The time has come, my friends. Due to requests from thousands out there, give or take 998 or so, I will now present my Top Twelve Comics Everyone Should Read.
This was inspired by ***Dave, of ***Dave Does The Blog fame's own Top Twelve list. And before I begin this gargantuan list o'mine, I'd like to add this disclaimer: this is not being done to dispute or refute ***Dave's list; it's a fine one in its own way, full of landmark titles by gifted creators. Some of his choices (Marvels, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen V1, Watchmen, Sandman, Astro City) are comics that I personally own and like very much, thank you. Some (Bone, Usagi Yojimbo) I haven't read, so I can't comment one way or another. There's only one real clunker to be found on his list, and that's Terry Moore's pretentious, outlandish soap opera-slash-latenight Cinemax "erotic thriller" wannabe Strangers in Paradise, which I buy in spite of my better judgment. I like the strong, memorable central characters and many of their ancillaries, and that's what keeps me buying, but I despise the often ludicrous mixing of genres and Moore's propensity to devote pages, nay entire sections of his books to embarrassingly bad poesy and silly dream sequences. But I digress. The problem with the list is that it is essentially a compendium of the same old same old, favoring books that are usually trotted out when people with otherwise good intentions make these sort of compilations. And I thought to myself, "Self", thought I, "If I were making such a list, it wouldn't have any (or at least very few) of the ones on ***Dave's list. So maybe I should put my money where my mouth is and come up with my own list for people to shoot holes in and pick apart, and hopefully even discuss among themselves." So here 'tis. A couple of more things before I commence ta writin': first, very few of my dirty dozen are available in collections. The price I pay for my eclecticism is that I have a tendency to become devoted to series that are revered by a cultish few, and you'll see what I mean when I begin listing. Also, when I conceived of this list, I decided to write this as if someone had asked me to dig a dozen titles out of my own personal collection. There are many, many series which I absolutely am nuts about which I haven't listed, because they're either just too odd and two dense and involved and full of reliance on knowing the conventions of comics and comicdom to recommend to a comics neophyte. So, such longtime favorites of mine like Starstruck, Flex Mentallo, Thriller, Amazing Adventures featuring Killraven: Warrior of the Worlds, American: Flagg!, Chase, Jack Staff, and others don't make the cut. I'm trying to keep these choices somewhat accessible to the uninitiated.
Are you ready? All right. Here we go. Apologies in advance for the inevitable typos, I'll try to seek 'em out and correct 'em as time goes by.
These are in no particular order of preference, by the way.
THE SPIRIT 1, 2 (Harvey Comics) Art/Script: Will Eisner and inking assistants
Back in 1966, Harvey Comics was looking to get into the Batman TV Show-fueled superhero comics trend, and trotted out a number of mostly lackluster titles which lasted no more than 4 issues. But here was the gold nugget in the Harvey river, two issues devoted to reprints of the very best of Eisner's post-WWII Spirit stories. Eisner was doing most of the art and scripting, and he was at his peak. If you're aware of Eisner's reputation, know that it was built on the stories contained in these two comics, which cost an astounding 25¢ each when they came out! Most of these stories were subsequently reprinted by Warren, and they're a bit easier to find like that, plus they'll eventually come out in DC's hardcover reprint series...but these two books are all the Spirit you'll ever need. But know this- if you borrow these from me, you'd better give 'em back in the same shape you got 'em in or there'll be hell to pay! They're very scarce.
BAT LASH 1-8 (DC Comics) Script/Plot: Dennis O'Neil, Sergio Aragones; Art: Nick Cardy
Here's a book which was ignored when it originally came out (1968) but has grown in critical stature in the decades since. Essentially an attempt to do Maverick, or perhaps something in the spirit of the original Wild Wild West in comics form, Bat Lash became much more- the whimsical, but definitely mature-in-tone scripts by O'Neil and Aragones (yes, that Sergio Aragones) perfectly complimented the stellar art of Nick Cardy, who was also drawing Aquaman at the time. Bat may have been a womanizing gambler and drifter who preferred to dine on pheasant and fine wine than brawl in a saloon, but he was one hombre you didn't ever want to cross and he had a heart of gold, as in the best issue in the series, #2 above, where is is forced into the role of protector and surrogate father to a young girl who had just witnessed the bushwhacking death of her sheriff father. DC is long overdue collecting these, and reviving Bat has been tricky...despite some fine artists and writers who've tried in the subsequent decades, none have really come close (not even O'Neil himself) to capturing the sass and charm of those original 8 (9, counting his premiere appearance in Showcase) issues.
DEATH: THE HIGH COST of LIVING 1-3 (DC/Vertigo) Script: Neil Gaiman, art Chris Bachalo
I'll tell ya up front: I don't have any Sandman proper titles on this list. I loved that series, more so when an artist I liked like Jill Thompson or Marc Hempel illustrated, but it's just too episodic and self-referential for me to spring on an unsuspecting comics newbie. If I was inclined to do so, I'd probably give 'em The Kindly Ones, the Hempel-illoed chapter which is my favorite Sandman arc...and ye gods, that one kinda presupposes familiarity with about 50-odd issues' worth of continuity already established, so...I decided to cite the self-contained first Death miniseries instead. It's a fine, touching, memorable story, ably illustrated by Bachalo before he became too clever for his readers' own good, and it features Morpheus' very likable sister. I thought the "is-she-or-isn't-she-really-Death" aspect of the script was clever. The second Death mini wasn't quite so hot, but if they liked this, I'd gladly guide them to the beaucoups of Sandman TPB's that are available at your local Barnes and Noble.
SCENE OF THE CRIME: A LITTLE PIECE OF GOODNIGHT (DC/Vertigo) Script: Ed Brubaker Art: Michael Lark
One of Brubaker's first DC assignments remains a high point in both his and artist Mike (Gotham Central) Lark's careers so far. A no-frills detective story, which involves a private investigator's search to get to the bottom of the murder of a runaway girl that he was hired to find, SotC is always suspenseful, surprising, and actually has a satisfying ending that makes sense, a rarity these days. The lead character has the requisite quirks and an odd, but believable cast of characters, including an uncle who is a renowned police photographer, and none of this bends over backwards to call attention to itself. This was better than most cop shows I see on TV.
TOP TEN 1-12 (DC/America's Best Comics) Script: Alan Moore, Art: Gene Ha/Zander Cannon
Speaking of TV cop shows, here's Hill Street Blues with superheroes. However, it's much more than that. All of Moore's ABC titles are of high quality, and really I would have loved to be able to recommend his excellent, but dense and sometimes offputting Promethea instead, but his Top Ten, now on hiatus, was always accessible and gripping. The titular Top Ten is but one of many precincts in a galactic police force in a universe where everyone has superpowers or enhanced abilities of some sort. Moore creates a vivid, clever and utterly believable cast, and the Ha/Cannon art team brings them to life in a world full of visual eye candy...in fact, part of the fun of Top Ten is going back and looking for all the "easter eggs" they place on every page, usually slightly different but familiar characters from all walks of fiction. Top Ten is a fun, engaging read...and oddly enough, one issue contains one of the most sympathetic (and touching) depictions of religious beliefs that I can recall in comics, anyway. This from Alan Moore, who gets raked over the coals on a regular basis for his unconventional beliefs. Funny world, ain't it...
GEMINI BLOOD 1-9 (DC/Helix) Script: Christopher Hinz, Art: Tommy Lee Edwards, with Bill Sinkiewicz and Richard Case inks in two issues
Now here's an overlooked gem of a series. When DC launched its Sci-Fi oriented Helix imprint back in '98, there was a lot of optimism but unfortunately most of its high-profile ongoing books like Howard Chaykin's forgotten (and forgettable) Cyberella, Lucius Shepherd and Al Davison's horrible Vermillion, and limited series like Tim Truman's laughable Black Lamb were tepid and disappointing, so everything from the line was dismissed as more of the same. Eventually, a couple of years later the entire Helix line was canned, with only Warren Ellis' moderately successful Transmetropolitan surviving. Apparently, for this reason, nobody paid much attention to this- the only (in my opinion) worthwhile Helix title. Gemini was an extrapolation of SF author Hinz' Paratwa series, three novels of which had already been released. The comic took place a couple of centuries prior to the events in the novels, but retained the three principal characters: Nick, a gentleman of short stature who had devoted his life to fighting the menace of the Paratwa, intellectually superior beings created by genetic manipulation as two separate bodies (called tways) who shared the same consciousness...which made them consummate assassins, almost undetectable spies and devious adversaries. Of course, the Paratwa's goal was complete domination of the known universe, including the barely livable planet Earth. The third principal was Gillian, Nick's mercenary super badass right hand man who possesses a surprising secret. The majority of Gemini Blood is given to the Paratwa plan to take over Flikker-Wixon Construction, chief supplier to Earth's cities in orbit project. By the time of Blood, Earth's ecology and social structure had devolved to the point where it was becoming necessary to try to live off-world, something which the Paratwa wish to control. They harass Chairman Chime Flikker-Wixon (one thing about Hinz-he came up with some great names), who in turn enlists the Earthian anti-tech police E-Tech, who sends Nick and Gillian and a small group of mercenaries to combat the Paratwa assassin named Rolk who's been attacking the Flikker-Wixons. Along the way we meet a diverse and surprising cast of characters, including Paratwa pawn Doctor 303, a charlatan psychiatrist who is treating Chime's daughter (who is more than she seems...) and has a dismaying hobby-he mounts human heads on a huge clock with a keyboard, which he has rigged to play Christmas carols! I took that name for one of my email addresses, by the way. Eventually we get to the bottom of what's going on with the Paratwa plot, and witness a climactic battle between Gillian's group and Rolk. The next three issues deal with Gillian's secret, and a genetic experiment gone wrong which Nick and another member of Gillian's group, the cigar-smoking merc Laura, investigate.
One of the most remarkable things about Hinz's scripts for Blood is the remarkably realized future reality he's set up. As in his books, there's a lot of care taken to make sure that nearly every gadget, every character, and every situation makes sense, or doesn't require a ton of disbelief suspension to appreciate. Some of his gimmicks and the names he's created for them are wonderfully imaginative: spellgel, a substance which is forcibly ingested by an unfortunate ambassador who is then reduced in size by the Paratwa (barbiized-honest, that's what it's called) then shipped to the Flikker-Wixons, whereupon he regurgatates it and it and displays a message, vegetable-soup like; twistik (activated by twisting the tube it's contained in, hence the name), a super-adhesive used by Gillian's mercs to combat the cannibalistic Earth race called the Shraddhan, cannibal part-mechanical people who descend, spider-like, upon unfortunates on the streets of the city at night, crescent shields and cohe (for coherent light) wands, the weapons of choice for both Paratwa tways and the humans who choose to battle them, and much more. And I can't not mention the always excellent art by Tommy Lee Edwards; he has a blocky, angular, sometimes sloppy style, but he also is an imaginative illustrator with superlative layout skills. Again, DC could do worse than to reprint these in a collection and see if there's an audience, however, Hinz and Edwards may have retained the rights. I don't know...but if you spot these in a quarter box somewhere, snap 'em up...you'll be glad you did. Gemini Blood, in my opinion, is among the best Science Fiction comics ever published.
TIMESPIRITS 1-8 (Marvel/Epic) Script: Steven Perry; Art: Tom Yeates with Rick Veitch in one issue
I wrote about this clever and winning sci-fi/fantasy 1985 series a few months ago. Highly recommended, but good luck finding the individual issues. Of course, there's no collection.
LOVE AND ROCKETS: WIG WAM BAM TPB (Fantagraphics) Art/script: Jaime Hernandez
Maggie and Hopey are arguably two of the most important (and certainly among the most memorable) characters introduced into comics in the last 30 years, and this, to me, was the storyline that featured Jaime at his peak. Maybe it's just because he used an old Sweet song as the title, I don't know. Gilbert's work is also worthy, but just doesn't grab me the way his brother's does. I love Jaime's clean, neat ink line and his way with drawing the ladies. I won't go into too much more detail, because I have a feeling many of you are already familiar with these tales of the Hoppers residents.
HELLSTORM 11-19 (Marvel) Script: Warren Ellis; Art: Leonardo Manco
Daimon Hellstrom, the Son of Satan, made his debut in a 1973 issue of Marvel Spotlight which featured the Ghost Rider. Not long afterward, he took over that title and was, well, spotlighted there until issue 24, after which they gave him his own series which lasted eight issues. Son of Satan was about the closest thing to an old-school DC series that Marvel ever did, which is to say that the stories were all plot-driven rather than character driven. Daimon, the true son of Marvel's Satan, renounced his evil father and battled him (and other supernatural foes) on Earth as a paranormal investigator and exorcist, wearing a ludicrous spandex red and yellow shirtless "ceremonial garb" complete with pointy yellow boots and a cape, and a large trident made of something called "Netheranium". He also had a dual nature- he would go all postal and unleash his "darksoul", which caused him to go berserk conveniently in the nick of time. Attempts to give him a compelling supporting cast were mostly unsuccessful, and Daimon soon found himself battling demons which could possess more than one person at a time, changing bodies effortlessly; a witch which used scenes from tarot cards to work evil magic on him and his friends; his sister Satana; the Cult of Entropy, which then-writer Steve Gerber had created in a previous issue of Man-Thing, and other oddball menaces. Readers soon grew bored, paper got expensive, and Daimon got the axe about 1977 or so. Even after all that, I thought the stories were somewhat clever and I liked SoS, I was sorry to see him get canned. He didn't stay in comics limbo long, but it was all downhill for several years thereafter; he would pop up occasionally in other Marvel books, most notably in Defenders where they married him to Patsy Walker neé Hellcat and gave him a costume even more embarrassing than the one he had previously sported complete with red mask and a tiny trident. Oy. Then, in the early 90s, obviously inspired by the success of DC's Vertigo line and its Hellblazer book in particular, Marvel relaunched a number of their old horror characters, and Daimon was the beneficiary of a total rethink and makeover. Gone was the tiny trident and red mask; he now sported long red hair, often tied back in a ponytail. He also frequently wore a trenchcoat. His origin story got a makeover, and Patsy was now insane after summoning a demon to help Daimon defeat his darksoul, which had split from Hellstrom, causing a Jekyll-Hyde type situation.
Even though this new direction was not bad in itself, the new book suffered from inconsistent art and lackluster scripting until a hitherto unknown Brit writer named Warren Ellis came aboard. Ellis's imagination went into overdrive, and he had perfect synergy with another newcomer, artist Leo Manco, who had come aboard one or two issues previously. As Ellis is wont to do, he surveyed all the bullshit and baggage that had accumulated, barnacle-like, around the Daimon Hellstrom character and totally re-made him into a cynical, sarcastic, no-nonsense (alright, "grim and gritty". Ugh.) bastard. He came up with the notion of a war between Heaven and Hell for souls, and a drug which angels were selling on the streets called "K". He had Daimon kill his father, Marvel's Satan, and take over as ruler of Hell (complete with "black halo" aspect) with the intention of preventing the malignant forces of Heaven from gaining a foothold on Earth. He created, for the first time ever, a worthy foe- nutball occult investigator Dr. Loss. He gave him a fascinating girlfriend-one Jaine Cutter, a Goth girl type who was magically altered to project razor-sharp spikes from her face, hands and arms when confronted by angels, who she was sworn to kill. Patsy died- only to be brought back as a eerie disembodied voice on a radio which was brought to Daimon by the gloating Dr. Loss. The old Marvel character Gabriel the Devil-Hunter was revived as an alcoholic pawn of Heaven, and stole a "breathing gun" from Jaine whose bullets could pierce magicks and demons- making it potentially fatal to the Lord of Hell. He gave an actual personality to the old Gargoyle character, who was Patsy's friend in the Defenders days and had been living in Hellstrom's mansion, looking after her. He reinvented the almost-equally as lame Satana character, making her a completely remorseless succubus, soon to clash with our "hero". And believe me when I tell you I'm just scratching the surface of the wild and weird stuff that Ellis cooked up. Manco's dark, atmospheric art worked perfectly in rendering all this. Of course, by the time Ellis came on board sales were already low and extremely positive word-of-mouth didn't come along in time to help spike them, so Hellstorm was cancelled with issue #19. Ellis only found out about it when he was scripting #18, and was just preparing a epic multi-issue story arc- so he had to literally tie up probably what would have been a dozen issues worth of plotlines in one issue. And he did- in a ridiculously efficient manner. It worked, against all odds!
I think Warren Ellis has done many fine books since Hellstorm, but I honestly don't think he's ever topped it. Sad thing is, he apparently doesn't agree, because he never discusses it and doesn't even list it in his bibliography on his website, even though he was slated to do a Satana miniseries a few years ago but dropped out due to conflicts with TPTB at Marvel. Back issues can often be found in quarter boxes...look for #'s 11-19- you won't be sorry.
STARMAN 0-80 (DC Comics) Script: James Robinson; Art: Tony Harris, Peter Snejbjerg, others and various inkers, particularly Wade Von Grawbadger
You may have heard a lot about this series, and I'm sure most of it is true. Sometimes it could be confusing, a bit pretentious and a little too self-referential, but what James Robinson achieved here is nothing short of spectacular. He created a thoroughly believable and mostly likable character, placed him and his in a fanciful, eccentric but at its base convincing city which almost was a character in itself, and explored a number of issues germane to comics in imaginative fashion, such as hero worship, lines of succession between fathers and sons who were costumed adventurers, the nature of parenthood, a generous helping of re-examination of DC history, canonical or not, and much, much more. Fortunately, these are all collected, I think, and one can start at the beginning and get caught up in an engrossing tale, well told. And well drawn, too- first by Tony Harris, his first regular ongoing, and later by then-Vertigo stalwart Pete Snejbjerg, who didn't seem like a good fit at first but grew into the job spectacularly. But it was Harris who set the look and the feel, and gave life to all of Robinson's characters and ideas. His renditions of Opal City are almost worth the price of admission alone, as is Robinson's brilliant re-imagining of old Golden-ager the Shade.
HELLBOY: CONQUEROR WORM (Dark Horse) Art/Script: Mike Mignola
Hellboy is another series that no matter which collection you pick up, you can't go wrong. If you like horror or fantasy, and you like action-adventure, then there's no one that combines the two better than Mignola in this series. I chose this particular TPB because I enjoyed the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink nature of this tale, it's a whopping fun yarn with Nazis, ghosts, alien creatures, old castles, and our favorite demonic paranormal investigator (along with his colleagues in the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense) right in the middle as usual, getting the crap beat out of him, but doing his fair share of dishing it out as well. Mignola avoids some of the arbitrary nature of some of his other serials, some of which try to cram too much in and lose the plot sometimes...I'm specifically thinking Wake The Devil. I realize Hellboy is a fixture on many best-of lists, but I still get the feeling sometimes that this series doesn't have half the readership that it should. The Chained Coffin and Other Stories and The Right Hand of Doom are other especially outstanding entries, but like I said, you can't go wrong with any of them.
MAJOR BUMMER 1-15 (DC) Script: John Arcudi; Art: Doug Mahnke/Tom Nguyen, plus other inkers on a couple of issues
Major Bummer is one of the funniest, laugh-out-loud comics I've ever read, and absolutely nobody picked up on it back in 1998 when it came out. Sales were consistently low, thanks to the comics-shop system and buyers that were reluctant to buy anything new that didn't have Batman, the JLA or an X-Man in there. Their loss, but it also led to the premature cancellation of this book just when it was really kicking into overdrive. Bummer was the story of one Lou Martin, a young, numbskull slacker who receives a box in the mail one day addressed to "Martin, Louis". He opens it, a bright light flashes, and when he comes to he eventually discovers that he has changed to a being of Herculean proportions, with super-intellect to match, but only when he focuses and tries really hard to think. Lou, ever the slacker, is determined to carry on his life as though nothing has happened, but what he doesn't know is that the same package has been sent to several different people in the same city- some mostly law-abiding citizens, some with a tendency towards law-breaking. Of course, these people (except Lou, of course) are subliminally induced to band together to combat or perpetrate evil, and when the equally inept good guys try to enlist Lou, he wants no part of it. As it turns out, the boxes were sent by alien college students, who are conducting an experiment with Lou and Co. as their test subjects... and one thing leads to another as these people, with their new powers, carry out their agendas and Lou just tries to keep his job. The aliens turn out to be just as inept and boneheaded as their guinea pigs, and Lou has several hilarious encounters with his "benefactors"- and get this- he wasn't even supposed to get the package in the first place! They meant to send it to brilliant lawyer Martin Louis, but one of the aliens stuck a comma in the address! I'm not doing this justice, I know...just keep an eye out for these issues in the quarter boxes and you'll see of which I speaketh. It was in the pages of Bummer that I was introduced to one of my current fave art teams, Doug Mahnke and Tom Nguyen, who are currently turning in stellar work in JLA.
Thanks for reading, and I hope I lead you to check some of these out.