The Desert Island Game: My Personal Top 20 Comic Runs Part 2

As promised/threatened, I’m back with the second half of my personal top twenty comic book runs. These are the ones that are equally awesome in my mind to the first list I posted, but for one reason or another, I couldn’t quite justify them making the top ten. They’re still great, though, and would have to accompany me to my Isle of Elba for the duration of my days on Earth, until an infection stemming from a minor cut resulted in my body becoming a pulsating bag of pus and gore and ultimately exploded like a frog in a microwave after gaining 200 pounds in excess bile weight. With that happy thought in mind, let’s get this party started!

11. The Sandman (1-75, 1 one-shot) Neil Gaiman’s epic yarn about Morpheus, the embodiment of Dream, is an exemplary run showcasing the literary heights comics can aspire to. It’s gorgeous and, despite a few somewhat dated late-’80s/early ’90s goth trappings, as timeless today as it was when first published. Didn’t make the top ten, though, because Morpheus is such an unknowable and occasionally unlikeable a character, which leaves me out in the emotional cold when I read it despite its awesomeness. To make the cut, the character himself had to have a special meaning for me personally as well as be involved in a grand tale, and Morpheus is too cold of a fish for that.

12. Ultimate Spider-Man (1-160) Brian Michael Bendis’ USM is the best Spider-Man story told since the halcyon days of Lee and Ditko. It’s a fresh take on a character that, in 2000 when this comic debuted, desperately needed a shot in the arm, having floundered for most of the previous decade. Bendis’ Peter Parker is a realistic, believeable kid, with real problems and the occasional temper-tantrum that brings the sainted Spidey down to a real level with the rest of us. Bendis’s take on classic Spider-Man foes Green Goblin, Dr. Octopus, and many more is always spot-on with the spirit of the character, even when the modern-day physical portrayal strayed far from the source material. Not on the top ten, though, for several reasons: a) having only room for one Bendis comic, I chose his Daredevil as the stronger work, b) the annoying renumbering that turned issues 135-149 into 1-15 of volume 2, and c) the seriously unfortunate choice of the inclusion of laughably bad artist David LaFuente on those renumbered issues, which turned an already-sour patch into a barely tolerable mess. Fortunately Bendis rebounded, and the book ended on an extremely high note before passing the torch on to Miles Morales.

13. The Ultimates Volumes 1-2 (1-12, 1-13) Bar none my favorite Avengers story of all time, even if they aren’t called the Avengers. Similar to the above USM, Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s The Ultimates fulfilled the early promise of Marvel’s Ultimate line and took an old concept and fired it, warp-speed, into the 21st century. The ideas of heroism, public celebrity, human frailty, and how they all intermingle lock together to bring a completely fresh-feeling look at the Avengers. And Hitch’s widescreen renderings give it a bigger-than-life feel that’s better than any summer tentpole flick (well, except for The Avengers). The action is brutal, the humor is astounding, and by gob it gave us the Samuel L. Jackson-inspired Nick Fury. The only reason it didn’t crack the top ten is because there wasn’t enough room. Well, that and Millar’s irritating overuse of pop culture reference and occasionally clunky, overly-expository dialogue.

14. Powers Volumes 1-2 (1-37, 1-30) Bendis again! I must really like this guy or something. Anyway, Michael Avon Oeming’s and his cops-and-capes crime drama is a tightly-focused story that, for these two volumes anyway, never misses a beat. In fact, the overall arc that these two volumes encompasses is so thoroughly complete, it makes volume three feel like a vestigial tail by comparison. A lot of people moaned over the revelation of Walker’s backstory, and then those same people moaned again when he regained powers in volume two, but they’re missing the point: this book is so much more than just a cop drama. It’s real, with a sense of drama and urgency and the occasionally disgustipating two-page spread of an exploded person. Didn’t make the top ten because I already had both a Bendis book in there and a crime drama in there, and both of those trumped this (although just barely).

15. Astro City (initial miniseries – the Dark Age) Kurt Busiek’s Astro City is the ultimate love letter to the superhero and all his tropes. It’s beautiful and poignant and never loses its sense of humanity. Though it’s been published in fits and starts over the last eighteen years (!!!), it still remains one of the best books on the stands, period. Didn’t crack the top ten due to space and because of the disconnect I feel with it due to its lack of consistent shipping. It’s always good in hindsight, but a new issue tends to require going back and rereading the last few issues first just so you know what the hell’s going on, which has created a mounting sense of frustration with the book for me that casts a pall over it.

16. Grant Morrison’s JLA (1-17, 22-26, 34-40, Prometheus 1-shot, plus DC 1 Million miniseries) Far and away Morrison’s funnest work. His first shot at writing mainstream superpeople was one hell of a shot heard ’round the world, as he decided to go big and definitely not go home: reuniting DC’s big seven heroes to form a “league of the gods” after several years of Justice League mediocrity was a clear notice to anyone looking that these were DC’s Biggest and Best, and you’d damn well better pay attention. There’s no lack of big-screen awesomeness here, especially anytime Batman’s around. Before he weirded us all out with his recently-wrapped monthly Batman run, here was a dark knight who was not only the smartest guy in ANY room, he was also plain scary without even trying. The threats continued to get bigger with each arc, but that didn’t stop Morrison from knocking it out of the park each time. So good, JLA struggled for the remainder of its 125-issue run as no other writer could live up to the standard Morrison set. Didn’t crack the top ten because it’s not as ingeniously inventive as Morrison’s Animal Man.

17. Swamp Thing by Alan Moore (19-58, 60-61, 63-64) One hell of a bone of contention here, because it is such a groundbreaking, revolutionary work, and there’s so much I love about it. Who doesn’t? And to be fair, I struggled with whether or not the include it in the top ten. Alan Moore elevated the art of writing comics to entirely unheard-of levels with this run, and for the most part it still holds up today. So why didn’t it crack the top ten? Because it ended on a weak note. Swamp Thing’s adventures in space grew tedious and overwritten, and as you read those issues you can’t help but feel like Moore’s drawing the story out when all you want is for Swamp Guy to be reunited with his wife, Abby. And then there’s issue sixty, which is an illustrated prose piece, and anyone who’s ever read any of Moore’s prose work knows it’s a slog to get through. Still an amazing run, but not worthy of my personal top ten.

18. Punisher MAX by Garth Ennis (1-60, various one-shots) With all due respect to every single Punisher story that came before (including Ennis’ own work with the character on the Marvel Knights line), this is the only Punisher story that matters. Ennis took a character forever trapped in dated ’80s action movie cliches, and cracked his skull open to reveal one simple truth: to be the Punisher, you’ve got to have mental issues. That’s not to imply his vision of Frank Castle is some raving lunatic. But the man is without a doubt a sociopath of the highest order. Ennis mines that truth for sixty issues, and for sixty issues only misses the beat once (with the not-a-Punisher-story “Kitchen Irish,” which is once again Ennis waxing poetic about his homeland). It’s brutal, dark, brilliant stuff. Didn’t make the top ten cut simply because Preacher and Hitman were already there, and I couldn’t justify having three works from one author in my top ten of all time. That’s a little bit like having three Beatles albums in the top five of your Top 500 Albums of All Time list: cheap. Just because you love something, doesn’t mean it has the right to elbow out other significant work.

19. Age of Apocalypse (various comics) This the one where I’m fudging my own rules a bit, as it’s a collection of comics written by different writers under the same banner, as opposed to a consecutive run my one writer. But the various AoA players wove a four-month long journey through a world without Charles Xavier, and pulled it off mightily, creating an interwoven tapestry that counts as a run in and of itself. For those four months, Marvel shifted not only their X-Men continuity but even the names of their X-Men books (Uncanny X-Men became Astonishing X-Men, Cable became X-Man, X-Force turned into Gambit and the X-Ternals, etc.) to this alternate reality. One of the few bright spots of Marvel’s ’90s output, it’s still an exciting story today thanks to the concentrated joint effort of everybody involved (even if Warren Ellis feels like he’s writing his book with a shotgun to his head). Didn’t make the top ten because when compared to Claremont’s X-Men run, well… there ain’t no comparison.

20. Daredevil by Frank Miller (168-191, “Born Again”) Despite its hefty historical value, Miller’s DD run feels a bit dated today. I still love this comic, and it’s great to revisit an era when Miller actually a) had talent, b), used that talent for good and not evil, c) didn’t portray all women as whores, and d) wasn’t using his books as a tool for propagating his extreme right-wing beliefs. All of those aspects of the latter-day Miller have really damaged my ability to enjoy even his great books, because now I can see the cracks in their surface where Miller’s assholery was shining through. But that doesn’t change the fact that this is a really, really great run, and it gave us the definitive versions of Daredevil, Kingpin, Bullseye, and introduced us to Elektra (even if her name is misspelled on the cover of her first appearance). In terms of Daredevil, it didn’t get better than this until Bendis came along and the student became the master, which is why his run is in the top ten and not Miller’s.

And that’s a wrap! There are of course many, many other great comics out there that no doubt could be included on this list… if I had read them! I’ve yet to read the Lee/Ditko Spidey run in its entirety, or the Lee/Kirby FF, or any of the Fourth World stuff. I can’t read it all, you know! Well, not yet. Someday! But until then, this list stands as my personal favorite long-form runs. The next time I play the desert island game, I’ll focus on short-form works, and all you Watchmen aficionados can breathe a sigh of relief.

Waitin’ for that sweet, sweet Obamacare,

~ILL DIABLO~

The Desert Island Game: My Personal Top 20 Comic Runs Part 1

Everyone knows the desert island game, right? “If you were stranded on a desert island, what ten albums/movies/books/porn actresses would you take with you?” It’s usually played in terms of top ten lists, but despite trying my damnedest, I couldn’t cut my list down to just ten. So instead I ballooned it to twenty! Fuck you, it’s my list, and my imaginary desert island that only Eliza Dushku and I share! A couple of ground rules, so you have an idea as to how I how I came to my list:

1. This list encompasses my personal favorite runs on a particular book, or in one case, books. It’s in no way, shape, or form intended to represent what I believe to be the greatest, most groundbreaking work the medium has ever produced. These are the books that have brought me endless hours of pleasure, and why.

2. Note that it’s a list of runs, not stories. For the purposes of this list, I’m defining “runs” as a series of consecutive issues on a particular title that were by a certain writer or writer/artist duo (with one exception, but I’ll explain that when I get to it). Although this is not always the case, it also can mean that the proprietary rights of the characters involved in the run may not belong to the writer/artist. This is also to say I’m looking at it with a view to the long run, not a miniseries, which is why you’ll find no Watchmen or Dark Knight Returns or Maus on this list. To me, those belong on a different list altogether for finite, shorter form runs, or on a cumulative greatest of all time list.

3. Time limit: The limit I set for myself was that the series had to have started no less than five years ago, which is a decent span of time to determine whether or not something does or doesn’t qualify as greatest of all time. So while Matt Fraction’s Iron Man run was one for the ages, because it began in 2008, it was ineligible.

4. The entirety of the run had to be taken into account. If something started strong, it had to end that way too, with only the occasional bump in the middle. Which is why, as much as I love Ed Brubaker’s Captain America run, its last year and half’s worth of storytelling was incredibly paltry as compared to the rest of his issues.

5. Anything that crossed into other media in order to tell its story was immediately disqualified, which basically meant Greg Rucka’s astounding Queen & Country was out of the running since its story crossed into not one but two of the author’s novels.

6. As anyone who reads this blog knows, brevity and I are not friends, so I’m splitting the list into two separate blogs in order to spare you a Xanax and me writer’s cramp.

7. Aside from the first comic listed, there’s no particular order to this except within the constraints of “top ten” and “next top ten.”  So if I absolutely, positively had to winnow the list down to just ten on pain of death, there it be.

Get it? Got it? Good! Go! Starting with my personal favorite comic of all time…

1. PREACHER (1-66, various one-shots & the Saint of Killers miniseries included) Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s ode to atheism, true love, and The Great American Western is, far and away, my personal favorite comic of all time. I can’t even begin to count how many times I’ve reread it.  It’s not just Jesse Custer’s hilarious use of The Word of God, or the insanely over the top violence, or the deep-seated love of the myth of John Wayne, or even Ennis’s angry screed against religion that do it for me. Well, okay, yes, it is those things. But there’s more! Jesse, Tulip, Cassidy, Herr Starr, the Saint of Killers, and yes, even Arseface are my favorite characters because they’re so utterly fleshed out and believable. When I first read this, I’d never read characters so realistically depicted. And the more you got to know them, the more at home you feel with them. Cassidy’s betrayal is as painful to read today as it was seventeen years ago. Tulip’s inability to love because the shadow of her father looms so large is achingly true. And the ultimate hollowness of Jesse’s “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do” attitude is every bit as true for me today as an adult as it was when I was a pissy teenager trying to find myself. This story’s about a lot of things, but at its core it’s about standing up for what you believe in and standing by your friends. I mean, yes, its antagonist is a guy whose head winds up resembling a phallus, and that’s hysterical, but the conviction behind Ennis’s words is just as resonant for me now as it was then, and will be twenty years hence. Jesse’s quest to find God gave voice to both a deep-seated mistrust of religion and an ability to look past my fears and insecurities and stand up for what I believe in. That’s why it takes the top spot, because it literally helped me become who I am today. That and Jesse telling Sheriff Root to go fuck himself using the voice of God, and the resulting hilarity of that action, are still roll-on-the-floor hilarious.

2. Claremont’s X-Men (Giant-Size X-Men #1, Uncanny X-Men #94-279, X-Men #1-3, various annuals) With all due respect to Mssrs. Lee and Kirby, all things X-Men start here. At the time, this sixteen-year run was completely unprecedented for a writer. As it stands today, it’s still impressive as all hell. But everything we know and love about the X-Men gets its (deadly) genesis here: “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” “Days of Future Past,” Wolverine, Storm, Nightcrawler, Colossus, and Kitty Pryde all have their origins etched in stone, the sad history of Xavier and Magneto’s friendship gone wrong, the debut of more classic villains than you can shake a SR-71 Blackbird at, the Mutant Massacre, the Brood saga, the Shadow King… man, I could go on and on just listing all the cool stories. (Okay, so Byrne of course gets co-writing credit for his time spent on the book, but c’mon, I’m talking about the entirety of the run here!) Despite the fact that Claremont’s overly-verbose style hasn’t always aged very well, and the fact that for some reason the strengths of his stories seemed to hinge on the strength of the artist he was working with, his overall run is overwhelmingly solid and definitive of my favorite superheroes.

3. Transmetropolitan (1-60, two one-shots) Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson’s Transmet is what would happen if Hunter S. Thompson were dropped into the future and really, really didn’t like what he saw. This comic is part social commentary, part journalism, part comedy, part tragedy, and part political thriller. Spider Jerusalem is a protagonist for the ages, a journalist hellbent on reporting the truth while verbally assaulting his filthy assistants and gobbling more drugs than any ten people should be consuming. But beneath its cynical surface lies a soft heart that beats to a core message of truth: we really are all in this together. That, and never, ever make the psychotic president of the United States angry at you.

4. Peter David’s Incredible Hulk (331-467, various annuals) The greatest Hulk run of all time just so happens to also be the most definitive for the character. Peter David gave Bruce Banner multiple person disorder as an explanation for his disparate mental personae and suddenly the Hulk went from green and dumb to grey, crafty, and awesome. It’s so definitive, it has yet to be touched even today (a problem a couple of ongoing series on this list have, more on that later). David brought more wit, smarts, pathos, emotion, and fun to the Hulk than any writer before or since. Yes, there are a few dips in overall quality here and there, but you try writing the same comic for twelve years without a few weak spots. Overall astounding despite all that, especially the two-issue finale.

5. Brian Michael Bendis’ Daredevil (Volume 2 #26-50, 56-81) There’s bringing your A-game, and then there’s this. Bendis took every single rule for how to tell a superhero story, chucked it out the window, and told a long-form Daredevil story that manages to feel more original, urgent, and relevant than Frank Miller’s seminal run (more on that later). What would really happen if a superhero’s identity got outed to the press? The fallout feels completely real. Add Alex Maleev’s astonishing art to the mix, and you have my vote for Greatest Daredevil Story of All Time.

6. 100 Bullets (1-100) Part revenge fantasy, part social commentary, part crime noir, part paranoid conspiracy. There’s no easy way to pin down Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso’s 100 Bullets, and that’s great: by defying all known genres, they effectively created one of their own, which no one else today has remotely touched. If a total stranger came up to you and gave you the ability to get away with murder scot-free in order to right a wrong in your past, could you do it? Every character in this series is posed that question, and each of their decisions regarding it puts them into play in a much larger, complex, and often convoluted tapestry. To call this one a head-spinner is underselling it, but to call it beautiful regardless is not.

7. Planetary (1-27, 3 one-shots) Warren Ellis and John Cassaday’s mash-up of every conceivable pop cultural totem known to man, from Tarzan to ’50s b-grade sci-fi flicks to the Justice League is utterly brilliant. It’s initially just a one-issue-at-a-time homage to different genres, novels, movies, or literary characters, but quickly becomes something much, much more with a brilliantly complex tapestry. It’s also a nasty bit of commentary on the domination of the superhero in the comics medium, as told with a perfect mix of both cynicism and awe that is unduplicated not only in any of Ellis’ other works, but anywhere else, period.

8. Hitman (1-60, 1 Annual, 1 2-part miniseries) Garth Ennis’ and John McCrea’s insanely brilliant, over-the-top series about a superpowered hitman named Tommy Monaghan is about as much sheer fun as you can have in a comic. It’s open and honest about its main character’s failings, but still manages to balance white-knuckle John Woo action with utterly batshit crazy rampant lunacy. Six words: “Zombie Night At the Gotham Aquarium.” ‘Nuff said.

9. Gotham Central (1-40) The perfect cop drama comes to comics. The true stylistic inheritor of TV’s “Homicide: Life on the Streets” poses a deceptively simple question: What’s it like to be a cop in a city with Batman? All of the nuance, detail, and perfectly individualized character work in the expansive cast is never, ever off its mark. Writers Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka, along with artist Michael Lark, hit the nail on the head so well that it was too smart for its audience and was cancelled after only forty issues. A shame, really, but as it stands it’s still the best depiction of the cop life ever to grace the comics page.

10. Animal Man by Grant Morrison (1-26) The story only Grant Morrison could pull off, as told with an emotional center that’s seriously lacking in a lot of his latter-day work. In Morrison’s hands, Buddy Baker is DC’s great everyman hero, the closest thing they have to an analogue to Spider-Man. The breaking of the fourth wall here is as exciting now as it was when first published. Timeless stuff.

 

And that’s it for the first ten of my Desert Island Top 20 Runs. I’ll be back tomorrow with the next ten, along with explanations for why they didn’t quite cut it to the first half of the list!

Thanks for letting me waste your time,

~ILL DIABLO~