Grotesque Anatomy
Monday, October 20, 2003
  First-Ever AC/GA Crossover!
Steve Higgins calls for the establishment of a Comic Book Canon in his most recent "Advocating Comics" column (not a permanent link, so search through the archives if the link turns up some different topic by the time you click it).  I was going to respond with my thoughts on Steve's column on his message board, but I figured since Steve namechecked me in his column (but not my blog, the bastard), it was only fair that I return the favor here.  Plus, I promised him a crossover before I read his article.  [Gratuitous Aside:  I was tickled at the way Steve described me in his piece as "former reviewer for Broken Frontier and fellow comics advocate."  While these are both fine and true descriptions, I wondered if people might read this and come away with the impression that Steve and I first met while on staff at BF.  If I recall correctly, our association goes back a little further than that:  I believe I first met Steve on the old DC message boards where he and I would argue over which series was better–DOOM PATROL or POWER COMPANY.  Eventually we both lost, but we continue to disagree on other topics on other boards to this day.]

Although Steve's column was apparently inspired by my disagreeing with his word choice in an earlier column, I do agree with Steve's general point about establishing "a literary canon of sorts for the graphic narrative."  I know some people bristle at the term 'canon' but I've always understood the concept in the sense of "a group of literary works that are generally accepted as representing a field."  For me the important qualifier is "generally."  I think there will always be disagreements about what works are most representative of a given class, but I do think it's worthwhile nonetheless to have a shared frame of reference one can point out to people interested in learning more about a medium (or genre, or author, or whatever the topic in focus happens to be).  When I dabbled in Film Studies back in college, for example, I was glad to cover "the classics," even if I'd already seen them or ended up thinking they were terribly boring.  By looking critically at important films, I gained an appreciation for why particular films were considered essential, and I learned the basics of film criticism in the process.

Another issue that surfaces when trying to piece together a canon is that certain works can appear problematic from a modern perspective.  Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn is a perennial target for charges of racism, for example, yet most courses in American Literature leave it in the canon.  Personally, I think works that are historically important should be acknowledged as such, even if they are controversial for various reasons.  Just because something is included in the canon doesn't mean it's a flawless work or worthy of moral approbation.  In Film Studies, both Birth of a Nation and Triumph of the Will were shown, mainly for their historical and technical significance, but the discussion also covered why the films were reprehensible.  So important comics such as Action Comics #1 and Detective Comics #27 could be included in the Comic Book Canon and still acknowledged as "dumber than a bag of hammers."

If we agree that a shared frame of reference can be a useful thing to have, then the task turns to setting out just how large that frame should be.  Not everything can be included, of course, and this is where disagreements inevitably spring up:  Why was such-and-such a work included?  Why wasn't such-and-such a work included?  Because there's no way to satisfy everyone with one list, I think it's important to view the lists as starting points, both in terms of a starting point which can lead enthusiasts to discover new works and in terms of a starting point for discussions about the criteria behind the lists.  ("Why does this list leave off European or Japanese comics?"  "Well, we wanted to limit the scope of our overview to North American comics, but that isn't to suggest that there aren't worthwhile comics from those regions."  "Oh, OK.")

So, what works would I nominate for inclusion in the Comic Book Canon?  I haven't even started to think about that yet.  There's a thread in Steve's forum taking suggestions about what should be considered "Essential Works of Sequential Art," and Steve has promised to reveal his picks in next week's column.  I'll mull over it myself, but I consider myself pretty bad at coming up with lists like this.  It's a cop-out, but I'd probably like to start by looking at other people's lists (and then criticizing their picks in true blogger fashion), and even then I can only think of one serious attempt to establish a list of canonical comics, The Comic Journal's list of Top 100 English-Language Comics of the Century (and the accompanying lists that fed the final list).   Does anyone else know of other attempts to list some of the best comics ever?  (Anyone who suggests any of Wizard's endless "Top 100 X-Men Comics of All Time!!" rankings will be dealt with appropriately.) 
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Iron Fist

by John Jakala

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