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…
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.
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…