Nothing But Comics is about to hit our two year mark and in observance of the sites anniversary, every Tuesday from now until we finish, one of our staff members will list off their favorite series, runs or issues of all time. This week it’s Cosmo
Runners-up (not ranked): Steve Gerber’s Omega, the Unknown; Bill Mantlo’s Rocket Raccoon; Denny O’Neil/Neal Adams’ Batman; Grant Morrison’s Animal Man; Infinity Gauntlet; From Hell; Watchmen; Will Eisner’s Contract with God; early Legends of the Dark Knight (i.e. Gothic, Prey & Blades)
10.) Hepcats #0-12, The Collegiate Hepcats by Martin Wagner.
Before the rise of publishers like Image and Dark Horse as champions of creator-owned comics, there were the self-publishers. In the 80s and 90s, the only way to fully guarantee creative control over your work was to put it out yourself. This movement included Dave Sims’ Cerebus, Jeff Smith’s Bone, Colleen Doran’s A Distant Soil and Wagner’s Hepcats. Hepcats started as a strip for Wagner’s college newspaper, The Daily Texan (University of Texas, Austin). In the early days, it was simply a charming narrative of goofy college students (who happened to be anthropomorphic animals). Over time, though, Wagner’s character work grew stronger. #3 of the series kicked off an ambitious multi-part story-line called Snowblind which delved into the darker waters of suicide and the legacy of childhood trauma. The transition worked, winning Wagner critical acclaim for both his skillful writing and expressive illustrations. A combination of low sales and poor follow-through from Wagner derailed Snowblind two issues into the second arc, leaving readers with an incomplete masterpiece.
9.) Persepolis #1-4 by Marjane Satrapi.
Persepolis is Satrapi’s memoir of growing up in Iran during the 80s. The first half centers on her memories of her homeland, while the second deals with time abroad as a student in Germany and her dilemma over whether to leave Iran more permanently for Europe. (Persepolis was originally published in France in four installments; when it was translated into English, it was repackaged as two graphic novels). The power of Satrapi’s narrative comes from her ability to present life in all its complicated facets. At times she revels in the absurdity of the regime’s restrictions, as when she muses that her school had gender-separated staircases so that the men would not tempted into ogling the rears of their female classmates. Other times, she is more somber, fully acknowledging the violent oppression. All the while she paints a rich backdrop for both her country and family’s history. Indeed, these books should be required reading for anyone wishing to understand Iran’s cultural nuances. More importantly, though, Satrapi tells her personal story in a compelling manner. Finally, her art is stunning, ranging in style from whimsical cartoons to grisly horrors to delightful flights of fantasy. Her images match the complicated emotions of her words.
8.) Captain America #1-25, 600-19 by Ed Brubaker, Mark Waid, Sean McKeever, Steve Epting, Michael Lark, Lee Weeks, Mike Perkins, Butch Guice, Luke Ross, Dave Eaglesham, Gene Colan, David Baldeaon, Mitch Breitweiser, Felipe Andrade, Daniel Acuna, Stefano Gaudiano, Chris Samnee & Mike Deodato.
Captain America had never been a character I thought twice about until encountering Ed Brubaker’s extraordinary run. Brubaker does not reinvent the hero, as much as make clear what a compelling character was there all along. I have written in the past on how Brubaker accomplishes this in his initial 25 issues. As the series continues, though, Brubaker digs deeper into the contemporary moment, offering a chilly portrait of the divisions that plague American society. The schemes of the Red Skull are frightening because they prey on fears which are all too easy to see around us. This motif reaches its peak with The Trial of Captain America where Bucky is tried for the crimes he committed as the Winter Soldier. In another time, Steve Rogers’ voice of authority might have been enough to acquit Bucky, but in our bitterly cynical, partisan age, the outcome is quite different. Brubaker, assisted by Steve Epting and a host of talented artists, has crafted a run that is of its time, yet also timeless.
7.) Marvels #0-4 by Kurt Busiek & Alex Ross.
Busiek’s greatest strength as a storyteller has always been his ability to depict the extraordinary through the eyes of the ordinary. Marvels is the greatest example of this trait, as photojournalist Phil Sheldon guides the reader through the history of the Marvel Universe from the birth of the original Human Torch to the death of Gwen Stacy. In the process, he revives standard tropes of the Marvel Universe (anti-mutant hysteria, the threat of Galactus) with a fresh emotional drama. The human perspective give the drama new immediacy. At the same time, Alex Ross’ stunning painted art fills the pages with an epic splendor. Busiek and Ross’ collaboration is the closest anyone has come to conjuring that mixture of wonder and dread that is what it would feel like to live as a by-standard in the Marvel Universe.
6.) Doom Patrol #19-63 by Grant Morrison, Richard Case, Doug Braithwaite, Kelley Jones, Mike Dringenberg, Steve Yeowell, Vince Giarrano, Keen Ken Steacy & Sean Phillips.
Morrison’s success on Animal Man resulted in DC handing him another dusty property to reinvent. Morrison used the opportunity to go even further off the deep end, plunging his narrative into absurd surrealism. Buddy Baker always had his family to keep him tethered to the everyday, a luxury which the members of Doom Patrol severely lacked. All they had were each other, which typically resulted in more madness than anything else. Yet, beneath the narrative flourishes, was a collection of compelling character portraits. Morrison fills his story with fascinating, engaging characters. Unlike some of Morrison’s later work, it is not the nihilism which stays with the reader, but the heart. Indeed, the last page is one of the most lovely, poignant finales in all of comics. By so successfully balancing ideas and emotions, Doom Patrol remains Morrsion’s greatest achievement.
5.) Daredevil #168-182 by Frank Miller & Klaus Janson.
I came late to Frank Miller’s Daredevil. I read plenty of Miller as a teenager, but, with the exception of Year One, none of it really clicked with me. I recognized the influence without quite understanding the appeal. Reading his Daredevil immediately changed my perspective. From the very first page of Miller’s time both writing and drawing the comic, the story leaps off the page. These are not some musty “important” relics of another era but vibrant tales. Indeed, the famous #181 is still a masterclass of gripping intensity despite containing one of the most iconic death scenes in comics. Miller excels at channeling the voices of his various protagonists and, in one chilling case, his antagonist. The fantastic art by Miller and Janson plays a large part in these issues’ power as well. These are some extraordinary comics, which I look forward to exploring further. (NB: The issues I have listed above are simply a reflection of how far I have progressed to date,not a slight on the rest Miller’s run).
4.) Justice League International/America #1-60, Annuals #1-5 & Justice League Europe #1-36, Annuals #1-2 by Kieth Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis, William Messner-Loebs, Gerard Jones, Kevin Maguire, Steve Liealoha, Ty Templeton, Mike McKone, Bill Willingham, Adam Hughes, Tom Artis, Russell Braum. Linda Medley, Paris Cullins, Trevor Von Eeden, Chris Wozniak, Bart Sears, Steve Carr, Chris Sprouse, Derick Robertson, Marshall Rogers, Dan Jurgens, Dan Phillips, Art Nichols, John Beatty & Curt Swan.
There is an old truism that performing comedy is harder than drama, which applies equally well to writing. On the surface, Giffen & DeMatteis’ goofy take on the League could easily have been an embarrassing misstep. Instead it is one of the greatest chapters in the franchise’s history, freely satirizing both superheroes and the cultural at large. At the same time, they never skimped on the action or the heart. At its core, it was about character, responsible for creating an entire generation of fans for Martian Manhunter, Blue Beetle & Booster Gold, Mr Miracle & Big Barda and many others. And yes, it was damn hilarious. “Justice League Antarctica” remains the funniest single issue I have ever read. Giffen and DeMatteis were assited by a variety of talented artists (including up-and-comers Mike McKone and Adam Hughes); the most important of these was Kevin Magurie who so splediedly created the look of the Bwah-ha-ha-ha years.
3.) Howard the Duck #1-27, Annual #1, Marvel Treasury Edition #12, Fear #19 & Giant Size- Man-Thing #4-5 by Steve Gerber, Val Mayerik, Frank Brunner, John Buscema, Gene Colan, Sal Buscema, Carmine Infantino, Dave Cockrum, DIck Giordano, Ed J. Hannigan, Al Milgrom, Michael Netzer, Thomas Palmer Sr. & Alan Lee Weiss
Steve Gerber was one of the most original creators in the history of the medium and Howard the Duck was his greatest creation. From his debut waddling into the midst of a high fantasy quest (or at least Gerber’s slanted version thereof), Howard made an impression. At first he was simply a disgruntled, wise-ass, but, over time, Gerber deepened his character. Howard may have been a cynic, yet his pessimism naturally grew out of being one of the few who actually gave a damn for others around him. Stumbling from one absurd foe to the next (a vampire cow, Dr Angst Master of Mundane Mysticism, the American electoral system, among other adversaries), Howard’s adventures were a constant delight. Meanwhile, Gerber and his artistic partners (most notably Gene Colan) continually played with form, infusing the series with a meta-quality that culminated in the famous “Zen and the Art of Comic Book Writing.” Daring in both form and content, while never ceasing to be a joy to read, Gerber’s Howard the Duck remains as radical now as it was nearly four decades ago.
2.) Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland.
Over the years, The Killing Joke has accumulated a bit of baggage. Some of it, as Moore himself has admitted, is deserved; some it is the fault of its many imitators. However, as I have discussed previously, The Killing Joke will always be important for me. It was the first “mature readers” comic I ever bought, which pointed out for me what else comics could be. Its central message that we are defined not by the events of our lives, but how we react to them resonates with me to this day. It is one of those morals that can be applied to any life, not just those of a spandex clad adventurer. And then there is a Brian Bolland’s stunning art, which is some of the greatest ever to grace a Batman story. Honestly, I could have easily made half this list Alan Moore entries (Watchmen, From Hell & Miracleman all came under consideration), In the end there is no objective best anything, and so I selected the personal favorite.
1.) Sandman #1-75 & Special by Neil Gaiman, Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg, Chris Bachalo, Michael Zulli, Kelley Jones, Charles Vess, Colleen Doran, Matt Wagner, Stan Woch, Bryan Talbot, Shawn McManus, Duncan Eagleson, John Watkiss, Jill Thompson, Craig P. Russell, Alex Preston Stevens, Mike Allred, Shea Anton Pensa, Gary Amaro, Marc Hempel, Glyn Dillon, Dean Ormston, Teddy H. Kristiansen, Richard Case, Jon Jay Muth & Dave McKean
Sandman is probably one of the most accidental masterpieces in the history of comics. Gaiman first imagined Morpheus, Lord of Dreams as a character for the Wild Cards prose anthology series (editor George R.R. Martin rejected it). Later when Karen Berger was courting Gaiman to DC, Gaiman pitched the idea of reviving Jack Kirby’s Silver Age Sandman in the tradition of Moore’s Swamp Thing, Morrison’s Animal Man and so on. Berger said “that’s nice, but we’ve got a lot of that going on right now. How about something original, Neil?” And so, Gaiman revived his tale of the Dreaming and the results were the greatest comic book series ever. Over the course of 76 issues, Gaiman chronicled the gradual emotional growth of Dream. The tale was concentrated in the present day, though by its end it would span the centuries, reaching back into the ancient world. It was populated by a large supporting cast, many of whom were as indelibly rendered as the Dream Lord himself. Indeed, you could argue that Dream’s sister Death is actually the fans’ favorite Gaiman creation. It tackled serious philosophical matters and then-edgy cultural issues. Many of the most memorable panels in my comics reading come from Sandman. Comics are a visual medium and Gaiman’s run of artists for Sandman is one of, if not, the most consistent rotation of illustrators for any title in the medium. Each new artist would bring their own aesthetic to the Realm of Dreams, yet none of it ever felt out of place. The Dreaming, after all, could easily contain multitudes. This standard of excellence extended to Dave McKean’s covers, which defined the look of the series as much any of the interior art. It is impossible to imagine one without the other.
(Oh and in case you were wondering, yes, Gaiman figured out a way to work Kirby’s Sandman into the history of Dream anyway).