This May DC released a free guide in magazine-like format, about the size of a small prestige graphic novel itself, containing a list of “essential graphic novels” and also a “chronology” for new readers. It’s not a bad idea considering what a difficult time new readers, or those who have left for awhile, can have finding jumping on points. But it’s particularly interesting to see what graphic novels they picked as their 25 most “essential” and to ponder the ramifications of that decision. Here are the titles included in the list:
BATMAN: The Dark Knight Returns
THE SANDMAN: Volume 1, Preludes and Nocturnes
BATMAN: Year One
V FOR VENDETTA
SAGA OF THE SWAMP THING: Book One
FABLES: Volume 1, Legends in Exile
BATMAN: The Killing Joke (the Deluxe Edition)
Y: THE LAST MAN, Volume 1, Unmanned
ALL STAR SUPERMAN
BATMAN: The Long Halloween
THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN: Volume 1
BATMAN: Earth One
GREEN LANTERN: Rebirth
AMERICAN VAMPIRE: Volume 1
JLA: Volume 1
THE FLASH: Rebirth
SUPERMAN: Earth One, Volume 1
PLANETARY: Volume 1, All over the World and Other Stories
If you managed to pick up the free guide already, you’re probably skipping over that list, but on the off chance you haven’t seen it yet, it’s worth scanning through. Obviously, the list isn’t in alphabetical, chronological, or character-based order, so it must form some kind of chosen ranking system, though putting too much emphasis on the order might be a mistake. General impressions for anyone would be that firstly, there’s rather a lot of Alan Moore’s work represented (no surprise) but also a pretty vast contingent of BATMAN titles. After the initial read-through, you’ll notice that 8 of the titles are from Vertigo, which isn’t a particularly low number in terms of DC’s total output versus Vertigo’s own production numbers. And the Vertigo titles aren’t entirely relegated to the bottom of the list, thankfully, in fact, many of them are near the top, though that’s skewed a little by the fact that many are by Alan Moore and SANDMAN, of course, by Neil Gaiman is up there too.
But the number of BATMAN titles is a little surprising. He’s been one of the most appealing characters in DC history, particularly once films started being made, and is more or less the de facto symbol of DC more than Superman these days, but are that many Batman titles really so essential? Many of them are by prominent writers and artists and have justly gained critical praise, which does seem to justify plenty of Batman in the list. But when you consider how many graphic novels have been released by DC, it seems like there might have been a little more room for diversity.
Vertigo gets its own separate list of “top” series, versus individual graphic novels later on in the catalogue, too, and they are:
Y: THE LAST MAN
To be fair, other titles are listed as Vertigo graphic novels that readers might be interested in, but these three series receive their own break-down into volumes and are also rounded off by a spotlight and listing of the works of Alan Moore and Grant Morrison for Vertigo. This is good guidance for approaching Vertigo for less experienced readers, particularly since it gives short summaries of individual volumes, and its not too much of a stretch to suppose that these three series are their top sellers and so were chosen as the top three overall for readers. But Vertigo has produced so many alarmingly good books over the years, many of which stand alone as high achievements in comic art that giving Vertigo its own section in the DC guide while stacking the Top 25 overall category so heavily in favor of Alan Moore (pre-eminent though he certainly is) seems a little unbalanced.
There’s room to argue that more Vertigo titles should have made it into the Top 25 overall due to the critical attention and wide readership they enjoy even over long periods of time, stocking the shelves of libraries and being added to high-school and college level reading lists, whereas collections of big DC crossover events rarely reach that cultural status. It would be unfair to knock superhero titles out of the Top 25 simply because they are superhero graphic novels, but should be judged on their own merit. There’s little doubt that ALL STAR SUPERMAN is a classic in its own right and deserves to be given attention, but it really comes down to how we judge the word “essential”.
Essential to buy? Essential to read? Essential to understanding the DC Universe? The introductory essay to the book plainly states that it is geared to help new readers. That’s admirable, but what are they guiding new readers towards? The Top 25 list does represent a wide range of possible tastes and interests from new readers, from superheroes to sci-fi, gothic, and mythological content. But the truth is that DC has produced an enormous number of great books over the years from its main imprint to Vertigo, so enormous that it would be hard to create an adequate Top 25 list that didn’t raise some eyebrows. But compromises are at work when you limit a list to 25. Wouldn’t it have been better, particularly knowing that readers are likely to latch onto the list more fully than later information in the volume, to give a wider range of creators, subject matter, and characters so that new readers really get the “best of” feel for DC’s works? If a new generation of readers only read these top 25 as their starting point, they are going to miss out on plenty unless they dig a little further and strike out on their own to discover for themselves what they deem “essential” reading.
Hannah Means-Shannon writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress.