There seems to be something about fan cultures, or at least heavily masculinized ones, that drives them to compile lists. Lists of the fastest, the newest, and the most. Lists of the greatest and the best. Comic book culture in the United States has frequently embodied these impulses, and the professional fans who write for comics industry publications are no exception. Entire companies have been built around listing and ranking every aspect of comic book collecting.
In 1994, the short-lived Hero Illustrated Magazine released a special issue that sought to define “The 100 Most Important Comics of All Time.” It ranged from New Fun Comics #1 in 1934, through Pep Comics #22, Zap #0 and Cerebus #1, and culminating in Rob Liefeld’s Youngblood #1 (which had been published only two years earlier). Hero’s list foregrounded “importance” – the inauguration of a genre, the first appearance of a significant character, or the debut of a renowned artist. Their longer-lived and more highbrow rival, The Comics Journal, on the other hand, dove headlong into an effort to define the “best” comics of the twentieth century. In 1999, anticipating the new millennium, they called for an “uncompromising re-examination of [comics’] best works,” resulting in one hundred comic strips, comic books, graphic novels, editorial cartoons, and individual stories, both short and long, ranked in order of quality. Since that time, many others have sought to improve on these efforts, always ratcheting up the stakes: in 2005, there were The 101 Best Graphic Novels, by 2008 it had become 500 Essential Graphic Novels, and in 2011 we had 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die. Simply put, there is no shortage of voices eager to point readers to the “best” works of the comic book medium. This is not one of them. We have no intention of lecturing you about the comics that we think you should read. Rather, we want to examine the very processes of list making and curating. We are not interested in what makes great works so great but how any work comes to be seen as great.
If you were asked to select The Greatest Comic Book of All Time, how would you choose? You could start with the works you personally like best, though the question itself seemingly demand a more distanced perspective than one based solely in personal preference. Maybe, like Hero, you could organize your selections on the basis of significance, although this proves challenging if there isn’t an obvious conclusion towards which the arc of comics history bends. You could look at popularity, which would suggest a list of the most widely read or bestselling comics. Or perhaps you could stake your claim on something like quality or excellence. However natural they may seem, these nebulous concepts actually represent the most fraught of all possible options, for it usually involves some combination of all the aforementioned factors. Nonetheless, the idea that there is something that we can term “quality” is widely accepted. While individuals might quibble as to what constitutes artistic excellence and which works best embody it, we generally act as if something called excellence exists – it is the necessary assumption behind every review, best-of list, and word-of-mouth recommendation – but that assumption is wrong. While an entire history of critics from Matthew Arnold to Harold Bloom have sought to identify excellence as an intrinsic and objective element, we contend that excellence is not a property of works but a judgment asserted on their behalf. Comics are not self-evidently great, rather they are claimed as great by powerful actors within the field, and these judgments may be accepted – and consequently reinforced – by certain reading communities. For many readers, the presence of Youngblood #1 on the Hero Illustrated list and its absence from The Comics Journal’s list means that one of them is wrong. We do not regard the question as one of veracity; rather, we see the both lists as competitors in a struggle to define the way excellence is perceived in comics. Each uses differing assumptions and seeks to impose them by swaying readers to their point-of-view. Thus, the very idea of excellence obscures the real processes at work that permit something to be selected as excellent. “This is the Greatest Comic Book of All Time” really means, “Based on my personal reading experiences and cultural habits, I am comfortable asserting that ‘This is the Greatest Comic Book of All Time’ because it exemplifies what I have come to value in comic books.”
If excellence does not exist, the same cannot be said of value. Whenever someone says something is good or bad, they are making a value judgment about it, and over time the sum total of these judgments may cohere into a critical consensus. Although judgments of taste can seem natural and reflexive, we want to stress that value is socially produced and performative. When people treat something as if it were valuable (even or especially when they disagree with that evaluation), they are generating and maintaining its value. This is, moreover, a multi-directional process: from the top down, high-status individuals and institutions confer value on a work (by reviewing it favourably or awarding it prizes, for example); from the bottom up, a larger number of lower-status individuals and institutions defer to the work’s status (by talking about it, paying to access it, or recommending it to others, for example). We use the term “value” here as a rough equivalent to Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of symbolic capital. While the “three fundamental species” of capital (namely, economic, social, and cultural) are perhaps more easily and intuitively grasped, symbolic capital “is the form that one or other of these species takes when it is grasped through categories of perception that recognize its specific logic.” Any given work or creator will have differing levels of economic (i.e., sales), social (i.e., buzz and connections), and cultural (i.e., prestige) capital, but symbolic capital represents an overall index of social status. However, qualities may be valued differently in different places, historical periods, or social milieux. For example, economic capital is always economic capital – you can always buy things with it – but it may also function as symbolic capital among people who believe that being wealthy is distinguishing rather than vulgar and defer to its possessor. The more or less shared context for individual value judgments is a regime of value. In other words, symbolic capital, or value, is a function of the regime of value that teaches us to esteem certain qualities rather than others.
Our goal with this book is to examine the logics by which the canon of American comic books has been constructed – and, more properly, how it is currently being constructed. The question of canonicity, which suggests enduring popularity or significance and a quality that transcends local or personal judgments of excellence, lies at a further remove from mere value. It is the step from “good” to “greatest,” from best of this year to best of all time. Works enter the canon when it is impossible to imagine their absence from any list of “great works,” when their omission would render the entire list absurd. They have been culturally coded as important, influential, or excellent for so long that their inclusion becomes quasi-automatic. Each of us probably has our own sense of what are the best or most important comics, but, the canon is the one backed by institutional power: by reviewers and critics, by museums and galleries, and by scholars and educational institutions. While academics may have questionable influence in determining a work’s reputation, they have an unparalleled ability to cement it by the choices they make of what works to study and to teach. As a result, this book is also in many ways about the practice of comics studies, about how and why scholars choose their objects of study and the implications of these choices for the field of comics generally.
Perhaps all of this begs the question – is there a canon of American comic books? Many would balk at this idea, but it is our view that a canon plainly exists at this point in time. Much has been made of comics’ recent, almost meteoric rise in estimation, but this newfound legitimacy is not evenly distributed. In the introduction to 500 Essential Graphic Novels, Gene Kannenberg, Jr. ventriloquizes a casual comics reader: “Five hundred? Well, I know about Maus and Persepolis, but… Are there really even more than five hundred graphic novels in total?” There are indeed more – vastly more, if one includes the broader category of comic books – but in another sense there are far fewer. In theory, all texts are equally available for critical commentary. In reality, only an extremely small smattering of texts are chosen for academic study. In comics studies, there are relatively few texts that are available for and “self-evidently” worthy of close consideration – generally because they intersect with contemporary social debates (e.g., representations of x in comics) or provide examples of certain theoretical paradigms (e.g., comics and the thought of philosopher y). It helps if a work is already well known or esteemed outside the academy. The plausible text, to borrow a term from David Bordwell, is one that can be read in a scholarly fashion: it is well known enough, important enough, or “good” enough to merit being the subject of an interpretive essay or article. In this volume, we are concerned with how and why some comic books have become more plausible than others.
Because comics is a historically marginal art form with a poorly developed critical infrastructure, comics studies has taken its cues from other arts-based disciplines. For example, comic book stories are frequently compared to novels in terms of their complexity of plot, characterization, and theme. Indeed, the very term “graphic novel” is intended to ennoble the comic book by stealing fire from the better-established art form. More rarely, comic book artists may be compared to masters of painterly composition in terms of expressivity, design sensibility, and rendering. Comics and comics studies – like film and film studies before them – have attempted (with mixed success) to imitate the values and discourses of literature and painting in order to legitimate their field. As Bordwell has demonstrated, the “normal science” of literary studies is the interpretation of atypical or exceptional works. In so doing, literary scholars create the thing they purport merely to discover, the “great” work of art.
Asking people whom they think is important, what they think is in the canon, will likely result in a great deal of prevarication. But we don’t have to ask. Following the example of D. G. Myers, who charted the twenty-five most studied American writers between 1987 and 2012 (a list that ranged from Henry James, with 3,188 scholarly articles in that quarter-century, to Robert Frost at 661), we can simply count.
Searching the MLA International Bibliography produces a snapshot of the peer-refereed literature on major comic book authors. Several objections to this approach immediately suggest themselves: not all comics scholarship is produced by scholars of literature and as a result many articles will be missed by the MLA database; in any case, the MLA database is not completely thorough even in its own domains; and, as a young discipline, a great deal of scholarly work on comics is to be found in areas that the MLA does not consider “peer-refereed,” such as conference papers and book chapters from certain non-university presses. These objections are all fair, and the MLA citation count, while suggestive, represents only the minimum amount of scholarship on these authors. To correct for these biases, we examine a second source of data, the Bonner Online-Bibliographie zur Comicforschung (http://www.comicforschung.uni-bonn.de/), which incorporates a wider range of scholarship, including many non-peer-refereed sources (such as The Comics Journal) that are widely considered to be pseudo-scholarly. Running the same names through this bibliography produces a slightly different ranking. If the MLA list under-samples scholarship on comics artists, the Bonn Database may oversample it because it uses a higher level of inclusivity. (Table 1.1)
If we plot the results of these least and most inclusive approximations of comics scholarship on a single graph (fig. 1.1), two notable features quickly emerge. First, a very few creators – Art Spiegelman, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and to a lesser extent Chris Ware – have pulled away from the pack. Charting atop the MLA list and second on the Bonn list, Spiegelman is an extreme outlier on the graph. His citations in each database vastly outstrip every potential rival with the exception of Alan Moore, who is the most cited creator in the Bonn database and thus occupies his own space in the upper third of the graph. Conversely, there is a tremendous amount of clustering in the bottom left of the chart. Even amongst a selection that includes well known and successful cartoonists like Jack Kirby, Jaime Hernandez, Lynda Barry, and Raina Telgemeier, most are not discussed very much, if at all, by the scholars and critics indexed in these databases where the bulk of cartoonists reside. Adding additional names to our queries would simply add to this cluster, for the reality is that the vast majority of authors have never been the subject of any scholarly investigations. Each new name is likely to be another dot in the lower left; all scores are set to zero. Second, the trendline divides the graph in a telling manner, as can be seen in the second panel of the graph, which employs a logarithmic scale in order to allow closer examination of the creators’ relative positions (the logarithmic scale necessarily drops those with citation counts of zero). Figures like Spiegelman, Frank Miller, Barry, and Dylan Horrocks are positioned very close to the line, suggesting that they are roughly equally prominent in the more literary-academic database and the more comics world–oriented one. Others drift farther away. Gaiman, Marjane Satrapi, and Alison Bechdel, for instance, are clustered on the right-hand side of the chart, indicating a relatively high number of citations, but fall below the line. They, like Gene Luen Yang, Martin Vaughn-James, and Jillian Tamaki are discussed more by literary scholars than by comics critics more broadly. On the other hand, Moore, Ware, Hernandez, and Grant Morrison fall above the line, suggesting that they are taken up more by the comics world than by academics writing peer-refereed contributions in MLA disciplines. We further note that creators who are known for exploiting the specificity of the comics form, whether as writers (Moore and Morrison) or a visual stylists (Ware, Hernandez, Kirby, and Crumb) tend to be on the upper half of the graph, while those who are constructed more as “literary” producers, such as Bechdel and Gaiman (notably, his score includes studies of his prose fiction that refer to his comics only secondarily), are found on the bottom half.
Examining this data provides a snapshot of how comics are valued in the academy today. Certain creators clearly emerge from the pack as well-studied figures around whom comics scholars have built what Hillary Chute has termed “today’s contemporary canon.” That canon may be loosely defined and fluid, but it is palpably real. Throughout the remainder of the book, we want to interrogate this phenomenon. We hope to address how the canon emerged, its biases and exclusions, and what might be accomplished by conceptualizing the field of comics – and comics studies – differently. But before proceeding further, we must note three important caveats.
First, with the exception of chapter ten, we are writing almost exclusively about comic books produced in the English-language market (primarily the United States), whether by American or foreign creators. While distinct comics traditions have developed in different countries or regions, each of these worlds, broadly speaking, reproduces the same structural dynamics we have described. So, while it is fair to say that the comics world of the United States is considerably larger and more variegated than that of, say, Iceland, the field of Icelandic comics production can, mutatis mutandis, be mapped in the same way. The actors change, but the roles stay much the same.
Second, the concept of the “field” is only a model of existing social relations. Fields, as we are using the term, are somewhat arbitrary slices of a complex social totality, and their borders can always be drawn differently. For instance, the field of “cinema” could refer to Hollywood, to other national cinema industries, or to a transnational production system; it might be restricted to a particular time period or embrace the whole history of filmmaking; it could conceivably include government propaganda and hygiene films, corporate films, and home movies; and, at a greater level of abstraction, it might include the manufacture of lenses or the silver mining required to make film stock. The more actors and activities a field embraces, the more complicated are the social relations that need to be mapped. We use “field” to mean all of the social, economic, and cultural relations that define the interaction of persons with comic books, although given our concern with processes of valuation, we will end up devoting more attention to cultural intermediaries like critics, journalists, and prize committees.
Third, we are interested in this volume exclusively in comic books, including the subcategory of graphic novels but excluding comic strips and editorial cartoons. We have also excluded proto-comic books from prior to the 1930s, restricting ourselves to those works that are most commonly designated as part of the comic book field. This restriction is not based on nor is it intended to impose a definition of what is and isn’t comics, and it certainly isn’t meant to imply that American comics are more worthy of examination. Despite its many obvious areas of overlap with other forms of comics around the world, we address ourselves to American comic books as a distinct field of cultural activity in order to focus our analysis and simplify the dynamics – and the sources of evidence – under consideration.
While canons are sometimes conceived as a box (you’re either in or you’re out) or a one-dimensional scale running from least to most worthy, we need to explode the traditional list into something more complex and multidimensional if we want to explain how and why particular works develop the reputations that they do. Here again we follow the work of Pierre Bourdieu. We begin by defining a space with two axes – economic capital (sales) on the horizontal and cultural capital (prestige) on the vertical. On the horizontal axis, one could arrange all of the comic books ever published. At the right would be the best-selling titles of all time, while on the left would be a collection of flops. Similarly, at the top of the vertical axis are the works that are the most widely reviewed and most widely taught, the award-winners that everyone is expected to have an opinion on. At the bottom of the vertical axis are those comics that disappear without notice, un-reviewed, uncollected, unremembered. These two axes produce a modified version of Bourdieu’s model of cultural fields. We have tilted the resulting diagram by forty-five degrees so as to reorient it around the total volume of symbolic capital or value, which is now the vertical dimension (fig. 1.2). This map is divided into four quadrants, and we devote the majority of this book to a survey of the major positions within them.
Our first quadrant is defined by both economic and critical success. Works in this quadrant, and the creators who produce them, are among the most esteemed in the field and, thus, the strongest candidates for inclusion in the canon. This is the place to be. Whether critical success leads to long-term sales (as in the case of Spiegelman’s Maus [chap. 2]), or whether long-term popularity drives critical reception (as is, arguably, the case with Jack Kirby [chap. 4]) and the writers affiliated with British Invasion of the 1990s [chap. 5]), the creators in this quadrant are well-known, well-read, and well-studied; their names are widely familiar across the field and even to people outside of it. While actors on the left hand side of the chart are defined by an orientation to cultural capital and prestige and those on the right hand side are oriented to economic success, this division of the field does not neatly align with the traditional split between “mainstream” and “alternative” comics. In some ways, the field of comics is the economic world reversed and reversed again – its more heteronomous sub-field (so-called “mainstream” comics, produced according to an industrial mode of production) is so oriented to a subcultural public of fans and collectors that it resembles Bourdieu’s field of restricted production, while the works described as “alternative” are both more autonomous (being produced in an auteurist or “artisanal” mode) and more oriented to wider readerships. We have reoriented Bourdieu’s field in this way because comics of all types may be successful, but not all popular comics are esteemed. Within this quadrant, those works or authors closer to the center have accomplished the difficult feat of converting cultural capital into economic capital, or, more rarely, vice versa.
The second quadrant belongs to the consecrated avant-garde, those works and creators with a lot of prestige but with relatively little commercial success. Compared with other artistic fields, this corner of the comics world has relatively few occupants: In the worlds of literature, cinema, and visual art, many prestigious, award-winning creators are, nonetheless, virtually unknown to the general public. But comics, which has only recently become competitive for grants from arts councils and is still developing an infrastructure of teaching positions, has not been conducive to the types of career trajectories that enable people to keep making comics that don’t sell. While the field is replete with young avant-gardists, only a very few can stick it out long enough to ascend to the consecrated avant-garde. This quadrant is explored in greater depth in chapter three with respect to the career of Robert Crumb, the most successful of the (economically) unsuccessful creators.
The third quadrant of our chart probably contains the vast bulk of comic book production over the past eight decades: commercially successful work that is not critically esteemed. In the most brutal of terms, this quadrant is filled with what many critics derisively term “hackwork” – comic books produced to sell to particular audiences at specific historical moments; their creators never intended to pursue prestige and so they have none. In academic terms, these comics are the most implausible subjects of study. We explore this quadrant in two chapters. The first of these, chapter seven, uses the example of Rob Liefeld to discuss comic books that, while exceptionally popular in the near-term relative to their production, were never critically acclaimed in any way. Here we examine comics that are the product of a well-oiled promotional machine but which were unable to maintain their hype over time and faded faster than the Macarena. Chapter eight examines the legacy of formerly popular comics through the lens of Archie Comics. At one point in history a market leader, Archie Comics today exists mostly as nostalgia. Each of these chapters examines why it is that certain comics fail to find critical or scholarly favour, and tries to imagine a world in which these comic books would be esteemed.
The fourth quadrant deals with those works poorest in symbolic capital, which have enjoyed neither commercial success nor the esteem of influential cultural intermediaries. This is where unappreciated and unloved comic books go to die, but, at the same time, it is also where new creators and works typically enter the field for the first time. It is the space of “alternative comics” as it is most traditionally perceived, artists and publishers whose work does not (or, at least, not yet) have either significant sales or prestige, as well as of limit cases that risk falling outside of dominant regimes of value. The subject of chapter six, Martin Vaughn-James’s The Cage would likely be placed here. Despite its centrality in certain debates among European comics theorists, it is virtually invisible to the field of comics in the United States. Significantly, neither that book nor its author has a Wikipedia entry – a sure sign of lack of popular attention.
Again, and despite our cheeky title, let us underscore that we are not nominating a list of the best comic books of all time. Rather, we are trying to understand how the structure of the field of comics influences the development of the canon, making some works more “plausible” than others. Individual authors and works are discussed as the incumbents of particular positions in the field, and we could easily have chosen other examples What is most important for us is not the particularity of our case studies, but the larger structures that they incarnate. We have chosen paradigmatic examples of certain archetypes within the field: the most important cartoonist (Art Spiegelman, but we could have used Alison Bechdel, Marjane Satrapi, or Joe Sacco); the critically ignored bestseller (Rob Liefeld, but also George Perez, Michael Golden, or Curt Swan); the cartoonist beloved by academic specialists who is very little read (Martin Vaughn James, but also Phoebe Gloeckner, Julie Doucet, or, outside of Europe, Joann Sfar); and so on. Similarly, we understand that the field is always in flux: works will move across the quadrants we have described, and new ones will take up the positions they have vacated. For examples of how these analyses could be transposed to other case studies, visit our website, http://greatestcomicbook.com.
Having completed a tour of the field of comics, the remaining chapters of the book attempt to identify some counter-logics that trouble our categories. Chapters nine through eleven introduce important variables that have traditionally complicated issues involving prestige. First, what impact do gendered and racialized identities have on the drivers of cultural prestige? What critical obstacles have these creators had to overcome, and how have they begun to enter into the comics canon? Second, we examine how “foreignness,” especially when associated with one of the other major world comics traditions (Japanese manga and Franco-Belgian bandes dessinées), affects a work’s reception within the American comics world. Third and finally, while we may have created the impression that a work’s natural movement is upwards, unless arrested by a gatekeeper, it is also possible for comics and their creators to fall from grace. Chapter twelve addresses Dave Sim’s Cerebus as an example of a once canonical work that is increasingly marginal to the discussion of great comics.
Finally, we conclude the book with an analysis of Dylan Horrocks’s Hicksville. A fictional account of a comics journalist attempting to consecrate a best-selling cartoonist, Horrocks’s story plays knowingly with virtually every aspect of the field. It is a work that understands the dynamics of comics thoroughly, and which permits us to tie the threads of our argument together. In offering an interpretation of this work, we ironically step outside of our meta-analysis in order to position it as the most plausible text with which to study the social operations of the comics world as a whole.
In outlining the operations of comics as a field we hope to emphasize that the comics world is both distinct from and similar to other fields. Following Bourdieu’s analyses, we might note that criteria of value are both specific to a given field and essentially the same across them all. There are different signifiers of quality in literature (depth of characterization, facility with language) and painting (compositional balance, control of line), but the two domains nevertheless share fundamental assumptions about value that are rooted in nebulous terms like “beauty” and “seriousness.” Comics and comics studies are no different in this regard. Recently re-imagined as a kind of literature rather than a distinct medium or form, comics has borrowed so much from the literary field as to replicate it in miniature. (Though it will ever remain the junior partner: recall Myers’s previously cited survey of the MLA database and compare the 3,188 contributions on Henry James to Spiegelman’s eighty-five to show the scope of the disparity.) Yet, we contend that looking at comics through the lens of literature will inevitably produce a distorted picture.
Fredric Jameson once quipped, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.” For some of our colleagues, it is easier by far to envision the end of capitalism than the end of the canon. Despite the form’s dubious and marginal origins, notions of quality, greatness, and exemplarity have become so entrenched in the standard operating procedure of comics scholarship that they – and the biases they introduce – disappear into the background. This is the very definition of ideology, and the ideologies of literary studies make it almost impossible to conceive of comics studies as anything other than a traditional – indeed, deeply conservative – humanities discipline. With this volume, we want to give the comics world a good shake. By asking what it would take for The Cage or Youngblood or Smile to be considered the greatest comic book of all time, we are trying to imagine the end of this comics world and the beginning of another.
 Tom Spurgeon, “The Top 100 (English-Language) Comics of the Century”, The Comics Journal #210 (February 1999), 34. It should be noted that, as a columnist at that time, Bart Beaty was one of the writers who contributed votes to this list.
 Stephen Weiner, The 101 Best Graphic Novels (New York: NBM, 2005); Gene Kannenberg, 500 Essential Graphic Novels: The Ultimate Guide (New York: Collins Design, 2008); Paul Gravett, 1001 Comic Books You Must Read before You Die (New York, NY: Universe, 2011).
 Cf. Leonard Diepeveen and Timothy Van Laar, Artworld Prestige: Arguing Cultural Value (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2013), 22.
 Pierre Bourdieu, “The Purpose of Reflexive Sociology (The Chicago Workshop),” interview by Loïc J.D. Wacquant, in An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 119.
 Arjun Appadurai, “Introduction: Commodities and the Politics of Value,” in The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, ed. Arjun Appadurai (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 3–63.
 Kannenberg, 500 Essential Graphic Novels, 6.
 David Bordwell, Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991).
 Bordwell, Making Meaning.
 D.G. Myers, “MLA Rankings of American Writers,” Commentary, March 26, 2012, https://www.commentarymagazine.com/2012/03/26/mla-rankings/.
 Hillary L. Chute, Outside the Box: Interviews with Contemporary Cartoonists (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 14.
 See, e.g., Pierre Bourdieu, “The Field of Cultural Production, Or: The Economic World Reversed,” Poetics 12, no. 4–5 (1983): 311–56.
 Bourdieu, “Field of Cultural Production,” 320; on “artisanal” and “industrial” modes, see Mark C. Rogers, “Understanding Production: The Stylistic Impact of Artisan and Industrial Methods,” International Journal of Comic Art 8, no. 1 (April 15, 2006): 509–17.
 Fredric Jameson, “Future City,” New Left Review, II, no. 21 (June 2003): 65–79; see also “Easier to Imagine the End of the World…,” Qlipoth (blog), November 11, 2009, http://qlipoth.blogspot.ca/2009/11/easier-to-imagine-end-of-world.html.