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Friday’s Single-Issue Classic Countdown – conclusion

by  in Comic News Comment
Friday’s Single-Issue Classic Countdown – conclusion

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been taking a look at my personal top ten favorite single issues of ongoing super-hero series. Over the last two weeks we’ve counted down from ten to four, and this week it’s the top three.

My criteria for these picks are pretty simple. No mini-series or one-shots, just single issues of an ongoing series; the issue is something I bought off the stands on impulse, meaning the book sold itself on the strength of what I saw right there in the actual comic; and finally, each of the ten comics on this list holds some kind of personal meaning for me, each one led me to other stuff or was somehow significant in some other way. And in deference to the game on the CBR Classics Forum where this all started, all of these books are over twenty years old.

The story so far:

#10 – Defenders #21. Which was a gateway book for me to 70’s Marvel, as well as my introduction to my favorite mainstream comics writer ever, Steve Gerber.

#9 – Savage Sword of Conan #14. My gateway book to Marvel’s magazine black-and-white books, as well as my introduction to Robert E. Howard and other pulp paperback fantasy that dominated spinner racks in the 70’s.

#8 – Marvel’s Greatest Comics #25. My first encounter with the Lee-Kirby Fantastic Four, as well as my first look at classic Iron Man, Captain America, and Ditko-era Dr. Strange.

#7 – Miracleman #2. My introduction to Alan Moore.

#6 – Brave and the Bold #182 – My favorite Earth-2 story ever, an often-overlooked classic from Alan Brennert and Jim Aparo.

#5- Marvel Premiere #32, Monark Starstalker by Howard Chaykin. A nice little foreshadowing of the style of tarnished hero Chaykin would later perfect in American Flagg! as well as showing me a whole new way to think about drawing with ink.

#4 – Flash #178. The first comic book I ever bought, my gateway to the DC universe and superhero comics in general. And here I still am, forty-one years later.

And this week we wrap it up with three, two and one.

*

Before we get to the top three, though, let’s look at some Honorable Mentions. These almost made my list but got bumped for one reason or another. Still, they are fine individual issues of ongoing series.

Detective #471 almost made it, the first issue featuring the Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers team on Batman.

I loved this book wholeheartedly from the second I saw it, and it has two of what may be my personal favorite Cool Comic Book Moments (™ and © Brian Cronin 2009) ever. The first is when Hugo Strange has Bruce Wayne locked in his dungeon, and after a brief exchange with a guard, there’s a great panel of Bruce glaring and a caption that says, “Trap Bruce Wayne, idle playboy philanthropist — and you trap the most dangerous man in Gotham, too! Keenly aware of possible hidden eyes, the Batman begins to figure his way out!” Hell yeah. And the way Marshall Rogers draws it, he actually looks like the most dangerous man in Gotham– he’s not Bruce Wayne any more, he’s Batman out of costume. I loved that.

The second cool moment is right at the end of the book, the cliffhanger, when Batman comes to after Strange got the drop on him … and he’s not wearing his mask. “I saw my chance and seized it!” Strange laughs. “Your secrets are secrets no longer– Bruce Wayne!!”

These days, with Bane and Ra’s al Ghul and Hush and Catwoman and God knows how many others in on Batman’s real identity, it’s not that big a deal,  but that was a helluva shock in 1977. For us kids who’d argued about it on playgrounds for years, to see a villain actually rip the mask off Batman while he was unconscious was a real moment of vindication. Plus the narrative voice Englehart used was weirdly reminiscent of William Dozier’s narration on the old TV show, but somehow… cool. The 70’s Batman is the one I think of as ‘mine’ anyway, but he is crystallized here. This is as close to my ideal Batman as I have seen.

But it ends on a cliffhanger, and anyway this run has been written up exhaustively elsewhere. It was on my first list, but I decided I didn’t want two Hugo Strange stories on there, so Alan Brennert’s Brave and the Bold edged it out.

Another near-miss was Amazing Adventures #14, from the short-lived Beast solo series.

I don’t have a lot to say about this except that it’s a great ride, crammed full of story, but what I love about it is that despite its breakneck pace it doesn’t feel rushed or cramped at all. The first four pages open with an action sequence, Hank confronting Iron Man at a Stark weapons test, and then it’s Hank back at his apartment where he has a nervous interlude with his girlfriend of the moment, fearing that she’ll see through his prototype rubber-mask disguise and discover her boyfriend’s “an animal– a BEAST!” Hank then departs for Brand Corporation to sneak into his lab to retrieve his regular disguise, but the guards see him breaking into the lab building and that leads to another couple of pages of action as all hell breaks loose. Fortunately he’s able to get into the lab and get into his rubber human outfit just in time to tell the guards he saw that Beast thing going the other way… and we aren’t even at the main event yet, which is Quasimodo the Living Computer arriving at Brand to steal the Beast’s life force so that Quasimodo, can, at last, truly LIVE! Hank takes exception to this and mayhem ensues.

Classic 70’s palpitating Marvel melodrama. Clearly, this Englehart kid scripting it had a future in comics. The art from Tom Sutton and Jim Mooney was very cool too, about halfway between a moody EC horror look and the bombast of Jack Kirby. I didn’t actually get this when it came out, but traded with another kid up the street for it about a year afterwards. By then Amazing Adventures was starring Killraven, but I was impressed enough by the Beast to check out Avengers later when he eventually showed up there. These Beast stories are scheduled to be reprinted in Essential Classic X-Men volume three, I think, but otherwise it’s strictly back-issue bins for this one.

Speaking of Jack Kirby bombast, I was very close to putting Mister Miracle #1 on my list.

All Kirby’s Fourth World stuff has been endlessly written about for decades now, so I won’t rehash it all– but this was my introduction to it, and it was also the very first #1 comic I ever owned. Today hardly a Wednesday goes by that you don’t see a #1 out there from somebody or other, but that was a big damn deal back in the day. What made it exciting for me had nothing to do with any perceived collector value, though– I was just thrilled that, for once, I was in on something from the beginning. That was a rush. I still love Mister Miracle the best of all Kirby’s DC stuff.

Another ‘almost’ was Marvel Preview #11, featuring Star-Lord.

You know, the Claremont/Byrne X-Men is legendary, and deservedly so, but what has always struck me as odd is how none of the other Claremont/Byrne Marvel collaborations ever seem to have that same cachet with fans. I thought their Iron Fist was great fun and in many ways this reboot of Star-Lord is my favorite thing they ever did together.

Star-Lord started as a sort of vaguely mystical astrology-based strip from Steve Englehart in Marvel Preview #4, the idea being that Peter Quill would go from being kind of a dick to the most cosmic being in the universe through a series of astrology-based space adventures. A love story on Venus, a war story on Mars, and so on. But Englehart wasn’t able to follow through on it and it was left to Claremont and Byrne to bat cleanup a year or so later with this second try.

They (thankfully) threw out all the astrology stuff and re-imagined Star-Lord as a rollicking Heinlein-esque space adventure ranging across the galaxy. It was just plain fun, and must have been at least somewhat successful, since Star-Lord came back to Marvel Preview three or four more times. Sadly, only with Claremont, not Byrne, and then eventually it was Doug Moench and a variety of other artists. None of the later efforts ever recaptured the glory of this one single issue, though. Marvel Preview #11 is– I think– the first time we saw the classic Claremont/Byrne/Austin combo, and it was very much a Star Wars-style adventure that had to have been done almost simultaneously with the actual Star Wars, which was breaking records in theaters across the country at the same time… this is dated “Summer 1977.” I don’t think it’s ever been collected, but it’s well worth hunting down from a dealer or on eBay. Or you might look for the “Special Edition” reprint of it that came out in 1982… either one will do.

There are a couple of other almosts. Marvel Spotlight #30 is a good time, but I already had Monark Starstalker on the list.

This one is my second-favorite Marvel tryout, though. I think this might have been the first-ever superhero situation comedy– it’s just Fandral, Hogun, and Volstagg bumbling around New York for one crazed night, trying to help a lovestruck kid get back together with his fiancee. It’s fall-down funny, with a great script from Len Wein and wonderful art from John Buscema and Joe Sinnott.

But that’s enough about the runners-up. Let’s get to the Top Three.

For the #3 position I finally decided on this one. Marvel Tales #19.

This one reprints the classic “Spider-Man Goes Mad!” from Amazing Spider-Man #24, which is, I think, probably the best done-in-one Spider-Man story Stan Lee and Steve Ditko did together. It’s got everything… angst, action, fun stuff with Jonah Jameson and Flash Thompson, and for my money, one of the best Spidey art jobs Ditko ever turned in.

And that’s just the front. Also reprinted here is Journey Into Mystery #106, where Thor takes on the Cobra and Mister Hyde.

Fortunately, they’re not too bright so he’s able to take them down without a whole lot of trouble.

And we wrapped up with the Human Torch and the Thing.

This was the second or third Marvel comic I ever bought (and was a rare joy for me because nothing was “continued.”) It was a magnificent sampler for seven-year-old me, who only sort of knew the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man from their respective Saturday morning cartoons. Today we are habituated to seeing these comics in trade paperback collecting long runs of stories, which is really not the way they were designed to be experienced; it’s reading them one at a time that gives them their punch. It’s hard to put across what these books were like for me when I was a kid buying them off the stands…. the early Marvel reprint books, especially, were like mainlining pure adrenaline. All of the stories in here are available in the Essential format and Thor and Spider-Man are also in the Masterworks editions…. but you lose something by not getting them in the one-two-three combo you had here in this single issue of Marvel Tales. It was a hell of a deal for a quarter.

For #2 I decided on Justice League of America #106.

I bought this off the stands as a youth and read it to death. To this day it exemplifies what I think is the best design for a single issue of a newsstand comic to land a new reader:

– Done in one.
– Story picks up threads from previous adventures but there’s enough there that at no point did it lose me or go over my head.
– Clear dialogue with snap and humor.
– Three-act structure with a clever twist at the end.

This wasn’t my first issue of the Justice League, but it was this one that made me a fan of the book– and of the writer, some new guy named Len Wein.

And additional requirements for a good JLA story were present as well — the heroes should work together and we should get to see a lot of them together at once. This particular tale cast the android hero Red Tornado as a nerdy outsider, which I always was a sucker for, being one myself, and the way he kept thinking the League wouldn’t ever come through for him and then they did… man, I ate that up.

It also introduced Kathy Sutton, and though there was romance there, what struck me about her was that she was nice. She was the only person that was nice to the Tornado, and considering the bullying sociopaths I saw every day at school, that was a real issue for me. Youthful me ached for poor Reddy. People should be nice to each other, damn it!

Even if the person is a humaniform robot. A point the story came back to more than once. Wein was at the top of his game and the art from Dick Dillin was a beautiful thing. To this day he is THE Justice League artist for me.

You can certainly criticize it on the grounds that the Avengers got there first — and probably better– with “Even an Android Can Cry!” but you know, I still like this one more. It’s more fun and the twist at the end with T.O. Morrow is really smart.

One of the reasons I fell so hard for Grant Morrison’s JLA is because his “Tomorrow Woman” story in JLA #5 riffed off this one a bit, I think. Likewise, one of the reasons I so loathed Brad Meltzer’s “The Tornado’s Path” is because he almost nailed the same tone as the Tornado story here, but Meltzer cluttered his version with so much overwrought continuity crap he lost the thread of it. His version summed up for me everything I find so wrongheaded about current DC superhero stuff.

At any rate, it’s a pity we don’t get JLA like this any more. Though Morrison and Waid came close during their respective runs. This particular story, “Wolf In The Fold!” is reprinted in the trade collection Justice League of America Hereby Elects…–which, as it happens, has a lot of other fun stories too.

And finally…. drum roll… at #1 I decided it had to be Detective Comics #439.

I knew it would be something from this particular run of Archie Goodwin’s Detective 100-pagers, but I almost couldn’t decide which one, as I love them all equally. The Paul Kirk Manhunter saga is my favorite comic series ever and has been for over thirty years. When my students ask me what my favorite comic is, I bring in the collected Manhunter book and watch smugly as they get sucked into it… and I envy them a little because it’s all right there for them. I had to really, really work at reading the whole thing — I never did get to see chapter two in the original, I had to wait until the reprint collection in the 80’s because newsstand comics distribution was what it was.

But I finally went with the one that started the rock rolling down the hill, the first-ever Archie Goodwin-edited 100-page Detective that I bought off the stands, #439. It’s just an awesome package.

First of all, it’s got what I think is the best Batman short story anyone’s ever done, “Night of the Stalker.”

Its plot is pretty simple– Batman chases some bank robbers, and they slowly unravel under his relentless pursuit. He wins by basically scaring the shit out of them.

But it’s just an incredible mood piece. The art from Sal Amendola and Dick Giordano was extraordinary, and the script from Steve Englehart hit exactly the right note.

The beautiful thing about Goodwin’s 100-page Detective run, though, was that he picked his own reprints, too. And he had an eye for the interesting, offbeat stuff. You’d get vintage Joe Kubert on a classic from the 1940’s…

And then it would alternate with something more recent, like a cerebral DC science-hero story.

Then back to the Golden Age for another offbeat entry…

Then jumping back to the Silver Age… but always with an emphasis on the stuff with the really cool art. The comics Archie Goodwin edited were always well-written, but his eye for comics art was impeccable, too.

And he’d often throw in something that was really off the wall, starring some unheard-of D-lister,  just to keep it interesting.

And the whole thing wrapped up with Manhunter. Best for last.

And there you have it. My favorite single issue of a comic book, ever.

The Goodwin era of Detective… truthfully, they were all great. But #439 was my first. So I’ll commit to that one as Number One. But it could be any of them — in the back of my head I am already making the case for #440. That one had “Ghost Mountain Midnight” and an actual Golden Age Manhunter reprint, as well as the conclusion to the Manhunter origin begun in this issue. #441 had Goodwin and Chaykin on Batman and the Manhunter short “Cathedral Perilous,” with its hilarious ending. Then there was #442 with the Alex Toth Batman story and “To Duel The Master…”

–No. #439. This one. I’m sticking to that.

*

Looking over the list, I’m struck again by how tightly packed all of them are. Decompression is clearly not my thing.

But more, I think compressed, economic storytelling isn’t really an industry thing any more, as far as Marvel and DC’s main lines are concerned. You have to go hunting through the kid’s books like Marvel Adventures to find it. It’s great that we still have those, at least, but I wonder why we can’t get a little more of it in the adult books too. If we’re going to shell out three or four dollars apiece for the things, it would be nice to feel like we got more for the money.

See you next week.

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