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,