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CR Sunday Feature: The 50 Things That Every Comics Collection Truly Needs
posted September 28, 2008
 

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1. Something From The ACME Novelty Library

The great thing about ACME Novelty Library is that nearly every single thing Chris Ware has done under its banner has been worth collecting in one way or several, right down to -- or even especially -- the sheets from the weekly newspaper in which the comic's pages originally appear. The sketchbooks that have appeared in two volumes as ACME Novelty Datebook are worthy of your collection as well. Ware is a game-changing giant of comics, both as a cartoonist and as a designer.

*****

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2. A Complete Run Of Arcade

One of the two or three great comics being made during the 20th Century's lousiest period for great comics, the fallow era between the heyday of the alternatives and Jack Kirby's DC resurgence and the rise of the indy- and alt-comics movements signified by RAW, Love and Rockets and the extended narrative era at Cerebus. You can see Arcade's influence in every great anthology that's come since, and nearly all of it holds up as compelling comics today -- in fact, nearly every contributor is a significant cartoonist right now, which is astonishing.

*****

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3. Any Number Of Mini-Comics

Sub-Suggestions: At Least One From Fort Thunder, One From Before 1990, One From Tom Hart, One King-Cat, One From Kevin Huizenga

You should really own a lot of mini-comics, a giant basket full of them if you can stand it, and part of their appeal is that as handmade objects your collecting of them will be haphazard and hard to control. Mini-comics are simply handmade comics, really, and as such afford an opportunity for insight into an artist unmatched by other art forms and approximated by things like clipping JD Salinger's New Yorker shorts, or getting bootlegs of the Grateful Dead, or watching Hal Hartley's pre-feature short movies.

Of the sub-suggestions, the pre-1990 work might be the hardest for you pick up, but you could go with some Gary Panter or a charming superhero take-off or maybe something from stick-figure king Matt Feazell; that work is still out there to be found and through eBay and the occasional clearinghouse like Rick Bradford's Poopsheet Foundation it's remarkable how frequently old mini-comics come to be available. People forget how amazing that burst of early '90s Tom Hart minis was, and they still hold up as perfect little comic books; a lot of the second-generation alternative cartoonists did great minis. Kevin Huizenga is the best cartoonist of this current, still emerging generation, Fort Thunder was the most important comics collective of the last 15 years and King-Cat Comix and Stories is a top five post-1980 comic book series in terms of its importance and impact.

*****

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4. At Least One Pogo Book From The 1950s

I'm sure the new Fantagraphics Pogo series will be lovely, and will have the advantage of presenting everything published (I'm not sure the paperbacks do that), but the 1950s collections are well-designed, nearly perfect little books and the only comics that many people of that generation kept into adulthood.

*****

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5. A Barnaby Collection

Maybe someday someone will pay the Crockett Johnson people enough money or whatever it is going to take to have them sign off on a complete collection of Crockett Johnson's mighty Barnaby; until then, you can find the two hardcovers for pretty cheap through places like abebooks.com and the softcovers that came later for slightly more. Your favorite cartoonist probably has one or the other or both already. There's nothing really like Barnaby now, and it's still funny in a way comics weren't before and haven't been since. I could read these for a solid week as a substitute for food and sleep.

*****

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6. Binky Brown and the Holy Virgin Mary

The source for every bizarre and funny and touching confessional comic that's come since, Justin Green's masterwork was almost from the moment of its publication one of the obvious, point-to-it foundational comics of the 20th Century. If comics were a team of bad guys fighting the Defenders, this would be one of the 12 members.

*****

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7. As Many Issues of RAW as You Can Place Your Hands On

A monster reinvention of the comics anthology, the great filter through which many American readers first consumed the strong brew of European art comics, and the debut of so many great talents of the late 20th Century alternative comics movement, RAW had it all. One of the magic names in all of comics.

*****

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8. A Little Stack of Archie Comics

I always think people should own a few Archie Comics, as some of them are very good and even the very bad ones teach us something about the way comics of a certain kind have become commercialized and formulaic over the last half-century. The core five-member cast make-up and their relationships to one another is one of the best set-ups anyone's ever figured out for situational comedy, and two of the pairings within that group of five -- the iconic Betty and Veronica duo and the underrated Archie and Jughead team -- work almost as well on their own. Don't shy away from Bob Bolling's excellent Little Archie comics as part of your array.

*****

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9. A Suite of Modern Literary Graphic Novels

We live in the day of the modern literary graphic novel -- comics intended for the same adult audience that might be interested in prize-winning prose work -- and there should be a number of them in any good collection. A sample group if you were limited to five might be, say, Epileptic, The Jew Of New York, Gemma Bovery, Black Hole and It's a Good Life, If You Don't Weaken. Another sample group: Fun Home, Ghost World, Blankets, L'Autoroute Du Soleil and Ode to Kirihito. There are at least 100 worthy candidates for you to mix and match -- or to buy outright -- many of which you can find out in places like the Comics Journal's Top 100 list or simply by watching for reviews of works in national prose review sources.

*****

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10. Several Tintin Albums

I think Herge's work for kids of all ages is just great to have around; they are foundational comics and provide a whole way of seeing the world through the comics form that's become ubiquitous in popular visual arts. In fact, I'd say Herge's way of making comics is so ubiquitous that you forget how fun it is to see it for the first time. You should own somewhere between a few of these books and all of them, but at least get one.

*****

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11. A Smattering Of Treasury Editions Or Similarly Oversized Books

Sub-Suggestions (Treasury Editions): Superman vs. Muhammad Ali, Captain America's Bicentennial Battles, 2001, The Bible
Sub-Suggestions (Oversized Books): Ninja, Destroy!!, Storeyville, RASL, Kramer's Ergot Vol. 7

I think these are some of the very best comic objects out there, and a pleasure to have on that basis alone. Jack Kirby's work in the treasuries is a lot of fun, as one might expect, but the Neal Adams Superman vs. Muhammad Ali book holds up remarkably well as a lushly illustrated piece of 1970s goofery, with both icons larger in life in its pages than they've ever been just about anywhere else. Picturebox, Inc. is one of the leading publishers today of new material at a giant size. Jeff Smith is doing his RASL collections much larger than the standard comic book-sized serial.

*****

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12. Several Significant Runs of Alternative Comic Book Series

Sub-Suggestions: Hate, Tantalizing Stories, Palooka-Ville, Eightball, Optic Nerve, Eddie Campbell's Comics and Stories, Dirty Plotte

It may seem odd, but there was a time when a lot of people's comics buying wasn't wrapped up in stand-alone trades and graphic novels but more tightly focused on following a number of comic book series. Like the independent comics movement, alternative books were one author/one title affairs, but they tended to be one-person anthology featuring a number of approaches more than they were dominated by a single, sprawling saga. Hate remains one of the best comedies in any medium about the 1990s, while Eightball would be worth buying all by itself for the astonishing growth you can see from cartoonist Dan Clowes.

*****

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13. A Few Early Comic Strip Collections To Your Taste

Sub-Suggestions: Gasoline Alley, Krazy Kat, Little Orphan Annie, Little Nemo In Slumberland, Popeye

Both the rise of comics intended for adult audiences in the 1980s and today's recognition of the literary graphic novel came with a significant republication effort for the best and brightest of comics that did many of the same things: popular strips from the first half of the 20th Century. There is so much great comics work out there in this form: from the jaw-dropping visual of Winsor McCay to the vibrant and vitally American adventure comics in Roy Crane's Wash Tubbs to the irresistible soap opera and terrifying depiction of space you can find in Harold Gray's Little Orphan Annie. A significant recent discovery can be found in Drawn and Quarterly's Gasoline Alley series. What was once thought a charming strip with several jaw-dropping Sundays is now revealed as a wonderful, even rip-your-heart-out depiction of the daily joys and fears of parental responsiblity ripped out of a life carefully constructed for ideal, single-person enjoyment. There's also Thimble Theatre with #1 comics character of all time Wimpy and #