Thursday, August 18, 2022

The Golden Bookshelf:

The Best Comics of the Decade (Vols. I and II)

The 1980s were a watershed era for comics. This two-volume Best Comics of the Decade set from Fantagraphics takes stock of this landscape and presents some of the highlights.

The 1980s were a watershed era for comics. A spate of new creators and new publishers built on the achievements of the underground movement to create mature, challenging and artistically-ambitious work, from the sophisticated narratives of Los Bros Hernandez in Love and Rockets to the primitive energy of Gary Panter’s Jimbo. The two-volume Best Comics of the Decade set from Fantagraphics takes stock of this landscape and presents some of the highlights. Fifteen years down the road, it holds up both for the quality of its selections and its prescience in picking the most promising new talent.

Best Comics is split about 50/50 between creators who established themselves in earlier decades (R. Crumb, Will Eisner, Jules Feiffer, Gilbert Shelton, Paul Mavrides, Kim Deitch and Dan O’Neill, for example) and ones who emerged in their full glory during the 80s (Peter Bagge, Dan Clowes, Matt Groening, Eddie Campbell, Kaz, Charles Burns and Chester Brown). Melinda Gebbie and Bill Griffith’s work stand out as highlights in Volume I; an early, Steve Ditko-influenced Lloyd Llewellyn story from Clowes and a tart one-page Trots and Bonnie from Shary Flenniken are just a couple of the many great moments in the (slightly superior) Volume II.

Unfortunately, Best Comics isn’t merely an anthology; it’s an object lesson in the polemical point of view of its editors, Gary Groth, Kim Thompson and Robert Boyd of the Comics Journal. The belligerent introductory essay draws clear battle lines between the arty and experimental aesthetic celebrated in these volumes, and the “inferior” genre work produced by the “hateful, exploitive” commercial comics publishers. This ideological fixation leads to the creation of a two-volume collection of Best Comics of the 1980s that omits Swamp Thing, The Dark Knight Returns, American Flagg, Elektra: Assassin, Elfquest, The Rocketeer, Xenozoic Tales, The Flaming Carrot, Sin City and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Oh, and a little series called Watchmen. The closest Best Comics comes to the “juvenilia” of fantasy and superheroics are selections from Dave Sim’s Cerebus and Paul Chadwick’s Concrete.

If readers can take The Best Comics of the Decade on its own terms, it’s a great overview of a certain corner of the comics scene, a fascinating look at the early work of many of today’s established giants, and a credible argument for the champions of alt-comix. Still miss those Turtles, though.


The Best Comics of the Decade, Volumes I and II

Fantagraphics Books, 1990

Gary Groth, Kim Thompson, Robert Boyd, eds.

Each volume TBP, 128 p. b/w with color inserts and color covers, $12.95

Vol I: Robert Armstrong, Peter Bagge, Chester Brown, John Callahan, Howard Cruse, MichaelDugan, Jules Feiffer, Drew Friedman, Melinda Gebbie, Bill Griffith, Matt Groening, Jack Jackson, Kaz, Aline Kaminsky-Crumb, Peter Kuper, Mark Marek, William Messner-Loebs, Carel Moselwitch, Alan Moore & Donald Simpson, Mark Newgarden, Paul Ollswang, Gary Panter, Harvey Pekar & R. Crumb, Dave Sim, Spain, Art Spiegelman, Ty Templeton, J.R. Williams

Vol. 2: Sergio Aragones, Lynda Barry, Mark Beyer, David Boswell, Charles Burns, Eddie Campbell, Paul Chadwick, Roz Chast, Dan Clowes, Robert Crumb, Kim Deitch, Will Eisner, Hunt Emerson, Joyce Farmer, Shary Flenniken, Rick Geary, Larry Gonick, Gilbert Hernandez, Jaime Hernandez, Krystine Kryttre, Carol Lay, Jerry Moriarty, Dan O’Neill, Dori Seda, Gilbert Shelton & Paul Mavrides, Mark Alan Stamaty, Jim Woodring, Dennis Worden

Rob Salkowitz is a Seattle-based writer and authority on all manner of aging newsprint. You can e-mail your comments and queries to Rob at Use "ComicBase" as the subject line.

The Golden Bookshelf Archives