Once more unto the breach

For those of you who can’t wait to get your wonk on until Brian Hibbs writes another 70,000 words on Bookscan sales, Dick Hyacinth has more on his meta-list of 2007’s Best Comics.

I kid, I kid. The entire blogosphere thanks Dick for doing this. As they say where I come from, you’re a dead-set legend.

(Oh, and we thank Brian too!)

As you probably know if you’re reading this blog, Dick collated all the best of lists into a meta-list. In his new post he splits the lists into two types: those that came from comics-specific sources (like Jog, the Journal, etc.), and those that came from more general sources (Time, Salon, etc.).

Then he points out an interesting difference between the two. Lists from comics-specific sources summed to this meta-ranking at the very top:

  1. I shall destroy all the civilised planets
  2. All-star Superman
  3. Alias the Cat
  4. Scott Pilgrim gets it together
  5. Powr Mastrs
  6. Exit Wounds
  7. Shortcomings.

By contrast, general sources gave Exit Wounds and Shortcomings meta-rankings of #1 and #2, respectively.

Prima facie, this is kind of surprising. You might expect to see a lot of variation further on down the list, but more agreement (across the two types of source) about the very best comics of the year.

As an analogy, think about films of 2007. Critics might disagree about the rest of their top ten–was Zodiac among the best of the year? Was The Bourne Ultimatum? Was Norbit? But they mostly agreed that No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood were, between them, #1 and #2, the exact order to be determined by a no-holds-barred cage-match.

In other words, people disagree about the very best. But you might expect them to agree about the very very very best.

Obviously, when it came to the comics of 2007, they didn’t. General sources liked Shortcomings and Exit Wounds rather more than comics-specific sources did. Well, what gives? Here’s Dick’s suggested explanation:

This alone doesn’t prove the “Chris Ware and his ilk have undue influence” theory (especially since there isn’t a whole lot of formally ambitious work on [the general] list), it’s interesting that the four [I think he means five; even Homer nods] titles which bested Exit Wounds and Shortcomings on the comics-focused lists could safely be described as more “fun” than these two graphic novels.

That’s an interesting suggestion. But I’d like to suggest another couple of explanations for the disparity in ranking.

Dick sort of acknowledges this in his aside, but Chris Ware has at least two (often conflated) “ilks”:

(1) the formalist/experimental ilk–think Fort Thunder, Paper Rad, Dash Shaw, et al.

(2) the autobio/depressing/tales-of-everyday life ilk–think Clowes, Bechdel, Matt et al.

The higher ranking of Shortcomings and Exit Wounds on list collated from general sources shows, I suspect, the influence of each ilk among the different types of source.

Comics-specific sources often care a lot about visual aesthetics and get excited about books that look distinctive, use comics-specific technique in novel ways, etc. That’s certainly true for me, and it seems true for Dick from some of his past comments.

By contrast, general sources seem to respond more to more universal narrative elements–by which I mean elements that are common to artworks across different media. Things like dialogue, thematics, plot, etc.

Yeah yeah it’s an overgeneralization blah blah blah…but it seems plausible that lists appearing in general sources, in comparison with comics-specific sources, are more likely to be either (a) written by someone with more experience in other media (film, prose, theatre) than in comics, or (b) written for an audience with more experience in other media. Doesn’t that sound plausible?

And PLEASE note that I’m NOT making any claims that one set of emphases/interests is better than the other, or that one side has a better idea of what makes for good comics. Different strokes for different folks, man. It’s all good.

Anyway, the five books that beat Shortcomings and Exit Wounds on the specific list are–to be as polite as possible to those two works–MUCH more visually interesting than they are. I’d guess that that probably explains as much of the disparity as their greater “fun” value.

The general list would probably look very different if art/visual culture sites and mags published their own top 10 lists and they were included. I bet stuff like Maggots (my personal #1 for the year, although I didn’t do a serious list) and New Engineering would rank much higher. Although I don’t know whether there’d be call for such lists at, fuck, I don’t know…Wallpaper? Taschen Readers’ Digest?

There’s another factor which might have contributed, too. At least three of the top five on the comics-specific sites (Superman, Planets, Alias) either draw heavily on tropes from the comics of yore, or need a lot of context to appreciate them, or both. Which would, again, boost their standing among comics-specific sources.

As for Scott Pilgrim, well, comics-specific sources are all big fat nerds, so naturally they’d respond to a book that grossly pandered to their stunted development.

(Again, I kid. The problem with the most recent Scott Pilgrim volume was that it didn’t pander enough. It was at its best when O’Malley stuck to the dopey video game fights and throwaway gags that dominated previous volumes, and at its worst when it attempted anything more. You can clearly see O’Malley straining against the formula he has written himself into, since that formula so patently doesn’t allow for the sort of depth that he apparently wants to mature into. Unfortunately, he’s stuck with it…but “My Scott Pilgrim Problem–And Ours” is a post for another day, a day that I can pretty much guarantee will never come).

Anyhoo, that’s my 2 cents. None of this is to say that Dick is wrong–the comics-specific top five are more fun and less serious. I just reckon they’re also more visual and, well, comics-specific. We can both be right; every child gets a prize!

Of course, the real explanation is probably that it’s just statistical noise and there is no deep meaning. But where would be the fun in that? Or, more importantly, the blog posts?

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