The fourth edition of this pithy catalog, Stephen Weiner’s 101 Outstanding Graphic Novels (NBM) has seen three title changes over the yeas. The first, 100 Graphic Novels for Public Libraries, was clear-cut if not as sexy, while the second title, The 101 Best Graphic Novels, was more provocative (“Strangers in Paradise over Locas? You’ve gotta be kidding me!”) The current title, which simply notes that the books are “outstanding,” is less fannishly incendiary, though some readers may want to debate the parameters of the term “graphic novel.”
To whit: as much as I continue to cherish the early Marvel superhero comics created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, there’s no way I would consider a “Marvel Masterworks” hardback collection of ten early issues of Fantastic Four a novel. Lee’s greatest innovation as a writer in those days was to take the structure of soap opera – with its flawed protagonists, chronological storytelling and cliff-hangers – and apply it to a monthly publishing format. It made for addictive reading, but in no way was it novel writing.
That familiar caveat out of the way, 101 Outstanding Graphic Novels succeeds in its basic goal: to introduce neophytes to the full range of comic book storytelling collected between hard and soft covers. Weiner works to include all the genres – missing only westerns, perhaps (no Lieutenant Blueberry?) in his overview. Superhero titles, funny animals, autobiography, underground comix, alternatives, manga, even Archie Comics get included in this listing, accompanied by a black-and-white cover pic and a one paragraph synopsis of the work’s subject and significance. The writer has clearly worked to keep this book up: included this time, for instance, is the first volume of John Lewis’ well-wrought memoir of his youth as a part of the civil rights movement, March.
If occasionally, Weiner’s summaries prove a little too brief (his description of the devastating Hiroshima memoir, Barefoot Gen,, only notes that it “conveys an important history of World War II in a very accessible format”), the majority should pique potential readers’ interests. And to those explorers of manga out there who may feel that this book slights the form over too many superhero connections, Weiner directs the reader to Jason Thompson’s Manga: The Complete Guide. (One editorial snafu: the entry for Manga is accompanied by the cover of Craig Thompson’s mammoth autobiographical GN, Blankets.)
Weiner is arguably at his strongest directing his readers to the serious North American literary graphic novels out there: Will Eisner’s ground-breaking A Contract with God, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan. The Smartest Kid on Earth, Art Spiegelman’s Maus – all works that any astute reader of modern literature should know. Considering the staggering amount of collected comic art out there, this ongoing project deserves to be recognized. Buy a copy for that comic book reader looking to grow out of the way too familiar.
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