I have a reputation on Gabbing Geek as a guy who doesn’t like comic books. This knock is generally well deserved. I don’t like much anymore. But there is a certain kind of comic that even to this day will cause me to
get dressed, get in the car, head to the comic shop, and buy a comic sit in my underwear, fire up the ol’ tablet, click Comixology on my browser, and download a digital file. What are these amazing tales you ask?
Well first, I don’t like stories that go on FOREVER, become obsessed with continuity minutia, and are free from consequence because the next cosmic event can just bring Hal Jordan back to life… AGAIN. I like stories where anything can happen, which is not true of the mainstream superhero milieu. Marvel and DC Superheroes are very valuable intellectual property assets and because of their worth, the corporate masters at Warner Brothers and Disney (who care NOTHING about whether Psycho Pirate still remembers the Crisis) have a vested interest in making sure the status quo is preserved no matter how BIG the event is in the funny pages.
Look, I get that people enjoy these stories and love these minor details. There are also people who enjoy the films of Rob Schneider. I like neither ongoing comics nor Rob Schneider because I’m better than you.
No. What I like are self-contained stories. Stories about superheroes, for sure (I LOVE superheroes), but I want narratives that have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Stories that give a fresh take on the genre or even the medium itself. You can debate the term, but what I liked are “Deconstructive Superhero” stories. So today, I am counting down the ten best deconstructive runs/arcs/stories of ALL-TIME! Most were short runs or minseries, but some went on a little too long. I knew when to bail out and will let you know when they reached their shelf life. Even an alternate take, if successful enough, can become a valuable corporate asset in the wrong hands.
This work by Warren Ellis and John Cassidy would probably be higher on the list but for the way I read it. I tried to tackle this one back when I read monthlies and that was no way to read this series. This was my one of the most embarrassing efforts to publish regularly I’ve ever seen. 27 issues took over a decade. If you read it now it is a wonderful exploration of paranormal beings who investigate superheroes and the pulp characters who inspired them; and you’d probably love it. It’s very meta and one of the main supporting characters is essentially Tarzan as a James Bond sort of adventurer. Yet, I’m still bitter so it moves them down a few spots.
Empire was a classic, but sadly UNFINISHED, story that told about the rule of a supervillain who beat the hero and finally conquered the world. Each issue was largely a stand alone, so the fact that we never got to conclude the overarching mythology of the story was sad but not as devastating as other unfinished gems. This series was an interesting look at the villains’ side of the story crafted by Mark Waid and Barry Kitson (Watson favorites) . As an amusing aside, during the run of this series (before Twitter and Facebook) I was one to frequent message boards (in fact, I met Tom Kelly through the DC Comics MBs!). One day, I posted that Mark Waid was the comic equivalent of the band Journey; saying if there was a good story (song) out there that you liked but didn’t know who did it, the work was probably a Waid (Journey) offering. Artist Barry Kitson saw the post and sent me an email telling me how hilarious that was and that he appreciated my support of Empire. This story is funny because to prove he was the real Barry Kitson he attached a scan some original art of Batman that was to appear in the next issue. In the era of Verified Twitter accounts, this seems so antiquated. Today, I’d be retweeting the hell out of the contact with the artist!
Steve Perry Mark Waid would explore this concept further with Irredeemable (excellent but just missing the cut here) and Incorruptible, but Empire was his best take on the subject.
8. Rising Stars
Another series that took forever to finish. J. Michael Straczynski’s 24 issues of Rising Stars took ONLY six years to complete. In all fairness there was a little bit of a legal battle that caused part of the delay but JMS is known for his iceberg production. Rising Stars was the story of a generation of kids from a small town who get special powers. I loved the first six issues as much as anything I’ve ever read because it explored how people would use their powers in real life (very few became heroes or villains). The later issues are good but not great when it becomes a more conventional superpowered/murder mystery series. You should read all of the run, but will really appreciate the first trade the most. TPB one is near the top of the all-time list.
This entry is more about the Millar/Quietly run than the good-but-not-as-fun Ellis and Hitch run. To be clear, I am DEFINITELY NOT endorsing anything that came after Millar. Authority tells the story of a Justice League/Avenger class superhero team (here the Batman/Superman analogues are in a gay, committed relationship) that decides they are going to impact how the humans govern themselves, but without taking over the world. It has a lot of intelligence, but when seamlessly paired with Millar’s sense of violent, dumb fun and Frank Quietly’s amazing art, it becomes a real page turner. This exchange from the series captures what I loved about the Millar run:
OPPONENT: What kind of superhero shows up to a fight smelling like booze?
THE DOCTOR: The dangerous kind…
Yet again, publication delays diminished the enjoyment of the series for those reading monthly (which is why I switched to TPBs only), but now that it is done, you should enjoy the Ellis and REALLY enjoy the Millar trades. George RR Martin could really hang with these comics guys…
I think Alan Moore’s run on Supreme must have actually started as a bet. I’m sure one of his mates at the pub said “Alan. You are by far the greatest bard comics has ever known. I’ll bet you 50 quid that can’t take the lamest character, from the least respected creator of all time, and make it a classic…” Because that’s what happened. Supreme started life a part of the Liefeldverse as a super violent Superman stand in (very thinly veiled…). It was a big nothing from day one. Moore came in and turned the series into a treatise on the history of Superman specifically and superhero comics in general; from the Golden Age, through the Silver (where the series really shines) and even into the Image age where Moore parodies Liefeld’s ilk in his OWN book! The best Superman stories ever told can be found in two volumes under the label SUPREME. Anything else with Supreme is Image trash and should be avoided like the plague unless you just appreciate the skinny ankle art like me.
5. Next Men
So I like Liefeld art. Sue me. Another comic guilty pleasure of mine is John Byrne. I know he’s an ass, but I love his amazing pencilling/inking style paired with his Ron Howard level of good but rarely great consistency. Other than the Man of Steel reboot, this is Byrne’s greatest work. I recommend you start with standalone graphic novel called 2112 (sort of the Hobbit to Next Men’s Lord of the Rings) and then move on to the trades. Next Men revolves around five teenagers who have lived in a Edenlike dream machine only to awake in a real world lab. Each has one power (given that Byrne reinvented Superman, each has one of his core powers). TPTB chase these wide eyed teens as they experience their new surroundings. The series ended in the early 90’s with a cliffhanger, but by the time it picked back up in the 2000’s it had lost its charm and felt dated.
4. Astro City
Kurt Busiek did a “man on the street” view of the Marvel universe with Alex Ross called Marvels. While that was a good run, it paled in comparison to Astro City. In 1 to 4 issue story arcs, Busiek explored some of the most amazing corners of a superhero universe. The series shifted month to month from stories like Looney Leo (pictured above), a cartoon lion magically brought to life and forced to live as a washed up has been, to a man who has memories of a love lost in a timeline erased by a Crisis on Infinite Earth like event (Issue #0- the single best comic issue ever not written by Alan Moore). The series’ amazing art matches the tone of the first 20 or so issues (until health issues sadly prevented Busiek from reclaiming AC’s voice) : and that tone was simply “magical”!
A Second Millar entry. What Waid/Kitson touched on with Empire, Millar and team would take all the way with Wanted. Like the film adaptation, the protagonist of Wanted is a wimp who learns, that because of his estranged father, he has special abilities which allow him to join a secret society of killers. But where the film society consisted of assassins, the comic version used super villains! These baddies (stand ins for Luthor, Joker, and others) had conquered the world, wiped everyone’s memories clean of all superpowered history, and ruled the world in secret. It was a short miniseries but Millar told an amazing story. It was so good that I used it to coax Ryan back into comics after a decade away. His wife and accountant have still not forgiven me.
2. Kingdom Come
What? The #2 entry on this outside the box list features the most famous superheroes in the world? The very same corporate cash cows I ripped on in the opener? Oh Yeah! This Elseworld miniseries (which would impact the modern DCU more than most event series) chronicled the DCU in the near future after the rise of the grim and gritty heroes that Image ushered in after Watchmen and DKR. KC is known primarily for the Alex Ross painting but Mark Waid crafted a classic tale. There would be some hard feelings between Ross and Waid on who was REALLY responsible for the greatness of Kingdom Come, but I always said it was the combination of the two. Ross (whose art was and is brilliant) would limp to the barn with future projects such as Justice and JLA: Liberty and Justice, indicating that without a strong writer like Waid (or Busiek), his stuff was only pretty flip books with terrible dialogue and unpaced plotting. Besides, everyone knows the plot of KC is derivative of the unpublished treatment Twilight of the Superheroes by Alan Moore. Speaking of Mr. Moore…
Are you even a LITTLE surprised? You know this is the #1 entry of any list for which it is eligible. I don’t need to explain so I’m not going to write anything… MOORE.