Some of the Greatest Comic Book Stories Ever!

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Continuing in no particular order...

"Dark Genesis!"

sc: Len Wein. art: Berni Wrightson. - Swamp Thing #1 (1st series) - DC Comics, 1972

I've said that I don't entirely like to use "origin" issues for this list -- but other times I figure maybe that's an arbitrary rule. Certainly the very first Swamp Thing story is a memorable tale. It uses a traditional narrative structure (beginning in the middle, then flashing back to how it began) to good effect and it's just one of the most atmospheric comics you're ever likely to read. Partly it's thanks to Wein's brooding, poetic text captions and a story rich in a palpable sense of foreboding and melancholy, a tale of a husband and wife research team in the swamp and the sinister villains menacing them. But even more due to Wrightson's shadow drenched, gothic art and moody use of angles and close ups -- arguably a career peak.

"Where Walk the Gods!"

sc: Marv Wolfman. art: Steve Ditko - Machine Man #12 - Marvel, 1979

This is one of those stories where I'm not sure how good it is -- but it continues to linger in my mind, literally decades later. Machine Man was a kind of problematic character -- created by Jack Kirby to explore the concept of the outsider/persecuted hero, cancelled, then revived only a year or so later (implying some editorial faith in the concept) now by Wolfman and Ditko, with Wolfman playing up a more stereotypical robotic-ness to the character (Kirby's intent, I think, was more to emphasize him as basically a person...who happened to be made of metal). MM never quite caught on commercially, but clearly people figured he should. Anyway, maybe the appeal of this issue is its self-containedness -- no on going sub-plots, or even regular supporting characters. Or maybe it's the kind of eeriness, or abstractness, of the story, taking place all in one night -- heck, all within what seems like half an hour. It's basically a kind of parable, with Machine Man in full Silver Surfer mode as the outsider losing faith in humanity. In a night where he stops one random act of violence after another, he finally loses his cool, discharging energy into the air...inadvertently mutating a bunch of people into a higher order of being...who then find themselves having to judge Machine Man's own worth. It's a kind of odd, abstract story, as the characters argue the relative worth (or lack thereof) of humanity, and of Machine Man. Ditko's art, not necessarily ideal for a straight super hero story, is well matched with this kind of strange, dream-like fable and, as I say: it kind of stuck in my brain!


sc: Robert Kanigher. art: Joe Kubert -  Our Army at War #233 - DC Comics, 1971

Sgt.Rock comics were a weird mix of gung ho adventure...and brooding, melancholic treatises on war. This 12 pg story tackles the (arguably controversial) idea of whether a soldier can be too good at killing, as Easy Cos. newest recruit, Johnny Doe, seems to take to battle with a ruthless, blood thirstiness that makes him a hero to the whole company...except Sgt. Rock. To be fair, this wasn't the first time the topic had been tackled in a comic -- Sgt Fury #46 ("The War Lover", written by Gary Friedrich) had earlier used that theme. But "Head-Count" is a darker, subtler, more provocative take on it, buoyed by Kubert's haunting, moody art that is at once gritty, where you can smell the sweat and the grime, yet also dreamlike and fable-istic. There were other, shorter, stories in the issue (which I haven't read) but it's the lead tale I'm highlighting.

"A Night on the Town!"

sc: Len Wein. art: John Buscema, Joe Sinnott -  Marvel Spotlight (1st series) #30 - Marvel Comics, 1976

This is a kind of odd selection for my "great" comics list...because I read it years ago and it didn't make much impression, one way or the other. But I recently dug it out of my comic boxes, just looking for something to read (precisely because I had little memory of it) and actually found it a fun -- if breezy -- little romp. Marvel Spotlight was a try-out comic for characters without their own series, and here the "spotlight" falls on Thor supporting characters The Warriors Three. Asgardian demi-gods Fandral, Hogun, and Volstagg are having a night out on the town in New York, and come to the aid of a damsel in distress, sending them scouring the streets of New York with a cabbie and a hobo in tow. It's a simple, slight tale -- but it's in the telling that it works, Wein maintaining a light, comic touch (without sliding into overmuch silliness), juggling the Elizabethan speech of the Asgardians with the New Yorkers' slang. And Buscema seems in particularly fine form, not only maintaining a beautiful realism to the faces and figures...but also dressing things up with little humorous extras in the panels, as if he was enjoying the gig (Volstagg peering quizzically into a mail box as Fandral and Hogun discuss matters) -- nicely embellished by Sinnott. A fun story...without being too cutesy or campy.

"Angel--Or Devil?"

sc. Frank Robbins. art: Irv Novick, Dick Giordano -  Batman #216 - DC Comics, 19969

For a page dedicated to "great" stories...I seem to spend a lot of time explaining my choice isn't necessarily great. But that's because it depends on your definition of "great"...and to my mind, sometimes good is just as important as great. In this case, the story isn't particularly profound, or makes you reconsider the universe. Indeed, it actually comes across as an episode of a TV series...which, strangely, is why I like it. It's a suspense-drama, one that roots Batman and his "family" (Alfred and Robin with all getting their moments in the spotlight) in a real world, dealing with real crime and criminals, well paced, with "guest star" characters and character interplay and human camaraderie, and mystery and puzzlement, and structured with clever little act breaks to push you into the next section...almost like commercial break hooks. It isn't just about Batman playing catch up to some contrived serial killer, or tracking a recurring super villain to his latest lair. Batman rescues a girl from her seeming abusive boyfriend...only to discover she's Alfred's niece, in town as part of a theatre troupe, the girl quickly invited to stay at Wayne Manor...with twists and turns and crime not far behind. It's a reflection of a time when the Batman comics were trying to shake off the camp image of the 1960s TV series...but before the Dark Knight super hero template had been fully established. So the story here tries to be a little more grounded and "realistic" and could almost be likened to a private eye plot...only where the detective wears a cape and tights!

"Night of the Reaper"

sc: Denny O'Neil (idea assist from Berni Wrightson and Harlan Ellison).. art: Neal Adams, Dick Giordano. Batman #237 - DC Comics, 1972

A stand out example of the seminal O'Neil/Adams era of Batman, as Batman (and Robin) hunt a Nazi war criminal during a Halloween festival, while a mysterious killer, The Reaper, also prowls the night. I think one of its strengths is that it's a surprisingly rich tale, with different aspects that could've made a decent tale just by themselves. The thing that sticks with you is the social-political realism, as Batman prowls the Vermont night for a Nazi war well as the morality tale aspect as it leads into a pathos tinged story of vengeance and justice and the fine line that separates them. Yet even without these "high minded" themes, the back drop alone is enticing...set in a single evening against the real life Rutland Halloween festival and the real life house parties of Tom Fagan. I mean, who can resist a mystery thriller set during a masquerade party? Plus despite the melancholy story...there's also humour and whimsy at times, even tossing in a stoned out college pal of Robin's who blunders in and out of the action (no doubt skirting the edges of Comic Code approval by virtue of not explicitly saying what the guy's stoned on!) Plus O'Neil and Adams offer up some eerie imagery, from the haunting opening shot of a seeming dead Batman skewered to a tree against a full moon, to the macabre guise of the brutal vigilante, the Reaper, himself. Sure, the line where Batman says to Robin "Don't be stupid, kid" is kind of cringe-worthy (Bats needs to work on his parenting skills) and the Nazi's motive for coming out of hiding being that he has a "passion for masquerade parties" is pretty goofy, but other than those lapses, it's a smart, moody, well paced tale, one that takes the traditional Batman/superhero tale and uses it in service of an arguably adult, provocative tale (and one suspects the comic has been influential, as the idea of a vigilante killer dressing in a reaper costume recurred in later Bat-tales, including Batman: Year Two, and the movie, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm). It's been reprinted more than once over the years. The comic also included a 1940s Batman reprint.


More to Come...

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