The Comics Reporter Makes A Good List
Even though it’s the height of lazy blogging to piggyback off someone else’s post—especially a list-post—I wanted to call attention to this fine bit of list-ery by The Comics Reporter’s Tom Spurgeon, who’s one of the medium's most cogent and knowledgeable critics. Over the weekend, Spurgeon came up with a list of “The Ten All-Time Best Long-Running Comics Series,” in honor of MAD magazine putting out its 500th issue. He stuck with North American comics, and “looked at artistic achievement and historical impact as equally important factors, and then worked from there in terms of folding in lesser factors like influence and uniqueness. … Basically, I just wanted a nice snapshot of what comics series have meant to the art form and to those who enjoyed comics that way.”
As someone who’s torn by what format best suits comics, I found Spurgeon’s list especially provocative. On the one hand, I hate having boxes and stacks of magazines and pamplets scattered around the house, and I love the convenience of having comics bound up in book form and placed on a shelf. On the other hand, I think a large part of what makes the comics medium unique and special is the physical object itself, and the sense of transience associated with it. The idea that you can encounter an excellent piece of draftsmanship, a great gag, a well-told story, an unshakeable image or a potent message, all via flimsy, folded-over newsprint… well, that appeals to the part of me that remembers hauling grocery sacks full of comics on long family vacations, or piling them up next to my bed to read and re-read on lazy summer afternoons. I like that Spurgeon's list takes that into account, and often considers these comics as comics, and not as inefficient delivery systems for work that reads better in book form.
Anyway, here’s his list, with my own brief comments:
It's hard to dispute MAD's importance, even though the magazine’s cultural impact has diminished over the past 30 years. There was something slyly revolutionary about the way the MAD of the ‘50s encouraged kids to apply a healthy amount of cynicism to their consumption of popular culture, and even after an anti-establishment attitude became more commonplace in the ‘60s and ‘70s, MAD maintained a rare, precious ability to initiate young people into a more clear-eyed way of looking at the world. I’d like to think that MAD still has that effect, but I’m pretty sure that most of MAD’s function has been assumed by a slew of hip cartoons: The Simpsons, South Park, Family Guy, the Adult Swim block, and even some of the edgier Nickelodeon fare.
2. Love & Rockets
Spurgeon contends that “one so inclined could argue with seriousness a top 25 of American graphic novels where 1/3 of the titles listed came from this series,” but while my affection for Los Bros Hernandez is second to none—and while I definitely think L&R belongs on this list—I’m not sure I wholly agree with that particular statement. I have a hard time thinking of Love & Rockets in terms of “graphic novels” per se. If anything, the way the Hernandezes’ art has evolved within a tightly serialized format makes it almost impossible to excerpt in a wholly satisfying way. Becoming a Love & Rockets fan is like becoming a fan of The Fall or Frank Zappa or The Residents or one of those other musicians with a massive body of largely interconnected work. The only way to get properly acclimated is just to dive in and swim around. There’s no one definitive L&R storyline; it’s just story after amazing story, accumulating over the past three decades like personal correspondence.
3. Walt Disney’s Comics & Stories
Speaking of accumulated lore, what I’ve always found fascinating about the comic book version of Disney is the way the likes of Carl Barks and Floyd Gottfredson took some sketchy old animated cartoons and built entire complicated universes, populated by characters and concepts undreamt-of by their original creators. And what’s particularly amazing about these brightly colored kiddie comics is that for the most part they remained internally consistent, even though the people writing and drawing them had no grand plan. They just sat down at their drawing boards in the mornings and got to work, filling page after page with adventures as richly imagined as any Tolkien novel.
I’m okay with these choices inasmuch as they also represent Arcade, Weirdo, Drawn & Quarterly, Kramer’s Ergot, Mome, Taboo and all the other alt-comix anthologies that over the years have given artists a chance to experiment with the medium alongside the like-minded. My argument against both would be that their era of maximum impact was so limited. Zap ran for decades but was at its strongest over its first half-dozen issues, while the original version of RAW was really only an ‘80s phenomenon, before Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly spun it off into other book lines. Still, Zap is significant for the way it helped organize, galvanize and popularize the burgeoning underground comics movement of the late ‘60s, and RAW is significant for the way it recategorized comics as a kind of folk art—with an extra emphasis on the “art.”
6. Four Color Comics
I confess that I've been largely unaware of this multi-featured Dell title, but that’s exactly why I’m glad Spurgeon thought to include it. Four Color Comics was a sort of try-out book for licensed characters (including some of the Disney favorites), and as such it represents exactly the kind of cultural ephemera that the comics medium preserves as well as almost any other popular art. (After all, you’re not going to find many Hostess ads in old novels, or fan mail in old movies.) It’s also worth noting that the kids who read Four Color Comics were as likely to be interested in Raggedy Ann or Roy Rogers as they were in comics. As such, Four Color Comics and its ilk had as much of a hand in making comics commonplace as any superhero title. (I have hopes that the Diary Of A Wimpy Kid series will one day be thought of in much the same way.)
7. The Amazing Spider-Man
The only super-hero title on Spurgeon’s list, and one that I’ll gladly back, even though I think it passed its heyday fairly early. One could argue that Fantastic Four would be a stronger choice, since it ushered in the Marvel Age and has undergone more creative renaissances since it debuted. But I’m constantly delighted by how lively and likable the first 100 or so issues of Spider-Man are, and how those comics’ particular blend of savvy and sincerity helped transform the MAD generation into true believers.
8. ACME Novelty Library
Even if Chris Ware weren’t such a brilliant cartoonist, ACME would belong here because in a lot of ways it works better as a series of idiosyncratic booklets than as a feeder for collections. Ware took the folk-art inclinations of RAW and carried them one step further, turning comic books into a kind of readable sculpture, meant to be appreciated for their design and object-ness as much as for their contents. That those contents have frequently been among the most visionary and emotionally affecting comics of the past two decades is really just a bonus.
9. King-Cat Comics And Stories
I’m more a casual admirer of John Porcellino’s work than a raving fan, but I respect his inclusion on this list as the standard-bearer for the mini-comics movement, to which he’s been a productive adherent longer than almost any of his peers. If I had to pick a substitute, I might go with Johnny Ryan’s Angry Youth Comix, which started as a mini before being picked up by Fantagraphics, and which has taken gross-out humor to a startlingly surreal extreme. But longevity-wise (and depth-wise), Ryan still has a long way to go.
I tend to agree with Spurgeon here that if Dave Sim hadn’t gone off his nut, Cerebus would be routinely cited as one of the medium’s most impressive achievements. As it stands, the first 150 issues of Cerebus are unparalleled in their ambition and quality, and the last 150 are noteworthy for their singular passion and astonishing art. My only complaint would be that if Spurgeon intends this list to be in rough order of significance, Cerebus should be in the Top 5. The fact that Sim self-published this behemoth can’t be overemphasized. In the right hands, comics can be the ultimate DIY artform. For the most part, Sim’s were the right hands.
Spurgeon and some of his commenters cite some other titles that could’ve made the list, like Eightball, Action Comics, Frontline Combat, Archie, Sandman and American Splendor. The latter would be a definite for my personal list; Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor has been running in one form or another for nearly 35 years now, and has stayed admirably true to Pekar’s original ideals. I’d also back Sandman and Eightball, and I have a soft spot for Archie in all its iterations. I like Frontline Combat a lot too, though I’d have a hard time picking it over Two-Fisted Tales or DC’s stellar run of war comics. And maybe these are just personal crusades, but I think Paul Chadwick’s Concrete comics and Rick Geary’s “Treasury Of Murder” series should get more attention than they do from comics aficionados.
How about you, fanboys and fangirls? When you think long-running, influential, and frequently excellent, what comics come to mind? Don’t feel constrained by Spurgeon’s “North American” boundary either… range wherever you like. What do you come up with?