Top 10 comic books

10. “Maus: A Survivor’s Tale” by Art Spiegelman (For simplicity’s sake, let’s just say Maus: Book 1 and Book 2)

The genius of Art Spiegelman’s masterpiece, Maus, is that it is not just a brilliant re-telling of one man’s tale of survival during World War II and the Holocaust.

If it were just that, then it would still belong on this list, but it isn’t. It’s also the tale of a man dealing with his father. It’s also the tale of how stories are told. And perhaps most fascinating to me is that it also eventually becomes about a man dealing with the fact that his personal story about his father’s survival of the Holocaust has become a commercial and critical success. How does one reconcile oneself with something like that? Spiegelman addresses it beautifully in this story.

But at the heart of the comic, Spiegelman is telling us how his father, Vladek Spiegelman, survived the war.

And Vladek’s tale is absolutely fascinating, made even more so by Art’s deft storytelling skills, as he prevents the book from ever getting monotonous, while at the same time being quite detailed in the history of the tale. It reminds me a lot of the work Eddie Campbell did on From Hell.

It took Spiegelman years to get this story finished, but it was well worth the wait, as it was an exceptional piece of work.

9. “Kingdom Come” by Mark Waid and Alex Ross (Kingdom Come #1-4) –

Kingdom Come is an interesting reflection on the superhero trends of the 1990s.

It is set in the future, a world where “grim and gritty” superheroes have basically taken control of the DC Universe, leading to vast amounts of chaos.

Superman is pulled out of retirement by a tragedy which left it quite clear that something “had” to be done about the superhero problem. However, unbenown to Superman, other forces were coming together to deal with heroes THEIR way.

Superman’s return led to a resurgence of “traditional” superheroics, and Superman gathers his old friends in a revamped Justice League. Superman gains a number of converts to his way of thinking, but just as many “heroes” turn away from Superman’s view of the world, leading to a number of conflicts and Superman effectively imposing his will on these people, something that turns Batman from Superman’s crusade.

As the powder keg Superman has been building explodes, it’s hero versus hero versus villain while a worried government wonders if they should just try to rid themselves of superheroes once and for all.

It’s a tense script by Mark waid, and Alex Ross’ realistic painted artwork brings across the humanity of the story being told. In addition, Ross clearly has a blast revamping the looks for the older heroes and designing costumes for the new characters.

To this day DC is mining this story for ideas!

8. “Season of Mists” by Neil Gaiman, Kelley Jones, Mike Dringenberg, Malcolm Jones III, Matt Wagner, Dick Giordano, George Pratt, and P. Craig Russell (Sandman #21-28)

Season of Mists was a landmark arc during Neil Gaiman’s Sandman tenure, as this was the story that introduced the Endless (Dream and Death’s other siblings) as well as created the set-up for Mike Carey’s Lucifer series.

In the story, Dream is shamed into attempting to rescue his former love, who he, in a fit of rage, banished to hell thousands of years ago. He steels himself for a battle with Lucifer, who is Dream knows is not pleased with him. Dream could not expect, however, how Lucifer decided to deal with him – when Dream shows up to fight with Lucifer he learns that Lucifer has closed Hell and he gives Dream the key to hell.

What follows next is an entertaining exploration of what the universe would be like without Hell, along with a brilliant piece of mythology work as Gaiman shows all the various other deities (like the Norse Gods and the Egyptian Gods, etc.) showing up to bargain with Dream for the rights to such prime interdimensional real estate.

Gaiman has had great success over the years working with various mythologies and their deities, and that fascination really began here.

The artwork is strong, with Kelley Jones really doing a wonderful job with the moodiness of the tale.

7. “Crisis on Infinite Earths” by Marv Wolfman, George Perez, Dick Giordano and Jerry Ordway (Crisis on Infinite Earths #1-12, plus a bunch of tie-ins)

Crisis on Infinite Earths was both a love letter to the past of DC Universe while also the formation of a “new” DC Universe.

Marv Wolfman and George Perez put the DC Universe into a position where worlds were dying and realities were shattering. This allowed the pair to use a cast of literally thousands as they explored the vast realms of DC’s comic history in a sprawling epic with more than one “Ultimate Battle Between Good and Evil.”

The devices pushing this plot forward are the Monitor and the Anti-Monitor, one a benevolent being who was studying the DC Universe – the other a madman who wants to destroy the Multiverse, the backbone of DC’s multiple Earths set-up (which allowed DC to separate their Golden Age creation from their Silver Age counterparts, but also allowed them to integrate comics they bought from other publishers without having to splice them together with their existing heroes).

In a battle this epic, deaths were bound to happen, and this story was SO big that two very big names saw their end – Superman’s cousin, Supergirl and Barry Allen, the Silver Age Flash.

Initially, other titles were hesitant to tie into Crisis, but by the time the series ended, it was such a big hit that books were falling over themselves to tie into the event!

Wolfman and Perez ended the series with more than one magnificently diverse epic slugfests, until the dust settled and the DC Universe was never the same.

What a way to spend a Golden Anniversary!!

6. “All Star Superman” by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely (All Star Superman #1-12)

All Star Superman is both a reimagination of Superman as well as a bit of a farewell to the character. The story is basically about the death of Superman, as his death is foretold in the first issue and the comic depicts the last year in the life of Superman.

That year allows Morrison and Quitely to come up with brilliant new approaches to classic Superman plots.

Their “Silver Age ideas with modern sensibilities” approach works extremely well, particularly with Quitely’s ability to make pretty much anything dynamic.

Possibly one of the coolest aspects of All Star Superman is that it is not, in the least bit, cynical. It’s quite a feat to see a re-envisioning of Superman that does NOT involve some sort of post-ironic cynical approach to the character.

In addition, the story was told with a series of (mostly) one-off issues, so each issue was like its own little epic, they just combine to tell one long story of Superman’s last year of life.

Morrison’s take on Superman and his supporting cast is innovative while completely familiar, and Quitely, well, Quitely just goes out of his mind with some of the layouts and dynamism in this series. Really top notch stuff.

It’s a blast to read, and I can only imagine how well it reads collected in trades!

5. “Dark Knight Returns” by Frank Miller and Klaus Janson (Batman: The Dark Knight #1-4)

Dark Knight Returns is one of the most influential Batman comics, well, ever, really. In his four-issue series set 10 years after Bruce Wayne retired as Batman, Frank Miller basically established the way Batman would be presented in comics for the next…well…23 years and counting!

The comic is literally about the return of the Dark Knight, as Bruce Wayne realizes that his city needs Batman again, so he, well, returns.

Miller plays with the concept (not originated by Miller but certainly cemented by Miller) that perhaps Batman’s existence draws OUT the crazies in an action-reaction deal.

As soon as Batman returns, so, too, does Two-Face and the Joker.

The other major characters in the story (besides Alfred) are Carrie Kelly, the teenaged girl who becomes the new Robin and Superman, whose conflict with Batman makes up the finale to the series.

Miller’s art is in strong form in the series, especially the action sequences, which are dramatic as all hell.

Batman has three (one is a two-parter) extremely memorable fights in this series.

The first is against the leader of the Mutants, the screwed up gang of thugs who are terrorizing Gotham (in his first night back, Batman saves Carrie Kelly from a pair of them, leading to her wanting to become Robin), where Batman tries to compete like he was still young, but soon figures out that winning is the best way to handle things.

The second is a chilling conflict with the Joker, who figures out the best way (in his mind) to “beat” Batman – it’s quite twisted.

The third is the aforementioned battle between Superman and Batman, where we see perhaps the debut of the whole “if Batman had enough prep time, he could beat anyone” mode of handling Batman.

So yeah, Dark Knight Returns – major comic book work.

4. “Year One” by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli (Batman #404-407)

Whatever aspects of the Batman character weren’t already re-defined by Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns were done so with this landmark new origin for Batman, courtesy of writer Frank Miller and artist David Mazzucchelli.

The story tells the tale of Bruce Wayne and James Gordon, and how one man became Batman and the other became the symbol of honest cops in Gotham City.

That this story was the basis for the blockbuster film, Batman Begins, is of no surprise, since Miller writes the story in a totally cinematic style, and Mazzucchelli’s brilliant artwork certainly has a cinematic style to it, as well.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the comic is just how strong of a character Jim Gordon is in it. He truly works as the co-lead of the story. While writers certainly had done solo Gordon stories before this storyline, never had he gotten the attention Miller gave him, and a result, Gordon HAS had the same attention since.

Richmond Lewis’ colors should get some attention – she does a marvelous job setting the mood. Very evocative washes.

Add it all together and you have an engaging and entertaining new origin for Batman as we see him go from green vigilante to a trusted friend of the Gotham City police (as the police also go from being totally corrupt to only being significantly corrupt – a major step up!).

3. “Born Again” by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli (Daredevil #227-233)

Born Again drastically re-shaped Daredevil as a character, in Frank Miller’s return to the book that made him famous.

This time, Miller was working with artist David Mazzucchelli, who was already doing very impressive work on the series with writer Denny O’Neil. However, Mazzucchelli was still growing as an artist, and in many ways, Born Again was his “coming out” party, as he at the very least equaled, and more likely SURPASSED the incredible artwork that Miller had done himself when drawing Daredevil years earlier.

The story is about what happens when Matt Murdock’s former secretary (and former love of his life), Karen Page, who had left the book to become an actress, was now a drug-addicted porn star. Desperate for drugs, Page sells Matt’s secret identity. Eventually this information finds its way to Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin of Crime, who uses it to systematically destroy Matt’s life (getting him disbarred, freezing his assets, etc.).

Then, in one of the best scenes you’ll see, Kingpin also blows up Matt’s brownstone – and then, Matt realizes, all of the terrible things that had been happening to him, they weren’t just bad luck, they were because of the Kingpin!

That realization, however awesome, is not enough to make Matt “born again,” as he still has to fall to the gutters before he can rise above it all.

The scene is filled with so many great scenes that I devoted, like, a month, to cool moments from it.

But here’s a quick sampling…

1. Kingpin thinks he has Matt killed…but “there is no corpse.

“There is no corpse.

2. Kingpin realizes then that Matt may be more dangerous than ever, as after all…”A man without hope…is a man without fear.”

3. Ben Urich knows something is up and is brutalized into cowering away from his responsibilities, so seeing this seemingly meek man grow the courage…it’s brilliant (and Mazzucchelli and Richmond Lewis, who also colored this series, do such an amazing job on Urich’s struggles).

4. Miller introduces an interesting new character called Nuke, and becomes the first writer to extend the whole Super Soldier program into conspiracy theories…

5. This, of course, leads to Captain America getting involved, and he’s handled awesomely…

6. Nuke’s involvement helps bring Daredevil back (after Matt and Karen reunite, as Miller redeems Karen), and his return is, well, amazing – Mazzucchelli and Lewis do SUCH an amazing job on the return of Daredevil. A totally iconic shot of Daredevil in front of flames.

7. Miller, Mazzucchelli and Lewis depict the Avengers in such a way that evokes how Alan Moore, Stephen Bissette and John Totleben handled the Justice League in the pages of Swamp Thing – and it’s the way you’d almost expect superheroes to be depicted in the “real” world.

8. And it all ends with a likely Bob Dylan reference, so how much better can you get?

2. “The Dark Phoenix Saga” by Chris Claremont, John Byrne and Terry Austin (X-Men #129-137)

The last few issues of the Dark Phoenix Saga, where Phoenix actually BECOMES Dark Phoenix, almost overshadow the importance of the issues that lead up to Phoenix turning evil.

To wit, those issues (which actually were a bit of a cause for celebration for the X-Men, as they were finally reunited after being split up for a year or so – real time – as Jean Grey and Professor X thought that the rest of the team had died after a battle with Magneto) introduced the following characters:

Kitty Pryde

Emma Frost

Dazzler

Sebastian Shaw

The Hellfire Club, in general

Think about that – Kitty Pryde and Emma Frost are two of the more memorable additions to the X-Men since Giant Size X-Men #1, and they BOTH debuted in this storyline!

Not to mention the fact that the lead-up contains the fight against the Hellfire Club where Wolverine is thought dead, only to turn up at the end of #132 vowing revenge, in a panel that you readers voted the #4 Most Iconic Panel in Marvel Comics History!

And then we get to the actual revelation of the Dark Phoenix (which also landed in the Top 20 Most Iconic Panels at #18).

John Byrne really does a marvelous job on the battle sequences involving Dark Phoenix as the X-Men do their best to take down their friend. They try their best in #135, but she quickly defeats them and flies off into outer space. Her traveling makes her yearn for sustenance, which she gets by entering and imploding a star, soaking in the energy of its destruction. She does not care that the destruction of the star also destroys the planet it orbits. A starship of the Shi’Ar Empire notices, though, and challenges Dark Phoenix.

She destroys the ship easily, but not before it gets off a message to the Shi’Ar Royal Throneworld, where the Empress of the Shi’Ar Empire, Lilandra (Professor X’s current lover) springs into action.

Meanwhile, in #136, Dark Phoenix returns to Earth where her teammates and her love, Cyclops, await her with a device meant to shut down telepaths. She destroys it and once again takes care of her teammates with ease, but Cyclops manages to calm her down by appealing to her still human side. At this point, Professor X attacks, and he and Phoenix have a telepathic battle, where ultimately, due to the aid of whatever vestiges of Jean Grey remain in Dark Phoenix, he manages to shut Dark Phoenix’s powers down.

The X-Men do not have a moment to rest, though, as they’re instantly teleported to a Shi’Ar battleship orbiting Earth, where the Shi’Ar Imperial Guard and Empress Lilandra demand Jean Grey be delivered over to them for punishment for her actions as Dark Phoenix. Professor X utters a Shi’Ar ritual challenge, which Lilandra is duty-bound to accept. Therefore, in #137, the X-Men will fight the mighty Shi’Ar Imperial Guard for the fate of Jean Grey.

The next day, the teams meet on the Moon for their battle. The X-Men are heavily outnumbered and outclassed by the Guard, who are made up of the most powerful heroes of the Shi’Ar Empire. Although the X-Men fight valiantly, they are slowly picked off, one by one, until only Cyclops and Jean remain free. When Cyclops is taken out as well, Jean begins to panic and the limits Professor X placed on her begin to crumble – Dark Phoenix frees herself and wants revenge. The X-Men stand ready to battle Dark Phoenix, but Jean manages to take control long enough to intentionally trip a defense mechanism laser, killing herself so that Dark Phoenix can hurt no one else ever again. It’s a terrible poignant moment, expressed beautifully by Claremont and Byrne.

That moment, by the way, was #17 on the panels countdown.

This storyline also provided THREE of the Top 30 Favorite Comic Book Battles when I did THAT countdown.

People sure do love the Dark Phoenix Saga.

1. “Watchmen” by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (Watchmen #1-12) –

To give you an idea of how much of a game changer Watchmen was, note that the PROOFS for the issues were passed around the DC offices – that’s how much even the other DC employees were enthralled in the story that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons were producing. Everyone knew that this comic was special, and now almost 25 years later, it remains a very special story.

A remarkable aspect of Watchmen is the fact that, past the fairly straightforward plot about an older superhero getting murdered, with his former teammates investigating his murder only to find out that it is all tied to a mysterious conspiracy, there is just so much detail and nuance.

You can examine a single scene and get something new out of the scene practically every time you read it.

And that’s even counting all of the famous scenes that are awesome just on a straightforward reading of the book, like Ozymandias’ famous “I did it 35 minutes ago” line or Rorschach’s fight against the police (as I noted recently, Watchmen was clearly VERY influential on the work of Frank Miller – in fact, there’s a very strong possibility that Miller’s reading of Watchmen helped influence the ending of Dark Knight).

Dave Gibbons does not get enough credit for his amazing artwork in this story. There’s a sequence set in the past when the heroes were still all pretty naive (Rorschach was not even using his scary voice as of yet), and Gibbons gives us, ALL IN THE BACKGROUND, a beautiful depiction of Doctor Manhattan flirting with the Silk Spectre, all while his wife is right next to him. As the panels go by, not one doesn’t show some sort of interaction in the background of the panel – all of it is important to their characterizations, but none of it is central to the main story being delivered in those panels – so Gibbons basically was giving us two stories at once. The one Moore is telling with the speech balloons at the “front” of the panel, plus the one Gibbons is telling in the “back” of the panel through body language. Granted, as great as Gibbons is, Moore DOES work full script, so while I am praising Gibbons, I have to make sure I do give Moore credit for the details, as well.

All in all, there is a reason that this was one of Time magazine’s Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century – it’s a masterpiece of comic book fiction, both in story and art – and twenty plus years later, it is STILL influencing comic book writers.

Okay, folks, that’s it!

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