Trying to answer an impossible question

So, earlier this week, over at the Back in the Bronze Age blog (hereinafter: BitBA), the host, who uses the online name Redartz, posted a discussion question: If you could recommend to someone a single comic story (may be a single issue, may be a single story), one which impacted you like no other, one you would say EVERYONE needs to read, what would it be? And I started to write down some of my thoughts to that effect in the aforementioned comments thread, but I had so many that before I knew it I had two paragraphs written down, with no end in sight, and it would have probably just provoked the TL; DR reaction. I realized that I basically had an AJS post on my hands.

First, I should note that it’s not the first time I’ve seen that question, or some variation of it, appear on comics blogs or forums; I’m certain I’ve seen it discussed in some form or other at the Classic Comics Forum and the Masterworks Message Boards, and I have no doubt that it came up at the old CBR forums (although I didn’t really frequent those very much).

The short version of my own answer comes down to this: it’s an impossible question to answer. That’s because I can’t think of just one comic story that must be read at the expense of all others, or just one I could recommend to someone with the assumption that such person will never read another. Comics are a huge medium, with so many different styles, covering a multitude of genres, that honestly there’s no way to answer the question in any satisfactory way. But – even though it’s been a busy week and I certainly have better things to preoccupy my time – that didn’t stop me from thinking about potential answers anyway during most of this past week (so that my mind often wandered when I should have been doing something that, you know, actually helps pay my bills).

In that post at BitBA, Redartz answered his own question by choosing Art Spiegelman’s Maus. (By the way, that whole discussion in turn was prompted by a section-by-section review of the entirety of Maus by Doug, proprietor of yet another blog, Black and White and Bronze, now officially on hiatus. Those are worth checking out if you’re interested in Maus – they can all be found in his list of review links).

 

Maus is a pretty good answer to that question, although I have to say that certain similar types of stories that explore traumatic historical events via graphic storytelling also came to mind. Some are just as powerful. Mainly I’m thinking of Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Gorazde, a sort of long-form journalistic account of how the war in that eastern Bosnian city impacted its residents.

 

And bringing it back to treatments of the Holocaust, I can’t help but think of Joe Kubert’s amazing Yossel April 19, 1943, which at places I found just as moving and gut-wrenching as Maus.

But these are only one type of great comics story, and don’t completely encapsulate everything the medium can do. I suppose an obvious answer to this question is the oft-discussed and oft-praised Watchmen, which I’ll never not think is one of the best comics stories ever done. One can argue that it requires at least some passing familiarity with the superhero genre and its various tropes, but I wouldn’t fault anybody for recommending this at “the one.”

Everything I’ve mentioned so far, though, is so damn weighty and serious. But we all know that comics can be so much fun, and there are a lot of pretty fun and entertaining comics that still display craftsmanship in terms of story and art that can impress any reader. A few of the stories that came up in the comments over at BitBA, which also occurred to me, included Bone, proposed by Humanbelly, who occasionally comments here as well…

…and also a personal favorite of mine, the wonderful Manhunter, suggested by Rip Jagger (who also has his own, quite excellent, blog).

He referred to Goodwin and Simonson’s storytelling as “nigh immaculate.” Can’t say I disagree.

Speaking of Simonson, hell, I also thought of Star Slammers, arguably some of the best space opera comics ever done – although it’s more than one story, and I could never say which is the best.

But they’re all in this book – worth picking up if you haven’t already.

There’s also Panther’s Rage by Don McGregor, Rich Buckler and Billy Graham, which partly served as the template for the recent Black Panther movie.

Of course, Will Eisner’s name also came up, although in the context of his later, more serious efforts like Contract with God. I do love that one and have the whole Contract with God Trilogy and a few of Eisner’s other works from that period and later, but personally I think he really did his best work with the Spirit, and if I were recommending something of his to read for someone unfamiliar with comics, that’s where I’d go. But the problem is: which story? They’re all so short, and I can’t think of just one that stands out so far above all of the others. There’s always the solution of recommending a collected volume like Best of the Spirit.

Although personally, I think the best format for the Spirit stories was the Warren magazines from the 1970s…

And I haven’t even touched on any of the wonderful stories done in the funny animal genre by, say, Walt Kelly (of Pogo fame), or Carl Barks and Don Rosa (who took the Disney ducks to a whole other level), to name just a few. Or all of the great underground and indie comics.

And, of course, everything I’ve mentioned so far has either by done by Americans and/or was first published in for the American market. But there’s a whole universe of amazing material created by non-Americans. To avoid doubling, or tripling, the length of this post, I’ll just mention a personal favorite of mine, whose work I have recommended to both comics fans and non-comics readers alike: French comics artist Joann Sfar. His best work? Probably the delightful Rabbi’s Cat (and it’s sequel):

I could go on and on. But I think I’ve made my point: the question just can’t be answered. In fact, I’m having trouble thinking of a similar hypothetical that would involve some other artistic form, i.e., I don’t think anybody ever seriously poses a question like: ‘if you could recommend a single movie/TV show/cartoon/novel…’ Or even: a ‘single song/musical composition/painting,’ etc. You get the idea…

18 Comments

  1. Peter

    You’re absolutely right that there is no answer – I think this question usually comes up in my own brain when I try to introduce comics to family members or friends who haven’t read one before, and knowing my friends’ individual tastes usually helps me tailor a recommendation to them. For some young cousins who liked the superhero movies they’d seen, a collection with the later Ditko and early Romita issues of “Amazing Spider-Man” was a good pick; for an English teacher who taught me Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” “Asterios Polyp” was a solid recommendation that eventually led to a lesson plan at the end of the semester; one buddy of mine who found himself reading Wikipedia articles about DC continuity but never an actual comic was pretty satisfied by the first collection of Grant Morrison’s “JLA.”

    I will say that I recently tried to get a friend into comics by giving him “Manhunter” and he seemed to find it enjoyable but was puzzled as to what about it I thought was “exceptional.” For me, basically every line on the page and word balloon is “exceptional,” but upon reflection, I do think its impact may be lessened if it’s the first/only comic someone has read. I had already read a lot of stuff that was influenced by Manhunter when I first tracked it down, but I had also spent a lot of time reading my completionist dad’s collection of stuff like “Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man” – so I had calibrated a pretty good baseline of workmanlike, functional storytelling over which “Manhunter” didn’t just hurdle but pole-vaulted.

  2. dalgoda7

    A lot of what is considered ‘great’ comics, like several of the examples given, are stories of war or extreme trauma. A lot of the others are what most of us who are already indocrinated into the genre would consider the ‘best’ superhero comics. A lot of other examples of the good stuff are not either of these, but still some specific genre work. If I were to recommend a single great comic story, I think it’d have to be genre-less, for the most part. A story that’d be relatable to someone who didn’t spend years getting used to genre tropes.

    So I’d hand them a copy of Locas, by Jaime Hernandez. Either that, or Heartbreak Soup by his brother. Whichever one came closer to the type of story the friend gravitated towards. Great stories complemented by great comic storytelling. If the friend calibrated themselves to enjoy comic art storytelling, they’d want to see more, maybe in a different genre that already had their interest.

    1. Edo Bosnar

      Yeah, I probably should have mentioned the Hernandez brothers, too. Because honestly, I think I’d probably point a non-comics fan who’s interested in reading something good to pretty much anything by either one of them.

  3. Le Messor

    Like Peter says above, it’d depend very much on the person I was recommending to – so, no, the question can’t be answered wholesale.

    That said, if forced – I might pick something seminal, something influential, something widely regarded as good. Usually those lists include Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns (but I don’t like either of them), and Maus (but I’ve never read it, and never intend to).

    So maybe something I could actually enjoy with them; Claremont / Byrne’s X-Men; Wolfman / Pérez’s Teen Titans.
    And of course, Byrne’s Alpha Flight. I’m always gonna push that on people, even if it doesn’t have the same wide regard.

    If I went international, Asterix, maybe Tintin (but I’ve never liked that one as much. As with Maus, I’m not into serious non-spec-fic, basically.)

  4. Redartz

    Nice post, Edo. As you say, it’s an impossible question to answer. And as several have noted, the answers really depend upon the person to whom you’re making the recommendation. And there are genres available within the comics medium to match the tastes of anyone…

  5. I might base my recommendation on the kinds of movies many people can rally around – underdog sports stories or animal stories – and since there’s not much of the former, I would pick Laika from First Second.

    Yes it’s about the space dog, but it spends all this time making you care only to bring it to its inevitable conclusion. I’ve never cried reading a book before, comic or novel, so I think it could hook people.

  6. I’ve tried the Hernandez Brothers several times. They are pitched at a frequency I cannot pick up at all.
    Joining in with the “no good answer” response. And for some people, nothing is going to work. My wife doesn’t like comics or comic strips at all. If I were going to suggest one it would be Flaming Carrot because she’d either find it hysterical or give me a WTF look; with almost everything else, it’s a guaranteed WTF.
    It’s obscure but WML’s Epicurius the Sage is goofball enough to work for some people (me, definitely).

  7. fit2print

    Shouldn’t we be debating which comic most fully … for lack of a better word… exploits the possibilities of the medium? The peak achievement of comic book artistry? The one that most successfully achieves what no work of prose, poetry, sculpture, cinema etc could do? If I may be so bold, the answer ain’t Don McGregor’s Black Panther… or, for that matter, a superhero title of any description, though I’m just generous (or foolish) enough to consider making an exception for Eisner’s “Spirit.” Admittedly, I’m also stumped but some of the suggestions here …. well, ummm… really?! [Your recommended title} is the high-water mark?! The need-to-read, desert island title?! The one ring… err… funnybook to rule them all?! Besides, let’s face it, the chosen one has to be European so why is anything else even in the running?

    1. Peter

      For me, when I consider this question, I try to think more of what the most likeable (rather than best) comic to read would be, assuming that this one comic could be a gateway to more reading instead of a first and final word on graphic narrative. That’s why I might recommend Lee/Ditko Spider-Man or Bone to someone who has never read a comic before; I don’t think those are the absolute greatest achievements in the medium but they are both great and, more importantly, very hard to dislike.

      I doubt I’d ever meet someone who had never read a novel before and was looking for recommendations, but if I did, “To Kill a Mockingbird” might be the best recommendation because it’s so hard to dislike, even if there are probably more brilliant novels by guys like Georges Perec or Proust out there.

    2. If you want something other media can’t pull off, superhero battles are actually a good example.
      Or, say, Kamandi: pulling off Earth After Disaster at the time Kirby wrote the book would have required a massive budget for F/x and people in animal costumes. So I’m not sure that’s a good choice.
      As for Bone, I love it, but if someone really hated fantasy (and some people do) it wouldn’t be my recommendation.

  8. Jeff Nettleton

    I dealt with actual questions like this, as a bookseller. I always found it best to dig around to find out what the person liked and tailor the response to that. So, to me, there can be no one definitive answer. Maus is a good one, as it is included on school reading lists, these days, as are Persepolis and a couple f others. For fans of any age I say Bone, as it is such a wonderful series, with something for everyone, at any age. The Scholastic editions did huge business, in my old store. Blankets was another good one, for those looking for something more mature and something more in tune with modern prose literature. Alison Bechdel’s work is great for both an LGBT crowd and people who enjoy memoirs. Even in the superhero world, there are multiple answers, since many heroes have unique appeals.

    Sandman probably crossed over more than most mainstream comics. Love & Rockets resonates well with the alternative/indie music crowd, though I find that different people respond to the individual brothers differently. I tend more to Jaime’s stuff; but, the literary world seemed to embrace Gilbert more, with the Palomar stories. Eisner was also a good one for the literary crowd, especially people who liked Jewish novelists, like Saul Bellow or Michael Chabon (especially fans of Kavalier and Clay).

    For young girls, I would throw out Little Lulu, as well as Lumberjanes and Scott Robert’s delightful Patty Cake series.

    Mouse Guard is another great one and would appeal to fans of Brian Jacques’ work.

    P Craig Russell’s opera works, just based on the art, have a wide appeal and his adaptations of Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales are great for children.

    Adult women can be a tougher audience, if they didn’t grow up with comics. Bone is a great one and Gaiman always had a large female following (especially Sandman). Strangers in Paradise was another with strong female readership, as did Love & Rockets. Alison Bechdel’s memoir of her mother is a good one. Neil the Horse is a good one, especially if they love musical comedy. I’ve always found that superheroes are a harder sell to adult women. Watchmen, is one thing, though Moore’s other stuff tends to have more appeal. The Vertigo line, as a whole, seemed to do better with women than the superhero stuff.

  9. Le Messor

    I forgot to say so in my earlier comic, but my vote is in for Bone… with a caveat.
    It can be a hard-sell for people who love fantasy.
    No, really.
    Such people might take one look at the cartoonish designs of the bones and hear the ‘Tolkienesque’ description and be unable to reconcile the two.

    That’s how it was for me, before I read it. I think I’d heard enough good things about it often enough, and I was looking for something I’d like, that when somebody wanted to lend it to me, I finally just accepted.
    Then I got my own copy.

  10. It is a tricky question, because so many of the best comics are dependent upon familiarity with the tropes of the genre.

    A few years back, a co-worker asked me to give him a comic that would show him why I liked them. I chose the 1/2 issue Astro City story, “The Nearness of you,” because I thought it was a self-contained, neat and tidy little story with a solid emotional punch, and (I thought) didn’t require any previous knowledge of Astro City continuity.

    He didn’t like it. And the reason he didn’t like it was he couldn’t make any sense of it. “All of a sudden, the story is interrupted by all these guys in costumes fighting over something and bla-bla-bla about timelines and I had no idea what was going on.”

    There is so much about comics that we are oblivious to, so many background things we take for granted, like even the basic idea of reading the words and pictures together as a cohesive narrative. Some people don’t know how to do that. They ask “do I look at the pictures first and then read the words, or the other way around? Which picture do I look at first?”

    Honestly, at this point, I’m not sure what comic I’d suggest as a gateway.

    1. Le Messor

      They ask “do I look at the pictures first and then read the words, or the other way around? Which picture do I look at first?”

      Frankly, I’m not sure I can even answer that!
      I often find myself reading the words at the expense of the pictures. 🙁

      (Though what I would say is ‘kind of both at once’.)

    2. Understanding Comics made the point about how much of comics reading involves assumptions we take for granted, like the action actually proceeding between the panels.
      I agree with you, clever work with tropes is often wasted on people who don’t know the tropes. Much like satire: I’ve seen older stories that are clearly parodying something then popular and familiar but they don’t do diddly squat for me because I don’t get the point.

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