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Top Ten Comics

The Hooded Utilitarian organized a ‘ten best comics of all time’ poll. Here’s the list I sent them (you can find more lists here)

Leben? oder Theater?: Ein Singspiel, by Charlotte Salomon. This work is usually talked about due to the tragic circumstances surrounding its creation and ultimate fate of its author. I remember seeing it before reading about Salomon’s biography and was filled with inspiration for the way Salomon drew figures and poses as I struggled to find my own way to draw characters in a picture story. This is a singular work in so many ways: a long narrative drawn in a rich way that most long comic narratives would shy away from. There is also an intensity of emotion that you can’t miss even before you know the situation the work was born into. So, for its sustained richness of images and unembarrassed emotional force, this work seems to tower above almost every other work of graphic narrative. Somehow its example has been ignored, perhaps because its too strong to grapple with.

Chimera by Lorenzo Mattotti. I enjoy looking at the neat panel borders in this comic, and then shifting my attention to the flurry of lines within those neat borders. I like to imagine the borders sketched out first, as little areas for Mattotti to pour out his heartbreaking work. I don’t know if he comes at those panels unleashing a torrent of jagged lines or if he methodically applies each stroke in a systematic way. Either way, Mattotti’s system is not just thrilling to read and digest, but enriching to anyone who attaches any value to the idea that one can express ones self through drawing.

Der Palast by Anke Feuchtenberger. Hard to narrow down one Feuchtenberger work for this list. As a reader, I prefer her W the Whore work. But this album is something of a perfect object: the long size of the book and the shape of the characters. The imagery is “personal” (who else could it have come from except for Feuchtenberger) but also communicates something that is not about unadulterated expression. As in many of my favorite works of art, the drawings are labored over not to achieve perfection, but to achieve shapes that convey a world of thought and feelings beyond the narrow scope of our brains. These drawings are for our hearts, all the parts of it.

Hero’s Life and Death Triumphant by Frédéric Coché. For the scale, the ambition, and for the heroic achievement, this work has to be on a ten best list, even if I find it somewhat lacking as a story. The overall punch of it is enough: page after page of gorgeous etched comics. Comics are always hard work, and the noble effort of this volume is always inspiring to me.

The White Boy page by Garrett Price from the Smithsonian collection. Specifically, I’m talking about the page with the large bottom portion featuring a richly drawn sky. That single page seems to be a secret influence lurking over the ambitions of many a contemporary cartoonist: the simplicity of the figures combined with the devil-may-care attitude that went into the drawing of the landscape.

The Kin-der-Kids by Lyonel Feininger. I prefer it to Little Nemo by a long shot. I find it more interesting on a technical drawing level, and the shapes to be far more pleasing aesthetically. Most of all, it has the visual bravado of Nemo, but it happens to be full of beautiful writing and stories. A pity that it was out of print for so long, only to be reprinted to mass indifference.

Krazy Kat by George Herriman. My Krazy Kat collections will never be sold when I’m short on money or left behind when I move. I’ll keep going back to them for my entire life. When I’m feeling down, they make me happy. When I want to see some imaginative drawings, I know there will always be something in them that I missed before. When I want to see everything that comics can be—a world totally with its own laws of language, design, and logic that is still more inviting than intimidating—Krazy Kat is what I always want to go to first. As a work of art that makes you feel alive as a human and as an artist, Krazy Kat is still my favorite.

The complete works of Edward Gorey. The last page in the last big Gorey collection is a heartbreak: a ruled page, awaiting detail. Gorey kept making books, and I can’t think of a clunker. Together, they are full of all kinds of stories, all kinds of shapes and figures. The scope of Gorey’s ideas and tones are so vast that I don’t understand why he isn’t talked about more in comics circles. Often, with someone of Gorey’s caliber, I have the sinking suspicion that the work is “too good” to be engaged in comics terms. It has such a distance from the rest of the pack that it becomes to seem like a strange anomaly.

The Walking Man by Jiro Taniguchi. Hard to limit myself to one work of manga, but this one always leaps to mind first. I sometimes have the guilty feeling of liking Taniguchi more than Hergé, and this is the work that usually pushes me into that thinking (Hergé would have never let himself release a book this eccentric). I admire this book as an example of “perfect” comics drawing (more perfect to me than Jamie Hernandez), but it’s the writing that gets it on the top ten list. An achingly calm story punctuated by moments of small action that feel monumental, this is a book that shows day-to-day life as not mundane but thrillingly odd.

The autobiographical comics of Luc Leplae. I look at a lot of comics, and I yearn for more like these. The figures are drawn in a unique style, and you can see Leplae’s brain trying to figure out the basics: Where should I put text? How many drawings on one page? I suspect that if he had been in contact with other cartoonists, his style would have become more refined, more readable. And that would have been fine—I like refined comics a lot. But I also like the thrilling originality of this work, and the energy that comes from it.

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