When Words Collide: Five Years' of CBR's Top 100 Comics

Mon, January 7th, 2013 at 1:58pm PST

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

FIVE YEARS LATER: A LOOK BACK ON THE BEST OF THE BEST

Though he likes it just fine, CBR's #1 Comic of the Year, "Saga," was not among Tim's personal Top Ten

I'm always curious to see what the CBR Top 100 comics list ends up looking like.

I don't know how much people know about the creation of the list (though News Editor Kiel Phegley does explain the math in his "Revisit CBR's Top 100" piece), but basically a bunch of us who work for the site submit our Top 10 and then the Top 10s are pooled together and points are awarded based on #1 picks being worth more than #10 picks, etc. It's a perfectly democratic way to do it, and it means that nothing makes the Top 100 list unless someone ranked that comic as part of their personal Top 10.

I don't know the behind-the-scenes numbers, but the list this year seemed more eclectic than normal, and I'm guessing that a bunch of contributors had things in their submitted Top 10s that didn't make the Top 100 because nobody else had it on theirs. And one or two points is not enough to make the master list. I doubt the comics in the overall Top 10 had as many points as they have in previous years. There seemed to be less consensus beyond people realizing that they kind of had to acknowledge the enormity of "Building Stories" and recognizing that "Hawkeye" was the it-book of the superhero moment. (Though everyone liked "Saga" enough for it to take the top spot, which I find baffling. More about that some other week, I suppose. I like "Saga" just fine, but it's around the level of quality of something like a random issue of the Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning "Guardians of the Galaxy" or something. I don't know where all the extraordinary love's coming from, and I should give it a reread to figure out what's what with the affection for that comic.)

Then there's the way the list is received by the world at large. I know at least one publisher who touted their comic making "CBR's Top 10," when it was actually made my "When Words Collide" Top 10 (which, as we all know, is the correct and most accurate Top 10 anyway), and didn't even come close to the overall CBR Top 10.

"Punk Rock Jesus" writer/artist Sean Murphy went to Twitter with some questions about the CBR master list. He wrote:

It's a legitimate question: how could a comic with consistently great reviews place lower than comic with consistently good-but-not-as-great reviews?

CBR bossman Jonah Weiland answered Murphy on Twitter, and told him that the reviews are done by a specific team of reviewers and the CBR master list involves everybody on the site, and that explains the apparent discrepancy. And it does, but Murphy pointed out that "CBR is often quoted as a brand," rather than as a collection of individuals. It's an excellent point -- but that's hardly CBR's fault.

Jonah Weiland doesn't issue press releases saying that CBR gives a comic 5 stars, but comic companies do. Or post the rating on the back of the book, sometimes without reviewer attribution, as if CBR was some monomind. I think one of the pull quotes on the cover of an issue of "Young Liars" from a few years back belongs to me, from one of my reviews, but you wouldn't know it from the cover, which just attributes the words to "Comic Book Resources." I can understand that publishers want to make the praise look more legitimate by connecting it to a well-known source, and individual reviewers are rarely as well-known as the sites they work for. I get it. But it is silly to assume that everyone working for a site would have the same taste or critical faculties (or even have read the same things) as everyone else. It just doesn't work that way, contrary to what message board posters might think when they complain about a site's "inconsistency" or "hypocrisy" just because two different humans who work for the site have two different opinions. It would be weirder, and much less interesting, if they didn't.

"Hawkeye" took the "it-book of the superhero moment" slop in 2012

But, and this is my point this week: with the CBR Top 100, it isn't about individual opinions. It is about the hivemind of CBR folks coming together and each inputting their own tastes into the big machine monitored by Kiel Phegley and watching what pops out the other end. The CBR Top 100 is the CBR brand endorsement of certain comics over others, and yes it's made up of individual lists, but the master list doesn't care about your tiny little opinions. If others don't agree with your choices, then they aren't likely to get ranked, and they certainly won't end up in the overall Top 10 or even Top 50. The CBR Top 100 carves away the outliers and doesn't care about the subtle nuances of each individual list. It's harsh and objective in its way. So that makes it pretty interesting to me.

And as I looked at the list this year, I wondered how much things have changed since we started doing this Top 100 conglomeration. The list began back in 2008, which was my first year working for CBR, so I've contributed to it from the beginning, though I think the staff was smaller in those days, so the early lists would be more in tune with my personal tastes, I suspect, since there were less people contributing and my own contribution would have counted as a larger proportion than it would now. I was curious to see what trends emerged from the past five years of the CBR Top 100, so I went back and took a look.

The lists are easy enough to find, and you can certainly crunch the numbers your own way, but I was interested in looking at a couple of trends: (1) CBR is known as a superhero/mainstream site, and how much of that has been reflected in the Top 5 of the master list each year? (2) Are any of the "Best" comics of previous years not looked at with such fondness anymore? (3) Are comics getting better or worse? Can we compare previous the cream of the crop from the past five years and see which years had the best of the best?

My analysis of the CBR Top 100 data – and I really only looked at what cracked the Top 5 for each of the past five years – is far from objective. I'm mostly using it as a jumping-off point to identify trends as I interpret them, to comment on how things seem. But going back into the previous years' lists I found a few things that were worth talking about. If the CBR hivemind has any message to the world, it seems to be along these lines:

DC COMICS HAS BEEN AWESOME AT MAKING AWESOME COMICS THAT PEOPLE LIKE

I was surprised by DC's dominance over the past five years on the top of the CBR master list. Out of the 25 picks (Top 5 for each of the past 5 years), 11 of them were DC Comics. Of the 11, six were straight-up DC, and five were Vertigo, but, still, either of those numbers would have been enough to be the most dominant company according to the CBR hivemind, and together they are more than triple the second best publisher. Image, Pantheon, and Marvel (including the Icon imprint) tie for second place, with only three Top 5 comics each over the past five years total. IDW and Drawn and Quarterly each had two total, and Fantagraphics had one.

It's easy to say that it's all a matter of distribution, and Fantagraphics and Pantheon books aren't as well-read by CBR staffers as the stuff that lines the walls of the direct market, but that doesn't explain DC's overwhelming dominance. Marvel and Image and IDW are on those shelves as well (the latter far less than the former, of course), and yet DC still has far, far more Top Fivers. And it's worth noting that even with CBR's reputation as a superhero/mainstream site, only 14 out of 25 were either Marvel or DC comics, and since the Vertigo and Icon books are not at all superheroic (though some of the Image comics might be), less than half of the Top 5 comics over the past five years fall into the superhero genre. The list, even at the top, is more consistently diverse than you might have expected. (It's more diverse than I expected, anyway.)

GOOD COMICS ARE STILL GOOD, MOSTLY

"Scalped" is the overall champion of CBR's list over the last five years

Let's quickly take a look at the Top 5 for each year. I'll use commas and make it brief:

2008 gave us a Top 5, counting down from number five to number one, of "Action Comics," "Fables/Jack of Fables," "Scalped," "Criminal," and "All-Star Superman."

2009 gave us "Scalped," "Chew," "Parker: The Hunter," "Detective Comics," and "Asterios Polyp."

2010 gave us "Scalped," "Parker: The Outfit," "Daytripper," "The Batman Comics of Grant Morrison," and "Acme Novelty Library."

2011 gave us "Habibi," "Love & Rockets New Stories," "Hark! A Vagrant," "Animal Man," and "Daredevil."

2012 gave us "Prophet," "Batman," "Hawkeye," "Building Stories," and "Saga."

In retrospect, some of those picks look super-strange, don't they? I mean, if you're thinking of "Best of" lists as being some kind of attempt at determining not only what's really good but what's really good and has a shot at standing the test of time (which is how I think of my selections for these kinds of lists), then what the heck are things like 2009's "Chew" and 2011's "Animal Man" doing up there? Does anyone talk about these comics anymore like they're something that you must read? Not so much.

"Action Comics" from 2008 may also seem like a dated, of-the-moment choice, but if you go back and look at the Geoff Johns/Gary Frank superhero comics from that time, I think you'll find that they hold up pretty well. Or maybe I'm just a huge softie for that Legion of Super-Heroes arc. That's a strong possibility.

Mostly the Top 5's are still comics that I would recommend to people. Not all of them, yeah, but plenty. "All-Star Superman" deserved the CBR hivemind #1 slot in 2008, and it's going to remain one of the best superhero comics of all time, I'm sure of it. "Scalped" is the superstar of this list, making the Top 5 for three consecutive years before sliding down in the rankings over the past couple of Top 100s. I don't think "Scalped" finished poorly, but it's just that we all became accustomed to its quality and other, shinier new comics came along. But as the only triple-threat on this Five Years times Top 5 compilation, "Scalped" deserves to be remembered and reread for many, many years.

The appearances by Chris Ware and Los Bros Hernandez show that masters of the medium produce work that's recognized as masterful. No big surprise there. But who talks about "Daytripper" anymore? That Gabriel Ba/Fabio Moon comic seems to have slipped away from the conversation, but it's still worth reading. Check it out if you haven't.

I suspect "Asterios Polyp" will long outlive "Habibi," but we'll have to see about that.

These are good comics, mostly. The hivemind might have oddly inconsistent taste, but not terrible taste overall. (Just slightly terrible, and temporarily.)

WE'VE SEEN A DIP IN TOP QUALITY RECENTLY

Tim's #1 comic of the last 5 years

I admit, this part may seem arbitrary, and totally based on my own personal aesthetic judgment (that's why we're here, right?) but I wanted to take a look at these past five Top 5 CBR hivemind lists and see if there were trends in quality from year to year. Basically, I just ranked the 25 comics from the past five Top 5s in order of quality. "What would I recommend more highly?" I asked myself, as I pitted one comic against another. Looking at something like Darwyn Cooke's "Parker: The Hunter" and the first year of Mark Waid's "Daredevil" I realized that I'd recommend the latter over the former. But Cooke's second "Parker" book, "The Outfit" would best both of them. That was my process, for all 25 comics, until I compiled my own Top 25 Since 2008 Totally Biased and Subjective Master List. And then when I allocated points based on position (with #1 getting 25 points and #25 getting 1 point) and then added up the points by year I found…

Well, what do you think was the "best" year for comics out of the last five?

It turned out to be 2010, with 2008 a close second. Only one point separated the two. And 2009 followed well behind, with 2011 and then 2012 trailing after.

That seems like it makes sense to me. There may have been dozens of good comics this year (and last year) but how many great ones did we see? Not too many. But five years ago, there might not have been as much depth, but the good ones were really good, and because they were so few we all basically agreed on what they were. After a dip in top quality we bounced back with some really excellent comics in 2010, but we've seen a decline ever since.

This completely arbitrary, pseudo-math lines up with what I've been feeling about comics over the past five years. Almost exactly. So it must be true.

And when I did my ranking of the Top 5's from the past five years, what came out on top? What was the best of the best?

"All-Star Superman" by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. I'd take that over anything else on the list. That's numero uno.

And, I don't know if you noticed, but not a single Grant Morrison comic even made the Top 100 of the 2012 CBR hivemind list. Yup, things are in decline, and it's okay to yearn for days gone by, as long as you don't stop looking for the good stuff and hoping that the next batch of comics that come along will be even better than ever.


For the curious, here's how I ranked the 25 from the Top 5 lists since 2008, with the relevant year in parenthesis:

25. Chew (2009)
24. Animal Man (2011)
23. Saga (2012)
22. Batman (2012)
21. Habibi (2011)
20. Hark! A Vagrant (2011)
19. Parker: The Hunter (2009)
18. Detective Comics (2009)
17. Fables/Jack Of Fables (2008)
16. Daredevil (2011)
15. Hawkeye (2012)
14. Action Comics (2008)
13. Prophet (2012)
12. The Batman Comics of Grant Morrison (2010)
11. Parker: The Outfit (2010)
10. Daytripper (2010)
9. Scalped (2009)
8. Scalped (2010)
7. Scalped (2008)
6. Building Stories (2012)
5. Criminal (2008)
4. Asterios Polyp (2009)
3. Love & Rockets New Stories 4 (2011)
2. Acme Novelty Library #20: Lint (2010)
1. All Star Superman (2008)

What would your rankings have looked like? Which ones do you think will really stand the test of time?

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

TAGS:  when words collide, all star superman, top 100 comics of 2012, scalped, saga

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