What are the 20 most significant comics in American comics history?
The schedule got tightened a bit with the graphic novel, so I’m a little under the gun this week, but someone asked me about this awhile ago and I’ve been meaning to answer. The following are, in chronological order, comics that changed the nature of the industry. Not necessarily permanently, and it’s not all a matter of artistic value. In fact, little of it is. But let’s face it: despite the thousands of comics published, there are very few – very few — that seriously changed either the business or public perception of it. These did.
Max Gaines’ brainchild, the one that started it all, collecting reprints of popular comic strips in magazine form, monthly edition. (A one-shot collection, apparently to test the waters, had been issued the previous year.) It was so successful, even in the depths of the Depression, that it instantly spawned dozens of imitators vying for comic strip reprint rights, thus launching both the comic book industry and the legend that comics do well in times of economic downturn.
Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson: savvy visionary or a desperate businessman? In any case, eager to get in on the new comic book market, the major-come-lately made the disheartening discovery that all the comic strips worth publishing had already been bought up by other publishers, so he pursued the next best option, and solicited new material to publish, creating the first all-new comic book. Not that there were any strips of particular note in it, nor that someone else wouldn’t have ended up in the same place sooner than later, but Wheeler-Nicholson got there first. (Not coincidentally, he may have also been the first publisher to start stiffing contributors on payment when the going got rough, and it got rough for him very soon thereafter.)
Where other comics anthologies were catch-all affairs — a humor strip, a pirate strip, a science fiction strip, a historical drama, etc., all between the same covers — Wheeler-Nicholson’s other innovation was to adopt the pulp magazine format of the comic comprised of a single type of material. To publish it, though, he formed a new company with his printer, Harry Donenfeld, and started Harry on the path to becoming owner of DC Comics.
Arguably one of the two most influential American comics of all time. If nothing else and despite antecedents like Doc Savage and The Green Hornet, the introduction of Superman launched a genre and gave the comics industry something to hang its reputation on. Shortly before ACTION #1 appeared, Donenfeld squeezed Wheeler-Nicholson out (legend has it taking receivership of the Major’s company over unpaid printing bills), and sometime afterward merged Detective Comics Inc. with National Allied Publications to form DC Comics, which then partnered with FAMOUS FUNNIES creator Max Gaines’ All American Comics (AA).
By the end of 1941, superheroes were everywhere, squeezing out other strips, and WWII would extend their reach another five years or so. But this was the first big crack in their hegemony, introducing the instantly popular Archie, who within a couple years had squeezed out MLJ’s own heroes, generated his own decades-spanning mini-empire with the company being renamed Archie Comics, and for the first time making teen life a major focus of comics stories and setting the pace for comics ranging from dozens of teen comedy imitators to AMAZING SPIDER-MAN.
Tapping into the “true crime” genre, publisher Gleason and editors/creators Charles Biro and Bob Wood mixed hefty doses of garish sensationalism, brutally punctuated action and harsh moralism — the title was the theme — in the first comic intended for adults as well as kids. (Biro in particular felt he was producing object lesson fables that were suitable for children.) The series not only became the best-selling comic in the country almost immediately and held that slot for years, giving Gleason a postwar buffer while superhero-centric companies declined and scrambled for new cash cows, it seriously proposed that adults would be interested in comics if the material suited them, presaging the most interesting developments in the market today. (CRIME DOES NOT PAY was one of the books the Comics Code of the 1950s was specifically designed to put out of business.)
Joe Simon & Jack Kirby demonstrated their business savvy and creative adaptability when they fought the post-war, post-superhero collapse by going after a virtually untapped market — girls — with the first romance comic. Which was also ridiculously successful, and romance comics in all their iterations across dozens of companies kept the comics industry financially alive over the subsequent years of decline. (Though Simon & Kirby were by then long gone, the series kept Prize Comics afloat until 1963, when they finally sold out to DC Comics, which kept YOUNG ROMANCE going another twelve years.)
Arguably the other most influential American comic of all time. In collaboration with one of the greatest assemblages of comics artists in history, Harvey Kurtzman not only tapped into the satirical irreverence and cynicism bubbling up all over Korea-era American culture and spawned dozens of imitators, he generated the best selling comics magazine ever, and taught whole generations of Americans to distrust convention and view the world through skeptical eyes. (Is it coincidence that American gullibility has been on the rise since MAD went into cultural decline in the ’70s?)
The return of the superhero comic, phase 1. Other publishers, and DC itself with the Phantom Stranger, Captain Comet and the Martian Manhunter had puttered with superheroes since the genre died off c. 1949, but this new visually sleeker version of The Flash was the first commercially successful enough to convince DC to give it another go. Not that it was hugely successful — The Flash got three more Showcase tryouts before being given his own book — but it suggested there was a market there again, and paved the way for most of what has happened in American mainstream comics since. The importance of the character himself didn’t last long — The Flash begat the Justice League Of America begat The Fantastic Four, meaning Stan Lee was right around the corner to already sound the death knell for DC/Julius Schwartz-style superheroes, though they took a long time fading — but beyond its impact on the direction of mainstream comics, The Flash’s resurgence got the ball rolling on what would become comics fandom, itself a huge influence on the direction of the business in the ’70s and ’80s.
Almost goes without saying, doesn’t it? For Marvel you can pick either FANTASTIC FOUR #1 or AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #1, but while FF came first, Spider-Man became by far the more popular, influential and culturally pervasive concept, and AMAZING SPIDER-MAN also solidified the Stan Lee approach (with considerable input from Steve Ditko) much more than FF. Unsurprisingly, many talents and companies are still trying — unsuccessfully — to create “the new Spider-Man” today, and for a long, long time it was the comic book all other comic books had to live up to. Why not his first appearance, AMAZING FANTASY #15? While the character’s important origin story, it reads a self-contained set piece, more in the style of Lee/Ditko’s moralistic fantasy stories or Lee/Kirby monster tales; all the elements that comprise what we consider Spider-Man didn’t come into play until he went into his own book, whose numbering alone suggests a new beginning for both the character and Marvel.
The first widely acknowledged and sought-after (and, by some reckonings, the first “official”) underground comic, and the first popular acknowledgement of Robert Crumb, who somehow evolved from misanthropic Cleveland dweeb to the creative voice of his generation. At any rate, ZAP‘s success created underground comics as a business, and within months they had their own major publishing houses and national distribution systems, with some books like Gilbert Shelton’s ridiculously popular FABULOUS FURRY FREAK BROTHERS outselling even AMAZING SPIDER-MAN by a huge margin. Though a Supreme Court obscenity ruling all but shut down the undergrounds in 1973, they had established an adult market for comics with “non-mainstream” content and influenced subsequent publishers and creators to push the content envelope (both Warren magazines of the ’70s and HEAVY METAL owe an enormous debt to underground sensibilities, as does the ’70s “ground level” creator-owned semi-mainstream comics movement) and introduced or reintroduced a wide range of styles, approaches and subject matter that comics talent mainstream and otherwise have been working with ever since.
Originally intended to be an ongoing series in a larger format, Gil Kane’s future barbarian epic BLACKMARK broke with tradition and became the first non-humor/non-reprint creator-controlled comic book going straight to book form and published by a major book publisher rather than a comics publisher. More for that than for its content, a vividly told but not especially original tale of humanity’s resurgence after a fall from technological grace (feeling less original today than when it was published due to numerous comics repeating the same riffs ad nauseum since), BLACKMARK became the prescient benchmark of the industry’s future in the book trade and evidence for talent in the ’70s that comics-as-books was not only possible but something to be desired.
By pursuing, with urging from Robert Crumb, mostly documentary vignettes of ordinary people leading ordinary lives told with unadorned grace and effortless timing, Pekar created the most important self-published comic of the ’70s (sorry, Dave) while his autobiographical material inspired that sub-genre, though few make the mundane as interesting as Pekar does.
Certainly the most influential superhero comic since AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #1. While it would be nice to credit latter-version creators Len Wein and Dave Cockrum for the book’s significance, it didn’t really break out until it fell to team Chris Claremont and John Byrne, who set the new standard for superteam books, amping the original Lee-Kirby concept of the X-Men as a subculture of misfits into hyperdrive and setting the stylistic standard for the dozens and dozens of superteam books to come, as well as significantly altering what superhero comics were supposed to be about. But even their run had been on for a little over a year when this issue blew the book wide open, introducing not only ingénue superhero Kitty Pryde (the result of an editorial dictate that the book was supposed to be about a school for mutants, one of those conceits that even Lee & Kirby barely ever paid lip service to) but the Hellfire Club, whose presence introduced even greater levels of moral ambiguity into the material and started the arc that has been copied throughout mainstream comics ever since: the transformation of core heroine Jean Gray into Dark Phoenix, presaging virtually everything mainstream American comics would become over the next 15 years.
The birth of alt-comics, though the series and the trend wouldn’t really catch fire for several more years.
The most important “third company” comic ever published, AMERICAN FLAGG! was not only a modernist tour-de-force but the first real indicator that the smaller companies sprung up in the wake of independent distribution might not only creatively challenge Marvel and DC on their own territory but surpass them with edgier, more sophisticated material that could be more daring, much funnier and playfully sexier than what Marvel or DC (or most independents) allowed. More than any other comic of its time, AMERICAN FLAGG! gave credence to the value of independent publishing and inspired much of the “anti-Puritanical” trend of the ’80s; it’s hard to imagine DARK KNIGHT RETURNS or WATCHMEN, or any number of other comics existing without it.
While it began as essentially a fanzine reverently “homaging” both the Claremont/Byrne X-MEN and Frank Miller’s DAREDEVIL, Kevin Eastman & Peter Laird’s whimsical creation spurred a whole industry of black and white comics, many of them blatant TURTLES knockoffs, to feed a wide range of independent distributors who had sprung up with the nascent direct market — and wiped out a number of those distributors a couple years later when the b&w market burst. The Turtles, of course, survived that to become toy and cultural phenomena, and inspired the first serious look at comics in some time by outside moneymen looking to bottle lightning twice, which helped feed the comics mania of the early ’90s.
By 1986, other graphic novels had been published, but few had been published by a major book publisher and no other elicited wider attention for the business or more controversy than Art Spiegelman’s long-in-the-making memoir of his parents’ life as Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe intercut with his own memories of his parents and how his widowed father’s contemporaneous behavior evolved from that nightmare past — and what it all meant for him (and, by extension, us) now. More than any other graphic, MAUS created a public perception of comics as a serious medium for literary expression, and was instrumental in the subsequent development of “literary comics.” Not to mention it’s the only comic to win a Pulitzer Prize.
Not significant so much for the content (see #14) as for being the first Image comic published, and starting the land rush to “superhero universes” among new and old comics publishers large and small and triggering the speculator boom that jacked industry profits to unprecedented astronomical levels for several years before the speculator crash almost took the whole business, including Marvel and DC, away. If there’s a company that started it all, it’s the high-profile Image, built around an extremely successful and popular creator collective of (former) Marvel stars, and YOUNGBLOOD was the very visible tip of that iceberg. The other big effect Image had was to discourage major companies from placing as much emphasis on their creative talent — employed as a big marketing gimmick in the ’80s — as on their characters and properties.
This is sort of a chicken and egg one, since the main trend in American comics this decade has been the manga invasion, but manga have been published here and there in America for decades. Yet LONE WOLF AND CUB, the first manga strongly focused on by the American comics press, and other touted manga like BAREFOOT GEN, had no particular influence on the American market. (The highly-regarded and beautifully produced AKIRA, published by Marvel’s Epic line, was never even finished.) I considered NAUSICAA OF THE VALLEY OF WIND, the first publication by Viz, the most successful of the American manga publishers, in 1988, but that book had almost no effect on the industry and it seems arbitrary to single it out amid the many manga being republished here by many companies, with no more effect. American-reprinted manga in the ’80s and ’90s was a stream chipping away at a mountain. It wasn’t until Viz began its assault on bookstores with trade paperback collections (combined with exposure of anime on Cartoon Network and other TV channels) that manga began making serious headway at any level of American society. SHONEN JUMP represented the culmination of that process; by producing a thick, widely-available, and ultimately very successful magazine reprinting manga series made widely known via anime versions — Dragonball Z and Yu-Gi-Oh – and those about to become known – Naruto and Bleach – SHONEN JUMP jacked manga in America from a cult obsession to a household word, and bypassed traditional American comics distribution to do it.
Again, bear in mind this list is a result of observation, not taste; some of these books I don’t even like. That doesn’t make them less significant. But doubtless I’ve left off many others think are more significant in the development of the business (if this were at top 30, I’d have to split hairs on what constitutes “significance,” and have to explain why, say, NEXUS #1 is significant and THE LONGBOW HUNTERS #1 isn’t) but I’d be more than happy to hear your lists and brief reasons why, and run them in forthcoming columns. Anyone?
A couple comments on last week’s contracts article:
First, Nat Gertler, over at the Permanent Damage Message Board correctly interjects that one option often (though I’d say sometimes) open to freelancers who have signed bad contracts is to renegotiate the contract. While this would be an optimal choice, it requires two interested parties, which means it’s only a workable option if a) your publisher wants to be viewed as a reasonable guy or b) he perceives your happiness as beneficial to his long term success. But in many situations there isn’t sufficient motivation for one party to re-cut the other a better deal while a contract is still in force. Still, worth a shot before you try any other action.
A reader writes, regarding my second point about reading your contract first yourself before you sign and asking for plain English clarifications on ambiguities:
“With all due respect to your best intentions, this is absolutely dreadful advice. The reason that contracts speak legalese isn’t so that ordinary people will get confused; it’s because–as you said–interpretation is the flashpoint of most contract litigation, and the courts have developed entire bodies of case law about how to interpret what certain words, phrases, clauses mean and are supposed to mean. When a contract states something a certain way, it’s often because there’s well-settled case law about how that phrase should be interpreted. Telling a lawyer to redraft a contract and “replace it with what you just said” is precisely the kind of thing that will end up in court, because now that new explanation will now be subject to entirely new, untested interpretation–exactly the thing you’re warning against.
Remember, although it’s absolutely essential for someone signing a contract to understand it, the fact that escapes most people is that their contract is not written for them. The most important person who will ever read your contract is a judge, and it’s essential that it’s written in his language, not yours. As the saying goes among all good writers: Know your reader.”
I wasn’t really suggesting anyone have their contracts written clause by clause into plain English; you’re right that there are times when legalese will do a better job of ensuring that a contract does what you want it to. Hopefully you have a lawyer good enough to be able to explain when that’s the case. I was specifically referring to clauses that allow for ambiguous interpretation — and that’s especially common in entertainment law. Sometimes what you think sounds ambiguous isn’t, that’s true enough, but sometimes what your lawyer thinks isn’t ambiguous is. But if you think it is, you should be ready to explain how. In general the best advice is to get a lawyer whose judgment you know you can trust, except where you know he’s wrong. With most good lawyers that doesn’t happen that often, but it’s still your contract and still part of your job to double check. And as far as I know, most judges are relatively good at reading plain English anyway.
Notes from under the floorboards:
Don’t forget that my ODYSSEUS THE REBEL webcomic drawn by Scott Bieser is currently running at Big Head Press, while Boom! Studios continues to run TWO GUNS online. Both are free, so you’re out of excuses. Go! And Image still has the action-adventure graphic novel THE SAFEST PLACE available, with maybe Tom Mandrake’s best art ever, so pester your retailer for it if you haven’t got it already.
If you’re around Portland OR or Flemington NJ on the afternoon of October 26, drop into Excaliber Comics (2444 SE Hawthorne Blvd, Portland OR) or Comic Fusion (42 Main St, Flemington NJ) respectively to take part in the second Wonder Woman Day, to meet with comics creators, take part in art auctions and aid domestic violence shelters that will benefit from the events.
By the way, Veteran’s Day Weekend in Las Vegas sees the Clark County Library System’s Vegas Valley Comic Book Festival at the Clark County Library at 1401 E Flamingo, from 11A-3P, Saturday Nov. 8. I’ll be there on panel discussions and signing, and so will Neil Gaiman, Dwayne McDuffie, Steve Niles, Gilbert Hernandez, Deryl Skelton, Chris Staros, Gary Groth, Charles Holbert, Drew Edwards & David Hadju, as well as a number or comics dealers and publishers. Last year’s was lots of fun; this year’s looks better. See you there.
With all their standard stratagems seemingly getting no traction this year — even Winky Palin was forced to apologize for declaring that McCain backers were the country’s only real Americans — and with most of America more concerned about where their next paycheck is coming from (polls, which I don’t put a lot of faith in, suggest that fully half of Americans are growing increasingly concerned about their own long term abilities to pay their mortgages and credit card debt than about who Barack Obama knew in passing ten years ago), I’m starting to wonder what rabbits Republican kingmakers will try pulling out of their hats over the next couple of weeks, especially with prominent Republicans like Chris Buckley and Colin Powell throwing their support to Obama and decrying closet racist tactics to undermine him. (The latest McCain-Palin buzzword for Obama is “socialist” on the basis that he wants to raise taxes on the wealthy but are obviously trying to evoke the specter of liberals giving middle-class money to “welfare mothers.” But that’s not getting much traction either, since the Republicans seem to have forgotten the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc fell pushing 20 years ago now, and the biggest nation still Communist/Socialist — because in GOP-speak socialist is a euphemism for communist — is China, which the Ghost’s White House, and presumably a McCain-Palin White House that has already decided to keep all the Ghost’s major expeditures operative, is borrowing all the money to keep the Iraq War and now the bailout — and the bailout or three yet to come – going.) I’m expecting some sort of tricky assault on Obama’s growing popularity over the next couple weeks, but the main problems for the Republicans right now is the sense that they’re growing increasingly crazy-desperate, and McCain himself, who has shifted gears so many times now since the GOP convention that he’s perceived as having stripped his transmission. In 2004, the Ghost was helped out at the eleventh hour by a videotape from his old pal Osama bin Laden; too bad Ho Chi Mihn is dead…
I find Christian Slater’s acting pretty entertaining, and the premise — a spy whose personality switches between two distinct identities, one of which doesn’t know the other exists — sounded intriguing, so I wanted to like MY OWN WORST ENEMY (NBC, Mondays 10P). But I didn’t, based on the first episode. Slater’s fine, and makes it watchable, but the premise quickly became unwieldy and if there’s any question that huge dollops of the show were “inspired” by Steven Moffat’s BBC mini-series JEKYLL from a couple years ago, those doubts were swept away by the dangerous spy personality being named Edward and the milquetoast family man being named Henry — cute — and by their techno communications with each other, since when one personality is awake the other sleeps. The character’s increasingly uncontrolled jumps between Henry and Edward are a mystery left for later episodes, but what really needed explanation (besides the lumpen dialogue that almost universally sounded like high schooler’s auditioning for an amateur theater revival of FU MANCHU) is why Edward’s superspy organization even thinks the setup is necessary. Slater’s good and handles both roles with requisite gusto, but the show around him is too annoying to stay interested in.
Checked out Wikipedia’s entry on the superhero Britcom NO HEROICS and was surprised to find myself quoted in it, falling on the side reviling the show. I have to say it has gotten better in the last couple weeks, especially segments focusing on homicidally-inclined bored seer Timebomb, whose ability to see a minute into the future usually provides each episode’s best punchlines, and the appearance of a character’s semi-estranged father, an old time superhero who’s a right bastard straight out of the Warren Ellis playbook. Still kind of too little too late, but at least it’s a step up. (They’ve also been cameoing regulars from the old SPACED Britcom, if that’s of interest to anyone.) Meanwhile, HEROES (NBC, Mondays 9P) still plays like treading water, but the arrival of Fred Ward as the season’s main villain at least provides new incentive to watch…
Hey, how come after all that talk about how we’ll know how the bailout money is being used, now that the checks are being handed out the practical details are being squelched? This is still our money (in the sense that we’re the ones who’ll ultimately have to pay China back), right?
Congratulations to Russ Kazmierczak, the first to spot last week’s Comics Cover Challenge theme was “triangle.” Russ wishes to point your attention to A Comic A Day, which is, as he puts is, “an editorial/comics review thing.” I liked it. Check it out.
I’m pre-empting this week’s Comics Cover Challenge because all the unconnected covers above would make it too confusing. Come back next week for the next challenge, okay?
TOTALLY OBVIOUS. Collecting all my “Master Of The Obvious” columns from 1998-2000, with still relevant commentary on comics, culture, creativity and the freelance life, revealing many previously unvoiced secrets behind all those things.
IMPOLITIC: A JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEARS VOL 1. Collecting my political commentary of the early terror years, from Sept. 2001 through April 2005, revealing the terror behind the War On Terror.
HEAD CASES. A collection of comics scripts from work done c. 1992-1995 for various companies, including an unused script. Annotated.
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Please don’t ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.
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I’m reviewing comics sent to me — I may not like them but certainly I’ll mention them — at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send ’em if you want ’em mentioned, since I can’t review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can’t do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.