Each year end, to join in the fun of year end book lists, but also to sort of process what I’ve read, I put out a favorites list I call Besties. It’s actually two lists; one features recent or recently discovered books, with a Bestiest as top title; and the second dwells mostly on collections or reprints of past comics or comics critique or history.
You can read my favorite graphic novels and new work here; this is Part 2.
Penguin Classics: The Amazing Spider-Man, Lee and Ditko: Penguin announced that it was adding Marvel Comics (who they now distribute) to their well respected Classics line, and I’m sure the cultural guardians had heart attacks. But they are a first real examination of what made the Marvel revolution so important. This is early work, in the scheming jewel thieves era, before the fate of the universe hinged on every month’s pamphlet.
But the step up from the formulaic and very Freudian hack work of the 50s comics is clear. Peter Parker worries about money and family and romance, yet obviously enjoys the emotional release his adventures bring him. There are essays exploring the genesis of the title, and tensions between creators Stan Lee, a liberal humanist glad hander who breathed life into the characters and their fans, and Steve Ditko, a brooding, Randian Objectivist who liked his good and evil, if not his 4-color comics, in stark black and white. In a pop cultural sense, these precursors to the Marvel Cinematic Universe do qualify as classics. They exemplify a fairly simplistic society’s struggles for the hearts and minds of its children; as well as the creators’ struggle to prove it wasn’t a children’s medium to begin with.
Tom Strong Deluxe Edition 2, Alan Moore: Moore’s very intriguing Oughties attempt to rescue genre comics from infantility and the dustbin of history. Tom Strong is a Doc Savage type, brainy and muscular. He lives in a retro futurist Steam Punk version of our own world, and encounters monsters, Nazis and lost civilizations. So far, so Harlan Ellisonian.
Moore however, never misses a chance to satirize, lampoon or offer homage to well established pulp fiction tropes. This he accomplishes brilliantly with a team of illustrators skilled at mimicking earlier styles such as EC, Funny Animal and western comics and pulps. The plots are clever and intriguing on their own terms, but Moore’s love of meta-fictional context adds extra interest. He’s left comics now, disillusioned but unique in the canon.
Give My Regards to the Atom Smashers, Sean Howe: An early attempt to recruit top writers to define what childhood comics mean, this time read mostly for 60s Marvels, though there are explorations of European clear line, alternatives and classic newspaper strips. These are mostly childhood memories from established writers such as Lethem and Marcus and as such, not critical analysis, but impressions of what comics and storytelling mean. These are clearly the children Stan Lee was targeting when he flipped superheroes on their ears.
Strips, Tunes, and Bluesies, D.B.Dowd, Todd Hignite: Comics criticism comes piecemeal. There is no Harold Bloom to put their long history in perspective ( so far ). If this collection of essays on various topics has the feel of cleaning out the drawers, it may very well be, I didn’t see the exhibits they were companions to.
However, most are very readable and often, very necessary. A speculation on comics’ and animation’s mutual influence is thinly supported but intriguing, another that adds Tijuana Bibles to the historic lineage of underground comics feels incomplete ( why not 50’s fetish comics? ). But a survey of black imagery in comics is groundbreaking ( though it, too, could stand to lengthened). A timeline linking the histories of comics, graphic arts and printing technologies is very welcome.
The Bestiest of the Resties:
Why Comics? Hilary Chute: And why not? Chute explores comics, especially 80’s comics, a marginalized medium, in terms of marginalized people. This is an underreported aspect of comics: they give voice to groups that are often frozen out from more capital-intensive mediums such as TV and Movies, and are a huge part of popular history. As they always have been: early newspaper strips helped translate ethnic humor into mainstream entertainment.
Recently Aline Kaminsky-Crumb died. She was a good example of a feminist auteur who would have never been given opportunity in more mainstream media, but who had a huge creative impact in the ignored medium of comics. Alison Bechdel, who popularized the ‘Bechdel Rule’ about female representation in movies, would never have found a public voice without comics. Chute discusses theirs, and others’ importance in simple, never didactic terms within chapters dedicated to various themes: Sex, Queers, Cities, Superheroes, etc.
This enables a far-ranging discussion on the potentials of the medium, with getting bogged down in the need to explain comics histories or pay tribute to genres. The book moves smartly, and the illustrations are very cogent. Lee and Kirby, the stars of Penguin Marvel Classics, are mentioned in passing, and creators’ reactions to comic books’ long history of caped demigods, such as Moore’s ground breaking Watchmen, give us a real sense of how far the medium has come since Spider-Man first swung.
Next week, I’ll post an update on my Winter/Spring class offerings, and I’ll later this Spring have news on studio doings and MoPrint ’24.
#besties #comics #graphicnovels #Marvel