Monday, February 11, 2008

Aim the Canon

Chris Mautner, at Blog@Newsarama, posted a piece about the existence of critics treating comics thoughtfully and about the existence of a comic book canon. I get distracted by my weekly mainstream super-hero comics and my rants about Brand New Day, but I like to think of myself as one of those serious-minded critics who treats comics the way a literary critic treats novels or a film critic treats cinema. I don't always take myself seriously, but that doesn't mean I'm not serious about my criticism. My entire career as a writer, such as it is, is based on "serious comic book criticism."

As a critic, I'm primarily a structuralist, as a reading of Grant Morrison: The Early Years will indicate. Even my upcoming essay for Teenagers from the Future involves my structuralist reading of Paul Levitz's Legion comics. But I not only enjoy identifying and exploring patterns within the works of a single author--I also like examining historical pattern and tendencies. I think, as Chris Mautner does, that there is a canon of great comics. I think of it as a pattern of influences and developments, moving forward through time. It's the way a literary canon works (although as I commented in response to Mautner's post, the literary canon doesn't exist the way it once did--it has been challenged and deconstructed in recent years, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to establish a comic book canon). In the literary canon (and this is a vast, abbreviated oversimplification, but that doesn't mean it isn't true), Sophocles' Oedipus Rex leads to Shakespeare's King Lear leads to Melville's Moby Dick leads to Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury which leads to McCarthy's Blood Meridian. All five of these works are canonical (arguably, depending on whether or not you think the canon should be full of dead white males), and there is a line of influence connecting one to another.

The same is true for the comic canon, which I believe parallels the literary canon, and looks something like this:

The American Comic Canon
I. Early Comic Strips
Yellow Kid, by Richard Outcault
The Katzenjammer Kids, by Rudolph Dirks
Little Nemo in Slumberland, by Windsor McKay
Krazy Kat, by George Herriman
Flash Gordon, by Alex Raymond
Terry and the Pirates, by Milton Caniff
Popeye, by E.C. Segar
Dick Tracy, by Chester Gould
The Phantom, by Lee Falk

II. The Golden Age
Superman, by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster
Batman, by Bob Kane, Bill Finger, and Jerry Robinson
Wonder Woman, by William Moulton Marsten and H.G. Peter
Captain Marvel, by C.C. Beck, Bill Parker, and Otto Binder
The Spirit, by Will Eisner
Captain America, by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby
Powerhouse Pepper, by Basil Wolverton
Plastic Man, by Jack Cole
Archie, by Bob Montana
Donald Duck, by Carl Barks
Gasoline Alley, by Frank King

These first two categories, in the American Comic Canon, are the equivalent of the ancient Greek plays in the literary canon. They establish the basic rules of the form, but they are no longer widely read. Only students and scholars of the medium read these works with any regularity, but like the ancient Greek plays, much pleasure can be gained by those who attempt to read them.

III. The EC Era
Representative stories by...
Johnny Craig
Wallace Wood
Jack Davis
Reed Crandall
Bernie Kriegstein
Harvey Kurtzman

The EC Era is the equivalent of the early American Renaissance in the literary canon. The EC creators take the place of someone like Poe or Hawthorne.

IV. The Silver Age
Peanuts, by Charles Shulz
Flash, by Gardner Fox and Carmine Infantino
Green Lantern, by John Broome and Gil Kane
Superman, by Jerry Siegel, Edmund Hamilton, Wayne Boring, and Curt Swan
Batman, by Bill Finger, Gardner Fox, Sheldon Moldoff, and Carmine Infantino
The Justice League of America, by Gardner Fox and Mike Sekowski
Sgt. Rock, by Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert
Enemy Ace, by Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert
Challengers of the Unknown, by Jack Kirby
The Doom Patrol, by Arnold Drake and Bruno Premiani
Fantastic Four, by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
The Incredible Hulk, by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
The Amazing Spider-Man, by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
Dr. Strange, by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko

The Silver Age is the equivalent of the explosion of American literature in the 19th century. Much of it is still read with fondness, but the language is more stilted than we're used to, and the concern too simplistic at times.

V. Underground Comix
Zap Comix, by Robert Crumb
Selected works by...
S. Clay Wilson
Rick Griffin
Spain Rodriguez
Greg Irons
Skip Williamson
Art Spiegelman
Trina Robbins
Vaughn Bode
Jack Jackson

The Underground Comix era shows the first important divergent thread, much like the poetry of Walt Whitman, which took influence from what came before but headed in a bold, new direction.

VI. The Bronze Age
The Fourth World Saga, by Jack Kirby
Wonder Woman, by Denny O'Neil and Mike Sekowsky
Batman, by Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams
Green Lantern/Green Arrow, by Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams
The Amazing Spider-Man (non-code issues), by Stan Lee and Gil Kane
Daredevil, by Frank Miller
Warlock, by Jim Starlin
The Death of Captain Marvel, by Jim Starlin
Cerebus, by Dave Sim
Moon Knight, by Doug Moench and Bill Sienkiewicz
The Uncanny X-Men, by Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum, and John Byrne
The New Teen Titans, by Marv Wolfman and George Perez

Like the post-Civil War rise of Realism in American literature, the post Vietnam Bronze Age shifted comics toward a more "relevant" direction. Even outlandish super-hero operas like the Fourth World and the X-Men were grounded in contemporary youth culture and attempted cultural diversity.

VII. The Modern Age
Maus, by Art Spiegelman
Swamp Thing, by Alan Moore, Steve Bissette, John Totleben, and Rick Veitch
Crisis on Infinite Earths, by Marv Wolfman and George Perez
Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
The Dark Knight Returns, by Frank Miller
Batman: Year One, by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli
Daredevil: Born Again, by Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli
Love and Rockets, by Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez
Nexus, by Mike Baron and Steve Rude
American Flagg!, by Howard Chaykin
Grendel, by Matt Wagner
Elektra: Assassin, by Frank Miller and Bill Sienkieweicz
The Question, by Denny O'Neil and Denys Cowan
"Here," by Richard McGuire
The One, by Rick Veitch
Calvin and Hobbes, by Bill Watterson
Animal Man, by Grant Morrison and Chas Truog
Arkham Asylum, by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean
Sin City, by Frank Miller
Stuck Rubber Baby, by Howard Cruse
Sandman, by Neil Gaiman and others
Bone, by Jeff Smith
Jimmy Corrigan, by Chris Ware
Eightball, by Daniel Clowes
100%, by Paul Pope
Scott Pilgrim, by Bryan Lee O'Malley
Black Hole, by Charles Burns
Fun Home, by Allison Bechdel
Casanova, by Matt Fraction, Gabriel Ba, and Fabio Moon

An age of disillusionment and formal experimentation, the Modern Age in American literature produced creators as diverse (and divisive) as Hemingway, Faulkner, Joseph Heller, and T.S. Eliot. The Moderns chewed up the past (in both style and content) and spit it out in their own, vigorous way. The same is true for the Modern comic book creators as well. The era is marked by an ironic exploration of past icons, and it has possibly shifted into a Postmodern Age somewhere around the late 1980s. Of all the eras, this is the one most open for debate, as it should be.

That's the American Comic Canon as I see it. Challenge it.


nadir said...

I have long held that the first real piece of American Lit was Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, as it was not just imitating European mores and values. It was true to the American spirit, as that spirit was crumbling apart (how more American can one get).

So my question is what comic/artist really prompted American Graphic Lit (for lack of a better term). And I soet of have to go with someone you skip here, Thomas Nast. His broadsides were the primordial DNA that others now adapt and bio engineer.

I also take issue that you leave out war. romance, and western comics from the golden age. Just because they are not plentiful today does not mean that they were not crucial to comic development and should be part of a discussion of comic canon.

Your characterization of the silver age is where you seem to do best. But I take issue with how you classify the Underground Era. More so than Whitman I would suggest Literature movements of the early 20th century. And while I would say Whitman really helped spur modernism on, he was not really a participant. The underground artists were challenging form and convention that echoes literature and art from the teens and 20s more than the more naturalistic output of Whitman.

I would also say that the New Teen Titans were really the birth of the Modern Era as those issues have far more to do with how, again for lack of a better term, Post Crisis comics interacted with the world. This and The Dark Phoenix Saga were what I would consider the break between the eras. I am sure this point could be equally debated from the other side though.

I agree with you by saying that the modern area diverges at some point and became the postmodern era, but not exactly sure where I would start breaking it up. And I also feel that Simonson's Thor really needs to be on this list.

I also thank you for introducing me to a comic i have never even heard of in this article: "Here," by Richard McGuire. Not sure what it is but as I am unaware of it. I will have to check it out. Nothing better than looking for new comics.

Timothy Callahan said...

I know very little about Thomas Nast, but he's as good a starting point as anyone (and probably better, as you point out).

I think you're underestimating the revolutionary nature of Whitman's poetry.

The New Teen Titans and the Uncanny X-Men (and I could have thrown Gruenwald's Squadron Supreme in there as well, for different reasons) are just the tail end of the Bronze Age. They are the END of the Bronze Age, but the Modern Age clearly begins with Raw and Alan Moore.

Simonson's Thor is a great comic, but it doesn't do anything new. I don't think it's canonical.

"Here" is in one of the back issues of "Comic Art" magazine, as well as Brunetti's hardcover anthology of Graphic Fiction. It was originally printed in Raw vol.2, issue 1. It's a masterpiece.

Marc Caputo said...

Nice to see Moon Knight there. I share nadir's thoughts on Simonson's Thor but could see that its lack of a consistent "voice" to the end would hurt it.

I'm surprised at how little Morrison there was.

Also, your run through the Byrne FF's didn't make you want to put it up there? That's the only comic not there from Marvel's little pre-Crisis/Watchmen/DKR lock on the quality market.

I'd argue for Miller's "Ronin" and some of the brighter lights of the early 90s b&w autobio boom (Seth, Chester Brown, etc.)

nadir said...

Timothy, your comment about Whitman really hits at everything I tried to say. I would agree that he was totally revolutionary and i would add far ahead of his time. But that is just it. He was doing his own thing when others could not keep up, and it was not till years latter that others really joined his act.

And with comics being such a union of art and writing, I feel that to talk of model for a comic era, one should look to a movement that inhabits both/multiple worlds. Whitman's work does not.

And as for Moore/RAW starting the modern era, I can see how this is an easy way to classify it, but this would mean that this era lasted much less than a decade before doing a split into the postmodern, as you suggest it started in the late 80s and Moore's American work started in earnest in 83. That clearly makes no sense to me and seems to only limit and hamper the modern. I do like your addition of Squadron Supreme to the mix though.

I could easily say/agree that the Moore/RAW combo solidified the passing into the modern era, but others, which we have named 3, were charting that area before them. And I just checked to see that RAW started in 80. Maybe it shows my age, but that just seems so mush earlier than I imagined. When did it really enter into comic culture as such an important series of books?

Marc Caputo said...

I may have only been 13 in 1980 but I was reading The Comics Journal back then. When RAW came out in 1980, it was an instant critical success. Maybe not entry for entry, but the format and the sensibility behind the project was at the forefront of a lot of critical attention.

Steve B. said...

nadir's probably right about golden age non-superhero comics. But my biggest quibble here would be the placement of Cerebus in the Bronze Age, I suppose because it started in 1977. If it had remained a funny animal parody of Conan or even the political satire of "High Society" this might have been appropriate, but certainly by "Jaka's Story" Cerebus was a modern comic in every sense of the word as you use it here, and that wasn't even halfway through its 26-year run. I don't see how anyone could pick up "Going Home," for instance, and not see it as a modern comic.

And I totally agree about Whitman. The *whole point* is that he was ahead of his time. So were the undergrounds. They prefigured the true modern comics like "Maus" in exactly the same way that Whitman prefigured the modern literature of the early 20th century. I think it's a great analogy.

Chad Nevett said...

Not much I'd argue there. The only era I know well enough to debate is the modern one and your list is about as good as any other I'm likely to see (better than one I could come up with one my own). I think the only thing I'd add, possibly, is the first 12 issues of The Authority because of the influence they've had over the past decade of superhero comics. But, even then, I could see an argument against its inclusion.

Timothy Callahan said...

Steve--Great point about Cerebus. I think it hits its high point when it becomes Modern, and you're absolutely right that it should be moved, BUT my thinking in placing it in the Bronze Age is that it provides a bit of a bridge between the Undergrounds-to Bronze-to Modern. It's one of the main links between the eras, in my opinion. But its best stuff was clearly Modern.

Chad--The Authority is a good addition, and I could see that it deserves a place. In some ways it's kind of the ultimate offspring of the Image influence, as well, and because of what it represents, and how it plays with the past and guides creators of the future, it probably deserves a slot.

Brian said...

Hey, Tim, did you read the Art Out Of Time book that came out in 2006, edited by Dan Nadel?

I ask as someone who thinks that artists should create their own canon of work they find valuable, and who finds your list really superhero-centric- There are whole traditions, whole wells of work which aren't canonical, but are worth addressing.

Also, I think that, in time, the artists in that book will become viewed as giants, as one by one there are bigger retrospectives of them made available.

But that's- I don't know. The whole idea of a canon brings up ideas that other people will debate with you. But- I think with a really superhero-centric canon, things become weird in terms of- you know, how good was the Mike Sekowsky Wonder Woman?

Or: It's a character-based history rather than an artist-based one. There's no Alex Toth, because Alex Toth never really had something you can point at, an extended run with a high profile, that you can point to, but Alex Toth is a part of any comics canon worth it's salt.

Brian said...

Also, in terms of your canon being character-driven, rather than creator-driven: I think the citing of Archie is weird, because you cite Bob Montana. Presumably, that's the creator of Archie, and you bring it up because Archie's long-running.

But, in terms of artists- there are cartoonists who'd cite Archie as an influence, i.e. the Hernandez brothers- but they'd talk about in terms of Harry Lucey because they view him as a master of body language and composition.

Which, you know, in a canon, let's say the film canon- someone who's a great stylist places in that canon more than someone who made a movie that was remade a bunch of times.

Also- the film canon includes people from foreign countries. Coming up with a canon of American comics becomes really silly, especially at this point in time, where manga will be a huge influence on future cartoonists.

Or even Osamu Tezuka is clearly great, but I don't think the manga kids will be into him- He's a part of this kind of greatness for a different subset of American cartoonists.

And this doesn't fit with my thesis of "canons are stupid, especially the way yours is structured, based on singular works rather than careers" but- Gary Panter's Jimbo: Adventures In Paradise.

Timothy Callahan said...

I think my list IS super-hero centric, but I also think super-heroes are the dominant tradition within the medium (at least during the 20th century--notice how the end of the list moves away from super-heroes and I don't see that super-hero comics will be where we find new canonical works).

And even with the super-hero centricity, the list still has roughly 50 non-super-hero entries, vs. 40 super-hero entries (and that includes me throwing stuff like The Question into the super-hero category, even though it probably isn't.)

"Alex Toth is part of any comics canon worth its salt." Excellent point. I totally agree, and the list probably should be creator-centric, OR more story-specific so that someone like Toth fits in.

And I have read "Art Out of Time," and that book is clearly an attempt to highlight interesting work which is not traditionally considered canonical. That's the whole point of that book. (Although some of the stuff in there is obviously great--but greatness alone does not equal canonical.)

And you certainly can have a canon that is American-specific. There's an American film canon and an American literary canon. My list is restrictive intentionally.

If you had to list a canon, what would be on it?

Steve B. said...

Two other things on closer examination. One is that the Golden Age Sub-Mariner should be here, Prince Namor being the first anti-hero in comics.

Also, "Gasoline Alley." I enthusiastically agree it needs to be on the list. But Golden Age? Hmmm. First off, you seem mainly to be going by start dates, and it started a full 20 years before the usual demarcation point for that, beginning in either 1918 or 1919, depending on whose account (Tribune Syndicate says 1918, King said 1919, and apparently there are no records available to settle the issue)

So if Cerebus is Bronze Age, Gasoline Alley is an Early Comic Strip, I think. It's contemporary with most of the things on that list.

Indeed, since the whole concept of "Golden Age" is so focused on Superman and other superheroes, I would think the adventure strips like Terry and the Pirates (1934) and The Phantom (1936) seem to fit into that category better.

Thimble Theater debuted about the same time as Gasoline Alley, although Popeye didn't show up there until 1929. Everything else on your early list after Krazy Kat debuted in the 1930s and I would argue probably those should be Golden and G.A. should be Early.

Brian said...

My issue with the superhero-centric nature of your list has more to do with how many mediocre works it highlights. Corporate comics have their own canon- it's called continuity- and that's at odds with a canon of work that matters to artists. I guess if your goal is a common critical language, both should be included, but still: There's some mediocre comics.

I think the nature of comics, collaborative, possessing a weird set of virtues and charms even as it has huge flaws, resists a canon. I think film resists having a canon too, which is why their canon is so large. Even that's largely geared towards auteur theory, and in doing so misses a lot of the obscure character actors that make cinema great.

I think there's the makings of a small canon right now, for kids coming up thinking about being cartoonists, or the editors of comics imprints at major publishers. But that's a canon based on not knowing anything about the history of the medium. Any corrective would mostly resemble a syllabus. That's a more admirable goal, I think, than a canon for critics.

(Although- there is one major work in that small canon that should be included on your list, which is Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics.)

Timothy Callahan said...

My canon is certainly not a canon for artists, and it's certainly not a canon for critics. It's a canon for the public. It's a canon that says, if I have a year to teach you about the medium, this is the stuff I assign for you to read (at least selections of).

Would I assign Understanding Comics? Sure. But it's not part of the canon, any more than Mimesis is part of the literary canon.

Steve B. said...

Hmm. Feel like Lt. Colombo here - "Oh, and one more thing . . . "

Outcault's "Yellow Kid" was NOT the first comic strip, not even the first in the U.S. The whole frenzy a few years ago about the 100th anniversary of the comic strip had as much historical validity as the notion that Abner Doubleday invented baseball.

Because of that, I'd drop the "Yellow Kid" from the list and replace it with Outcault's later strip, "Buster Brown," which was far more influential, especially in terms of cross-platform marketing and embracing corporate sponsorship (Brown Shoe Co. adopted the strip and made its hero their mascot.

OK, OK, you've got me working on my own list now . . .

Timothy Callahan said...

I disagree about replacing Yellow Kid with Buster Brown (although your reasoning is sound). I know Yellow Kid's not the first comic strip, but it's widely accepted as ONE of the first, and representative of the era. It has a very early use of sequential panels with word balloons, and because it's been already canonized by others (in pretty much any "History of Comics" book), it belongs in the canon.

It's not that I want to perpetuate a mistake made by others, but it's important to say, "here's Yellow Kid, here's why it's in the canon, and here's why it maybe shouldn't be." That may not make any sense, in retrospect.

Julian Darius said...

I greatly appreciate the construction of this list, but I simply cannot resist the urge to quibble, having done some thought on the subject myself.

Perhaps we have a diferent notion of the canon. My attitude is that a canon isn't simply something that one must be aware of, but something that stands as a classic one ought to actually read through -- or be able to pretend one has. The mystery plays of the Middle Ages are in anthologies, yes, but they're not exactly canonical: you have to know about them, but they don't have the status of, say, Beowulf, or Chaucer, or Dante, or Petrarch. And even Petrarch isn't as canonical as, say, Machiavelli.

Part of my problem, since I presume canonical works ought to be read and known a bit more fully than the level of passing familiarity, is that most works before the rise of the graphic novel simply don't hold up as complete works. The distinction, for me, is that between sampler packets at books assigned in a course. Chanson de Roland is canonical and a classic, but the Troubadors can be lumped together in a sample pack. To list the Troubadors as a group in a list of canonical works makes little sense to me: we don't list, say, the non-Pound, non-Eliot modern poets as a group in a list of the poetic canon.

Comparing early comic strips with Greek plays is absurd to me: I adore Attic theatre, but I can't stand most early comic strips. They're important to read, and I buy collections of them, but they're not Aeschylus. Aeschylus isn't just a primitive writer who's still fun to read: he's a master writer, a poet-dramatist at full force, not someone who scribbled out awkward broadsheets of widely varied worth to meet deadlines. That's why Aeschylus is canonical and the Yellow Kid is not. There's no comparison.

Given these prejugices, I'm obviously going to object to most of this list -- though I would hasten to add, with force no less, that this is a wonderful list of works one must be familiar with, though not a literary canon as such.

I would frankly group every section before VI ("Bronze Age") as a series of sampler packets, not as reaching "canonical" status, IMHO.

In my opinion, Little Nemo is by _far_ the best of the early comic strips, and it holds up brilliantly. I'd concede Krazy Kat because of its influence and high regard, although I puke when reading scholars talk about it. The rest can be consigned to a sampler packet -- it's not canon-worthy, IMHO. You have to see a few of those large Yellow Kid panels, or Katzenjammer Kids panels, to understand what was going on there, but what do you gain by reading a large run?

Same thing with most Golden Age stuff. Sure, you have to read a few of all of this stuff, but it's sampler material. The stuff that holds up, in my opinion, is Captain Marvel and Plastic Man, both way ahead of their time. Of course, there are those Golden Age guys out there, but honestly this stuff isn't canonical material.

So too with EC stuff (and I agree that 1950s war comics are important here), which unfortunately lacks anything representing a single body of work that I can include it in the canon.

This is, unfortunately, also the case with the Silver Age material. Flash, the cosmic Lee / Kirby Fantastic Four, and maybe early Spider-Man and Sgt. Rock stand out, if one has to have single Silver Age entries.

The undergrounds have the same problem as the E.C. stuff. If we're extending these creators' work into the present, Spiegelman's Maus makes the list (as it does on yours, later), but not his overal oeuvre (since I personally reject the idea of such a general list). One wants Crumb to be on there, but what specific body of work? Certainly not the whole of it.

Now we get to the real stuff, the early actual runs on titles that can be thought of as a single work worthy of evaluation as such. We could argue whether some of these merit the list (in particular, O'Neil and Adams' Batman work was just too punctuated to look at as a unit, and I think -- gasp! -- that both Claremont's X-Men and the early New Teen Titans is more historically important than canonical, in the literary sense).

Similarly, we can quibble about "Modern Age" stuff, but at least it's works that can be listed as part of a canon. I'd say Crisis is more historically important than canonical, something more important to know than to read. And I'm glad to see Matt Wagner and Rick Veitch on the list, though I'm not sure about some of the others, but at least we're quibbling rather than debating the whole idea of how such a list should be run.

Okay, sorry to go on. I just wanted to respond, and it's a sign of my overwhelming respect for your work that I have. I think a list like this is important to stir thoughts on real comics scholarship, but I think the real list of canonical comic-book works from the last century that develops over the next one will be considerably shorter and more focused on single works of lasting literary merit.

Just my two cents. :)

Timothy Callahan said...

My Canon's clearly full of sampler-sized chunks, for exactly the reasons you mentioned, but I still say selections by those early (pre-graphic novel) creators are part of the canon now.

And I think my canon's descriptive, not prescriptive. The canon will certainly change as we move through the next 100 years, but this is the stuff that "feels" canonical today.

Yellow Kid is in the canon, and I don't think anyone really wants to read it, but it's still there.

Julian Darius said...

Sorry if I came on too strong. I love this project, and I've made my own lists, and my concern for the project is exactly why I responded. I did better understand after I posted that you clearly intended most of this material as sampler stuff. I would personally prefer to call this a syllabus, but I'm enormously grateful to you for creating it. It's pretty close to my own list, and my major complaint is just that I'd like some more specificity as to what's to be read in full and what in samplers.

I agree vastly with your list, understood as "stuff you should know about to know about comics."

I'm sorry if I jumped on this, but it's a sign of how you've made me think. This is something we should all debate.

And I definitely agree with The Authority. I'd also put O'Neil's 1970s Superman over his 1970s Wonder Woman, or just include both.

Anonymous said...

I'd agree that there's too much superhero stuff that's principally interesting for its influence on other superhero stuff here. I also wonder about the definition of "American." Is Alan Moore's stuff American because it was published by an American company, or some of it was set in America? Moore seems like a very British writer to me, and much of his work was done with British artists.

The omission that leaps to my eye is Joe Sacco, particularly Palestine.

Bill Burns

Timothy Callahan said...

"Published in America" is kind of the requirement, I guess. Watchmen is certainly an American comic, even though its creators are all British.

Sacco does deserve a spot, you're right.

There may be too much superhero stuff, but that's the dominant genre of the medium in the 20th century.

mellha said...

American Comic Canon is a useful list!
Marco M.

Simon Reinhardt said...

this is interesting stuff. i'm not really sure comics needs or should have a canon, but these kind of exercises are always pretty interesting. i find with this list that i agree less and less as you get more current. i'm not really sure it even makes sense to have one "modern age," in which, unlike the others, there's not really any stylistic unity, or really any common ground. you don't have zap in the same category as fantastic four even though they were coming out at the same time, why not divide it into more categories. really, i suspect that the bottom line is that there are several, diverging cannons, but i don't think this list really represents that too well. you leave off pretty much everything to come from the 90s self-publishing movement (king cat, by john porcellino would be a pretty good representative as it's hugely influential to a ton of young cartoonists right now), which is fine, it's kind of lame to just point out things you left off. i think it's pretty indicative of the problems of a list like this, though; you say that it's superhero-centric because that's the dominant tradition of this century, but i really think it's only one of a lot of traditions, even if it is the most publicly visible and best selling. but there are a lot of cartoonists that really don't care about that stuff at all and would be able to point to a whole different world of things that influenced them. so i think it's a mistake to approach this by looking at "the american comics tradition" chronologically because, well there isn't really and "american comics tradition." there are a lot of american comics traditionS, which overlap in a lot of cases, but in a lot of other cases don't really have anything to do with each other.

Joe S. Walker said...

Lists are for cunts.

Ed Howard said...

Interesting list. There's lots of places I could quibble, so I'll just comment on two of the most egregious omissions, from my perspective. As far as early comic strips go, Frank King's Gasoline Alley needs a place on that list. Some of those early strips, like Yellow Kid, are more important than they are readable, and belong in the canon pretty much solely for historical importance. But King's accomplishment, in addition to being historically significant for being one of the first strips to age its characters, is also a beautifully told and drawn masterpiece in its own right. It deserves some recognition as one of those "early" comic strips, like Nemo and Krazy Kat, that is still worth looking at today for more than its historical status. Also, while we're at it, Rarebit Fiend is every bit as worthy of inclusion as Nemo is.

My other quibble is the absence of Gary Panter's Jimbo in the modern era. Panter's an important artist who has been a major influence over the last few decades, and the body of work he's accumulated is one of the most original, exciting runs in comics today. Just as "Here" exerted a huge influence on conceptual and formalist artists like Chris Ware, Panter has been a seminal figure for many of the more drawing-centered approaches proliferating today, especially in places like the Kramers Ergot anthologies. Leaving him out of the canon doesn't make much sense.

Timothy Callahan said...

Gasoline Alley is already on the list, but I had it under Golden Age because the peak of the strip was later than some of the other "Early" strips. Or because I just felt like putting it there to confuse you.

Panter's a good suggestion, absolutely, but I wonder if the Panter influence isn't more in the art world than the comics world. I'm not convinced that the Kramer's Ergot crowd will have much lasting affect on the medium of graphic narrative. I could be completely wrong.

Ed Howard said...

Ah, OK, that did confuse me, mainly because Skeezix was introduced to the strip in 1921, which is when it started getting good as far as I can see -- much earlier than Popeye was introduced to Thimble Theater, and certainly before the peak years of Dick Tracy. There's definitely some overlap though with all those long-running strips that, no matter how you define the eras, will probably span across a few of them. Krazy Kat, for example, was good pretty much all through its run, resulting in a solid 28 years of great comic strips.

It remains to be seen what lasting impact Kramers Ergot (and Gary Panter) will have on comics, but personally I'd lean towards this stuff enduring to some extent, at least. Hell, Panter's influence is still felt 30 years after he started out, not only in Kramers, but in the tangentially related Fort Thunder artists, and also in many other RAW-related artists, like Kaz and people like that. Maybe the forthcoming giant Panter art book from Picturebox will solidify his rep.