Over the last month or two I may have alluded to an outside project I was working on and it was this: The 100 Pages That Shaped Comics. The team that put this together was spearheaded by Vulture’s Abraham Riesman and I was joined by Sarah Boxer, Jeet Heer, Fred Van Lente, Brian Cronin, Charles Hatfield, Christopher Spaide, Joshua Rivera, Klaus Janson, Mark Morales, and Richard Starkings, as well as Abe, in picking the pages and creators involved.

To say it was a spirited debate would be putting it mildly, but it was usually over squeezing things on as opposed to leaving things off. The piece was inspired by Vulture’s previous 100 Jokes That Shaped Modern Comedy, (which had a followup) and represents, if I do say so myself, a fairly hefty dose of comics research. No one on the list is a slouch where comics history (both economic and artistic) are concerned, but I must call out Fred Van Lente and Brian Cronin who know not only comics history but what kind of underwear Wally Wood was wearing when he drew Mad Magazine. Impressive!

WHen the piece cam eout on Monday, I was hunkered down in my bunker awaiting a backlash from other scholars dragging us for our shoddy work, but the biggest criticism has been the most obvious: it’s only a list of North American comics with an emphasis on periodicals and GNs.
No newspaper strips (with an asterisked exception or two) means no Rose O’Neill, no Lynda Barry, no Charles Schulz, no Krazy Kat. And of course no Tezuka, no Moebius, no Herge. no Moto Hagio, no Rumiko Takahashi. No Marie Duval, no Doré. But as far as North. American comics go, I think we managed to hit a lot of high spots.
As I’ve written elsewhere, working on this list was also a sharp reminder of just how much of our comics heritage is still written along what I’ve called the “pap pap” lines. This is the overwhelmingly male, overwhelmingly white narrative of comics history that starts with Winsor McCay and goes through the dry brush techniques of comic strips, straight to the EC era and on to the Silver Age with a shrine or two to R. Crumb along the way. It’s not a bad history, it’s just a limiting one. We tried to include a slightly wider variety of pages from other books that historical importance, but I look forward to helping uncover more of the forgotten people of comics history.
The list does include a lot of superhero comics, which are generally still synonymous with the periodical business at least. Given the contemporary popularity of superheroes in media, this makes some sense.
1949-it-rhymes-with-lust-2
A page from It Rhymes with Lust by Arnold Drake and Matt Baker.
I’d still like to dig more into the origins of the “gekiga” of American comics. Was it really EC and Krigstein that led to a more thoughtful approach to the medium? Spiegelman’s allegiance to Masereel and Ward suggests an alternate path. Was Eisner’s belief in comics purely based on his belief in his own storytelling skills? I know he had inspirations as well.
I still feel that the “conventional narrative” of comics scholarship has overlooked some secret doors and hidden paths. This is based on the hints of oddities here and there that suggest things may have been perceived differently at the time, as opposed to in hindsight. The victors write the history, afetr all and superheroes were the victor of the first 70 years of comic book history.
I’ve often resisted the idea of “comics canon” because it is so hostile to non white male creators. (My blood still boils when I recall the Masters of American Comics co-curator John Carlin saying that adding Lynda Barry to the list would have been tokenism.) The Vulture brain trust  came up with what I hope is an acceptably diverse list, however, despite the lack of Euro comics and Manga representation.
It did make me think of how few attempts at canon-making there have been in recent comics history. There was the Comics Journal’s 100 Greatest Comics of the 20th Century, already hopelessly out of date by the time it came out, and limited by pap pap extremism. The AV Club had the Best Comics of the 00s, but inexplicably left off Scott Pilgrim, the Aughtiest of the Aughts. I remain genuinely impressed by Loser City’s The 100 Best Comics of the First Half of the 2010s, which summed up the thoughts of a new generation of comics critics while failing to do basic things like tag all the parts with the same tag. Millennials!
NPR picked 100 Favorite Comics And Graphic Novels, or rather had their listeners pick, giving it a serious handicap in the snob category.
At the end of the day, these lists and canon probably do more harm than good, and the current paradigm of importance via share mitigates against these sorts of rankings. Still, it’s a good mental exercise.
But I’m still happy to have taken part in Vulture’s 100 Comics Pages project. (Pretty sure you will never guess all the entries I wrote, either.)  It’s given a lot of people a good dose of comics history. In a world where people forget there was ever a Holocaust which killed more than six million human beings, maybe taking another look at “The Master Race” isn’t a bad idea.

13 COMMENTS

  1. Kudos — that’s a pretty good list. Particularly pleased to see that several books included that had a lot of impact when they first came out, but are less well-known now (e.g., AMERICAN FLAGG!, ICON).

    At any rate, an enjoyable read.

  2. Glad that Tarpe Mills’ Miss Fury was included. No tokenism there; I’ve just discovered this ’40s character and am enjoying the comics when and where I find them.

    There’s a whole world of comics not published by Marvel and DC that are largely unknown to a lot of fans. (I include myself; I’m still getting caught up). And the comics published in the late ’40s and early ’50s, when superheroes were eclipsed by other genres, remain an unexplored wilderness for too many people. I regard this as comics’ film noir era, and it’s endlessly fascinating.

    One gripe: I would have included “Crime Does Not Pay” (which debuted in 1942) instead of “True Crime Comics” (1947). “CDNP” was one of the most influential comics of its time; “TCC” was an imitation. I know that Jack Cole is more highly regarded than Charles Biro, but maybe Cole could have been included for “Plastic Man.”

  3. Heidi, I truly think that piece was one of the best pieces of “list” journalism I’ve read. I thought the selection of pages was impressively broad, but most importantly, the write-ups about each page were satisfyingly deep as well.

  4. An oversight that always happens with these types of lists. Warren Kremer work was used as a style guide that kept Harvey Comics in business for 30 years, radically changing the company as much if not more than Bob Montana’s Archie changed MLJ.

    But if you want to find what influenced Kermer’s work, you go back to Little Audrey Comics #25, which is when Harvey took over the title from St. John’s.The artist was Steve Muffatti, whose work was very influential to Kermer. Casper and Baby Huey appear in that comic too, the first time under Harvey Comics.

  5. In 1987 or so, Rolling Stone released a list of the 100 best albums from 1967-1987. It was canon work, of course. And it’s limited, exclusive, blind and all the things wrong with canons. But it was a big thing for me. It opened up avenues of listening I’d never heard. Made me think differently about some things. And although that list seems even narrower and less useful now than it did in 1987, that list was an important part of the reason I’m able to judge its inadequacy now. It helped give me the tools to see why it couldn’t work as an exhaustive list or a ‘do not cross’ boundary for what mattered. Canons are bad when they are reduced to stopping points. But as doorways for explorations, they can be wonderful. So don’t abandon the canon work, just recognized its limitations while appreciating how it helps people new to a subject find things they might never find otherwise. I look forward to delving into this list when life gets a little more sane.

  6. I was confused by the theme of “comics pages” when many of the chosen items were really for the entire work and the specific page shown seemed somewhat random.

  7. “The victors write the history, afetr (sic) all and superheroes were the victor of the first 70 years of comic book history.”

    Except for the years when they were in decline, such as the early ’50s and the early ’70s. Even when superheroes ruled, there were plenty of other genres out there — until those other genres died in the ’80s. Thank you, Direct Market!

    But it’s true that victors writer the history. This is probably because comics fandom was started, in the early ’60s, by Golden Age superhero fans (Roy Thomas, Jerry Bails, Don and Maggie Thompson, etc). Their tastes determined what was considered valuable and collectible.

    We might have different touchstones if fandom had been organized by, say, Donald Duck fans or horror-comics fans.

  8. Well, Bill, some of your thanks ought to go to the distributors of the 70s, shouldn’t they? They’re the ones who turned up their noses at comic books at a time when the publishers were still willing to come out with multiple genres. I’d even tend to blame, more than the DM, the mainstream comics-readers who kvetched at every price-increase– which meant that publishers couldn’t raise their prices like other magazines, which is why the distributors decided that comics weren’t worth bothering with.

    I think a lot of the influential comics-fans wrote copiously about non-superhero works. I can remember being slightly offended when Don Thompson stated that the EC Comics were the best comics of all time. (Better than my beloved Marvels? BLASPHEMY!) But superheroes had great potential for development FOR THE FIRST TIME EVER in the comics-medium– whereas most other genres had already been better defined by cinema or comic strips.

    As for the list, I liked a lot of the selections. Didn’t agree with certain statements on KILLING JOKE, but no surprises there. I think Ross’ work on MARVELS is far more influential on comics than his KINGDOM COME, so I would;ve chosen that masterly scene when the Sub-Mariner’s tidal wave hits New York.

    Oh, and as an earlier fellow said, something for Plastic Man would’ve been good, probably from the origin that made him a hit character.

  9. “the mainstream comics-readers who kvetched at every price-increase”

    Can’t blame casual readers for bailing when periodical prices kept rising. Roy Thomas predicted in the ’70s that this would happen.

    Unless you had a deep emotional investment in comics, you weren’t going to stick around. Casual readers were much like casual moviegoers today, who complain loudly every time ticket prices go up, and eventually decide to stay home with their TV and Netflix.

    Unfortunately, fans would only support one genre: superheroes. They had little or no interest in anything else (except Star Wars). They were embarrassed by “girl comics” and happy to see them die. Comic shops eventually became, as one wag put it, “superhero convenience stores.” And now that business model is falling apart.

  10. I don’t think it was “unfortunate” for the comics-subculture as a whole that early DM fans were superhero-centric. Of course, it was unfortunate for individual artists and publishers who didn’t want to do superheroes.

    I said earlier that many fans at the time– though of course, not all– had a sense that the superhero genre concealed an untapped potential. They started getting the first sense of that potential developing with the breakthrough works like WATCHMEN and DKR, and these are still keystone works to later comics-afficianados for that reason. They also provided a business model for later, non-superhero works in terms of publicity and monetization, if nothing else.

    If a comic like LUMBERJANES enjoys fiscal success today, it’s because of those early, faltering steps.

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