What are the ten comics works you consider your favorites, the best, or the most significant?
That’s the initial question Robert Stanley Martin presented for voters in our best comics poll. Voters could vote for the best comics, their favorite comics, or the most significant comics. Which made me wonder, what’s the difference?
From the poll answers, it’s clear that many people do see a definite difference between “favorite” and “best”. For instance, in commenting on his list, cartoonist Larry Feign noted that “Some comics I would consider “great,” but not my favorites, such as Peanuts. I have confined my list to my favorites and greatest influences.” Even more emphatically Melinda Beasi in comments said that “I will say for the record that I would have refused to participate if I’d been required to come up with a list of “best” comics. I only caved because Noah insisted they could just be favorites.”
A simple distinction between “favorite” and “best” would be, perhaps, subjective/objective. “Favorite” is what I like myself, for personal or idiosyncratic reasons. “Best” is what is objectively superior, by some sort of universally applicable criteria. So one could say, for example, “I don’t really like Crumb’s work very much personally, but I recognize that he is such an objectively great illustrator that he deserves a spot in the top 100 comics.” Or you could say, Dokebi Bride may be one of my favorite comics ever, but of course it isn’t the kind of work of genius that deserves a place in the top 100 comics.” Crumb is not a favorite, but perhaps a best; Dokebi Bride is not a best, but a favorite.
Obviously, these distinctions are useful and meaningful, or people wouldn’t use them with such frequency. Still, I think they have some limitations.
First, it’s worth pointing out that no one is actually in a position to determine whether a comic is “best”, because no one has read every comic ever created. No doubt there’s at least a few people out there who have read every comic on the list of 115 best. But is there anyone who has read every comic on every list submitted by all 211 participants? For that matter, there are whole traditions of comics that aren’t even hinted at on our 115 best comics list, most likely because none of the people who submitted a list are familiar with them. There’s a massive comics scene in Mexico; I believe there is a significant comics tradition in India; there is a comics tradition in China. Do we know for certain that nothing created in those places is better than Watchmen or Peanuts or Little Nemo? Or, for that matter, how do we know that some obscure mini-comic distributed to 12 people and seen by no one else isn’t the best comic ever? Even the most cosmopolitan and knowledgeable comics reader is going to have seen only a tiny fraction of all the comics ever created in the world, which means any “best” is only “the best that I’ve seen” — or, in other words, a favorite.
On the other hand…I wonder if it’s possible to see something as a favorite entirely divorced from objective, or at least communal, ideas about quality. “What I like” isn’t an arbitrary effusion of my individual romantic selfness; it’s a variegated hodgepodge of standards picked up from others, many of which (a dislike of clichés, for example, or an antipathy to slick advertising art) don’t even make sense outside of a social milieu. Even what one chooses to read tends to be influenced by ideas about “best” — I doubt I ever would have looked at Little Nemo if so many people (whether acquaintances or, through his comics, Chris Ware) hadn’t told me that I should. “Favorites” exist, not in isolation, but in social spaces where personal likes are disseminated and codified, where they bleed into collective determinations of quality. Would I be such a fan of Peanuts if one of my closest friends was not also a Schulz devotee?
In some ways, the best/favorite split mirrors the general human problem of objectivity/subjectivity or culture/self. Eric Berlatsky (that’s my brother!) got at some of these issues in a recent comment.
There’s a fairly large gap between “objectivity” and “subjectivity”–and there are alternatives to both approaches. That is, even if there is no concrete unassailable criteria for judging art, this does not automatically mean that you’re left with “different strokes for different folks”. Criteria for judging individual works tend to be defined by groups…or “the social”… not by the work itself or the individual onlooker. So, Jeet knows what “kinds” of things are appreciated by the social (or a particular interpretive community, a la Stanley Fish). So…even if he doesn’t particularly like something as an individual, he can say “it is good.”—This is based on a kind of broad social agreement (or a less broad agreement within an interpretive community) about “what kinds of things are good.” Thus, Jeet can disagree with himself (“I don’t really like it, but I know it’s good, anyway). None of this has much to do with objectivity…but it doesn’t have much to do with “what kind of art is good is purely subjective.” Even the belief that artistic judgments are subjective comes from the social (and the notion that there are objective criteria for judging art is probably social as well).
I’d agree with that…and maybe elaborate that the issue isn’t just that subjective/objective is simplistic, but rather that there’s not really any place from which one can determine whether it’s simplistic or not. The self is embedded in language and, indeed, in images. How can you separate you from the world that makes you? Or (more trivially) how can you tell whether Watchmen is your favorite because it’s the best, or the best because it’s a favorite? Are you shaping the list, or is the list shaping you?
This is why I think Robert was right to ask for best, or favorites, or most significant. Not because all of those are acceptable, but because it’s unclear that they are even systematically distinguishable. The appeal of best-of lists, I think, is not that they embody either absolute standards or individual enthusiasms, but rather that they tie both together into a single frustrating, fascinating knot.