Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
Earlier today, The A.V. Club, The Onion’s for-serious arts and criticism auxiliary unit, released its list of the Best Comics of the ’00s, featuring 25 comics/graphic novels and (separately) five reprint collections, ordered alphabetically. Now, it’s just one of many media outlets producing lists of this sort as the decade draws to a close — pretty soon, we’ll be able to come up with a “Best ‘Best Comics of the ’00s’ Lists” list — and disagreement with such exercises is to be expected. Indeed, it’s sort of the point. But I found The A.V. Club’s list problematic in ways that go beyond the usual “That book?No way!” and “Hey, you forgot about …” complaints.
So let’s start by getting those complaints out of the way, since they’re the most subjective. The list’s own introduction cites a quartet of comics that just missed the cut — Scott Pilgrim, Astro City, The Walking Dead and the work of Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez — and I could see reasonable cases being made for three of the four, not that I’d necessarily agree with them. Given the mainstream-accessible tenor of the list, I also think you can get enough of a sense of the standards being applied to argue for several obvious oversights: David B.’s Epileptic, Phoebe Gloeckner’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl and Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Gorazde, for example. Moreover, the titles selected for particular creators can leave you scratching your head: One! Hundred! Demons! instead of What It Is, the gag/parody-centric Acme Novelty Library oversized hardcover rather than Jimmy Corrigan, Rick Geary’s The Mystery of Mary Rogers instead of, well, any of Geary’s other old-time crime books. Finally, in some cases, I think the selected books are bettered by other, similar efforts: I’d have picked B.P.R.D. over The Goon for quirky horror-action, for example, or The Walking Dead over Y: The Last Man for lengthy post-apocalyptic serials, or Shortcomings over Box Office Poison for slice-of-life drama.
But the list has far more fundamental problems than its individual selections. The one that’s getting the most attention around the comics Internet, of course, is the complete absence of manga. I’ll be the first to apologize if a separate, all-manga list is forthcoming. But as it stands now, the lack of a single Japanese comic on a best-of list for a decade during which such comics reached unprecedented popularity in the North American market — and during which an equally unprecedented number of acclaimed titles from nearly every time period and genre have finally seen the light of English translation and publication — is utterly egregious. Even if you put aside the treasure trove of reprints of classic titles that have reached our shores, recent work by Naoki Urasawa, Yuichi Yokoyama, Ai Yazawa, Makoto Yukimura, Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Junji Ito, Jiro Taniguchi, Taiyo Matsumoto and countless other creators surely merits at least one slot on the list. And that’s to say nothing of the rock-solid entertainment provided by mainstream hits from Naruto to Death Note — would they look all that out of place on a list that includes All-Star Superman, DC: The New Frontier and the Bendis/Maleev Daredevil run?
Equally notable, to me at least, is the conservative nature of the list’s “alternative” picks. Yes, there are a couple of left-field choices — Geary’s inclusion was a surprise, as was Michael Kupperman’s weird, wonderful Tales Designed to Thrizzle. But in the main, the books and authors selected from the world of alt / art / indie / underground / whatever comics are a tastefully literary bunch, focusing on New Yorker-friendly storytelling modes like memoir, current events, biography, bildungsroman, and slice-of-life. By my count, Chris Ware, David Mazzucchelli, Charles Burns, Craig Thompson, Daniel Clowes, Alison Bechdel, Seth, James Sturm, Marjane Satrapi, Jason, Alex Robinson and even Kupperman have all either been published by a major New York book publisher or appeared in the pages of The New York Times. Meanwhile, just to name one example, the entire underground tradition emanating from Providence, Rhode Island, centered on the Fort Thunder collective, and spawning a lineage published at various times through Highwater, Paper Rodeo, Red Ink, Bodega, Buenaventura and PictureBox is totally missing; not even its representative landmark anthologies Kramers Ergot 4 and Kramers Ergot 7 made the cut. Plus, the Burns and Clowes books excepted, you’re also not seeing the wave of altcomix reclamations of genre fiction, from Paul Pope to Powr Mastrs to Prison Pit. From minicomics to markmaking, sequential art’s avant garde — not to mention its generational vanguard — is pretty much persona non grata here.
This makes the list’s one attempt to spotlight a publishing subgenre, reprints, all the more frustrating. The A.V. Club’s separate Best Reprints list cites five noteworthy projects, none of which I’m about to quibble with — the one-volume Bone cemented Jeff Smith’s place in kids’-comics history, and Fantagraphics’ exquisitely designed Peanuts and Krazy & Ignatz collections put the two greatest comic strips of all time (your ranking may vary) at the forefront of the publishing agenda of the decade’s most important publisher, after all. But the ’00s were a true Golden Age of Reprints, during which reprinted material had an ongoing and active role in the here-and-now development of comics. I, for one, can still feel the breeze from all the eyes opened by Dan Nadel’s Art Out of Time anthology, Nadel and Glenn Bray’s Rory Hayes collection Where Demented Wented, and Paul Karasik’s two surprise-hit Fletcher Hanks books. DC did a sensational job with its Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus series, re-releasing arguably the great comics work by arguably the great comics creator at the precise time that its currency in comics was reaching an all-time peak. Manga’s sales-chart dominance was complemented beautifully by Drawn & Quarterly’s Adrian Tomine-overseen reprints of Tatsumi’s landmark short stories, and by the jaw-droppingly wide-ranging run of reprints starring the god of manga himself, Osamu Tezuka, from publishers like Vertical and Viz. with the unlimited real estate of the Internet at your disposal, capping your Best Reprints list at a mere five in the face of such an embarrassment of riches raises more questions than it answers.
So does a refusal to rank your selections. Look, I go back and forth on the utility and desirability of year- and decade-end list making — it can devolve into a parlor game, a pageant, and/or an easy way to throw all the publishers you work with a bone pretty easily, and frequently the arguments it engenders shed more heat than light. On the other hand, it’s the most direct avenue available for systematically separating the good from the great, and explaining the difference. That’s why, unless you intend your list to be a mere shopping guide — or unless you’re writing it in a far more idiosyncratic fashion than The A.V. Club’s traditional list-by-committee — ordinal rankings are a must. By simply listing 25 books in alphabetical order, this list avoids making difficult and absolutely crucial distinctions regarding quality, dodging the hard work necessary to back those distinctions up with considered criticism. I don’t know what good a Best of the ’00s list that sits The Goon right next to Louis Riel does anybody under any circumstances, but at least a countdown would provide context; juxtaposing two books like that through sheer alphabetical accident provides us with no window into its authors’ critical worldview(s), and actually may do more harm than good in terms of articulating what matters. Frankly, I feel like it’s a cop-out.
This will get a little picayune, but that lackadaisical feel appears to have infected the writing itself, which is riddled with dubious factual claims. Superhero-comics sales went up this decade, not declined. Daniel Clowes contributed a substantial strip to The New York Times in addition to his two Eightball issues. Though Asterios Polyp was David Mazzucchelli’s first proper solo graphic novel, he’s been doing extremely personal work since the debut of Rubber Blanket in 1991 and can hardly be said to only now have “take[n] possession of his own voice.” And this could just be a typo and unclear wording respectively, but Persepolis did not come out in 2000, nor did it share a publisher with Fun Home. I can’t help but feel that an overall sharpening of the thinking behind the list might have whittled these errors away in the process.
The Onion and The A.V. Club have been covering comics for years, and not in the bang-pow sense, either. It’s clearly an art form they take as seriously as film, music, television, and prose literature. That’s what makes their list such a let-down. The first decade of the 21st century has been nothing more or less than the greatest creative flowering in comics’ history — the decade during which the concept of comics-as-art reached levels of public acceptance and internal confidence of which even the medium’s great visionaries could previously have only dreamed. The game was raised. Those of us who purport to crown the best of comics’ best-ever era need to raise our game as well.