The 30 Most Important Comics of the Decade, Part Two
Continuing our countdown of (in our opinion, obviously) the most important and influential comics of the past ten years, here’s the second half of our list, from #15-1. If you missed it, you can read part one over here, with an explanation of how we put the list together and the (admittedly somewhat arbitrary) ranking. Can you guess what made number one? (hint: it’s not one of the books sampled in the collage above.) Read on to find out!
15. The Complete Peanuts by Charles M. Schulz (Fantagraphics)
If you believe, as I do, that we are living in the Golden Age of Reprints, chances are The Complete Peanuts is your Exhibit A. Now that we’re some six years and twelve volumes into it, it can be difficult to remember just how controversial the project was. A publisher best known for its co-founder Gary Groth’s shot-to-the-kidney critiques in The Comics Journal and a roster of edgy alternative and underground talents from Crumb to Clowes, republishing 50 years of history’s most acclaimed, beloved, and lucrative daily comic strip, in order, in a series of 25 hardcover volumes, designed in understated fashion by cartoonist/nostalgist Seth, to be released over the course of twelve years? You can count me among the skeptics … to my shame. The series set the standard for how such strip reprints are done — if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, reprint projects from Dick Tracy to Hagar the Horrible should make Groth, Seth, and the Schulzes feel flattered as hell. It also put prime Peanuts back in the public eye just as both the series and the life of its creator came to a much lamented-end, vindicated Seth’s iconic design choices, and not incidentally saved the financial bacon of arguably the most important comics publisher of the last 30 years. Good ol’ Charlie Brown! — Sean T. Collins
14. Kramers Ergot, edited by Sammy Harkham (Buenaventura Press)
Like Blankets, the fourth volume of Sammy Harkham’s avant-garde anthology Kramers Ergot was a big fat powder-blue brick of a book that debuted at the 2003 MoCCA Art Festival in New York City. And like Blankets, it was something many in the comics industry had simply never seen before. From its Mat Brinkman-illustrated cover, a textless piece featuring two massive monsters clashing on a crudely drawn rainbow bridge, to its dizzyingly drawn contents, featuring a cream-of-the-crop collection of young alternative-comics talents spearheaded by members and associates of Providence, Rhode Island’s Fort Thunder underground art, comics, and music collective, Kramers was arguably the boldest, most influential, and most clearly generation-defining comics anthology since Art Spiegelman & Francoise Mouly’s RAW. The presence of collage, fine art, and non-narrative comics gave Kramers a reputation for privileging joyous, anarchic markmaking over storytelling. To a certain extent, that rep is both deserved and something to be celebrated, as it injected renewed attention to visually driven work into an altcomix scene then dominated by the literary comics of Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly stalwarts like Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes, Chester Brown, and Adrian Tomine. But Kramers has always been about more than eye-melting art — some of the decade’s most memorable alternative-comics stories, from Kevin Huizenga’s “Jeepers Jacobs” to David Heatley’s “My Sex History” to Harkham’s own “Poor Sailor,” appeared in its pages. By the time the gigantic, Little Nemo-inspired seventh volume hit the stands (and made waves on the Internet for its price tag), readers who’d really been paying attention weren’t surprised to see such stalwarts as Ware, Clowes, Tomine, Jaime Hernandez, and Matt Groening right alongside the underground enfants terribles who’d been there from the start. — Sean T. Collins
13. Art Out of Time, edited by Dan Nadel (Abrams)
The book that launched a thousand other books! (Granted, many of them were independently in the works, as their editors will no doubt point out, but still.) Prior to the release of this Abrams-published hardcover anthology, most comics’ readers impressions of the medium’s past divided it between the enjoyable but creatively anonymous work of a legion of journeymen and the stand-out breakthroughs of a small of legends. But beyond the established canon of Kurtzmans and Kirbys and Crumbs, Segars and Schulzes and Spiegelmans, there flowered a fertile field of forgotten talents from throughout comics history, cartoonists who’d carved out comics whose artistic ambitions and personal touches were overlooked at the time but were unmistakable to observers today. Ogden Whitney, Rory Hayes, Boody Rogers, Milt Gross, Gene Deitch, Fletcher Hanks: The authors included here read like a murderers’ row of weird, wild, “where the heck did that come from?” comics collections that would emerge in its wake. And they’re joined by many more besides, represented by astutely curated, frequently breathtaking work selected by Nadel. He would go on to produce other riches via his art-comics company, PictureBox, but his place in comics would already be cemented by this great act of reclamation of our lost history. — Sean T. Collins
12. Daredevil by Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev (Marvel)
The breakthrough book for the decade’s biggest and most influential superhero-comics writer. Yes, Brian Michael Bendis made his Marvel debut with 2000’s Ultimate Spider-Man, a “scrap it all and start over from scratch” effort conceived by Marvel’s then-President Bill Jemas that proved influential not just in terms of the decade’s many fresh-continuity reimaginings (we wouldn’t have the MAX, All Star, and Earth One lines without it) but also by giving Bendis and his Ultimate cohort Mark Millar the hit-making power they’d eventually use to commandeer the Marvel Universe proper. And yes, he also combined superheroes and crime in his creator-owned series Powers. But Daredevil, along with Grant Morrison’s New X-Men, was the definitive book of the “Nu-Marvel” era, in which Jemas and Joe Quesada okayed a range of series in which talented creators from the edgier reaches of the Direct Market comics industry — your Vertigos and WildStorms and Onis and Images and Calibers — swapped out the traditional, and by that point poorly selling, Marvel Comics feel for as personal a batch work as giant corporate icons are likely to produce. In the case of Bendis and Daredevil, this meant a series in which he was free to explore his creative obsessions: his passion for observing and reproducing contemporary society’s staccato speech, his love of crime fiction, his portrayal of superpowers and costumes as the outward manifestation of deeply personal traumas and life choices.
It also meant he could totally upset the apple cart, unceremoniously deposing the Kingpin and outing Matt Murdock in the tabloids. Yet all the while the book remained of a piece with the storied runs of such creators as Frank Miller, David Mazzucchelli, Ann Nocenti, and the still-fresh Kevin Smith, seeming to be a continuation of Daredevil’s story as well as a holy-crap upending of it. Meanwhile, Maleev’s memorable art — a sort of naturalist noir that was dark but never murky, realistic but never stiffly beholden to photoref — became, in a slightly cartoonier form promulgated by everyone from Steve Epting and Mike Perkins to Michael Lark and David Aja, a whole new Marvel house style. And in much the same way, Bendis’s conflation of superheroics and supervillainy with urban crime, and, later, black-ops espionage, would soon become the default setting for the entire Marvel Universe, and beyond. — Sean T. Collins
11. Blankets, by Craig Thompson (Top Shelf)
Blankets dropped like a bomb upon 2003’s MoCCA Art Festival in New York City — the sort of smash debut you might use to illustrate the “book of the show” entry in a comics-convention dictionary. And for good reason: Clocking in at just over 580 pages, none of which had ever been serialized anywhere, it was the largest original graphic novel North American comics had ever seen. But while the novelty of its size might have made the first impression, what was found in its pages made the lasting one. An unabashedly emotional memoir, Blankets told Thompson’s own story of first love and fundamentalism, romance and religion, as both discovered and lost by him while a teenager in the snowy northern Midwest. Drawn in a sweeping, inviting style, its sheer loveliness attracted readers from beyond comics’ traditional audience, while the universality of its subject matter and the specificity of Thompson’s experience of it kept them turning the pages. More than any other book this decade (excepting, perhaps, Jimmy Corrigan), it cemented the thick “graphic novel” format as the publishing method of choice for artistically ambitious literary comics, proving that forgoing the more immediate critical and financial rewards of serialization could lead to unprecedented success. Fun Home, Persepolis, Stitches — more so even than Maus, Blankets paved the way for the crossover success of the mainstream-friendly comics memoir. — Sean T. Collins
10. Fruits Basket, by Natsuki Takaya (Tokyopop)
Sailor Moon got the phenomenon started, but Fruits Basket was the most popular shoujo manga of the 00. The graphic novel market quadrupled between 2001 and 2007, and that growth was driven in large part by girls who were getting comics of their own for the first time. Fruits Basket is a good twist on a classic setup—the lone girl in a houseful of boys—but it brought in girl-friendly themes—emotional truth, the importance of friendship, and of course, a love triangle with two very different, but equally hot, guys at the outer corners. — Brigid Alverson
9. Penny Arcade, by Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik (self-published)
Penny Arcade started in 1998, but its influence spread far and wide in the 00s, thanks to the attention Holkins and Krahulik paid to turning their audience into a community. The daily strip runs on a combination of in-jokes and topical humor, although many gags are comprehensible to the non-gamer. In addition to making their living from it, Holkins and Krahulik have created the Childs Play charity, which provides toys to children’s hospitals, and the annual Penny Arcade Expo, or PAX. They have also been known for their biting commentary on events within the comics and gaming world, making Penny Arcade not just a comic but an opinion leader as well. — Brigid Alverson
8. Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (DC)
We at Robot 6 have little doubt that eyebrows will rise at our designation of Watchmen as one of the past decade’s most important comics. Indeed, various collected editions of Watchmen have been popular virtually since their first printings twenty-odd years ago. However, the fact that Watchmen sales not only increased, but practically snowballed, through the worst economic climate the world has seen in several decades — arguably since the birth of the superhero itself — is a testament to the book’s staying power. Most comics publishers hope that a movie adaptation will produce a modest bump in sales, but the Watchmen movie’s trailer inspired DC to order an additional 900,000 copies into print. When the movie itself premiered, Watchmen was No. 1 on Amazon’s bestseller list — not just for comics and graphic novels, but overall. Because it garnered so many new readers, no doubt including some new or returning to comics, we honor Watchmen accordingly. — Tom Bondurant
7. Fun Home by Alison Bechdel (Houghton Mifflin)
I’m not sure anyone expected the sort of acclaim and attention that greeted Fun Home, least of all Bechdel herself. Riding on a populist wave of interest in both memoirs and graphic novels (not to mention a growing interest in gay rights), Fun Home swooped in and quickly became the “must-read” book of 2007. Somehow this story of the author’s awkward relationship with her troubled (to put it mildly) father garnered the sort of mainstream attention that creators and publishers have been yearning for years to attain (the fact that a big house like Houghton Mifflin was behind it might have helped matters — in itself a notable feat). Perhaps most notably of all, it was named the Book of the Year by Time Magazine. Not “Best Graphic Novel” or “Best Memoir.” Best. Book. Whether or not you think it deserved that title, I remained stunned to this day that this comic — or any comic mind you managed to attain such a lofty award from an otherwise staid and deliberately average magazine. Fun Home is an important reminder of just how much the times have changed. — Chris Mautner
6. Identity Crisis (2004) by Brad Meltzer, Rags Morales and Michael Bair (DC)
Written by suspense novelist Brad Meltzer and drawn by Rags Morales and Michael Bair, this seven (double-sized-) issue miniseries was billed as the other kind of crossover hit — namely, the one which would bring normal folks into the comics shop. Looking back in late 2005, Meltzer told CBR “it was supposed to be a small, emotional story.” Nevertheless, when Dan DiDio and Geoff Johns saw what Meltzer was doing, elements of IdC’s plot were spun out into their own storylines, including other DC events like Infinite Crisis, 52, and Countdown. Thus, DC kicked off a cycle of line-wide Big Events which stretch arguably through Blackest Night. Marvel similarly used the contemporaneous “Avengers Disassembled” arc to cultivate its current string of events, and the result has been an ever-escalating battle over the top spot in the sales charts.
On its own, though, Identity Crisis came to symbolize a new, and not entirely welcome, revisionist approach to fictional superhero history: explaining the old goofiness by retroactively inserting “realistic” elements. Ironically, today’s event comics may well be charged with restoring a calmer, more gentle status quo — one which might not demand the sort of fix Identity Crisis provided. — Tom Bondurant
5. Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware (Pantheon)
And here is the straw that broke the proverbial noncomics-reading public’s back. Maus and Watchmen had sung their siren songs on the rocks and managed to entice the occasional wayward sailor back in the ’80s — someone who had perhaps heard they were doing interesting things with them thar funnybooks — but by and large the great unwashed — or more accurately, the cultural elite and the media at large — remained unimpressed. These were flukes; comics were still the stuff of children and maladjusted nerds. It took Ware’s masterpiece, which he spent years serializing in the pages of Acme Novelty Library throughout the 1990s, to show critics that yes, comics could be just as elegant, knotty, rich, satisfying and emotionally devastating as your prose novel.
Praise was quick to follow. The book won the Firecracker Alternative Book Award, the American Book Award and the Guardian First Book Award, the first comic ever to do so, a move that was met with some mild astonishment in the U.K. The book threw Ware to the forefront of the art-comix movement (much to his chagrin no doubt). Now he was no longer simply Chris Ware, but now CHRIS WARE, GREATEST CARTOONIST ON EARTH, and has had to deal with all the resulting backlash that unwanted title has come with. That’s not to mention the wealth of imitators, disciples and kids who studied Corrigan like the Bible, hoping to gleam some insight from its pages. Corrigan showed its readers new ways to make comics, new ways to think about comics (flowcharts! timelines! awkward silences!) and the ensuing years saw a rash of inspired cartoonists wearing Ware on their sleeve like a Led Zepplin patch on a jean jacket. In the end though, Corrigan proved without a shadow of a doubt that comics could be literary. The flood gates were let loose and it was anybody’s game from here on in. — Chris Mautner
4. Naruto, by Masashi Kishimoto (Viz)
Naruto is the alpha comic; it is the top-selling manga in the U.S. (both in terms of individual volumes and the franchise as a whole) and it outsells most graphic novels as well. Because they were so confident of its popularity, publisher Viz made a radical move in 2007 and again in 2009: They sped up the release schedule, churning out three volumes a month for several months. The flood of Naruto volumes had a noticeable effect, squeezing the sales of other manga but also bringing the U.S. edition closer to the Japanese releases — a strategy that is likely to become more common among manga publishers in the decade to come. — Brigid Alverson
3. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (Pantheon)
What is it about Satrapi’s memoir of her childhood during the Iranian revolution that earns it such a high place on our list, above arguably more groundbreaking books like Jimmy Corrigan and Blankets? Well, certainly the subject matter plays a role.
The book was introduced to North America at a time when an interest in the Muslim world was at an all-time high due to the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent War on Terror. For many it’s offered a glimpse and insight into a world that heretofore has seemed alien and mysterious to many. On a much more important and political level, however, Persepolis has served as an inspiration for Iranians living abroad and in their home country, as the recent mash-up created by dissidents about the recent election shows.
But Perspolis’ success — indeed, it’s continued success — in a large part is due to Satrapi’s simplistic, bare bones style and direct, unfussed storytelling. The very elements that turn off some, more experienced comics critics are the very things that make it perfect for the unwashed masses. It’s simply a very easy book to engage, about a subject that interests a great many of us. Perhaps I can best sum it up this way: Very few of my non-comics reading friends — family members, co-workers, etc. — ask to borrow my comics. They don’t want to read Watchmen (even if they’ve seen the movie), they don’t ask about Captain America getting shot or even express an interest in Maus. Everyone asks if they can borrow Persepolis. — Chris Mautner
2. Sailor Moon, by Naoko Takeuchi (Mixx/Tokyopop)
Naruto is a bigger seller, and it certainly commands respect, but Sailor Moon changed people’s lives. I have seen a lot of women talking online about how it was the first comic they could relate to. Having grown up knowing that girls’ comics existed in other countries (Britain) but that there were none for me in the U.S., I know exactly how powerful that discovery can be. Until Sailor Moon came along (first the cartoon, then the comics), it doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone that girls might like comics written specifically for them. After the initial success of the anime on American television, Tokyopop (then Mixx) started publishing the graphic novels, and a genre was born. Although the series was first published in 1997, new volumes continued to come out in the early years of the 00s and the manga spread virally among fans, creating one of the earliest fan communities based around shoujo manga; in 2004, according to Wikipedia, there were over 3 million websites devoted to Sailor Moon. Despite its popularity, Sailor Moon was out of print in the U.S. by 2005.
Sailor Moon affected the way people thought, both inside and outside the industry. This whole trajectory I’m on now was launched when I found some of the books at a garage sale and picked them up for my kids, still not really sure what they were — but what the heck, they were 5 for a dollar. That’s the most expensive bargain I ever got, because it set the girls rocketing off into manga-land — they quickly discovered Kodocha, Tokyo Mew Mew, Fruits Basket, even Megatokyo. Suddenly my house was filled with these really foreign, sort of sketchy-looking books. So I started reading them, and next thing I knew, I was writing about manga on the internet. For me, as well as a number of other women and young girls, Sailor Moon was a paradigm shift. — Brigid Alverson
1. The Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons
Here’s the thing about all the other comics on this list: They didn’t cause anyone’s death. No one got severely injured because they read them. None of their creators were persecuted or received death threats. No one rioted over Fun Home.
Not so here. In September 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, whether to simply provoke or to engage in a discussion about censorship and religion, published a collection of 12 editorial cartoons of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Not all of the depictions were irreverent or nasty, some were respectful, but that hardly mattered to most Muslims since any visual depiction of the prophet, respectful or otherwise, is considered a sacrilege.
Things quickly went downhill from there. Danish embassies in Lebanon, Syria and Iran were set on fire. Some protests resulted in riots and violence, with police firing into crowds and more than 100 total deaths worldwide. Death threats were issued to the people involved.. The whole affair became Exhibit A in the ever-deteriorating relationship between the Western world and the Middle East. And its after-effects continue to plague us today, as the recent attempt on the life of cartoonist Kurt Westergaard proves.
There are many, many lessons (or at least discussion topics) we can draw from the Muhammad cartoons — about the power of images to provoke, issue of religion and free speech, and so forth. — but I think most importantly they should serve as a reminder for the bulk of us, who live comfortably in North America and elsewhere that the price we pay for making and reading comics is only a few dollars and not our lives. — Chris Mautner