Wednesday, April 19, 2006

I'm Smarter Than You Are: Pop Still Goes Perfection

Last week, you'll remember, I defined (for myself more than anyone else) perfection in art, and thereby finally entered the ranks of pretentious bloggers whose literary reach far exceeds their grasp. (I believe I'm due some sort of hat.)

This week, I discuss perfection in comics, with examples.

A perfect comic is hard to define, simply because of all the various forms which a comic can take. Film has the long and short subject; music has the single, the album, the symphony; fiction the short story, the novel, the novella, the novelette, flash fiction, and probably several more that I'm neither aware of nor care about. And comics has its own subdivisions.

What I've decided to do is simply break up these categories and try to give examples of each. I should also point out that I'm confining myself here to stuff I have read; therefore, a great deal of independent, alternative, underground, whatever you want to call the stuff in the back of the Previews catalog, will go mostly uncovered. Some blogger who knows more about this than I (Ed, Brian, I'm looking in your direction) might want to pick this idea up and run with it in that direction; I'd be interested in seeing what they come up with. I'm restricting myself to mostly American material for similar reasons.

Single Issue Story: Might as well start with something simple: a story that takes only one issue to tell, and takes up the entirety of that issue. Somewhat rare these days, there are nonetheless a great many examples. I'll start with the most perfect thing Kurt Busiek has written to date, "The Nearness of You" (Astro City 1/2). Beat-to-beat, page-to-page, scene-to-scene, this is an archetypal example of perfect comics storytelling. (The script is reprinted in Nat Gertler's Panel One anthology, which I heartily recommend to anyone interested in seeing how a comics script is made.) I've also got a soft spot in my heart for "You Shoulda Seen Him" (Batman 423), by Jim Starlin and Dave Cockrum. One of my first superhero stories, it captures everything I love about the character, and features one of the most intense sequences in Bat-history (you'll know it when you get to it). I'd also be remiss if I left out "Demon" (Uncanny X-Men 143) and "Kitty's Fairy Tale" (Uncanny X-Men 153). Single-issue Duck tales are a rarity, at least from the classic Barks era, but I feel like there should be one; can anyone else think of one?

Short Story: Same as above, except it doesn't comprise the entire issue. I'll reveal my fanboy bias here by starting with "The Kid Who Collects Spider-Man." It's a cliché to call this story one of the best ever, but it is one of the best ever. I never get tired of reading it, and I must have read it a good hundred times in the last ten years. There's also Alan Moore's wonderful "Mogo Doesn't Socialize," which on its own is worth the purchase of the Across the Universe trade. And there's got to be at least one Barks tale on the list; so many to choose from, but I've always held a special place in my heart for "Hawaiian Hideaway," a perhaps lesser Beagle tale that nonetheless meets the criteria for me (which, I suppose, means that every story Barks written that's better than "HH" is also perfect, only moreso!)

Story Arc: This is a story that takes many issues to tell, but does not comprise the entirety of the series it appears in. Crossovers fall into this category, although there aren't many of them to put in; too many cooks, and all that. Alan Moore's "Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow" qualifies though, both as a crossover and as a perfect story. I also have to admit "The Dark Phoenix Saga" clocks in as one of the best I've seen. Unlike most of Claremont's X-work, it's taken up solely with itself; the extraneous plotlines go on hold while this important business is cleared up, and even Kitty Pryde's place is clearly within the context of the decline and fall of Jean Grey. The tension ratchets up, bit by bit, explodes more than once, and finishes off in what's still one of the best climaxes in comics history. Yeah, X-Factor more or less ruined it for future generations, but on its own, it's still marvelous. And pooh-pooh me all you want on this one, Joe, but the Astro City "Confession" arc is just an out-of-the-park masterpiece, and one of the best comics bildungsromans (google it, it's good for you) since Lee's Spider-Man.

Mini-Series: Any multi-issue story, comprising an entire series, that lasts a year or less. And I'll say right now, to get it out of the way, Crisis on Infinite Earths does not fit the definition. Far too much of it is only ancillary to the plot, taking up space to ensure that every damn DC character ever makes an appearance (did Rip Hunter and the Omega Men really do anything?). And it's also far too tied into the sprawling history of the multiverse. It's just not self-contained. There are, though, perfect miniseries in the superhero milieu and out. We'll start with "out," with Jeff Smith's prequel to Bone, Rose. Much of the perfection, I'll admit, comes from Charles Vess's gorgeous artwork, but the story is there too (and any perfect comic story can slack in neither story nor art). It stands even for a reader who's never touched Bone as an engaging fantasy story about family and duty.

Finite Ongoing: Same definition of above, except it takes longer than a year to tell. There is a planned beginning, middle, and end; infinite ongoings with short runs that never got to tie up all their loose ends don't count. This is a rare breed indeed; the longer a series goes on, the more likely it is to hit a bump. Simple diminishing returns. Preacher and Sandman come close, but each has its own flaws at one point or another. Cerebus might have made it if Dave Sim hadn't gone insane, but, well, 'nuff said. I've heard good things about Transmetropolitan, but I haven't read it, and I really doubt Warren Ellis's monster ego doesn't rip through the thin veneer of the story. Can I count Bone? It's damn good, to be sure, but I think I need to give it at least one more read all the way through before I can make that judgment. Appearances to the contrary, I don't take this lightly.

Original Graphic Album: Square-or-hardbound non-reprint content that runs a minimum of 40 pages. I went with "graphic album" rather than "graphic novel" in order to allow shorter graphic novellas to qualify (I don't have any to present right now, but someone else who wants to use my criteria might, so I figure it best to cover as many bases as possible. I'll start with a double-shot from Marvel: The Death of Captain Marvel and God Loves, Man Kills; if Marvel had produced only these two GNs, the program would still be counted as a landmark. It goes without saying, naturally, that almost the entirety of Will Eisner's ouvre counts; I will restrict myself to merely one, his final work, The Plot, a resounding success both in terms of storytelling and in conveying its message (or messages; Eisner rarely says only one thing with his work). Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, we can debate the validity of his thesis until Judgment Day, but his presentation, at least, meets the standard of perfection. And I have to confess a great bloody love for Jill Thompson's Death: At Death's Door.

Infinite Ongoing: No such animal exists, at least not a perfect one. Any long-running series (or short-running, for that matter) will have its ups and downs. I haven't found one yet that didn't slip up somewhere; if you think you know of one, I'd like to hear your case.

I can't get into comics strips just yet, as they require their own breakdown process, one far harder than that for comic books. I'm interested in your opinions, though.

Perfection is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. You may disagree with me on several of my picks, or think I unfairly left something out. You're free to do so; just be advised that you are, of course, wrong. Nonetheless, I'd like to hear your thoughts.


Yeoman said...

How could anyone hate "Confession?"

Anyhow, Pefect Finite Ongoings... Starman? Maybe?

As for perfect Graphic Album... Well, JLA/JSA: Virtue and Vice holds a special place in my heart. But I don't know that I can call it perfect, just because it stands out more against what came after that from DC.

Michael said...

I actually haven't read Starman. It's on my "when I have money" list.

Virtue and Vice didn't occur to me when I was writing, and I'd have to think of it, but it's at the very least pretty gorram close.