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The Comics Canon

Posted by Joshua Glenn  February 14, 2008 10:06 AM

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In 1995, I nominated Chris Ware for Artist of the Year (an honorific bestowed by a Minneapolis alt.weekly), noting that "Like R. Crumb or Daniel Clowes, he is taking this 'juvenile and trashy medium' to complex new heights." Around that same time, I called Fantagraphics, publisher of Crumb, Clowes, and Ware, the City Lights or Grove Press of the 1990s: They were pushing a great, experimentalist, anything-goes form of literature scorned by the mainstream.

That was over a decade ago, and now the mainstream loves comics. Dan Clowes just wrapped up "Mister Wonderful," a serialized story in The New York Times Magazine. R. Crumb's work appears frequently in The New Yorker. And in 2002, Ware was the first comics artist to be invited to exhibit at Whitney Museum of American Art biennial exhibition.

So... we can stop debating about whether or not comics have "grown up." They have! Over at the literary scholarship blog The Valve, today, John Holbo urges us to move onto the next important debate about comics: Is there a comics canon? Is it possible to agree on a list of comicdom's greatest works of artistic merit? And if so -- Holbo argues, persuasively, that a comics canon has already "happened" -- what artists and works would be on that list?


Holbo claims that we can catch a glimpse of the outlines of such a canon by reading Douglas Wolk's excellent 2007 book, "Reading Comics." In general, notes Holbo, "when Wolk names artists and comics, I've heard of them. And I've actually read half of them. The center of comics culture holds, to a considerable degree."

Next question: In light of the Canon Wars we endured here in the US in the 1980s-90s, is canon-formation a good thing for comics? Does it help the medium? Holbo hopes to forestall a comics canon war, writing: "The reason Canon Wars are a waste of time is that canons happen (or fail to). You can't coherently aim at bringing one into existence, let alone force one to. All you can do is create things, and judge things, which is piecemeal work."

So... different question. Has a comics canon happened, as Holbo claims it has? Let's take a peek at the Comics Journal's Twentieth Century Comics Canon. Here are the Top 20 titles from that list.

"Krazy Kat"

1) Krazy Kat by George Herriman
2) Peanuts by Charles Schulz
3) Pogo by Walt Kelly
4) Maus by Art Spiegelman
5) Little Nemo in Slumberland by Winsor McCay
6) Feiffer by Jules Feiffer
7) Donald Duck by Carl Barks
8) Mad Comics by Harvey Kurtzman & various
9) Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary by Justin Green
10) The Weirdo stories of Robert Crumb
11) Thimble Theatre by E.C. Segar [where Popeye first appeared]
12) EC's "New Trend" war comics by Harvey Kurtzman & various
13) Wigwam Bam (L&R) by Jaime Hernandez
14) Blood of Palomar (L&R) by Gilbert Hernandez
15) The Spirit by Will Eisner
16) RAW Magazine, edited by Art Spiegelman & Francoise Mouly
17) The Acme Novelty Library by Chris Ware
18) Polly and Her Pals by Cliff Sterret
19) The Sketchbooks of Robert Crumb
20) Uncle Scrooge by Carl Barks

New Yorker cover by Chris Ware

"Having a canon means, in effect, that the list of truly great artists/works is small enough that some fanatics have literally studied them all," Holbo artgues. "And a critical mass of enthusiasts and artists have seriously appreciated at least, say, half of them, so they can sit at the feet of the fanatics and understand what the hell they are saying." So, having perused the list above, can we agree that there are at least 20 truly great artists/works, all of which have been studied by comics fanatics; and at least half of which have been seriously appreciated by the rest of us, as well as by other comics artists?

Heck, yeah! I'm a comics fan, not a fanatic, and although I don't know "Binky Brown," an underground comic from 1972, or "Polly and Her Pals," a newspaper strip that ran from the 1910s-40s, I not only seriously appreciate the other 18 works on this list, I own 'em. I might quibble with the love that Los Bros. Hernandez get from the Comics Journal. (There are two more Jaime H. titles in the list's next five items; the H. Bros. are Fantagraphics artists, and the Comics Journal is published by Fantagraphics.) But Holbo's argument holds water. Yes, in my opinion, there is a comics canon. Yes.

What do you think, readers?

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5 comments so far...
  1. I think the glaring, glaring omission here would be Superman. Not only did it completely change the genre (walk into any comic store now and, what, half of it is going to be devoted to superhero comics?) but I'd argue that it was an imaginative act that totally changed the culture. The archetype of the superhero taps into something in the psyche that, maybe for centuries, had only been available to artists by rehashing greco-roman mythology. That there is something curiously American about the whole enterprise, too.

    Posted by Ezra Ball February 16, 08 12:09 AM
  1. The Comics Journal list is not uncontroversial! Superman's first appearance in Action Comics #1, Frank Miller's "Dark Knight Returns" Batman series, post-Harvey Kurtzman "Mad" comics (early "Mad" comics are on the list), didn't make it. The only superhero comic in the CJ's Top 20 is Will Eisner's "The Spirit." Fantagraphics, of course, is all about non-superhero comics; they're biased.

    Still, the CJ list is a fine starting point. Add some great superhero comics from the past 80 years, remove some Hernandez Bros. titles, and you've got a canon. Canons are supposed to be debated, after all.

    Posted by Josh Glenn February 16, 08 10:06 AM
  1. Interestingly this is exactly what the traveling exhibition, Masters of American Comics, tried to do in 2005. In their catalog essay, the curators, John Carlin and Brian Walker talk about the canon of American Comic artists.

    But with both these lists, as well as the other one Holbo refers to, the Wizard #100, there are serious problems. I count three. The first is the lack of women. Of the fifteen artists in Masters of American Comics none were women. They actually got Art News to put the question, “Who Are the Great Women Comic-Book Artists?” in bold letters on their November 2005 cover. The Journal’s comic canon, out of one hundred, only includes three women (Lynda Barry #69, Julie Doucet #96 and Carol Tyler #97), unless you include Françoise Mouly, which I wouldn’t, as she is an editor, not an artist or writer. What a boy’s club! Doucet easily belongs in the top twenty. And what about Trina Robbins, Nell Brinkley (The Brinkley Girl) and Sue Coe? As you mention, R. Crumb's work appears frequently in The New Yorker, but usually with his wife and collaborator, Aline Kominsky-Crumb. Today you would have to include Mariane Satrapi.

    Next is the lack of respect paid to writers. Both Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman are in the Journal’s list, but for specific efforts with certain artists and way down the list. What about Sandman, which was Gaiman’s masterpiece? My point is that comics are a medium of words and pictures. If comics are being taken seriously today, in the likes of the New Yorker and NYT magazine, they are being taken seriously as a form of literature. Why denigrate the writers?

    Finally why only comics in English? As an art form, comics have transcended language in a way that movies can only aspire to. The cross pollination between American underground comic and the French Métal Hurlant artists was phenomenal. Manga has had an incredible impact on American culture. Would you expect a list of the hundred greatest movies to not include Jean Renoir, Fellini or Kurosawa? I can understand an exhibition which has limited wall space limiting themselves to American’s, but why did the Journal?

    So sadly these are canons of white, English speaking males who are mostly visual artists. Remember that the Canon Wars, you refer to, were because some people wanted to correct the literary canon of its Anglo Saxon maleness. The fine art world has been working for the last 40 years to make the same correction. Why should the comic world start out making the same mistake?

    Posted by George Fifield February 17, 08 03:40 PM
  1. Superman maybe should be on it, but I'm surprised that Calvin and Hobbes didn't show up. Perhaps it hasn't been as influential (yet) as others on the list, but it's almost universally recognized as one of the best newspaper strips of all time, both visually and in writing.

    Posted by zach February 20, 08 07:18 PM
  1. The Hernandez brothers aren't white. They're just awesome. Problem with them is they're more about the whole body of their work than any one story. "Wigwam Bam" loses a lot if you haven't read the stories leading up to it.

    Posted by Steve January 7, 09 05:14 PM
About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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