Grumpy Old Fan | The Alternative Thirty
[A quick note before we go too much farther: I started writing this post before DC’s big announcement about its September-and-beyond plans. In fact, I wanted this particular post to be about something other than Flashpoint and/or line-wide reboots — so depending on your perspective, I picked exactly the right week, or exactly the wrong week, to draw that line. In any case, it’s probably not hard to tell, from the past few weeks’ worth of posts, where I stand on current events.
[So there you go. On with the business at hand.]
Since it’s pretty much summer, and time to think about catching up on reading, let’s revisit DC’s list of “30 Essential Graphic Novels” — “best-selling titles that you must read[, ]whether you are just beginning to discover graphic novels or you are an established fan looking to expand your collection.”
The list is almost four years old, and has had a few minor updates. (Pride Of Baghdad replaced The Quitter, and Crayon Shinchan replaced Sword Of The Dark Ones.) For the most part, though, it’s the same compilation — heavy on the Batman and the Jeph Loeb, a decent amount of Alan Moore (but no Swamp Thing), a couple of Sandman books and Hellblazer, but no Wonder Woman, no Joe Kubert, and no Jack Kirby. While there are at least a couple of representatives from each of DC’s imprints, there aren’t many hints at the real scope of DC’s diverse publishing history.
Now, I understand that everyone could come up with his or her own unique list. Mine won’t be entirely satisfactory, and neither will yours. I have tried to be wide-ranging (although I have focused more on the DCU books), but to a certain extent I am more interested in exploring the lower tiers of DC’s collections. Everybody knows Batman, Alan Moore and Frank Miller; not everyone knows Jack Knight, Gail Simone, or Grant Morrison.
Another couple of caveats — I didn’t include any book that was already on DC’s list, not because I think my list is better from top to bottom, but again in order to be more diverse. Also, I think all these books are still in print, or at least available at reasonable prices.
Accordingly, in rough chronological order, here’s my alternative thirty….
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We begin in the Golden Age, and I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say these stories changed comics forever. The first books in the Superman Chronicles and Batman Chronicles series are worth your time not just for their historical significance, but also because they show how the characters have changed over the decades. While Superman went through some significant upgrades, especially in the Silver Age, to me it’s also instructive to see how quickly Batman went from “grim urban avenger” to joking father-figure. Similarly, the first (and so far, the only) Wonder Woman Chronicles sets out right from the start the vision that William Moulton Marston had for his creation. It’s not so heavy on the kink as it would be, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting.
Jumping to the Silver Age, one has to include the first Flash Chronicles. Truthfully, there aren’t a lot of “pure” Silver Age books on my list, because I’m not sure you need a lot if you just want an overview. Gardner Fox’s stories and Carmine Infantino’s pencils influenced quite a few of DC’s subsequent revamps, such that books like Green Lantern and Justice League of America tended to look and sound the same. Not that they’re not enjoyable on their own merits; just that Flash gets the nod for being first.
Another perspective on the Silver Age comes from Showcase Presents The Legion of Super-Heroes Volume 1, reprinting the venerable team’s formative years. This does have a bit more of the “Silver Age Crazy” fans talk about, because I’m pretty sure it contains at least one Legion of Super-Pets story. More to the point, it comes from the editorial office of Mort Weisinger, the man who exploded the Superman mythology in the ‘50s and ‘60s. I wanted to include at least one LSH book on the list, and I almost went with The Great Darkness Saga, but for our purposes the early stories are better.
DC history involves more than superheroes, so my list includes three Showcase Presents books which get into war comics and Westerns. Bob Kanigher and Joe Kubert are synonymous with DC’s war books, so naturally I include Showcase Presents Sgt. Rock Vol. 1 and Showcase Presents Enemy Ace. Frank Rock and Hans von Hammer are very different characters, but both series show how their senses of honor and duty are tested by the rigors of war. Showcase Presents Jonah Hex also gives us a sort of anti-hero, more ethical and moral by comparison by the lawless world around him.
Moving into the 1970s, I wanted to include the Green Lantern/Green Arrow stories by Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams, but their color collections are out of print. My reluctant substitute is Green Lantern: The Greatest Stories Ever Told, mostly because it includes the introduction of GL John Stewart from GL vol. 2 #87. That’s a highlight of the O’Neil/Adams run, although it’s not as preachy as some of the others. All of the O’Neil/Adams stories are available in black-and-white in Showcase Presents GL Vol. 5.
It should go without saying that the Fourth World needs some representation on any best-of-DC list, and readers who want an introduction have a couple of options. The two-volume paperback series Jimmy Olsen Adventures By Jack Kirby can be had for a reasonable amount, but it only reprints Kirby’s (still mind-bending) run on Jimmy Olsen. For the full New Gods experience, I’d go all-in with the first Jack Kirby Omnibus.
As with Green Lantern/Green Arrow, I’d wanted to include the seminal Steve Englehart/Marshall Rogers run on Detective Comics from 1977-78, but that collection (Batman: Strange Apparitions) is out of print. In its stead, I’d recommend the first Batman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told paperback, which includes O’Neil and Adams’ classic “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge.” Either that or you could wait for the big Marshall Rogers hardcover, coming in a few months.
We leave the ‘70s with Crisis On Multiple Earths Vol. 4, reprinting the Justice League/Justice Society team-ups from 1975, 1976, and 1977. The first story is an odd duck involving a couple of DC writers from Earth-Prime, but the other two are more straightforward “third-party” adventures, first with the Marvel Family and other ex-Fawcett characters, and then with the Legion of Super-Heroes. The Legion story is one of my favorites, if that helps at all.
The 1980s bring us two absolute musts, both from Alan Moore: Saga of the Swamp Thing Vol. 1, and DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore. As with Jack Kirby, it’s hard to overstate Moore’s contributions to DC’s superhero line, to say nothing of Swamp Thing’s role laying the groundwork for Vertigo. The DCU book also includes “For The Man Who Has Everything,” “Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow?” and The Killing Joke, Moore’s most noteworthy Superman and Batman stories.
DC relaunched several superhero titles in the late ‘80s, many of which proved pretty influential. Chief among these was the George Pérez revamp of Wonder Woman, the first collection of which (Gods and Mortals) tells a nice, fairly self-contained, origin story. I also recommend the first volumes of Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis, and Kevin Maguire’s Justice League International, John Ostrander and Luke McDonnell’s Suicide Squad (Trial By Fire), and Grant Morrison and Richard Case’s Doom Patrol (Crawling From The Wreckage).
The ‘90s saw more experimentation from DC, although some of it was under different imprints. Static Shock: Rebirth of the Cool (by Robert L. Washington, Dwayne McDuffie, and John Paul Leon) collects the first arc of 1993’s Static, along with 2001’s four-issue Rebirth of the Cool miniseries. From WildStorm I picked the first Astro City collection, Life In The Big City. Regular DC wasn’t too bad either, represented here by Starman Omnibus Vol. 1 (James Robinson and Tony Harris), Hitman: A Rage In Arkham (Garth Ennis and John McCrea), and JLA: One Million (Grant Morrison, Val Semeiks, et al.).
Finally, the last decade has had its share of good collections. I picked JLA/Avengers, Darwyn Cooke’s first Spirit collection, the biting satire Dr. 13: Architecture & Mortality, Jeff Smith’s Shazam!: The Monster Society Of Evil, the first Madame Xanadu collection (Disenchanted), the gorgeous Batwoman: Elegy, and Secret Six: Unhinged (first collection from the current series).
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Now, those aren’t all “graphic novels” in the strictest sense — many are just collections of individual issues, or samplers of decades-old series. To me, though, it seems a little disingenuous to frame a product as a graphic novel when DC is still so heavily invested in weekly comics sales.
Naturally, there are a number of series I wanted to include, but which for various reasons didn’t make the cut. These include the first Joshua Dysart/Alberto Ponticelli Unknown Soldier collection (Haunted House) and the first Planetary collection (All Over The World), both excellent intros to extra-good series which ended up in the “others receiving votes” category. I tried to stay away from hardcovers, so as to keep things affordable (thus, no Wednesday Comics), but clearly missed that goal. I really wanted to include at least one New Teen Titans book, but I think you need to start from the beginning in order to appreciate the impact of stories like “The Judas Contract” and “Who Is Donna Troy?” Sadly, those early issues have only been reprinted in the out-of-print New Teen Titans Archives vol. 1. (They’ll be reprinted in the forthcoming NTT Omnibus, but that was too pricey for me.) At least read the Terra Incognito paperback before you crack open Judas Contract, to get an idea of what regular readers went through.
Again, I’m sure there are significant omissions, but overall I think it’s a good start. The Justice League comes out pretty well, with four books; and Batman and Wonder Woman get two apiece. Superman gets three, but only if you count the Legion book and the Jack Kirby book. (Part of that is because Superman: Birthright and All Star Superman are both on DC’s list.) Besides the Greatest Green Lantern Stories book, there are a few Green Lantern Corps stories in the Alan Moore DCU book. Bob Kanigher and Joe Kubert get two books, as do Moore, Grant Morrison, and George Pérez. Still, it shows a nice range of styles and storytelling formats, and I think it would serve both a DC newcomer and a lifer pretty well.
Of course, by this time next year we’ll all be looking at 52 collections of the first six issues of those coming-in-September titles, and then I’ll have to pick thirty of those….
Clip and save — the Grumpy Old Fan “Alternative Thirty,” in alphabetical order:
Astro City: Life In The Big City
Batman Chronicles vol. 1
Batman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told vol. 1
DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore
Doom Patrol: Crawling From The Wreckage
Dr. 13: Architecture & Mortality
Crisis On Multiple Earths vol. 4
Flash Chronicles vol. 1
Green Lantern: The Greatest Stories Ever Told
Hitman: A Rage In Arkham
JLA: One Million
Justice League International vol. 1
Jack Kirby Omnibus vol. 1
Madame Xanadu: Disenchanted
Saga of the Swamp Thing vol. 1
Secret Six: Unhinged
Shazam!: The Monster Society Of Evil (Jeff Smith)
Showcase Presents Enemy Ace
Showcase Presents Jonah Hex vol. 1
Showcase Presents The Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 1
Showcase Presents Sgt. Rock vol. 1
The Spirit vol. 1 (Darwyn Cooke)
Starman Omnibus vol. 1
Static Shock: Rebirth of the Cool
Suicide Squad: Trial By Fire
Superman Chronicles vol. 1
Wonder Woman Chronicles vol. 1
Wonder Woman: Gods and Mortals