Soon, I hope, issue Number 2 of my arc on League of Volunteers will be hitting the stands and will shortly thereafter, I have no doubt*, be acclaimed as the greatest comic ever. Before that happens, let’s take a look at some of the other greatest comics ever, before they are consigned to the ash pile of history.
So here is The Unshaved Mouse’s Top 17 Greatest Comics of all Time. Why 17? Because I wrote the list and then realized I’d left off Bone and Maus (which would have been both hugely unfair and, in the case of Maus, also weirdly ironic).
#17 Wolverine-Enemy of the State
Writer- Mark Miller
Artist-John Romita Junior
Okay, first of all, do not consider the fact that Mark Millar has so many entries on this list to be a blanket endorsement of the man’s oeuvre. Mark Millar has written some god-awful garbage over the years. The Unfunnies? Dire. Wanted? Despicable. That Wolverine story where he sends Logan to Auschwitz and where the Germans keep trying to kill him in the furnaces but can’t all so that Millar can make thuddingly awful comparisons between the Nazis and the Bush administration? Not my cup of tea. I’m sorry, this was supposed to be a recommendation, wasn’t it? Yes, believe it or not, despite all that Mark Millar can and has produced some of the very best comics of the post millenium period. Millar is one of those rare writers who actually does better work within the contraints of a mainstream title. With tight editorial oversight he tends not to give in to his worst instincts. Enemy of the State is one of Millar’s “pleasantly nasty” stories, it’s grim and violent but it never makes you feel dirty for reading it (well, almost never). The story begins with Wolverine being ambushed and killed by a secret cabal of ninjas who then proceed to resurrect him, brainwash him and set him loose on the entire Marvel Universe of heroes. It’s a great showcase for just how dangerous the little Canadian actually is, and just an absolute thrill ride. John Romita’s artwork is just bursting with energy and compliments the story perfectly. It also has a scene where Wolverine attacks the Fantastic Four and gets stopped cold by Sue Storm of all people. The scene where she puts forcefields in his lungs, blinds him by turning his retinas invisible and calmly explaines that if ever comes after her family again she will end him…that’s what finally convinced me that there are really no bad characters, and that any of them can be interesting when written well.
# 16 All-Star Superman
Writer- Grant Morrison
Artist- Frank Quietly
My relationship with Grant Morrison is…well, “love/hate” is too strong. I have a “respect/am irritated by” relationship with Grant Morrison. On the one hand, nobody, and I mean nobody, can come up with big, crazy, comic-book worthy concepts like he can. When most writers are trying to make movies or TV shows that happen to be drawn, he truly grasps the limitless potential of the medium and pushes the envelope out so far that it needs long distance postage. On the other hand, his dialogue can be head-scratchingly bizarre and littered with non-sequiters and his narratives keep jumping around like Yorkshire terriers on crack.
And wow, this was also supposed to be a recommendation, wasn’t it? Sorry. All-Star Superman is Morrison’s best comic in my opinion, and one of the very best Superman stories ever done. Superman is a notoriously difficult character to write, and not, as some people are wont to claim, because the super-powered alien who spends his days flying around fighting monsters and giant robots is “boring”. Too often Superman writers try to make the world around the character too mundane, too like our own. The upshot of this is that there’s very little outside of kryptonite that can pose a challenge to him. Morrison understands that it’s not the character’s power that’s so appealing, but his heroism, and pits him against the craziest, most out-there forces from the Silver Age of comics. With Frank Quietly’s gorgeous art, the series reads like a remarkably lucid acid trip, but one grounded in the warmth and essential decency of the title character. Also, as someone who is just sick to death of re-reading Superman’s origin story, Morrison’s one page, four panel, eight word summation was just beautiful.
#15 Lucky Luke: Dalton City
Artist- Maurice De Bevere
Goscinney’s other creation, Asterix, has mostly overshadowed Lucky Luke in the English speaking world and that’s a damn shame. The Lucky Luke series is a witty and affectionate parody of Westerns with great gags, and De Bevere’s beautiful, poster-paint artwork just pops with energy. Dalton City is one of the relatively few Lucky Luke stories to have been translated into English, and for my money, the best of the bunch.
Writer- Alan Moore
Artist- Dave Gibbons
Yeah, that’s right! Number 14! Got a problem with that?
Is it great? Yes. Does it live up to the hype? No, but then nothing could. Is it perfect? No, it’s really not and while I think that Zack Snyder is, if not Satan, then definitely one of his lieutenants, the changes he made to the ending for the movie were absolutely the right call.
But it is a phenomenal work, no question, an excellent deconstruction of the superhero myth, a hugely influential milestone in the history of the medium and a beautiful looking comic full of little details that just jump out at you after the third, fourth and fiftieth reading. It’s the comic equivalent of those novels you just get lost in and yes, it largely deserves its reputation as the Greatest Comic Ever. So why so low on the list? Well, this is just list of my personal favourites and in my honest opinion, Alan Moore has done much better work (yes, the Greatest Comic Ever is one of his B-Sides).
#13 Fantastic Four
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Jack Kirby
Short of Siegel and Schuster’s original Superman story, I’d be hard pressed to think of any comic that had a bigger impact on the superhero genre than this one. Lee and Kirby’s FF was the big bang of the modern Marvel Universe, introducing literally hundreds of characters, concepts and settings that are still being used today. Jack Kirby’s artwork in his prime is a thing to behold, at once beautifully detailed but also crackling with energy. Many artists of the nineties Image Era like Rob Liefeld idolised Kirby, and tried to capture the same franctic, kinetic vibe, while forgetting that what made Kirby great was not just his style but his substance. He was a technically phenomenal penciller. Stan Lee, too, was never better than on this book, investing each of his characters with a distinct voice (something of a novelty at the time) and infusing the whole shebang with his trademark New York sass.
And all the fanboys will look up at me and scream “TAKE IT OFF THE LIST!”
And I’ll look down and whisper… “…no.”
This…this is not going to be well received. Civil War, Marvel’s big event comic of 2006, is not popular in many quarters of the internet. The basic setup is this: After a young, inexperienced superhero team called the New Warriors gets caught up in a battle that results in a school getting blown up, the US Government passes a law forcing all superheroes to surrender their secret identities and register as government employees or risk going to jail. The superhero community is split down the middle with Captain America leading a resistance movement against the law, and Iron Man leading the heroes who choose to obey Uncle Sam. A LOT of fans hate this storyline. New Warriors fans hate the way it made their favourite team look like reckless jackasses and Iron Man fans…well I don’t think the word “hate”, poor weak thing that it is, really does their feelings justice. The reason being that, to all intents and purposes, Iron Man is the villain of this piece, willingly turning against former friends and allies at the behest of the US government. But that’s one of the reasons I love it. Most big events will get all the heroes in a big field where they fight a load of villains, someone will die who will probably be resurrected in a few months time, and everyone goes home, the status quo not so much as nudged. Civil War took risks. For starters, there is no right or wrong here. The anti-reg side are perfectly right to worry that they will lose their autonomy and become tools of the federal government if they sign up, and the pro-reg side are right in thinking that the public will continue to hate and fear them unless there’s some kind of accountability and government oversight. And what made Civil War so bold was that at the end, one side loses and one side wins, and the whole Marvel Universe is radically changed after it. As for the “character assassination” of Iron Man? Please. The guy started out as a weapons manufacturer for the US Military and then served as the Secretary for Defence.
Iron Man has always been The Man.
# 11 Batman: Court of Owls
Writer- Scott Snyder
Artist- Greg Capullo
After 75 years of Batman stories it’s a rare thing when a new villain appears on the scene and actually feels like a real, legitimate threat. The Court of Owls is a secret society of blue-bloods that has secretly ruled Gotham since its very founding and they have decided to show Brue Wayne/Batman just who really owns “his” city. This is one of the most recent stories on this list (it’s only three years old) so unlike the others it’s difficult to gauge just how influential this will be in the history of the Batman mythos. But I’m plonking my chips on the table that this is going to be remembered as one of the all time great Batman stories. Why? Great writing. Great artwork. Great atmosphere. Great story. Sorry, sometimes it really just is that simple. This is one of those rare comics where every single person who worked on it seems to have brought their A game. And one issue of Batman wandering alone and delusional in a seemingly endless maze constructed for him by the Owls has to be seen to be believed. It involves one of the most inventive and groundbreaking uses of the medium to really bring the reader into Bruce’s delirious headspace.
# 10 Red Son
Writer- Mark Millar
Artist- Dave Jonson/Killian Plunkett
In Soviet Russia, the everyman is super! Red Son is an alternate universe story that asks, what if instead of landing in Kansas, the rocket that transported the infant Superman to Earth instead landed in a farming collective in Ukraine? The story then follows young Kal-El as he is raised under the rule of a very different Man of Steel: Stalin. This Superman, while in many ways still the same decent country boy we know and love, is far more ready and willing to directly interfere in the day to day lives of the inhabitants of earth, resulting in him coming to rule a global communist utopia with a dark underbelly. It’s a clever, complex story with lovely artwork from Dave Jonson that makes the most of the new, unique world created by one small change.
# 9 Astonishing X-Men
Writer: Joss Whedon
Artist: John Cassady
Joss Whedon can do no wrong!
Joss Whedon has a helluva batting average!
And his run on Astonishing X-Men was…what’s the word I’m looking for? “Uncanny”. That’s it. Whedon took over the X-Men with a bold new vision: What if, and hear me out here ‘cos this is going to sound crazy, but what if instead of wearing black leather and trying to kill each other, the X-Men actually put on costumes and acted like superheroes? Novel idea, big payoff. Whedon’s run on Astonishing is hands down the best X-Men story I’ve ever read, and if you’re a Whedon fan you owe it to yourself to check it out, great gags, lots of feels and some of the most pitch perfect chracaterisation you’ll see. Oh, and props to Whedon for giving Cyclops his balls back. That was nice of him.
# 8 League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
Publisher: America’s Best Comics
Writer: Alan Moore
Artist: Kevin O’Neill.
It’s one of those “why didn’t I think of that?” ideas, brilliant in inception, obvious in retrospect. Take characters from the adventure literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and put them together on a Justice League style super-team. The original team, Mina Murray (Dracula), Alan Quatermain (King Solomon’s Mines), Henry Jekyll/Edward Hyde, Nemo (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) and Hawley Griffin (The Invisible Man) is assembled by British Intelligence to fight the forces of evil through a combination of extreme violence and good manners. By turns hilarious, thrilling and horrifying, the narrative twists and turns and always engages thanks to Moore’s writing and O’Neill’s gorgeously, grotesquely detailed artwork. Word of advice though, the series peaks with the Martian Invasion storyline and quickly goes south after that as Moore leaves the Victorian setting aside and brings the action further into the twentieth century. The premise quickly starts to collapse in on itself as Moore tries to have seemingly every work of fiction ever written exist simultaneously which results in absurdities like 1984’s Ingsoc rising to power and then quickly being overthrown in a few years. Which…no. Just no.
So yeah, best stick to the first few volumes. Still though, it could have been worse. They could have made a movie of it. My God, can you imagine? That would have been awful. *eye twitch*.
# 7: Daredevil
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Artist: Alex Maleev
Daredevil has all the luck. I mean, sure, he was blinded and lost his father at a young age and things just went steadily downhill from there but as a character Daredevil has attracted more consistently excellent creative teams than pretty much any other superhero I can think of. Daredevil has been on a hot streak now for well over a decade, but for my money the best run of the character has been Bendis and Maleev’s. I love Bendis’ writing and he’s always at his best with crime stories. Bendis brings Daredevi right down to street level and throws the character’s entire life into disarray by having his secret identity outed to the tabloids. Suddenly, every supervillain in the Marvel universe knows Matt Murdock’s home address. Bendis brings in an entire rogues gallery of classic Daredevil villains and supporting characters, Bullseye, Elektra, the Kingpin and Black Widow as Murdock tries desperately to navigate new and dangerously unfamiliar terrain. But better than Bendis’ plotting is Maleev’s superb, photorealistic artstyle. Every panel is just a work of art. Gorgeous.
# 6 Ultimate Spider-Man
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Artist: Mark Bagley
Conversely, if there was ever a fictional character whose luck in the real world mirrors that on the page, it’s Spider-man. On any list of the very worst comic book stories, poor Spidey will be massively over-represented. His parents are robots. His dead girlfriend secretly had an affair with his worst enemy, gave birth to twins and now those twins want to kill him. He made a deal with the devil and now he’s not married anymore. He’s a clone. He’s not a clone. Wait, yes he is. Maybe. (That last one took TWO YEARS to come to its gripping conclusion). Poor Spidey. It’s little wonder then that in 2000, Marvel essentially decided to start over with the character in a new universe free of the stupidity that had gone on before. This Peter Parker would be fifteen years old, still in school and we’d see him becoming Spider-man from the beginning, fighting new and re-imagined versions of his classic enemies. Expectations for the new series were not high. For starters, Marvel had already tried this before with “Spider-man: Chapter 1” and that had been a massive bust. Secondly, no one knew who Bendis was back then and lastly, Mark Bagley, while he had certainly done fantastic work on Spider-man, had no interest in the series and essentially had to be threatened with a blacklisting by Marvel to do the project. So. Premise that had already failed before. Novice writer. Reluctant artist. Must have been awful right?
Bendis and Bagley went on to form the longest running partnership in comics history, introducing a whole new generation to the character and producing hands down the best Spider-man stories since Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s original run. It just works. Everything Bendis needs to do, high stakes action, comedy, teen romance and angst, he does superbly and Mark Bagley draws some of the best, most expressive faces of any artist in the business. Seriously, there are entire panels with just characters looking at each other and their facial expressions tell the entire story without even needing dialogue. If you want to recommend someone a series as an entry point into superhero comics, tell them to start with issue one and keep going till they hit the end.
# 5: The Killing Joke
Writer: Alan Moore
Artist: Brian Bolland
If Batman is still being read another 75 years from now this will still probably be considered the greatest Batman story ever told. Intent on proving that madness is the only sane response to the world around him, the Joker shoots Commissioner Gordon’s daughter, paralysing her (and possibly worse) and kidnaps the old man, subjecting him to psychological torture to try and drive him insane. In flashback, we’re told the Joker’s origin (maybe) which reveals him as once being an ordinary, decent guy who was driven insane by bereavement and some heavy duty chemicals. Joker’s point, as he explains to Batman, is that everyone is just “one bad day” away from being like him. It sounds dark, and it certainly is that, but ultimately Moore’s story is a defence of common human decency and resilience. For all that the Joker does to him, Gordon never breaks. When Batman rescues him, the Commissioner tells him “Bring him in. Our way.” Gordon refuses to let the Joker bring him down to his level. The world is full of good people, and ultimately people like the Joker will always be freaks.
Writer and Artist: Art Spiegelman
The first graphic novel to ever win a Pulitzer, Maus is not simply one of the all time great comics, but one of the most vital works to emerge from humanity’s darkest hour. Cartoonist Art Spiegelman transcribes his father Vladek’s survival of the holocaust almost word for word and re-tells it through a simple visual metaphor, Jews as mice and the Nazis as cats. Interwoven with Vladek’s tale is Art’s own tale of the creation of the book, showing how the work we are now reading came to be, and detailing in often painful detail his prickly, contentious relationship with his father. One of the great tragedies of the book (and Lord knows this book is not wanting for tragedy) is seeing the contrast between the courageous, good-hearted Vladek of the forties and the bitter, miserly and often downright unpleasant old man he eventually became. As Spiegelman shows, for survivors like Vladek, and even for their children like Art, the holocaust never really ended and continues to cast a long, long shadow.
Maus is not a fun book, but it is an endlessly fascinating and engrossing one, and one shot through with jet-black humour. One moment sticks out for me, roughly halfway through the book, when Vladek finally arrives at Auschwitz.
“And here” Says Vladek, who was already been hunted, frozen, starved, chased by dogs and shot at, “my troubles began.”
Publisher: Cartoon Books
Artist and Writer: Jeff Smith
Whenever a friend of mine is going on a long journey, and I don’t know when I’ll see them again, I give them a copy of Jeff Smith’s epic Bone. It’s a good book to keep you company. The characters are all written so well and distinctly that you can hear their voices perfectly. It begins as a simple cartoon of three strange white creatures, the title character and his cousins Foney Bone and Smiley Bone, banished from their village into a dark forest. As they meet more and more denizens of the forest the story begins to weave into an intense, multi-layered epic tale of good versus evil. Jeff Smith makes the whole thing seem effortless and it’s one of the most purely satisfying and enjoyable stories I’ve ever read.
# 2: From Hell
Writer: Alan Moore
Artist: Eddie Campbell
Now Alan, c’mon. Other people need to use the list too. A list of all time great comics could realistically be populated entirely by Alan Moore, and this, in my humble opinion, is the crowning achievement of a career that is almost wall to wall crowning achievements. Meticulously researched and packed to the brim with historical detail, Moore takes the Jack the Ripper killings and crafts a story that is, more than anything else, the Hamlet of the comic book medium, casting artistic light on seemingly every conceivable topic; violence, crime, class, gender, mysticism, symbolism and the elusive nature of objective truth. In his afterword, Moore describes the killings as a Koch’s snowflake, seemingly discrete, limited events in space and time that still break and spilt into ever increasing, dizzying complexity. Quite simply, a masterwork.
# 1 Saga
Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Artist: Fiona Staples
I’m aware that my list is very “now-centric”. I’ve recommended only one comic from the Silver Age (two if you count Lucky Luke) and absolutely nothing from the Golden Age. Most of my choices were released after the turn of the millennium. That probably just reflects the fact that I only really started reading comics in my teens, and now I take that to its logical extreme. Saga is not only the most recent of all the comics on this list, it’s not even finished yet. In that light, it seems ridiculous to give it my vote for greatest comic of all time, when the story hasn’t even been completed. Don’t care. I’m calling it. Saga. Saga Saga Saga.
Saga tells the tale of a universe riven by a war between Landfall, the largest planet in the galaxy populated by people with wings and Wraith, its moon which is inhabited by horned wizards. Two soldiers on opposite sides, Alana and Marko, fall in love and have a baby. And that’s all you’re getting. I’m not giving anything else away. Just read it. Just read it because it is beautiful and good and it will make you want to be a better person. Read it because it is filthy and profane and beautifully innocent. Read it because there is not a single panel on it that was not crafted with love. Read it because it is gut-bustingly hilarious. Read it because it has a cat that knows whenever people are lying. Read it because there is literally nothing else like it out there.
Just read it.
Just. Read it.
Neil Sharpson aka The Unshaved Mouse is a playwright, blogger and comic book writer living in Dublin. The blog updates with a new animated movie review every second Thursday. He’s also serialising his novel The Hangman’s Daughter with a new chapter every Saturday. Like Unshaved Mouse? Let the good people at the Blog Awards Ireland know what’s what by voting for me HERE.
*I may actually have some doubts about this.