Back in May, The Hooded Utilitarian‘s Noah Berlatsky asked me and many others, “What are the ten comics works you consider your favorites, the best, or the most significant?” I’ve grown a little tired of trying to make a ranked list of my own favorites (Apart from Moto Hagio’s The Heart of Thomas and Yumiko Ohshima’s Banana Bread Pudding, my “favorites” change arbitrarily from moment to moment), so I decided to offer a list of titles that I think are historically important, either because of their influence on later work, or because they were groundbreaking. The list is chronological, oldest to newest, and not “ranked.”
Two of my picks made it into the top ten (Nemo and Watchmen), and four others made it into the top 115 (Töpffer, Terry and the Pirates, Little Lulu, and Arzach). I was excited to see that something I myself had a hand in, Moto Hagio’s A Drunken Dream and Other Stories, made it into the top 115 (just barely). I didn’t see that coming.
Anyway, here’s the list I sent Noah.
- “Master Flashgold’s Splendiferous Dream” (金々先生栄華夢 “Kinkin sensei eiga no yume”), by Harumachi Koikawa (戀川春町), 1775, Japan. Possibly the world’s first true graphic novel to reach a wide audience and turn a profit for its creator and publisher. It may also be the first graphic novel to use the old “and then he woke up and it was all a dream” device. Unlike most early European sequential art, the text is in incorporated within the image. Printed using the sophisticated woodblock technology of the day, this bestseller kicked off the entire genre of single-volume “kibyōshi” (黄表紙”yellow covers”) and multi-volume “gōkan” (合巻”combined volumes”) that remained hugely popular among merchant-class Japanese until moveable type pretty much killed the woodblock print in the mid-19th Century.
- “The Story of Mr. Jabot” (“Histoire de M. Jabot”), by Rodolphe Töpffer, 1833, Switzerland. Is there any doubt that popular Western sequential art pretty much begins with Töpffer? Sure, there are earlier examples of sequential art, but nothing came close to the popular success and impact of Töpffer’s works, which are still hilarious and inspiring today. (I translated the scene where Jabot’s nightdress catches fire into Japanese to read out loud to my Japanese students, and they love it.)
- “Happy Hooligan,” by Fred Opper, 1900-1932, U.S.A.. I think it’s fair to say that Opper was the first to bring all the major elements of modern comics together, consistently, and make them the lingua franca of the newspaper funnies and early comic books. Speech balloons? Check. No distracting narration outside the panels? Check. Lines and other devices to illustrate motion, impact, and other “invisible” elements? Check. Whether or not you think the work has aged well is a matter of taste, I suppose.
- “Little Nemo in Slumberland,” by Winsor McCay, 1905-1914, U.S.A.. McCay couldn’t write a coherent line of dialogue to save his life, but, oh, Prunella, could that guy draw some wicked stuff. He expanded the visual grammar of comics exponentially. A century later, it still makes for brilliant eye candy.
- “Terry and the Pirates,” by Milton Caniff, 1934-1946, U.S.A.. The funnies grow up. And an artist stands up for creator rights.
- “Little Lulu,” written by John Stanley, drawn by Stanley, Irving Tripp and Charles Hedinger, 1945-1959, U.S.A.. Stanley’s Little Lulu is probably the smartest, funniest, most carefully crafted children’s comic book ever created, with the possible exception of Carl Barks’ duck books. And Lulu was probably the ideal role model for postwar American girls. Compared to Lulu, almost every other comic created for children in the history of the medium seems like greasy kids’ stuff. At least until Jill Thompson gave us the Scary Godmother.
- “Metropolis” (メトロポリス), by Osamu Tezuka (手塚治虫), 1949, Japan. This, along with Tezuka’s “Lost World” (ロースト・ワールド 1948) and “The World to Come” (来るべき世界 “Kitaru beki sekai,” 1951), were real, honest-to-goodness graphic novels of the kind that wouldn’t appear in the U.S. until Eisner’s “Contract With God” in 1978. They were for kids, sure, but they had genuine, complex themes. Good and evil were not cut-and-dried. Characters died. Readers were moved. When the young Tezuka showed his work to one of the most influential children’s manga artists of the day, the man was so appalled he told Tezuka, “It’s your own business if you want to make this stuff, but I hope it doesn’t catch on.”
- “Birth!” (誕生！ “Tanjō!”), by Yumiko Ōshima (大島弓子), 1970, Japan. This profound and moving short story about a pregnant high-school girl struggling to decide whether or not to have an abortion took “girls’ comics” to a whole new plane, and had an enormous influence on other young Japanese women cartoonists. Within a few short years, Japanese girls’ comics were transformed from an object of scorn to the cutting edge of the manga world.
- “Arzach,” by Jean “Moebius” Giraud, 1975, France. Gorgeous detail! Psychedelic pterosaurs! Flopping penises! The sophistication and (dare I say) mise en scène of Moebius’ sci-fi vision continues to exert mind-boggling influence on creators working in a wide range of media, all over the world.
- “Watchmen,” by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, 1986-1987, U.S.A.. This is probably on most people’s lists, but I think it’s hard to overstate how brilliant this book is on so many levels. Too bad Warner Bros. chose the single most inappropriate director for the film. Who would look at Gibbons’ stoic, tic-tac-toe layouts and stifled characters and think, “Hey, let’s get the guy who directed ‘300’ to do this!”? I would have gone with Wim Wenders.