1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die begins with a forward by Terry Gilliam recounting one of his fondest memories reading comics as a kid. It was a Flash Gordon parody drawn Al Williamson with women so sexy, Gilliam thought it was as good as porn. That's a classy way to start the book.
Actually, editor Paul Gravett and his many contributors have selected a wide variety of comics from around the world and throughout history. We have comic books, graphic novels and comic strips dating back to the 19th Century. Nearly every country in world is represented. The majority come from the United States, Europe and Japan. But there are also comics from India, Mexico, Brazil, and the Middle East. One could debate the quality and worthiness of specific titles as being a comic "you must read before you die," but you can't deny that this list is a fair and accurate representation of the history of graphic literature; It's greatest accomplishments and diverse styles are on this list. If you ever want a new comics-reading experience, or just feel like reading a new book, then this list is a good place to start.
I just have one question: Where can I read these books?
This guide does not specify in what format these books are available. Most of them are graphic novels, so they can be found with a simple title search. Others are not so easy. Specific issue numbers for ongoing series are not included. For example, there is an entry for Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams' run on Green Lantern/Green Arrow . It does not say what the issue numbers are, or even if they're available in a collected book. (They are, by the way.) The classic Flash story "Flash of Two Worlds" is included, but they don't mention it appeared in Flash #123! An issue of Boys Ranch by Jack Kirby is included, but the issue number is not! Even more maddening are the entries for characters like Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man. They don't cite any specific issues or even particular creative teams. The characters' original creators are mentioned. So does that mean you should only read the Spider-Man stories by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko? Were Bob Kane and Bill Finger the best creative team to ever work on Batman stories? These are important questions because THESE ARE COMICS I HAVE TO READ BEFORE I DIE!
Let's say I succeed in tracking these books down. I've even ordered the non-American books from overseas dealers. I now have another problem. Many of these books were never published in the US. That means they were never translated into English. That means I can't read them! I can't read the French/Spanish/Serbian/Croatian/Portuguese/Hindu/Japanese/Arabic/Egyptian/Belgian/Italian/German/Korean/Chinese in which they were first published! I don't think it's too much to expect a book written in English for an English-speaking audience to recommend books that are available in English! I think it's implied in the declaration that I MUST READ THESE COMICS BEFORE I DIE!
Frankly, I'm starting to doubt the integrity of the writers. I haven't read every comic on this list, but there are entries that have no business being here. Comics that you can ignore all your life and be none the poorer. Comics like:
The Ultimates: Seeing this comic on the cover made me suspect of the whole project. Mark Millar has never written anything I'd call a "must read." Superman: Red Son was a nice half-a-comic in need of character development. Wanted was a lot of effort to insult me for not being a violent asshole. The Unfunnies lived down to its name. The Ultimates may be the best book Millar ever wrote, but it still has unforgivable faults. The characters are decidedly unheroic jerks. It's a slick, violent action story that's all style and little substance. It's the comic equivalent of a Michael Bay film. Millar has never written anything of great quality or significance. Besides, Grant Morrison's got beef with him. You gonna take sides against the man who made The Invisibles? Didn't think so.
Tintin and Asterix: I don't object to including these books on the list. Herge's Tintin books are delightful adventures that can be enjoyed by all ages. And Asterix by Rene Goscinny and Albert Uderzo is the Belgian equivalent of Carl Barks' Scrooge McDuck. But they have five separate entries for five different Tin-Tin books! And four different entries for Asterix books! Are these five Tintin books the only ones wroth reading? Are these four Asterix books the best of all 34 books? Are these books better than the hundreds of other comics and graphic novels that might have been included? Why not just mention the first book and imply the whole series is worth reading, as they did with a dozen other series?
Garfield: Yes, Garfield. Garfield is a comic you must read before you die. The daily adventures of a fat lazy cat are among the greatest achievements in comics storytelling. Your life is not complete until you've seen the inspiration of America's most popular window-clinging stuffed toy. Garfield. A Comic You Must Read Before You Die.
I just can't process that! Garfield is a perfect example of mediocrity and creative inertia. Creator Jim Davis has openly admitted he just threw in anything that would make the character more popular. The man has no artistic integrity-he sold out from day one! And this book calls Garfield "a rebel". A rebel against what? Mondays? And several other bland comic strips are included: Baby Blues. The Wizard of Id. Mutts. B.C. Freakin' B.C.! Were these strips ever funny? Were they ever original? Why are they on the same list as Krazy Kat, Peanuts, Zippy the Pinhead and Calvin & Hobbes?
Grendel: Matt Wagner's Grendel is a truly original and unique concept in comics storytelling. Grendel was originally an assassin and crime lord in 20th century New York; the costumed identity of author Hunter Rose. His story was told in Grendel: Devil by the Dead, a combination of prose storytelling and graphic art. It's one of the greatest comics I've ever read and a singular achievement in graphic storytelling. Later comics have seen the identity of Grendel used by other people for justice and revenge. Over the years, "Grendel" became the name of an emperor, a warrior society, and the devil himself. What was once a villain becomes a metaphysical force for violence. It's fascinating to see the growth and transformation of an idea that ultimately takes over the world. Why do I disagree with its inclusion on the list? I don't. Because it's not on the list! Nothing by Matt Wagner is here. Apparently one of the most complex and compelling characters in comics isn't as important as FUCKING GARFIELD!
Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again: I do agree with the inclusion of this "book" on the list. DK2 is that rare work so mind-bogglingly terrible in every aspect, it has to be seen to be believed. Every criticism, every insult, no matter how angry or contradictory, levied against this work is true. But I still like reading critics' sad attempts to make it sound good. They read like dispatches from Bizarro world where every failure is praised as a strength. For example, Lynn Varley's coloring is described here as, "utterly confident", and "brutally beautiful". I agree with three of those words. You'd have to be an egomaniac to present work that
not only conveys your complete and utter lack of competence in your profession, but physically hurts your reader's eyes with its ugliness!
For an even greater contrast, this review appears on the opposite page of the entry for Abe: Wrong for all the Right Reasons. It's a beautiful book about the author finding peace and humor in the idle life. It presents wasting time as a noble endeavor. Abe is sweet, funny, inspiring, magical, and most importantly human. It's the very antithesis to the ugly, violent, brutal, hopeless DK2. So why are they on the same list?
If this book didn't cost $37, it would be a nice conversation starter. But it fails in its intended purpose to be a guide to great comics. It doesn't provide you with the most vital information needed to find the works. Many entries undermine its authority as a guide to quality. And numerous books listed are not available in the United States. 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die is not a book you need to read at any time.
Michael Deeley is proudly serving in the US Air Force while inoculating his fellow airmen with his liberal views. He’s currently struggling to balance a life that includes family, career advancement, video games, and Mystery Science Theater 3000, in addition to comic books.