Over at the Silver Bullet Comic Books Forums there’s been a thread running devoted to discussion of “The Best Comic Book Story of All Time.” I’m doing something along that line here, but much more personal. Over the next few Comic Effect columns I’m going to discuss some of my favorite comic books published over the years. Be forewarned: at times, the “best” here is going to be purely subjective!
Justice League of America #82
August, 1970. DC Comics.
“Peril of the Paired Planets.” Writer: Denny O’Neil. Artists: Dick Dillin and Joe Giella. Editor: Julius Schwartz.
Not including a few issues of Classics Illustrated, this was my first comic book. Bought while traveling with my family through the great American Southwest in the Summer of 1970, this comic introduced me to Earths 1 and 2, Green Arrow and Black Canary, and many wonderful Golden Age superheroes. I was familiar with the Justice League through Saturday morning cartoons, but this was something special. I could read it over and over again, getting a little more out of the story each time. There were colorful costumes and exciting personalities. A lot of people had a problem with this particular JLA/JSA team-up, and a lot of people had problems with Dick Dillin’s pencils, but not me. There was a little confusion on my part: What was a second Batman doing at the JSA meeting table? Why were there two Starmen? Eventually, all would be made clear. The second Batman was the Earth-2 version, and coloring mistakes often frequented funny books (the second Starman was actually a mis-colored Golden Age Atom). But these were minor quibbles; a magical universe had opened up to me for the first time, and while I wasn’t quite ready to devote my life to it (I never did pick up the second part when it was originally published; in fact, it wouldn’t be until 1975 that I purchased Justice League of America #83 as a back issue!), a stirring seed had been planted.
Captain America #183
March, 1975. Marvel Comics.
“Nomad: No More.” Writer: Steve Englehart. Artists: Frank Robbins and Frank Giacoia. Editor: Len Wein.
The President of the United States had betrayed his country. To Captain America, the principles of the American Dream had been shattered. He became a wanderer, a Nomad. But the world needs a Captain America, so someone else had taken up the mantle, only to meet a violent death at the hands of the Red Skull. Here, Steve Rogers makes a crucial decision. The last three pages exhibit some of the most dramatic soul-searching in comics. One of the best series of the Vietnam/Watergate era, and firmly set in it. It’s part of what made Marvel great in the early to mid-1970s. A nice touch: Most of this story is set across a stretch of New York rooftops as Nomad searches for the missing Falcon.
Justice League of America #103
December, 1972. DC Comics.
“A Stranger Walks Among Us.” Writer: Len Wein. Artists: Dick Dillin and Dick Giordano. Editor: Julius Schwartz.
Right after I started collecting comics, Len Wein took over the writing of Justice League of America. He scripted many of my favorite JLA stories. It’s hard for me to pick a personal best to represent Wein’s stretch of classic tales, but I’ve chosen #103. It’s a wonderful Halloween tale, as the League (Superman, Batman, Flash, Green Lantern, Green Arrow and Hawkman) do battle against the villainy of Felix Faust, who, unknown to the League, plans to murder the World’s Greatest Superheroes so that evil spirits, under Faust’s control, can enter and live in our world! Featuring guest appearances by Wein and friends (his wife, Glynis, and Steve Englehart and Gerry Conway, who in time would both join the ranks of JLA writers), the beginning of the Hawkman/Green Arrow feud, the induction (I think) of the Phantom Stranger into the JLA, and some prime panels featuring my favorite superhero, Green (Hal Jordan) Lantern. There’s also a sort-of, kind-of guest appearance by the World’s Mightiest Mortal, Captain Marvel, who would soon be returning to his own comic book, Shazam! , after an absence of 20 years! You’ve got to give artist Dick Dillin a lot of credit for handling all the activity (and number of characters) Wein put into his scripts! Dick Giordano took over as regular inker with this issue. While Joe Giella’s inks softened Dillin’s pencils, Giordano’s sturdied them. This issue also sports one of my favorite Nick Cardy covers.
The Sandman #53
September, 1993. Vertigo/DC Comics.
“Worlds’ End: Hob’s Leviathan.” Writer: Neil Gaiman. Artists: Michael Zulli and Dick Giordano, Bryan Talbot and Mark Buckingham. Editor: Karen Berger.
Trying to pick one’s favorite issue of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman is not easy. It warrants its own list! But this tale has stayed with me, and I reread it often. In the early 1900s, two immortals, a boy who is not what he seems, and the crew of The Sea Witch experience grand and mythic adventure on the Seven Seas. This is a story about change, about what we know to be true but never speak of, of deception, what mysteries lurk beneath the oceans, and what mysteries are held deep within us. Within the context of The Sandman, this is a story within a story within a story. In the end, it’s all about storytelling. “Given time,” Hob Gadling tells young Jim, “you’ll spin a yarn of what we saw in the ocean. Given time I’ll tell the tale of the handsome young cabin boy. But given enough time and the right audience, the darkest of secrets scum over into mere curiosities. Anyway. No one’ll ever believe us.” Oh, I don’t know about that. I’ve believed the tales of comic book storytellers for years. Whether fictional, or inspired by or based on real life, these stories are as real and inspirational as we choose to make them.
Swamp Thing #32
January, 1985. DC Comics.
“Pog.” Writer: Alan Moore. Artist: Shawn McManus. Editor: Karen Berger.
I had never read Pogo. So it was a while before I caught on that this was a tribute to Walt Kelly’s classic comic strip, but that didn’t lessen the impact of this story. One of Alan Moore’s most poignant tales, “Pog” won’t leave a dry eye in the house. The crew of the spaceship Find the Lady are looking for a safe planet to inhabit, a “New Lady” as they call it. Their homeworld had been desecrated by a savage race. After several failed attempts, they believe they have found an adequate home on the planet Earth. Sadly, tragically, this is not to be. “There is no lady!” claims one of the colonists. “Trifles! Trifles light as air!” One of the most chilling scenes in all of comics is on page 18, panel 5. Moore gives the aliens a dialect all their own; it’s a remarkable Pogo-esque vernacular that warrants several re-readings as long as you don’t mind your heart breaking over and over.
The Inferior 5 #10
September-October, 1968. DC Comics.
“Monster Rally.” Writer: E. Nelson Bridwell. Artists: Jack Sparling? and Bob Oksner? Editor: Joe Orlando.
I know what you’re thinking: What is this comic doing here? It’s simply the funniest comic book I’ve ever read. The Inferior 5 (Merryman, Dumb Bunny, Blimp, White Feather, and Awkwardman) and a send-up of some of Marvel’s greatest superheroes (Submoron, the Kookie Quartet, and the Cobweb Kid) join forces to prevent an alien invasion, with an, unbeknownst to all, assist from Superman. There’s slapstick, off the wall puns, groovy dry wit, outrageous play on words; it’s like DC was thinking, “Hey, this is their last issue, go all out!” Page 22 is hysterical: while Superman takes on the aliens, this little biplane flies from panel to panel seeking out King Kong. And, at the bottom right hand corner of the page, a small boy lifts the last panel up and calls for his dog, Spot. It’s ludicrous, but it’s funny. I was rereading this in the waiting room of a doctor’s office the other night, and I couldn’t help but chuckle uncontrollably (and, y’know, I’ve read this thing a gazillion times). If anyone ever wants to get literal with me and ask me to explain why comics are sometimes called ‘funny books,’ I’ll let them read this one. It’s goofy proof.
Doom Patrol #42
March, 1991. DC Comics.
“Musclebound: The Secret History of Flex Mentallo.” Writer: Grant Morrison. Artists: Mike Dringenberg and Doug Hazlewood. Editor: Art Young. With special thanks to Stevie Bamford and James Hamilton (their contribution is a mystery, but I want them noted).
You’ve seen that scrawny guy in the ads. The one who had sand kicked in his face. The one who developed muscles and became the “Hero of the Beach.” But what did he become after that? He became Flex Mentallo, Man of Muscle Mystery. He became a superhero and fought alongside the like of the Zipper, the Atomic Pile, and the Fact. He met the girl of his dreams, Dolores. “When our eyes met,” Flex relates, “it was like the noise glass makes when you write on it with a felt pen.” He learned of the Pentagon horror. He tried to turn the Pentagon into a circle and failed. Then he entered the Pentagon, only to have his head “burglarized” and his memories taken. He escaped and in time found himself on Danny the Street, the world’s first sentient street. There he remained until the Doom Patrol rescued him from the false Men From N.O.W.H.E.R.E. Thirty-two years had passed since Flex entered the Pentagon. The horror is still there. An amazing story, brilliant in conception and execution, and only a chapter in the ground-breaking series that was Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol.
Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes #203
July-August, 1974. DC Comics.
“Massacre by Remote Control.” Writer: Cary Bates. Artist: Mike Grell. Editor: Murray Boltinoff.
The death of Invisible Kid and Grell’s debut as Legion penciller and inker. An entertaining and tragic story. Actually, what makes Invisible Kid’s death so shocking is that it goes against the Legion’s established future history (see Adventure Comics #453). On the other hand, you can also look on this story as a taste of divergent timelines to come. In any case, it’s first-rate comic book adventure. This is one of Bates’ more solid scripts (he’d be borrowing from it, with varying degrees of success and failure, for years to come), while Grell’s trademark exaggeration of human anatomy (long before the boys of Image) has an appealing rawness. In time, Invisible Kid would be back, in a slightly different Legion, with a slightly different Legion history, in an altogether different timeline. As team books go, as opposed to team-ups, its near-uniqueness also makes it stand out: From 1973 through mid-1975, it’s the only all-new team book DC published besides Justice League of America.
Kamandi, The Last Boy on Earth #24
December, 1974. DC Comics.
“The Exorcism.” Writer/Editor: Jack Kirby. Artists: Jack Kirby and D. Bruce Berry.
I’ve seen a lot of haunted houses in my lifetime. But none more dazzling and mysterious than Kirby’s two page spread on pages 2-3. In this story, the popularity of the movie The Exorcist tickles Kirby’s imagination. And Jack is able to play with this supernatural concept and give it a science fiction twist within his futuristic world of Earth After Disaster. Kirby utilizes narration to philosophize about fear, but only as an aside to the relentless pace of the story; the stark narration that comes before he plunges into each chapter only enhances the adventure. It’s simply contagious: Kirby is as excited about telling the story as I am reading it. New characters feel like old friends, their fears are my fears, while Kamandi’s strengths and smarts overcome what threatens us. Kirby made me ‘interactive’ long before video and computers took hold!
Swamp Thing #48
May, 1986. DC Comics.
“A Murder of Crows.” Writer: Alan Moore. Artist: John Totleben. Editor: Karen Berger.
Like Swamp Thing in this issue, I thought I knew all kinds of horror under Alan Moore’s spell, but, man, this story is as intense as they come. The epic “American Gothic” reaches a feverish, chilling pitch, turning out to be hands down one of John Constantine’s worst days. It’s all about stopping the ancient Brujeria from bringing forth Hell on Earth. Little does Constantine know that he is about to be betrayed by a longtime friend. There’s a startling transformation of a human being into a crow that is as unsettling to read as it is to witness visually. There’s also the appearance of the gruesome Invunche. I’ll never go into a cave again. And it’s not as if these horrors jump out at you and cause you to scream; they come at you slowly, panel-by-panel, step by step. You want to do something to stop so much unspeakable horror from being set free. You want Swamp Thing to follow Constantine’s orders, which he doesn’t, of course, choosing to save JC from certain death instead of halting the flight of the crow.
March-April, 1971. DC Comics.
“The Creature That Devoured Detroit.” Writer: Steve Skeates. Artist: Jim Aparo. Aquagirl: “The Cave of Death.” Writer: Steve Skeates. Artist: Jim Aparo. Editor: Dick Giordano.
This was the last issue of Aquaman for a while. Here, Detroit is threatened by some goopy green algae. Aquaman handles the threat, but at the cost of his own life? Hard to say, since there was no next issue (well, he did continue appearing in JLA, so I suppose we can safely assume he survived)! All the supporting characters are a little wacky for such a serious story, but is all this really serious, or parody? (Our first clue that all is not what it seems is that Aquaman is flying on the cover.) First and only appearance of the crime-busting Crusader, who feels like he’s been around the DC Universe a while, but really hasn’t. His death is ironic, sort of, and his last case never cracked (not by him, anyway). Skeates plays with our unbalanced obsession with television, how even the most heroic ideal can go astray, and just how selfish we humans are (Aquaman’s first thought when he learns of the life-threatening algae is of Atlantis’ safety, the Crusader places Detroit in perpetual daylight because he is going blind, and a woman interviewed by the media wonders out loud why the situation that’s forcing an evacuation of Detroit couldn’t be happening to Cleveland). Parody that makes you think; it doesn’t get any better than this. Oh, but I would have loved to read readers’ reactions to this issue!
Black Lightning #3
July, 1977. DC Comics.
“Every Hand Against Him.” Writer: Tony Isabella. Artists: Trevor Von Eeden and Vince Colletta. Editor: Jack C. Harris.
Tony Isabella came over from Marvel and created DC’s first major black superhero (Green Lantern John Stewart preceded BL, as did Teen Titan Mal Duncan, but they were supporting characters). Our family returned to Kayenta, Arizona in the Spring of 1977, and I celebrated five years of collecting comics by buying a lot of new comics in the very hotel gift shop I started collecting comics in. Black Lightning #3 was one of them, and my personal favorite in the batch. Isabella had brought Metropolis’ biggest crime gang, the 100, back into the picture, giving the crooked institution more visual depth with a Kingpin-type boss, Tobias Whale. He also brought in lesser known elements from around the DC Universe (villain-tailor Paul Gambi’s brother and Inspector Bill Henderson) and gave them prominent roles. While Isabella carried over some of the super-soap-operatic tone of Marvel Comics, it was less heavy-handed than, say, Gerry Conway’s style. Von Eeden was a young up and coming artist, and it was fun to watch him take on established DC characters, including Superman.
John Constantine, Hellblazer #11
November, 1988. DC Comics.
“Newcastle: A Taste of Things to Come.” Writer: Jamie Delano. Artists: Richard Piers Rayner and Mark Buckingham. Editor: Karen Berger.
In John Constantine’s early appearances in Swamp Thing, he often alluded to the horrors he experienced at Newcastle. Something happened to him there, back in his days with the new wave band Mucous Membrane, “before Thatcher. Before the Falklands War. Before the country — starving — ate out its own heart,” that drove him over the edge and sent him straight to the Ravenscar Secure Facility for the Dangerously Deranged for two years. Here, finally, the horror is revealed, a horror that cost a young girl her life (in this world, anyway) and in time Constantine his friends (most of them during Swamp Thing‘s epic “American Gothic”). It’s also the beginning of John’s revenge against what has haunted him so long.
Strange Adventures #235
March-April, 1972. DC Comics.
Reprints. “The Planet That Came to a Standstill.” Writer: Gardner Fox. Artists: Carmine Infantino and Murphy Anderson. Editor: Julius Schwartz.
Originally published in Mystery In Space #75, May 1962. This is the comic that got away. When it came out in early 1972, I remember liking the cover, a dazzler by Neal Adams, but not thinking much of what was inside. Yes, it featured the Justice League, but it was really an Adam Strange story. Yes, the story looked intriguing, but it was a reprint, not a new story. So I probably bought an issue of Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane instead. I remember almost buying it, then thinking I’d get it next time. Next time it was off the stands. But this is the kind of comic that always stayed with me, even though I didn’t have it for several years. It became one I would look for. I wouldn’t pay an astronomical price for it, and if I saw an older issue of Green Lantern next to it that I didn’t have, I’d move toward GL, but later on my thoughts would drift back to this comic. Of course, I eventually got it. Adam Strange and the JLA must defeat Kanjar Ro. While I’ve always liked Adam Strange, I must admit I have a soft spot for his girlfriend (now wife) Alanna. What a relationship! Imagine having to endure your sweetheart living most of his or her time a universe away! And it’s funny: even though I now possess this comic, and have read it, and enjoyed it, it’s still the one that got away.
Flex Mentallo #1
June, 1996. Vertigo/DC Comics.
“After the Fact: Part One: Flowery Atomic Heart.” Writer: Grant Morrison. Artist: Frank Quitely, Editors: Art Young and Stuart Moore.
To this day, I have never quite figured out Flex Mentallo. I’ve read it, oh, maybe a dozen times, maybe more than that. I’ve read it start to finish. End to beginning. From the middle on back. And sometimes I think I’ve got it. But I can never articulate it. I know it’s about superheroes, superheroes who ‘really’ existed, who became fictional, and are now trying to get out of their self-imposed imprisonment. It’s about fantasy, it’s about the comics we read while we’re sick and on vacations; it’s about the fantasy worlds we create and inhabit when this world is too much to handle. But what if it wasn’t always that way? Where have all the heroes gone? And the adventures that Flex remembers, are they from his past as a comic book character? Or was it real somewhere else, until the ultimate crisis came and so many heroes were lost? I don’t know. And that’s what I get for reading Flex Mentallo #1 again. Sporting colorful Frank Quitely artwork that must be studied meticulously, Grant Morrison’s sharp script crackles with imagination. “Time seemed to slow down as he turned and looked at me and I saw that he was fuzzy and indistinct, like one of those UFO photographs or pictures of the Loch Ness monster.” This is what Flex Mentallo thinks as he finally comes upon his missing superhero buddy, the Fact. But are these really Flex’s thoughts? Or do they belong to Wally Sage, the man who created him? What’s really going on here? Oh, no, I’m starting again! Where’s issue #2? A brilliant comic (four issues in all).
John Constantine, Hellblazer #33
September, 1990. DC Comics.
“Sundays Are Different.” Writer: Jamie Delano. Artists: Dean Motter and Mark Pennington. Editor: Karen Berger.
When a comic goes deep yet still connects with each rereading to who I am, it’s mind-blowing. In this story, John Constantine wakes to a lovely Sunday and decides to take advantage of it. His good mood causes him to question where he is in life, and he actually contemplates change. Then he meets someone from his past, someone who once didn’t treat him very well. But that person has changed, has done good for himself, yet still regrets some things he has done in the past. They have lunch together. John is offered a place to stay. He has been offered a chance to change, now all he has to do is make the choice. But this does not sit very well with him; in fact, it makes him physically ill. He retreats into himself, eventually emerging into a world more his speed. He’s disoriented at first, the buildings seem to sway and communication with others is next to impossible, but soon he’s just at the darker side of the promising world he woke to that morning. He enters a bar and orders a gin and tonic. “Funny old day, really,” he muses. But Sundays are different. Its promise of serenity and positive change always gives way to the encroachment of Monday’s stifling harshness. At least that’s what I read into it today. A wonderful comic that never reads the same because I’m never the same reading it.
The New Teen Titans #19
May, 1982. DC Comics.
“The Light Fantastic.” Writer: Marv Wolfman: Artists: George Perez and Romeo Tanghal. Editor: Len Wein.
For a while in the early 1980s, the new Teen Titans ruled the comicsverse. And for good reason. Marv Wolfman and George Perez created some terrific characters and some breathtaking storylines. This issue is a break from all that. It’s lighthearted, and not only because Dr. Light is the villain. It has a classic comic book plot and structure, but seems fresh and new, probably because the Titans were such an intriguing bunch of characters. And Perez draws a mean Hawkman. This isn’t necessarily representative of the series, because, as with Sandman and so many other titles, I could easily do a Top 25 New Teen Titans list. But this story has it all: action, adventure, humor, characterization, mythological overtones, and lots of teamwork. At one time, the Titans really came together as a team. This longtime favorite story reminds me just how good they were.
Our Fighting Forces #152
December, 1974 – January, 1975. DC Comics.
“A Small Place in Hell.” Writer/Editor: Jack Kirby. Artists: Jack Kirby and D. Bruce Berry.
During World War II, the Losers (Captain Storm, Johnny Cloud, Gunner, and Sarge) are on a three-day pass and hope to relax in a nice, quiet European town, far, or as far as far can get, from the war that surrounds them. Unfortunately, they’ve been dropped off in the wrong town. It’s currently being occupied by the Germans, and they’re prepared to take on any Allied force that seeks to invade and claim the territory. So instead of some well-deserved R&R, the Losers find themselves on the losing end of the stick: outnumbered and outgunned. It becomes a vacation of survival. There are no noble causes here, this isn’t Saving Private Ryan, this is Saving Your Life at All Cost. You get the feeling that Kirby survived this kind of scenario during his time in the military, and he puts you right there. You feel the Germans all around you, you feel the machine gun fire bombard your ear drums, you feel the tension in the humor as the Losers struggle to maintain their composure as death strikes out behind every corner. I believe Kirby’s yearlong run on the Losers was his most underrated work, and also his most personal. It certainly clarifies the horrors of war, without any Hollywood gloss, or taste of nostalgia that time sometimes brings to even the most violent and deadly aspects of history.
Freedom Fighters #8
May-June, 1977. DC Comics.
“D-Day at Niagara.” Writer: Bob Rozakis. Artists: Dick Ayers and Jack Abel. Editor: Jack C. Harris.
To everyone’s personal favorite list must come a couple of guilty pleasures, and this is one of mine. This is by no means a great comic book. It tries to be humorous and falls flat, it tries to provide a breathtaking superhero vs. super-villain battle and falls a little short, it tries to throw in some clever plot twists and raises more questions than suspense. But there’s one scene, just one, that is brilliant. The Ray is in heated battle with a couple of Human Torch wannabes over Niagara Falls. He knows he can’t handle them alone so he rushes back to an abandoned McDonald’s-type establishment where his teammates are hiding out from the law. He bursts onto the scene above them, body twisted oddly, and shouts, “Sam! Condor! I’m being chased by a couple of super-hero types!” It’s not an “Avengers Assemble!” or a “Titans Together!” or any other kind of fancy battle cry. It’s just a quick and clear call for help that gets the blood pumping. I’ve always loved this panel. It’s the highlight of Freedom Fighters as far as I’m concerned (well, on second thought, there is an incident in FF #3, but that’s another entry!)
October, 2000. Vertigo/DC Comics.
“A Hell of a Vision.” Writer: Garth Ennis. Artist: Steve Dillon. Editor: Alex Alonso.
A truly majestic, old-fashioned “they rode off into the sunset” ending, with a satisfying coda to conclude what I feel is the last great American Western of the 20th Century. Preacher is the saga of three of comics’ strongest characters: Jesse Custer, and his quest for an all-loving, selfish, cowardly God; his girlfriend, Tulip, who wants to give up her guns and ride off into the sunset with her man; and Jesse’s best friend, Cassidy, an Irish vampire on the verge of finally finding humanity (and taking the long, hard road to get there). It’s also a saga of redemption and revenge, America and religion, and friendship and family, both dysfunctional and enduring. It’s about mythology and legends. It has some of the most lyrically vile and relentless swearing ever to see print, and features John Wayne in his best supporting role. Preacher touches on Vietnam, international terrorism, nuclear destruction, Kurt Cobain; there’s even a cameo by Elvis. Preacher is violent, bloody, intense, sexy, hilarious, heartbreaking, and uplifting. If directors John Ford, Howard Hawks, Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah had ever got together to create one epic Western, it might have been a lot like Preacher. But not quite. Only Ennis and Dillon could have pulled off the like of the Saint of Killers, Arseface and Herr Starr. Not to mention that majestic happy ending.