Sunday, May 19, 2013

Some thoughts on DC's 25 most essential graphic novels list

If there were a thought bubble over Batman's head in that image, I imagine it would read, "Nice hoodie, Clark."

Part of me thinks I probably should have looked into getting my hands on one of those DC Entertainment Essential Graphic Novels and Chronology 2013 things, as it seems like the publication would make for a great source of blog-post subject matter (Another part of me thinks it better that I don't have one laying around the house, as everyone but me would likely get bored with EDILW becoming a daily analysis of the DCEEGNnC2013).

Tom Bondurant talked a bit about Wonder Woman's short-shrifting in the book last week, which prompted me to think about the most accessible and introductory Wonder Woman stories, and this week The Beat started a relatively interesting discussion of the publisher's top 25 "essential" graphic novels, a list that, intentionally or not, reveals a bit about the publisher, how they see themselves, how they want others to see them and where, in general, they're at right now.

I started to join that discussion, until I remembered I had my own blog, and that it probably makes for a better place for me to babble about comics than the comments section of someone else's blog. Before I commence with the babbling, though, here's that list:


BATMAN: The Dark Knight Returns

THE SANDMAN Vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes

BATMAN: Year One



FABLES Vol. 1: Legends in Exile

BATMAN: The Killing Joke (the Deluxe Edition)

Y: THE LAST MAN Vol. 1: Unmanned



BATMAN: The Long Halloween


BATMAN: Earth One





JLA Vol. 1




THE FLASH: Rebirth

SUPERMAN: Earth One Vol. 1

PLANETARY Vol. 1: All over the World and Other Stories

What I found most interesting—and genuinely surprising—about that list is that in 2013, the year after DC burned down the bridge between themselves and Alan Moore (granted, after he has repeatedly stated his lack of interest in walking back across it) with their risible Before Watchmen project and after DC's company people said some deferential, defensive and slightly ignorant things about Moore and Watchmen (and some of the creators, like J. Michael Straczynski and Darwyn Cooke said some extremely broad, ignorant and depressing things about Moore, Watchmen and the natural state of the comics industry), Alan Moore is the most essential creative force at DC Entertainment (at least in terms of their graphic novel program, as they themselves see it).

A full 40% of that list are books written by Alan Moore. Several are based on characters and concepts he created out of whole cloth with his artist collaborators (Watchmen, V For Vendetta), another features public domain characters he re-created in unique ways (LOEG), another features a pre-existing DC character he so thoroughly re-invented that decades later his version is still the dominant one (Swamp Thing) and another features pre-existing DC characters (Killing Joke). (And if you want to get cute, you could also make an argument that Alex Ross and Mark Waid's Kingdom Come was at least heavily inspired by Moore's Twilight pitch, and the Geoff Johns-written Blackest Night and Green Lantern run in general owes quite a debt to minor work Moore did on the Green Lantern franchise long ago).

That Moore's work is so prominent in that list is remarkable not only of the apparent mutual enmity between he and the company, but also because of how much Moore dwarfs the other writers whose work appears on that list. Geoff Johns, DC's Chief Creative Officer and long-time most popular writer, has four titles on the list (and if one wants to evaluate comics based on the amount of creation that went in to them, it's probably well worth noting that Johns' books are all dependent on pre-existing characters).

Grant Morrison, DC's next most popular writer, has three books on the list (and, again, DC chose only Morrison-scripted stories of their superheroes). Frank Miller and Jeph Loeb have two books apiece, and all of the other writers represented—Brian Azzarello, Neil Gaiman, Warren Ellis, Brad Meltzer, Scott Snyder, J. Michael Straczynski, Brian K. Vaughan, Mark Waid, Bill Willingham have one book a piece.

DC's essential graphic novels, as DC sees it, are clearly writer-driven, rather than artist driven. While there are a couple of writers with more than one book on that list, there is only one artist who has more than one book on the list. Ethan Van Sciver is apparently DC's most essential artist, based on the fact that both his Flash: Rebirth and Green Lantern: Rebirth appear on the list.

All the other artists, for all their talent and popularity and influence over DC and comics in general, have one book apiece, even DC's current co-publisher Jim Lee.
Lee's Superman: For Tomorrow, All-Star Batman and Robin, The Boy Wonder and Justice League Vol. 1: Origin are actually rather odd omissions. The former two have bad reputations, and the latter is just awful, but still, they are all Jim Lee-drawn books, and thus popular books.

The All-Star book features a holy trinity of graphic novel sales generators—Frank Miller, Jim Lee and Batman—and the Justice League book is the publisher's flagship one, and the keystone of their current "New 52" publishing strategy.
Looking at the list, it seems apparent that it is mostly a list of what DC regards as its best-sellers, and the books they plan to keep in print and continue to push above other books. I think it's telling that so many of their recent original graphic novels make the list—Joker, the two Earth One books—and the only ones that don't make the list are easily excusable for having Batman in them (Batman: Noel, The Judas Coin and Batman: Death By Design). That may be the only reason the Grant Morrison-written Arkham Asylum original graphic novel, which has proven so influential, particularly in the video game adaptations of DC Comics, isn't on the list (That, or simply because it's so dated compared to the more time-less Batman trades on this list).

Is it worth noting that there are no "New 52" books on the list at all, and that the dominant source of DC's most "essential" graphic novels are set in the Crisis On Infinite Earths to Flashpoint continuity that the publisher recently discarded?

Of that list of 25 books, 12 of them are set in the old, post-Crisis DCU continuity, and an additional two are alternate future storylines that departed from specific points in that continuity (The Dark Knight Returns is set in a future after the death of Jason Todd in the "A Death in the Family" storyline; Kingdom Come includes a Flashback to the 1990s Daily Planet newsroom, when post-"Reign of the Supermen" Superman and Clark Kent had long hair; I of course am counting Sandman and Swamp Thing books as DC books, as they were both set in the DCU, quite heavily in these particular volumes).

There are two "Earth One" branded books (I'm not sure if it's been made clear whether those two books are set on the same world, or if "Earth One" is merely the way DC is branding the line of books), one from the All-Star line (of which there only ever ended up being two books anyway) and the remaining books all occur in their own "universes."

The emphasis on the old DCU continuity is somewhat curious in that DC has rather loudly trumpeted the irrelevance of these books: JLA, Identity Crisis, Final Crisis, the two Rebirths, these are books that are now well outside of DC continuity, featuring characters who never even existed and relationships that have been wiped out. Some of them apparently still "count", but only in altered, non-existent versions (I'm thinking of Blackest Night for example, and I suppose the jury is still out on Batman: Year One and Long Halloween, which the upcoming "Zero Year" storyline may or may not overwrite).

Of everything on the list, then, I find the Flash: Rebirth collection to be the most curious inclusion. That is, after all, the story of how the dead Flash II Barry Allen, who gave his life during the war against The Anti-Monitor in Crisis On Infinite Earths, came back to life, reclaiming the mantle of the main flash from his own successor, Flash III Wally West.

As of right now, there's only ever been one Flash in the New 52 DCU, with Flash I Barry Allen his entire generation of super-heroes now re-relegated to an alternate Earth and West apparently never having existed. Like GL: Rebirth, it was and is a very complicated—but fun, and well-crafted!—continuity patch of a story. But that continuity doesn't exist anymore, so who cares? Why is DC pushing that book instead of, I don't know, Preacher or Astro City or 100 Bullets or Superman: For Tomorrow or one of those Paul Dini/Alex Ross Justice League books or Starman or Wednesday Comics or anything featuring Wonder Woman or anything at all from The New 52...?

It may or may not be worth noting that much of this list includes some very old comics, which, in one light, doesn't speak well of DC's success in publishing great comics in recent years, but, in another, could simply be reflective of the list being comprised of best- or simply better-sellers.

But Watchmen, Dark Knight, Sandman, Swamp Thing, V For Vendetta, Killing Joke, Year One—these are comics from the 1980s. Kingdom Come, Long Halloween, Planetary, LOEG, JLA—'90s comics.

The rest of the list is of more recent vintage, so it's maybe half-classics, half-stuff from the current Dan DiDio era of DC Comics. Do keep in mind, however, that the most recent books on the list are among the absolute worst books DC has published—the two Earth Ones (but are probably there simply because DC plans to publish more of them, and because they were specifically commissioned as continuity-lite, outreach/gateway books).

Let's see...what else, what else...
Is it worth pointing out that none of the books are written by a woman, and, in fact, there's only one female artist who has work on that list—Y: The Last Man's Pia Guerra—although Lynn Varley's Dark Knight colors and Karen Berger's editing of some of the best books on that list are a good reminder that this list isn't quite as male as it may appear simply by looking at the writers, pencil artists and inkers (Any suggestions for something written or drawn by a woman that DC has done that belongs on this list? The down side of not hiring many women to write or draw for you means that few classic or essential comics have been generated by them in the past. The few women in DC's employ at the moment—Christie Marx, Gail Simone, Nicola Scott—are just working on continuity-heavy, unexceptional work).

Oh, and I was also struck by this list is. There's little to nothing in the list that is truly "all-ages" (JLA, I suppose; Kingdom Come, the Loeb-written Batman comics, All-Star Superman).

Most of it is probably teen appropriate, but these are certainly among the more adult of DC's backlist, including foundational adult-comics imprint titles like Swamp Thing and Sandman, sophisticated titles like those two and Planetary (I think you have to be an adult just to have read and watched enough popular culture to "get" that book's many allusions), Fables and Y.

The Geoff Johns stuff is, naturally, super-gory, especially Blackest Night, which is all about heart-eating zombies. American Vampire is a horror comic, like Sandman and Swamp Thing were at their outset. Watchmen, Killing Joke, LOEG, Joker and Identity Crisis have on-panel rape scenes; Final Crisis has repeated references made to rape (here's one).

If this can be looked at as a document of where DC needs to go as a publisher, then I'd say a) hire more women, b) give Wonder Woman a classic, Year One-like story (maybe Morrison's in-the-works Earth One will fulfill that gap), c) make more all-ages or at least less rapey and/or ultra-violent comics, d) either do away with The New 52 or start making those comics good enough to replace all the "old" DCU stuff on this list and e) either have Johns step up his game or get Morrison to stick around or find the next Alan Moore to start cranking out classics to replace some of the less-essential Moore on the list so DC don't look like such yutzes when they want to slag off Moore either in words or deeds despite being so dependent on his bibliography.


Hey, if this is a subject you're at all interested in, be sure to check out the very thorough review of DC's DCEEGNnC2013 at Collected Editions.


Unknown said...

It's a bit disgusting and ridiculous for me.
I'm not the fan of Alan Moore that I used to be but it's really shameful that they put in there even LoEG with the backstory that he gives of DC buying Wildstorm.
Now, I don't think anyone remembers Identity Crisis today, but other than that I think the list is full of literary gems except for Johns´ work.
It's also a bit sad I think. If you see the list you feel as if there was nothing more to read.
For me, it only helps to fuel that idea of Moore that the super hero industry is a dead (which of course I don't believe.)

Anonymous said...

why is Camelot 3000 not on the list? Or isn't the collected set of the maxi series considered a graphic novel?

Aki Alaraatikka said...

DC comics is like a tragicomic, insane and self destructive person, who needs psychiatric help immediately.