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A Review By: Bleeding Cool

The following review by Greg Baldino appeared on Bleeding Cool on 9 November 2011.

Trying to compile any sort of top ten list is just asking for trouble. It’s just begging for disagreements to emerge. The less you imply posterity the safer you are; it’s much easier to write up, say, the top ten comics of this week than this month or - god help you - this year. Trying to write up a list of a hundred of anything noteworthy will at least buy you enough time to run for cover while it’s still being read.

But a thousand comics? A thousand and one comic books, strip, and graphic novels deserving standout attention? That’s serious business.

From Universe, the publisher who brought you 1001 Golf Courses You Must Play Before You Die and next year bring out 1001 Whiskeys You Must Drink Before You Die, comes 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die edited by Paul Gravett, acclaimed comics scholar, dubbed ‘The Man at the Crossroads’ by Eddie Campbell.

It’s an idea that could have been very boring. If 1001 was just a shopping guide, a Consumer Report on where to spend your hard-earned comic-dollars, the result would be at worst an overpriced compilation of advertorials, and at best severely limited in its scope (Could legitimately include free webcomics and out-of-print material in a buyer’s guide?)

Gravett does something very different, though, something downright clever. 1001 is a secret history of comics in disguise.

To start with, Gravett and his writers (some sixty-odd of them) take a wide definition of comics, both in terms of where they come from and what constitutes ‘comics’. There are newspaper strips, manga, bande dessinée, underground comics, and more, published everywhere from New York City to the Czech Republic. Structured as a chronological catalog of sorts, the first entry listed is The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck, by Rodolphe Töpffer in 1837. From there the book moves forward, chronicling as best it can the landmark books that shaped the medium worldwide.

The international approach keeps the book balanced. American comics were more limited in their scope for the longest time, and it’s not until the latter half of the book that more American comics and graphic novels begin to make the cut. In the interim years, Nakho Kim writes about South Korean superhero RyePhie, while Matteo Stefanelli covers the parodic detective stories of German creator Manfred Schmidt.

Not that American comics are completely left out. 1001 still includes American comics through the first three quarters of the 20th century listings, and in fact brings out some gems that might have gone forgotten or unnoticed otherwise. (Amazing Fantasy #15 is a no-brainer to include in such a listing, but it’s a joy to find things like Gladys Parker’s flapper girl Mopsy getting a moment in the sun.

Volumes of collected works are listed by when their content first saw print, and so for example Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s Lost Girls is listed in the early ‘90s despite seeing its full release almost fifteen years later. Reading through it front-to-back is to walk through the growth of an emerging art form: inspiration leads to invention, to refinement, to reimagining. It’s a view of comics that has no trouble at all putting Charles Schultz’s Peanuts in the same continuum as Barron Storey’s Marat/Sade Journals.

Is it perfect? No; in a compendium this size there’s bound to be a few minor errors (Craig Thompson’s year of birth magically changes between his listings for Blankets and Habibi). But the errors and inconsistencies are minor, and do not detract from the merits of the work. Is it complete? No, nor could it be (though the presence of webcomics in the book is somewhat wanting.) But these are not issues that make 1001 a failure; but rather makes it, hopefully, a starting point for discussion. What else could have been included? Should the definition of comics been stretched to include illustrated books or is that taking the definition of comics to far? Is a chronological ordering more or less valid than a cultural categorization? Is it just cruel to write about out-of-print Scandanavian comics that sound amazing but I couldn’t read even if I could get my hands on a copy?

Read up, and let’s discuss.


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My Books

Comics Art by Paul Gravett from Tate Publishing

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

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

All contents © Paul Gravett, except where noted.
All artwork © the respective copyright holders.