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1000 Comic Books You Must Read
posted December 9, 2009
 

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Creator: Tony Isabella
Publishing Information: Krause Publications, hardcover, 272 pages, November 2009, $29.99
Ordering Numbers: 0896899217 (ISBN10), 9780896899216 (ISBN13)

I wasn't going to write a review of this book, until a number of people asked with a bit of edge in their e-mails why it wasn't on this year's Holiday Shopping List. A rule in comic strips is that five people angered why you've kicked something out of the paper is a more certain sign of support than ten people asking for it to be included. I'm therefore confident the affable writer and his book-length, glossy-papered project will do just fine no matter what I'm about to say.

I thought this book a mess: as a missed opportunity for another writer's more rigorous version of the same, as the latest effort in the proud tradition of looking at the art form entire through a specific prism, and as a book that was poorly executed on many fundamental levels of craft and care. I don't really know what's it intended to do except maybe offer up an array of comics and genres to the benefit of those who don't know they exist, or to delight readers of Tony Isabella by putting his personal valuation of comic books in one place. It's not a showcase for the art form. Despite the expense that went into its color pages, the visuals just don't match the standards one expects from comics-related histories today. 1000 Comic Books involves too many reductions in art size that favor huge chunks of blank space, contains too many not-great scans, favors covers-only as a conscious choice and is poorly designed when a designer's hand is meant to be felt (that cover, for example, looks cranked out, generic, and the lettering not only overpowers the art but is amateurishly kerned). It is also an outright crime that a reference book like this one has such a half-assed index, limited to titles selected. Not only should major creators be part of the referenced indexing of a book about the art form and industry as a matter of principle, it was necessary here as Isabella's not only using comic books but a few collections of same. Although I read the book and checked the index and there are three titles representing, say, Elfquest, with nothing bearing the title Eightball, it could be that there's some Dan Clowes in here somewhere. I may never know.

As far as the choice of comics made, Isabella offers ups a reasonably wide range of comics that might surprise someone who expected 998 superhero titles. Even here, there are some strange choices. He favors a lot of first issues, seemingly because they're first issues. When he includes a run from a title, it frequently fails to make sense. For example, does anyone really need four issues of Ambush Bug to get an impression of what's going on there when you're asked to do that for dozens of other series represented by a single issue? Isabella still manages to find room for bland genre pieces a-plenty. There is nothing about The Maze Agency any human being should be able to include in a sentence with the word "must," at least not with a straight face, and I enjoyed that comic. The choices also include several examples of Isabella's own work. I suppose this is meant to be charming, but while there may be a large number of Isabella faithful who enjoy such moments, usually it just meant my going "What the hell is that doing here--? Oh, Tony wrote that one."

The crime is in the writing, though. Isabella doesn't have much to say about many of his choices. Some of the choices are apparently personal, which is great for Isabella and Isabella's pals but not so great for those of us more interested in comics than in the bare bones of Tony Isabella's history with them. Every criticism I made in the previous two paragraphs could be kicked to the curb by attentive, impassioned writing. Instead, sometimes you get a personal anecdote, sometimes you get a hint at a quality or two evinced by the work, and some of the time you get a basic encapsulation of the title's contents. Only rarely do you get a smart case for a title's cultural importance or artistic value or really anything that might possibly make it a must-read beyond appearing between these covers. There is a novel's worth of empty space on the page where Isabella could have made such a case, or, really, any case at all.

If the book had stepped up to the plate in more effective fashion, there might be arguments over how well Isabella seems to appreciate old comics (reasonably well, I'd say), the comics of his youth and from those of his immediate peers (surprisingly not very; the '70s and '80s feel like random points along a journey rather than a compelling portrait of a time) and modern comics (in a big-tent, not-discerning way that favors the kind of small press books that you see every year at San Diego and maybe never see in a comics shop), but I'm not sure there's anything here with which to seriously grapple. For someone that's written an entire book about must-read comics, what surprised me most is the complete lack of urgency involved. I get more excited when I read Frank Santoro talk about a single Mark Badger comic in a throwaway comics messageboard thread than I did with a professional writer of decades standing and with insider credentials to boot getting to grapple with the greats of an entire art form as seen through its greatest contribution to the world of objects. This is not a must-read.