SIXTEEN STEPS TOWARD A SUPERHERO CANON
Here’s a little game you can play at home, and it goes like this: If you had to tell the history of superhero comics using only four stories from each of the four eras (Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Modern Ages), what stories would you choose and why?
First, some ground rules, of the “Highlander” variety, to showcase the diversity of comic book history and to make it a bit more challenging:
- You cannot pick more than one story featuring the same character (it’s okay if you have a Batman story and a Justice League story, for example, but you can’t have a Golden Age Batman Story and a Silver Age one).
- You cannot pick more than one story featuring the same writer.
- You cannot pick more than one story featuring the same artist.
- You cannot pick an entire story arc, or an entire mini-series. Each story must be a single issue or less (although that doesn’t mean the story is concluded in that single issue, necessarily).
While these rules may seem arbitrary, well, the whole damn thing is arbitrary (why only four stories per era? Just because I say so, that’s why). But the point of the exercise itself isn’t arbitrary, because what you get at the end is a kind of makeshift Superhero Comics Canon — an elite “Best Of” list that considers historical and aesthetic importance. You can’t really just make a list and say, “this is the Canon.” Canons evolve over time depending on changing tastes and cultural forces beyond our control. But think of it this way: if you could suggest a Canon–an incomplete one, perhaps, but a starting point — these sixteen stories would be on it. These sixteen stories are important to superhero comic book history, and they’re strange and wonderful, and everyone interested in the genre should read them. That’s what you’d be saying by making your list, and that’s what I’m saying by making mine.
So, go make your list and come back. Or, read my list and my explanations and tell me how wrong I am. Or, read my list, then go track down all of these stories that you haven’t yet read, and tell me how right I am. Or all of the above.
By the way, I’m also going to try my best to avoid the obvious picks — like “Action Comics” #1 or “Showcase” #4 — whenever possible. My intention here is to spotlight exemplars of each era, not necessarily the first appearances of characters or creative teams. That would be too easy. And keep in mind that these aren’t necessarily my favorite sixteen stories. These are the sixteen stories that, as a whole, tell the tale of the American superhero comic book.
The Great and Somewhat Arbitrary Superhero Comic Book Canon
PART ONE: THE GOLDEN AGE
“Untitled Superman Story,” from “Action Comics” #8 (January 1939), by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster: Oh, how far Superman has come since the Golden Age! How often do we see Superman punching slums anymore? Not very often, right? But that’s what he does in “Action Comics” #8. Not slum lords. He doesn’t punch them. He punches the actual slums, knocking down the poorly constructed buildings with his fists of fury. This story features characters named Gimpy and Box-Ears, and if that doesn’t set the mood, how about the bit of dialogue from Superman after he grabs a juvenile delinquent from an approaching police officer: “You can’t have him,” says Superman, “he’s mine.” It’s the classic Joe Shuster look — squinty eyes, strongman outfit, sketchy chest shield — and the classic Jerry Siegel portrayal of Superman as a champion of the common man who solves problems with lots of punches. In the story, he realizes that the local juvenile delinquents are not really to blame for their dalliance with crime — it’s the fault of the poor living conditions they face. So he defies the local and federal authorities — yes, this Superman was a wanted criminal — and destroys all of the slums, forcing the mayor to erect beautiful new tenement buildings in their place. This story embodies the promise of the Superman character: he can make the world a better place, no matter how ridiculous his methods. Also, this issue of “Action Comics” not only doesn’t feature Superman on the cover, it neglects to even mention his appearance at all. That was typical for the series in those early days. Superman appeared on a few covers, but for the first couple of years, “Action Comics” was just as likely to feature some generic, historical-looking characters locked in battle on the covers. Superman may have been the breakout star, but you wouldn’t have known it by looking at the covers back then.
“Untitled Hugo Strange Story,” from “Batman” #1 (Spring 1940), by Bill Finger and Bob Kane: This story inspired a six-part Matt Wagner “remake” a couple of years ago, but the original story is even more bizarre than the one Wagner told. It’s a prototypical Batman story (which is one of the reasons I selected it), with Batman’s costumed acrobatics, super-science skills, and gadgetry. Even though it’s a very early Batman story, it embodies his transition from moody, noir character to more traditional superhero. It also features the Batplane, and a very different moral code than we see in Batman comics today. As Batman darts through the sky in his plane, he pumps hot lead into the bad guys’ truck, saying, “Much as I hate to take human life. I’m afraid this time it’s necessary.” The Golden Age Batman had no qualms about using firearms, apparently — or, he didn’t develop those qualms for a couple of years, anyway. The story ends with one of Hugo Strange’s giant monster men climbing to the tallest building as the Batplane zooms around him. The “King Kong” allusion is unmistakable, demonstrating that the influence of the cinema has always been explicit in superhero comics.
“Untitled Fish-Men Story,” from “More Fun Comics” #65 (March 1941), by Gardner Fox and Howard Sherman: This Dr. Fate story is probably my all-time favorite Golden Age tale, largely because it’s artist Howard Sherman at the height of his powers, it’s Dr. Fate before he was reduced to a second-rate Superman clone when his mask was reduced in size, and it’s Gardner Fox doing H. P. Lovecraft. The “Fish-Men” of the title are from “Nyarl-Amen,” and, in the illustrations by Sherman, they are shown as wonderfully naive-looking pink and purple humanoids, with scaley shorts and fish heads, for, well, heads. It’s as if Fox’s script called for “horrible monsters from the deep” and Sherman drew muscle-men with guppy heads. The story is that adorable mixture of Golden Age innocence and bloodthirstiness as Dr. Fate doesn’t hesitate to destroy the entire culture of these underwater denizens.
“Slippery Eall,” from “The Spirit” (November 30, 1947), by Will Eisner: It’s impossible to make a list like this and not include Will Eisner, and pretty much any story from his post-war years would fit in this obligatory “Spirit” slot, but I like “Slippery Eall” for a lot of reasons. First, it’s formally experimental, with word balloon positioning as a method of placing characters in time and space, and with a final image that echoes the opening image (it’s the kind of stuff Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons swiped for their much acclaimed work in the 1980s). Second, it’s a good example of Eisner’s penchant for caricature — there’s Dean Martin shaking hands with Peter Lorre in the prison cell. Third, it’s a great example of pacing, as Eisner uses silent panels of varying sizes to show the drama of the prison break. Fourth, it features very little Ebony White. He’s there, in a panel on the last page — just enough of him to see the racism of the time, but not enough of him to completely sour the story. The Spirit is really only a superhero because of his tiny domino mask, but any excuse to put Eisner on this list is a good one as far as I’m concerned.
PART TWO: THE SILVER AGE
“Superduperman!” from “Mad” #4 (April-May 1953), by Harvey Kurtzman and Wally Wood: I know what you’re thinking. “How is ‘Superduperman!’ an example of the Silver Age, if the Silver Age didn’t start until a few years later, with ‘Showcase’ #4?” Well, I think the Silver Age actually starts with the EC Comics stuff. Usually that work is lumped into its own separate category, and since barely any of it was related to the superhero genre, it’s easy to ignore. But you can’t ignore “Superduperman!” and that’s why it’s on this list. “Superduperman!” is, of course, a parody of Superman and a satire of the conventions of the genre. It’s overloaded with gags, and it provides more insight into the Superman/Lois Lane/Clark Kent dynamic than all of the Golden Age Superman stories combined. It also features Captain Marbles, who speaks the magical word “Shazoom” (which, for the record, stands for Strength, Health, Aptitude, Zeal, Ox: Power Of, Ox: Power of Another, and Money!). I mentioned Alan Moore in my discussion of “The Spirit,” but “Superduperman!” is probably the biggest influence on Moore’s career. There might never have been a Modern Age, as we know it, without this Kurtzman/Wood collaboration.
“The Brotherhood of Evil,” from “The Doom Patrol” #86 (March 1964), by Arnold Drake and Bruno Premiani: Above all, the Silver Age was an era of superhero teams, and what team was more perfectly deranged than the Doom Patrol? Just think about the cover to “Doom Patrol” #86 and mentally check off its areas of greatness. Superhero team spying on villains through super-computer technology: check. One member of team encased in bandages because he cannot survive without them: check. Another member of the team a human brain in a robot body: check. On the viewscreen, another human brain bubbling in a super-science broth: check. Gorilla with a machine gun: check. The X-Men may have become the superstars of the freaks-with-superpowers sub-genre, but the Doom Patrol, with the gorgeous artwork of Bruno Premiani and the berserk scripting of Arnold Drake, will always best represent the Silver Age weirdness to me.
“The Super-Moby Dick of Space,” from “Adventure Comics” #332 (May 1965), by Edmond Hamilton and John Forte: This slot could easily have been given to a Justice League story (although Gardner Fox wrote most of them, and he’s already represented on the list), but I’d rather have a Legion of Super-Heroes story here, anyway. The Legion was the first super-team of the Silver Age, and by the mid 1960s, under the guidance of space opera genius Edmond Hamilton, the Legion had blossomed into something crazy wonderful. I suppose one of the issues from the “Death of Lightning Lad” saga would have been a more “important” selection, but in my mind, nothing can top “The Super-Moby Dick of Space.” It not only has a giant space whale, but it has Lightning Lad accidentally zapping his own arm off (his lightning bounces off the space-whale’s body, and become “tinged with some terrible green poison). But it’s okay, because future-science is on the job, and he returns with a robot arm and an Ahab-like quest for revenge. (By the way, Edmond Hamilton’s wife, Leigh Brackett, later went on to script a little movie called “The Empire Strikes Back” which ends with Luke Skywalker getting a robot hand. Coincidence?) The story ends when Lightning Lad finds out that the Super-Moby Dick was actually a tiny little creature, artificially enlarged by unrestrained science. The Silver Age loved its science. And giant space whales.
“The Final Chapter,” from “Amazing Spider-Man” #33 (February 1966), by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko: You can’t ignore the Marvel melodrama, and this is probably the best single-issue example of everything Marvel was all about in the Silver Age. It has that multi-page sequence where Ditko increases the panel size incrementally until Spider-Man bursts forth from under the heavy machinery in a gorgeous splash page. It’s a famous sequence for a reason — it not only shows Ditko’s mastery of storytelling, but it symbolizes the weight of the world on Spider-Man. The splash page doesn’t really look like Ditko’s style at all — it looks more like Gil Kane, and I wonder if Ditko was inspired by one of the Kane poses from a DC book of the period–but it’s still an impressive moment in Marvel history. But readers often forget that the machinery bit is early in the comic, and Lee and Ditko continue to escalate the conflict page by page. He escapes the machinery, then he’s drowning, then he’s grabbed by underwater bad guys, then he has to fight through more evil minions, and the climax of the issue is him bringing the special formula to the hospital to save Aunt May’s life. Peter Parker has it rough, and this issue embodies the struggles of a hero in a way that no DC comic ever did.
PART THREE: THE BRONZE AGE
“Snowbirds Don’t Fly,” from “Green Lantern” #85 (August-September 1971), by Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams: This one’s impossible to ignore, too. “Snowbirds Don’t Fly” is the famous Speedy-is-a-junkie story, but it’s more than that. It highlights everything about the O’Neil/Adams approach to comics: the urban slang, the exaggerated but “realistic” gestures, the sense of social responsibility, and the from-the-headlines plot focus. When Green Lantern and Green Arrow seek to bust up a heroin ring preying on the city’s youth, they find that the problem is closer to home than they ever thought. The final image of the comic–so memorably echoed on the cover — “My ward, Speedy, is a junkie!” — signifies the Bronze Age better than any other single drawing of the decade.
“The Bug,” from “The New Gods” #9 (June 1972), by Jack Kirby: For the obligatory Kirby entry, I decided to go with “The Bug” over the more critically-acclaimed New Gods stories like “The Pact” or “Himon.” To me, “The Bug!” is a better example of the whacked-out insanity of the Fourth World saga, and it’s ultra-cosmic setting contrasts nicely with the O’Neil/Adams story above. Between these two stories, a reader gets a sense of the dual scope of early-1970s comics: street-level pathos on the one hand, and extraterrestrial Ragnarok on the other. “The Bug” also showcases the cast of the New Gods story as well, if not better, than any single Kirby tale. We not only meet the likeable Forager — the “Bug” of the title — but we see Lightray in his shimmering beauty and Orion in his self-loathing anger. The story also feels like part of something much, much larger, and hints at the scope of Kirby’s accomplishment, while leaving plenty of unanswered questions. In other words, it’s Kirby at his unrestrained best.
“World Gone Sane?” from “Defenders Annual” #1 (1976), by Steve Gerber and Sal Buscema: The mid-to-late 1970s were the prime Steve Gerber years at Marvel, and what he brought to the superhero genre is almost impossible to quantify. I chose this story, the conclusion to the Headmen plotline (which lasted for two years in the “Defenders” comic), because it’s one of the most Gerber-packed issues of all time. The only thing missing is the Elf with a Gun, but all the other Gerber qualities are present: the urban anxiety, the weirdness of both the heroes and the villains, the strange relationships between men and women, the juxtaposition of shockingly diverse characters like Luke Cage, Dr. Strange, and Valkyrie, the subversion of the heroic archetypes, and the explicit discussion of fate and free will. Buscema’s art is also representative of that generic Marvel style of the era, although Klaus Janson’s inks make Buscema’s pencils look better here than they usually did. But it’s really Gerber’s show, and I think Dr. Strange says it best in the final words of the story: “Let us, if only for a moment, be Bozos one and all, eh?”
“The Fate of the Phoenix!” from “The X-Men” #137 (September 1980), by Chris Claremont and John Byrne: Claremont’s soap opera subplots and large cast of characters became the template for superhero team books for years to come. And this issue, the death of Dark Phoenix, might be his most important issue of all. It’s certainly a wonderful showcase for John Byrne’s pencils, and he’s as good with expressive faces as he is with dynamic anatomy. His style in “The X-Men” is the apotheosis of Kirby, Adams, and that other great Marvel artist, John Buscema. Plus, this issue features the Shi’ar Imperial Guard — analogues for DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes — and it’s more than just a nod to former X-Men artist Dave Cockrum’s association with both teams. The presence of the Imperial Guard, although central to the plot here, symbolizes that the X-Men have replaced the Legion, by the early 1980s, as the most complex superhero melodrama on the stands. This is Claremont at the height of his high wire act, juggling a dozen plots — and even more characters – -all with stunning effect.
PART FOUR: THE MODERN AGE
“Nemesis,” from “Miracleman” #15 (November 1988), by Alan Moore and John Totleben: For the Modern Era, I’m going to skip right over the two most obvious choices (“Watchmen” and “The Dark Knight Returns”) and jump to the late 1980s–to the climax of the proto-Modernist superhero atomic bomb originally called “Marvelman.” By issue #15, of course, it was long known as “Miracleman,” what with its publication in America and the legal threats from a certain Marvel-lous publisher. The revisionism of the Modern era really began with “Marvelman/Miracleman,” in the pages of “Warrior Magazine,” but it all comes to a brutally violent head with “Nemisis,” the tale of Kid Miracleman unleashed. Moore took a character who was a sidekick for a bastardized version of Captain Marvel and turned him from a “gee whiz” innocent into demon Claremont and Byrne could have only had nightmares about. Dark Phoenix is nothing compared to Dark Johnny Bates, and John Totleben’s lush artwork perfectly captures the death of all the previous eras. It would be a lie to say that the Modern Era sprouted from the corpse of Miracleman, because Miracleman is still very much a part of every major superhero comic that followed. “Miracleman,” especially issue #15, is the Modern comic every other superhero book now aspires to, for good or bad.
“Armageddon,” from “Daredevil” #233 (August 1986), by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli: Although this issue came out two years before “Miracleman” #15, it would not exist without “Miracleman” or Alan Moore, so I’m placing it out of chronological order. For an example of why this issue — which is stunning, and probably the single best issue of any Marvel comic, ever — is the child of Alan Moore, just consider the moment when the Avengers show up. The description of Captain America: “A soldier with a voice that could command a god — and does,” owes a debt not only to Moore’s “Miracleman” narration, but also the “Swamp Thing” story where the Justice League are described in similarly poetic ways. Except, in “Daredevil,” it’s Frank Miller doing the scripting, and although he might use a bit of Alan Moore’s style, he molds it into something uniquely his own. This is a powerful conclusion to the “Born Again” arc, and it stands on its own as a statement about sacrifice, redemption, and self-control. The image of the unconscious Nuke on Ben Urich’s desk is a vivid symbol of the ethos of the Modern Era: harsh and ironic, yet beautiful.
“My Beautiful Head,” from “Flex Mentallo” #2 (July 1996), by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely: This entry is unique on the list as the only story never to have been reprinted in a collected edition. Even “Miracleman” #15 has been reprinted, even if those trade paperbacks are long out of print. But no such luck for fans of Grant Morrison and/or Frank Quitely. Worse, it doesn’t look like this is coming back any time soon. But if you can track down the single issues of this four-issue series, you’ll find a sumptuous, mind-bending treat. “My Beautiful Head,” from the second issue, is filled with crazed images, dream-like storytelling, themes of transcendence and duality, and a theory of comics that explains the emergence of the Golden and Silver Ages. Within its 24 pages, you can find the entire history of superhero comics, or, at least, something approximating it. This is the comic that Morrison’s earlier work foreshadowed, and his later work draws upon. It’s the keystone to his career, and it can’t be ignored, even if many readers have never even seen a copy.
“A Finer World,” from “Stormwatch” Vol. 2 #4 (February 1998), by Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch: This is the comic that was the gateway from the Modern Era to whatever era we are currently in now. Every other comic on this list represents the era in which it was created, but this is the one that — even though it’s over ten years old now — looks and feels the most like a comic book from 2008. Warren Ellis’s sparse dialogue, minimal narration, but maximum impact has become the model upon which many a mainstream comic has been based. “A Finer World” is also important as a representative of the “Image Era,” a subset of the Modern Era, which, by the time of “Stormwatch” Vol. 2 had fragmented into several distinct companies. While “Stormwatch” began, back in the early 1990s, as a style-over-substance grotesquerie, it became something very special under the guidance of Warren Ellis. And with Bryan Hitch on board — using a style that was halfway between his Alan Davis swipes and the photo-reference look he employs today — the comic looked as good as it read. “A Finer World” is really where “Stormwatch” starts to become “The Authority,” and it’s therefore the perfect conclusion to this list. The Superman of “Action Comics” in the 1930s, has, by the late Modern Era, become — in the form of Apollo — an overt homosexual, as well as an overt fascist, and everything that was possible subtext in the Golden Age has risen to the surface. Is this the logical end of the superhero genre? I don’t think so, but what has emerged since?
That’s the list, folks. Sixteen comics that tell the story of the American superhero genre. Sixteen comics that form a Canon, of sorts. Sixteen comics that are beautiful and strange and wonderful. Sixteen comics you should read, if you haven’t already.
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of “Grant Morrison: The Early Years” and editor of “Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes” anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.
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