I recently took part in The Hooded Utilitarian’s International Best Comics Poll (my list is here). “Best of” lists are something some critics enjoy, while others (notably Roger Ebert) more or less despise them. I’m kind of in the middle — it’s seemingly difficult to come up with a definitive list of anything relating to something as subjective as art, but the fact of the matter is that a truly responsible critic has to have a discerning taste, the ability to convey it to his or her audience, and the confidence to state his or her opinion boldly and convincingly. I find the latter is something that really aggravates a lot of people — wishy-washy minds hate it when someone expresses an opinion with the force of reason and logic; all the more reason to take joy in the occasional exercise of this type. It’s also useful as a barometer over time of one’s own evolving tastes. When I first started writing regularly about comics in the late 1990s, many of the comics on this list would not have made the cut, while quite a few comics I now hold in far less high regard probably would have had a place of honour.
In any case, as of mid-August, 2011, here’s my list of the best comics of all time.
Amazing Spider-Man, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko - Probably the most entertaining run of superhero comics that any corporation ever published, Amazing Spider-Man set the style and standard for Marvel in the 1960s, even if Kirby’s work comes more immediately to mind when pondering the subject. These were “Pop Comics” at their best, dramatic, funny, and in-your-face. The miracle that Ditko managed to stay simpatico with Lee long enough to create 38 regular issues (and a couple of Annuals to boot) is one that I am profoundly grateful for. Amazing Spider-Man is perhaps the most fun you can have reading superhero comics. (Buy Amazing Spider-Man Omnibus from Amazon.com.)
American Elf, James Kochalka - Other comics creators have dug deeper into their own psyches; Harvey Pekar, Phoebe Gloeckner and R. Crumb come to mind. But no other cartoonist in the history of the medium has documented one moment from each day of his life for as many years on end as Kochalka has, and regularly presented it to his audience. American Elf is a singular accomplishment in the comics artform, and perhaps the most entertaining and effective window into the soul of a cartoonist in the history of the medium. (Buy American Elf Volume 1: The Collected Sketchbook Diaries Of James Kochalka from Amazon.com.)
American Splendor, Harvey Pekar, et al - I make no apologies for the fact that autobiography is my favourite genre in comics. When done right, as Pekar almost always did it, no other storytelling medium can have as profound, immediate and insightful an impact on its audience as autobiographical comics. My very favourite Pekar works are his collaborations with R. Crumb, because each brought out the best in the other, so much so that their collaborations have the same feel and power of comics created by a single creative mind working at the peak of his abilities. But with or without Crumb, Pekar’s work demands attention and rewards re-reading, with its keen observation of human nature and its celebration of the smallest and largest events in life. Pekar’s death marked the end of an era in comics, and it’s unlikely that any other comics creator will ever match the heights Pekar did in the very best of his work. (Buy The Best of American Splendor from Amazon.com.)
Daredevil: Born Again, Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli - All that having been said, I’m a lifelong comics fan who was weaned on superhero comics starting in the very early 1970s. So I remain susceptible to the charms of a superhero tale well-told, and the only one told as well as this one is Batman: Year One by the very same creative team. In Born Again, Miller turned his signature character inside out and redefined what was possible in a corporate superhero comic. Mazzucchelli had already demonstrated some pretty decent superhero chops on this title prior to Miller’s return to the title, but he very quickly leveled up to deliver one of the most visually stunning superhero stories ever that was not drawn by Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko or Gil Kane. (Buy Daredevil: Born Again from Amazon.com.)
Diary of a Teenage Girl, Phoebe Gloeckner - Not strictly autobiography, Gloeckner’s masterpiece nonetheless carries the weight of reality and the gravity of a troubled life seen with the perspective of years gone by. It’s a comic that defies expectation and challenges easy judgment or callous dismissal. Read it and understand a little bit better what it is to be a girl, to be a teenager, to be a human being. (Buy Diary of a Teenage Girl from Amazon.com.)
From Hell, Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell - The single greatest work ever created in comics, or the best graphic novel of all time. Call it what you will, but if you haven’t read and experienced From Hell, you could be forgiven for saying, as one critic I otherwise respect recently did, that Alan Moore is “overrated.” From Hell is a challenging work, but one that is meticulously constructed, brilliantly conceived, passionately executed, and will turn your fucking brain inside out. Along with his prose novel Voice of the Fire, From Hell is Moore at his absolute best, and at his best, there’s no one else in comics that even comes close. (Buy From Hell from Amazon.com.)
Ice Haven, Daniel Clowes - Clowes’s masterpiece is kind of the flip side of From Hell. It is executed with equal passion and witty, seamless construction. But the subject matter almost defies description. The book is as much about comics as it is a story told with comics. It was a signal moment in Clowes’s development as a storyteller, with everything that followed in some way indebted to or descended from the concerns he unpacked in Ice Haven. I think I prefer the individual issue of Eightball it originally appeared in (#21) to the reformatted and rejiggered hardcover graphic novel version, but either way, Ice Haven should be read and experienced by anyone who loves comics. (Buy Ice Haven from Amazon.com.)
“Master Race,” Bernard Krigstein and Al Feldstein - Appearing in the first issue of Impact, “Master Race” is the most brilliantly executed short story in the history of comics. I’ve opined at length elsewhere about how and why Bernard Krigstein was the greatest artist ever to work in comics, but immersing yourself in “Master Race” is really the only argument needed. (Buy B. Krigstein Vol. 1 from Amazon.com.)
The New Gods, Jack Kirby, with Mike Royer, et al - Kirby is rightly touted as the genius of corporate superhero comics, without whom we’d very likely have a very different artform and industry on our hands today, or perhaps none at all. That said, many of his great works (Fantastic Four, The Fourth World stories) are either compromised or unfinished. New Gods falls into the latter category, but despite that, the series manages to convey better than any other the sheer power and, yes, maturity that Kirby could bring to his comics. Re-read New Gods and be amazed at the pictures, but be even more astonished at the subjects and themes that Kirby was exploring, sometimes so close to the surface that one need not even call it subtext. From almost the moment he started making comics, Kirby was ahead of his time, and many years after his passing, he remains so. It’s all of comics — especially the corporate superhero comics ghetto he toiled in — that needs to catch up, and grow up. Make it right, Marvel. (Buy Jack Kirby’s New Gods from Amazon.com.)
Peanuts, Charles M. Schulz - No one saw the bittersweet sadness of life the way Schulz did, and no one ever made the reader feel those same feelings with more grace or immediacy. For fifty years, Schulz bared his soul in comics, and while he more often than not did so with a clever gag or punchline at the end, ultimately what we all think of when we think of Peanuts as a whole is the way Schulz could take the little agonies of his own life and make us remember what it is to be hurt, to be slighted, to grin and bear it and keep moving despite the pain. I think that’s the ultimate message of Schulz’s life work, and the example he set for us all. He kept going, kept working, up until the absolute last moment possible, and then he left us, and left behind a monumental lifetime of work that will be enjoyed and talked about as long as there are people left to think and talk about comics. And maybe even a little while longer than that. (Buy The Complete Peanuts Vol. 1 - 1950-1952 from Amazon.com.)
— Alan David Doane