works in this tradition personally, which speaks in some ways to Seth’s earlier assertion, but also to the problems of translation that I will outline below.
International Comics
36. “The Task of the Translator” – Walter Benjamin
37. *“Theorizing Translation” – Thomas Jackson
38. “Manga Translation and Interculture” – Cathy Sell
39. Le avventure africaine di Guiseppe Bergman (An Author in Search of Six Characters and Dies Irae) – Milo Manara (or two other stories by artists popularized in Heavy Metal Magazine)        (Italy)
40. *Any 1 Asterix – Goscinny and Uderzo (France)
41. *Any 1 Tintin – Hergé (Belgium)
42. *From Hell – Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell (United Kingdom)
43. *Any 1 year of The Beano Book or The Dandy Book – Various (United Kingdom)
44. The Book of Leviathan – Peter Blegvad (United Kingdom ?)
45. *Akira v.1 – Katsushiro Otomo (Japan)
46. “Gon Eats and Sleeps” – Masashi Tanaka (Japan)
47. Mushishi v.1 – Yuki Urushibara (Japan)
48. Zen Speaks: Shouts of Nothingness – Tsai Chih Chung (China)
            Though there are numerous problems with studying translated works, I believe it to be important in a comics reading list to acknowledge the international scope of the medium.  Publications such as Heavy Metal magazine, and the proliferation of Japanese manga in North America, have exerted a profound influence on English-language comics, and so must be read in conjunction with them.  I have included some general criticism on the process of translation to highlight the problems endemic in that process.  Benjamin’s essay notes that “instead of resembling the meaning of the original, [the translation] must lovingly and in detail incorporate the original’s mode of signification, thus making both the original and the translation recognizable as fragments of a greater language” (Benjamin 78).  Regarded this way, the translated works need not be looked upon as inferior copies, but as re-iterations of the originals that we can parse in an English-language setting.  Translation also raises an interesting question with regard to Thierry Groensteen’s assertion that comics are “a predominantly visual narrative form” (Groensteen 12, emphasis in original).  Is there a need to translate visual codes, or are they somehow universal?  Within the pages of a work like Akira, or Tintin, are there visual codes that require translation, and how does one go about this project?
            A further issue raised by the inclusion of international comics is the question of the nationality of works.  Where does one locate the nationality of a work such as The Book of Leviathan?  It is a comic strip from the U.K., written by an American by birth who seems to have chosen Britain as his home, but it is published in graphic novel form by a publishing house in the U.S.  Similar questions can be asked of numerous comics, especially since the much-lauded British Invasion of the late Eighties.  DC’s All-Star Superman features a quintessentially American hero, published by an American company, but written and drawn by two Scotsmen.  Is this a work of British or American literature?  Such determined categories are not so well-defined for comics, though are often definitional ones in academic structures.  Comics such as Leviathan ask us to rethink our nationally-divided syllabi, and perhaps point to a more holistic approach to literature.
Experimental
51. *The Cage – Martin Vaughn-James
52. *The Invisibles – Grant Morrison and Various
53. Quantum and Woody – Christopher Priest and M.D. Bright
54. Meanwhile – Jason Shiga
            In this category, I have included two works that are formally experimental, and two that are narratively experimental, though as Groensteen points out, such a delineation in comics is not always a productive distinction (Groensteen 22).  Comics are as much able to produce experimental works as any other medium, and it is important on a reading list such as this one to acknowledge this fact.  Both The Invisibles and Quantum and Woody present adventure narratives non-chronologically, and work against the idea that comics, and especially popular superhero comics, are easier to read than “proper” books.  Though Quantum and Woody’s storyline is ultimately incomplete, Priest and Bright’s technique in the narrative offers what Shklovsky might describe as “perception [that] is impeded [so that] the greatest possible effect is produced through the slowness of the perception” (Shklovsky ).  Quantum and Woody forces a reader to pay closer attention than the traditional chronological superhero comic book might, and offers great reward for such attention through the estrangement championed by the Russian Formalists.  Morrison’s The Invisibles plays similar games with the chronological ordering of the story, but also, through both the story and visual markers in the text, asks questions about the very existence of the text, and the role of the reader in its creation.  Over the course of its three volumes, the work comes back time and again to the same scenes, but from differing perceptions, offering not simply critique on how we perceive reality, but also on the medium, and on literature, itself.  Each time we approach a work, we are seeing it in many ways for the first time.  We bring different subjectivities to a work by virtue of our being creatures in a constant state of flux.  Morrison’s work asks us to question these subjective perspectives even as the text itself moves through numerous different focal perspectives.
            Vaughn-James’ and Shiga’s works are fine examples of the formal experiments that can be carried out with the medium.  The Cage’s lack of character and narrative (the lack of which, of course, could be argued) offers a glimpse at the edges of what we might call the comic book, verging into territory similar to that of Audrey Niffenegger’s The Three Incestuous Sisters.  Like the narrative experiments of Morrison, Priest, and Bright, The Cage demonstrates what the medium is capable of in the hands of an artist who does not consider comics a juvenile form.  Shiga’s Meanwhile reads much like a graphic novel correlative of Danielewski’s House of Leaves, the plot weaving backwards and forwards through the physical body of the text.  This work points to ways that the physical graphic novel can re-appropriate tropes of the web comic and of hypertextual composition, and adds to these tropes the weight of physicality.  There is something very different in flipping a page to follow a story than in clicking a hyperlink, but narratively Shiga’s book resembles such a hyperlinking story.
            Experimentation, and experimentability, is important in any medium.  An artistic form that either denies, or is incapable of, experimentation is ultimately a dead end.  Indeed, we might make the argument that if a form of expression, artistic or otherwise, is incapable of experimentation, then it is no longer a form of expression.  A further argument might be that there is no form of expression that is incapable of experimentation, but this veers off into philosophy, and probably into a very different paper than this one.
Adaptation
*“Not Just Condensation: How Comic Books Interpret Shakespeare” – Marion Perret (or one other theoretical work on comic book adaptation)
55. “Shakespeare for Americans” – Howard Chaykin and Walt Simonson
56. King Lear – William Shakespeare and Gareth Hinds
57. *Masterpiece Comics – R. Sikoryak
58. Manga Shakespeare: HamletWilliam Shakespeare and Emma Vieceli
            The comic book has a long history of adapting works from other media, many times in an effort to gain some kind of legitimacy as a literary form (the various Classics Illustrated series, for example).  Arguing from a perspective of the medium already being legitimate, I would argue that adaptations can instead serve to demonstrate the similarities comics have with other media, perhaps most notably film and drama.  The scripts that exist for these works make them prime candidates for adaptation into comics, and their nascence as scripts and execution as visual media gives them a great deal in common with the comics.  Perret’s article, though focussing on Shakespearean texts,  is useful in considering all adaptations in comics.  She notes that “comic book versions of Shakespeare’s plays are not just illustrated digests of plots and sketches of character; inescapably, they interpret as well as inform” (Perret 73).  This echoes Benjamin’s claim for translation that it “mak[es] both the original and the translation recognizable as fragments of a greater language,” and also John Sena’s assertion that the pictorial representations of Gulliver’s Travels “have a more significant function than merely supplying decorative ornamentation to a narrative” (Sena 50).  In all adaptations, we can see interpretive practices at work that (hopefully) both showcase and enhance the original narratives.
            Hinds’ King Lear is the most faithful of the adaptations in question, and serves the function of demonstrating what I would term a “traditional” adaptation, placing the action in a period similar to that of the original, and retaining vast amounts of the original dialogue and staging of the play.  The manga version of Hamlet too retains some of the original dialogue[3], but places the action in a science fiction setting.  As with dramatic re-interpretations, be they film or theatre, of existing dramatic literary works, this demonstrates the comics’ ability to bring something new to potentially very old texts.  Further, the visual aspect of the comic is not bound by the limits of technology or, to be blunt, reality, and can place these stories into realms that other media cannot. 
Both “Shakespeare for Americans” and Masterpiece Comics bring an additional level of satire to the works they appropriate, and demonstrate the ability of the comic medium to critique, both playfully and soberly, the canonical works of literature.  Masterpiece Comics in particular offers a critical view of not only the adapted literary works, but also “canonical” works of the comics medium.  In short, it adapts both famous comics and famous literary texts to point out the similarities between the two, and the problems with our canonization of said texts.
            Adaptation and translation serve similar functions on this list.  In that the list is being prepared for a post-secondary North American institute, it is important to direct our attention both inward, toward the medium, and outward, toward the influences upon the medium that already exist canonically within a literature department.  International comics and their translation remind us that comics are not a fundamentally North American medium, and adaptation reminds us that no literary form grows in a vacuum.  Literary media can cross-pollinate, often to the benefit of both media involved.  We will see examples of the reverse pollination, from comics to other media, in the section dealing with superheroes.
The Superhero
59. *“On the Place of Superhero Studies within Comics Studies” – Ben Saunders
60. *“Superman” (Action Comics #1) – Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster
61. “The Sub-Mariner” (Marvel Comics #1) – Bill Everett
62. *“The Fantastic Four” (Fantastic Four #1) – Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
63. *“Spider-Man!” (Amazing Fantasy #15) – Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
64. The Essential Howard the Duck – Steve Gerber and Various
65. *Superfolks – Robert Mayer
66. “Franz Kafka, Superhero” – David Gerrold
67. Crisis on Infinite Earths – Marv Wolfman and George Perez
68. *Watchmen – Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
69. *Batman: The Dark Knight Returns – Frank Miller
70. *“The Coyote Gospel” (Animal Man v.1 #1) – Grant Morrison and Chas Truog
71. Batman: Arkham Asylum – Grant Morrison and Dave McKean
72. “Nowhere Man,” “The Painting That Ate Paris,” “Labyrinths,” “The Kingdom of No,”    Going Underground” (from Doom Patrol v.2) – Grant Morrison and Richard Case
73. “Crossing Over” (Spawn #10) – Dave Sim and Todd McFarlane
74. *Flex Mentallo – Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely
75. *The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay – Michael Chabon
76. “The Amazing Life of Onion Jack” – Joel Priddy
77. *All-Star Superman – Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely
78. “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?” (Detective Comics#853 & Batman #686)   – Neil Gaiman and Andy Kubert
79. Dial H – China Miéville and Alberto Ponticelli
            As noted in my brief introduction, the superhero genre is the one I privilege in my own reading habits with comics, and as such is the one in which I would claim the greatest breadth of knowledge.  What we must also acknowledge, however, is that, at least in North America, the superhero genre has been fundamental to the continuation and popularization of the medium.  Though their popularity has waxed and waned over the decades, the superhero has never fully vanished, and probably never will.  The ubiquity of this genre has also resulted in many (but not all) of the more talented writers and artists in the comics industry producing at least one or two superhero tales.  Many lauded writers, both within and outside of the industry, actively seek out superhero storytelling opportunities, which speaks to the great creative allure of the genre.  It is for this reason that I include so much of Grant Morrison’s work on this portion of the list, as I consider him to be one of the best living writers of our time.  His Flex Mentallo and “The Coyote Gospel” are prime examples of how the genre of the superhero has passed on from McCloud’s oft-quoted “crude, poorly-drawn, semiliterate, cheap, disposable kiddie fare” (McCloud, Understanding 3) to a space capable of telling thought-provoking stories of a literary quality.  Other “great writers” are included here, names such as Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Dave Sim, and Frank Miller.  As with The Book of Leviathan in the translation section, some of these writers, and the artists that work with them, question the national boundaries of the medium.  Of the five names I have mentioned so far, only one is American, one Canadian, and three British.  Within those three, two are English and one Scottish.  How then do we categorize by nation?
            For a theoretical piece, I have included Ben Saunders’ short appendix from Do the Gods Wear Capes?.  Saunders is a major proponent of the superhero genre in comics studies.  His essay outlines both the ways in which superhero studies must emulate the wider field of comics studies and also what that wider field can learn and take from the superhero genre.  A large amount of the critical writing on superheroes focusses on the problematic aspects of the characters, whether these be ideological, gender-biased, or any number of other critical lenses.  Saunders acknowledges these problems, but also asks us to look to the potential for good that the superhero represents.  All literatures, all stories in fact, have problematic aspects.  I can think of few that have been criticized for these aspects as soundly as has the superhero genre.  It is my hope that the stories I have included in this section of the list point to not simply problems, but perhaps solutions that superheroes can offer.
            Following Saunders, the first four texts on this list represent watershed moments in the genre.  Both Action Comics #1 and Marvel Comics #1 are definitional pieces in the genre, as are the later tales of Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four.  Depending on the predilection of the person reading the list, more of the earlier work might be preferable, but I offer my opinion that the superhero story is only now coming into its own in the last 10 – 20 years, and that the stories from the late Eighties to present time have produced some of the most literate superhero tales in the genre.
            The balance of the texts offer an overview, though, as with the rest of this list, a brief one.  Crisis on Infinite Earths and Spawn #10 – “Crossing Over” – offer examples of the inter-continuity and inter-company crossovers that are in some ways unique to the superhero comic book (though the practice has been taken up by television and film in the last decade or so).  Steve Gerber’s collected Howard the Duck performs a satire of late twentieth century America as cutting as any piece of “literature” of the same era.  Also included on the list are three prose pieces: Robert Mayer’s Superfolks, David Gerrold’s “Franz Kafka, Superhero,” and Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.  These works represent a crossover of another kind, back into the more legitimated realm of the novel and short story.  Gerrold’s piece intersects with an acknowledged, and critically popular, literary author, and Chabon’s novel is already hailed as a modern masterpiece, having won the Pulitzer Prize and having been nominated for numerous other prestigious awards.  As Bart Beaty points out in Comics Versus Art, there is a “narrow definition of comics as a cultural form offered by theorists...from Bill Blackbeard to Scott McCloud” (Beaty 150), so as with the “Experimental” section of the list, I offer these prose writings as yet another avenue down which comics has progressed.  The novels and short story still offer tales firmly rooted in the medium, both by dint of the characters and subject matter, and also the fact that the words upon the page are sequentially arranged images, albeit images from the far end of McCloud’s graph of iconic abstraction (McCloud, Understanding 52-3).
            Wolk says it well: “if you are going to look honestly at American comics, you are going to encounter superheroes” (Wolk 89), this in a section of his book subtitled “Why Superheroes? Why??  But, in the same vein as Saunders, he goes on to assert that “every major superhero franchise...can be looked at in terms of a particular metaphor that underscores all of its best stories” (95), and this is the perspective from which the superhero genre, pervasive, and to some invasive, as it may seem, must be approached.  There are easy answers to the question of why the superhero has dominated American comic books for so long.  The more difficult answers are certainly more interesting.
Other Genre
Children
80. American Born Chinese – Gene Luen Yang
81. Tommysaurus Rex – Doug TenNapel
82. *The Best of Archie Comics v.1 – Various (or other representative collection of Archie comics)
Comedy
83. *Bone: Out from Boneville – Jeff Smith
Drama
84. *A Contract with God – Will Eisner
85. Brooklyn Dreams – J.M DeMatteis and Glenn Barr
86. The Three Incestuous Sisters – Audrey Niffenegger
87. “The Revival” – James Sturm
Erotica
88. The Spider Garden – Michael Manning
89. Lost Girls – Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie
Horror
90. *Sandman: Season of Mists – Neil Gaiman and Various
91. Preacher: Gone to Texas – Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon
92. Hellboy: The Chained Coffin and Other Stories – Mike Mignola
Mystery
93. The Mystery Play – Grant Morrison and John J. Muth
94. *Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron – Daniel Clowes
Non-Fiction
95. *Maus I & II – Art Spiegelman
96. A Treasury of Victorian Murder – Rick Geary
Underground
97. *“Fritz the Cat” – R. Crumb
98. Alias the Cat – Kim Dietch
            The “Other Genres” section of the list is easily the most difficult for me to comment upon.  It might have been easier to break this large topic down into its constitutive parts, but as Wolk notes, while “mainstream comics about anything other than superheroes aren’t entirely obsolete,...they’re definitely anomalies” (Wolk 90).  Again, as the list is potentially fluid, a reader with an avid interest in the Underground Comix of the sixties and seventies would be able to replace large swaths of the over-arching superhero genre titles with works more to his or her taste.  I will comment more fully, and perhaps sheepishly make excuses, on the prevalence of the superhero genre in my conclusion.
            In this section of the list are works that have to be on any comics studies list.  Spiegelman’s Maus is represented, as is Gaiman and company’s Sandman.  Jeff Smith’s Bone makes an appearance, as does Ennis and Dillon’s Preacher and a selection of the best of Archie comics.  Will Eisner’s graphic novel work is represented here too, a companion to his earlier inclusion in the “Theory” section of the list.  R. Crumb’s Fritz is also included here, so what the “Other Genre” section of the list accomplishes is to include works that are vital to our understanding of comics that don’t fit easily into any other categories.  Clowes’ Like a Velvet Glove Cast In Iron and Morrison and Muth’s The Mystery Play are included under the heading of Mystery, but they are not solely that.  They merely pull their primary tropes from that genre.  Smith’s Bone is not solely comedy, being also an all-ages work, a fantasy work, and drawing on a lineage of comic strips such as Kelly’s Pogo and Alfred or Barks’ Duck comics.  “Other Genre” could easily have been “Miscellaneous,” but that term seems to denote afterthought, which these inclusions to the list are definitely not.
            What this final section of the list does accomplish is something similar to the “Experimental” section of the list; it showcases the diversity of stories that can be, and have been, told in the comics medium, and the quality this diversity of stories represents.  It is not to say that these are the only examples of each genre (where, for example, are the EC horror comics of the fifties, or Harvey Pekar’s American Splendour?), only that each of these genres exists and is a vibrant part of the medium.  The works included in this section are simply individual pinnacles amongst many.
            As a way of concluding this paper, I must make plain that even over the course of writing and editing the paper, my list has undergone change.  Each time I read a fine example of what the comics medium can achieve (Marc-Antoine Mathieu’s 3 Secondes and Gene Yang’s American Born Chinese, which supplanted the Spiegelman and Mouly-edited Little Lit, being the latest), I struggle as to whether or not it is a viable contender for the list, and what it should replace in keeping with the limit of 100 individual titles.  This list bears little resemblance to that of The Comics Journal, and that list was compiled by individuals whose cachet within comics studies is far greater than mine.  The most honest justification I can offer for the titles included , and for the generic choices and distinctions, on this list is that they have all played some fundamental role in my own appreciation and education in comics and comics studies.  As we leave 15-20 percent of such reading lists open to the tastes of the student, there is certainly space to tailor the list, perhaps adding more horror and removing some superheroes, for example.  This list, then, is what I would recommend as having taught me the most about the medium, its history and theory, and the potential for its use as a vehicle of good, and sometimes great, stories.

Works Cited
Beaty, Bart. Comics Versus Art. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012. Print.
Benjamin, Walter.  Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken Books, 1969. Print.
Eisner, Will. Comics and Sequential Art. New York: Norton & Co., 2008. Print.
Groensteen, Thierry. The System of Comics. Trans. Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen. Jackson:             University of Mississippi Press, 2007. Print.
McCloud, Scott. Reinventing Comics. New York: Paradox Press, 2000. Print.
---. Understanding Comics. New York: Paradox Press, 2000. Print.
Perret, Marion. “Not Just Condensation: How Comic Books Interpret Shakespeare.” College        Literature 31.4 (2004): 72-93. JSTOR. Web. 21 Sept. 2012.
Sena, John F.  “Teaching Gulliver's Travels.”  Approaches to Teaching Swift's Gulliver's Travels.    Ed. Edward J. Reilly.  New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1988.  44-    51.  Print.
Shklovsky, Victor. “Art as Technique.” www.vahidnab.com. N.p. n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2013.
Smolderen, Thierry. The Origins of Comics. Trans. Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen. 2014. TS.
Töpffer, Rodolphe. Enter: The Comics. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965. Print.
Wolk, Douglas. Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean.          Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, 2007. Print.


[1] If we accept Scott McCloud’s assertions about Egyptian paintings from around 1300 B.C. (McCloud 13-14), all of a sudden the history of comics covers almost 3500 years.  How do we construct an inclusive canon from that stretch of time?
[2] I have seen little in the critical literature placing the emblem book as forerunner of some sort to the contemporary comic.  I will be presenting my own research on the topic at the 10th International Emblem Society conference in Kiel, Germany in the summer of 2014 (Note: This paper will not be presented, unfortunately, due to my inability to fund a trip to Germany.)
[3] Hence the writing of both Hinds’ work and the manga being attributed to Shakespeare.  The words are his, but the visual storytelling, the staging, so to speak, belongs to the artists involved.

No comments: