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.
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!
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.