Roughing It

The American cover isn’t bad…

Simon Mason’s The Rough Guide to Classic Novels covers “a selection of 229 novels . . . from 36 countries, published between 1604 and 2002.” Roughly pocket-sized (if you have big pockets), Classic Novels provides short, simple summaries of each of the books, outlining the plot as well as contextualizing the relative importance of the novel. Mason also recommends the best English translations and discusses film adaptations (quite even-handedly), where applicable. He also includes a “Where to Go Next” bullet for each novel. Sometimes these suggestions work: liked Brave New World? Then check out Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker. Other times, they’re a bit nonsensical–does anyone really go to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man after they’ve made it through Ulysses?

...but we prefer the British cover
…but we prefer the British cover

But this criticism is mere quibbling; Mason does a great job with an almost impossible task–after all what books would you cover in such a limited space (and you’d have to include Ulysses, and you’d have to give it pride of place over the Portrait, right?). Simon admits in his preface that inevitably “the selection is a personal one, and not likely to be the same as anyone else’s.” Of course he includes the “classics” that will jump to anyone’s mind–Jane Eyre, War and Peace, Moby-Dick, etc., but he also includes works by Toni Morrison, Don DeLillo, and Haruki Murakami, along with dozens and dozens of books I’ve never heard of, but now feel that I simply must read. And in exposing a potential reader to a book they’ve never heard of, Classic Novels is a success.


If Danny Fingeroth’s The Rough Guide to Graphic Novels is less successful than Mason’s Classic Novels, that shortcoming is in his attempt to sanctify a canon in a medium that is still often misunderstood as a genre. While most of us will readily agree that Don Quixote and The Catcher in the Rye are classics, the canonical works of the comic book medium still need some sorting out, and many fans of graphic novels will find Fingeroth’s language a bit too-definitive. After a great first chapter that asks “What Is a Graphic Novel?,” a brief history of the comic book story-telling medium, and his own comic, “For Art’s Sake,” (a fun but forgettable overview of the graphic story-telling arts from an artist’s perspective), Fingeroth initiates the bulk of the book, “The Canon: The Sixty Best Graphic Novels.” As if his language weren’t definitive enough, he kicks the section off with “Ten Graphic Novels Everyone Should Read.” And while Fingeroth’s “Canon” and top-ten list are full of obvious choices that should certainly be there–Spiegelman‘s Maus, Satrapi’s Persepolis, Charles Burns’s Black Hole, Clowes‘s Ghost World–there are also gaping holes on one hand and complete over-representation on the other, as well as some real head-scratchers thrown in to boot. Why, for instance, does Fingeroth include Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again over its vastly superior and more influential predecessor, The Dark Knight Returns? Why is Sin City canonized at all? Although Alan Moore’s From Hell is canonized, why is his controversial recent novel Lost Girls included over work like Watchmen, V for Vendetta, or Saga of Swamp Thing–all books that had a tremendous impact on comic book storytelling? Why does Dave Sim’s massive contribution Cerebus get glossed over in a single sentence, while Kyle Baker’s trifling missive Why I Hate Saturn is given pride of place on the top ten list? Fingeroth could’ve saved himself a lot of nitpicking by simply changing his language a bit to at least admit that his choices are subjective. Far more satisfying is the next chapter, “The Icons,” covering some of the most influential persons in comic history, including Robert Crumb, Chris Ware, Joe Sacco, and the Hernandez Brothers. I would’ve liked to have seen this chapter expanded quite a bit (perhaps at the expense of the superfluous chapter on manga); if The Rough Guide to Graphic Novels is to be a starting place for new readers interested in this medium, “The Icons” best represents that starting place. Those interested in discovering graphic novels they haven’t heard of will also be pleased with the many full-page art reproductions throughout the book, probably its best feature. Despite its flaws, however, there is something admirable about Fingeroth’s attempt to create a canon out of a medium that has for far too long been marginalized.

The Rough Guide to Classic Novels and The Rough Guide to Graphic Novels are now available from Rough Guides,

After the jump: Fingeroth’s top ten list vs. Biblioklept’s top ten list–

Danny Fingeroth’s “Ten Graphic Novels Everyone Should Read”

1. Maus, Art Spiegelman

2. Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi

3. The Quitter, Harvey Pekar and Dean Haspiel

4. A Contract with God, Will Eisner

5. It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken, Seth

6. Stop Forgetting to Remember, Peter Kuper

7. Kings in Disguise, James Vance and Dan Burr

8. Brooklyn Dreams, J.M. DeMatteis and Glenn Barr

9. Alice in Sunderland, Bryan Talbot

10. Why I Hate Saturn, Kyle Baker

Biblioklept’s “Ten Graphic Novels Most People Should Read, Especially You (In No Particular Order)”

1. Maus, Art Spiegelman

2. High Society, Dave Sim

3. From Hell, Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell

4. Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

5. The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller

6. Black Hole, Charles Burns

7. Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, Chris Ware

8. Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi

9. My Troubles with Women, Robert Crumb

10. Bone, Jeff Smith

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