January 8, 2012

New Shelf: 1001 Comics You Must Read

With this review, I am starting a new "feature" here at 741.5 And Then Some, "New Shelf". This will collect all my reviews of books that have just come in, whether it's at Durham County Library or simply to my own collection, regardless of actual publishing date. Enjoy!

In spite of its foreboding title, Paul Gravett's 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die is truly a treasure. It might seem hard to go wrong with a list of 1001 anythings, but this book is laudable for a number of reasons that are worth pointing out.

First, it covers the entire timeline of a pretty broad definition of comics. It begins in 1837 with Rodolfe Topffer's The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck, so it aligns itself with what might be called the Modernist school of comics history, that which requires comics to be mechanically reproduced. Drawing this line can be problematic, but I think it's reasonable not to include the Bayeux Tapestry1 in a book like this. The end of the timeline is Craig Thompson's Habibi, which (according to Amazon2) was released September of 2011. As 1001 Comics was released just a month or so later,3 that's pretty quick turnaround and, for now, pretty up-to-date.

The book is also noteworthy because of its global perspective. Maybe my experience is unusual, but I have only rarely come across discussions of comics that acknowledge any work done outside of the United States, Canada (because of Drawn and Quarterly Press), England (thanks to DC Comics' "edgy" imprint, Vertigo) and sometimes Japan. 1001 Comics wisely includes a wealth of works from France and Belgium, the most baffling exclusions from the list above because of their long-held high regard for comics, but it goes far beyond as well. Flipping through the pages just now, I have found works from Korea, Argentina, India, Mexico, Spain, Italy, Germany, Cuba, Italy, the Netherlands, Israel, Algeria and Croatia. Most of these countries and their regions are in the minority, of course, but it is nevertheless a refreshing departure from the norm.

There is also a broader-than-usual perspective on what sorts of work "must be read". 1001 Comics includes long and short works, all sorts of genres (including mainstream superhero stories, so it's not just a list of art comics), standalone "graphic novels" and serials (or at least selected runs of serials, such as the Bendis/Maleev period of Daredevil), fiction and nonfiction, and, most surprising to me, comic strips like Little Nemo in Slumberland and Calvin and Hobbes. There are almost no single-panel gag or political cartoons, placing the book mostly within the McCloud school of what counts as comics and what does not. Also surprising is the inclusion of works like Max Ernst's A Week of Kindness and Lynd Ward's God's Man: these kinds of "silent novels" of the 1920s and 30s tend to be relegated to proto-comics status for one reason or another, and it's good to see them here.

Returning to the purpose of this blog, 1001 Comics the kind of book that is especially suitable for libraries. It would be appreciated by patrons who are already comics-lovers because no one (surely!) can have already read all the comics listed, and also because best-of lists are always good for passionately agreeing or arguing with in one's own head. Folks who are new to comics or skeptical of their worth would also find this book to be worthwhile because of the huge scope addressed above. The outstanding diversity of works included would quickly fend off any "I hate superheroes" or "it's just kid's stuff" or "they're too violent" concerns that are all too common among wary patrons and wary librarians alike.

The book also has potential as a collection development tool because it goes far beyond  reviews of new releases that (as I understand it) are the primary tool for selecting works of any kind. Since comics have held such an odd place in the public library for so long, collections can be spotty and unfocused; this book provides a well-organized set of reviews that could be used to fill in gaps of history, geography, genre or any other sort. The book is not without flaws, but they are mostly negligible.4 I'm very happy that Durham County Library acquired copies of 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die, and I'd recommend it for any public library system of any size.

Durham County Library patrons will find 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die in the general nonfiction (along with the rest of our comic strip collections) under 741.597 ONE.

Top image from http://arquivocomics.blogspot.com/2011/10/1001-quadrinhos-que-voce-precisa-ler.html, © Universe Editions.
1. The Bayeux Tapestry, created in the 1070s, depicts events leading up to the Battle of Hastings with sequential images, and Scott McCloud, for one, considers it to be essentially a comic; more about the tapestry at Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bayeux_tapestry
2. Habibi at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Habibi-Craig-Thompson/dp/0375424148/ref=ntt_at_ep_dpi_1
3. 1001 Comics at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/1001-Comics-Must-Read-Before/dp/0789322714/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1326027212&sr=1-1
4. If you must know, I think some of the genrefication is off (Ghost World is not really a "teen" work in my opinion, and "reality drama" doesn't count as a genre). I also when, after reading an engaging description of a work, finding that it was impossible to find. There is no mention of whether foreign-language works have been translated into English, which seems pretty significant for a non-scholarly, English-language book like this. I was sad that so many reviews didn't include illustrations, but that's more of a publishing limitation than a flaw. Finally, I find it strange to have an index of titles in the front and and index of authors in the back. But again, these are much more than balanced by the positives that the book offers.

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