Here are my top ten comics storylines, as voted on by me, the only reader whose opinion matters. (Except in actually getting books into the top one hundred…)
10. “Flex Mentallo” by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely (Flex Mentallo #1-4) – 96 points (2 firsts place votes) [Did not make top 100]
A history of superheroes in the 20th century, a possible template for superheroes in the 21st century, and a love letter to the whole genre rolled into one big mindfuck of a comic book. There’s a reason why this story is legendary amongst readers and why there’s a demand for it to be reprinted despite the lawsuit with Charles Atlas’s estate. This book lays out nearly every superhero story Morrison wrote after this while also laying the groundwork for The Invisibles, which is why this has been retroactively slotted as the first part of a thematic trilogy involving The Invisibles and The Filth.
Flex Mentallo is a superhero who alters reality by flexing his muscles. Wallace Sage is overdosing on drugs and talking on a phone to someone regarding his life and comic books. Mentallo is on the trail of Faculty X and the Fact, which leads him through a variety of stages of superhero adventures, culminating in a final issue that still blows my mind. I’m awful at summing this up, but let’s just say that it’s all here, including most of what came since it was published.
Frank Quitely provides the art and was almost as good then as he is now. If you ever wanted to see him draw a superhero orgy, this comic may be for you.
9. “The Slavers” by Garth Ennis, Leandro Fernandez, and Scott Koblish (Punisher MAX #25-30) – 103 points (5 first place votes) [Placed #93 in the top 100]
This is the story that argues (and proves in my mind) why there is a need for the Punisher. In “The Slavers,” Frank goes up against a slaving ring and he is utterly cruel and sadistic and monstrous. He tortures people, he kills them, he brutalises them, and he takes pleasure in it. Because the people he is violent against treat people like property and do everything they can to dehumanise them in an effort to make money. They are the scum of the Earth and the world is better off without them. In this story, the need for the Punisher is proven by the fact that if he weren’t there, those people still would be. It’s a hard truth to accept that someone like the Punisher is necessary in any sense, but the point is made here. And that disturbs me quite a bit. More than any other comic storyline I can think of has disturbed me.
8. “The Dark Knight Strikes Again” by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley (The Dark Knight Strikes Again #1-3) – 24 points (No first places votes) [Did not make top 100]
I’ve written about how energy in a work does a lot for me. It can make a mediocre work better than a technically excellent one for me. That’s not the case here, because this is already an excellent comic on technique alone. The story is wonderfully absurd and fun. Batman has never seemed so lively or logical. Superman is challenged to grow and finally own his powers and what he can do for the world. The superheroes take their rightful place in society. Sure, it’s an indictment of all that they stood for before, but that’s because what they stood for was bullshit. Surely you can see that…
But, man, The Dark Knight Strikes Again has got energy. It’s pure electricity. You can just see Frank Miller loving every minute of it. He’s having a blast and the work shows that. It’s a joyous work that just makes me happy to be around. I find myself flipping through it sometimes just because. Every page offers a unique and magical visual. Some new spin on what came before. Or just a small moment that makes me smile.
Its inclusion brings up the obvious question of “Where’s The Dark Knight Returns or Year One?” like including this takes away from them or means I don’t like them or some other utterly stupid concept that comic fans like to think up online… and it comes down to this: I don’t reread them as much as I reread this book. I just don’t have the urge. I like this one more. It speaks to me in ways that those don’t. I really like them, just not as much.
7. “Gula” by Matt Fraction and Fabio Moon (Casanova #8-14) – 47 points (No first place votes) [Did not make top 100]
“When is Casanova Quinn?” That’s the question that this story centres around and it’s a technical marvel, sure. An intricate plot that hinges on a reveal both shocking and obvious. It’s fun, it’s lively, it’s got everything the first arc of Casanova had (except for Gabriel Ba, but this one had Fabio Moon, so hells yes), but this one had that extra little something. That intangible that you just can’t teach. Some call it ‘heart,’ but that’s only part of it. It’s one of those stories where I don’t know what to say really. The titular character doesn’t appear for most of it, but he’s always there in one form or another. Characters grow, they live, they change, and everything gets fucked up, because that’s what people do: they fuck things up. Why? I don’t know, but it’s what we do. And never more than when we’re trying to make things better. I can’t help but look at this story and see myself, which is lame and pathetic and would no doubt make Matt Fraction cringe a little, but that’s why it makes this list. I guess. I don’t know.
6. “Alamo” by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon (Preacher #59-66) – 50 points (No first place votes) [Did not make top 100]
While the popular vote went to “Until to the End of the World,” my heart said “Alamo,” the eight-part finale to Preacher if only because this one hits harder. It is notoriously difficult to write a proper ending to a serialised story where expectations are raised over the years, but Garth Ennis does it here. The seeds planted over the previous five years all bear fruit with nearly every character that’s still alive making an appearance and receiving some sort of conclusion. There are two moments in this story that damn near make me cry every time I come across them: the revelation of how Lorena sees Arseface thanks to her condition, and the resolution of Jesse and Tulip’s story (Tulip’s reaction being the best panel Steve Dillon has ever drawn). This story is all about emotion and people getting what they deserve (or, maybe, getting a second chance) and it ends the series with style.
5. “”Year of the Bastard” by Warren Ellis, Darick Robertson, and Rodney Ramos (Transmetropolitan #13-16) – (with “New Scum) 164 points (5 first place votes) [Placed #63 in the top 100]
This was the first Transmetropolitan story that I read. Is that why it makes the list? Nah. The letter column of issue 13 made me go out and read Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 by Hunter S. Thompson. I had never read Thompson prior to Ellis mentioning him there. Is that why it makes the list? Nope. Those are two rather good reasons, I have to admit. This story introduced me to both Spider Jerusalem and Hunter Thompson… christ, why didn’t I rank this higher now that I think about it?
This story ranks this high, because it tells you everything you need to know about politics in six issues. It’s all here. Hell, Ellis only takes a page to explain voting to you (and he’s not wrong). All of the greed, the ugliness, the horrible backroom deals, the utter disregard for what people actually need or want, the hate and evil that’s in all of us… it’s all here. I read this just as began to really get into following politics and I’ve yet to see something that wasn’t some twisted version of “Year of the Bastard.” Even Thompson’s seminal campaign book doesn’t give the same information in such a compact form. Read this and see politics for all that it is.
Beyond that, it’s funny. It’s entertaining. Don’t take entertainment for granted. I could watch Spider Jerusalem fuck with people all day. That first issue where he wakes up and is harrassed to cover the convention? Brilliance. Ellis knew that he had to introduce himself to the Vertigo readers and nails it. Robertson does some of his best work ever in those opening pages.
This should have ranked number one, but I did my list in a rush and didn’t think things through and… well, shit, at least I didn’t vote for Civil War or something like that. Christ, that other list is almost a lesson about democracy in and of itself, right?
4. “Marvel Boy” by Grant Morrison and JG Jones (Marvel Boy #1-6) – 17 points (No first place votes) [Did not made top 100]
Marvel Boy was the first comic where I got it. I read it not just on a textual level, I also read it on a subtextual level. I wrote an essay about it and I still agree with everything I wrote then, almost five years ago. It’s not too often that I agree with what I wrote five seconds ago let alone five years ago. So, go read that and then come back, I’ll wait…
Some things I didn’t mention in the essay: JG Jones does some phenominal art here. He does. This book looks better than most of what I’ve got on the shelf including some of the stuff he’s done since. Thick, fluid lines; radical page layouts; slick designs with equally slick colouring. Never has the old Iron Man armour looked so fucking cool. Issue four is a visual masterpiece and someone who can discuss art far better than I should write extensively about it.
But, really, this is the real ‘Ultimate Spider-Man’ for anyone who was actually a teenager…
3. “Watchmen” by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (Watchmen #1-12) – 2003 points (78 first place votes) [Placed #1 in top 100]
It’s Watchmen. Do I need to explain it?
2. “Change or Die” by Warren Ellis, Tom Raney, and Randy Elliot (Stormwatch vol. 1 #48-50) – 55 points (1 first place vote) [Did not make top 100]
“Think for yourself and question authority.” Man oh man, that phrase turned my teenage world upside down. And it came from a superhero comic. A superhero comic! If ever there was a genre that told you to shut your fucking mouth, don’t ask question, and just do as they say, it’s the superhero comic. Thankfully, Warren Ellis didn’t read too many of them, so he didn’t know what the rules were. Or, if he did, he didn’t care. Stormwatch, the United Nations superhuman response team, goes up against a group of superhumans led by
Superman the High and their effort to eliminate the need for the status quo, for government, for corporations. They plan to give everyone a tree that will grow anything they want or need. They plan to teach them to function on their own, to treat others with kindness and humanity and decency. They plan to eliminate the roots of crime and poverty and disease. They plan to enact true equality worldwide and make the world a better place.
So, naturally, they are hunted down and killed like dogs, because that is what the Status Quo does to those that attack the Status Quo. Because they were supervillains and the villains cannot succeed.
The seeds for The Authority were planted here and I haven’t been able to look the Justice League in the eyes ever since…
1. “Automatic Kafka” by Joe Casey and Ashley Wood (Automatic Kafka #1-9) – 27 points (1 first place vote) [Did not make top 100]
A few questions…
What happens after the superhero comic ends? What happens to a character after the creator stops creating new stories? What happens if the creator dies? What happens when Charlie Brown grows up? What happens when we can’t just fucking let go? What happens when it keeps going and going and going and going and going and going? Why can’t we ever just accept it for what it is and not demand more? Why can’t we ever just be satisfied? Do we really need to read the same stories told again and again and again month after month after month after month after month for our entire lives? When do we just say enough? What happens after that? What happens to the stars of a popular TV show after it gets cancelled? How are superheroes like child actors? How would adult superheroes really act? How could any other story top this list?
The answer, of course, is Automatic Kafka.
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