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The List

I asked, you answered (boy, did you answer!), and now, I present you with the mostly-final reading list for the Graphic Literature course that’s been sent to the committee:

Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud
A Contract with God, and Other Tenement Stories by Will Eisner
Maus: A Survivor’s Tale I & II by Art Spiegelman
Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware
Black Hole by Charles Burns
Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
We3 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely and/or The Mystery Play by Grant Morrison and Jon J. Muth

Further details and explanations after the jump.

I’m not so much teaching this course as taking it, though I suppose I’ll actually be doing both. It’s a kind of independent project I’m taking on that’s going to end with a paper and a presentation and all that jazz, and I wanted to do it on something I was passionate about.

From the list, you can tell I went mostly with the big guns, though I assure you, I read every comment you left and reasons why (multiple times) and pored over the lovely list compiled by Tim Callahan. It was the absolute hardest selection process ever. I shied away from capes and multi-volume works, so that cut a lot out right off the bat. Things that looked out of print or unavailable on Amazon were another no-go. I also wanted to make sure I had an awful lot of award-winning and acclaimed works, to better bolster my proposal. From there, I tried to vary the list in terms of subject matter and design– as much as a course on comics memoirs and/or non-fiction-y comic works would be great, with stuff like Fun Home, American Born Chinese, Palestine, Persepolis and whatnot added in, I wanted a more diverse list.

The Grant Morrison stuff is entirely my own indulgence, however. It’s a shame his best stuff is either superheroic, multi-volume, or out of print, though I think We3 has a lot to say and The Mystery Play is an involving work that could lead to some good discussion.

I also reserve the right to toss in some Kirby when the time comes, probably New Gods, even if it’s just “The Glory Boat” (Kirby’s finest hour) and “The Pact.” He’s too important to neglect, but he didn’t quite fit on this type of list. We’ll see how the thing flows if/when it gets going. Sneaky sneaky.

Thoughts? Suggestions? Curses? Ideas for last-minute additions/changes/substitutions? Do you think it’s an adequate survey of the literature that the comics medium has to offer? I believe it’ll make for a dense and delicious semester of study. What say you?


I think it’s a fine list, Bill.

I think Ice Haven is a more interesting work than Black Hole, but your list will certainly give you plenty to explore.

(And I’d go with We3 over Mystery Play, personally.)

Maybe I’ll “audit” your course this year.

No “Complete Palomar” or “Complete Locas”?
Where’s the “Life and Time of Uncle Scrooge” or the Herge “Tintin” library?

Cut out Jimmy Corrigan. Seriously, that reading list is extensive enough as it is for one semester, and forcing yourself to sift through that tome will just create headaches.

*Note: it’s an interesting and well-crafted work, for the most part, but if you’re going to go full-bore, you might as well delve into From Hell.

This comment thread will probably just become a bunch of people yelling about what should stay and what should go (along with comments like, “How could you leave out X?!?!”)

But, I think your list is as good as any short list can be. And I’d keep Jimmy Corrigan. It’s possibly the greatest comic ever. Really.

(Also, is it really that extensive for an entire semester? I’d assign about twice as much as that.)

I think it’s a great list. Where will this class be taking place? I want to know so I can tell the alma mater to start having more interesting courses like _____ Univerisity.

Yeah, I agree with Tim – could I quibble? Sure, but for the most part, it’s a fine list (and yes, if I DID quibble, it would be with putting something else in place of Black Hole).

And yeah, We3 over Mystery Play!

Definitely We3 over Mystery Play.

Good call on Black Hole. Good call indeed.

its a solid list, if a little predictable (not that we can really fault you for that) but I’d consider putting in one manga title just so you can discuss the culture differences in comics literature. Understanding Comics offers a brief coverage of this, but its a subject I just find endlessly fascinating. I was always intrigued by the fact that while Western comics theory and pacing evolved out of film and illustration, Eastern comics theory and pacing evolved primarily out of theater and illustration.

Oh speaking of which, here’s another thought. Get some excerpts from Tarkovsky’s Sculpting in Time. Its a book on film theory and analysis, but everything he covers relates directly to comic theory and analysis as well.

My God, I beg of you–leave out Mystery Play.


More books means an outrageous financial burden on students–plus the list above provides more than a semester’s worth of discussion, surely. So I think this size is right–maybe each student should have to select a book off of an additional list and do an oral presentation on it for the class. That provides for more variety without causing too many time management problems.

Tom Fitzpatrick

March 18, 2008 at 8:35 pm

Mystery Play over We3.
Mystery over science.
Obscurity over substance.
Most definitely Mystery Play over We3.

one more thing . . . all of the above comics are anglo, and they are all made by dudes. Anglo dudes DO dominate comics production and readership, but there is tons of fantastic graphic literature that is not made by anglo dudes. Dick Hyacinth had a recent post where he remarked upon the fact that 3 of the consensus #1s of the 2000s have been made by women (Persepolis, Fun Home, Exit Wounds).

Andrew Collins

March 18, 2008 at 9:08 pm

I vote Mystery Play over We3.*

*Though they’re both excellent comics. (And honestly, if it was more self-contained I would have suggested Morrison’s Doom Patrol as his finest work and quite possibly the only Absurdist/Dadaist-inspired superhero comic…)

Seems to skew slightly towards better drawn comics over better written comics- Black Hole and Jimmy Corrigan over Fun Home, for instance.

They’re both fine comics, of course. Just something to think about.

And I’d say that a list of Fun Home, American Born Chinese, Palestine, and Persepolis wouldn’t be much LESS diverse than the list you have now. Literary autobiography, children’s fable, reporting, window into other cultures… That’s a pretty wide range.

And, y’know, if you’re gonna boil down Kirby to one work, I’d go with STREET CODE. It’s my single favorite JK work… And probably the easiest to justify as literary.

Pretty standard list, about what you’d expect for a college course, though in this context the presence of Morrison sticks out as a nice idiosyncratic touch. Personally, though, I’d pick either [i]The Filth[/i] or [i]Seaguy[/i] as much better self-contained stories to represent him. The former is a distillation of the themes of his [i]Invisibles[/i] series into a single impossibly dense volume, while the latter is one of his most fun (and surprisingly poignant) exercises in the deconstruction of comics tropes.

Like it or not, ‘Black Hole”s a square fit for a college course; it’s been the comic of choice at any conference I’ve been to of late which hasn’t been dominated entirely by comics specialists. It’s useful to have around as a common point of reference to discuss this stuff with people from outside the field, if nothing else. It’s something that the majority of general lit. people’re at least aware of, moreso than Watchmen, though it’s not Maus, if you see what I mean. I’d expect it to be one of the most published-on books in the more literary theoretical end of comics academia in the coming years; the English Dept at Warwick over here in the UK use it as one of the primary texts for one of their more advanced undergrad courses, someone related it to queer theory at MLA last year.

Don’t think it’s come up, and it’s not on Callahan-Sensei’s uberlist; not a comic, but as a last-minute addition, I’d suggest Geoff Klock’s ‘How to Read Superhero Comics and Why’, which makes a pretty decent hash of dropping literary theory, specifically lashings of Harold Bloom, on comics continuity. It’s really easy to read, and he’s keen on his Morrison and Moore.

The Mystery Play / We3 thing’s easily sorted by copping out and going with both; it’d be interesting to examine two works by partially varied creative teams and discuss the importance of ‘name’ creators, for instance.

I’m sure I’m in the minority here, but I would replace “A Contract with God” with another of Eisner’s works, possibly “To the Heart of the Storm”. Yes, “Contract” is considered the first graphic novel, bit if I remember correctly (I don’t have the book in front of me), the lead story in “Contract” is more of an illustrated picture book than a true comic, as most pages only have one panel. It’s still a good story from a literary perspective, but it doesn’t give the full range of Eisner’s artistic abilities. “To The Heart of the Storm”, on the other hand, is a true comic and uses some really interesting panel transitions and experimental page layouts (although you’ll see lots of that in Eisner’s later works, practically anything after “Contract”). It’s also a fascinating mulit-generational story of Jewish immigrants in America in the years prior to WWII. “To the Heart” may be out of print as a single edition, but is collected with a few of Eisner’s other works as “Life, in Pictures.”

Maybe include one “standard” capes collection (from an Essentials or Showcase volume) of a well known superhero book to compare and contrast.

A very solid list. I’m digging it. :)

We3 is a great addition, especially since it’s a much lighter read compared to the rest of the list (which is saying something, mind you). I also love the art.

Also, I really need to get around to reading Black Hole one of these days.

Also, I can’t believe it didn’t show up at all on that mammoth list of suggestions, but Kevin Huizenga’s “Curses” is just about the best single-volume collection of comics to come along in quite a while. It’s practically a self-contained primer, all in itself, on the potential and possibilities of the comics form for different types of expression, from straightforward storytelling to philosophical ruminations to aesthetic abstraction.

Not a bad list, though I’m sorry to see it is entirely made up of American comics (yes, I know Morrison, Moore and Gibbons aren’t American, but their comics are).

I didn’t make it but halfway down the list of suggestions, but I was VERY surprised to not see CEREBUS mentioned anywhere.

But, yeah, good picks all around I think.

Maybe my tastes run a bit too mainstream for this list. I’ve read all of them and they’re all decent enough, but the only ones I particularly liked were Watchmen, Black Hole and WE3 – and one of the stories in A Contract wit God (the one about the superintendent).

I really don’t know what The Mystery Play is doing on the list at all. It’s a shame about the “no superheroes except Watchmen” rule because a list like this really needs something like Astro City.

“Street Code!” Thank you, Mark Andrew- I recommended that story in my list, but couldn’t remember the name. Good list, Bill, and I’d put We3 over the pretentious Mystery Play. If you want another non-super-hero Morrison book, St. Swithin’s Day was well done, if not especially “Morrison-y.”

Stephane Savoie

March 19, 2008 at 5:50 am

Mystery Play: would this even be on the list if it wasn’t so lavishly illustrated? I’m hesitant to put something on such a list which is so obtuse… Morrison himself said it had no message, it was just a Rorscharch ink blot for the reader. (Which, I suppose has its own benefit).
We3 is fun, but missed on Morrison’s talents as a multilayered writer, IMO.
Now, if you going to put on an obligatory cape, I’ld throw on Essential Spider-Man. But that’s just me.
Finaly… yeah, a single manga volume would probably be good.

The only one I would quibble with is WE3. I found it hard to follow and I’ve had 40+ years of practice reading graphic storytelling. A novice comic reader might find impenetrable. Maybe you should save that one for second semester.

Great list man. Just another voice saying Morrison is a great inclusion, and WE3 over Mystery Play, but Seaguy over both.

Really for Mystery Play, what are you going to talk about? For WE3 you’ve got the story telling techniques, switching between those tiny panels and double pages splashes, the sparse dialogue and how the reading speed is so wonderfully controlled throughout; the balance between writer and artist can come into play a lot there too. But Seaguy is a helluva message book too about futility and whatnot, and you can look at how the conventional superhero style is used to frame this more effectively.

Good luck with it!

I’d have added American Born Chinese to the list. Not sure what I would have dropped from it, but ABC deserves a spot on it.

I’d go with ‘Mystery Play’ over ‘We3′, because ‘We3′ is amazing and perfect and doesn’t really need a lot of discussion, whereas I’d like to have an academic conversation about ‘Mystery Play’. It might change my mind on the subject — I thought it was one of his most shallow and empty works, filled with a lot of obvious and pointless symbolism.

‘Seaguy’ wouldn’t work for this project, since it is not self-contained. Part 2 is coming out soon.

Since there’s been a lot of back and forth about picking We3 or Mystery Play, I just want to put in a vote for you to pick Mystery Play. If you need a reason, why not go with Grant Morrison himself saying it is the most perfect distillation of his ideas. Discuss. That’s my single cent. My second cent would be spent saying I just love Mystery Play, even though I know it’s pretty self indulgent.

I’d gladly add this course to my class load.

I have to say I’m disappointed in the Morrison choices. I don’t think Mystery Play is all that hot and We3 is a bit too much sentimental favourites. I’d have picked Flex Mentallo or (multi-volume though it is) The Invisibles: Entropy In The UK as more intersting tomes in Morrison’s oeuvre.

I’d probably pick From Hell over Watchmen.

And anything but Black Hole!

Your list lacks the diversity required for a college course and will open yourself up to criticism. Suggestions: Drop Chris Ware and add Gilbert Hernandez. Drop WE3 and add Titin. Drop the Mystery Play and add Perespolis.

Graeme Burk said:
“I’d have picked Flex Mentallo”

It would be an excellent choice but you’d be forced to make your students spend a fortune on eBay collecting the issues. DC apparently has no plans to reprint it anytime soon according to Morrison. Such is the sway that Charles Atlas apparently holds over the publisher…

one more thing . . . all of the above comics are anglo, and they are all made by dudes.

True, but the same can be said for most literature classes, if you think about it. While I did debate putting Fun Home and Persepolis on the list, I ended up feeling they were too similar to Maus, and wanted to limit the amount of non- or semi-fiction on the list. Maus fills the black-and-white-memoir-of-difficult-times niche, and it has that nice Pulitzer going for it– easier to convince the right people.

Having never read Black Hole and not knowing much about it, I went with it thanks to the recommendations here and the glowing reviews everywhere else.

I didn’t know there were so many Mystery Play haters. Where were you guys when I wrote about it last summer? Heh. Anyway, I like it, at least. I debated putting the Filth in the Morrison slot (in the proposal, I called Morrison comics’ Burroughs or Pynchon; you gotta have him in there), but it seems just too weird. Haven’t read it yet myself, either. (And naturally, I’d put in Flex Mentallo were it not for the fact that the only place you can find it is in a torrent file.)

My plan was to keep the list diverse both in terms of story and visuals, as well as subject matter, while still making sure everything was of importance to the form or of high acclaim (preferably both), and geared toward those who are not experienced with the comics medium whilst still pleasing those who are. It’s not perfect, but I think it’ll do.

I guess we’ll see how it goes.

I’d have wanted some Gaiman on the list. Excluding multi-volume works cuts you down to the three OGNs, and, alas, Violent Cases isn’t in print right now, but either Signal to Noise or Mr. Punch would do in a pinch.

I remember when I was in college, there was this joke – “No one will ever approve of using comics, but they will award-winning graphic novels.”

I just thought about that, in regards to Maus. Folks really do underestimate how easy it is to get folks to approve of Maus, so yeah, I’d say you’d have to use it (and it’s not like it is not a great book, as well).

That said, yeah, maybe you could sneak a book in by someone other than white guys. :)

I wish I had seen this last week, Bill. I’ve been integrating comics into my courses for a couple of semesters now (English prof in Detroit…focus on using issues raised through comics to look at ways to critically think about our own realities; ex. using Aaron McGruder’s “Birth of a Nation” to examine how race issues are explored in some media forms and from various perspectives such as stereotype use, jokes, etc…more to it, but you get the idea).

From what I’m seeing, the list looks good. I’ve used Watchmen, Understanding Comics, and Maus on a regular basis to good effect, but depending on how your course is structured, Watchmen may be problematic (it usually takes undergrads 3 weeks to get through it, and more than a few get lost…for most it’s a whole new way of reading).

Other ideas for the future: my focus is critical thought/social issues, so I also toss in occasionally the 9-11 report comic, the 9-11 comics from Dark Horse/DC from 01, some Transmet (which we’re doing today in about 20 minutes…”Lust for Life” is a solid book to explore things like technology critically with), Dark Knight Returns (didn’t go over so well) or mix the comics with some novelizations/plays as well (Orwell’s Animal Farm works well if you want to compare comics to lit from a mental visualization standpoint and discuss allegorical representation with Maus).

My two cents. Good luck with the class.

Mia’s OT is actually going to give me Maus, because I’ve never read it and she had it assigned in college. It’s always nice to see comics get a collegiate treatment.

I like Mystery Play too, Bill. Of course, I don’t really get it, either.

WE3 is far from a poor choice, despite the nay-sayers: It’s a great achievement in story-telling, graphic design, page-layout, you name it, and far more cerebral than it seems to be given credit for here. Should allow for a lot of thought in any case.

The literary canon is brimming with white males, but in the past 40 years scholars have expanded this canon significantly to include works that have been neglected due to racism, sexism or the mere blind spots of limited experience. Today I can’t imagine an introductory course to any other modern literary genre that would ignore the contributions of women or people of color–consider the examples of crime and science fiction. I understand the desire to avoid multiple autobiographical works–but women (to use one group) write acclaimed graphic fiction too. If the committee is anything like the ones I encounter, they will insist on diversity of both style and authorship.

Dan (other Dan)

March 19, 2008 at 11:49 pm

It was really edifying to work on that list. I’ve made a good size reading list from it myself–thanks!

A Contract with God has a lot of clout, but I would consider replacing it with A Life Force. I think it does a better job of placing the themes of A Contract with God into narrative.

I agree that a diversity of authorship should be expressed in the course. The works are less common, but they are still there to choose from.

It’s important to keep in mind that you are selecting comics not necessarily because you like them, but because they are worthy of academic examination.

Hmmm… I am not a big fan of We3, and I definitely would include Death of Speedy.

The rest of the list looks pretty solid.

Neat. Another one I voted for. I kind of bummed out my #1 pick hasn’t made the list (everything else I think made it) and I doubt it will be number 1.

I generally picked comics that were important to ME. So this would qualify (even though I never read the run in it’s entirety until a few years ago).

[…] content around here again, I’m presenting you with this little paper I wrote for that graphic novel course you helped me invent last Spring. Prepare yourself for in-text […]

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