Tuesday, August 16, 2011

This Thing I Did

I participated in the Hooded Utilitarian's recent International Best Comics Poll. At the risk of seeming flip, I didn't put an inordinate amount of time into my ballot: I submitted it late, and was furthermore wary of the very real dangers of overthinking the matter. My list, in no particular order, was:

• Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary, Justin Green
• Cerebus, Dave Sim & Gerhard
• The Donald Duck Stories, Carl Barks
• The Fantastic Four, Stan Lee & Jack Kirby
• Louis Riel, Chester Brown
• Love and Rockets, Gilbert Hernandez & Jaime Hernandez
• Maggots, Brian Chippendale
• Terry and the Pirates, Milton Caniff
• Thimble Theatre, starring Popeye, E. C. Segar
• The Weirdo Stories, R. Crumb

I didn't overthink it, and this meant in practice that I looked at my own bookshelves and listed the works with which I was most familiar that I felt most deserved to be represented on a list like this. If I had thought about it longer I may have tried to parse whether or not Gary Panter deserved a spot on the list over Chippendale, for instance (Cola Madness might have made the list if it had been eleven). Perhaps I should have argued with myself more forcefully for John Porcellino - but at the expense of what, Justin Green? No, that might have been an injustice in whatever personal Nerd Court I've convened in my head.

I'm disappointed, based on the Top 115, that no one else apparently thought so well of Maggots or Louis Riel, which is disconcerting if not surprising. In my own personal pantheon I think those represent the most significant achievements of our current "Golden Age" of "mature" (cough cough) cartooning.

I could not in good conscience vote for anything created outside of my primary language (English). My familiarity with European comics (despite a fairly decent grasp of written French) is catch-and-catch-can, and my knowledge of manga is woeful. (The only two manga series I've ever finished are Lone Wolf & Cub and Akira, which says as much about my age as anything else - those were the two first "serious" manga offerings to make any kind of popular impact in America back in the 80s, so they've stuck in my head as touchstones ever since.) I can't speak for whether or not anyone else on the panel made the decision to vote for works produced in languages they could not themselves read. Is it churlish of me to wonder how many of the seventeen votes for Tintin were placed by readers who have only experienced the stories in translation? It's academic, I believe, since the top ten (top fourteen!) was exclusively English language works anyway. The international context could never have been representative in any way whatsoever unless a truly international panel of critics and scholars was convened, staffed by figures with demonstrable experience in the cartooning traditions of multiple cultures and equipped to compare the relative merits of artists as diverse as Crumb, Kirby, Hergé and Tezuka.

Such a poll is, of course, impossible. When the Journal attempted their own English language list back at the turn of the century they went out of their way to admit just just how impossible it would be to produce any such list, before presenting their own. Their list was probably the best such attempt that ever could be made, from a period when the critical space in comics was a lot more homogenous. This was basically a duffer's list, compiled from working pros, amateur scholars, fans and a few dedicated intellectuals. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, and I'm happy to have been allowed to participate, but if anything the list only underscores the urgency of Domingos Isabelinho's counter-programming. I may not agree entirely with his conclusions, but it's a necessary curative to the poll's circumscribed limitations. I'm very conscious of the fact that my own list is restricted to a (roughly) eighty-year field, as well as a very set understanding of what comics look and feel like, as well as the kinds of people who make the comics. And yet this is what I know and, because of a combined lack of resources (in both time and money) and lack of curiosity (and I'm still more curious than most people about most things), my experience of comics is limited. Perhaps not relative to 99.99% of the population, but I know enough to defer to my betters in the fields of their expertise.

I respect Tucker for many reasons but I'll never understand his enthusiasm for Calvin & Hobbes, nor will I ever be able to understand the sway it holds over so many people. But then, I've always thought Pogo was slightly overrated as well, and don't get me started on Maus. (No, seriously, I don't want to talk about Maus: it's a Sacred Cow for a very good reason and I don't feel like putting the effort necessary into tipping that cow and not looking like an asshole.) But Maus is still "better" than Watchmen, which itself should never, ever be ahead of Jack Kirby on any list, let alone Los Bros Hernandez, Robert Crumb and Carl Barks. And don't get me wrong: I like Watchmen, but there's a big difference between "I like" and "I think this deserves to stand head and shoulders with the best of one hundred years' worth of comics literature." It doesn't have so much to do with the same po-faced appeal to some totemic ideal of artistic "maturity" and virtuosity that makes armchair Clement Greenberg's out of every wannabe Comics Journal columnist. It has to do with history, I think, and an understanding of which virtues endure and which prove themselves to be ultimately transient. History is the final judge and arbiter, of course.

I don't think Calvin & Hobbes will be remembered in the same breath as Krazy Kat and Peanuts. I don't think it is any kind of insult to Bill Watterson to say that his work was never built to last in quite the same way. This is my gut feeling, yes, but it's a gut feeling informed by quite a bit of knowledge and experience. That's all these lists are, though, is the compiled gut feelings a large group of 211 respondents. Some of whom know and care about Guido Buzzelli's Zil Zelub, some of whom probably weren't even joking when they nominated Elektra: Assassin. With such a wide group of disparate yahoos involved, is it any wonder the list itself is kind of schizoid and probably useless to anyone who might be looking at a list like this as any kind of meaningful aesthetic yardstick?

But then, looking over the list of lists, I say that Abhay put Calvin & Hobbes on his list, too. Which just goes to show, the only real aesthetic yardstick that matters is the one you use to beat yourself soundly across the head and shoulders.

No comments :