Creating a Comics Canon

By Paul BuhleDecember 23, 2017

Creating a Comics Canon

The Graphic Canon of Crime and Mystery, Volume I by Russ Kick

THE GRAND EXPERIMENT continues. Reviewers, at least some of them, experienced a kind of wonderment at the appearance of the first three volumes of the Graphic Canon. Five years later, the wonderment has deepened to just this side of bafflement. Not that editor Russ Kick, known for his work in the underground press way back, and his exposure of government secrets later on, means to be secretive. Not in the least. Indeed, he is so attached to his indirect creation (that is, the work of the artist-adaptors, and only occasionally his own adaptation scripts) that he provides a sometimes intensive, sometimes casual introduction for each entry. He really wants this project taken seriously in the large field of comic art. And understandably so, since he has managed to create something unprecedented in comic art, at least in the English language.

Or perhaps the reader is only likely to infer that claim because Kick’s volumes have now reached thousands of oversized, intermittently color pages, and stand to reach many more. The initial series of three volumes covered assorted literary genres across the ages, from antiquity to present, in more or less chronological order. This was followed by two volumes of children’s stories, told without much talking down or dilution of the scary parts. Now we have passed on to the world of noir, where practically everything is scary, and not much in a supernatural way.

There is so much good art and fine storytelling in this latest volume that complaints and criticisms seem almost niggling. But I consider the vision or map rather too broad when we can go from Solomon and Sophocles to de Sade, from Boccaccio to Nathaniel Hawthorne to Agatha Christie, within a single volume. “Crime and Mystery” becomes, in the process, a catch all for the stories that fascinate the omnivorous editor, and for which he has found a talented (mostly very talented) set of illustrators who also usually functions as adapters.

But crime and mystery, as a generic category, might be defined more precisely as literary responses to the social realities of the last couple centuries. Slavery, mass slaughter, and so on are, of course, present in previous eras and just as monstrous as they are today. But what sets off crime and mystery as a genre, what makes it the object of endless treatments in every phase of popular culture, is modern property relations. The novel in general emerged to transcribe the drama of the worthy rising bourgeoisie against sinking aristocrats, and for Dashiell Hammett and Columbo right down to the classic years of Law & Order, the contemporary master class is ultimately the guilty one. Hammett himself, as a teacher of mystery writing in the left-wing Jefferson School of the 1940s, supposedly told his students, “Look for the money, always look for the money.”

Never mind. What is here is remarkable enough. I am especially drawn, for instance, to Sophia Wiedeman’s retelling of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter in black and white with the use of one color, of course red. I am not sure that Wiedeman has captured the interiority of Hawthorne himself and his acceptance of guilt, as a descendant of New England’s pitiless Puritan settlers, for the American conquest of the land from its earlier inhabitants. But the fate of women, one woman, caught in the maw of patriarchal judgment — Wiedeman nails that, for sure.

Elsewhere in the volume, Rick Geary brings his vine-like style to Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and captures the heart of the story, its essential action, in only a few pages. Another painterly Dostoyevsky, this one Hadar Reuven’s The House of the Dead, invokes the Holocaust with its scenes of men in beards in a monstrous prison.

Arriving in the 20th century, Sarah Benkin misses the crypto-racism of the wife and murderer of her husband in James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (“He’s so greasy!” the scheming missus says about her husband in the original), instead showing hubby as a jolly Italian American. She also misses the lust that drives her collaborator into the murder. But the essential story is here, anyway. Ellice Weaver’s full-color version of Iceberg Slim’s Pimp, meanwhile, works as a series of amazing paintings with a subordinated narrative.

It would be easy to go on indefinitely, but I’ll mention only a few more examples. Theo Ellsworth’s adaptation of Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is a 30-page comic novella in itself, so intense that the reader gets a feeling of emotional exhaustion, in a good way, pages before the end. Robert Berry has made a section of James Joyce’s Dubliners into a Mutt and Jeff dialogue of sorts, in a bow to the immortal (for old time comics fans) Bud Fisher as much as to Joyce. As I am an admirer of R. Sikoryak’s intriguing approaches to comics history, I find his rethinking of de Sade as a series of comic book covers in “Sadistic Comics” — with an improbably helpless Wonder Woman at the center — utterly delightful. That may exhaust my list of particular favorites in the volume, except for the adaptation of Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins’s short story “Talma Gordon” (reputed to be the first mystery published by an African-American writer) by C. Frackes, herself a rising feminist artist.

If I commit myself to describing particular stories, it’s because every generalization about this volume fails and must fail. While each piece, taken by itself, is not necessarily strong or convincing, together they convince.

Convince us of what? That is the question, at least for this reviewer. We can usefully examine The Graphic Canon from another angle. The international sweep of its cast of artists and writers offers impressive evidence of a global comics community. It also testifies to Russ Kick’s amazing capacity for outreach. But as with Kick’s career, we find the essential origins of the series in the breakthroughs of the 1960s and 1970s, breakthroughs that left behind so many of the limitations long imposed upon comic art.

The comics-reading public, mostly readers under the age of 30, know little of this history today. Superheroes of every kind; quirky and sexy personal stories of mostly inward or troubled youngsters; the occasional historical saga (March, eulogizing John Lewis within his lifetime) — these comprise nearly all of today’s menu of comics, to judge from sales and advertising on the web. Hardly remembered now, except as an influence on today’s graphic memoirs, the distinct comics of the Vietnam Era and a decade after profited from artists’ ownership of their uncensored comic art, delivering up marijuana use, feminism, denunciation of corporations and the government, and flagrant sex of every variety, often flavored with humor. (The Southern California feminist series Tits & Clits Comix comes to mind.) Contemporary readers, excepting academic or those with a taste for the “old stuff,” tend to be familiar with only a fraction of this body of work — perhaps R. Crumb and Art Spiegelman, along with slightly younger figures like Alison Bechdel, Lynda Barry, and the Hernandez Brothers.

Stop for a moment and contemplate what that origin of a new comics, a new comic art, meant. It was a ragged community (just ask the feminists), but it was a real one. It recalled, in American life and art, nothing so much as the Works Progress Administration artists of the 1930s or the group gathered around The Masses magazine in the 1910s. These had rebellion of form and content, narrative and style, written all over them, but also a vision of a different relation between art and popular life in a better future. In the comics world, this is what slipped away by 1980 or so.

The elevation of comic art followed, although its arrival at true respectability arguably awaited Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize in 1992 — and arguably, dolefully, also awaited the return of the cutting-edge comics publishing locus from California back to New York, its historic location. Today, with the advance of college teaching into visual culture, the comics canon is taught very much as the canon of literature has been taught forever. In part, this is the nature of canonization: the few remembered, the mass of artists forgotten.

But this is also the case because the comic art anthology, pretty much the foundation stone of underground commix, has practically ceased to exist. Post-1970s efforts, like Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly’s Raw magazine, could not be sustained financially. My own series of topical anthologies ended with the volume Bohemians (2014), because these efforts no longer seemed worth publishers’ attention. The annual Best of Comics anthologies and the more or less annual World War 3 Illustrated appear too infrequently, and have too few pages, not to mention idiosyncratic editorial tastes. Rumors of a revival of Arcade, the Spiegelman and Bill Griffith–edited anthology from the late 1970s, appear to be unfounded, for various reasons.

Altogether, we see too little work side by side — and more than that, we get far too little sense that comic art has a purpose comparable to the socialist modernism of a century ago or the counterculture of the late 1960s. Perhaps the website The Nib is the exception, because its social criticism comes fast and furious, day by day, topic by topic. But we need more, much more, with a dialogue among artists and their admirers, editors, and others. At least, this is my conclusion after 50 years as an editor.

Russ Kick’s Canon thus does something that too few venues for comic art do nowadays. It is, for now, the most sustained anthology of comic art in the English language — the best showplace of what comic art is today and what it can do. That’s quite an accomplishment.


Paul Buhle was publisher of Radical America Komiks (1969) and has edited a dozen comics since 2005. His latest is Johnny Appleseed, drawn by Noah van Sciver.

LARB Contributor

Paul Buhle co-edited the outsize oral history tome Tender Comrades, with Patrick McGilligan, en route to several other volumes on the Blacklistees with co-author Dave Wagner, including A Very Dangerous Citizen, the biography of Abraham Lincoln Polonsky. He is the author or editor of 35 volumes including histories of radicalism in the United States and the Caribbean, studies of popular culture, and a series of nonfiction comic art volumes. He is the authorized biographer of C. L. R. James.


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