My contribution to the Hooded Utilitarian’s International Best Comics Poll is now online in the very last post in the two-week marathon poor Robert Stanley Martin has been conducting over there (ah, the never-ending joy of being last in the alphabet). It has been an interesting project, conducted by Robert with composure and diligence, so I figured I’d add a few words to the discussion here.
Robert has an excellent evaluation of the final list and proposes a number of conclusions one might draw from it. The fascinating thing about comics as an art form right now is that it is such a state of flux, that so much is happening artistically at a time when its popular and cultural stature is also changing radically. I didn’t expect to see this reflected in the final list exactly, which predictably is largely a conservative affair, but it doesn’t reproduce the somewhat stodgy fandom consensus of yesteryear either. Signs of change are creeping in: Watchmen‘s cultural stature has become undeniable; the generation that grew up with Calvin and Hobbes rates it as highly (or higher) than Peanuts, the masterpiece that defined their parents’ generation, Jack Kirby’s “Fourth World” is edging in on the Marvel Age, and Jaime Hernandez is slowly but safely situating himself at the heart of the canon.
The real takeaway from all this, however, is that comics don’t really have a canon. When one looks at the individual contributors’ lists they’re all over the place. Yes, the brief called for ‘favorites’ as well as ‘best,’ prompting many to play loose and fast with their lists and then often apologize that they hadn’t gone for ‘objective’ quality, but is there really a point in making a distinction? It seems to me that beyond a few rock solid classics — Peanuts, Krazy Kat, and perhaps a few other of the top ten — there simply isn’t much of a consensus on what constitutes comics’ greatest works, or even how one might go about conceiving of them in the first place. (Add to this that the list is far from as international in scope as one might have hoped: it’s very predictably Americanocentric and reveals just how spotty the knowledge of other traditions continue to be in America).
Domingos Isabelinho has an article up that points to the problems of definition and how the orthodox institutional framework by which comics have been understood continues to wield strong influence in a time of redefinition — how do we reconcile in a canon a tradition of children’s literature with one of adult concern, and — beyond that — works of art from throughout human history, from cave paintings to Picasso, that share the formal qualities of comics, but aren’t generally considered as such?
And the discussion that spun off from Shaenon Garrity’s survey of the sparsity of female creators on the list pointed to a further challenge to the fledgling comics canon: to what extent is it going to be determined by the patriarchal discourse that has governed much of its history, especially since the art form is now attracting more women creators than any time in its history.
There have been quite a few comparisons between this list and the one put together by the editors and contributing writers to The Comics Journal a decade ago, despite their very different premises (half a dozen informed people of similar taste doing top 100s of exclusively English language works vs. over 200 very different and often rather undisciplined listmakers doing top 10s of anything and everything). It is striking how similar they are, but it’s more interesting to think about where they differ. The “new arrivals” in the top 10 (Watterson, Moore, Hernandez; Kirby doesn’t really count) indicate not just whatever bias one might attribute to the TCJ contributors, but that there is a shift happening in how we perceive comics as a tradition and what its greatest achievements might be. I suspect that a similar list made ten years from now will be more substantially different than are these two lists, because whatever canon was formed for comics in the twentieth century is undergoing the same sea change these years that comics themselves are experiencing. This is a period of redefinition and almost everything is up for debate.