Okay, quick blog post to celebrate the Friday! After this is done, I gotta get back to an Illinois Basic Skills practice test (as La La knows). I mean, I should be able to pass it, but, like what if I don’t? Always good to study I guess…
Moving on! As many of you may already know, I love comic books. If you’ve been fortunate enough not to be in the line of fire at a party while I explain why comics are better than TV, let me give you a nice, neat numbered list.
1. They’re better-written than TV
2. They’re cheaper than TV
3. They’re usually about cool things like superpeople, aliens and sorcerers instead of doctors, lawyers and Downton Abbeys*
4. They use big, meaty, easy-to-understand metaphors to deal with current issues like immigration and gender as well as philosophy, politics and science. (I haven’t yet read a particularly informed comic on religion, at least one that treats it as anything other than something to be gotten over and rejected, but there’s still time.)
An organizational note. Comics come out in, typically monthly, issues, akin to single episodes of TV. Later they are collected into trade paperbacks (akin to DVD box sets), so what I’m basically listing here are my top 5 favorite ‘episodes’ in comic history. I am not considering anything I ever read in a ‘trade paperback’ format. I do realize that all comics and even the confusingly named ‘graphic novels’ were single issues once, but my rule for the ones I list here are that they are all issues that I bought off the stand for $4 or less and gave me a memorable dose of narrative pleasure within those pages. All this to say, I’ll not be including ‘Fearful Symmetry’ in Watchmen or ‘The Wolves of St. August’ in Hellboy or any issues of Y: The Last Man, because I read those in the context of their entire story, and it wouldn’t be fair.
Without further ado, I present my top 5 favorite single issues of comic books ever. Why top 5? ‘Cause top 10s are for sissies. These are the ones I’ll always be coming back to and won’t ever let go of.
5. Batman #5 by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo
Not since Alan Moore’s “Fearful Symmetry” in Watchmen, have I been so freaked out by a comic book and more impressed at what quality creators can do with the medium, and what sets it apart from novels, TV and movies. First off, this is a story about Batman going insane. While this has been done a number of times, Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo pull a top-notch format gag with the reader that makes you think you’re going insane too. I can’t spoil it. It’s too good. You gotta read it for yourself. Secondly, this might be the first issue of Batman I’ve ever read where the bad guys are actually smart. While hunting the mysterious society known as the Court of Owls, Batman is kidnapped and (get this) instead of trying to fight him, they just throw him in a creepy labyrinth and leave him there. They turn on all the lights, don’t give him any food and like, take pictures of him for days. Yeah, that’s all you need to kill a super-ninja-man with tons of gadgets. Just don’t give him any food. Love it. I feel like the Owls have a little more in store for Bats, than just death, but we’ll see. Can’t wait for #6.
4. S.H.I.E.L.D. #1 by Jonathan Hickman and Dustin Weaver
I’ve never seen a series do a better job of selling a far-out premise in a single issue. With a bi-monthly release schedule, these issues became so precious to me that I needed them to be jam-packed with content to tide me over. Fortunately, Dustin Weaver’s art is content worth ogling. It’s so detailed and, for my money, the only artist who can convincingly render the fun of Steampunk without wallowing in the novelty of it. This issue has it all: Grav-boots, alien hordes, Nikola Tesla in an electric suit, a gun that telepathically assembles and reassembles itself, an ancient underground city, Galileo aiming a 16th Century laser weapon at Galactus. Yeah, you just have to see that one for yourself:
Yeah, that’s just cool. Hickman’s relentless high humanism can get annoying, but he makes a pretty darn good case for it, and any riff on Jack Kirby need to be appropriately grand and sweeping. I really like this series for the art (first and foremost) and for the constant barrage of ideas and its mythological tone. More comics need to be this crazy, and I mean that in a good way.
3. The Brave and the Bold #30 by J. Michael Stracynski and Jesus Saiz
DC has always been better than Marvel at their team-ups and no one has done better than JMS and Saiz at making the most of it. I think The Brave and the Bold a good example of why DC’s characters themselves have thematic weight and take them beyond the stifling requirement to add pathos and vulnerability to the people behind the masks in order to make them ‘relatable to modern audiences’. I mean seriously, isn’t the whole Peter Parker ‘down on his luck’ thing pretty much played out at this point? He’s freaking Spider Man. He can get a date. I digress. Anyway, JMS’s run on The Brave and the Bold was a series of one-shot episodes (that means self-contained, you don’t have to know anything beyond just that one issue) that took the team-up book beyond its usual formula of “Batman teams up with Some-Schmuck-You’ve-Never-Heard-Of” (except he did that too in #29 and it was still really good). The writing puts two of my favorite DC characters, Green Lantern and the sadly unsung Dr. Fate into a philosophical quandary that celebrates, yes celebrates determinism as a sensible way to live. Never thought I’d read a defense of Calvinism in a comic book, but there you go. Though it is a one-off and you don’t need to know anything about Fate and Lantern to get the point, the issue does pay tribute to the DCU’s wider lore and there’s plenty for comic nuts to enjoy, particularly JMS’s awareness of the Golden Age/Silver Age generational divide between the two characters, which he brings into the narrative in a really sensitive way. In a way, the issue is the perfect goodbye to the ‘old souls’ of comic book history, the heralds of weightier and more universal themes as ‘Truth, Justice and the American Way’, or in Dr. Fate’s case ‘Absolute Cosmic Determinism’ are now receding. We don’t know what to do with Godlike metaphors and messiah figures. Our heroes, like Hal Jordan in this issue, are willful and flawed like us, as opposed to the wondrous ‘otherness’ of heroes like Superman and Dr. Fate. JMS simultaneously acknowledges that perspective shift and manages to celebrate the old themes as ones which have intrinsic value.**
2. The Unwritten #5 by Mike Carey and Carey Gross
I never thought I’d read a comic book about the history of one of my favorite authors Rudyard Kipling. No, this is not ‘Graphic Classics’, it’s a backstory tale that ties into Mike Carey and Carey Gross’s fictional epic about fiction, The Unwritten. In it, it gives a fictionalized account of Kipling’s life and his connection to a secret society who wants to control the tenor of his writing. Those familiar with Kipling’s work will know that his early works were sympathetic to British empire, and that his later works were a good deal more ideologically ambiguous. Carey explains this shift as evidence of Kipling’s ongoing struggle to be free of the shadowy organization that he once made a pact with. He pulls in real-life events (such as the death of his child), adds in a visit from Mark Twain, and re-interprets the Just-So Stories as subversive anti-imperialist literature which (in the comic) costs him dearly. It’s always nice to read a series so aware of literary sources, but this issue was a masterstroke. In a mere 22 pages it gives Kipling himself a ‘Just-So Story’, reconstructing his life story in the context of the series’ broader mythology. The Unwritten has gone on to produce a number of similar back-story issues, but none nearly as effective as this one.
1. All-Star Superman #6 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely
I’m cheating a little on this, since I didn’t actually read it until it came out in hardback, but the series itself has a standalone quality, and #6 cannot be ignored because it achieves the impossible: making Superman relevant. As I’ve discussed above, the typical approach to making a superhero ‘relevant’ is to make him vulnerable, (read: able-to-be-killed-by-some-random-thing-or-being) then threaten him with it. This is bogus because unless you want to kill the guy–and from experience, I assure you that you do not***–then he continues to be invulnerable and your gambit has failed. You’re just layering unbelievability atop unbelievability. So what did superteam Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely decide to do? Well, they made Superman extra-invulnerable and gave him a month to live. It was too perfect. Basically, Superman realizes everything is within his power and decides to achieve some Herculean tasks before going nova. In #6, the heart of the series comes to the surface. He can do almost everything. He can bring himself back to life, but not those he loves. The death of Pa Kent is revisited here in a wacky series of time-tricks that keeps you guessing to the last panel. The brilliance of Morrison’s take on Supes is that he pulls together all the bats***tery of the Silver Age and breathes new meaning into it. This episode has, I kid you not: Krypto the Superdog, six alternate universe versions of Superman and the Chronovore, a monster that eats up time. And I cried. Yes, that’s right. It was emotional. It is the perfect single-issue comic book and I will let you borrow it.
That’s all folks. Go buy these if you have the notion and don’t expect a list of top 5 favorite miniseries to be too long in coming.
*J slash K. I love Downton Abbey. I can’t help it.
**Ironically, JMS did a complete about-face with his ‘Grounded’ arc of Superman, which took the exact opposite approach to the very superhero that has grown hopelessly irrelevant to modern audiences. I thought JMS was the guy to finally see that you can’t go the ‘vulnerable’ route with Supes. He’s a messiah figure, not a flawed human being. The interesting thing about his character is that he is incorruptible. Morrison understood that and created the best Superman series ever written (see #1).
***If you haven’t watched Max Landis’ wonderful shredding of The Death of Superman, please do so now.