TIME’s Top 10 Graphic Novels (x2)
TIME Magazine has done a few top 10 graphic novels lists over the years, and I’ve read everything (well, that I could get my hands on) from the 2005 and 2009 lists. With overlap between the two lists, and the stuff that I found to be out-of-print, I ended up with 14 works. Here’s my ranking and take on each of them…
14. David Boring – One of two Daniel Clowes books to make the lists, David Boring is by far the harder pick to justify. If you’re going to put a Clowe work on your top 10 list, I’m not sure how you can take DB over a masterpiece like Ghost World. DB’s art is fine, and there is an innovative panel here or there, but the story feels amateurish and forced, and the big twist midway through is a storytelling device that’s been utterly played out. It’s not “boring,” but nor is it exciting, or even particularly good.
13. Jimmy Corrigan - Like Boring, Corrigan has good elements held together by a weak and unfocused narrative. It rises to moments that feel great – such as the resolution to one time period’s plot thread – but with so many non sequiturs and ideas to nowhere it can’t help but come off as being just not well thought out. Of all the works on this list, I feel like this one has the most potential to move up upon future readings, but after a first attempt I was left with a rather sour taste in my mouth.
12. Sandman – I’ve read about 75% of the Sandman comics, and have not yet found the willpower to read the remaining 25%. So I guess this one comes with a bit of an asterisk. Gaiman is probably overrated as a storyteller; in what appears to be a British tendency (think Alice in Wonderland), he likes to keep making stuff up as he goes, leaving Sandman as a teetering edifice of ad hoc mythology and bizarre characters. That’s not to say elements do not occasionally work, or indeed work very well, but when I read something this unfocused I can’t help but wonder if a person of rather mediocre talents couldn’t come up with something very similar.
11. The Greatest of Marlys – I’m not a huge fan of intentionally poor art, so my initial reaction to the first few Marlys strips was not all that positive. But I came to enjoy how effortlessly Barry portrays the events and perspectives of childhood life, and there are parts that had me laughing out loud. Still, there’s nothing about this that screams “greatest ever!!” – it’s not terribly removed from anything you’d find in the Sunday comics, only it’s not as well-known. Which perhaps is what makes it better?
10. Fun Home – I actually enjoyed Fun Home a fair bit, which you might not gather from this ranking, but at this point the works are grouped together pretty tightly for me. FH is an autobiographical work about growing up as a unique individual in a unique family. The art is singular – the lines seem both precise and loose at the same time, and overall it’s a plus. Fun Home is really the first work on this list that feels like an artistic whole, well-structured and engaging. It’s not my favorite, but it’s certainly well-done.
9. Persepolis – Another autobiographical work, Persepolis was an effective device for portraying Iran’s oppressive society. I give it a slight edge over Fun Home because it was a little more dramatic, with moments of real tension coming from its omnipresent villain. The artwork is definitely among the weakest of this list, but it serves well enough for what is a pretty solid story.
8. Bone – I was a bit disappointed by Bone. ”Lord of the Rings in comic form!” is how it’s described, absolutely deserving that exclamation point…in theory. In practice, even a behemoth, 1000+ page graphic novel like Bone does not come close to Tolkien for its depth of storytelling and world-making; it seems it takes something really ridiculous like Akira’s 2000 pages to get to that level. That said, Bone is an interesting work. It’s got some good lighthearted moments and some solid drama, and I enjoy Jeff Smith’s art. I recommend it, but it’s not as memorable as I would have hoped.
7. Tintin: The Black Island – Tintin is truly the king of the deus ex machina, but at least he has the gumption to take to the point of absurdity. The best part about Hergé is his crisp, colorful artwork. I love his facial expressions, and (of course) all the digressions caused by Snowy. Plot-wise, The Black Island is basically a never-ending series of narrow escapes that make James Bond look like a rank amateur; this is by turns both amusing and tiresome, but the consistent draw is the vibrant artwork, which is really a standard-bearer in the genre.
6. Maus – I’ve figured out why I love World War II stories so much: they make the U.S. seem awesome again. And of course Holocaust stories are inherently rich in drama, with Maus being no exception. You may argue that at the end of the day it’s a fairly familiar tale, but in this case that’s not so bad a thing…and there are a few artistic twists by Spiegelman to keep it fresh. It’s deservedly become one of the great classics in the medium, and is well worth a read.
5. The Dark Knight Returns – One of the great pillars of mainstream comic books, I can’t help but give DKR a few extra points for its impact on the industry. It’s dark, verbose, and introspective, and miraculously gave an inherently-absurd concept (a man who dresses up like a bat) weight and meaning. But really, it’s also just great storytelling, my favorite bit being Batman’s crusade against a fairly ordinary (if crazed) gang of thugs.
4. Blankets – At this point in the list everything gets my unqualified recommendation. Blankets is a lovely story, tight and presented well, and lingers in the memory like great coming-of-age novels. It is one of the simpler stories of this group – there are no fantastic environments or particularly unusual characters, but it so perfectly encapsulates young love that whatever it lacks for in pure novelty it makes up for in excellent presentation and depth of feeling. A work that all fans of graphic novels should read.
3. Berlin: City of Stones – The Berlin trilogy (so far) is arguably the best-written of anything here. The dialogue in particular is believable and intelligent. Taking place in pre-Nazi Germany, Berlin is pitch-perfect historical fiction, effortlessly weaving very well-realized characters with the background menace of the period. The second work in the trilogy (not listed by TIME) was a bit of a step down for me, so it remains to be seen how effectively Jason Lutes draws everything together in the final volume. But I certainly have high hopes.
2. Ghost World – How to describe Ghost World? It feels both ordinary and extraordinary…utterly meaningless and yet rich with meaning. It’s a good counter-example to Jimmy Corrigan, which touches on similar themes of everyday loss but fails to make a point where Ghost World succeeds. And it succeeds because it draws you in in a single direction, effectively and subtly…it establishes believable characters, and then lets things play out in a way that is instantly familiar and strangely powerful. It’s one of the true great gems of the medium, understated and effective.
1. Watchmen – I’m sorry for going with the obvious choice here, but there’s a reason Watchmen has been long considered one of the greatest graphic novels ever. It’s handily the best-realized of any of these works, with a rich universe, full and well-presented characters, and a great story around which everything is hung. While the Dark Knight came close, it is really Watchmen that elevated the superhero genre to an artistic level, not only telling a great narrative but commenting on the nature of humanity along the way. I would add that another great Moore work, From Hell, was criminally omitted from both lists. Moore really is the modern master of his craft, and it doesn’t stop with Watchmen – but it certainly starts with it.