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June 7, 2006

New York Daily News Suggests Comics

Whenever I see a list of recommended comics like this one -- Watchmen, Maus, Amazing Fantasy #15, Fantastic Four #1, Sandman #50, The Dark Knight Returns, X-Men: The Dark Phoenix Saga, From Hell, American Splendor, Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, Marvels and as extras, Optic Nerve and Torso -- I have almost no idea what to think. I don't dislike any of those comics, and think four or five of them are extremely good. At the same time, the list is anchored with superhero comics, two or three of which are historically important rather than (in my opinion) effective or compelling art. I wouldn't go in that direction, not since I expanded my comics reading in the mid-1980s, and I'm frequently surprised, for instance, that so many people so well-read in the comics form are hurtling out of their homes to see X-Men 3 on the first weekend, or that discussion of some strange DC crossover receives more passionate debate than a book like The Ticking.

So I'm confused. Is the best of the art form really still rooted in that material? Is there a big group of people out there who would make similar lists given knowledge of the broad spectrum of comics this author obviously has? Is there a split between people who find value in a lot of superhero material along with other sorts of comics, and those who largely don't care for the fruits of that genre? What is the nature of that split in terms of approach to comics?

If anyone has a thought, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)


Derik A Badman

In response to your comments on the NY Daily News "best of" list. I find any list suspect or highly subjective at best. The New York Times Book Review recently did a best fiction of the past 20 years list and there have been plenty of people finding argument with the results.

Personally, there are very few books on that Daily News list that I would consider "best" and that I would actually recommend to people, particularly non-comics readers. Maybe Maus or From Hell depending on their tastes. The lack of Love and Rockets on a list of best comics is a crime. The list seems to be veering between "best" and "historically important to the medium." I'd put Fantastic Four, Amazing Fantasy, and Dark Knight in the latter category. Sandman 50 seems like the weird out of place inclusion.

Though looking at it again, the introduction says "influential examples of some key genres." That further muddles the list by calling comics a "genre", which would be sensical if they had stuck to one genre (i.e. superheroes), but the inclusion of From Hell, Maus, American Splendor, and Sandman belie that.

I could spend some time making my own list (couldn't we all), but I won't. I won't put much weight to that Daily News list.


Gerry Alanguilan
So I'm confused. Is the best of the art form really still rooted in that material? Is there a big group of people out there who would make similar lists given knowledge of the broad spectrum of comics this author obviously has? Is there a split between people who find value in a lot of superhero material along with other sorts of comics, and those who largely don't care for the fruits of that genre? What is the nature of that split in terms of approach to comics?

Hello Tom!

I'd like to offer an analogy that explains, at least to me, why there seems to be more attention given to superhero comics than others. The analogy is a little off beat, but in my point of view, it's indicative of the nature of appreciation fans may have on different material.

I like both the British shows Red Dwarf and Brittas Empire, both starring the talented Chris Barrie. Both shows were shot and shown roughly during the same time period. I find them both excellently written and hilarious, and I often see-saw between which I like better. And yet when I look around, there seems to be much more attention given to Red Dwarf as there are conventions complete with fans in costumes, fully packed DVDs, and a whole slew of fan websites. In comparison, Brittas Empire has bare bones DVDs, no conventions, and websites long abandoned by their creators.

To me, that clearly shows that the fans of fantasy/sci-fi material to be more vocal of their support, more rabid in their appreciation and thus attract more media attention, creating an impression of popularity that other material is often not perceived to have. Even if books like Maus, Gemma Bovery or Epileptic have much wider international readership, their "fans" tend to be less vocal, less rabid, and less likely to write "Awesome!" "Fantastic!" "Amazing!" in their blogs. There are no conventions where people go around dressed as Peter Stillman Vladek Spiegelman dressed as a mouse, for instance.


Michael Nicolai

Just to avoid any confusion, The Daily News is not a very good newspaper. Despite having the largest comics section of all the new york papers, it's only a notch above The New York Post, which is the worst newspaper I've ever read. Anyone who seriously suggests Amazing #15 for a list of best comics is just showing off that they know what Spider-Man's first appearance is. Anyone who has ever read it knows there's the Spider-Man origin and another 15 pages of twilight-zone rejects that belong in a quarter bin. File this under "Biff, Bam, Pow!"

The question you raise is whether "the best of the art form is still rooted in that material". I would say yes, along with comic strips and manga. It all fits together. The "Us versus Them" mentality of art comics doesn't attract readers any more than the "underwear-on-the-outside" set. To ignore what is undeniably the largest genre of comics is another form of fanboy elitism. A DC book by Frank Miller is still a Frank Miller book.

I started seriously reading comics in the early 90's, and it was as easy for me to get Fantagraphics books or Cerebus as it was to get Batman, so I may be biased. I understand the need for serious criticism, and why the superhero books are so bad for your brain. ButI also think there is a wealth of people who understand that there's more to the medium than that genre, and who would dismiss a list that puts Fantastic Four #1 over Optic Nerve. Comics have made it, baby, the rest of the world is just catching up.


David Oakes

Yes, there is a split, a deep divide even, between those people who like Superhero comics and those who do not. And from what I have seen (disclaimer: I am firmly in the "Superheroes have value" camp) it is mostly a case of the advocacy of the converted.

Until the (very) recent rise of Manga, Superhero comics were for all intents and purposes the "gateway" into the medium. And that gateway was aimed at ten-year-old boys. Most people who tired of that material simply drifted away, becoming the target audience for all of those "Biff! Pow! Comics aren't just for kids anymore!" articles that are still being written. But some people got tired of superheroes, and yet still stayed.

Maybe they found Elfquest and realized that the medium was more than the genre. Maybe they discovered Hate and found stories that were directed at a 21-year-old male. Maybe they enjoyed the artistic validity that Maus granted their hobby. But one thing they all had in common was they came to believe the "Superheroes are for ten year-olds" rule, more than the people still reading them, more even than the people creating them. Whatever comics they were into now became an "evolution", a higher form of Art. Those that gave up on comics were ignorant of the genius of the medium. And those who stuck with Superheroes were the worst, blasphemous heretics who degraded the entire medium with their heathen practices. You see a similar pattern with Film: Consumers, Fans, and "Students of the Art".

Is WHttMoT "Great Art"? No, even I won't say that. But I would still put it on a list of "Great Comics", for the same reason I would put "Die Hard" on a list of "Great Films": It does what it sets out to do very well, and is perhaps a little better than it needed to be to be as successful as it was. It both validates the genre and adminishes it to do better.

With Spider-Man et al bringing Superheroes back to public conciousness with comics - and Manga bringing back comics without Superheroes - I think we may finally be getting past the Thesis of Pop Culture and the Antithesis of High Art, and may finally be reaching a synthesis where you don;t have to prove your "street cred" by mentioning Dark Phoenix, your "Art School chops" by invoking Maus, but can simply have a "Best of " list that is actually defined by "Hey, these are good."

Well, a guy can dream, can't he?


Kurt Busiek

When newspapers and magazines publish this sort of list, I'm strongly in favor of them including Marvels, because I like money.

I think more of them should include Astro City, both because there are more volumes, and because I receive a higher percentage of the cover price.


Gene Kannenberg

You're right -- like any list, this one's odd, and anyone (who actually bothers to) would disagree with at least parts of it. The intro does set this up squarely as a "what do fans love?" piece as opposed to "what's best?", so the prepoderence of capes neither surprises me nor seems out of place.

But even then, the types of choices in the comics section don't really seem to match those in the others. Every section besides the comics one includes an "old school" listing of early examples. I could see FF#1 and AF#15 in such a supporting role, I suppose; although, like others have mentioned, I don't think these "first appearances" are as good quality-wise as they are important impetus-wise. So they don't really seem on a par with "Bride of Frankenstein" or even "Things to Come."

If anything, given the "fan"-obsessed nature of the overall piece, I'm surprised to see MAUS there at all - seems like an obligatory nod than an actual endorsement in this context. I think AMERICAN SPLENDOR squeaks by because of the popular and highly regarded movie connection, and Tomine certainly has fankid-cred. I've yet to see the fans go wild at any Spiegelman appearance I've witnessed. But come to think of it, at his next speaking engagement I'd love to see people showering the stage with cigarettes to get him to do an encore.


Dylan Horrocks

I reckon it's as simple as the fact that many people have heard that "comics have grown up!" or "comics are cool" and are trying to pay attention and advertise the fact. But they don't *really* know what they're talking about. Their sense of the landscape of comics is still very limited, so when they go looking for landmarks, they only see what's within that narrow viewpoint. I expect if you mentioned 'Kramer's Ergot' or Blutch or even Chris Ware to these people, they'd just look at you blankly.

I mean, most people have a sense that movies are supposedly an art form these days, but still only know about Hollywood blockbusters. When I go down to the local video rental store, I always get a kick out of what's in the 'Highly Recommended' section. 'Dances With Wolves' and 'Gladiator' will get pride of place, while something like 'Control Room' or 'Tout va bien' - if they're in the store at all - will be buried in the 'Thrillers' section or something.

That's okay, though. It's funny. As my sister's always saying: "our problem is we're just too niche. Even in our niche, we're niche..."

P.S. It's also like the way I get invited to literary festivals, as a 'New Zealand graphic novelist' - and then asked endless questions about Batgirl... Oh well... 😊


Josh Neufeld

my quick take on it is that the superhero stuff is from childhood, and the non-capes stuff is appreciated from a more literary standpoint. even though i don't read any superhero comics now, i still have a passionate attachment to many of the same comics the writer cites (esp. Watchmen, Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow, and The Dark Knight Returns), all of which appeared in my teenage years. the other stuff, which i also have a great affinity for, i learned to appreciate as i got older and my tastes -- and my aspirations as a cartoonist myself -- broadened. again, i can't argue with sacks's choices (esp. Maus, From Hell, and American Splendor [i'm biased there!]).

of course i could add many more good (and overlooked) titles, but that doesn't necessarily take away from any of his other choices (tho' i've rotuinely been underwhelmed by Optic Nerve and consider it far inferior to, say, Eightball. i've also never heard of, let alone read, Torso).

anyway, i am definitely of two minds as a comic book consumer. when i'm feeling energetic and smart, i choose alternative/independent/literary comics from my bedside pile; but when i'm looking for a cozy, nostalgic thrill, i re-read superhero classics from my childhood and teenage years.
posted 11:45 pm PST | Permalink

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