1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die

The Ultimate Guide to Comic Books, Graphic Novels, and Manga

This humongous brick of a book lives up to the title, impressing with its size and length. It’s nicely organized, as well. The chapters are arranged by time period, with a section per every couple of decades. There’s an index by title as well as by author. About the only design choice I can argue with is the indefensible decision to put Terry Gilliam’s foreword on a dark slate blue paper, which made it hard to read. (Then again, since it has little to do with the book, maybe that doesn’t matter so much.)

A book like this is made for arguments. The first author I looked up was Fumi Yoshinaga, my favorite manga creator. She is included, although only for Ooku: The Inner Chambers; I would have mentioned more of her titles. The next creators I looked up — Alison Bechdel, Rumiko Takahashi, Carla Speed McNeil — were included, thankfully. So I flipped to the last few books, seeing what represented last year, 2011. The list there was much more of a miss for me, with the five titles included either on my avoid list — Habibi, Paying For It — or unknown to US audiences — two Indian titles and The Great Unwashed, published by Escape Books, a company run by Paul Gravett, editor of this book. (That fact isn’t mentioned in the title writeup.)

That’s one factor that many American readers will find eye-opening. Gravett takes the worldwide view, so included are plenty of international works, not just manga or UK books but those from France or Italy or Belgium or elsewhere. Even the most knowledgeable reader of comics will find material new to them in these pages — especially in the older eras — while newcomers may be overwhelmed by the enormous range of content described here. As Gravett points out in his introduction, almost half the book goes to works from 1990 or later, emphasizing how active and vibrant the medium is.

Each book gets either a half-page column (with no picture) or a page (if a cover image is included). The year is given, as are the title in the original language (if not English); the company that first published the work, and its country; the country of the creator(s), and the birth year; and the work’s genre. Many of the books include “Similar Reads” sections or “Also by” the author, to give the reader more titles to try. It’s difficult to tell, from the short space allotted, what a particular comic really is like, especially since no interior art is reproduced, but it’s certainly a good guide to drive store browsing or online searches.

While quite enjoyable to while away time flipping the book’s pages, following titles or creators or decades, or simply seeing what a random page will bring, I found myself wanting the tools an online version would offer. How many works are in which genre, for example, or from which publishers? A text search would be helpful, as would links among the books and creators. Updates could be provided every five years or so; I’d be curious to see what would be added or removed.

With infinite space, consideration could be given to including information about which works are in print and in which forms. Titles are discussed without specifics of how many books make up a series or particular issue numbers that make up a superhero story, making it hard to understand the scope of a particular work if it’s not already familiar. A digital version would also be much more portable — I meant to talk about this volume closer to when it came out at the end of last year, but I found myself leaving it behind in the wrong place, since it’s much too heavy to tote about. Gravett has created a mini website that expands on the book, but since his goal isn’t to replace it, it’s only a start.

The book itself remains an essential addition to any comic reference library. This review of the UK edition provides some other suggestions, and the following comments are entertaining in their defense of superheroes and Judge Dredd, while one fan created an expanded list of the manga included in the book. (The publisher provided a review copy.)

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3 Responses to “1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die”

  1. gdwcomics Says:

    Did you review Habibi? I know you said you didn’t care for it but I can’t remember you reviewing it.

    I’ve always been curious about what the mindset is when a critic doesn’t like something that seems to get rave reviews by the majority of critics. I haven’t read it, but I was just looking at all the reviews for the book on amazon.

    Is the difference of opinion just chalked up to subjectivness and left at that? Does anything go through your head? Do you think wow, so many people like it, what am I not getting and is a negative review, after so many positive reviews by so many respected and popular sources basically futile or pointless given that people tend to go with the majority opinion regarding criticism?

    I guess it would be necessary to write it from a “stay true to myself and my opinion” point of view. Maybe it’s a stupid question. I was just curious. It reminded me of little known movie critics that you read who lambaste a film that all the other critics like. Often times I wonder (and I’m not accusing you of this BTW) if it’s not a cynical thing and done to stir up reaction by the readers because those type of film reviews often read like that.

    Again, not saying that’s what you do. In fact, I don’t see that in the world of comics like I do in film. But it just seems like there’s more involved than just a simple difference of opinion. But maybe I’m just paranoid. ;)

  2. gdwcomics Says:

    Also, what’s the genre breakdown like in the book, percentage wise? Is it heavy on manga and light on superheroes? Or heavy on superheroes and light on indapendents, etc?

  3. Johanna Says:

    The genre lists can be found here. Someone else will have to do the counting. :)

    I haven’t reviewed Habibi yet, still planning to. In this case, I would argue that the majority of critics haven’t given it a rave. Many have, certainly, but as many of the ones I’ve seen have pointed out that it’s a flawed work or that it has certain problems.

    To answer your question more generally, it doesn’t bother me to be independent. I think it comes of having spent years, a while back, being one of the few girls around. What I was looking for in comics wasn’t what most other people were. The same thing happened recently, for example, with Asterios Polyp.

    I don’t think a negative review in such a case would be pointless — hopefully it would spur consideration of the points made.

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