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Tuesday, September 30, 2008


Curse you, Tom Spurgeon!

I was all set today to sit down and write something incisive about how one could distinguish the mythopoeic literary function from other functions in literary works (maybe by making a more extended comparison between certain elements of WATCHMEN and SQUADRON SUPREME). But Spurgeon distracted me with this article on 50 things that should be in a good comics-library.

Now, Spurgeon's not doing a "best comics" list here. It strikes me as being closer to what Frye called an "anatomy," for he's listed an assortment of items by type as well as particular works. (Here's a Wiki entry describing the most famous anatomy in literature.) For instance Spurgeon includes, in part, (1) particular creators (Kirby, Ditko) without specifying particular works, (2) particular physical modes of comics (mini-comics, Treasury editions), and (3) things generally associated with being a fan, such as "comics you like w/o being able to explain why."

Though I didn't have any interest in emulating Spurgeon's library-project as such, I found myself wondering: what would be the most essential works that would comprise the library of a critic totally focused on studying archetypal symbolism in comics? What works would one have to set aside even though they might be meritorous in other ways, but simply did not possess symbolic complexity?

Now, inasmuch as I seem to be one of the few archetypal critics in the comics-medium (maybe the only one), the list won't become a resource for fans eager to have an "essential mythcomics" collection. But it does give me a chance to recast my earlier argument, that of parsing out the mythopoeic function from other functions. (Obviously, unlike Spurgeon's hypothetical library, this one will be focused on particular works, with nothing pertaining to format or personal associations or the like.)

This list will be opposed to my list of "100 best serial comics" in three ways. One, in this list I'll regard comic books and comic strips to be one medium, despite some of the distinctions between them. Two, this list will mix together whole runs of continuing titles with particular stories or sequences that best exemplify the nature of the mythopoeic-- though I won't always comment on what makes them mythopoeic. And three, instead of sticking only with comics published in the English language, I'll cover anything published in any language-- though I'll confess up front that the biggest exclusion here will be the works of Osamu Tezuka, as I still haven't read a lot of the output of "the God of Manga." Maybe by the time I compile a second 50...

In the interest of being more broadly representative I'm not listing any creative team more than once, and am restricting the number of times any creator (Kirby, Moore) can appear on the list to three. So here now are 50 essential items for the Library of any Comic-Book Apollodorus:

BATMAN, "Robin Dies at Dawn," BATMAN #156-- Finger/Moldoff. The extended dream-sequence in the story's beginning is the standout here, though the entire story also provides an extended validation of the Batman/Robin mythology.


BLACKHAWK, "Karlovna Had a True Underworld", BLACKHAWK #14. Bill Ward/writer unknown. Another weirdo racial myth about a modern-day country being subverted from beneath by a horde of dusky "dragon dwarves." This one was reprinted in the original edition of Les Daniels' COMIX.

BLONDIE-- Chic Young. Not sure I'd include the entire run of Young's BLONDIE here; what I know best was the 1960s strip on which I grew up, as well as the comic book version as done by Harvey, probably the best interpreter of Young's world of relentless sadism disguised as domestic comedy. So this would probably be better labelled "1960s BLONDIE."

CAPTAIN MARVEL, Parker/Beck, "Introducing Captain Marvel," Whiz Comics #2. This remains interesting not only for the Tantalus-like imagery that appears during the subway sequence but also for a great deal of doubling between characters.


CONAN, Thomas/Smith. I had to debate myself on including this one, since most of the mythic elements are adapted from Robert E. Howard. Finally I decided that Thomas and Smith had added enough to the Conan legend to merit inclusion, not least being elevating the throwaway figure of Thoth-Amon into a significant villain's villain.

COYOTE, first 2 issues, Englehart/Leialoha. The character of Coyote as originally done by Englehart and Rogers in ECLIPSE MONTHLY was nothing to shout about, but these first couple of issues were an excellent blend of Amerindian mythology with American spyjinks. After Leialoha left it just became your average Epic comic.

DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, Frank Miller. Yeah, of course it's here. No big surprise, is it?

DEATH NOTE, Ohba/Obata.

"Devil Woman Loses Her Head" (my title till I find the right one), R. Crumb. I've never thought Crumb was all that much more imaginative than most of the bigfoot comics he learned from, but this tale was an exception. His personal misogyny-demons are nothing new in his overall oeuvre, but I thought this story, in which his ferocious female Devil Woman loses her head and becomes a sex-slave for the Crumbian protagonist, was a nice send-up of male/female relations.

DICK TRACY, Chester Gould.

DOOM PATROL, Morrison/Quitely.

DORK #8, Evan Dorkin


ELFQUEST, Wendy Pini. The first 20-issue series is a fine exercise in fantasy-worldbuilding with a strong bent toward sociological mythmaking.



FAR SIDE, Gary Larson. What Lovecraft called "the thrill of unutterable ghastliness"-- made funny for the comics-page.

FLASH, THE, Broome/Infantino.

HAUNT OF FEAR-- "Foul Play," Gaines/Feldstein/Davis-- Comics-elitists fall all over themselves over the Kurtzman books, which certainly have their merits, but mythicity isn't usually one of them. The horror tales often reach into deeper mythopoeic territory, and "Foul Play" is one of the best to, shall we say, go for the guts of the "body-in-pieces" fantasy.

INCAL SAGA, Jodorowsky/Moebius.

JAR OF FOOLS, Jason Lutes.

JIHAD, Chichester/Johnson.

JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA, "Secret of the Sinister Sorcerers," JLA #2, Fox/Sekowsky. Aside from writer Fox's clever use of mythological names in this superhero tale, "Sorcerers" also marks the title's first experiment in using parallel worlds-- a notion that would bear greater fruit in the later stories of multiple Earths.

KRAZY KAT, George Herriman


LONE SLOANE, Phillippe Druillet.

LONE WOLF AND CUB, Koike/Kojima.

LOVE HINA, Ken Akamatsu. Though superficially this looks like one of a zillion "harem comedy" mangas, there's a consistent Freudian subtext that gives LH a little more heft.

MAN-THING, Steve Gerber/various artists. I wrestled with myself over whether this or HOWARD was the better representation of Gerber's mythifyin' talents, but finally concluded that HOWARD falls a little more in the domain of didacticism.

NEW GODS, Jack Kirby.

PALOMAR, Gilbert Hernandez.

PEANUTS, Charles Schulz

SANDMAN, Gaiman/various artists.

SPIDER-MAN-- Lee/Ditko

SPIRIT, THE-- "The Curse," Spirit Section 10/16/49, Feiffer/Eisner. THE SPIRIT is a particularly challenging title where, if one is searching for symbolic values, one has to avoid being drawn into the formal elements of storytelling as such. This story, focusing on the doomed love of the quixotically-named couple of Jimson Weed and Cider Sue, is not one of the best-known Spirit tales but has, like the Cole story mentioned below, a deeper symbolic resonance than most of the "famous" stories.

STINZ, Donna Barr, "The Bobwar," Stinz v. 3, #3-- Centaurs got folklore!

SUPERMAN, "Superman's Return to Krypton," SUPERMAN #141-- Siegel/Swan. The mythos of Superman is replete with dozens of good examples of symbolic complexity, but this 1960 tale is probably one of the most appealing. It may be the sustained mood of Weisinger-era Krypton tales like this one-- the kind of mood that practically says, "If I forget thee, O Krypton"-- is a subtle recasting of Jewish-American feelings toward the history of Israel, though some of Siegel's feelings of loss may result from losing not Israel, but the rights to the Man of Steel.

TERRY AND THE PIRATES, second "Dragon Lady" continuity, Milt Caniff. Fittingly Caniff introduces his best myth-character in his first Sunday sequence, but it's not until her second appearance that the Dragon Lady shapes up as a major player in the incarnation of Caniff's racial mythologizing.

TOMB OF DRACULA, Wolfman/Colan.

TRUE CRIME COMICS, "A Match for Satan,"True Crime Comics #2, Jack Cole. The story about the eye-injury jazz is purely for squares; this tale, about a fast-talking but murderous bumpkin with an oral fixation on chewing matches is Cole's truest contribution to crime mythology.


URUSEI YATSURA, "A Good Catch" (English title)-- Rumiko Takahashi. This was the first Urusei story that set up the "battling lovers" concept of the title, complete with a chimerical take on Japanese "oni" mythology.


WAR OF THE WORLDS, Conway, McGregor et al-- If you had asked me back in the 70s I would have said that only the McGregor/Russell work on this title made it of interest. However, upon re-reading the early issues for my WOTW article in BACK ISSUE, I find that Gerry Conway actually gave the series more of a mythic backbone than I used to think.

WATCHMEN-- Moore/Gibbons. And this one's here too. Again, no big surprise.

WONDER WOMAN, Marston/Peter. Despite the title's risible evocations of fetish-fantasies, Marston's creation is still the first comic-book costumed hero to evince something akin to a philosophy.

X-MEN, "Dark Phoenix Saga," Claremont/Byrne. In addition to providing the usual helping of pulpy thrills, the transformation of Jean Grey from Marvel's wimpiest superheroine into a cosmic marauder still sparks a fair amount of debate about the representation of feminine characters in the comics mainstream.

YUMMY FUR-- Chester Brown