28 July 2003

60 of the Best

Sturgeon's Law states that '90 % of everything is crud'. This rule applies to comics no less than it does to any other medium, which the unfortunate variation that in comics only the crud is easily visbile.

I'd suggest that any bookshop considering having a graphic novel collection should begin with the following. This isn't an exhaustive list, mind. I'm sure I've forgotten some stuff, and other things I'd like to put here have been reluctantly left out. If anyone's interested, I'll explain what, and why...

Kyle Baker: The Cowboy Wally Show, Why I Hate Saturn, You Are Here, and I Die At Midnight. While Cowboy Wally is a rather light comic satire on American entertainment, and Midnight is a hilarious romp through New York on the night of 31 December 1999, Saturn and You Are Here are more substantial fare. Towards the end, Saturn does rather genuflect to the conventions of 1980s comics, but in general it is a sparkling and mature piece of work, a comic which I have always gladly pressed on people who don't read comics - they're usually grateful.

You Are Here is the most complete of Baker's works; it's not great art by any means, but it could comfortably stand with the best of popular entertainment in any other medium nowadays.

Raymond Briggs: When The Wind Blows and Ethel and Ernest. Perhaps best known for The Snowman, adapted for television with Aled Jones singing, Briggs somehow has never been regarded as a comic creator, but how can he really be seen as anything else? He writes and draws beautiful comic strips, all of which are marked by a distinct tenderness, both in Briggs's draughtsmanship and in his approach to the characters.

Ethel and Ernest is a sad, gentle, heartwarming, and funny account of how Briggs's parent met, married, lived, and died; it's a truly beautiful work. When the Wind Blows, written back in the 1980s when Cold War paranoia was at its height, tells the story of a middle-aged English couple, clearly modelled on Briggs's own parents, who attempt to cope with the nightmarish reality of a nuclear attack. It's a warm and funny, yet ultimately heartbreaking and terrifying work. I can't commend it enough.

Eddie Campbell: Alec: How To Be An Artist. Scottish Campbell here uses his fictional alter-ego Alec in a straight piece of autobiography that explores the world of British alternative comics in the 1980s and 1990s. It's not just well told slices of life; rather it is about living, and about living with art. Marvellous stuff.

Daniel Clowes: Ghostworld and Caricature. I'm not very familiar with Clowes's work, but having read these I'm very tempted to explore his stuff in much greater detail. Ghostworld is a graceful and solemn piece of adolecent fiction, a sad yet drily witty study in how friends grow apart. Caricature is a collection of short stories; the title story is one of the most painfully honest works I've ever come across in any medium.

Will Eisner: The Spirit Casebook, A Contract With God, A Life Force, The Dreamer, and To The Heart Of The Storm. Described by some as the 'Eisenstein of comics', Will Eisner is one of the true fathers of the medium. Referring to Eisner's work on The Spirit, Harlan Ellison described Eisner as 'the O. Henry of comic books'. Back in the thirties and fourties, when working on The Spirit in a style heavily inspired by German expressionist cinema and developing the visual language that American comics would rely on, Eisner was convinced that comics had an enormous amount of untapped potential, that they could be a valid artistic medium.

Years later, with A Contract With God, Eisner created what is widely regarded as the first graphic novel; in truth Contract is a collection of short stories, but Eisner was certainly getting there, and with A Life Force he finally struck gold, telling the story, as with Contract, of struggling Jewish families in the New York of his childhood. The Dreamer and To The Heart Of The Storm are more autographical, with The Dreamer telling the story of Eisner's breaking into comics, and Heart Of The Storm looking at his experiences with antisemitism in America on the eve of World War Two.

Though not itself a comic, Eisner's Comics and Sequential Art was the first real attempt by a practicing comic creator to analyse the mechanics of the medium. It's well worth a look.

Neil Gaiman: Violent Cases, Signal to Noise, Mr Punch, and The Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldfish. Gaiman is almost certainly the most well-known comics creator in the English-speaking world nowadays, the author of the multiple-award winning Sandman series, co-author of Good Omens with Terry Pratchett, creator of BBC's Neverwhere series, author of the chilling children's fantasy Coraline and of the New York Times bestseller American Gods, and currently moving into film-making...

These four books are all illustrated by Gaiman's long-time collaborator Dave McKean, whose other projects with Gaiman include the astounding 'Hold Me' issue of Hellblazer, the Black Orchid mini-series, and every Sandman cover. Violent Cases is an intriguing tale about childhood and the tricks that memory can play on us; Signal to Noise considers the last days of a dying film-maker and the film he would have made if he could; and Mr Punch is a thematic sequel to Violent Cases, regarded by Gaiman as his finest work in comics.

Goldfish is a children's book, so perhaps should not be included on this list, but it's clearly a comic, and like the works of Maurice Sendak it is a true gem, a book that can and should be read with delight by anybody.

Larry Gonick: The Cartoon History of the Universe. So far, three volumes of this hilarious yet surprisingly accurate history of the world are available. Gonick's work, while it will hardly become a standard reference-piece, is nevertheless as accessible a global history as is readily available. Perhaps more importantly, it hints the potential of this largely untapped genre of comics...

Hermann Huppen: Rodrigo. Hermann, as he styles himself, is an extraordinarily gifted artist, hailed by his fellows as a master. His work includes two long series, the medieval drama The Towers of Bois Maury and the post-apocalyptic Jeremiah, as well as numerous books which stand alone. Rodrigo is set in Reconquista Spain and is linked with the Bois Maury stories; the book is a true thing of beauty, and is as fine a piece of historical fiction as you could ever come across.

Jason Lutes: Jar of Fools and Berlin 1: City of Stones. Scott McCloud has long hailed Lutes as one of the rising stars of the medium, and has been singing the praises of Jar of Fools to anyone who would listen. Breaking so many of the 'rules' of the medium, Lutes relentlessly experiments in his story of a retired conjurer, a sad meditation on memory and loss. If Jar of Fools showed promise, then the first part of the Berlin trilogy demonstrates just how talented Lutes is. Set in Weimar Berlin, around 1929, Lutes's historical drama may be the most interesting comic being published nowadays.

Dave Mazzuchelli: City of Glass. Paul Auster's City of Glassis a masterwork in its own right, but Mazzuchelli and Paul Karasik have transformed it into an extraordinary expressionist comic. It's rare that anything can be successfully transferred from one medium to another, but Mazzuchelli and Karasik have managed it with style. Mazzuchelli, incidentally, illustrated Miller's Batman: Year One; it's worth comparing the two to see how his artistic sensibilities have transformed over the years.

Lorenzo Mattotti: Fires. Beautifully illustrated with expressionistic chalk drawings, Fires is a dazzling work, tranquil yet mysterious, and one of the most popular European graphic novels.

Scott McCloud: Understanding Comics and Reinventing Comics. The author of Zot! and The New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln, McCloud is the medium's great explainer, and the true heir to Will Eisner. Understanding Comics occasionally gets bogged down in trying to justify the medium's existence, but on balance is an extraordinary analysis of how comics work, and how comics can work; the fact that McCloud uses the comic form in this largely technical analysis proves so many of his points in spectacular fashion. Reinventing Comics is not as strong, but is well worth a look as McCloud considers where comics have been and where they might go...

Dave McKean: Cages. McKean is probably best known for his work with Neil Gaiman, but Cages proved that he is not simply an illustrator of other people's visions. An extraordinary work about creativity and control, Cages tells the story of an artist, a writer, and a musician living in an apartment block and frequenting a nearby club; if ever a comic could be classed as 'magic realism' this is it.

Frank Miller: Ronin, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Batman: Year One, Sin City, Sin City: A Dame To Kill For, and 300. Everything Miller does is hard-boiled. If you like hard-boiled fiction, you'll like Miller. It's as simple as that. Relentlessly experimental, Ronin takes its cue from the work of Moebius and from Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima's samurai masterwork Lone Wolf and Cub, but in truth really only hints at what was to come.

Dark Knight has probably been the most influential comic, for good or ill, of the last twenty years. So many of today's professionals were inspired to enter the field after reading it; that's understandable, as it's a truly explosive book, which should have dealt a bodyblow to the entire superhero genre. Year One is technically a better work, with genuinely elegant art by Dave Mazzuchelli, and is basically Miller riffing on Raymond Chandler. There's a strong case to me made that it's the single best superhero comic ever, though that case does rather require you to argue that Watchmen isn't really a superhero comic.

The first two Sin City books saw Miller abandoning the trappings of superhero comics to do the kind of comics he clearly wants to do, but in a far darker style than before. Sin City gives new meaning to the word noir. And 300? This is Miller stretching his wings again, attempting historical fiction in his account of the doomed Spartan defence of Thermopylae. Historically, it's not the best, but it's an inventive piece of work, showing how an artist can grow, gloriously coloured by Miller's long-time partner Lynn Varley.

Pete Milligan: Skin and Rogan Gosh. Milligan may be best remembered as writer of 2000 AD's gripping future war epic Bad Company, but his finest work has been with the insanely gifted Brendan McCarthy. Skin was originally commissioned by Fleetway for Crisis but at the last moment declined to publish it. Telling the apparently unlikely story of a Thalidomide skinhead it was a beautifully drawn, brutally honest yet deeply sensitive piece of work. It deserves to be kept in print. Rogan Gosh initially saw the light of day in Fleetway's ill-fated Revolver magazine. Almost defying description, it was a hallucinogenic romp through space, time, and Indian curry houses, and almost certainly one of the finest comics of 1990.

Moebius: Arzach and The Airtight Garage. Moebius was long a popular illustrator of western comics under his real name of Jean Giraud, but in the 1970s he spread his wings a little. Arzach was the result, an elaborately drawn, exotic, near-wordless comic which simply invited the reader to watch and reflect on the strange figure of Arzach flying through an almost Freudian dreamscape. It sent shockwaves through the European comics scene when it was first published. Derived at some level from the works of Michael Moorcock, like Talbot's Luther Arkwright, The Airtight Garage is perhaps a more acquired taste. It's a largely improvised work, careering chaotically through parallel universes, which allows Moebius an unfettered opportunity to spontaneously project his feverish imagination onto the page.

Alan Moore: The Ballad of Halo Jones, V for Vendetta, Watchmen, A Small Killing, and From Hell. Alan Moore is almost certainly the finest writer ever to have worked in comics. These are but a small selection of his works. Halo Jones is to this day widely regarded as the finest strip ever to have graced the pages of Britain's 2000 AD; illustrated by Ian Gibson - picked because 'he draws good women' -- it's a science fiction tale with a difference, telling the story of an ordinary girl who goes shopping, works as a hostess on a cruise ship, and eventually gets drafted. It's an enduring loss to British comics that Moore never wrote more than three acts of Halo's 'Ballad', but in truth we should be glad to have this.

V took Moore years to complete, and would probably be met with editorial censorship today. Set in a fascist future Britain, V tells the story of an anarchist terrorist and his attempt to tear the whole system down; it is in many ways perhaps Moore's most thought provoking work, with Dave Lloyd's chiaroscuro artwork giving the work an unforgettable sense of menace. Spectacularly colourful, the Oscar Zarate-illustrated A Small Killing is a meditation on deception, loss, and how we betray ourselves. It is perhaps Moore's most underrated work.
Watchmen and From Hell vie for the title of Moore's masterwork. If Miller's Dark Knight should have been the brass-band funeral of the superhero genre, Watchmen was the autopsy. Illustrated with compelling realism and detail by Dave Gibbons, Watchmen is a symbol-drenched structuralist masterpiece, using all manner of unusual narrative devices to analyse among other things why superheroes appeal to us, and why, in many ways, they shouldn't. The autopsy analogy is Moore's own, and one he also used for From Hell, which he described as a post-mortem of an historical event, using fiction as the scalpel. If you've seen the film of From Hell, blot it from your memories. Moore picked Eddie Campbell as his artist as he knew that Campbell wouldn't sensationalise the horror of the Jack the Ripper murders, yet the film was deeply melodramatic. The book is a convoluted investigation of the horrific events in the 1880s that in Moore's view effectively gave birth to the Twentieth Century. I think it goes a lot further than Watchmen and may be the medium's supreme achievement to date.

Keiji Nakazawa: Barefoot Gen and Barefoot Gen: The Day After. Nakazawa was one of those who survived the bombing of Hiroshima. In Barefoot Gen he tells the story of the bombing from the viewpoint of the Japanese victims. His crude style serves to aid the storytelling, which is urgent, honest, and devoid of sentimentality. This may be one of the most important stories ever told in this medium.

Alex Ross: Marvels and Kingdom Come. I'm reluctant to include any superhero work in this list, Miller and Moore's work notwithstanding, but the two seminal 1990s comics illustrated by Alex Ross seem to demand inclusion. Kurt Busiek's Marvels sought to retell the history of the rise of Marvel Comics's superheroes from the viewpoint of an ordinary person. The conceit was interesting, and the comic was well-written, but what awed readers was Alex Ross's extraordinary realistic painted artwork, with nearly every picture based on an old Kirby or Ditko drawing but transformed through the use of models. Ross based the appearance of his characters on people he knew or famous actors, with Timothy Dalton as a rather convincing Tony Stark and Patrick Stewart playing Charles Xavier some years before he did so on screen.

Mark Waid's Kingdom Come was a more epic work, following in the footsteps of Miller's Dark Knight by attempting to bring time to Superman, the Batman, Wonder Woman and so many other heroes. Without the Kirby bases the work lacked the energy of Marvels, but it was nevertheless an impressive piece of work, and in truth it is hard to imagine a better middle-aged Batman than Gregory Peck!

P. Craig Russell: Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book Stories, Stormbringer, and The Ring of the Nibelungen. Russell's extraordinarily beautiful artwork is highly stylised and decorative, harking back to the PreRaphaelites. He earns his money from doing commercial work, and then commits his time to doing his real work. A lover of opera, Russell has adapted many, with The Ring being his highpoint. Jungle Book and Stormbringer are flawless demonstrations of how to adapt prose to comics, with Moorcock's Stormbringer being prefaced by an excellent adaptation of Neil Gaiman's poignant and semi-autobiographical tale 'One Life Furnished In Early Moorcock.

Joe Sacco: Palestine and Safe Area Gorazde. Sacco is a journalist who has spent several months in the occupied territories and Gorazde in Yugoslavia during the civil war there. He has recorded his experiences in these two deeply indignant and important books, both of which are horrific, yet profoundly life-affirming.

Erich Shanower: Age of Bronze 1: A Thousand Ships. Shanower has set himself a seemingly impossible task. He's trying to tie together all the legends relating to the Trojan War in a coherent way, yet leaving out the gods as if to make it historically plausible. On the basis of what he's published so far - and in the comic he hasn't quite got to the sacrifice of Iphigenia - he's done a remarkable job. So far only the first book of a projected seven is available, but it's very promising.

Art Spiegelman: Maus and Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began. Speigelman was for a time the editor of the New Yorker and an avant garde cartoonist. His parents had both survived Auschwitz, and in these books he attempted to tell the story of his parents' experiences in the Holocaust, how this had affected them later in life, and the repercussions of this for his own relations with them. Drawn with a fountain pen in a deceptively simple style, the comic uses to great effect the oddly cartoonish conceit of portraying the Jews as mice and Germans as cats in order to reinforce the bloody tribal nationalism of the twentieth century.

Bryan Talbot: The Tale of One Bad Rat, The Adventures of Luther Arkwright, and Heart of Empire. Preston-based Talbot made his name with Luther Arkwright, a dark exploration of imperialism in an alternative 1980s Britain; it was a highly experimental work in which Talbot utilised narrative techniques inspired by such film makers as Nicholas Roeg and Sam Peckinpah. The sequel, Heart of Empire, is more straightforward in execution, but none the weaker for it. One Bad Rat is Talbot's most important work, the tale of a teenage girl, abused by her father and obsessed with the work of Beatrix Potter, who runs away from home. It is almost impossible to imagine a more compelling and accurate represtentation of the effects of sexual abuse, and yet the story is ultimately a hopeful one.

John Wagner: Button Man and Judge Dredd: America. Wagner has long been an underrated author, widely regarded as a mere journeyman professional. Judge Dredd is Wagner's best-known creation, and America is undoubtedly Dredd's finest hour, a dark dystopian tale demonstrating how Wagner's hero is but marginally better than those he wars against. There can be no democracy in Dredd's world, a world where 'Justice has a price. That price is freedom.'

Button Man could comfortably stand with the best of Hollywood's offerings, high-class popular entertainment with a message. It tells the tale of modern day gladiators, former soldiers who take part in 'The Game', a game with their very lives at stake, and where their 'owners' wager phenomenal amounts. It's not high art, but it's a story drenched with the reality of death, well-written by Wagner and beautifully drawn in an almost photorealist style by Arthur Ransom.

Chris Ware: Jimmy Corrigan, or, The Smartest Kid on Earth. I'm only reading it now, but it's already taken my breath away. It won the Guardian First Novel award... surely that should tempt anyone.

And once that core of stand-alone books has been assembled, the next step would be to expand to take in Cerebus, Love and Rockets, Sandman, Preacher, Invisibles, Bones, and other series, as well as newspaper strips such as Krazy Kat, Little Nemo in Slumberland, Peanuts, and Calvin and Hobbes.

But still. Sixty books would be a good start.

1 comment:

Tom said...

Aled Jones didn't sing in the Snowman.