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Comic Book Reviews & Comic Book - Printable Version

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Comic Book Reviews & Comic Book - squadmind - 05-05-2020

The origin story of comic books isn’t flashy. No radioactive spider bite, atomic explosion, or shadowy experiment granted the medium the sort of ability that would have allowed it to arrive on early-20th-century drugstore racks as glossy, fully formed vehicles for sophisticated entertainment. Rather, it took a steady progression over the course of more than 75 years for the form to fully understand, and then harness, its powers. When the first comics arrived on newsstands in the early 1930s, they were a cynical attempt to put old wine in new bottles by reprinting popular newspaper comic strips. 

Cheaply printed and barely edited, those pamphlets were not what a critic at the time would have called high art. Yet today, the medium is flourishing in ways its ancestors could never have imagined. From floppy single issues of superhero sagas to hefty graphic novels, harrowing comic-book memoirs to YA fare about queer adventurers, readers can tap into a dizzying array of what the great cartoonist Will Eisner famously termed “sequential art.” And, as evidenced by the sheer number of adaptations in film, television, and even on the Broadway stage, the rest of the entertainment industry has grown wise to what fans have long known: 

There’s a special alchemy that comes when you tell a story with pictures. Printed images — and the comic book medium’s unique presentation of them — are at the heart of this feature. We have set out to trace the evolution of American comics by looking at 100 pages that altered the course of the field’s history. We chose to focus on individual pages rather than complete works, single panels, or specific narrative moments because the page is the fundamental unit of a comic book. It is where multiple images can allow your eye to play around in time and space simultaneously, or where a single, full-page image can instantly sear itself into your brain. If there are words, they become elements of the image itself, thanks to the carefully chosen economy of the writer and the thoughtful graphic design of the letterer. In the best pages, one is torn between staring endlessly at what’s in front of you or excitedly turning to the next one to see where the story is going. When comics have moved in new directions, the pivot points come in a page. 

To assemble our list of 100, we assembled a brain trust of comics professionals, critics, historians, and journalists. Our criteria were as follows: A page had to have either changed the way creators approach making comics, or it had to expertly distill a change that had just begun. In some cases, there were multiple pages that could be used to represent a particular innovation; we’ve noted those instances. We didn’t necessarily pick the 100 best pages — there are many amazing specimens we didn’t include because they didn’t have a significant influence on the craft of comics. These are also not the only 100 pages that have shaped comic books, but each, in its own way, has had a profound impact on the form as we know it. And, this being comics, we had to get a little nitpicky: We’re only dealing with comics first published by North American publishing houses, and we’re not including newspaper comic strips, webcomics, or reprints thereof. 

Some pages are notable for their written content — game-changing first appearances, brilliant narrative innovations, and so on. Some are significant because the artwork told a story in ways no one had thought to do before, and ended up being emulated — or, in some cases, outright aped. All are interesting on their own and integral parts of the tomes from which they were plucked. We conclude on what we think is a high note, with a few recent comics that have already made an impact and portend a richer and more diverse future. Strung together, these pages are a megacomic of their own, documenting the evolution of an art form in constant flux. You can click on the title of each page to open a window with a full-sized version. Gods’ Man (1929) Writer, penciler, and inker: Lynd Ward Stranger holding paper. Photo: Cape & Smith 

We could “Um, actually” our way through candidates for “First Comic Book Ever” until we’re blue in the face. But it’s inarguable that one of the leading pioneers of modern longform graphic storytelling was Flemish illustrator Frans Masereel. Right after World War I, he created a series of “pictorial narratives” without words — you may have spotted his most famous, Passionate Journey (1919), in the gift shop at your local art museum. 

Chicago-born art student Lynd Ward discovered Masereel’s work while studying printmaking in Leipzig, Germany, and was inspired to use the oldest print medium — woodblocks pressed into ink — to create something very modern: the first stand-alone graphic narrative by an American, or as he called it, a “novel in woodcuts.” Gods’ Man (1929) tells the story of a struggling artist who makes a supernatural bargain with a mysterious stranger (pictured here) for a magic brush that comes at a terrible cost. The book, composed of one woodcut illustration on each of the volume’s 139 pages, was a surprise success, and Ward produced five more graphic novels (though use of that term was decades away) before settling into a career as an illustrator and fine artist. His work was a huge inspiration to future cartoonists, including Art Spiegelman, whose Maus was heavily influenced by Ward’s woodcut style. Spiegelman later edited Library of America’s excellent boxed set of Ward’s silent novels.