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A Definition Of Comics

It’s like nailing jelly. How do you define comics in just a few hundred words? Back in around 2000, I was asked to write the entry on comics for Microsoft’s online encyclopedia Encarta. It was a challenge, as the word count was tight and the focus had to be mainly on American comics with a nod to the UK. Then earlier this year I got the chance to revise and rewrite it, with a bit more breath and wordage. I also asked them for extra separate entries on both graphic novels and manga but they couldn’t commission those, so instead I worked them into the one main essay. It turns out that this version never made it into the American edition of Encarta, but it was used on the UK site and can still be viewed here.

But not for much longer. I’ve just heard from my commissioning editor at Websters: “Sadly Microsoft has decided that, given the competition elsewhere on the Internet, its resources are better used on other projects. Therefore, the team here is being disbanded at the end of this month and Encarta itself will be mothballed and taken off-line from October.” So I thought I’d give it an ongoing home here on my site. This is far from being a final, definitive definition, but hopefully contributes to the continuing discussion about the past, present and future of this multi-faceted medium.

A global phenomenon, a major entertainment industry, an autonomous medium of expression, comics not only reflect life but help to mould it, inspiring authors, fine artists, designers and film-makers, instigating fads, fashions, and expressions of speech, and informing readers’ attitudes and imaginations with their uniquely interactive storytelling.

Comics usually convey narratives through a series of images, in various media, arranged in sequence, one or more per page or episode, and separated from each other by being contained within the outlined borders (frames) of boxes (panels), although these are not always used. The images are commonly also separated by a blank space between them, known in English as the ‘gutter’ or more technically in French as ‘the intericonic space’. When words are associated with the images, they may appear within the panel, often in explanatory boxes or ‘captions’, or within ‘balloons’ with tails issuing from the speaker’s mouth to represent conversation or rising from the head in clouds to represent thought. Text may appear separately outside of but alongside the image, or there may be no text at all. Words may be hand-lettered or typeset mechanically or by computer. Artists are constantly developing a visual-verbal vocabulary to express sound effects or onomatopoeia, and symbols and other graphic devices to convey a wide variety of motions, emotions and other narrative elements.

Comics are mainly consumed in printed form, in periodicals, also known in English as comics or comic books, in magazines, in newspapers, often in special sections, and in books, and they are increasingly being enjoyed in digital form on the Internet and through mobile phones and other hand-held devices. The English term comic derives from its predominantly comical origins, but humour is not a defining element, as the medium has come to accommodate as diverse a range of subject matter as literature or film. The term comic is understood and has sometimes been adopted or adapted into other languages, but there are also many other non-English terms for the medium including: bande dessinée, a neutral phrase in French for "designed strip"; historieta, Spanish for "little story"; fumetti in Italy likening the balloons to "little puffs of smoke"; or manga in Japan, a term composed of two ideograms: man (meaning ‘executed rapidly, thrown off’) and ga (meaning drawing). Essentially the same word is used in Korea (manhwa) and in China (manhua), although the Chinese had an older form of palm-sized, horizontal booklets called lianhuanhua, literally ‘pictures in chains’ or ‘linked images’.

Another internationalised English term is ‘strip’, meaning a sequence of images in a single row, horizontal in the West and vertical in Japan and elsewhere, as seen in a typical newspaper ‘strip’. These panel formations can be extended to more complex, segmented grid compositions over a half or whole page or a double-page ‘spread’. These in turn are multiplied into short stories or instalments as well as into longer works of many pages. Made into books usually with spines they have become known in English as ‘graphic novels’. This term was coined in America in November 1964 in the second issue of CAPA-ALPHA, the internal newsletter of the Comic Amateur Press Alliance, by the American critic Richard Kyle, and it too has been taken up recently in other languages such as German.

Comics have always been a global medium, many innovations in formats, styles of drawing and writing, characters, genres and techniques constantly flowing between nations and continents, cross-fertilising back and forth. One successful comic can spark numerous imitations, both in its country of origin and also elsewhere by being exported, and not always legally, or plagiarised there. While it is possible to distinguish different national approaches, as found in the American comic book periodical, the British anthology weekly, the Franco-Belgian hardback bande dessinée album, or the Japanese tankoubon or manga paperback, their developments are closely interconnected, influencing each other over the decades. Whereas some comics have become popular worldwide, other major successes may remain virtually unknown outside their homeland.

Dr Syntax
by Thomas Rowlandson

It is possible to maintain that stained-glass windows, the Bayeux Tapestry, illuminated books and scrolls, decorated vases, friezes and columns, Egyptian hieroglyphics, as far back as man’s earliest cave paintings, are among the ancestors of comics. These and other diverse cultural expressions suggest that the urges to make our mark, to try and transcribe the reality around us and the dreams and fears within us, to visualize the sense of the divine, and to find delight and meaning in reading and viewing sequential images are primal and essential in all humanity. Some critics suggest that these singular, unique objects paved the way for the medium’s evolution. Subsequently, the emergence of comics as we know them today would be directly linked to the advances in printing technologies and published cartoon art and caricature.

Early examples of Western comics include late 15th-century German woodcuts on religious, moral, and political themes. The illustrations on popular broadsheets and prints became increasingly sophisticated, as techniques of engraving and letterpress printing developed throughout Europe. In England around 1682, Francis Barlow made consistent use of speech balloons resembling banners or scrolls in his propaganda sheets The Horrid Hellish Popish Plot. Then, in 1732, the social follies and vices of the age were satirized in A Harlot’s Progress by William Hogarth, the first of his several “modern moral subjects.” Struggling to sell his large, expensive individual oil paintings, Hogarth converted them into more compact line engravings printed in black with accompanying texts beneath. He published multiple copies himself to sell in much more affordable sets intended to be read and studied in sequence as stern but entertaining, topical cautionary tales. It was not long before his prints were being pirated, leading Hogarth to The success of his “progresses” was proof of the English public’s appetite for satirical narratives, which soon found admirers at home and across Europe.

Hogarth’s avowed moral purpose and detailed draughtsmanship, however, were soon eclipsed in England by the craze imported from Italy for caricatura or political and social caricatures, whose exaggerated, distorted features, simplified line, and mocking and knockabout humour became integral to the modern comic. Other significant developments from this period were the further refinement of the speech balloon, notably in the satires of James Gillray, and the creation in 1809 by Thomas Rowlandson of the serialized adventure of a recurring cartoon character, ‘Dr Syntax’, whose appeal spawned Syntax hats, wigs, and coats, early evidence of merchandising.

The Adventures Of Obadiah Oldbuck
by Rodolphe Töpffer

In 1827, inspired in part by Rowlandson’s Dr Syntax, which was translated into French, and by Hogarth’s prints, Rodolphe Töpffer (1766-1847), a 61-year old teacher in Geneva, Switzerland, began to write and draw his own novels in pictures, at first in private for his pupils and friends, but from 1833, encouraged by praise from Goethe, publishing them himself. Drawn and lettered with a loose, uninhibited line, his comedies were some of the first explorations of the absurdist possibilities of comics. Töpffer was also the first comics theorist, analysing this new medium in his Essay on Physiognomics (1845).

The albums of Töpffer soon spread around Europe and beyond and inspired several followers. The English cartoonist George Cruikshank, for example, co-financed the English version of Töpffer’s Les Amours de M. Vieux Bois, a farce about a hapless, hopeless romantic hero’s pursuit of his ‘Ladye-Love’. It was published in 1841 as The Adventures Of Obadiah Oldbuck . In his personal copy, he wrote on the newly illustrated title page that this was ‘Copied from a French [sic] Book by My Brother R.t [Robert] Cruikshank’. Intrigued, George tried his hand at a Töpfferian comic album himself but when his rather flat Mr Lambkin in 1844 failed to engage the public, he abandoned his ideas for a sequel. In Paris Töpffer’s works were copied by ‘Cham’, the nom-de-plume of Charles Amédée de Noé, starting in 1839. That same year Cham created a similar effort of his own, M. Lajaunisse, the first album of original comics in France. Cham produced several more, whereas a later French pioneer, the young Gustave Doré, abandoned his remarkable comics in 1854 for illustration. Töpffer also helped to kickstart the medium in The Netherlands in 1858, when J.J.A . Gouverneur adapted Monsieur Cryptogramme as Mijnheer Prikkebeen. Cruikshank’s English adaptation, Obadiah Oldbuck, also crossed the Atlantic. On September 1842, it was published by the New York paper, Brother Jonathan, as a single supplement, which has more recently come to be regarded as America’s earliest comic book.

The most significant heir to Töpffer was the German Wilhelm Busch. In common with many European comics artists working in the new humorous magazines of this time, Busch made no use of panel borders or speech balloons and his texts, often in verse, were typeset beneath his drawings. His bold, animated style and visual metaphors for movement and psychological states were widely imitated. His most celebrated creations, the pair of mischievous boys Max und Moritz, created in 1865, became the models for several imitations in America, Britain, Japan and elsewhere.

Busch was also an influence on the British comic character Ally Sloper, conceived in 1867 for Judy, a cheap rival to Punch, by Charles Ross, and illustrated under the pseudonym Marie Duval by his French wife Emilie de Tessier, then the only truly comic woman artist in Europe. Ally Sloper was a lazy, gangly schemer who would “slope down the alley” to avoid his creditors. He became so popular that in 1884 he starred in his own penny weekly magazine, Ally Sloper’s Half Holiday. This was one of many British illustrated papers, usually of eight tabloid pages in black and white and sometimes on tinted paper, such as James Henderson’s Scraps and Funny Folks and Alfred Harmsworth’s 1890 halfpenny competitors Comic Cuts and Illustrated Chips. Tom Browne’s tramps Weary Willie and Tired Tim in Chips set the new standard of lively, economic linework in British comics that would replace cumbersome Victorian rendering. Other strips were often copied illegally from European and American sources, including elegant, wordless, or “pantomime” strips by Willette, Steinlen and Caran d’Ache in France and A. B. Frost and others in the United States.


A: American Sunday ‘Funnies’
By the 1890s, America’s weekly humour-and-cartoon magazines such as Puck, Judge and Life were facing fresh competition from metropolitan newspapers. Top cartoonists from these magazines were snapped up for the papers’ new colour cartoon Sunday supplements. Notoriously, in New York, Joseph Pulitzer’s World and William Randolph Hearst’s Journal engaged in a fierce circulation war in which their new ‘Funnies’ sections proved important and profitable weapons.

On May 5, 1895, Richard Felton Outcault slipped a bald, flap-eared urchin into the wings of his crowded World drawing of tenement life. By early 1896, dressed in a yellow nightshirt, The Yellow Kid was taking centre stage and addressing readers in Irish slang scrawled on his gown. Outcault’s cartoons were not comic strips, but the public’s enthusiasm for his creation proved that colour comic sections could sell newspapers and encouraged more publishers to add their own. For his Journal section, Hearst kidnapped The Yellow Kid by improving Outcault’s salary. Pulitzer raised the stakes but Hearst went still higher. Pulitzer sued but won only the right to continue the feature with another artist, while Outcault could draw his character for Hearst. As their rivalry grew, the press barons’ outrageous tactics came to be known after ‘The Kid’ as ‘yellow journalism’.

Next, Hearst commissioned German-born Rudolph Dirks to create a version of Busch’s Max und Moritz called The Katzenjammer Kids, German slang for ‘hangover’, in 1897. There followed a period of unprecedented experimentation with panel layouts and the use of speech balloons to convey the story in such Sunday comic strips as Frederick Burr Opper’s Happy Hooligan, Outcault’s Buster Brown, and Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland, reaching sublime heights in George Herriman’s Krazy Kat.

America around the turn of the century provided the right milieu for comics to develop into a commercial and artistic phenomenon. The growing population, swelled by many European immigrants, embraced the ‘Funnies’ as cheap entertainment, as a mirror of their lives, as new shared folktales, even as an English language primer for adults as well as children. Newspapers were proliferating and their publishers were prepared to invest in creative talent and printing technology to enlarge their readerships. Talented cartoonists were given the freedom, the large canvas of full broadsheet page in colour, and often the financial rewards to devote themselves to advancing the medium. America’s comic strips brought in extra revenue by their being merchandised as toys, animated cartoons, radio shows and live action movie serials, being licensed to sell products and being sold through syndication departments to numerous papers at home and abroad. Their impact on the development of comics worldwide was enormous. For example, exports of the elegant Art Deco cartooning of George McManus’s Bringing Up Father directly inspired both the Belgian illustrator Georges Remi, alias Hergé, creator of Tintin in 1929 and pioneering strip cartoonists in Japan in the 1920s.

Bringing Up Father
by George McManus

B: American Daily Strips
The explosion of horizontal daily comic strips was triggered by the success of Bud Fisher’s gambler on the horses Mr A. Mutt, later Mutt and Jeff, which began on November 15, 1907 on the sports page of the San Francisco Chronicle. Topical, humorous, and adult in theme, daily strips aimed at the papers’ readers soon became the perfect vehicle for the day-to-day suspense and soap opera of Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs, Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie, E. C. Segar’s Thimble Theatre where Popeye first appeared, and many others. From these developed non-humorous protagonists like the detective Dick Tracy by Chester Gould and the spaceman Buck Rogers. For greater realism in adventure strips, the caricatural style gave way in the 1930s to the more illustrative glamour of Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon, Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant and Milton Caniff’s chiaroscuro Terry and the Pirates. International syndication of America’s dynamic, universal newspaper strips opened the markets for local versions all over the world, perhaps none more so than Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse, adapted into comics by Floyd Gottfredson.

Starting in the 1950s, serialized adventure strips were abbreviated or dropped altogether, comedy strips reverted to single jokes each day, and a sharper satirical wit evolved, particularly in Walt Kelly’s animal fable Pogo, Charles Schulz’s philosophical Peanuts, Jules Feiffer’s vignettes, and Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury. Despite reductions in size, number, and quality, strips like Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes, Patrick McDonnell’s Mutts and Aaron McGruder’s Boondocks can still capture a wide following, while many current hits build their following on the internet.

C: British Newspaper Strips
Strips arrived late in British newspapers and were first aimed at children, with charming animal characters like Teddy Tail (1915), Pip, Squeak, and Wilfred (1919), and Rupert (1920), all of them with typeset narrative beneath. W. K. Haselden evolved the British political daily strip from 1904, but it was John Millar Watt’s Pop in 1921 that pioneered the American approach of telling the story via speech inside the panels. From 1932, the titillating Jane by Norman Pett regularly lost her clothes and boosted the troops’ morale in World War II. By the 1950s, humour, soap opera, and adventure strips were represented by the loafer Andy Capp by Reg Smythe, domestic comedies The Larks by Jack Dunkley and The Gambols by Barry Appleby, Sydney Jordan’s astronaut Jeff Hawke and Tony Weare’s gunslinger Matt Marriott. More recent successes range from Steve Bell’s savage political satire If… and Peattie and Taylor’s City slicker Alex to Steven Appleby’s surrealist Small Birds Singing and Posy Simmonds’ acute observations in Gemma Bovery and Tamara Drewe.

Famous Funnies #1, 1934

Newspaper strips had been reprinted in a bizarre formats - in large square paperbacks, in oblong collections with one strip per page, even one panel at a time in tiny hardbacks. The familiar comic book began in 1933 as a novelty premium given away with certain products, devised by the print salesman Max Gaines. By folding an 8-page Sunday Funnies section in half, and then in half again, you had 32 handy pages. Put two of these inside a glossy new cover and the modern comic book was born. Comics came free in the newspapers, but in May 1934 Gaines proved with Famous Funnies 1 that people were willing to pay to read reprints of their favourite strips “all in color for a dime”.

As more comic books were launched and the supply of strips to reprint ran dry, publishers were forced to originate new material as cheaply as possible, commissioning young cartoonists, many straight out of school. After five years of rejections, two Cleveland youngsters, the writer Jerry Siegel and the artist Joe Shuster, finally sold their hero Superman as the cover feature of a new title, Action Comics, first issued in June 1938. Its popularity led a year later to The Batman and the first boy sidekick Robin by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, followed by The Human Torch, Sub-Mariner, Captain Marvel, The Flash, Captain America, and Wonder Woman - a propaganda army of superpowered characters enlisted in America’s fight against Germany and Japan. In 1943 a Newsweek article estimated that childrens and adults, many of them GIs, were reading 25 million comic books per month. By 1950 that figure had doubled to 50 million, peaking in 1954 at 150 million issues published every month.

Superheroes declined once the war was over and other genres took centre stage, from funny animals based on animated cartoons and condensed adaptations of films and literary classics to teenage humour, westerns, jungle, ‘true’ crime and romance, war, horror and the media parodies of Mad. Growing concern among psychologists, teachers, and parents that comic books, especially crime and horror titles, encouraged juvenile delinquency led to a Senate inquiry in 1954. To forestall government intervention, the publishers formed their own self-regulatory Comics Code Authority to impose strict controls on content, forcing many publishers out of business. Similar moral panics about imported or reprinted American comics in other countries led to campaigns uniting Christians and Communists. Their lobbying led to legislation being enacted, for example in France in 1949 and in Britain in 1955, whose restrictions on American comics left a gap in the market and stimulated homegrown production.

Constrained by the Comics Code and competing against television, struggling publishers eventually revived and updated the superhero genre for the 1960s. At Marvel Comics, writer Stan Lee with artists Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and others conceived an interconnected ‘universe’ of tragic heroes like The Fantastic Four and Spider-Man, whose powers only brought them problems. Since then, the superhero genre has dominated comic books and the Marvel approach has become the main blueprint. The 1960s also saw the flowering of organized collectors, or ‘fandom’, who published magazines or ‘fanzines’, held conventions, established an annual ‘Price Guide’ to monitor the spiralling prices of rare back issues, and opened specialist shops, which now account for the majority of periodical comic book sales, mostly a fraction of their former multi-million levels.

From America’s 1960s counter-culture emerged anti-establishment ‘underground’ comics for adults only, or ‘comix’, which not only liberated the medium by breaking all taboos, but also expanded it through their psychedelic and idiosyncratic styles, their encouragement of women, homosexual, and black cartoonists, and their highly personal and political contents. Justin Green’s frank confessional of his sexually troubled childhood encouraged Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman and others to try first-person autobiographies. Spiegelman’s Maus, the moving account of his father’s survival of the Holocaust, was collected into a ‘graphic novel’ and won a special Pulitzer Prize. Instead of retiring, veteran cartoonist Will Eisner embarked a remarkable late career in graphic novels in 1978, starting with A Contract With God. Extended comics in book form of previously serialized or specially originated materials now comprise a thriving publishing sector which embraces an ever-broadening range of subjects.

In Britain, Victorian weekly humorous comics were intended for adults, the growing, newly literate public, but with the advent of colour and the success of Puck from 1914, children became their principal audience. It was Mickey Mouse Weekly in 1936 and D. C. Thomson’s The Dandy in 1937 and The Beano in 1938 that finally dispensed with the typeset text beneath each panel in favour of speech balloons. Eventually other publishers followed. Long-running favourites include Desperate Dan and Lord Snooty drawn by Dudley Watkins, followed in the 1950s by more modern juvenile characters such as Davey Law’s Dennis the Menace (1951) and Leo Baxendale’s Bash Street Kids (1954).

As a wholesome alternative to imported American comic books, Eagle popularized adventure comics from 1950 with its science fiction cover hero Dan Dare by Frank Hampson. Printed in photogravure, Hampson brought the highest quality of colour illustration to comics, continued by Frank Bellamy in TV21 and Don Lawrence in Look and Learn. Grittier anti-heroes arrived in the 1970s in Battle, Action and the satirical science fiction of 2000AD , home to the future cop Judge Dredd, while Raymond Briggs, Bryan Talbot and Posy Simmonds spearheaded the adult graphic novel. Independent magazine publishers attracted older readers with cheerful vulgarity in Viz, weird heroes like V for Vendetta in Warrior, slice-of-life variety in Escape, and rock chic like Tank Girl in Deadline. But as the home market faltered, many creators, led by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland in the 1980s, found work with American publishers. British children’s weekly comics also declined in the 1990s but have revived recently, notably BBC TV’s Doctor Who Adventures and The DFC from David Fickling Books.

Many of the special properties and recurring themes of comics in Japan originally derive from the vibrant traditions of popular graphic entertainments such as tôba-e or caricature scrolls, kibyoshi or illustrated chapbooks, and ukiyo-e or “floating world” prints. It was the woodblock-print artist Katsushika Hokusai who popularised the term manga in 1814 to describe his playful sketchbooks. Combined with this heritage, however, are successive foreign influences once Japan opened up to the West in the Meiji period, from the satirical cartoons of expatriates Charles Wirgman from England and Georges Bigot from France to imported British and American newspaper strips. For instance, for the earliest Japanese comic to use speech balloons, Shôchan no bôken (The Adventures of Shôchan) written by Shôsei Oda in 1923, artist Katsuichi Kabashima was inspired by Pip, Squeak and Wilfred drawn by Austin Payne since 1919 in the Daily Mirror of London. When the Depression struck in the 1930s, some artists, including set-painters for the film industry, scraped a living by drawing the illustrated cards for kamishibai or “paper theatre”, performed on the streets by travelling sweets-salesmen. Kamishibai was a precursor of manga and a great training school, because when it almost died out in the 1950s, its draughtsmen could switch to the more lucrative field of manga.

The first appearance of Shochan, January 25th, 1923
in the first issue of the Asahi Graph newspaper.

Pip, Squeak and Wilfred from February 4th, 1922
by Daily Mirror editor Bertram J. Lamb and artist Austin Bowen Payne

After Japan’s defeat in World War II, the American occupying forces brought back their colourful comic books which motivated young artists such as medical graduate Osamu Tezuka to pursue cartooning. Since childhood, Tezuka had also been inspired by American animated films, projected at home by his father, and by Noboru Oshiro, Suiho Tagawa and other pre-war Japanese innovators. Tezuka expanded their film-inspired techniques and extended stories to define modern manga, breaking in from 1947 on akahon, cheap novelty books with red covers. Over the next 42 years, Tezuka produced a record 150,000 pages of manga and a wealth of animated shorts, TV series and feature films, most famously devising the iconic Astro Boy, a humane robot Pinocchio, Kimba the White Lion, Princes Knight, super-surgeon-for-hire Black Jack and his epics, Buddha and Phoenix, left unfinished. A ceaseless innovator and workaholic, he drove himself to an early death in 1989, barely two months after his 60th birthday.

Over the decades and generations, comics in Japan have grown up with their readers, catering to the post-war baby boom as they grew up and had families of their own. While the range of boys’ (shonen) and girls’ (shojo) manga blossomed from the 1950s, students and older readers could frequent kashibonya or rental libraries to enjoy specially produced, darker, more mature comics, named gekiga or “dramatic pictures” by Yoshihiro Tatsumi in 1957. After these outlets lost favour, many of their creators brought their skills to the children’s titles which were gradually joined by anthologies for teenagers and adults. No other nation has such variety of subject-matter in comics, or as many women comic creators or “mangaka”, as Japan. The “Forty-Niners” group (born more or less in 1949) totally reinvigorated girls’ manga in the 1970s through their fresh techniques to convey emotions and the new genre of homosexual romances between boys known as shonen ai (“boys’ love”) or yaoi. Women went on to develop redikomi or “Ladies’ Comics” for adult women, dealing with pregnancy, childcare, sexual advice, erotic fantasies, the workplace, even difficult mothers-in-law and “silver” manga about later life.

Mostly in black-and-white to save costs, most manga start their life in low-priced newsstand anthologies, before the most popular are collected into smaller paperbacks. Three-quarters of the market is dominated by three big publishers, Kodansha, Shogakukan and Shueisha. At their peak in the mid-1990s, Weekly Shonen Jump topped 6 million copies in one week, but sales have steadily dropped since. This has been offset somewhat by a surge in manga being translated outside Japan. Hit manga are often adapted into “anime”, Japanese animation for television and cinemas, and through these ambassadors since the 1970s, Japanese comics have spread worldwide and in their turn influence a whole generation who are creating manga-inspired comics of their own.

Posted: July 19, 2009

This article first appeared in Encarta,  a digital multimedia encyclopedia published by Microsoft Corporation since 1993. Microsoft have announced it will discontinue Encarta from October 2009.


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Comics Unmasked by Paul Gravett and John Harris Dunning from The British Library

Comics Art by Paul Gravett from Tate Publishing

1001 Comics  You Must Read Before You Die edited by Paul Gravett