The 10 Greatest Comic Book Stories of All-Time
And why "Daredevil" #181 is the O.G. of all things sublime.
First of all, here’s to a brilliant 2018. I wish everyone health, happiness and a world of success.
That said …
To the business at hand. There are few things more polarizing in the ATG (All Things Geek) universe than the dreaded list. The Top 10 This, the Top 10 That …
Why does this guy think he knows better than anyone else, anyway?
So let’s just say I am The Watcher. I see all. I know all. (Not really, in either case; I’m just some random Los Angeles writer-producer who loves lists.)
We’ll go from there.
To the Top Ten Comic Book Stories EVER, in descending numerical order …
10. “Days of Future Past,” from “The Uncanny X-Men” #141-142.
Before the well-received 2014 Bryan Singer film were the comic issues from 1981. And what issues they were. “The Uncanny X-Men” veritably revolutionized the industry in the late-70s and 80s. Many of the issues featured hard, intelligent science fiction stories of the likes which certainly existed, but were not “in vogue” during that period. Alternating between 1980 and the future dystopia of 2013 (itself, a pause-worthy note), the story shared history-altering elements with Harlan Ellison’s classic “Star Trek” original series episode, “The City on the Edge of Forever.” In the X-Men’s future, mutants are incarcerated in internment camps run by Sentinels. It is up to Kitty Pride, to then not the most popular Marvel character, to prevent a critical event in mutant-human relations and thereby alter the future. The issues were particularly well-received, and cemented the comics’ reputation as something truly special. A reputation, incidentally, which began with our #9 choice …
9. “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” from “The Uncanny X-Men” #129-138.
Forget the awful Brett Ratner film, “X-Men: The Last Stand” (please, I beg you to forget it if you have not read these comics). Fox is giving the story a second shot with Simon Kinberg’s “X-Men: Dark Phoenix,” so there’s still hope. For now. Nonetheless, the comics’ saga of Jean Grey - the titular “Dark Phoenix” – and the Phoenix Force is a tale of love, power, corruption, and a heart wrenching fall. Rarely have comics been so emotionally raw. This epic deserves all the kudos it’s ever received, and then some.
8. “Maus: A Survivor’s Tale,” a graphic novel by Art Spiegelman.
Originally published in 1986 (having been serialized first beginning in 1980 in “Raw” magazine), this legendary Pulitzer-Prize-winning masterwork illustrated the relatively simple tale of Spiegelman interviewing his dad, a Polish Jew and survivor of the Holocaust, about his wartime experiences. In the graphic novel proper, the story was recounted with the Jews portrayed as mice, and other Poles and Germans as pigs or cats. The metaphors were stunning, and the reception strong enough (a ridiculous understatement) to warrant a sequel. “Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles Began” was published in 1991 and continued the story to further acclaim. Both are must-reads, and should be required reading in schools worldwide.
7. “Old Man Logan.”
“Old Man Logan,” featuring an aged Wolverine from alternate Earth-807128, debuted as a character during Mark Millar’s acclaimed “Fantastic Four” run, and proceeded as the featured storyline of “Wolverine” 66-72, ending with “Wolverine Giant-Size Old Man Logan” in 2009. In a world where superheroes have been long extinct, the former Wolverine accepts a job to deliver a package to the capital of “New Babylon.” While away on his quest, he discovers that the “Hulk Gang” has murdered his family. His claws, for the first time in years, will be unleashed. The Hugh Jackman film, “Logan,” though not nearly as in-depth as the comics run (impossible for a two-hour film) was nonetheless one of my five favorite movies of the year. A western, for all intents, at its finest, with the usual themes of revenge and redemption. In either form, this is magnificent, archetypal storytelling.
6. “The Master Race,” from “Impact” #1.
EC Comics, the notorious 1950s comics publisher based known for their groundbreaking horror comics (“Tales from the Crypt,” “Vault of Horror”) was no stranger to controversy. Publisher William M. Gaines, having faced Senate Subcommittee hearings for perpetuating juvenile delinquency through his often graphic comic book stories, is rarely given credit for his featuring tales tackling social issues. Drug abuse, racism … and in the case of “The Master Race,” the Holocaust. The story is but eight-pages long, and details what happens when a Jew, tormented by a Nazi, meet years after the war. Thing is … no, can’t do it. The ending is a shocker. For those of you who don’t touch anything from this era, you’re doing yourselves a great disservice. “Master Race” truly earns its place on this list.
5. “Snowbirds Don’t Fly,” from “Green Lantern/Green Arrow” #85-86, was released in 1971 to a stunned readership.
Neal Adams may be a master illustrator, but what he had written here with Dennis O’Neil (with artwork also by Dick Giordano), became a pioneering effort for one of the “Big-Two” comic companies. DC was not the first to feature drug abuse in one of its books, but it did beat Marvel to the punch. Green Arrow’s protégé Roy Harper (“Speedy”) is discovered to be a heroin addict. The fallout that ensues redefines the nature of “hero,” and “victim.” “Green Lantern/Green Arrow” was set to be canceled; as such, the creators had nothing to lose by taking the risk. It was, certainly, a risk that continues to pay off, as “Snowbirds Don’t Fly” remains one of the most acclaimed comic book stories ever.
4. “Demon in a Bottle,” from “Iron Man” #120-128, was published in 1979.
Nothing more, or less, than Tony Stark, the true identity behind one of Marvel’s preeminent heroes, dealing with his alcoholism, his battles with industrialist foe Justin Hammer, and the loss of Stark International. In the context of a Marvel comic, the ongoing storyline may have been effective, but the human interest aspect was the trump card. Stark was a human being, after all, and many could identify with his plight.
3. “The Dark Knight Returns,” by Frank Miller.
What more, really, needs to be said? Released in 1986, not only did this iconic graphic novel, featuring a decades-older Batman, forever alter the comics world, it did the same for feature films and television. “Dark” heroes became okay (though, the current DC film universe, with the exception of “Wonder Woman,” may have veered too far in that direction), and new vulnerabilities came to the fore. Suddenly, the perception that superhero comic books were for kids – “funny books” – was a thing of the past. “The Dark Knight Returns” is a masterpiece. Which brings us to … its cohort:
2. “Watchmen,” by Alan Moore, with art by Dave Gibbons, published in 1986 and 1987.
The timing of its release, right alongside “The Dark Knight Returns,” further redefined the industry. In an effort to reflect contemporary concerns, retired superheroes were part of everyday life. These costumed heroes were responsible for the outcome of many 20th Century events - the Vietnam War and Nixon’s Presidency among them – until The Keene Act outlawed them due to conflict with both the general public and the authorities. The ensuing story features two of these heroes operating as government-sanctioned agents – the Comedian and Dr. Manhattan – while a third, Rorschach, operates in shadow on his own. Those who have retired will investigate the murder of one of their brethren while uncovering a vast conspiracy with worldwide implications ... and it only progresses from there. The graphic novel was selected as one of “Time’s 100 Best Novels” list, and it remains the standard-bearer of its genre.
1. “The Death of Elektra,” from “Daredevil” #181.
I may be slammed for this choice, considering everything that preceded. All I’m going to say is “Daredevil” #181 remains my all time favorite comic book issue ever. Period. End of story. Read it, if you have not. Frank Miller and Klaus Janson, you are gods to me.
Honorable Mentions, “The Killing Joke,” “All Star Superman,” and Alan Moore, Stephen R. Bissette’s and John Totleben’s “Swamp Thing.”
This was a particularly fun list to put together. This was also a particularly tough list to put together. For anyone who still believes comics are exclusively for kids, well, you may not be nearly as well-read as you believe.
Happy New Year, though … :)