Last year, the Hooded Utilitarian surveyed hundreds of comics-thinkers from around the world to compile a master list in response to this question: “What are the ten comics works you consider your favorites, the best, or the most significant?”
I always enjoy looking at Top 10 lists, mostly for the huh-I-wouldn’t-have-thought-to-include-that factor. And the fun part about the Hooded Utilitarian list was that they not only aggregated the list into a kind of ultimate Top 10, but they published all 211 individual lists and any notes and commentary that accompanied the selections.
I didn’t think much about the results beyond skimming through all the entries and making a couple of mental notes about checking some things out when I got a chance. But the unusual nature of the Hooded U question always stuck with me. Because it’s not a Ten Best list — that’s not what they asked for. And it’s not a Ten Favorite list either. Nor a Ten Most Important. The gang at the Hooded U combined all of that into a single question: “What are the ten comics works you consider your favorites, the best, or the most significant?” That “or” is vital to what they’re asking. They’ve compiled a bunch of lists from various comics readers of note and it was up to the people who submitted to interpret the question the way they saw fit. Some commented on their approach, others didn’t. Some seemed to list a bunch of nostalgic favorites, while others seemed to try to put forth an argument about the most historically important. Others identified some of the “best” while implying that their definition of “best” might change if asked another day. Others proposed a list that was a medley of “favorite,” “best,” and “significant,” with some overlaps in between.â€¨
The reason I bring any of this up, nearly a year and a half after the Hooded Utilitarian poll, is that reader Dave Morris asked me what my answer to the question would have been.
And I figured I would send him a link to something I had written about my all-time Top 10 and that would have been that.
But when I reflected on the Hooded U question again, I realized that an all-time Top 10 from a few years back probably wouldn’t actually answer the question honestly, and certainly not the way I would answer it now. A few years ago, when I was more prone to hammer out declarative Top 10s on my blog or in this column, I would have emphasized the “best” and “significant” aspects of the choices. Now, I’m more interested in “favorites” and thinking about why I favor something regardless of whether or not it’s as objectively “good” as something else. But I still can’t shake the need to argue for the significance of the things I like, so that lingers.
I was also surprised to realize that I hadn’t ever really posted an all-time Top 10. In all my years of comic book punditry, I have done Top 10s on a variety of topics, mostly in a Best of the Year Capacity, but I’ve never done an overall Top 10.
So here it is.
The ten comics I would consider my favorites, the best, or the most significant. In alphabetical order.
“Ambush Bug,” by Keith Giffen
I had just turned 13 when I brought home “Ambush Bug” #3 after a walk down to the general store while staying at my grandfather’s house. Actually, the more I think about it, the more I’m inclined to think then-merely-8-year-old Television’s Ryan Callahan picked out the “Ambush Bug” issue and I grabbed John Byrne’s “Fantastic Four” #281 or something less interesting. But “Ambush Bug” was the one I read obsessively that day, trying to make sense out of all the references to comics I’d never heard of, and completely falling in love with the playfulness of Giffen’s artistic style and the jokes I didn’t quite get.
The first two “Ambush Bug” miniseries — and it didn’t take me very long to track down issues #1 and #2 of the first one, after I discovered that there was such a thing as the direct market and “back issues” at comic book shops — remain some of my all-time favorite comics. Best and significant, too? Yeah, sure.
“Batman: The Dark Knight Returns,” by Frank Miller
Because this comic, along with “Watchmen” and “Maus” are always cited as the ones that gave comics some kind of legitimacy in the 1980s, and this Frank Miller classic makes Top 10 lists so often even as people have found the man himself to be increasingly not-to-their-liking, it’s kind of a boring inclusion here, I know. But this comic is still something I dive back into, and I’m always thrilled by what I find there.
My memory of it is that it’s a massive, bombastic Batman story, bulky and jagged with Miller inked by Klaus Janson and colored with a savagely grim palette by Lynn Varley. At least, that’s my memory until I actually go back and reread it, and discover that it’s a beautifully anarchic work of comics making that undermines your assumptions about it. It’s massively expansive, yet it’s structured on a tight 16-panel grid. It included no double-page spreads. It feels bigger than it is, and it’s still an amazing book to look at, decades later.
“Calvin and Hobbes,” by Bill Watterson
“Calvin and Hobbes” was the reason to read a newspaper, when I was growing up. But I didn’t realize how special it was until it was over and nothing has ever come close to being as funny or inventive as this strip. I adored the paperback collections. They were among my favorite books as a teenager and young adult, though I probably wouldn’t have admitted to it at the time, because they were just collections of a gag strip for children. (I was endlessly foolish back then.)
But I have the massive hardcover collection of “Calvin and Hobbes” now, and it was my son who reminded me of the joys of the strip. He read all three collected volumes around age 9, and asked what other comics were as good as these. None, I had to admit. And as I reread the strips alongside my son, I remembered just how magnificent these comics were and couldn’t believe that I had ever been even the slightest bit hesitant to proclaim these as among my all-time favorites. I’ll take Bill Watterson over George Herriman and Charles Shultz and E. C. Segar and whomever else you want to put up against him. Every time.
“Cerebus,” by Dave Sim
When I revisited “Cerebus” last year and did my sprint through the whole series, not many people were talking about “Cerebus.” There was that one “Comics Journal” piece that got me (and probably many other people) thinking about the legacy of the Dave Sim series, and a couple of online pieces around the same time as mine, but now “Cerebus” is part of a massive (but messy) digital rerelease and Dave Sim is publically courting (in his way) the book publishers of the world.
I wouldn’t have ranked “Cerebus” among my all-time favorites before I did the massive reread/read last summer, though I was always particularly enamored of most of the issues between #100-150. But after rereading the whole enormous, hugely personal work, I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s a monument that can’t be ignored, even if you don’t believe in what it stands for.
“Grendel: The Devil Inside,” by Matt Wagner and Bernie Mireault
My re-examination of Bernie Mireault from a couple years back was clearly hugely influential on the universe, because it’s even cited on Mireault’s Wikipedia page. And though I’ve never written much about Matt Wagner, he was one of my first favorite writers and artists (with “Mage” and “Grendel” and even his “Demon” miniseries for DC).
“The Devil Inside” is the best of the Grendel stories, and a clear favorite of mine. It’s odd and unsettling, a slow unfolding of madness in the form of a sci-fi slice-of-life supernatural not-quite-superhero comic. I love it to death.
“Marshal Law,” by Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill
I remember watching a local news broadcast in the late 1980s and it was about “How Comics Aren’t Just for Kids Anymore” or whatever and the way they demonstrated that was by going to a college campus and interviewing these intelligent young would-be scholars about their comic book reading habits. And one guy they featured talked about “Marshal Law.”
As a reader of “Marshal Law,” I was thrilled to see the comic mentioned on television, because that somehow legitimized it, but when the college kid described the comic, it sounded like the silliest thing in the world, and I’m sure the implication of the news segment was “People Think Comics Are More Grown-Up Now, But Check Out These Weirdos Who Read Comics in Their 20s!” The local anchors surely laughed after the segment, with a, “Comics sure have changed since we were kids, haven’t they?” comment.
But, man, “Marshal Law” on the local news? That’s subversive. And this comic remains one of the great anti-superhero superhero comics of all time. I love superhero comics, but I still love this one more than almost any of them.
“New Gods,” by Jack Kirby
Not the whole “Forth World” saga, but just the “New Gods” series. That’s all I need.
In some ways, this selection represents Kirby-in-the-70s, which is the most exciting era of Kirby work, and also something that I can’t ignore. No “Top 10” or “Best Of” or “Comic Book” list would be complete without a Jack Kirby entry, and I’m tempted to throw “Kamandi” on this list as well, but I’ll stick with “New Gods” for now. In that ultimately aborted series, Kirby created a vast mythology that has rarely been matched (though often copied) and it contains some of his most astounding displays of artistry. It doesn’t look like anything else from its time period (except other Kirby work) and it has more power on each page than a dozen other comics slammed together. This is the Source, right here.
“Nexus,” by Mike Baron and Steve Rude
Other guys besides Steve Rude have done excellent work on “Nexus,” and I would include all of those issues in my treasure box of favorite runs, but it would be the Steve Rude issues that I’d go back to more often than the others.
This sci-fi series is more Russ Manning superheroics mixed with Dr. Seuss alien life and landscapes than it is “Star Trek,” but part of its magic is the blending of all three of those things plus an underlying story about a tragically tormented executioner who faces nightmares about his own inevitable future deeds. The darkness of Baron’s scripts contrasts sharply with the beauty of Rude’s drawings, and this comic is the result.
“Strange Days,” by Peter Milligan, Brett Ewins, and Brendan McCarthy
I bought this short-lived anthology comic when it first came out because of the Johnny Nemo cover, with the 80s punk rock attitude, but I never read the Johnny Nemo stuff drawn by Brett Ewins as closely as I read the stories drawn by Brendan McCarthy. “Paradax” was the real punk rock effort in this comic, with its rejection of superhero tropes and its grungy depiction of a costumed character in a media-saturated, pop-culture-detritus-filled world.
I’ve thought about this comic a lot more than I’ve read it, and I’ve read it many times.
“Swamp Thing,” by Alan Moore, Steve Bissette, John Totleben, and Rick Veitch
The first half dozen issues of Alan Moore’s “Swamp Thing” run remain among the absolute best American comics ever published. The Bissette and Totleben art is hauntingly evocative and viciously horrifying, and Moore’s unabashed attempt to turn this monster comic into a poetic tragedy set squarely in the DC Universe is still exhilarating to read. DC and Vertigo’s entire output since that time sometimes seems to be an attempt to recapture the magic in those early Moore “Swamp Thing” issues.
Some may prefer “Watchmen,” and maybe I do too, on other days, but “Swamp Thing” has more room for its story to unfold, and attempts more things than can be allowed in the twelve issues of Moore’s generally more-highly-regarded maxiseries.
And even after you get past the first half dozen issues and finish the story with the guest appearance by Jack Kirby’s Demon, you still have the descent into Hell and the race to stop the mystical side of the Crisis and then a journey into outer space. “Swamp Thing” is more cosmically-inclined than many readers remember. It will always be one of my favorites.
So that’s that. My Top 10.
They all ended up being comics I first started reading between the ages of 12 and 16, either as they came out or in reprints. Nothing from the past two decades made the list. I’ll leave that for you to ponder as you think about your own all-time Top 10. What would you list as your favorite, best, or most significant?
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 regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.