Friday, August 12, 2011
Top 10 (Dashed Off)
A while back I was asked to contribute a list of what I think are the ten best comics to the Hooded Utilitarian's International Best Comics Poll. So I did. Making lists like these probably isn't as tough for me as it is for a lot of people, but that's because I try to keep in mind that it's a futile enterprise right off the bat. I haven't had cause to look at the list I made since I sent it off a few months ago, and reading it back over now I'm a little stranged out by some of my choices. Which is as it should be: I'll never nail down an ironclad list of my For Real Serious All Time Faves, because that stuff changes all the time, and I read enough comics so that it's always going to be changing anyway. So what follows is really The List of Comics I Figured Were Probably Justifiable As The Best During The Ten Minutes In May I Spent Making It. Who's got the time to go any further with this stuff than that?
The list is as follows. I didn't number the original because that wasn't how you were supposed to make these, but in the interest of "added value", I've attempted to place these comics along a ranked continuum. Just so you can be like "how the hell does this idiot think Krazy Kat is better than Jimbo". Here:
1. Valentina, Guido Crepax
2. Krazy Kat, George Herriman
3. Terry and the Pirates, Milton Caniff
4. Little Nemo In Slumberland, Winsor McCay
5. Jimbo stories, Gary Panter
6. Indian Summer, Milo Manara and Hugo Pratt
7. EC Comics stories, Bernard Krigstein
8. Nipper, Doug Wright
9. Driven By Lemons, Josh Cotter
10. Flex Mentallo, Frank Quitely and Grant Morrison
A few words on why for each one:
For me, no comic can surpass Valentina's claim to being the best drawn of all time (though a few on this list can match it). More than that, though, it's literary comics before that was a thing, an incredibly deep and nuanced look at its main character's psychology and past through the lens of a sexual history. If Crepax's work wasn't sex comics then it wouldn't be so overlooked, but then it also wouldn't be the single most successful piece of erotic art in this medium. The sequencing and blocking tricks Crepax uses to portray physical pain and pleasure are still the only work to have explored some of the avenues of the comics medium that they do. Last but not least, there's a pretty much unequaled surface enjoyment to be had from Crepax's drawings of beautiful men and women in various states of physical action and undress. It doesn't get better than this.
Except maybe in Krazy Kat. If Crepax's themes qualify him for the "great literature" title, George Herriman's actual nuts-and-bolts use of poetic language gets him there. For thirty years, Herriman turned in drawn poems that expanded the possibilities of layout and page design once a week. His line has no equal for its effusiveness and life, and his range, from touching to hilarious to vastly engrossing, is just as formidable. With the basic elements of comics -- some funny animals, a single page, and the same gag every week -- Herriman pushed he medium further forward from where he found it than anyone before or since.
Terry and the Pirates: man, do I love that comic. If your favorite cartoonist is a guy who did any work after like 1940, he's jacking (however indirectly) from Caniff. Terry is an important comic because it wrote the grammar for all the action books that would follow it -- from Kirby to Otomo to Quitely and back around again, the angles and blocking and sense of pace and movement operate within the cinematic, dead serious structures Caniff rendered from earlier gag-based action work by artists like Roy Crane and EC Segar. But Terry is good because Caniff combined that monumental grammar with a classical painter's drafting and compositional skills and a verve for adventure storytelling that stands shoulder to shoulder with HG Wells and Rider Haggard. More than 75 years on, Caniff's opus still hits harder than just about any action comic to have come after it: one can't help but want to throttle his bad guys, take up his quests, sweep his women off their feet. And then all those things happen, and so much better than you ever could have imagined doing it yourself. Still the best comic about people fighting? Probably, yeah.
Comics has perhaps the clearest single foundation stone of any medium: Winsor McCay and Little Nemo In Slumberland. It all flows from here -- adventure comics, art comics, gag comics, kid's comics, McCay saw no separation between any of it. In the century that's passed since the best Nemo pages, it's become something even grander and more fascinating than the beautiful mirror onto the world it was: to read Nemo in the 21st century is to be given a window into a more or less completely vanished past, the memory of a world gone by that puts even the most imaginative nostalgist's visions to shame. McCay was an unparalleled artist of the fantastic, but the documentary detail he brings to even the most ordinary lamppost or street vendor is what makes Nemo as much essential documentary as escapist delight.
For a more total fantasy, Jimbo is where it's at. Gary Panter is the greatest living cartoonist, the man who has more to do with establishing the comics panel's identity as a construct of medium and paper than anyone else, and still the most convincing maker of art brut as comics that the form has seen. But it's his wild imagination that makes him truly special, powering everything from the Texas-sized, Jack Kirby-on-acid surrealism of his early Jimbo comics to the towers of Joycean invention that are his more recent, Dante-inspired graphic novels. There are few moments as simultaneously gut-wrenching and heartbreaking as the closing pages of "Jimbo Is Stepping Off The Edge Of A Cliff", few greater shocks to the intellectual system than stepping into Jimbo In Purgatory, few drawings more beautiful than just about any panel Panter's put down in the character's multi-decade saga -- not just in comics, but the arts in general. Panter's is a mind that takes us further than we can go by ourselves, and a hand that puts the comics page in dialogue with Picasso and Warhol in a few ratty lines.
When they came out with "graphic novels" in the '80s and it got all Watchmen this Maus that, everybody missed the true triumph of the form: Manara and Pratt's Indian Summer. Pratt laces a sumptuous epic of a historical adventure with enough literary and historiographical ambition to power a shelf of Pulitzer Prize winners, and Manara musters line, color, layout, and composition into a unified statement of terrible beauty. In a little over a hundred pages, Indian Summer accomplishes more than most comics do in half-century runs.
If Manara and Pratt did the perfect long-form comic story, Bernard Krigstein drew the perfect short. Actually, he did it twenty or thirty times. Though the stories themselves are usually the typical accomplished hackery that EC made into a cottage industry, Krigstein cut into them with the precision and flair of a Rodin cutting marble. Every angle, every gesture, every single line of these stories, is perfect in both consideration and execution, the work of a master gifting a form that was beneath him with a genius that outstripped anything he ever worked on. The raging epic "Master Race" is most often mentioned as the Krigstein story whose content comes closest to matching its visual might, but there are a host of others -- from the Ray Bradbury adaptation "The Flying Machine" to the downbeat Poe pastiche "The Catacombs" to the hallucinogenic Far Eastern trip-out "Fever Dream" -- that Krigstein's perfect pictures forcibly elevated to high art.
Peanuts took the top spot on the Hooded list, but I'm much more enamored of Nipper, its Canadian cousin. Doug Wright lacks the heavyweight existentialism of Charles Schulz, but he brings a drafting ability and sense of vitality that are similarly unmatched in the kid-strip genre. Wright keeps narrative at arm's length while using the comics form to create tone poems about place and action that are more convincing in their visual construction and more gorgeous in their pure surface appeal than any others.
Indian Summer is the perfect commercial graphic novel, but the book that comics' avant garde will be contending with for the next few decades is Josh Cotter's Driven By Lemons. Bracingly abstract, incredibly touching, and visually virtuosic, Cotter takes the comics-as-fine-art gauntlet thrown by Panter and tears it to shreds with a story that uses color and shape more than word and line to communicate a heartbreaking message about mental instability's relationship to making art. Possibly the most harrowing comic to have unearthed as much beauty as it does, Driven By Lemons is the most compelling argument yet for the idea that comics get better as they get more complex.
Superheroes deserve a spot on any great-comics list, so how about Flex Mentallo, which makes the genre and concept both seem like they actually matter in real life without getting all ridiculous and Grant Morrisony about it? Immersed in page after page of gorgeous Frank Quitely art is the most relevant story Morrison has ever written and will ever write, a simple piece about how scary growing up can be and how it really does all turn out okay if you can just believe in yourself a bit. The amount of filth and horror and high-concept twaddle Morrison adorns it with makes for a comic whose pure entertainment value rivals anything by Kirby or Miller, and Quitely never fails to bring out both the poetic and the gruesome in it at once. Plenty of people will tell you you don't have to read any superhero comics at all, and they aren't wrong, but you're missing out on something truly unique and wonderful if you skip this one.
*comics I left out but at any other time would have been just as likely to put on as any of these: Will Eisner's Spirit, Herge's Tintin, Osamu Tezuka's Phoenix, Jim Steranko's SHIELD, Carmine Infantino's Adam Strange, Frank King's Gasoline Alley, and like five different Kirby comics.