Saturday, January 26, 2008

THEMATIC REALISM PART II

I noted earlier that much of what we deem to be “real literature” can be distinguished by its thematic commitment to what Freud famously called “the reality principle,” no matter whether the narrative in question portrays a “realistic” version of the world (Tolstoy’s WAR AND PEACE), outright fantasy (Ursula LeGuin’s WIZARD OF EARTHSEA), or something between the two (Pynchon’s CRYING OF LOT 49). The same principle obtains with those works that fall squarely within the category of “thematic escapism,” which is oriented on what Freud calls “the pleasure principle” and wish-fulfillment. One may envision a middle-ground between the two categories for works that may strike a balance between these opposed themes, but it would seem beyond question that there are notable works that are polarized enough to belong far more in one camp rather than the other.

However, both thematic orientations are entirely confined to the sphere of literature, and do not apply to the ancestor of all literary endeavor: mythic narrative. (For simplicity’s sake here I conflate “myth,” “religion,” and “folklore” under the rubric “myth,” as all concern narratives that have literary relevance but are not literature as such.) Some commentators have suggested an easy equivalence between archaic myth and modern pop culture. I myself have been accused of making such an equivalence, which is one reason I adopted the term “mythicity,” to emphasize that a given narrative (BLONDIE, PEANUTS, JUSTICE LEAGUE) may be “myth-like” in certain respects without being myth. But there are more uncritical assertions out there, such as this unattributed quote—“Science fiction is the mythology of the modern world”-- against which the aforementioned Ursula LeGuin reacts in her noted 1976 essay, “Myth and Archetype in Science Fiction.” And while I do disagree with that quote because it is an easy equivalence, I also disagree with LeGuin’s essay, which makes the opposite mistake of trying to claim the territory of myth in the name of “real literature.”

In this essay LeGuin begins by defining myth’s heuristic significance to literature in general (with which account I don’t substantially disagree). Naturally, her notion of literature includes quality science fiction, since she writes that herself, but bringing in the formal literary notion of “quality” means that she must also define “lack of quality.” This LeGuin does by making a distinction between “true myths” and “fake myths,” which she buttresses with a reference to an incident in the life of the German poet Rilke:

“The poet Rilke looked at a statue of Apollo about fifty years ago, and Apollo spoke to him. ‘You must change your life,’ he said. When the genuine myth rises into consciousness, that is always its message. You must change your life.”

This statement troubled me when I read it many years ago, having become a regular SF/fantasy reader in the late 1960s. Did LeGuin mean that, following the example of Rilke, one should change one’s life every time one encountered a genuine myth, be it of archaic or recent vintage? The notion is easily reducible to absurdity. If Rilke changed his life one day because he beheld a statue of Apollo, does that mean that he should change it to something else the next day because he beheld a statue of Artemis?

In all likelihood, the “change” that LeGuin is concerned with is one of perspective, since in her next paragraph she extols the “way of art” as one of connecting the disparate aspects of humanity’s experience: “to connect the idea with value, sensation with intuition, cortex with cerebellum.” Her use of the word “art” is telling, for it shows that she is not particularly concerned with the nature of archaic myth as such, with whether or not such stories as Apollo’s slaying of the Python is some sort of message to “change your life.” Her concern, rather, is with modern “true myths,” as exemplified by the majority of her examples of such myths, ranging from Cordwainer Smith to Arthur C. Clarke to Mary Shelley.

I’ve noted elsewhere that the emphasis on the privileging of “real literature’s” orientation upon thematic realism can lead to the mistake of seeking meaning in terms of allegory. LeGuin, both in this essay and others, asserts that the mythic visions she seeks are not reducible to simple allegory, which by itself is laudable, though whenever she seeks to put into words the potential meaning of a given text, her statements do take on an allegorical ring: “Tarzan is a direct descendant of the Wolfchild/Noble Savage on one side, and every child’s fantasy of the Orphan-of-High-Estate on the other.” The statement is not so much untrue as banal, and it may be that it’s impossible to state any potential meaning of a text without verging on the allegorical. However, the Tarzan example shows one of the weaknesses of LeGuin’s literary classifications. By my lights, Tarzan is no more a “true myth” by LeGuin’s criteria than one of the “fake myths” she rejects, Superman, of whose parentage she remarks, “His father was Nietzsche and his mother was a funnybook.” I view both Tarzan and Superman as wish-fulfillments first, and only secondarily (if at all) attempts to “connect the idea with value, sensation with intuition.” (The last phrase is fraught with some significant Jungian undercurrents to which I hope to return later.)

I rather doubt that LeGuin’s curt dismissal of the Superman character in this and similar essays is based in anything but vague recollections of childhood reading, though certainly LeGuin grew up at a time when she could have partaken of the greatest growth of the “Superman mythology” of the late 50s and early 60s, had she cared to examine same. Incidentally, the editor of all the Superman features, Mort Weisinger, used the term “mythology” for the hero’s adventures, though it can be argued as to whether the word applies any better to Superman than to Arthur C. Clarke’s works. My position is that both “thematically realistic” and “thematically escapist” works can be profoundly “myth-like” in ways that I don’t think Ursula LeGuin would appreciate, be it the LeGuin who wrote this essay in 1975 or the current incarnation. I think she lists Tarzan (and for that matter, Arthur C. Clarke) among the “true myths” because despite her appreciation for the polysemous qualities of myth, she is a little too impressed with the patina of intellectual respectability, and sees some such quality in the creation of Edgar Rice Burroughs but not that of Siegel and Schuster. And this is a fundamental mistake on her part, despite her laudable goal of trying to call forth in audiences an appreciation for the many-sided nature of what we call “myth.”

THEMATIC REALISM, PART I

In the JUSTICE LEAGUE review I referred briefly to a concept I termed "thematic realism," whose opposite might well be called "thematic escapism." The first I associate with what Jung called "directed thinking," wherein the author is seeking to make a definite point, which can descend into pure allegory (though it doesn't have to). The second is more akin to Jung's "intuitional thinking," wherein the author is less concerned with thematic concerns than expressing some emotional state or states. The conflict between the two within some creators is aptly caught by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his response to a reader who thought that "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" had no moral:

"I told her that in my opinion the poem had too much; and that the only, or chief fault, if I might say so, was the obtrusion of the moral sentiment so openly on the reader as a principle or cause of action in a work of such pure imagination. It ought to have had no more moral than the Arabian Nights' tale of the merchant's sitting down to eat dates by the side of a well, and throwing the shells aside, and lo! a geniestarts up, and says he _must_ kill the aforesaid merchant, because one of the date shells had, it seems, put out the eye of the genie's son."'

Coleridge's example of the Arabian Nights tale is, like the JUSTICE LEAGUE story I critiqued, not especially concerned with morals as such-- or at least, not to the extent that the ANCIENT MARINER is. Both tales are, in a formal sense, "escapist," though I note that I use the word non-pejoratively. Neither Gardner Fox nor the Arabian Nights scribe existed in a time before fiction had been used for didactic moral purposes, of course, but both stories can be fairly regarded as "vacations from morals." It is not that the protagonists of the tales do not perform actions that the reader considers "good" rather than "bad,"but that there is not a true moral dialectic as such.

By contrast, a tale like Coleridge's MARINER, or (to give a superheroic parallel to the JLA tale) WATCHMEN, are clearly tales that are much concerned with analyzing the ways mortal men deal with the moral elements in life, no matter how fantastic their situations. There's nothing wrong with this kind of fiction, and I don't necessarily share Coleridge's opinion that MARINER would have been improved by lacking a moral, especially since he proved himself more than able to summon such a non-moralistic expressiveness in poems like KUBLAI KHAN. However, there is in comics-fandom a considerable prejudice toward a belief opposite to the one Coleridge expresses: that a narrative is *always* superior because it addresses specific dialectical moral issues. Not only is not the case, it can be a prejudice that falsifies the genuine polysemous quality of literature, as I'll show with another example in Part II.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

TO DREAM THE IMPOSSIBLE ADVENTURE


A Myth-Analysis of “The Justice League’s Impossible Adventure!”


I’ve been recently arguing with a messboard opponent that the essence of myth, both in its religious and literary manifestations, is opposed to any kind of dialectical thought. Indeed, it’s arguable that dialectical thought (what Cassirer would also call discursive thinking) is what transforms archaic myth into religion, and what separates so-called “high” literature from its lower forms. I don’t oppose the idea of such a separation, but I don’t assume that the form of literature that has been infused with dialectical thought and/or ideology is superior to the form without such discursive manipulations. Works belonging to the first form I’ve denoted as works of “thematic realism,” because the themes they pursue are meant to have realistic application to the world in which the audience exists. Works of the second form—which include the superhero adventure mentioned above, from JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #59—are naturally unrealistic in the thematic sense, but as I hope to prove, lack of realism does not equal lack of relevance.

JLA #59 begins, as many of the feature’s adventures do, with some of the superheroes being spirited out of their headquarters by unknown forces—specifically, five members: Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, the Flash and the Martian Manhunter. They find themselves on an alien planet with a red sun, which immediately deprives Superman of his fantastic powers. (As Superman was the only hero capable of flying off the planet into deep space, this development was probably writer Gardner Fox’s strategy for keeping all five heroes planetbound.) The Leaguers soon encounter their alien hosts: a trio of identical purple-skinned “wise men” types, who call themselves “the Impossibles” (a name that would be risible even if it wasn’t shared by a trio of 1960s animated superheroes from Hanna-Barbera). The Impossibles claim that they possess an inerrancy that any Catholic Pope might envy, since everything they do is for the best—and their purpose in abducting the quintet is to take away their super-powers. And though their inerrancy sounds Catholic, their impulse seems guided by Protestant virtues, since they choose these five heroes because none of them earned their powers, which were all gained either through the circumstances of their birth or a fortuitous accident. “Fate giveth and fate taketh away” seems to be their motto, but the Impossibles, despite being numerically equivalent to the Greek Moirae, don’t actually know the future, and are fascinated to see what good will come of their tampering.

In short order, one of the Impossibles’ machines reduces all five heroes to mortal status. Moments later, the three wise aliens are blasted by rays from some unseen source. Before slumping into comas, the Impossibles assert that they have been attacked by their enemies “the Contras,” and that “Without us—should we be destroyed by the Contra Creatures—the entire universe will be dominated by sheer evil.” The heroes immediately accept the truth of the Impossibles’ declaration, perhaps being of the belief that any beings called “Contras” must be contrary to good (and this many years before the word acquired its current political charge!) As the quintet dashes forth to battle evil, the Martian Manhunter notes that even though they’ve lost their powers, they’ve also lost their weaknesses.

Appropriately enough, the villains are five in number too, but whereas the Impossibles were identical, the Contras look as they came from five different worlds: a crystal man, a walking brain, a spiral-creature, a flower-man and a “living neon-being.” “Everything on that world must be different from everything else,” reasons one of the heroes before they engage the Contras in battle. All five heroes get ignominiously trounced, though two of them are saved from death by the fact that they don’t possess their super-powers. Thus the powers the heroes did not earn are providentially taken away just when they would have proved a fatal burden.
The Contras approach the unconscious Impossibles, bent on killing them. Flash theorizes that the Contra’s weakness may be that they “never do anything the same”—which is the writer’s way of making it possible to bestow on the villains any weakness he chooses, some of which are identical to those of the heroes. Superman just happens to find a chunk of meteoric kryptonite, which he uses to destroy the neon-being. Aquaman, following somewhat more scientific principles, traps the walking brain by immersing it in the ocean and submerging it, reasoning that “no brain can do without oxygen for more than six minutes.” The Martian Manhunter, now able to handle fire without ill effects, manages to burn up the flower-being. The crystal man and the spiral-creature are defeated without resort to specific weaknesses, since within the pages of the JLA neither of the heroes who deal out those defeats—Flash and Wonder Woman—have specific weaknesses to utilize against these villains. (I specify “within the pages of the JLA” because in Wonder Woman’s own feature, she was sometimes said to lose her powers when chained by a man, but Gardner Fox’s JLA doesn’t draw on that bit of Amazon mythology.) In the end, all five aliens are destroyed with a ruthlessness unusual to the milieu of 1960s superheroes. This may account for why none of the Contras ever speak. Because they don’t, the Contras never entirely seem like sentient beings, and so the heroes can demolish them as cheerfully as if they were smashing inanimate matter, even though both the brain and the flower-being seem to be modeled on living things.

In conclusion, whether by direct or roundabout means, all the Leaguers regain their powers from their acts of Contra-smashing, which is as good as saying that they have now “earned” the abilities that fate gave them earlier. Upon recovering, the Impossibles exult in an “I told you so” moment, and return the quintet of Leaguers to their headquarters for some last-panel badinage about the impossibility of their adventure.

I used the word “providentially” earlier. In one sense, JLA #59 is about the myth of Providence, in which the will of a benign God sorts out men’s fates according to their desserts. In broad form it’s the same theme that informs both Alan Moore’s PROMETHEA and C.S. Lewis’ NARNIA books. However, unlike those works—both of which attempt to deal with the Providence-theme in dialectical fashion, however successfully—the JUSTICE LEAGUE adventure doesn’t advance a true dialectical argument. This lack of a dialectical element, however, does not adversely affect the story’s complexity. JLA #59 uses many of the same elements that a dialectical story would have used, such as the opposition of stability (the Impossibles) with chaos (the Contras). The story’s game of “vanishing powers and weaknesses,” though, is arguably one that comes forth in its full glory only in a tale able to ignore the demands of thematic realism, and to focus on what the 1940 film THIEF OF BAGDAD calls “the beauty of the impossible.” If one hypothesizes that one of the chief pleasures offered by the superhero genre is that of beholding the flagrantly impossible, then the rather-comic name given to these purple-skinned purveyors of providence may be entirely appropriate. After all, though in all likelihood no audience-member for this story has ever lived in a world where one can be sure of being “right” at all times—much less regarding the correct apportionment of good and evil—this fact does not remove the pleasure of viewing a world where the impossible is real.

100 BEST COMICS: AGAIN, STREAMING VISIONS

For me a “streaming vision” is a literary vision communicated through a serial format, whether that serial is structured with a closing chapter in mind or is designed so as to theoretically go on forever. Therefore this list does not deal with examples of single comic-book stories or stand-alone “graphic novels,” unlike the “100 best comics” list that appeared some years back in the COMICS JOURNAL. About the only thing this list has in common with the JOURNAL list is that mine is also confined only to works originally published in the English language.
Another difference between my list and that one is that mine does not include comic strips. As memory serves, some commentary heading the JOURNAL list alleged that if the critics had to come up with 100 examples drawn only from comic books, they’d be s*** outta luck. While I enjoy and admire the medium of comic strips, I say the comic book medium, even as it developed in English-speaking countries, has its own aesthetic and doesn’t need to be “bailed out” by any near relations. In fact, it wasn’t the old JOURNAL list that prompted me to make my own, but seeing a recent similar post on Comic Book Resources, which also cited most of the usual suspects from the comic-strip medium. I thought it would prove more interesting to concentrate only on comic books, particularly in the serial format for which they are best known.
In an issue of COMIC SHOP NEWS Clive Barker said that both serial comic books and serial television shows shared a narrative advantage in that both could take their time slowly revealing whatever ideas or themes the creators had to offer. I agree, and the serials I’ve listed below display this “developmental” quality, whether they run less than a dozen issues (the first Englehart/Rogers collaboration on Batman) or fill up fifteen years (the entire Golden Age period of the same character). Such serials can also continue over more than one title featuring the same character, like the BATMAN, DETECTIVE and WORLD’S FINEST titles in which Batman appeared in the Golden Age, or the quartet of titles making up Kirby’s “Fourth World” series, where each title featured a different set of characters who all had ties to the same fantasy-cosmos.
Serial anthologies don’t as a rule use continuing characters or take place in a consistent cosmos, but in the right circumstances the separate stories may combine to show readers a “cosmos” unified by repeated themes or prevalent emotional tone. Sometimes this comes as a result of many authors working together upon a given theme, as with a given genre like war or horror. At other times, it may be a single author using a serially-published title to spotlight any type of story he cares to attempt, often mixing continuing and non-continuing concepts, as is seen in both Chester Brown’s YUMMY FUR (which made my list) or Dan Clowes’ EIGHTBALL (which didn’t). My chosen parameters for defining a “serial vision” unfortunately leaves no room for an author like Robert Crumb, who had a tendency to publish diverse stories in anthologies that were too unfocused to possess the “developmental” quality I’m looking for. Of course, if one finds the majority of underground comics to be in any way inferior to the comics of popular culture, one has to be resigned to being exiled from the Enclave of Ever-Egregious Elitists, but I think I can live with that.
Since I only devote a sentence or two explaining each choice on the list, it should be understood that I won’t be articulating any grand theory of the comics-medium here. It should be evident from the strong representation of fantasy-genres here that I would reject any “comics-as-lit” theory that favored the depiction of “reality” as the underlying aesthetic of all literature. What I consider “literature” is formed equally from humanity’s observations of reality and the attempts to interpret reality through the lens of the abstract imagination. Great literature does both, and though none of the genre-series I list here are great literature, they have the “imagination” part down right. Merely recording the observations of reality I regard as even further from the heart of literature than the most unrealistic fantasy-genre, and so few elitist comics-favorites will be found here.

ADAM STRANGE (1960s-- Fox/Infantino)—Here the theme is that of a heroic Earthman repeatedly saving an advanced alien civilization, though Adam gets a little more erotic compensation than most DC heroes of the time got. Fox’s inventiveness with respect to alien menaces is worthy of Edgar Rice Burroughs, to whose “Mars” books this sci-fi series owes a hefty debt.

AMERICAN FLAGG (1980s--Chaykin)—Chaykin’s forte has always been the intermingling of scofflaw humor with a “Playboy fantasy” level of sexuality, but in “Flagg” it takes on substance thanks to Chaykin’s attention to detail in building a wacky, dystopian version of a future America.

ANIMAL-MAN (1990s--Morrison/Truog)—Grant Morrison was far from being the first “fan-turned-pro” to give deep symbolic resonance to ideas that originated as simple pop-culture fantasies, but A-M remains one of the most substantive of such works.

ATOMIC KNIGHTS (1960s--Broome/Anderson)— Though “Knights” is marred by overly simple characterizations, the essential idea of a post-nuclear “waste land” being reclaimed by a cadre of armored knights sometimes touched on Arthurian-level themes of regeneration.

BADGER (1980s-1990s--Baron et al)—As many artists worked on Badger, the merits of the art fluctuated, but writer Mike Baron managed to play some wild variations on his notion of a multiple-personality superhero gifted with the ability to talk to animals, ghosts, and mythic personalities like Paul Bunyan and Santa Claus.

BATMAN (1940s-1950s--Golden Age)—Though most Golden Age superheroes were indifferently scripted, pound for pound the Batman adventures from this period are better-written than almost any other feature of the time. And though Superman came first, the Batman series forged the seminal idea of the superhero “rogues gallery,” with some of those rogues becoming justly famous in their own right.

BATMAN (early 1970s-- O’Neil/Adams/Novick et al)—While some commentaries overrate how unique O’Neil and Adams were in terms of bringing back a dark, pulp-derived Batman, this version is the one, far more than that of the Golden Age, that continues to influence modern treatments of the character.

BATMAN (late 1970s--Englehart/Rogers)—Whereas O’Neil’s Batman is given to exploring exotic climes, Englehart’s exploration of the Batman mythos has the cloistered feel of a film noir, all six issues taking place within a Gotham that seems more surreal than it had ever been since the very early Golden Age.

BERLIN CITY OF STONES (2000s--Lutes)—Though this remains an intriguingly-unfinished series, Lutes’ story of Berliners in the time between the two World Wars may be one of the few artcomics to approach Real Literature.

BLACK PANTHER (1970s--McGregor et al)—As with Badger, the artistic execution of the Panther series yielded mixed results, but McGregor’s vision comes through, bringing a note of Third-World realism to Marvel’s first black superhero while not failing to extend the fantastic aspects of the Wakandan cosmos.

BLACKHAWK (1940s-1950s--Eisner/Crandall et al)— Blackhawk’s WWII is, like that of Captain America, a fantasy-war, but despite bizarre opponents and situations the Blackhawks often convey a mood of grim fatalism even in their post-war adventures.

BLUE BEETLE (1960s-- Ditko)—Despite Ditko’s reputation as an artist who does not approve of “grey areas,” his stories of the Blue Beetle reveal levels of anxiety about the prospect of superhero activities, lacking any of the mitigating humor of the Lee/Ditko Spider-Man.BLUE MONDAY (2000s-?--Clugston-Majors)—This is the funniest of the “punk humor” comics-genre that emerged in the 90s, and though the American characters always sound more like they have British accents, the most important “accent” in Blue Monday is the accent on good clean dirty humor.

BONE (1990s-2000s-- J. Smith)— Blending bucolic humor and high fantasy, Bone could be a little too dilatory in terms of pacing, but nevertheless often succeeds in capturing the charm of both genres.

BOOKS OF MAGIC (1990s—Gaiman, Vess et al)—In this four-issue mini-series, all of the wild magical creations of the DC Universe are shown to comprise a two-edged sword with a marked tendency to cut its wielder.

BOYS RANCH (1950s-- Simon & Kirby)—Simon and Kirby elevate the often-humble form of the comic-book western—so humble in this period as to be thoroughly forgettable-- into barnstorming melodrama.

CAGES (1990s-- McKean)—Originally published as a 10-issue series, McKean’s meditation on the nature of creativity marks it as yet another of the rare “comics-as-lit” successes.

CAPTAIN AMERICA (1940s-- Simon & Kirby)—Jim Steranko said it best: the Golden Age Cap is often less about its noble hero than about creating a parade of grotesqueries worthy of the best horror-comics.

CAPTAIN AMERICA (1970s-- Englehart/Buscema et al)—Englehart was not the first to bring an air of radical politics to this former icon of conservatism, but he set the standard for the successful blend of the political with high-energy superhero action.

CAPTAIN MARVEL (1940s-1950s—Parker, Beck et al)—I suspect that that the real reason Captain Marvel made the “Journal” list was not purely because the critics appreciated its whimsical tone, but because it lost a copyright infringement to DC’s Superman, giving CM an automatic sympathy vote against a Big Bad Corporation.

CAPTAIN MARVEL (1970s-- Starlin)—Starlin’s actual scripting was often tin-eared, but he is one of the few artists who managed to follow in Jack Kirby’s footsteps in the world of creating cosmic vistas of wonder.

CEREBUS (1970s-2000s-- Sim)—In many arenas Sim is pilloried for the conservative-Christian tilt of the later issues—perhaps made worse to some of those critics because he started out as a secular liberal—but however I might disagree with Sim on many issues, Cerebus can be counted a success purely on the formal level, in terms of using the medium as a forum for political and philosophical speculation.

CONAN (1970s-- Thomas/B. Smith et al)— Though the prose of Robert Howard originated the intrinsic vision underlying the Thomas-Smith Conan, Thomas’ eloquent portentousness provides a rare counterpoise to Smith’s freewheeling, adult-toned treatment of the Howard material. The first dozen Thomas/Buscema collaborations are also worthy of inclusion, though the title quickly lost its mojo after that.

DAREDEVIL (1970s-1980s-- Miller et al)— Ninjas and a blind superhero in a world dominated by Catholic guilt. What could be better? Here I don’t include the later collaboration between Miller and Mazzuchelli on the title: enjoyable though it is, Miller’s initial redefinition of the Daredevil mythos takes precedence.

DARK KNIGHT RETURNS (1980s-- Miller et al)— Miller’s version of an aging Batman is a good deal more ruthless than those of O’Neil and Englehart, and helped spawn the so-called “grim and gritty” trend in comics, but most followers of the trend were not able to imitate Miller’s ability to bring poetry and honest sentiment to the superhero genre.

DEFENDERS (1970s-- Gerber/ S. Buscema)—This series remains Steve Gerber’s best take on the superhero genre, putting Marvel’s more offbeat heroes (Hulk, Doctor Strange et al) through a series of adventures that seemed to define the word “bizarre.”

DEN (1970s-1980s-- Corben)—Here’s another take on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “Mars” series, but one that ratchets up the sex and violence to Rabelaisian proportions.

DONALD DUCK “family” (1950s-1970s-- Barks)—This umbrella listing includes the two best-known members of the Barks family, Donald and Uncle Scrooge, though Barks also did memorably-charming stories with support characters like Gyro Gearloose and the Junior Woodchucks.

DOOM PATROL (1960s-- Drake/Premiani)—In essence the first Doom Patrol was DC’s response to Marvel’s Fantastic Four, but, in keeping with the theme of “freak superheroes,” DP tops FF in terms of showing a penchant for the grotesque.

DOOM PATROL (1980s-1990s-- Morrison/Quitely)—In the hands of Morrison and Quitely, simple grotesquerie becomes freewheeling surrealism, with special emphasis on the mutability of sexual identity.

DR. STRANGE (1960s-- Lee/Ditko et al)—It should be noted that though Lee is scripter on almost all of these wild sorcerous tales, Roy Thomas and Denny O’Neil had short fill-in collaborations with Ditko up until the artist departed the strip. But Lee and Ditko are certainly responsible for the overriding aesthetic of Strange’s world, grim despite its seductive beauty.

EC “NEW TREND” CRIME & SUSPENSE (1950s)—The title Shock Suspenstories is the most famous title under this heading, though it also takes in some of EC’s odder takes on the suspense genre, such as the “Psychiatry” title.

EC “NEW TREND” HORROR (1950s)—Obviously this refers to EC’s three famous horror-titles, which remain not only comics’ definitive take on the horror story, but one of the first times the medium let slide conventional notions of justice and happy endings.
EC “NEW TREND” SCIENCE FICTION (1950s)—These deserve mention for having brought a more intellectual approach to science fiction and fantasy than had been the case in comics, though that approach may seem somewhat overwritten to modern readers.

EC “NEW TREND” WAR & HISTORICAL (1950s)—The explicit war books, Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat, define the war genre in comics at its most rigorous. I also include here the more flamboyant historicals, like Valor and Pirates.

ELFQUEST (1970s-1980s-- Pini)—To my mind, the first Elfquest series is the only one that merits inclusion, for its aesthetic of light-hearted fantasy (mitigated by occasional bursts of strong violence) was best served by the quest-format, and later issues suffered from not having much of anywhere left to go.

EVIL EYE (1990s-- Sala)—Richard Sala’s world is, by his own account, a world of Poesque delirium, full of freakish criminals and hidden conspiracies.

FABULOUS FURRY FREAK BROTHERS (1960s-?-- Shelton et al)—Despite the penchant of the underground humorists for drawing genitalia, I find most of the undergrounders creatively “flaccid.” However, Shelton and his successors on the Freak Brothers series show an unparalleled ability with all kinds of humor, be it sex, drugs, or slapstick.

FANTASTIC FOUR (1960s-- Lee/Kirby)—Though I enjoy, as much as any fan, the middle 60s period of Kirby’s art-style, with its emphasis on super-colossal menaces, I think this period is actually less interesting than the early issues, which first articulate a blend of humor and heartfelt melodrama that was totally new to the superhero genre.

FLAMING CARROT (1980s-2000s-- Burden)—Unlike Morrison’s brand of surrealism, Burden’s is more about rampant silliness than questions of sexual identity, but Burden is one of the few who can deliver on the promise that in his world “anything can happen.”

FLASH (1960s-- Broome/Infantino)—Though other creators contributed to the Flash saga, I’m only concerned with the period in which Broome and Infantino brought a slick, almost mannered quality to the concept of the Flash. The series also set the mold for the modern pattern of superhero adventures, now largely divorced from the use of mundane opponents like crooks and spies, with various super-menaces providing almost the sole source of conflict.

FLEX MENTALLO (1990s-- Morrison/Quitely)—William Blake believed that if we could cleanse “the doors of perception,” we would see all things as infinite. In Flex Mentallo, Grant Morrison tells us we would see vast panoramas of superheroes, and he makes that seem a lot less risible than it sounds on paper.

FOURTH WORLD (1970s-- Kirby)—The four interrelated titles of Kirby’s magnum opus—JIMMY OLSEN, NEW GODS, MR. MIRACLE and FOREVER PEOPLE—combine boyish thrills with adult meditations on gods, men and the moral universe between them.

FROM HELL (1990s-- A. Moore/Campbell)—Whatever Jack the Ripper was in life, here he becomes the locus of Moore and Campbell’s attempt to “rip” the scales from readers’ eyes on all levels, exposing all the hidden darknesses in society and religion.

GREEN LANTERN (1950s-1960s-- Broome/Kane)—The adventures of this “cosmic cop” aren’t quite as freewheeling as those of Broome’s Flash, but even without the kinetic thrills of Kane’s art, the concept of the Green Lantern Corps remains a significant invention in the history of comic-book mythology.

GREEN LANTERN (late 1960s-- O’Neil/Adams)—Despite some of the overblown or preachy moments of this seminal “superheroes meet reality” concept, O’Neil and Adams never get so caught up in preaching as to forget their main concern: the anatomy of human suffering.

GROO THE WANDERER (1980s-? – Aragones/Evanier)—Aragones’ visual inventiveness is the most celebrated aspect of this long-running series, but I’m more impressed with the prolificity of peculiar characters he and Evanier come up with.

HELLBLAZER (1980s-?-- Ennis et al)— The story of John Constantine, master of the abysmal arts, remains one of the strongest attempts to marry seedy reality with the world of the supernatural.

HOWARD THE DUCK (1970s-- Gerber/Colan et al)—Though regrettably Gerber was severed from his most famous character at an early point, I still find his use of the serial comics-medium to gradually explore the artist’s own evolving beliefs to be superior to anything that precedes it in American comics (including the overrated undergrounds).

INVISIBLES (1990s-- Morrison et al)—Though the characters could be have been a little more well-rounded, Morrison’s excursion into the world of “conspiracy fiction” plays well to his talent for portraying outsiders and marginal cultures.

JOHNNY DYNAMITE (1950s-- Masuli)—This short-lived example of the “tough private eye” genre sometimes reaches Spillane-esque depths of dark delirium, and aside from EC stands as the only example of the “crime comics” genre I found meritorious.

JOURNEY (1980s-- Loebs)— The genre of “early American frontier adventures” was negligible in comic books until the adventures of “the other Wolverine” took over.

JUDGE DREDD (1970s-1980s-- Grant/Bolland et al)-- Though Dredd is still being published, here I’m focusing mainly what I consider the “classic adventures” of this dystopian lawman.

JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA (1960s-- Fox/Sekowsky)—Like Adam Strange, this seminal superhero book is largely an opportunity for Gardner Fox to go wild with all manner of absurd but challenging fantasies.

KILLRAVEN (1970s-- Conway/McGregor/Russell et al)— This comic-book follow-up to H.G. Wells’ ‘War of the Worlds’ is one of the few that brings psychological complexity to the “alien invasion” genre.

LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN (1990s-?--A. Moore/O’Neill)—Moore and O’Neill’s fabulous pastiche of Victorian-era heroes is more than just another exercise in fantasy-worldbuilding; it’s also a “British revolution” set to remind Americans as to how much the adventure-genre owes to jolly old Albion.

LITTLE LULU (1950s-1960s-- Stanley)— Stanley’s one of the few artists to do “kid comics” with something like the imagination of a real kid.

LOCAS (1980s-?-- J. Hernandez)—Though Jaime Hernandez’s “Young Barrio Girls in Love” tale is grounded in everyday reality, it often shows a Barks-esque penchant for journeys to weird and exotic climes.

MAD (1950s-- Kurtzman et al)—The seminal American satire comic. Enough said.

MAGE (1980s-?-- Wagner)—This fantasy-series is theoretically open to further developments, but the two arcs that have appeared thus far are good evocations of the intertwined Arthur/Merlin archetypes.

MAGNUS ROBOT FIGHTER (1960s-- Manning)—This futuristic series displays a Wellsian subtext, concerning a super-scientific earthly paradise continually besieged by rebellious robot servants.

MAN-THING (1970s-- Gerber/Ploog et al)—Though Gerber did not originate the titular muck-monster—inspired in part from the 1940’s “Heap” feature—he brought to the feature a strong sense of naturalistic dialogue and offbeat humor.

MARSHAL LAW (1980s-1990s—Mills/O’Neill)—This is a balls-to-the-wall satire on every superhero archetype fans hold dear. It doesn’t have any greater psychological depth than the objects being satirized—perhaps less—but it’s funny anyway.

MARTIAN MANHUNTER (1990s-- Jones/Barretto)—This underrated four-issue mini-series explored the Martian in the midst of a convoluted conspiracy involving game shows, aliens, the Red Scare and Mad Magazine.

MARVELS (1990s-- Busiek/Ross)— This is essentially an anatomy of a hero-worshipper, but unlike other such stories set within the Marvel Universe, “Marvels” depicts that worship with a fair degree of ambiguity.

MASTER OF KUNG FU (1970s-1980s-- Moench/Gulacy et al)—Though the feature was originated by other hands, Doug Moench and his artist-collaborators turned this product of the kung fu craze into an convoluted character-study.

MAUS (1980s-- Spiegelman)—Ordinarily I don’t consider autobio comics to be particularly “visionary,” but Spiegelman succeeds in organizing the dictated memories of his Holocaust-survivor father into a examination of the politics of human degradation.

MISTER MONSTER (1980s-?--Gilbert)—In crafting his tales of a monster-hunting superhero, Gilbert shows almost unfailing ability to shift from tongue-in-cheek humor to chilling moments of horror.

NICK FURY AGENT OF SHIELD (1960s-- Lee/Kirby/Steranko)—The early Lee/Kirby issues are just enjoyable fluff, but they provided a springboard for Steranko’s hyper-experimental layouts and visual characterizations.

PALOMAR (1980s-?-- G. Hernandez)—Like “Locas,” the Palomar series is something of an “existential soap opera.” Gilbert Hernandez seems a little more inclined to depictions of the surreal than his brother Jaime.

PLASTIC MAN (1940s-1950s--Cole et al)—Though I’m a little tired of hearing self-important critics describe Plastic Man as a “satire” on supposedly-uptight Golden Age superheroes—many of whom are no less antic than Cole’s creation—Cole’s “stretchable sleuth” is probably the most visually inventive of his superhero brethren.

PROMETHEA (1990s-2000s--A. Moore/Williams)— Overly didactic though Moore’s scripts are, his scripts and Williams’ art succeed in reviving a long-dormant practice of using comics-art to depict altered states of mind.

QUESTION (1960s-- Ditko)—This is Steve Ditko’s first significant attempt to use a superhero for the purposes of philosophical explication, in which the phrase “blind justice” takes on new meaning.

SANDMAN (1990s-- Gaiman et al)—At times this is simply a venue in which Gaiman can display any kind of short story under the topic of its relatedness to “dreams,” but it may also be the first English-language comic book to use a continuing serial-character to explore the theme of tragedy: the fall of a great protagonist.

SERGEANT ROCK (1950s-1970s-- Kanigher/Kubert et al)—This venerable WWII series has little to do with the historical war as such, but at its best uses the wartime setting as a backdrop for exploring dramatic concerns.

SHADE THE CHANGING MAN (1970s-- Ditko et al)— The hero is well-named, for despite Ditko’s authoritarian philosophy, this fantasy-series about an otherdimensional fugitive from the law takes on more shades of meaning than its author may’ve intended.

SILENT INVASION (1980s—Hancock/Cherkas)—Though readers will have to become acclimatized to Cherkas’ highly-stylized renderings, the effort is worth the trouble for this exercise in alien-invasion paranoia.

SIN CITY (1990s-- Miller)—The very first “Sin City” series melds Mickey Spillane with a “cosmic rigor” worthy of Artaud. None of the later entries reach quite the same level of excellence, but they’re still exemplary executions of the “hardboiled action” genre.

SPECTRE (1990s-- Ostrander/Mandrake et al)—Jerry Siegel’s bizarre Golden Age ghost is summoned from the vasty deep of bad superhero stories and reformed as a means of inquiring into the nature of human religion.

SPIDER-MAN (1960s-- Lee/Ditko/Romita)—Apart from all of the series’ other merits, this remains the benchmark of the superhero genre, perhaps influencing its aesthetics more than any series since Superman and Batman. Even the 70s X-Men never transcends the influence of the alienated arachnid.

SPIRIT (1940s-1950s-- Eisner et al)— Eisner’s creation remains the best-written comics-series of the Golden Age. And that includes the EC masterworks, for they took a sometimes heavy-handed approach to drama, and their commitment to satire prohibited them from mastering the discipline of light humor.

STARMAN (1990s-- Robinson et al)—By the 1990s many authors had tried to fit together the fragments of DC’s universe into something resembling a mammoth jigsaw-puzzle with many missing pieces, but James Robinson is one of the few who show a passion for both playing that game and imbuing it with dramatic sophistication.

STRANGERS IN PARADISE (1990s-2000s--T. Moore)—As I write this Terry Moore’s long-running comedy/soap opera is nearing its conclusion, but in keeping with the best soaps, the “what-the-heck’s-going-on” moments of SIP have been as interesting as the jokes and romantic fantasies.

SUGAR AND SPIKE (1950s-1970s-- Mayer)—For all Sheldon Mayer’s credits from the Golden Age of Comics, this late-in-career concept from him, about toddlers who speak a language unknown to adults, remains his finest and wittiest achievement.

SUPERMAN (1940s-- Siegel/Schuster)—This is a tough call, because in many ways the early Superman tales combine both the best and worst aspects of Golden Age comics, with very raw visuals and simplistic stories. Still, this run deserves pride of place, if only for spawning an American comic-book character capable of sustaining a mythology.

SUPERMAN “family” (1950s-1960s--Siegel/Binder/Swan et al)—And here’s the long-overdue mythology that eventually developed from the template of the Golden Age character. This “umbrella” includes everything that fell under the domain of editor Mort Weisinger: Supergirl, Jimmy Olsen, Lois Lane, the Superman-Batman team and the Legion of Super-Heroes. This mythology owes a lot to the whimsy of the Captain Marvel cosmos, but has its own distinct character.

SWAMP THING (1980s--A. Moore/Bissette/Veitch et al)—Moore and his artistic collaborators took a enjoyable “heroic monster” concept and ratcheted the horrific content up to levels that went past even the fabled EC books. More importantly, Moore ushered in a new level of “mature content” for serial comics that continues to have both good and bad ramifications for the medium.

TARZAN (1960s-- Manning)—As much as I appreciate the many other artists who have rendered Tarzan in the comics, I feel Manning was the best translator of Burroughs’ Victorian-feeling “noble savage” concept.

THOR (1960s-- Lee/Kirby)— In the mid-60s the art of Jack Kirby exploded as never before into gigantic outbursts of passion and power, and though his other works from the period show the same efflorescence, “Thor” benefits the most from this phase. Never before or since has any English-speaking artist managed to make “gods” so tangible.

TOMB OF DRACULA (1970s-- Wolfman/Colan)—In many ways this title is a strong predecessor to the rise of Alan Moore and Vertigo, in part because it was one of the first serials since the Comics Code to follow the adventures of a deep-dyed (but somewhat noble) villain. It also provides the best showcase for Gene Colan’s formidable visuals.

TRASHMAN (1960s-1970s--Spain)—Technically I’ve fudged my criteria for this one, as “Trashman” first appeared as a strip for an indie paper, but since this story of the ultimate anti-establishment hero gained its greatest fame in underground comic books, I felt I could make the exception.

WARLOCK (1970s--Starlin)—Here, as with the much later Ostrander Spectre, a character of very modest consequence was reconfigured to take on religious dimensions. And though artist-writer Starlin probably cadged some concepts from other authors, he did so with a great visual √©lan and better-than-average writing.

WATCHMEN (1980s-- A. Moore/Gibbons)—One might call this the first postmodernist comics-serial, since every panel bears as much relation to the entire concept as a paragraph of a Thomas Pynchon book bears to that author’s entire vision.

WIZARD KING (1970s--Wood)— Though Wally Wood’s fantasy-epic was never finished, the incomplete opus displays all of Wood’s hallmark inventiveness, as well as his own antinomian animus toward the fantasy-archetypes that dominated his career.

WONDER WOMAN (1940s-- Marston/Peter)— Critically pilloried by both liberals and conservatives for making manifest the sexual content latent in adventure-fantasies, the Golden Age Wonder Woman will probably never receive its due. But whether any other critic chooses to admit it or not, it’s the first American serial comic book to pursue a cogent intellectual theme—that of the liberation of female energy—and not all the EC exegetes in fandom can change that.

XENOZOIC TALES (1980s-1990s-- Schulz)— Once again the earth falls apart and has to pick itself up after the apocalypse, and Mark Schulz gives us two impeccably-rendered stalwarts, Hannah and “Cadillac Jack,” to sort out the chaos.

X-MEN (1970s-1980s-- Claremont/Cockrum/Byrne)—Though there’s probably some scattered good stuff in all the dozens of X-books spawned by the original 70s series, I include here only the main series up to the point of Byrne’s departure, at which point, as it became just another Marvel series, rather than the one that set the standard for most if not all superheroic sagas that followed it.

YOUNG ROMANCE (1940s-1950s-- Simon & Kirby)— As I’ve only read a handful of representative issues of this series, I’ll accept critical consensus that the series that launches the romance-genre in comic books remains the best representative of the genre.

YUMMY FUR (1980s—Brown)— This title was more or less a catch-all for any kind of madness birthed from the brain of Chester Brown, ranging from talking penises to retellings of the Christian gospels.

ZORRO (1960s-- Toth)—The heroic aesthetic of Alex Toth, perpetually misunderstood by simple-minded critics, received one of its best outings in Dell Comics’ “Zorro.” Toth’s economical linework was particularly well-suited to the depiction of old-fashioned swordplay.