Book Review - 1001 Comic Books: You Must Read Before You Die

1001 Comic Books: You Must Read Before You Die1001 Comic Books: You Must Read Before You Die by Paul Gravett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Talk about a thorough compendium of the comic book industry! As one of the resident geeks at work, I received a copy of this book for review purposes, and I have to say, at first I was drawn in and gripped, but later on the choice of entries began to baffle and bewilder me.

The book traces comics to its very origins - the alleged first comic book ever was by a French-speaking Swiss named Rodolphe Töpffer whose adventures of Mr. Vieux Bois was published in 1837, before being pirated across many other countries.

Early entries are dedicated to comics and comic strips published in the 1800s and early 1900s. The majority of these titles were unknown to me, though some remain iconic to this day, including Rube Goldberg inventions (1914), Felix the Cat by Otto Messmer (1923), Buck Rogers written by Philip Nowlan and art by Dick Calkins (1929), Popeye by Elzie Crisler Segar (1929), Blondie by Chic Young (1930), Dick Tracy by Chester Gould (1931) and Betty Boop (Bud Counihan, 1934).

The golden age of comics feels like familiar territory, with several favourites in the list: Mandrake the Magician, Flash Gordon, The Phantom, Tintin, Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Captain America, Thor, The Incredible Hulk. Surprise entries during this period were Captain Marvel, Captain Marvel Jr., Nick Fury and Plastic Man - these were mega hits during their initial publishing runs, but bad luck saw them fall out of favour with the public - though Fury has now metamorphosed into something so much cooler.

The segment of the book from the 70s onwards begins to drag a fair bit - this is because the choice of comics eluded me. There's a huge emphasis on adult comics with gratuitous violence, nudity, etc., the inclusion of which doesn't make sense to me. Even the contributors' essays seem a bit confused as to their addition to the book, as they are quick to point out the excessive nature of these comics. It makes one wonder why these were considered. After all, one has to ask themselves, would we REALLY be missing out on something integral were we to not read these particular comics? You could say that the contributors are, in a way, recommending that the readers of this book must go out and grab some x-rated books. You wouldn't find that kind of recommendation in a book about films or other art, so why the indelicate exception in comics?

The Underground Comix scene allowed creators to delve into a number of questionable storylines - now while I'm all for artistic expression, the majority of the comics mentioned in this book are written from the male gaze, which feeds into the opinion that comics aren't welcoming to women or other non-conforming genders. It's problematic, and some of the essayists can't seem to see that their archaic views on why women don't read, or do read comics, don't stand because of the boys' club feel to most mainstream comics.

This also leads to my complaint with the foreword for the book. Worst. Foreword. Ever. It brings to the fore everything wrong with comics, especially their misogyny and the exclusivity to straight, white, men. The humour by Terry Gilliam is tone deaf and not funny at all. Not all of us can work in comics, why can't you write about the good of the industry and the greatness of the people who support it?

Editor Paul Gravett's introduction is better, more balanced and focused. However, having now finished the book, I feel a few disclaimers or perhaps a preface by a non-white, non-male writer could and should have pointed out some of the problems with many favourite classics. Some of the essayists do point out racial stereotypes in certain comics, yet the brevity of the essays doesn't allow them to study the pros and cons of the piece despite its inherent prejudice. A preface detailing the problematic evolution of comics as well as investigating how far it has come in progressive representation would have greatly benefited the reader. Especially given that, while racial prejudice is pointed out in essays, misogyny and poor representation of women in general is not. The book assumes that the de facto purchaser will be male - that's not okay.

I read the book in one-go, which is not recommended. You begin to see patterns and it grates on you. For large segments, all you read about are memoirs, which all sound rather chilling. Then, you're stuck skimming through page after page of very NSFW stuff. It gets tedious and you begin to wonder what was in the air at the time that made everyone write on the same topic.

The book does make an effort to include female creators, which is great, given that most people forget that women were part of the comics scene at all. The earliest entry, in fact, is of Marie Duval, the artist and co-creator of Ally Sloper.

My biggest grouse against this book is that it doesn't provide as much detail as one would need to really get into the world of comics. As a casual reader, or as someone who has a passing knowledge of pop culture, names like Superman and Captain America are known to us - we know they're going to be mentioned in this book because they're iconic. However, these guys are almost 80 years old, that's a lot of comics none of us have any time or inclination to go through. It would have been better for the editor to have included a breakdown of recommended runs or issues - a nice teaser of what it is that makes these characters so enduring.

While some of the best issues and series are mentioned for a number of heroes (The Adventures of Tintin and The Castafiore Emerald, All Star Superman, Superman of All Seasons, Batman: Year One, The Dark Knight Returns), most others are not extended that courtesy. Wonder Woman debuted in 1941, but isn't mentioned after that (surprising, given people's high praise for Gail Simone's run on the comics a few years ago), nor is Captain America (a shock really, I would have thought Ed Brubaker's Winter Soldier/ Captain America Reborn runs would have been perfect shoo-ins).
wonder woman

One mainstream series I could not believe made it onto the list was Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Strikes Again. Un-freaking-believable that it was in this book; that was the most nonsensical trollop I have ever come across. No one should read it. Ever.

There are several notable omissions in the book, which puts an unsettling lens on the editor and contributors. For one, I can't understand why the book stops at 2011. Yes, it was first published in 2011, but reprinted in 2014. Reprinted? It should have been updated. Heck, I would be very surprised if the editors weren't scrabbling to get a new issue out this year itself, given some superb stuff that's been released in the past two years.

Notable omissions:
Tinkle - This series of comics was mostly educational, but also fun. They were practically prescribed reading for most school children in India, and should really have made it to this list.

Amar Chitra Katha - Another Indian series, by the same creators of Tinkle. ACK focused on retelling epic stories and legends in readable and fun formats. They were excellent at introducing readers to world history. Again, I'm astounded that this didn't make it into the book. I'm happy that other Indian comics, which I wasn't too familiar with, were included, but these two were popular nationwide.

Deadpool - This was a real shocker. Deadpool is iconic being he's over the top. The book is filled with other disgusting-sounding gratuitous novels, but this guy they decided not to include. How does that work? Not one Deadpool comic is in here.

Commando Comics - My mum was astounded to hear this series wasn't in the book. A favourite of hers and all youngsters when she was growing up, this was a British war comic that was jam-packed with action and adventure. Sounds pretty influential to me.

Dilbert - While discussing this book with the family, I belatedly realised that Dilbert was missing. How can Diblert be missing? It's Dilbert - every working person's alter ego making it through life three or four begrudging panels at a time. We're still reading this poor guy's travails and moping at how true it all is.

Classics Illustrated - Another mainstay of the past, these were retellings of classic stories in enjoyable, colourful comic book formats. Ideal to coax any unwilling reader into become a lifetime fan of books.

X-Men: Days of Future Past - How? Just how? It's feels a little like the editor and contributors were trying to 'stick it to the man' by not including mainstream comics that received acclaim. Instead, the essays are about erotic comics that literally no one wants to read or will ever care about. Days of Future Past, like any form of true art, is accessible while sending a message. It's a heart-rending tale of loss and want. It's wish-fulfillment to the max and an excellent comic that deserved to be in here.

The 99 - Maybe not as widely known as most of the others I've mentioned, but considering I knew only a fraction of the comics mentioned in this book, I believe The 99 should have got a mention. Created by Naif Al-Mutawa in 2007, this is a superhero series based on the 99 names of Allah. It's not a religious comic (not overtly anyway), with characters from all around the world featured. It's got more diversity than Marvel's entire portfolio! Instead of including an Arabian tale written by an American dude, it would have been nice to have one rare entry from the Arab World.

Gotham Central - Top 10 made it, why not GC? An utterly superb series, barring one dip, this one prodded at the realities of a cruel world gone crazy - because that's Gotham for you. Since we're all 'the little guys', it's nice to read a series about the average humans caught in the crossfire of bad guys like the Joker and his ilk. It's a detective series, but with more crazies. An absolute joy for any mystery fan, it definitely is one to be read by all.

Astonishing X-Men #51 - The Astonishing X-Men are mentioned, but the legendary issue with Northstar's wedding is not. Look, it's not action-packed, but it's a realistic and kinda cute story, and at the time of publishing (2012) a very brave move by Marvel. They had the wedding plastered on the front cover with the who's who of Marvel's X-Men universe in attendance; that's got to count for a lot.
northstar wedding

All-New X-Men No. 40 - Iceman is outed as gay. It's 2016, and we don't have any LGBTQ superheroes headlining anything mainstream. So, for the writers to change Iceman's orientation to gay in their new reboot was something big. Icey was part of the first class of X-Men, he's a stalwart! That's an insane move, but a great one that we need more of. Why is that not in here?

Notable character omissions:
Black Panther, Luke Cage, Oracle, Nightwing, Gambit, Batwoman - Explain how these people aren't in here? How? Black characters headlining comics was unheard of when these guys debuted. But they did; and they endured. We've got them on screen finally and they're so awesome! But their importance and influence on black kids growing up without heroes wasn't enough to make it into this book? Talk about blinkered.

Same can be said about Oracle - she was, for the longest time, the only recurring disabled character in superhero comics. How she got there was tragic and out of her hands (and, it would never happen to a male character), but the folks at DC ran with it and gave a lot of disabled kids a hero to look up to. So why would any of her comics be in here? Why wouldn't they, more like.

Kate Kane, Batwoman, is part of the Bat-family and she's gay. That's a big freaking deal (especially given DC's inability to be diverse). Her series being omitted from this book makes little sense to me. Most people love it and her and the fact that she is out and proud.

The reason I mention Nightwing and Gambit is because they are the only two male characters who were ever drawn in a slightly sexualised way. They are the ONLY ones. I think specifying a couple of issues where readers had the tables turned with some subversive drawings of these character would have been a welcome addition in a book that otherwise seemed to wallow in the perverse joys of some pretty offensive comics.

I read mostly mainstream comics (as you can tell from above), but I'm sure there's a lot more that should still be in here. I'm pretty sure when the next edition comes out, they will, or rather MUST, include Ms Marvel (Kamala Khan is the best thing ever), Faith season 1 (season 2 was disappointing, but season 1 was pure, unfiltered joy) and Tom King's The Vision (melancholic, philosophical angst has never felt so real). I'd go as far as to say, they should include the first episode of Ta-Nehisi Coates' Black Panther (if not the entire series, as I'm a bit iffy on that) - the art is beautiful, and the Hamlet-esque T'Challa is very relatable.
the vision

At the outset the editor informs us that all our favourites will not wind up in this book. Yet, it felt, more often than not, that other people's favourites had been shoe-horned in here. I just don't see how erotic comics can constitute essential reading (I mean, there's a few comics mentioned that were influenced by de Sade's work, and I'm pretty sure we can all die happily without knowing what goes on in those pages). And what irks me more is how far too many of these comics edged out some actually brilliant ones.

I also feel like diversity was missing in this book. No African comics, barring one Egyptian and one South African, and only token pieces by other Asian countries. The Arab World, as mentioned, is virtually ignored, and Australia/New Zealand together got maybe one mention. Granted, western countries were more into comics than others, but I'm sure, if researched properly, more countries had influential comics that could have made it onto the list.

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