Over at the Silver Bullet Comic Books Forums there has been an ongoing thread discussing the “Best Comic Book Story of All Time.” Starting last week, I began to devote a few Comic Effect columns to discuss some of my personal favorite comic books of all time, and the discussion continues here. Be forewarned: at times, my idea of the “best” is going to be purely subjective!
December, 2000. DC Comics.
“Grand Guignol: Douzieme Partie: Finale.” Writer: James Robinson. Artist: Peter Snejbjerg. Editor: Peter Tomasi.
Ted Knight, the Golden Age Starman, meets his fate, and it doesn’t get any more heroic and poignant than this. Starman is one of the best superhero ‘novels’ ever written, set squarely in the DC Universe. James Robinson is the master storyteller here. More than that, he is a historian. Opal City, the immortal Shade, the Starman lineage…Robinson brings history to life. He also added depth to the DC Universe by turning second-string characters into the stuff of legend: the Black Pirate, Scalphunter, heck, even the Red Bee. The villains were also given career jolts: Solomon Grundy was granted humanity and Rag Doll given a psychotic edge. For this longtime DC fan, it was great to see Mikaal Tomas, the Starman introduced in 1st Issue Special #12 way back in December of 1975 — and regulated to comic book limbo ever since — return in a key supporting role (Robinson also kept Mikaal’s origins as Starman rooted in the 1970s, an added plus). But at the heart of it all is the story of a young man, Jack Knight, taking stock of, building love and respect for, and becoming more and more like the hero he hadn’t spent much time earlier in his life getting to know, his father. This series, like Preacher and Sandman, headed to a satisfying conclusion.
August, 1987. DC Comics.
“Look On My Works, Ye Mighty…” Writer: Alan Moore. Artist: Dave Gibbons. Editor: Barbara Randall.
The penultimate chapter in the ground-breaking series. Throughout Watchmen, there are subtle moments…a recurring image, a statement of dreamlike clarity, that linger on. In an interview by Doug Roth with Adrian Veidt, formerly the ‘superhero’ Ozymandias, Veidt makes this statement in describing the difference between himself and the Comedian: “No, we’re not great friends. It’s largely a political difference. He [the Comedian] sees me as an intellectual dilettante dabbling in national affairs that don’t concern me. I see him as an amoral mercenary allying himself to whichever political faction seems likely to grant him the greatest license.” While there appears to be a great difference politically between the two of them, there is also a kindred spirit; they both need the same thing, but they come by it at different angles. This is why the Comedian is so devastated when he learns of Veidt’s plans to bring peace to a troubled world. The Comedian wants peace by degree, through self-satisfaction, to validate his violent spirit. Ozymandias wants a thinking man’s peace, to validate his own area of expertise. Both men are egotistical, both mean abuse power, both men are superheroes. Who watches the Watchmen? We all do, because it’s all we can do.
June, 2000. Wildstorm/DC Comics.
“Magic and Loss.” Writer: Warren Ellis. Artist: John Cassaday. Editor: John Layman.
Earth’s metahuman archaeologists unlock the secret history of the world. Or is it the secret history of themselves? Playing off comics history, and deconstructing it, violently, it teeters on genius. Complex storytelling, terrific art, and as challenging as any film noir mystery, with paranoia all over the place. In this issue, we get an entirely different slant on the classic origins of Superman, Green Lantern, and Wonder Woman. The tragedy is that no superheroes come of them. It’s chilling and unnerving, scary and horrific. But you can’t take your eyes off it. God help me, Planetary makes paranoia and conspiracy theories worth existing!
The Forever People #8
April-May, 1972. DC Comics.
“The Power.” Writer/Editor: Jack Kirby. Artists: Jack Kirby and Mike Royer. Reprint: The Sandman.
Much has been written about Jack Kirby’s Fourth World saga over the last 30 years. Its epic scope and powerful depiction of “good” (New Genesis) and “evil” (Apokolips) at war with one another for eons has enthralled and endeared comic book fans for decades now. But what is it really all about? How about one “man”‘s quest to achieve a power that would allow him to rule the universe? And Darkseid almost had that power, the Anti-Life Equation, courtesy of “Billion-Dollar Bates,” in Forever People #8. Bates is shot down and killed before Darkseid can acquire the power, thank goodness (for us, not Bates, who was no saint). But the reader gets a rare glimpse, in action, of what Darkseid is driving for, and the despair he feels when it slips his grasp. “To think that destiny would store the ultimate power in a yapping jackal’s hide!” the Lord of Apokolips fumes, “– While Darkseid — the spearhead of pure elemental force — must thirst for that knowledge!” Therein lies the tragedy on a mythological level. You almost feel for the big, bad guy. My favorite Fourth World story, barely edging out New Gods #6-7 and Mister Miracle #9. “Billion-Dollar Bates” returned, in a sense, in Orion #4 (September, 2000).
March, 1994. Marvel Comics.
“Judgment Day.” Writer: Kurt Busiek. Artist: Alex Ross. Editor: Marcus McLaurin.
While I bought a few Marvel comics in the 1970s (Captain America, Captain Marvel, The Avengers), and followed a few Marvel titles in the early 1980s (Daredevil, Fantastic Four, The Mighty Thor), there was a Marvel era I didn’t have a clue to even well into the 1990s: the Marvel Age of the 1960s. Marvels #3 changed that. With its stunning re-depiction of events first chronicled by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in Fantastic Four #s 48-50 (including the introduction of Galactus and the Silver Surfer), a new universe opened up to me. This was the Marvel Age longtime fans gushed over, and sorely missed. Thanks to writer Kurt Busiek and artist Alex Ross, the era was recaptured in all its breathtaking imagination and glory. Neither retro nor nostalgic, Marvels glimpsed history from a different perspective: ours. It made Busiek and Ross industry superstars, and provided me with another aspect of comic book history to acquaint myself with. And now I know what the gushing was all about.
Strange Weather Lately #10
May, 1999. Metaphrog.
A well-received graphic novel out of Glasgow, Scotland, first released in continuing comics form. The lead character is Martin Nitram, and the setting is the play whose production he is participating in, along with many other individuals both on-stage and off. But this is a play that has never been completed for an audience to see. And where does the play end rehearsal and reality resume, and vice versa? And what is reality here, when many circumstances and situations seem skewed, tweaked, distorted, and warped? As the French and Scottish creators of Strange Weather Lately explained to me, “The governing theme of loss manifests itself as a loss of distinction between the comic’s characters and those in the play. The preternatural world is, a la Kafka or Ibsen, used to parody society and Martin is pestered by it where others should be. Or would be more effectively. The idea was to confuse and provoke a disquieting novel.” Not to mention a thoughtful work of art.
Adventure Comics #435
September-October, 1974. DC Comics.
“The Man Who Stalked the Spectre.” Writer: Michael Fleisher. Script Continuity: Russell Carley. Artist: Jim Aparo. Aquaman: “As the Undersea City Sleeps.” Writer: Steve Skeates. Artist: Mike Grell. Editor: Joe Orlando.
This was not your Golden Age Spectre. This wasn’t a 1960s Spectre. Read closely, it wasn’t even a DC Universe Spectre. No, this was the most controversial rendition of the Spectre ever depicted. Judge, jury, executioner, this Spectre was violent, imaginative, and unconditional on how he meted out justice. He would turn one murderer into a skeleton, another into glass and then shatter him, another into wood and then saw him into pieces (as in this issue), or, to add a little levity to the matter, have the bad guy eaten by a giant duck. Grim and gritty before the phrase was even coined. Featuring some of Jim Aparo’s best artwork. And after a long hiatus, Aquaman returned to solo action, along with premiere Aquaman scribe Steve Skeates. It also featured one of Mike Grell’s first artistic efforts for DC.
Shade, The Changing Man #1
June-July, 1977. DC Comics.
“Escape to Battleground Earth.” Writers: Steve Ditko and Michael Fleisher. Artist: Steve Ditko. Editor: Jack C. Harris.
I knew Steve Ditko co-created Spider-Man, I knew he had created the Creeper and Hawk and Dove for DC, and I knew he had contributed his unique pencils to DC’s Stalker. But I had never been on the ground floor for an original Ditko conception. That is, until Shade, The Changing Man. While imprisoned, Shade and all of Meta’s criminals had been transported to the Zero Zone, the dimension between Meta and Earth. Shade had been to Earth before, so he was able to travel there and reinstate himself to begin to clear his name. Framed for crippling his lover’s parents, hunted by that same girlfriend, gifted with the powers of the mysterious Meta-vest, and primed to battle any of Meta’s truly odd and dangerous criminals who were able to cross over from the Zero Zone to the Earth Zone, Shade was set up to be involved in some really gripping and imaginative stories. The series lasted only eight issues, and it would later be completely revamped for the 1990s, but here Ditko was given the opportunity to strut his stuff, and he came through. I’ve always felt this was one of the more underrated series of the late 1970s.
1st Issue Special #6
September, 1975. DC Comics.
Welcome the Dingbats of Danger Street. “Meet the Gasser!” Writer/Penciller: Jack Kirby. Inks: Mike Royer. Editor: Jack Kirby.
I always like to think of 1975 as my ‘last year of innocence.’ No, it’s not the year I lost my virginity, heck, it wasn’t even the year I went from boy to man, but in 1976 I had to deal with more adult situations — including a death in the family and an abrupt, unsettling changing of schools — for the first time. While I can consider 1976 a watershed year in my life, 1975 was wonderful, except for one thing: In the Spring Jack Kirby left DC for Marvel. But before leaving he introduced me to the Dingbats of Danger Street. They were a kid gang, but nothing like the kids in my Pasadena suburban neighborhood. They were more of a 1970s version of the Newsboy Legion. There was humor in this comic, an aspect of Kirby’s talent that I rarely saw in the pages of Kamandi, The Demon, and Our Fighting Forces. Released just as I graduated from the eighth grade, it became the summer read, enjoyed over and over again, and still to this day, although I now see the world more through the eyes of Lieutenant Terry Mullins than I do any of the Dingbats. But in 1975, I was a nerdy, geeky, shy, sensitive kid, who related to the Dingbats just fine. And if anyone eased the pain of Kirby moving to that ‘other comics company,’ it was Kirby himself.
Kamandi, The Last Boy on Earth #6
June, 1973. DC Comics.
“Flower.” Writer: Jack Kirby: Artists: Jack Kirby and Mike Royer. Editor: Jack Kirby.
Flower could have been a strong supporting character, even a romantic interest for Kamandi, the last intelligent boy on Earth, A.D. (After Disaster). Instead, Jack Kirby did something rare in comics at that time. He killed her off; suddenly, violently, senselessly. Within the context of the story, it was a powerful execution; it made sense. But I really felt for Kamandi. This was the first time I ever cried while reading a comic, and I honestly feel this is Kirby’s most poignant piece of writing. Every time I read “Flower,” an uneasiness begins to grip me as I reach Chapter 4. I know what my heart wants: it wants it to be different this time; that somehow, Flower will survive. It’s not to be. My only consolation is that a giant of the comics industry helped me cope at a young age with death, through Kamandi’s quiet strength and the compassion of the lions who befriended him, notably Sultan. Thanks, Jack.
Green Lantern #49
December, 1966. DC Comics.
“The Spectacular Robberies of TV’s Master Villain.” Writer: John Broome. Artists: Gil Kane and Sid Greene. Editor: Julius Schwartz.
In 1975 I discovered what every aspiring comic book collector eventually falls into with unabashed glee: buying back issues. I sent for Richard Alf’s catalog that was advertised in all DC comics, and was amazed to learn what I could purchase. All those comics mentioned in footnotes and that I only read about in Direct Currents were now within my grasp (as long as I had the cash)! GL #49 was one of the first I purchased, for an astounding $2.00 (well, I only had so much allowance money to work with at the time). And in my early years of collecting comics, I always heard or read about how better Marvel was than DC. Marvel had better characterization, Marvel had more down-to-Earth characters. And you know, people had a point. A lot of the Golden and Silver Age reprints I read in the DC 100-Page Super Spectaculars were very, very good, but they didn’t have the earthier, more Everyman feel of Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four. And if you go by the cover of GL #49 alone, you figure you’re going to get DC’s standard (for that time) superhero battles supervillain fare. But it wasn’t just GL battling the latest camp villain, the Dazzler, it also had Carol Ferris telling Hal Jordan that she was engaged to another man. That put Hal on the verge of falling apart because the woman he loved had dumped both him and his alter-ego, Green Lantern. He almost quit his duties as a Green Lantern! I really felt for the guy. He was heartbroken, and writer John Broome didn’t back away from an intense, personal situation. At story’s end, GL does decide to leave his hometown of Coast City to hit the road and find a new job, causing his longtime pal, Pieface, to break out in tears. There’s a lot of emotional trauma in this issue, and it was published in late 1966! Lack of characterization on DC’s part? Lack of down-to-Earth, reality-like situations? I didn’t think so.
Innocent Bystander #5
Winter, 1998. Gary Sassaman.
“And Then I Saw Her Face.” Writer/Artist/Editor: Gary Sassaman.
If the title rings a bell, here’s a big clue: It’s from a hit pop song of the 1960s. That’s right, “I’m a Believer” by the Monkees. This isn’t a superhero, mystery or war comic. It’s a slice-of-real-life story, lovingly rendered by a comic book fan looking back at various aspects of his life as a teen. This is also a story that touches on rejection, and the anger, frustration and resentment that goes with that rejection, when someone you’re attracted to isn’t reciprocal to the way you’re feeling. In time, that rejection fades, but something still lingers. Finally, this is a reaffirmation of one’s love of comic books, and how that love transcends everything, acting as consolation, comfort and inspiration when at times nothing or no one else will do.
Weird Western Tales #22
May-June, 1974. DC Comics.
Starring Jonah Hex. “Showdown at Hard Times.” Writer: Michael Fleisher. Artist: Tony DeZuniga. Editor: Joe Orlando.
My first John Wayne Western was The Cowboys (thanks, Grandpa!). My first Clint Eastwood Western was probably High Plains Drifter. And my first Jonah Hex comic was Weird Western Tales #22, but not by choice. The local Pantry supermarkets carried comics in “3 for 59¢” bags. Usually there would be two superhero comics out of three inside, so I usually wound up with a comic that I wasn’t necessarily looking for. This is how I was exposed to the like of Kamandi, Weird Worlds, Our Army at War, Tarzan, and Ghosts. Since the ‘mystery’ comic was sandwiched in-between the superhero comics, it was always a surprise! And Weird Western certainly surprised me! I had never read a comic like this before and I had never encountered a Western of this kind before (not that I had much to compare it, too, outside of The Cowboys and The Train Robbers, a few Lone Ranger and Bonanza reruns on TV, and Quick Draw McGraw cartoons). Jonah Hex was ugly (with that scar on his face), not very colorful (the dirty grey Confederate uniform), and not at all nice (what an ornery attitude!). Hex was antiheroic and grim and gritty before the terms became fashionable in the comics industry.
August, 1999. DC Comics.
Story and art: Dan Brereton. Editor: Dan Raspler.
Maybe a love of old Japanese monster movies lent support to my fondness of this series. Maybe it was just the sheer delight of seeing Dan Brereton’s unique brushwork really being turned loose. Maybe the idea of over two dozen giant monsters making themselves at home in the state I live in was just too cool a concept. It’s all this and more. Brereton’s compelling story, ripe with adventure and mystery, simply swept me off my feet. I felt like a kid discovering the thrill and horror of giant monsters again for the first time. And don’t pass up the companion piece, “A Field Guide to Big Monsters.” This series rocked. Forget the movie adaptation, I want to see Brereton tackle War of the Gargantuas!
Hundreds of Feet Below Daylight #1
1998. Drawn and Quarterly.
“The Life and Death of the Mining Town of Solomon’s Gulch, Idaho.” Writer/Artist: James Sturm.
This isn’t the kind of history reserved, distorted and glossed over for elementary school textbooks. This is the dark side of America. Oh, there’s humanity here, but for the most part it’s either killed off, beaten, disgraced, or left to go mad. Ruthless ambition and love of wealth is the driving force of those who run the town of Solomon Gulch. This story’s depiction of how two men seek personal comfort at the cost of their fellow man and woman isn’t heavy-handed, just matter of fact (so it doesn’t shy away from violence or brutality). While Solomon’s Gulch is an anachronism of what’s wrong with America, it is still an America that harbors hope that good will triumph over evil. But evil has had a field day in Solomon’s Gulch. Good’s best hope is to get out of Solomon Gulch and stake its foundations somewhere else.
Metal Men #52
June-July, 1977. DC Comics.
“Doctor Strangeglove and the Brain Children.” Writer: Martin Pasko. Artist: Joe Staton. Editor: Paul Levitz.
I always liked the Metal Men (actually, Metal Men and Platinum), ever since I was introduced to them in the pages of The Flash #214. I enjoyed their occasional team-ups with Batman in The Brave and the Bold. In 1976, they were granted an all-new comic for the second time. Writers Steve Gerber and Gerry Conway and artist Walt Simonson provided a promising start. When Martin Pasko became writer he shifted gears, downplaying the serious drama and spicing the scripts with dry humor. With the addition of Joe Staton as artist, the Metal Men were immersed in dark humor, outrageous puns, and over-the-top slapstick. It worked for me. It certainly made MM different from the other team books on the spinner rack. Alas, it never found a large audience. Gerry Conway returned and so did the soap opera drama (Staton remained on board until the comic’s cancellation). In the 1980s I worked on collecting Metal Men comics from the 1960s. In the 1990s, the Metal Men’s origin was unnecessarily revamped (in an effort to be politically correct, I suppose), and Gold, my favorite Metal Man, was killed off. That effectively destroyed the charm of the series for me. Oh, sure, the Metal Men had been killed off before, but they always came back. This time they had permanently lost their leader, while their creator, Doc Magnus, became a Metal Man in his own right. Phooey. Pasko and Staton worked together for only three complete issues (#52 being my favorite, with terrific lettering by John Workman), but their send-up of the then standard superteam style (by both Marvel and DC) still holds up. Just psych yourself for the puns.
Beautiful Stories for Ugly Children, Vol. 7
1989. Piranha Press/DC Comics.
“Ricky, The Doughnut Boy.” Writer: David Louapre. Artist: Dan Sweetman. Editor: Mark Nevelow.
Part comic book, part children’s book; both cautionary and fable, Beautiful Stories for Ugly Children offered an extremely skewed, but graceful, lyrical look at life in the weird. This is my favorite issue. It’s set in the town of Scaulderville, where the merry-go-round has bolted the carnival, hoping to escape the maudlin town life. Meanwhile, the glass-bottom bus is making its routine trek around town, its passengers hoping to catch a glimpse of a squashed dog. In Mel’s Donut Silo, Mel rests over the counter in an alcoholic funk, having finished preparing his daily pastry, liver and onion crullers. The merry-go-round has come to a violent halt in the desert on the outskirts of town. Ricky the Doughnut Boy follows its path, passing the abandoned box cars beside the unused railway. Eventually, men come from town to collect the broken horses and bring them back to Scaulderville. In time, Ricky returns to town and perches himself in the giant doughnut hole above Mel’s establishment. There, “he would wait patiently for the splintered horses to be hammered back in place. And perhaps, in the meantime, a tape-recorded narrator would explain to him, over and over, just why the city was there.” If you admire the work of David Lynch (notably Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks) and Grant Morrison (particularly Doom Patrol), Beautiful Stories for Ugly Children is right up your alley (but beware the tribe of renegade Girl Scouts).
Suicide Squad #59
November, 1991. DC Comics.
“Legerdemain.” Writers: John Ostrander and Kim Yale. Artists: Geof Isherwood and Robert Campanella. Editor: Dan Raspler.
Being a longtime Atom fan, I was kind of upset with DC for killing him off in Suicide Squad #44. Ostrander and Yale had something up their sleeves, however, and it started here in part one of a four-part story. It effectively tied up a lot of loose ends left over from the Tiny Titan’s somewhat controversial superhero career during the 1980s. But what has always stood out for me in this comic is Dr. Simon LaGrieve’s response to Count Vertigo’s insistence that Vertigo was still suffering from a mental disorder, even though LaGrieve had concluded that Poison Ivy’s control potions had inadvertently cured Vertigo. “You still have the habit of your sickness,” LaGrieve explains. “You have patterns of behavior that you’ve lived with all your life — that have, to a large degree, made up who you are. You now have the possibility of being truly free of your illness.” Being obsessive-compulsive and prone to addiction all my life, LaGrieve’s words hit home with me. I didn’t have Vertigo’s illness, but it was something to focus on: not my own addictions, many of which I had conquered or kept under control, but my habits, patterns and behavior that still lingered, that still made me feel addicted. What a wake-up call! And for only $1.25, with no medical insurance hassles. That aside, with Batman, Superman and Aquaman teaming up to solve the mystery of the murdered Atom (along with lots of complex political intrigue and espionage, the hallmark of Suicide Squad), it was like reading an issue of Justice League of America circa the early 1970s.
Adventure Comics #422
August, 1972. DC Comics.
Supergirl: “Pawn of Peace.” Script: Steve Skeates. Artists: Mike Sekowsky and Bob Oksner. The Vigilante: “Rodeo of Death.” Writer: Bill Meredith. Artist: Gray Morrow. Editor: Joe Orlando.
When I was a kid, I didn’t understand bigotry. When busing started in Pasadena as I entered the third grade (1969), I got along with the African-American kids just fine. I dug ‘their’ music (Temptations, Jackson 5) and their afros, and many of them became good friends. I remember inviting some of my new ‘colored’ friends to my home down the street from my elementary school, and for some reason this didn’t sit well with my neighborhood friends (my parents didn’t mind). The kids didn’t say anything out loud, but there was a feeling I picked up on, like I was doing something wrong. That’s how matters stood. Four months into collecting comics, I read the Vigilante story in the back of Adventure #422. Then I understood bigotry. What the neighborhood kids were feeling, what I was feeling in reaction to them, it wasn’t some isolated neighborhood thing, or even an isolated kid thing. It was all over the place, deeply rooted, spanning centuries of history, and it didn’t just involve blacks and whites, but other races, too. It was ugly, and I didn’t like it. In “Rodeo of Death,” the Vigilante hitches up with a group of black cowboys whose traveling rodeo show is being told to “get out of town” by some corporate well-to-do bigots. Their leader wears a grey hood, and his true face is never revealed, but as a symbol his identity is clear: violent prejudice. There is no happy ending, no true sense of justice. When the battle is over, and mourning sets in, the Vigilante “points his roaring mechanical steed towards some unknown destination…letting the night tear at his face and scream in his ears…but there is no solace in the wind!” Sadly, this tale remains relevant today.
August-September, 1973. DC COMICS.
“Oh Say Does That Star Spangled Banner Yet Wave?” Writer: Joe Simon: Artist: Jerry Grandenetti. Editor: Joe Simon.
I remember buying this comic out in Westwood, CA while staying with my grandparents one weekend in the Spring of 1973. I stretched out on my grandpa’s bed on a sunny, Sunday morning and was completely captivated by the tale of the first teen President of the United States, not to mention the kid with the coolest sweater in comics. In the news of the real world at that time, America was embroiled in Watergate and Vietnam. I knew those names and a little of the circumstances, but it wasn’t of my world; my world was sixth grade, comics, weekends with the grandparents, and playing with G.I. Joe action figures in our backyard. I can sometimes imagine myself in a critical circle hearing the debate over the artistic merit of Prez, but neither the pro nor the con really matters. My own critical eye doesn’t even matter with a book such as this. Prez is like so many other comics I own, it’s the door to a perfect childhood memory; nothing can lock it, nothing can unhinge it. Even time hasn’t been able to taint or tarnish it. To be honest, the memory has only been enhanced, because every time I reread Prez #1 I feel that part of me that will always be stretched out on grandpa’s bed reading that comic book on a sunny, Sunday morning.