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REVIEW: 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die

I'm always skeptical of books that claim to name every important instance of a given category, but 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die is a resource beyond compare.

1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die
Paul Gravett, editor
Rizzoli Universe, 2011
publisher site | WorldCat

The form of this book is pretty straightforward: selected comics are written up with a description of what they're all about and why they're significant. These entries are accompanied by publication information -- creator(s), publishers, date, country of origin, genre -- and usually a cover image. Many also include short lists of additional works by the authors or recommended similar reading.

Two aspects of this massive reading list make it worthy of praise. First, choosing respected comics scholar Paul Gravett for the general editor shows that the publishers were interested in giving this body of work the serious consideration it deserves.  I only recognized a few of the contributing writers, but knowing that Gravett selected them is a great endorsement of their quality.

Second, this book has an enormous scope. It covers the entire history of comics from the 1800s to the 2000s, and it treats early works with as much seriousness as it does modern comics. Its chronology even extends beyond its 2011 publication date by virtue of recent translations of many foreign works, including Pushwagner's Soft City and The Little King. (There is a 2014 edition, but I haven't been able to determine if it updates its coverage or is just a reprint.) It also covers a wider range of formats than expected, including newspaper strips as well as works like Frans Masereel's Passionate Journey that are often disregarded as "picture books for adults" or "proto-comics" at best. It's unfortunate that no single-panel comics or webcomics are present, but it's also understandable that a line had to be drawn somewhere.

Geographical breadth is a particular strong point. The book definitely has Western and English-language biases, but flipping through the pages just now, I have found works from Korea, Japan, Argentina, India, Mexico, Spain, Italy, Germany, Cuba, Italy, the Netherlands, Israel, Algeria and Croatia. Beyond assumptions about national origins and knowledge of a few individuals, I can't speak to its representation creators of color, and similarly I'm sure that women and queer folks are a minority among the creators here. Whether or not that accurately reflects the populations who've historically made comics, I'm happy to see books like No Straight Lines, Encyclopedia of Black Comics and Pretty in Ink picking up the slack.

Possible representation issues aside, 1001 Comics would be an excellent addition to the shelves of just about any comics librarian. It can be used a collection development tool and would probably take care of 50-75% of the work of selection for a brand new comics collection in a public library or academic browsing collection. It works for reader's advisory too, given its frequent notes about similar titles, and it would be a good guide for picking titles for a reader looking branch out. Its historical and geographical scope make it a great reference for academic librarians and archivists too. School librarians won't find much use, unfortunately, as its children's titles are few and far between, but with any luck we'll get a children's comics edition someday.