Saturday, February 20, 2016

A Simple Question About "Essential" Comic Books

Doug: Back on Monday, I fell into a bit of a trap in a remark I made in our first installment of our review of The Dark Knight. I suggested that in the succeeding 30 years since its publication, who hadn't read that story? Well, somewhat to my surprise, a few of our loyal commenters raised their hands. Which of course got me to thinking...

What are those comic books or comics stories that you have personally assumed that "everyone" has read?


Anonymous said...

The death of Gwen Stacy. Actually, I've never read it (!!) but I know so much about that legendary story that it feels like I've read it. Also the debut of Galactus and the Silver Surfer in Fantastic Four - I HAVE read that :D

Redartz said...

Seconding Colin on the death of Gwen Stacy. That would rank very close to Spidey's origin story, of course AF 15 has been reprinted so many times in so many formats that probably half the planet has read it...

It's tempting to mention Action 1 and Detective 27, but I think perhaps the stories are so familiar due to retelling; the number of folks having actually read those specific two issues possibly much smaller. So turning to more recent, accessible stories:

Kree/Skrull War
Avengers annual 7/ MTIO annual 2 (death of Warlock)
Crisis on Infinite Earths

J.A. Morris said...

In addition to what's already been posted, I'll add Watchmen, Dark Phoenix saga, Days Of Future Past, and Fantastic Four #1.

William said...

I'd add the original Secret Wars to that list, and possibly The Death of Superman.

Doug said...

All of these are good suggestions on an "essential" reading list. But I have to ask you fellas if you really think that "everyone" has read those stories?

What do you think we have around here -- maybe 20-22 regular commenters? Of course we have many more readers who don't usually join the conversations. It was a shock to me when I found out earlier in the week that 20-25% of our regulars had not read The Dark Knight Returns. A shock. It's so seminal to the past 30 years of comic book history. However, upon a "sit back and think about it", it probably shouldn't have been, because so many of us have remarked that we've been in and out of comics throughout our reading "careers" that it's certainly plausible that there's a fair share of readers who either a) don't want to read this take on the Batman, or b) simply missed it and it's on the "I'll get round to it some day" list. True confession time -- I had not read the complete "Kree/Skrull War" saga nor had I read "Days of Future Past" until we were reviewing them for the Bronze Age Babies. Now given when those stories were originally published and the fact that I was 44 when Karen and I began this little venture. at some point in my mature comics reading life I'd have been a hand-raiser in the back of the room.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm digging the material listed above. But are we sure that "everyone" (whatever that means - obviously it can't be taken literally) has read those stories?

I put Amazing Fantasy #15 as the post's exhibit for the same reason Redartz suggested -- it's been reprinted regularly since it first landed on the spinner racks in 1962. Can we say Fantastic Four #1, as J.A. offered? I'd say maybe. But Action #1 and Detective Comics #27? I think Colin nailed it when he said that some stories are so much a part of the public consciousness that we "feel" like we've read them -- maybe even feel like we've become intimate with them -- when we've actually never read the tale itself. I'd have said that about Green Lantern #76 before I read it for our "Hard Traveling Heroes" 4-pack of reviews.

I like the suggestions for essential reading -- not gonna argue with what's been put forth so far, so definitely keep those coming. But I also want to hear some thoughts on those books that you'd be surprised to find out that a fellow comics fan (let's even narrow it to those like us who cut their comics reading teeth at and after 1970) hasn't actually read. I think a big factor, and feel free to discuss this further, is whether or not you were in on the Origins of Marvel Comics series of trades, or the equally fine Secret Origins of the Super DC Heroes trade -- all those paperbacks is how I read so many first appearances of our favorite cape-wearers.

Showcase #4? (Read it)
Avengers #1? (Read it)
Brave and the Bold #28? (Never read it)
The Great Darkness Saga? (Bought it and read it for our reviews a few years ago)

OK, enough of me. Back to you.



Martinex1 said...

I never read Crisis or Secret Wars. They came out during a peak in my collecting but I never got into the mini series, and all these years later I have not circled back to them although I believe I know the general stories. I honestly don't even know what the Great Darkness Saga is; I've heard mention of it but didn't follow DC; I'll have to look up your review. Watchmen I read much after its initial release.

Being an Avengers fan I always assume people know the Korvac Saga and the Masters of Evil Siege on Avengers Mansion, but I know that is probably truly a pretty low percentage. I also assume the X-Men Dark Phoenix Story is widely read.

I think I feel I have read more bronze and silver age stories than I actually have because of the old editorial habits of referencing, footnoting, and flash backing to past stories. How often was Peter being bit by the radioactive spider flashed back to? It seemed back in the day, there was a page of flashbacks in every issue. That not only helped establish continuity but also helped the reader understand the history.

I read the What If version of the Kree Skrull war before I read all of the original arc.

On a related note, but not comic book in origin, I am still amazed my wife has never seen the original Star Wars movie (or any of them for that matter). She joins me for all the Marvel movies, but Star Wars is like anathema to her for some reason.

Doug said...

Martinex --

You're one up on me. My wife really has no interest in science fiction or comics. She really encourages me, but we don't watch or go to the movies together. I managed to see Force Awakens with the boys and my daughter-in-law over the holidays, but when Civil War comes out I'll go to a 4:00 show by myself after school one day. I don't mind, but I will tell you the major drawback -- if you have to use the potty in the middle, there's no partner to catch you up on the few minutes missed!

Is our perception of "must read" colored by what we personally like or dislike? After reading The Great Darkness Saga, I was left with "what's the big deal?" I really disdain Keith Giffen's art in that book. The story was OK, but the art was a real distraction for me. So I guess if no one has read it, in spite of its reputation, I'd sure excuse them.


Martinex1 said...

I agree with what you say Doug on "must reads". For me,It is definitely colored by my personal bias and also eras when I was rabidly collecting. Heck if I had my way, Marvel Team Up 61-66, MTIO's Project Pegasus, The Avengers Nefaria arc, Alpha Flight 1-12, Sub-Mariner's serpent crown saga, and Micronauts 1-12, ROM, would be must reads. Sure there are some great stories in there, but none probably reached artistic greatness, mass popularity, and era defining impact that something like Dark Phoenix achieved. I really liked Dark Phoenix, but I think the Proteus Saga was a better tale (for me personally).

All of those were from my hardcore collecting periods; anything that fell outside those times would never make my list..Mutant Massacre, Siege Perilous, Armor Wars, Civil War, Age of Apocalypse, etc. These all fell outside of or in gaps of my collecting. I couldn't tell you if they were good, bad, highly recommended or garbage. I know of them and may even have an issue or two, but could not speak to their impact. The same goes for most DC, as I didn't follow the brand regularly. I'd recommend 3-D Man in Marvel Premiere as a must read before I'd recommend any Legion of Super-Heroes. And I know that can't be right.

On the movie front, my wife really enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man, but it's just the boys and me when it is Star Wars or Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings time. I think the humor and some of the relationships reach her more in Marvel films. She saw the new Cap preview, and when she saw Iron Man and Cap fighting she wanted to know what their relationship was in the comics. I don't believe she ever read a comic book, but she encourages my boys to create their own.

Redartz said...

Doug- you're surely correct in questioning just how many of these stories are 'universally' read. I'd say most, probably a majority, of comic fans in our age range have read most of these. But exceptions abound. I'd never read Watchmen until about 4 years ago. Have never read Secret Wars. Martinex- I've never read the Masters of Evil story you referenced. And I still haven't seen "Force Awakens"...

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I'm not sure what constitutes a "must read"; there are lots of lists of essential comics out there, but what's essential for one person might be meaningless to the next. Personally, I'd put Master of Kung Fu on a "must read" list, because I think even people who aren't normally into comics could enjoy it.

So yeah, I still haven't read DKR; I read Watchmen just a few years back and Crisis long after it came out. On the other hand, I have a very long history with some comics. I remember reading somewhere (I think it was on another comic blog) when the first Spider-Man movie came out, the part where Peter lets the burglar run past and says to the crooked promoter "I missed the part where that was my problem" (Or whatever the quote was), this blogger said everyone in the theatre cheered and he was thinking to himself "Just wait, people". I found it incomprehensible that anyone could not be aware of Spider-Man's origin...I mean, I've known his origin since I was five. But I realized that most people out there, especially before comic book movies became big business, just aren't aware of all the geeky esoterica that comics readers like us take for granted.

But I guess sometimes even WE end up assuming stuff (like everyone's read DKR or Watchmen, or whatever), but even us comics nerds can't read everything. It doesn't bother me that I haven't read Doug said, I'll get to it one of these days :) I haven't read Moby Dick either, which may be even worse, depending on your point of view.

Mike Wilson

Edo Bosnar said...

Doug, I wasn't as shocked as you were about the fact that some of the regulars here hadn't read DKR. In fact, what I find shocking is that you - quintessential Avengers fan that you are - hadn't read the entirety of the Kree-Skrull War until just a few years ago...

As for the other stuff mentioned here, I've never read Secret Wars or Crisis on Infinite Earths. I was still reading comics when the former came out, but simply avoided it, while I was in one of my hiatuses from comics when the latter was being published - and I just never went back and read it.

Humanbelly said...

It's kind of been indirectly suggested (or even directly)-- but I think it's really only likely that ground-floor origin stories are ever going to be legitimately included in any discussion of stories that, surely, "everyone" (who reads comics) has read. If for no other reason than simply because they've each been partially or wholly reprinted a bajillion times over the many decades. AF #15, yep. The first part of FF#1, you bet. The first chapter (or two) of Hulk #1-- are there less than 5 instances easily remembered? DD, Iron Man, and Thor are a little less represented. Avengers #1 has had a decent share of reprints.

Y'know-- Action Comics #1? Supes 1st appearance? While that cover is everywhere-- the story itself is a rare reprint find, possibly because that Superman incarnation is so very different from the conventions that he later grew into?

Batman's 1st appearance in Detective, though-- "Criminals are a cowardly lot.", all that stuff, although abridged and edited in a lot of different ways, that story has been seen again and again and again. . .


Doug said...

Edo --

Although my complete run of the Avengers had long been completed when this blog began, I know that I hadn't read every issue I'd purchased. Certainly with some of the keys and more expensive books, I know I was not interested in reading those copies (for preservation reasons). I don't know exactly when I bought the trade paperback that I now own, but if memory serves I did not read the entire Kree/Skrull War saga in one or two sittings until we did the reviews several years ago.

I know -- time to turn in my Avengers Priority card.

Speaking of books that are reprinted all the time: do you remember when I did the 100-Word review on the original Mangog story from Thor #s 154-157? It seems lately that any retrospective on Jack Kirby's Marvel career features that story. Some stories (see also Amazing Spider-Man #36 and #50, and Fantastic Four #51) seem to be in regular reprint rotation.

I agree with HB that there are story elements -- quotes, panels, sequences of panels -- that serve to make us think we've read particular tales (back to Colin's posit at the top of today's comments).

This has really become an interesting conversation about perception, accessibility, and personal interest.


Redartz said...

HB- good points about the partial reprints, and cover 'homages'. You mentioned AF 15, Avengers 1 and FF1; all frequently reprinted. It seems Marvel has been somewhat more prolific at representing the origin tales. I personally have never read Justice League 1, or their first appearance in Brave and the Bold. How often have they been reprinted? Or Flash, or Green Lantern?

Of course, there are many more instances of re-telling as opposed to reprinting, as implied by several comments above. In some cases, I actually prefer the retelling over the original (for instance, "Legend of the Batman" retelling quite nicely the original Bat story. Sorry, didn't mean to go off topic on a tangent here...perhaps another post could be in the offing- original vs. updated presentations of the same story...

Anonymous said...

Well, first off I'm not too surprised that a percentage of our regular commentators (I'm including myself here!) have not read 'essential' comicbooks. In my case, I had always heard of DKR, and having it referenced by so many other stories made me feel like I had actually read it, if you know what I mean.

Similarly, I've never read AF 15 with Spidey's origin story but his origin has been retold countless times in flashbacks and the circumstances surrounding it have been repeated so often it's almost like you've actually read that issue.

While I consider myself a comics geek, I realize that there's a ton of 'essential' stuff I missed back in the day. Man, I got a lot of catching up to do!

- Mike 'ignorance is bliss' from Trinidad & Tobago.

pfgavigan said...


Please don't cast me out from this community, but I have to admit to trying to read but being unable to finish two works considered to be 'essentials'.

Watchmen and The Killing Joke.

I was unable to get past Moore's writing, which I sometimes find to be indulgent and self important. I think he was good enough with a lot of stuff, but whenever he tried to make a story more 'significant' that his ambitions exceeded his reach.

Remember, don't stone the heretic.



Anonymous said...

For years, those "essential" Golden, Silver, & Bronze Age comics were inaccessible to the average reader. Back issues were way too expensive, and reprints of non-X, Spider, & Batbooks were almost nonexistent. Trade paperbacks didn't take off until the mid '90s, and we didn't enter the golden age of reprints until the 2000s.

When I was a kid, my knowledge of the Marvel Universe came from Classic X-Men, Marvel Tales, Official Handbooks, and references in then-current comics. I didn't read Kirby FFs or Ditko Spider-Mans until the Essential reprints. I bought the DC trades I could get my hands on (including Dark Knight Returns & Greatest ----- Stories) but trades were expensive!

When the floodgates opened, mostly through Essentials and DC reprinting things like Waid Flashes, I could afford trades. I got my hands on some deeply discounted DC Archives and scoured back issue bins for early-'80s Baxter paper reprints (including Warlock, Deadman, Steranko Cap, & Wrightson Swamp Things). I found a lot of affordable older comics. eBay was my friend!

In order to access the past, I needed money and comic book companies needed to put their older material into trades. Thus, I'm not surprised when people haven't read everything I've read...

.... except Dark Knight Returns, Batman:Year One, Dark Phoenix Saga, and Watchmen. Why those four? Because they were some of the few trades available since the '80s and because they have high critical reputations. I'm not saying everyone will/ should like them or finish them. I'm just saying that it's surprising due to their not going out of print when everything else did.

- Mike Loughlin

Doug said...

PFG --

I read them both and didn't really care for either. And you can add V for Vendetta to that list as well.

No stones,


Anonymous said...

Doug, you may well be required to turn in your Avengers Priority Card (and your keys to the Quinjet), but I, for one, wouldn't have the heart to see something like that happen, so I won't report you to SHIELD... :P
(Also, I'm not one to point fingers, since there's plenty of major and/or 'essential' Bronze Age stories that I only read either all the way through or for the first time only in the past 10 or so years: Avengers-Defenders War, the Warlock saga, the Capt. Marvel/Thanos story, Panther's Rage...)

HB and others make a great point about the frequent retelling of origin stories over the years. That's certainly true of the Batman and Spider-man origins in particular. Personally, I first read the origins of the FF, Spidey, the Hulk and Dr. Strange in those Marvel pocketbooks that came out in the late '70s, and Son of Origins filled in some more gaps for essential origin stories.
Mike L., by the way, reminded me of another I've never read: Batman Year One. And Mike, believe me, eBay was my friend, too...

Edo Bosnar said...

Crap, sorry, anonymous above is me...

Humanbelly said...

Y'know Teammates, it's funny, I thought when Doug hinted at what this topic would be a few days ago, I kind of thought it would be "What are the stories that EVERYONE has read that YOU have, in fact, NEVER read?" And while we've touched on that a bit here, it might almost be worth another post that could be formatted along the lines of a checklist (of those most-noteworthy issues/stories) that both regulars and lurkers here could tally from in their replies. Myself, I'm always interested to see where all our tastes and reading history both converge and divide. We can already see that it's a mistake to simply assume even the heartiest & most well-read fans hereabouts have read everything in whatcha might call the Core Curriculum, yeah?


Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
BobC said...

I wasn't as blown away by Watchmen as everybody else was either. Have you guys read Alan Moore's Top Ten? It is easily one of the all time great comic stories IMO. I read and loved Dark Knight Returns. I still love it. DC's Kingdom Come was amazing too.

Anonymous said...

I think Watchmen is a towering technical achievement, a landmark story, and an engrossing read. It's one of my favorite comics. That said, I can see why some of you don't like it. It's somewhat cold and nasty and a bit self-important. To each his or her own!

Essential comics I haven't read:

Most of DC's Silver Age! Infantino Flash, Kane GL & Atom, Adam Strange, Fradon Aquaman, Cardy Titans, early Legion... I've read the occasional reprint but not much else. Honestly, I have a hard time getting past the formulaic writing. As good as the art was, it couldn't get me over the boring (to a teen or adult) stories. I have the first Justice League Archive and I haven't read anything from it in at least a decade.

Carl Barks Donald Duck: Again, I've read the occasional reprint but not much else. What I read was very good, I just can't drop the money on it.

EC Comics: I've only read a handful.

Superman: Only some of the "big" stories (Greatest Stories... trade, Man of Steel*, Birthright, For the Man..., For All Seasons). Hell, I only skimmed Death of Superman.

Robert Crumb: I've only read one complete trade of his work. In fact, I only have cursory knowledge of the whole Underground Comix scene.

Avengers under Jim Shooter: you all seem to like his first run on the title. I've only read the Korvac saga.

- Mike Loughlin

* My pick for most overrated comic ever. I found it boring.

Humanbelly said...

I was deeply involved with Watchmen as it was being published each month-- but to say I "enjoyed" it or "loved" it wouldn't sit right at all. As with so much Alan Moore, it is engrossing, and engaging, and gripping-- but it's also so damned unpleasant and unhappy and deeply ugly a lot of the time that it feels like eating spinach. It also suffered from the same thing that plagues even the best of writers-- you finally get all the way to the end (heh, one of the few survivors--), it wraps up, and it seems like there should be a bigger, greater message to be taken from it. . . but. . . for the life of you, you can't quite nail down what that's supposed to be. "The world's awful, all people are deeply flawed and amoral, but if they don't die, then their lives, at least, carry on with some modicum of happiness and normalcy."

Stephen King, similarly, has always had this problem as well-- although he's far more sentimental and generally appreciative of the smaller joys in life.


Edo Bosnar said...

Oh, wait, is this straying into a discussion of Watchmen? I liked it, quite a bit. And I rather like spinach, too, for that matter...

Humanbelly said...

. . . and thus the tangents began careening (careering?) madly out of control-- heedless of the victims left in their wake. . .


Martinex1 said...

I too liked Watchmen but didn't love it. I think it is somewhat a product of its time, and its impact on the industry is undeniable. I think the problem is in the story's unrelenting deconstructionism. It was considered so enlightening to deconstruct the superheroes, but in the end "so what"? Heroes in comics are archetypes and mythological. Somebody mentioned it recently that in life there are no true heroes, we are all human and we need to look to comics for models of pure heroism. I feel the same. So the relentless "humanizing" of the icons seems kind of pointless and disheartening to me. I think Moore hit on an interesting concept, but I sure wish it stopped there. The films may be reconstructing the hero mythos a bit, but I also think that popularity of characters like Deadpool will quickly pull that in the wrong direction.

Like others, I have never read "The Killing Joke" and "Kingdom Come". The former because it sounds one note, sensationalistic, and brutal. The second because it sounds depressing (but I don't know that much about the specifics of the dystopian future). It's not that I won't read from other sources about such things, but I recognize that I avoid it in super hero comics. I find something like Astro City more enjoyable because there always seems a modicum of hope in the stories.

pfgavigan said...


Thank heaven that there is such a great variety of what we all think is 'essential', 'good reads' or 'meh'.

Goes a long way towards nullifying that image of the comic book fan as slavish collector of whatever is currently 'hot'!

Now if we could only convince the current powers that be at the Two Towers that variety is the spice of life.



Ward Hill Terry said...

One thing on which I agree with Martinex is the "product of its time" aspect. That's what set apart Watchmen, the death of Gwen, Crisis, etc. Whatever revolutionary aspect we fans may admire about these kinds of "epics" need to be understood from a historic perspective. One may not understand the impact of the loss of other-dimensional Earths if one has never read any stories set on other-dimensional Earths. I think that to take Doug's premise seriously almost no super-hero comics would be on the list of essential comics. Books like Maus, I Saw It, A Contract With God ably demonstrate the strengths and value of the medium. Stories like Judgment Day in EC's Weird Fantasy, or one of Harvey Kurtzman's war stories also show what can be done with words and pictures carefully wedded together in just a few pages. Back in our little bailiwick, I nominate There Is No Hope In Crime Alley, The Pact, and This Man This Monster as stories that can be read as high achievements and don't need fifteen back issues to understand them.

SonOfCthulhu said...

I am so late to this party.

Many of those mentioned above would get a nod from me as well. In addition stories like The Anatomy Lesson from Swamp Thing, Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow from Superman and The Kid Who Collected Spider-Man are tales that were mentioned to me so frequently by other readers that I sought them out myself. A key component to all this is what you consider to be a comic book "fan". I, by no means, am a connoisseur of the creme de la creme of comics, but there are stories that I expect a "fan" to have actually read given 1.) their widespread availability (Watchmen/Dark Knight/Spidey's origin) and 2.) their critical accolades/importance in canonical terms (V for Vendetta/Dark Phoenix/Crisis on Infinite Earths).

It only takes so many people recommending something like Cerebrus or Simonson's Thor run before a fan will find it imperative to check out.

The general populace on the other hand tends more toward marketing and sensationalism. The Death of Superman and Watchmen probably found more non-comic readers than most other books. I would have expected The Dark Knight Returns to fair similarly. There certainly were enough printings of the single issues for it to have been on everyone in the country's bookshelves. Your 20-25% comes as a shock to me.

And after saying that...I haven't read Demon in a Bottle, Days of Future Past, God Loves/Man Kills or The Death of Gwen Stacy, all of which meet both of those criteria above.

However I've been exposed to snippets of a panel here or there for most of those in press publications to the point that I feel like I have.

And sadly I have read dreck like Civil War, Secret Invasion, Our Worlds at War and A Death of the Family. So sometimes we just make the wrong choices of what to read.

Related Posts with Thumbnails