The Canon

On a comment earlier tonight, I mentioned The Canon... the idea that there is a growing body of universally recognized "good books," books that represent the best quality, highest aspirations of the medium. This of course is not new to comics, and not without disputation, not only to the contents of such a list, but to its utility as well. Usually books are considered as part of this "required reading list for the educated reader" based on a sliding curve of technical quality, emotional grip, influence on later books... even sales.

Over time, a consensus forms, and while the boundaries remain fluid, and the size of everybody's list varies, yet some books appear over and over.

To date, most knowledgeable readers would consider Maus to be a keystone of any list of The Canon for graphic novels, for most of the reason listed above. This doesn't mean you're an idiot if you don't like it. Canonical books are not above critique. Indeed, they are most worthy of it precisely because they have the most to offer.

Lets talk about books that might belong to the canon. Its ok if you haven't read them all. I doubt if any of us have.


  • My list. Notable for its omissions more than anything else.

    From Hell. Alan Moore's masterwork.

    The Vertigo trifecta: Sandman, Preacher, Transmetropolitan. Each of these books had a massive effect on comics, comics storytelling, comics culture, and I reckon the facets of comics culture have been adopted out of the ghetto.

    Sin City and Dame to Kill For. Frank Miller at the top of his game.

    Acme Novelty Library. Nobody ever did comics like this before--or since.

    Uzumaki. Best horror comics, ever.


  • American Splendor.

    (Or should it be more specific, with particular stories/arcs? I was considering it as a complete work)
  • Pluto.

    Also, I'm going to put this out there and see what kind of reaction it gets. . . Hickman's The Nightly News.
  • One thing's for sure-- Nightly News is in MY canon.
  • I like Eisner's Contract with God.

    Blankets ought to be there. Black Hole, maybe.

    More recently Scott Pilgrim did things with comics I'd never seen before.
  • @DinoCaruso I'd buy that. I mean, the whole body of work, as you were saying. It's one giant autobiography, isn't it?
  • Well, we all have favorites. I'm inclined to think that durability is a key component. What seems important now may fade from memory.

    I've been flipping through Eddie Campbell's Alec: how to be an artist which is a darned good book and a candidate for inclusion... at least if your list is long. Towards the end he presents his list circa 2001. Its a fine list of good books, but I gotta wonder about some of them ten years on.

    The New Adventures of Hitler Grant Morrison/Steve Yeowell
    The Cowboy Wally Show Kyle Baker
    Big Numbers Alan Moore/Bill Sinkiewicz

    The first one I never heard of, the second I had and thought was hilarious, the third was never finished despite high expectations. Hard to even find these books today outside of Amazon.

    On the other hand:

    Maus Art Speigelman
    Watchmen Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons
    Safe Area Gorazde Joe Sacco

    Tend to appear on most lists still today.

    Maus is such a fixture that failing to include it marks you as an ignoramus...?

    I think that Watchman is so marred by its ending that it drops in my estimation... although not off the list. It still is enormously entertaining, a giant technical achievement, a touchstone for later mainstream superhereo-ish books, and sells like bejeezuz two decades on.

    And I haven't read Safe Area Gorazde, so I must be an ignoramus.

  • Were I to teach a class in graphic novels as literature, ten books. (Note I am not saying Comics)

    1) Louis Riel -Chester Brown a good place to start, accessible reading, adventure, history/biography, excellent cartooning.

    2) Understanding Comics -Scott McCloud a step back to look at the structural/technical considerations and it demonstrates what it describes. Comics don't have to be fiction.

    3) The Dark Knight -Frank Miller my token superhero comic would be this rather than Watchmen. Its just as important for its time, and much more visceral.

    4) Joe's Bar -Jose Munoz and Carlos Sampayo Sampayo's subtle short stories are brought brilliantly to life by Munoz's expressionist artwork.

    The Airtight Garage -Moebius OK I had to drop this one, Its too damned expensive through Amazon, but Moebius demonstrates that a loose jointed kind of storytelling can be just as worthwhile as Moore's tight constructions.

    5) The Barefoot Serpent -Scott Morse breezy and easy, it nevertheless packs a wallop.

    6) Notes for a War Story -Gipi this guy is underrated in America, but his explorations of youth in stressful conditions, coping with the grown up world is as incisive as anybody's.

    7) Some New Kind of Slaughter -Mann/Lewis yeah, I'd include my own book, so sue me. of all my books, this is the most experimental in structure, and actually is being used in a college writing class this fall.

    8) Habibi -Craig Thompson maybe I'm only including it because its recent, but I think it has as much internal complexity as Asterios Polyp, and more emotional tug. Plus its big, and most of these have been short.

    9) Persepolis -Marjane Satrapi or maybe Fun Home -Alison Bechdel thoughtful books by female creators that have made noise in the mainstream press in recent years.

    10) Chimera -Mattotti just because I like silent comics.

    OK, so tomorrow I would likely come up with a different list, and with more thought, a better list. There is no manga simply because I'm not knowledgeable, but its a gap that should be filled.

    Of these, only Understanding Comics and The Dark Knight are likely consensus Canonical books, but the others are mostly of a quality to be considered for such a list.

  • @marvinmann see, I haven't read Habibi, but Blankets was kind if the quintessential alt/comics autobio giant of it's time. In terms of durability and noteriety, it's the one that immediately popped into my head. Also, it weighs in around 300 pages, so there's that.
  • Watchmen
    The Dark Knight Returns
    The Sandman

    These aren't my favorites; I haven't even read some of them. But they're definitely the "classics."
  • Love & Rockets
    Ghost World
    Jack Cole's Plastic Man
    Kirby's Fourth World
  • Maus
    Calvin and Hobbes
    Far side
    Dark knight returns
    Batman year one
    Daredevil man without fear
    Moore's swamp thing, especially the first trade
    100 bullets
    Pride of Baghdad
    The early amazing spider man
    The early fantastic four
    Claremont xmen, especially the Paul smith years
    The crow (which remains then greatest love story I've ever seen in comics)
    The walking dead
    Batman the long Halloween and dark victory
    Kingdom come

    I'm sure there are more, but to me those are my classics.
  • There are going to be somewhat different lists in a history of comics strips, American comics books, webcomics, graphic novels, manga, European comics etc. But the idea of a Canon seems to have taken root since the advent of the graphic novel because that's when comics get "taken seriously as literature".

    So most lists as such begin with Will Eisner's A Contract with God. And Maus signifies the point when comics were no shit taken seriously (Pulitzer Prize), and my imaginary class should include both of those books for just those reasons.

    Meanwhile, a nod of the head goes to Gil Kane for My Name is Savage, and Blackmark, and to Howard Chaykin for Empire, Swords of Heaven, Flowers of Hell, and The Stars My Destination, as some of the very earliest true graphic novels, but they don't tend to appear on canonical lists because, frankly, they are just comic books writ large.

    The bias, fair or otherwise and we could debate that, is towards comics as Literature. And so most such lists of key graphic novels tend to lean towards works of a singular vision, and works intended as long form from the get go.

    Thus Cole's Plastic Man and Kirby's Fourth World are key readings in a History of American Comic Books, but not likely to appear on most lists of Great Graphic Novels.

    Ghost World does appear on many of these lists and for good reason.

    Cerebus and Love and Rockets present kind of a special case. Individual collections from these series often appear on graphic novel lists; Jaka's Story, Church and State, Palomar, The Death of Speedy represent high points in these long running and indisputably excellent series, and might be seen as introductions for deeper study which is a lot of what a canonical list is about.
  • Not trying to invalidate anyone's list here, as a matter of personal taste. In fact, I haven't seen anything that I thought was crap, and all of these are terrific comics in the broadest sense.

    Not surprisingly, most of our lists tend towards mainstream comics, and in Russell's case, some great strips. For my part though, I'm trying to suss out discrete works that will survive as consensus picks.

    So my guess is that for Alan Moore, Watchman, and From Hell will generally appear on consensus lists, while his Swamp Thing run (as much of a turning point as it was in a history of comic books) and Lost Girls (for all of its intent to be important) will get deprecated to Further Readings lists.

    Hard to look at anything on Russell or Kevin's lists and not think, "well yeah."

    But me being me, I just have to add a, "But..." if only for the purposes of conversation.
  • @ShawnRitchison I'd have to agree that Blankets seems to be making its way onto lists of Canonical Graphic Novels for most of the reasons you state. It remains to be seen if Habibi does as well.

    Interesting to note that Thompson's first book, Good-Bye Chunky Rice was noted by Eddie Campbell in 2001, but would probably be supplanted today by Blankets.

    As a parallel example, Dumas wrote a lot of terrific adventure novels, but only The Three Musketeers, The Man in The Iron Mask, and The Count of Monte Cristo tend to be around today... and if you're really pairing down, only the Three Musketeers makes the short list. And its wonderful, BTW, highly recommended.
  • Inspired by Russell, my short list of Ten Key American comic strips, subjectively based on quality and influence.

    Krazy Kat
    Little Nemo
    Terry and the Pirates
    Calvin and Hobbes
    Lil Abner
    Gasoline Alley
    Bringing Up Father
    Thimble Theatre

    OK, so I turned the dial up to 11.
  • Anyone else think Pride of Baghdad will make most consensus Canonical Graphic Novel lists? It got terrific reviews a few years back, but I never read it. I don't doubt its quality, just wondering about its staying power. Same with Jason Lutes' Berlin, Auster/Mazzuchelli's City of Glass, Bechdel's Fun Home, Satrapi's Persepolis...?
  • @marvinmann, swamp thing is a relatively new discovery for me. Last summer, in fact. I knew it existed, but as I was writing Daddy's Girl at the time I wanted to read horror comics beyond the first sandman trade... And that fucker is terrifying. So swampy it was, and needless to say it was inspiring.
  • Doonesbury, to me, remains some of the best political and social satire out there. And it holds up remarkably well, I read the old collections all the time. The current DADT arc is awesome, reflective of what current soldiers have told me about the ridiculous policy. Who the hell cares, in other words.
  • Doonesbury makes my all time comic strip list, as indicated above. And while I wasn't into Moore's run on Swamp Thing, I do recall what an impact it had for most people at the time. Glad you found it.
  • Actually, for me, your choice of The Crow is perhaps the most intriguing. Its a little out of left field.
  • @JasonFranks

    Akira seems to be a consensus, as does Chris Ware, although probably for Jimmie Corrigan, rather then Acme, and much as I like Sin City, I'd say Dark Knight had more impact.
  • Based on the suggestions so far and filtered through my biases does anyone think that any of these books DOESN'T belong on a list of key readings for graphic novels?

    A Contract with God
    Understanding Comics
    American Splender
    Jimmie Corrigan
    The Dark Knight Returns
    The Death of Speedy
    Church and State
    Safe Area Gorazde

    Obviously not an all inclusive list, and I kept it one to an author for no good reason. Personally, I find Jimmie Corrigan to be dull as dirt, but it gets a lot of respect for good reason.

    Probably the first five are no shit, first ballet Hall Of Fame inclusions.

    Or do you disagree?
  • @marvinmann, I reckon Watchmen, DKR and Maus are all pretty much a given, which is why they're not on my list. they're the Holy trinity, I guess you'd say. Eisner's Contract is probably in there as well.

    Eddie Campbell's Alec should definitely be ont he list. I did not include Big Numbers because it's unfinished.

    @RussellLissau, I'll second you on The Crow. Despite its flaws it remains a searing book; I don't know any other comics work that has that sort of passion on display.

    I'm surprised that nobody has suggested anything by Tezuka yet. The God of Manga certainly deserves a shoutout, but he has such a massive body of work, and I've only read a small part of it. Buddha is probably the best of his work that I've read, but I haven't read Adolph or Phoenix.

    Here's another one I think is canon: Kojima and Koike's LONE WOLF AND CUB. A huge force in shaping Frank Miller's breakout work.

    Any takers for Takehiko Inoue's VAGABOND?

  • Perhaps just not enough manga readers. I'm certainly not qualified to do more than repeat what I've heard. DanHill did mention Pluto, which I've heard good things about.
  • Pluto is masterful and highly recommended. My own manga reading only really extends to that and Lone Wolf and Cub so I'm actively looking for any other manga that's added to this list.
  • Pluto is entirely about Tezuka's work. Good as it is, I don't think you can have Pluto without Testuan Atomu (Astroboy).

    I'm not an Astroboy fan, myself, but I'm apparently in the minority.
  • It's the durability component that makes assembling this list so damn hard. I'd like to believe that either All-Star Superman or (even better) We3 would make such a list, but it's too soon to know how well those books will stand the test of time. I think Dave McKean's Cages deserves inclusion, but it's a lesser known book, only recently put back into print. Eisner revolutionized his technique on the Spirit, but it probably won't have the staying power of his later graphic novels (and that's probably how Will'd prefer it).

    Another thing I notice from time to time is that the medium celebrates books that tackle difficult subject matter, even if the books themselves don't uses the tools of the medium to their fullest potential. As narratives, Pedro and Me and Fun Home are impressive undertakings, but they aren't nearly as inventive in terms of technique as Promethea or Crecy or Acme Novelty Library.

    If I had to pick ten books, though, to hand to someone, to show him that the medium is capable of more than just juvenile power fantasies:

    1. Why I Hate Saturn

    2. Watchmen/From Hell/V for Vendetta

    3. Maus

    4. Jimmy Corrigan

    5. Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (personal bias - this is my favorite of the Sin City stories. I read it first, with no knowledge of the first volume. Some people I've talked to really hate this volume, though.)

    6. Understanding Comics

    7. A Contract With God

    8. Asteros Polyp

    9. Lone Wolf and Cub

    10. Persepolis
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