HIGHLY SUSPECT! EGREGIOUSLY SUBJECTIVE!
Some of the Greatest Comic Book Stories Ever!
This isn't a list of the most significant, or the most collectible, but simply what I consider good reads -- an ode to the art of storytelling. As such, I've chosen self-contained, regular-sized issues. There are great double-sized issues out there and multi-issue story arcs. But I wanted to highlight what can be done within the page count of a regular, monthly comic. I also tended to shy away from "mytho" heavy stories; you know, comics that are considered "great" because of their impact on continuity ("this is a must read because Captain Avenger dies saving the world" sort of stuff). I didn't preclude such stories, but I was looking for stand alone reads. And, yeah, nostalgia probably plays a part in some of these selections, but many I first read only recently, and others -- well, if I remember it too fondly from my youth, there's got to be a reason I remember these stories and not others! Finally, I wanted a balance between deliberately high-minded, "meaningful" tales and regular ol' adventure pieces, but well told.
... Page 1
So, without further ado, and in no particular order (as I continue to
add to the list)...
"Rebels in the Street"
sc: Bob Haney. art: Nick Cardy - The Brave & The Bold #94 - DC Comics, 1971
A white-knuckle thriller...with hardly any overt violence in it! A social parable where "right and wrong where an equal face" and at stake is "society's soul". In the midst of a heat wave, disaffected ghetto youth blackmail Gotham City, demanding the government clean up the ghetto else they'll detonate a nuclear bomb. Batman, more Liberal and human than he is often portrayed these days, wants to find the bomb, but empathizes with the hopelessness of the kids. He's a Batman who can be shaken by the enormity of the crisis facing the city as he recruits the Teen Titans to go undercover with the blackmailers, in order to find the bomb. It's beautifully drawn by Nick Cardy with a moody, organic style that's much evolved from his work on the early issues of The Teen Titans, and where his Batman is supposed to look like just a guy in a suit. It's also broodingly coloured in earth tones and blues and purples that evoke a sweltering, grimey, big city (brightening in the final panels to convey the lightening of tension). This is a really nice job at crafting a social drama in the guise of a thriller...or is it vice versa? Some of it's a bit dated, like Comics Code epithets like "you fink!", but I'm amazed at how much story and even characterization Bob Haney crammed into 24 pages.
"Time, See What's Become of Me"
sc: Alan Brennert. art: Jim Aparo. - The Brave & the Bold #181 - DC Comics, 1982
interesting companion piece to the other The Brave and the Bold/hippy-era
story above. In an unusual continuity breaking move, 1960s-era heroes,
Hawk & Dove, have aged in real time. Now thirtysomethings, the two
have gone their separate ways, but both feel lost and confused about their
place in the world. Aggressive Hawk, inparticular, is on the verge of a
nervous breakdown, feeling the American Dream which he championed is slipping
through his fingers. When he accidentally kills a mobster's son in a blundered
raid, and runs, it's up to Dove and Batman to find him before the revengeful
mobster does. A nice "adult" story -- adult in themes and ideas, not in
the sense of cussing or gory violence. Even the villain has dimension!
The art by Aparo shows some particularly fine composition, especially a
wordless sequence where Hawk's temper almost pushes him to do the unthinkable.
sc./art: George Freeman - Captain Canuck #14 - CKR, 1981
relatively short-lived, but surprisingly well-remembered, Canadian comic,
this was the final issue of the original run -- supposedly initiating a
"new direction" in the series as the near-future super hero, Captain Canuck,
finds himself marooned in the present day. This was penciller George Freeman's
second issue as scripter, but he fits a lot in, shifting moods and ideas
seamlessly, from the forlorn opening, as C.C. wanders aimlessly through
the woods, unsure where or when he is, and comes upon a deserted town;
then the man-against-nature story as he's drafted into helping locals fight
a forest fire; then becoming a man against man story as a crime takes place,
building to an edge-of-the-seat climax as the heroes try to beat the criminals
the fire. It's even a whodunit! It's a well-paced, well-told tale, with
Freeman showing a nice ear for dialogue, and all complemented by his individualistic
art and the comic's usual striking use colour. Definitely an example of
storytelling at its best.
"The Mad Thinker and His Androids of Death"
sc: Stan Lee. art: Jack Kirby, Frank Giacoia - The Fantastic Four (1st series) #96 - Marvel, 1969
a particularly meaningful or significant story...which is kind of why I
selected it. It's just a crackling good action-thriller as the F.F. are
ambushed by android duplicates of themselves within their own headquarters.
It's a moody, well-paced tale. There's something truly eerie about some
of the scenes, and the story is nicely paced out, well rendered by Kirby's
blocky pencils and Giacoia's thick, brooding inks. Decades later, I'd still
argue no one could write and draw the F.F. like Lee and Kirby. It was reprinted
in the FF reprint title Marvel's Greatest Comics #77.
"Who is Donna Troy?"
sc: Marv Wolfman. art: George Perez, Romeo Tanghal - The New Teen Titans, 1st series, #38 - DC, 1984
later, I continue to be ambivalent about The New Teen Titans, one
of DC's best selling titles in the 1980s, but I have no such qualms about
this exceptional story. Part human drama, part detective story,
Robin helps uncover the truth of orphan Wonder Girl's past. I'm not sure
Wolfman has ever written a better, more empathetic script, or one with
more human dialogue, and Perez's almost cinematic eye for composing
scenes is at its best here, as the moody panels themselves tell the tale.
Not a slug fest or even an adventure (Robin only appears in costume in
a couple of scenes!) but don't let that dissuade you from searching this
out. Nor should you be discouraged by the fact that, I think, subsequent
revisions have largely nullified this story as far as continuity is concerned.
Just read it for its own sake. This was included in one of DC's old Year's
Best digest collections.
"Stopover in a Place of Quiet Truths"
sc: Martin Pasko. art: Stephen Bissette/John Totleben. - Saga of the Swamp Thing (2nd Swammp Thing series) #16 - DC, '83
Swamp Thing was created by Len Wein, and later revitalized by Alan Moore,
but for some reason it's this Martin Pasko story that sticks in my mind.
Swamp Thing -- still in his original incarnation of a man trapped in a
monstrous body -- stumbles upon a little, seeming idyllic community that
accepts him unquestioningly, giving him the opportunity, via a magic mask,
to once more appear human to those who see him. Of course, trouble eventually
arises. It's a nice tale, almost a fable, evoking the best of Wein's early
tales, but pulling it off a little better. This was reprinted in one of
DC's old Years Best digests.
"Peril in Plastic"
sc: Denny O'Neil. art: Neal Adams, Berni Wrightson - Green Lantern, 1st Silver Age series, #84 - DC, 1970)
"Someday, every place in America will be like Piper's Dell..." O'Neil and Adams early 1970s run on Green Lantern (teamed with Green Arrow) has become famous for its "issues" focus. In story after story GL/GA tackled Native rights, drug abuse, poverty -- all beautifully drawn by Adams. Ironically, instead of one about a cut-and-dried issue, it's this less literal story that is among my favourites. It's less literal, but no less pointed in its skewed critique of the American Dream. Green Lantern takes his ailing girlfriend to a doctor in a small town...only to find it makes Stepford, Connecticut look like a vacationers paradise by comparison! Eerie, being alternately moody, creepy, thrilling, and satirical, it's a nice tale (though Green Arrow has only a small part). It has been reprinted in various reprints of the O'Neil/Adams issues, including a 1983 deluxe mini-series (#5 I think), a Green Lantern digest, and in some TPB collections.
"Question of Survival"
sc: Steve Gerber. art: Val Mayerik / Sal Trapani - Fear #18 - Marvel, 1973
one of the greatest -- no, arguably the greatest -- comic I've ever read
is Man-Thing (1st series) #6. But to include it would break my rules,
since, technically, it's the conclusion of a two parter. Fortunately, there
were some other stand-out Man-Thing tales by Steve Gerber, including this
one. Survivors of a bus accident in the middle of the everglades make their
way to civilization, unaware that one of them poses a threat. Meanwhile,
the largely senseless Man-Thing watches. This story almost seems like some
old 1950s teleplay -- "Tonight, Playhouse 90 presents the Man-Thing in
A Question of Survival". The characters wander through the grim swamp,
their personalities and ideologies clashing -- from the soldier just back
from 'Nam, to the cynical pacifist (if that's not a contradiction), etc.
It's talky, it's brooding, it bandies about philosophical ideas without
quite saying what's right and what's wrong. Essentially, it's an adult
comic long before "mature" comics were en vogue. Which, in a sense, was
true of a lot of Marvel's early 1970s comics, where newcomers to the field
tried to explore big ideas of right and wrong and spirituality, while staying
within the confines of the Comics Code guidelines...and proving you didn't
necessarily need profanity and gore to explore the human condition.
sc./art: Frank Miller, Klaus Janson - Daredevil, 1st series, #168 - Mavel, 1981)
about his recent, unfortunate, Dark Knight
Strikes Again! -- in the 1980s, Frank Miller really was a talent to
watch. I almost didn't include this story because I wanted to list comics
that would be easy to collect (for those so inclined), but this has become
rather pricey, and even TPBs that include it (Daredevil Visionaries) are
kind of expensive. Here Daredevil first encounters Elektra, a quasi-villainous
female bounty hunter who he used to know -- cut to extended flashback as
we see a young pre-DD Matt Murdock romance Elektra, only to have tragedy
tear them apart. Back to present, and DD continues his hunt of a wanted
criminal that Elektra is pursuing as well. It's nothing that original...but
it's still a well told tale (and better than the movie!). It's full of
pathos and drama, shoe-horned reasonably well into a single issue thanks
to lots of little -- but exceptionally well-composed -- panels, drenched
in atmosphere, much of the story taking place on a rainy night. Elektra
would recur often, landing her own series', dying, being resurrected, etc.
But don't think about that. Just take it as its own, self-contained story
about lost love and hard choices, and two characters who shared similar
origins, but allowed it to take them in opposite directions.
sc./art: Jack Kirby (inks Mike Royer) - The New Gods (1st series) #7 - 1971
out-of-continuity flashback issue presented the back story to the on going
adventures in Kirby's so-called "Fourth World" saga, showing the first
war between the inhabitants of the two opposed worlds, New Genesis and
Apokolips. Apparently Kirby himself cited it as one of his favourite works,
and it's an audacious undertaking, telling an epic tale of war and peace...squeezed
into one issue. Told with Kirby's overwhelming visuals and overwrought
dialogue, it's full of Machiavellian machinations and larger-than-life
personalities. Kirby also scored highly with another out-of-continuity
flashback issue with "Himon" (Mister Miracle #9)
sc: Tony Isabella. art: Sal Buscema, John Tartag, George Roussos - Ghost Rider, 1st series, #11 - Marvel, 1975
Rider has undergone changes over the years, both in alter ego, and in becoming
part of the dark n' gritty, ultra-violent phase comics go through periodically.
But this early story, with a kinder, gentler Ghost Rider, is yet another
example of something that shouldn't be unusual, but is...a
Stunt driver Johnny Blaze (a.k.a. Ghost Rider) joins a cross-desert motorcycle
race to try and take his mind off of his problems, and we meet his fellow
contestants -- the grieving widower who has nothing to live for, the nerd
who has everything to prove, etc. Before too long, the Hulk shows up with
a mad on for the Ghost Rider and the racers all have to work together to
survive, some of them growing as people by the end. It's an action story,
with a particularly memorably portrayed rescue, but it's also a human story.
I also love Isabella's use of text captions, where the third person narration
has its own personality -- an art largely lost today.
"Monster from the Lagoon"
sc: Stan Lee. art: Jack Kirby / Frank Giacoia - The Fantastic Four, 1st series, #97 - Marvel, 1970
Lee-Kirby effort selected for its understatedness. Although it's more a
Fantastic Three story, as Reed, Ben and Johnny investigate sightings of
a monster while on vacation. Their investigation takes them to a local
Aquarium, unaware the marine guide is their monster -- shape-shifted
into human form. The story follows its on circuitous path to its resolution
deep in underground caverns, with excitement and thrills, and a few genuine
chuckles thanks to The Thing, but there's an intriguing and ambitious playing
around with themes of misunderstanding that really elevates the story --
with the FF and the man-monster locked in their private thoughts, not communicating
with each other, creating the sense of the two groups' isolation from each
other, even when standing side by side. Nostalgia can play a big part in
my regarding these comics as "greats", but in this case -- even though
this is a decades old story -- I only read it recently (having picked up
a reprint in Marvel's Greatest Comics #78 in the discount bin).
sc: Doug Moench. art: Bill Sienkiewicz, Klaus Janson - Moon Knight (1st series) #5 - Marvel Comics, 1981
not a profound tale and, indeed, one that might be a little too
creepy (at least, that was my reaction as a kid) owing as much to more
realist horror stories like "Psycho" as it does to any ghostly tale. But
read more recently, it's a well-paced tale of Moon Knight pursuing a couple
of armed robbers to a supposedly haunted house, the story broken up with
flashbacks as we see the events that brought them to this point. Moench's
early Moon Knight comics often tried to cram a lot of story into 22 pages,
and here it works particularly well to tell its tale. The combo of Sienkiewicz
(going through a Neal Adams phase) with Janson's heavy, crude inking makes
for some energetic and nicely spooky, atmospheric panels.
"The Night Before"
sc/art: Dave Sim - Cerebus #36 - Aardvark-Vanaheim, 1982
Cerebus was a staggeringly audacious independent comic that ran 300 issues. About a talking aardvark barbarian in a world of humans -- it started out satirical but veered into straight drama from time to time, such as with this story which takes place during the High Society story line (what, apparently, many regard as one of the series' best runs). It's basically a twenty page conversation as Cerebus reunites with a (human) ex-girlfriend, Jakka. I hesitate to include this because it probably breaks some of my rules -- it comes in the middle of a longer story arc (although it's largely unconnected to the other stuff) and there are aspects that benefit from prior knowledge (though I didn't have that prior knowledge and I'm still including it on this site). And I usually like to read things a few times before deciding if it belongs on this list -- but what the hey! It's just a wonderfully written, subtly drawn piece as Cerebus, whose fortunes have risen considerably since he last met Jakka, attempts to impress her bullishly...oblivious to the fact that he's just driving her away. The whole issue is basically one scene and it's a stand-out, even heart-breaking, piece of comic book storytelling.
Sim later became a rather controversial figure, losing
some long time fans in later years as he became increasingly eccentric.
Still, let's not confuse the work with the man -- or even the man then
with the man now.
"The Monster of Zanadar"
sc: John Clark. art: Don Newton - The Phantom #71 - Charlton Comics, 1976
The Phantom, the costumed jungle hero (begat in comic strips, and featured in comics published by various companies over the years), is called upon to head an expedition into a remote part of the jungle looking for a crashed helicopter. Basically it's just an old fashioned Tarzan-type novel (complete with threats from gun totting mercenaries, and a mysterious isolated tribe, and a giant monster) except squeezed, quite effortlessly, into 22 pages, with an effectively moody build up, and an exciting last minute escape! All gloriously illustrated by the late Don Newton, a great, if largely unsung, artist. Like so many other stories on this list, I'm not pretending this is a deep or meaningful story...but it's a well-told page turner. Actually, a close runner up would be Humphrey Bogart homage "The Mystery of the Mali Ibex" from The Phantom #70, also drawn by Newton (written by Bill Pearson) -- and another example of squeezing a whole lot of plot into just 22 pages! -- so maybe this era of Phantom comics was just a good run of comics, period.
sc: Chris Claremont. art: John Byrne, Dan Green - Iron Fist #14 - Marvel Comics, 1977
is an impulse addition, as I only just picked up a water-damaged reprint
in the cheap bins. I'm not going to pretend this is more than an action-thriller,
but it's a good action-thriller. Iron Fist and sometime partner Colleen
Wing take on mercenary Sabre-Tooth (in his first appearance) in the Canadian
rockies. It's tightly paced, with Claremont making use of flashbacks to
unfold the story efficiently (there seems to be a pattern on this list
that one way to fit a lot into limited pages is to jumble the chronology).
The action takes some unexpected turns (Iron Fist and Colleen escaping
hired killers, only to have to find sanctuary from a coming blizzard, etc.)
and even the fight scenes generate suspense and tension. As well, Iron
Fist is a well enough delineated a character -- and human enough -- that
we can care about him. And Byrne's early art is appealingly crisp and clean.
And it's even set in Canada! I've heard good things about Claremont and
Byrne's Iron Fist, but I can't say whether this is better than the
other issues (it's all I've read). But it held my interest from start to
stop -- and that's all we can ask. Because it features Sabre-Tooth, who
for a time became mega popular, it's probably kind of pricey, but Marvel
reprinted it on heavy paper as one of their Marvel Milestone Editions
which might be cheaper.
"One for My Baby...and One More for the Hulk"
sc: Marc DeMatteis. art: Gene Colan, John Tartaglione. - The Hulk (black & white magazzine, frm. The Rampaging Hulk) #27 - Marvel Comics, 1981
magazine-size Rampaging Hulk started out black & white, went to colour,
then reverted to black & white again. It began like its colour comic
counterpart, featuring wild n' wooly Hulk adventures, but became more like
the then-airing TV version -- emphasizing human drama (while still featuring
the comicbook version of the Hulk -- he could talk and was capable of feats
of strength Lou Ferrigno never was). The magazine often featured back up
series, but this final issue featured two Hulk stories. The first, a light-hearted
one involving some hillbillies, is O.K., but it's the second one that leaves
an impression. The Hulk (and his alter ego of Bruce Banner) stumble into
Las Vegas and are befriended by a lounge singer who sees in the big green
guy a chance to get the mob off his back. It's a story about luckless dreamers,
the characters not so much good or bad, but somewhere in between -- in
other words, human (with well written, believable dialogue). It's this
greyness, the vulnerability of the people, that really makes this a grown
up saga, building to a melancholy resolution. Marc (J.M.) DeMatteis is
a writer who is often associated with comics that try to lift common superhero
adventures up to the level of literature and Gene Colan, as I get older,
is right near the top of my list of great artists, with his great eye for
composition, and his knack for rumpled, human figures. How much of an impression
did this make on me? I can think of at least two later works of fiction
I did that were directly inspired by it.
"When Lightning Strikes...Thunder Kills"
sc: Gerry Conway. art: Curt Swan, Bob Oksner - Superman #303 - DC Comics, 1976
This is a nice encapsulation of all that is Superman. It's not deep, but it's a good read. There's a villainous duo in Thunder and Lightning (working for a recurring character called Whirlicane), the typical Clark Kent-at-work shenanigans circa the '70s, a couple of twists in the story (lots of comic book writers can't even be bothered to throw in one surprise revelation, this has two!), a surprising amount of understated atmosphere, and a nice mix of larger-than-life action, amusing by-plays, and even some pathos. And there's an early scene where Superman breaks off a fight because of a hurricane raging in another country, unobstrusively reminding us that Superman, the real Superman, is not some two-fisted brawler who beats up bad guys. He is a humanitarian who will dodge a "heroic" fight for the less glamorous task of saving lives -- and lives in another country, yet. It's a simple scene, eloquently written. As for the art? The late Curt Swan was, more or less, the principle Superman artist from the late '50s until the mid-'80s, a record few others on any series could challenge. To many people, his depiction of Superman and his friends remains definitive. And Oksner was an inker particularly complementary to Swan's style.
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