Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Meme Week (Part 1): My Desert Island Comics

Damn you, Marc Mason! Your meme is the stuff that obsessions and sleepless nights are made of. Rather than a selection of greatest hits, I’ve gone with a list that is thematic, sentimental, and context-specific. If I were stranded on a desert island, what would concern me most, I suspect, are elemental things like memory, friendship, family, philosophy, and imagination. Here’s my list:

1. The Complete Tintin

Back when I was a kid, before I became a comic “collector,” there was Tintin. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a time before Hergé’s intrepid, often zen-like hero, or his supporting cast: Snowy, Captain Haddock, the Thompsons, and Professor Calculus. These stories of the boy-reporter’s globe-spanning adventures were my earliest substantial introduction to the sheer hugeness and diversity of the world and its people. They are quite simply the most important landmark in my own imaginative geography, and in the development of my aesthetic tastes. Hergé’s famous “clear line” style was my first prolonged encounter with the sublime in art, and so many years later, the power of his drawings to provoke wonder, excitement, and laughter remains undiminished. There are problems with this series, to be sure: the racism that mars some of the stories is unfortunately not incidental, but inherent in the colonial fantasy of a white protagonist who can go anywhere, do anything, and do it better than the natives that informs and organizes many of the adventures. And yet, works like Red Rackham’s Treasure, The Seven Crystal Balls, and Explorers on the Moon are undeniably masterpieces of visual narrative. As a document of twentieth-century history and politics, a philosophical examination of friendship and responsibility, an achievement of storytelling, and a pure aesthetic experience, Tintin is unmatched. If I could bring only one comic creator’s work with me to my desert island, it would be Hergé’s, and if I could bring only one of Hergé’s works it would be Prisoners of the Sun, or perhaps Hergé’s own favorite, Tintin in Tibet.

2. The Complete Peanuts

I appreciate Charles M. Schulz’s great work so much more as an adult than I ever did as a child. In fact, although I always liked the TV specials (It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown was a favorite), Peanuts was one of the comics I usually skipped when I read the funnies section of the Winnipeg Free Press. I just didn’t get it. Now, I read most of these tiny masterpieces with a lump in my throat and a sense of perpetual astonishment at their unwavering affirmation of being in the face of a mystifying, often terrifying universe. I will never be a religious person, but age is making me sentimental, and this is a comic that I could actually meditate upon.

3. The Fantastic Four (Vol. 1)

The FF will always be the archetypal superhero book for me, in large part because it was one of the earliest superhero comics I read and its representation of family was foundational to my own thought about what family is and what, ideally, it could be. Moreover, the complete run of this 400+ issue science fiction soap opera is essentially a capsule history of Marvel comics from the 60s to the 90s. In addition to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's momumental run, an impressive array of talents have worked on the series: John Buscema, Roy Thomas, Len Wein, George Pérez, Marv Wolfman, John Byrne, Steve Englehart, Keith Pollard, and Walter Simonson, to name only a few. I’ve never read the series in its entirety--in fact, my knowledge of the whole is incredibly spotty. I had the wonderful Pocket paperback-sized reprint edition of FF 1-6 from 1977, picked up some of the Lee/Kirby era in Marvel’s World’s Greatest Comic Magazine reprint series, and (as readers of this blog know) was devoted to the amazing Roy Thomas/Len Wein/George Pérez era of the 1970s. I was an occasional reader of John Byrne’s legendary run but didn’t become a regular reader again until the 1990s when Roger Stern and John Buscema briefly took the reins. Bizarre as it was, I really renewed my love of the FF during the weird period that followed, when Steve Englehart along with artists Buscema and later Keith Pollard reinvented the team roster under Ben’s leadership and staged a return to the melodrama and cosmos-spanning high adventure days of yore. The self-conscious homage to Lee and Kirby in these issues was the kind of pure imaginative fun that the FF does best. Even if I’m not stranded on a desert island in the near future, working my way through the entire series is a project I’d love to attempt. (FF Pocket Edition cover courtesy of the Big Comic Book Database.)

4. The New Teen Titans (Vols. 1 and 2)

The heroes: Robin, Wonder Girl, Cyborg, Raven, Starfire, Kid Flash, Changeling, Jericho. The villains: Trigon, Brother Blood, The Brotherhood of Evil, Terra, Deathstroke. Marv Wolfman and George Pérez’s New Teen Titans was the best ongoing superhero series of the 80s, rivaled only by Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men. At heart, it was a series about friendship, love, and the ties that bind: Dick and Donna, Dick and Wally, Vic and Sarah, Vic and Gar, Wally and Frances Kane, Wally and Raven, Dick and Kory, Kory and Komand’r, Donna and Terry, Gar and Terra, Terra and Slade… For many of us, these relationships were so fully realized that the characters seemed like flesh and blood. Wolfman and Pérez achieved a synergy on this series that very few creative pairings ever manage. Together they produced the stories that most influenced my vision of friendship, morality, and responsibility throughout my teens and beyond (I feel like I actually lived the first Brother Blood storyline, the Tarmaran/Omega Men saga, “Runaways,” NTT Annual 2, and “Who Is Donna Troy,” so emblazoned are these issues on my memory). The series also features some of the finest art of Perez’s career, particularly those issues where he inked his own work. Simply put: this comic makes me ridiculously happy.

5. Swamp Thing (Vol. 2)

Yes, Watchmen is Alan Moore’s masterpiece, but if I were abandoned on a desert island, I think I would prefer the more unruly structural looseness of Swamp Thing to the dazzling formal control of Watchmen. The picaresque nature of Swamp Thing’s journey gives the book a kind of visual and philosophical expansiveness that, for all its subtlety and genius, Watchmen’s brilliant deconstruction of the superhero doesn’t quite match. Another reason Swamp Thing makes my list is that it is one of the few comics that has ever actually frightened me. I’m a horror fan, and Swamp Thing is a genuinely terrifying book, something which owes as much to Steve Bissette and John Totleben’s beautiful/nightmarish art as it does to Moore’s ghastly scenarios.

And yet, it is also one of the most realistic and moving love stories in comics. Swamp Thing #34, “Rite of Spring,” in which Swamp Thing and Abby Holland consummate their relationship in a most unusual way, remains one of my all-time favorite issues of this or any series: as a love story it is a minor masterpiece, but it is also, philosophically, one of the most inspired representations of the possibility of an ethics “rooted” in an intersubjective relation of difference that I have ever read. At the end of the day, Swamp Thing, like several of the comics on this list, is an encyclopedic work. It spans an extraordinary array of genres: gothic, romance, satire, science fiction, philosophy, and even superhero adventure. It asks big questions about desire, power, and the nature being, and the answers it hazards are ultimately optimistic and inspiring. Besides, the horrifying “Marooned” subplot in Watchmen might hit a little too close to home if I’m trapped alone on an island, whereas learning how to make love to a vegetable might turn out to be surprisingly practical information.

Comics I’d no doubt wish I’d packed:

Watchmen, Eightball, The Complete Carl Barks Library, WE3, The Invisibles, Doom Patrol, Sandman, Love and Rockets, Calvin and Hobbes, It's a Good Life if You Don't Weaken, Night Force, Uncanny X-Men (ca. 1980-84), The Legion of Superheroes, and especially “the first 39 issues of the post-Five Year Gap Legion of Superheroes” (good thinking Rob Schamberger!).

Other Desert Island Comics Lists

  • Beaucoup Kevin
  • Chris Allen Online
  • Cognitive Dissonance
  • The Comics Reporter
  • Craigland
  • Crisis/Boring Change
  • Fanboy Rampage
  • Focused Totality
  • Highway 62
  • The Low Road 1 and 2
  • Philip’s Book and Movie List
  • Precocious Curmudgeon
  • The Silent Accomplice
  • Size Matters
  • Spatula Forum
  • Tales to Mildly Astonish
  • TangognaT
  • View From the Cheap Seats
  • Zilla and the Comics Junkies


    Hate Filled Poster said...

    I need more time in the day. I'll try to have mine up this weekend if I think about it.

    Jim Roeg said...

    Ha--no kidding! I could use a 36-hour day, myself. I look forward to your list!

    Hate Filled Poster said...

    "whereas learning how to make love to a vegetable might turn out to be surprisingly practical information."

    Lol. I missed that line on the first read through.

    Anonymous said...

    The Swamp Thing trade is a fantastic pick. One of the definite memories I have involving comics is getting SAGA as a present on 1995's Christmas Eve (tending, as we did, to open 90% of our gifts once midnight hit and exhilirating X-Mas Eve became another rather forgettable X-Mas Day) and racing through it when my family came home from the celebration - I think I stayed up til 4 AM reading it. I can think of few comics I've read that match the intensity of the Arcane returns/Hell arc (a certain panel - "...everything bad within three-hundred miles finds itself heading toward Louisiana" - finds its way to my mind at the oddest moments) . Naturally, the veggie-tale sex ish which ends the trade gets well-deserved praise ("check out them metaphorical details!"), but the oft-overlooked POG is probably my fave - Moore's exquisite playfulness with the language (I wish I could get paid for writing ingenious puns), the various POGO references (Moore playing on Kelly's oft-quoted "the enemy is us" in the final pages), plus the delightful art by Shawn McManus (where is he anyway?). And talking animals, of course - any work that includes anthropomorphic critters gets my immediate attention.

    Jim Roeg said...

    Yeah, "Pog" is one of the greats, isn't it? Your post prompted me to reread it--what a heartbreaker. I loved McManus's art too; haven't seen anything by him lately though. And while we're on the subject of anthropomorphism, the other book that I most wanted to include on this list was WE3, a book that does really interesting things with the talking animal convention and which is one of the most moving books I've read in a long while. Like "Pog," it's power is in its (deceptive) simplicity. (And I agree: that Pog dialogue is amazing.) Thanks for commenting Richard. Off to re-read Swamp Thing now...!

    Anonymous said...

    WE3 is a fave, of course, and a great comparison that I curse you for beating me to; it's not in my own personal top five, but I cannot contest it's astonishing way of synthesizing a basic and touching tale of animals searching for a home with fantastically innovative (and necessary) storytelling techniques. One of my favorite details can be found in the collage sequence detailing the confrontation between Bandit and WE4 - a small barely noticable frame at the bottom of the scene (easily mistaken for a rat) where we see what I presume to be Bandit's mental image of himself before this clearly superior canine - tiny, inferior, and easily dismissable. It's those various little touches which give one an idea of what makes WE3 so special. Plus talking animals never hurt (I've always been under the impression they all sound like Stephen Hawking, but each with a slightly different emotional resgister that'll come across to any human listeners).

    Dovetailing both notions of "desert island" desirables and Morrison/Quitely collaborations, FLEX MENTALLO ranks as either one or two on my list (neck and neck with SAGA OF THE SWAMP THING, natch). Ever had the chance to read it? It's only four issues long, but feels like it contains the universe plus a few extraneous pieces that should've been included. If various people have mentioned Burroughs in association with Grant's sprawling large epics, in terms of intersecting levels of reality and fiction (creator, character, and fabricator all interact within the text, leaving the reader with the ultimate, probably unanswerable, question of "who created who?") and sheer formal elegance, Nabokov's PALE FIRE seems a more appropriate analogue for FM. I read it once a month, and, to use a tired cliche, I never fail to discover new layers within it.

    Gotta run, stuff to be done.

    Jim Roeg said...

    Hey, Richard,

    Awesome comments--thanks!

    a small barely noticable frame at the bottom of the scene (easily mistaken for a rat) where we see what I presume to be Bandit's mental image of himself before this clearly superior canine - tiny, inferior, and easily dismissable.

    That's a great reading of that detail--I hadn't seen it a all. It makes perfect sense too, since the ambiguity about who or what the animal in that little panel is supposed to be allows us to see it not even only as WE4 (which is the best reading of it, I think) but also as suggesting Bandit himself (they're facing the same direction)--somthing that suggests the similar positions of these "antagonists" and the dreadfulness of the fact that they're fighting each other rather than the real architects of the battle. The additional fact that it looks like a rat is cool too, since it reminds us of the rat biorgs--possibly the most significant animal group to "anchor" the satire.

    About Flex Mentallo: I did read it, a long, long time ago back in floppy form--it was a gift from my best friend. To be honest, though, I can't remember it too well. I am now rifling through my comic boxes to find it (I know it's here somewhere!). Your coments on your site and the link you provide to The (unbelievable!) Annotated Flex Mentallo (at really have me thinking--fanstic stuff. I'll no doubt have a couple of cents to add at some point. Thanks a lot for the really insightful comments! Have you posted your whole desert island list anywhere? If not, I'd love to hear your other picks anyway!

    Briana said...

    Lovve this