COUNTDOWN TO SENILITY
PART 1. THE BEST SUPERHERO COMICS OF ALL TIME
By John Jones, the Manhunter from Marathon, IL
check out more insane ramblings by John's twisted alter ego, Doc Nebula, at http://www.angelfire.com/ny3/docnebula/index.html
Okay. You know you're really stuck for something to write about when you start compiling a "Top 10" list. Nonetheless, that seems to be the case at this point, as I sit here at work with nothing to do except, you know, actual work, which is totally unacceptable.
So, let's do a Top 10 list. Let's see if I'm actually capable of looking back over all the comics I've read and can remember, however vaguely, in my lifetime, and see if I can pick out a Ten Best Stories list.
(Having written another 4,000 words on this since writing the above, the answer seems to be 'no, I can't', since my 'Top 10' list has grown to a 'Top 28' list, and I've also added a second part to this article featuring a near equal number of Honorary Mentions. Hey, nobody's making you read this, buddy.)
Now, bear in mind, the usual codicils apply. My memory isn't precise and my comics collection is far away, so if you're one of those people who simply isn't satisfied with anything less than full Library of Congress style footnoting with specific issue numbers so you can run right out and DEMAND them from your local comics dealer to see if I have even the vaguest clue what I'm talking about, too bad. Go read The Comics Journal. And, y'know, bite me.
With the understanding, then, that I'll be talking about specific stories that I will describe, as well as I can, from memory, by plot, writer, artist, title it was published in, rough period it was published in, and maybe the occasional misquotation... let us proceed.
Oh, one more thing to understand... the list below was simply come up with as the various comics occurred to me. There is no qualitative judgement attached to the numbering. I'd never even presume to try to judge whether the Goodwin/Simonson MANHUNTER, for example, is equal to or better than the Englehart run on DR. STRANGE. Anyone who would is... well, a different person than I.
1. Englehart DETECTIVEs
2. Englehart CAPTAIN AMERICAs
3. DESTROY! (McCloud)
4. Englehart AVENGERS: "Celestial Madonna" "Roxxon/Squadron Supreme/Gods Go West"
5. Englehart DR. STRANGE: "Sise-Neg/Genesis"
6. Goodwin & Simonson MANHUNTER
7. WHAT IF #2 "What If The Avengers Had Never Been?" (Shooter & Kane)
8. "Whatever Happened To The Man of Tomorrow?" (Moore & Swan)
9. Gerber DEFENDERS
10. 1963 (Moore & Veitch)
11. Marvelman (Moore & Davis)
12. "One Shot Hero" (Bates & Cockrum)
13. AVENGERS "Enchantress & Power Man" (Lee/Heck)
14. BATMAN: YEAR ONE (Miller & Mazzuchelli)
15. DAREDEVIL: BORN AGAIN (Miller & Mazzuchelli)
16. AVENGERS/DEFENDERS "Avengers/Defenders War" (Englehart-S.Buscema-Brown)
17. SANDMAN (Gaiman et al)
18. PSI FORCE (Fabian Nicieza)
19. HOURMAN (Tom Peyer)
20. STARMAN (Stern & Lyle)
21. KAMANDI (Jack Kirby)
22. OMAC (Jack Kirby)
23. Nearly any Lee-Kirby FF, but let's say the first Galactus story, just because everyone will have an embolism if I don't.
24. D.R. & QUINCH (Moore & Davis)
25. Everything by Alan Brennart - one issue of DAREDEVIL ("Promises"), several of BRAVE AND THE BOLD, (Batman & Robin of Earth-2, Batman & Hawk and the Dove, Golden Age Batman & Catwoman), a Black Canary SECRET ORIGIN, a DC Christmas Special story featuring Deadman and the ghost of Supergirl, a story in DETECTIVE #500 about a parallel timeline where Batman got to prevent the murder of that world's version of his parents, and any others I'm forgetting about right now.
26. The Stern-Byrne CAPTAIN AMERICA
27. Englehart's INCREDIBLE HULK
28. BRAVE & THE BOLD by Bob Haney & Jim Aparo
Um... okay... I guess it's a Top 20-something list. Stop snickering. If I give it too much more thought it may turn into a damned Top 40 list.
(There are always temptations, prior to actually submitting something somewhere and having it suddenly objectivized by actual publication, to rewrite and re-edit things endlessly. However, I think I'll leave the above list just as it is, both out of laziness and to most accurately reflect my wandering, near senile thought processes in coming up with it. )
Okay. Looking over the list of 28 some entries in my BEST SUPERHERO COMICS STORIES EVER list, I'm just going to naively hope that people understand why things like the Englehart DETECTIVEs, CAPTAIN AMERICAs, AVENGERS, and DR. STRANGEs made it onto the list. I'm going to similarly hope that the vast majority of you folks have no difficulty perceiving the obvious superiority of stuff like Scott McCloud's DESTROY!, Archie Goodwin & Walt Simonson's MANHUNTER, Alan Moore and Curt Swan's "Whatever Happened To The Man of Tomorrow?", the Steve Gerber DEFENDERS & MAN-THING, Alan Moore and Rick Veitch's 1963 (except for the last issue, which was pretty lame), Alan Moore and Alan Davis' early Marvelman stuff, a classic Lee-Heck AVENGERS two parter in which the Enchantress and Power Man frame and disgrace the team, and the heroes' eventual redemption, Miller and Mazzuchelli's BATMAN: YEAR ONE and DAREDEVIL: BORN AGAIN, Neil Gaiman's cannot-be-praised-highly-enough (despite often lousy art) SANDMAN, the goofy but always brilliant KAMANDI and OMAC by the King, the first Galactus story by the King and the Man, Tom Peyer and Rags Morales' extraordinary HOURMAN, and the astonishing, and unfortunately much too brief, creative tenure of Roger Stern and John Byrne on CAPTAIN AMERICA in 1980. I'm just going to assume that most of you have brains in your heads, and have read enough comics to realize that, even if you haven't actually read these, they are some awful goddam good comics, and you really SHOULD read them. Buy them. Own them. Treasure them. Love them.
However, if you disagree with me that any of them are not worthy of being included on a BEST SUPERHERO COMICS EVER list, or you just don't understand why I think so, feel free to email me, and I will endeavor to enlighten you. Or, you know, just haughtily ignore you. It really depends on how sleepy I am at the time.
Still, this leaves a few entries which probably, because the world is neither a fair nor a just place, require further explication.
- Everything written by Alan Brennart for comics except HOLY TERROR
Alan Brennart is a name that is undeservedly obscure to most comics fans, and that's a crime. Therefore, I shall elucidate a little on why his work should be on ANY discerning superhero comics Best Of All Time list.
Alan Brennart is one of those weird characters who doesn't HAVE to write comic books, but does anyway, just because he loves them so. Unfortunately for comic books as a whole, Brennart makes far more money writing for television than he ever could in comics, and the one time he actually consented to handle a regular series (DAREDEVIL, shortly after Frank Miller left it), the art Klaus Jansen turned in for the one script he completed so revolted him that he quit in horror and never looked back. (The issue in question, titled "Promises" in the Frank Miller tradition, is probably the finest single post Silver Age issue of DAREDEVIL to be done prior to Miller's BORN AGAIN coming out. And the artwork is, yeah, awful.)
To the best of my knowledge, this one issue of DD is all the writing Brennart has done for Marvel. Over at DC, he wrote several extraordinary issues of BRAVE AND THE BOLD making amazing use of the Earth-1/Earth-2 dichotomy. (One, where the modern day Batman is transported to Earth-2 and teams up with the Golden Age, now adult, Robin, and an aged Batwoman, in a world whose Batman has been heroically dead for more than a decade, is as brilliant as anything Alan Moore has ever written in the superhero genre. The others, featuring the courtship of the Golden Age Batman and Catwoman, and a bizarre team up of Batman and a middle aged Hawk & The Dove called "Time, See What's Become Of Me", were similarly deftly written and deeply moving, although the latter simply couldn't be made to make any sort of sense, given that Batman had apparently not aged a day since meeting the teen aged Hawk & the Dove back in the 70s, while they were in their 30s and going through early midlife crises.)
Brennart also wrote a moving story for DETECTIVE COMICS #500 in which Batman is offered the opportunity to travel into a parallel universe and save the Thomas and Martha Wayne currently alive there from being murdered by Joe Chill, and much later, after the Crisis, a pair of truly beautiful stories, one the secret origin of Black Canary, the other a Deadman Christmas tale with a very special guest star.
At DC, Brennart generally had pretty good luck with artists. The worst he got, on the Detective and Deadman stories, was Dick Giordano, whose uninspired Neal Adamsesque pencilling is often dull, but always clear and perfectly acceptable. Joe Staton turned in gorgeous art on the Black Canary and Golden Age Batman stories, and Jim Aparo did his usual effortlessly excellent job on the other two BRAVE AND THE BOLD stories. All told, one can pretty easily see why Brennart was so aghast at what Klaus Jansen did to his script.
Brennart did one more project I'm aware of for DC (or at least, that I can remember right this minute), a Batman Elseworlds story called HOLY TERROR. The art was by Norm Breyfogle, an artist I've always found myself perfectly capable of living without, and in all honesty, the plot simply didn't seem up to Brennart's usual high standard. Of course, this was pretty much a gimmick story, taking place in a universe in which Oliver Cromwell's rather strictly Puritan Christianity had suffused all civilized government, and a crusader for justice pretty much spent most of his time saving heretics from the Church. Since Heinlein already did this story just about as well as it's going to be done in "If This Goes On...", there wasn't much more for Brennart to do on the theme. A more or less typical menagerie scene, in which Batman breaks into the Holy Cathedral and finds a freak show of sequestered superhumans there, including an imprisoned Barry Allen and the green, glowing, indestructible, dead body of an alien found in the wreckage of a crashed space ship, is probably the high point of what has to stand as the low water mark of Brennart's comics career.
- WHAT IF #2 "What If The Avengers Had Never Been?"
This deceptively named very early issue of Marvel's usually useless WHAT IF franchise is easily the best thing ever published under that title. While this may seem to be damning with faint praise, it's also one of my all time favorite comics, and apparently, is a personal favorite of writer Jim Shooter, as well. Gorgeously drawn by the late Gil Kane and impressively inked by Klaus Jansen, this story follows the tradition of the first few WHAT IF issues, in that it looks at what logically might have happened had some aspect of early Silver Age Marvel continuity occurred slightly differently.
As mentioned, the story title is deceptive. The Avengers do, in fact, exist in this alternate universe tale, but at the point where the Hulk leaves the team (Avengers #2), Thor also decides to leave, precipitating the team breaking up entirely. When the Hulk later joins forces with Namor and they issue a challenge to the Avengers for combat to the death (for no sensible reason, but hey, this is comic books), only Iron Man is there to receive it. He can't ignore the threat that two such powerful menaces pose, but at the same time, he'd have to be seriously nuts to go fight them by himself. Which is when inspiration strikes: calling Hank Pym, Janet Van Dyne, and Rick Jones back to Avengers Mansion, he proposes that the four of them re-team, and that he enhance their effectiveness with specially designed suits of powered armor similar to his.
Obviously, given such a plot, it would have been very difficult to come up with an accurate WHAT IF title, so "What If The Avengers Had Never Been?" works as well as anything else. Without saying any more and spoiling the absolutely terrific ending, I'll just state unequivocally that this particular story is one of the most thrilling and satisfying tales of superheroic adventure I've ever read. It's deftly written, beautifully drawn, and if any WHAT IF story was to be picked for later sequelization, I really wish it had been this one rather than the saga of the comparatively dull and clumsy Fantastic Five. More stories of the valiant Armored Avengers would always be welcome here.
- "One Shot Hero" (WHATEVER BEST LIST)
This classic story of the Legion of Superheroes first appeared as a back up in an issue of Superboy featuring a fun but forgettable story in the front I won't bother to detail, save to say that the usually deft plotting of Cary Bates and stolid, reliable artwork of Bob Brown was immediately forgotten as soon as you turned the page and saw the bright, gorgeously drawn splash page of this story, showing an unknown hero in a striking red and orange costume facing down the entire Legion of Superheroes. This hero, Erg-1, had once been young rocket engineer Drake Burroughs, until a mishap at the starship yard had converted him into a being of pure energy (long before Wonder Man got resurrected as a walking ionic power pile). He needed a special containment suit to survive coherently, but his new form gave him a vast array of capacities, including the ability to alter his size drastically (like Colossal Boy or Shrinking Violet), the ability to change one chemical into another (like Element Lad, although the story wrongly attributed this power to the little seen Chemical King), or to become immaterial (like Phantom Girl). He even demonstrated enhanced hearing and vision capacities that, 'although artificial, rivaled even Superboy's' (a pretty damn bold claim in the pre Crisis DC Universe, where Superboy could hear a Daxamite sneeze in a distant solar system if he wanted to).
Despite this wealth of superhuman endowment, the Legion sneeringly rejected Energy Release Generator - 1 (yeah, that's what Erg stood for, I know, but, hey, this was a Silver Age DC comic) on the totally bogus grounds that while he could imitate many of their members' powers, he didn't have his own, original power. (They said this with a complete straight face, not even glancing at Mon El, Superboy, or Ultra Boy while they did it.) To this, Erg replied that he DID have one really spiffy, completely unique power... but when invited to demonstrate it, he had to refuse, for reasons he wouldn't explain. (Reasoning, perhaps, that ultrapowerful radioactive flatulence wasn't the sort of power that made anyone a future Legion President.)
Immediately after booting the crushed wannabe out of their clubhouse, the Legion got an emergency call from an agricultural planet, where, it turns out, pesky eco-terrorists (although we didn't call them that back then) had released a gigantic Eating Machine to devour all the crops that a hungry United Planets needed to survive.
Although Superboy, Mon El, or Ultra Boy could have flown to the distant solar system and beaten this rampaging hunk of hyperthyroid farm machinery into a quivering pile of scrap metal in a few seconds, then zipped back to Earth with a big sack of watermelon for everyone, the Legion really hates it when they do that, so instead, Colossal Boy, Phantom Girl, and Chemical King were dispatched in a big, cool looking, Cockrum designed Legion cruiser to take care of the monstrous metal marauder. (See, here's where the ever deft Cary Bates' mastery of plot exposition shows, in that during Erg-1's unsuccessful try out, we already found out what these heroes can do. Cool, huh?)
Well, Chemical King does... something... I can't remember what, but whatever it was, it was wrong (Chemical King had the power to enhance or retard chemical interactions, acting as a super catalyst... which may explain why he hardly ever got to do anything, because while that's a truly terrifying power in its implications, it's not one that a superhero generally looks cool using), and ineffective, as well. Phantom Girl tried to intangibly get inside the machine and pull its circuits out, but it gave her a nice jolt of electricity, which she really hated.
Colossal Boy, subtle and cunning strategist that he is, grew really really large and then hit the machine right in its massive reaping arm with his stomach, after which he collapsed to the ground writhing in pain. His teammates were helpless to rescue him (why, I don't know, but suddenly, they were a mile away, looking on in horror, when a few panels earlier, they'd been within a hundred yards of him), and he was about to be totally mulched, when suddenly... in a really cool sound effect... ERG-1, who, natch, had stowed away on the cruiser hoping for a chance to prove himself, came roaring up, blasting energy in a really cool special effect out of his feet like rocket exhaust, yelling at the other Legionnaires to "Get back - I can save him!" while thinking "No choice... I have to use... THE POWER!!!!"
At which point, he shoots this humungous, totally impressive power beam out of his visor and blasts the stupid super-reaper into a pile of scattered, glowing, melted rubble.
Well, Chemical King swoops down and drops a whole bunch of acid on the remains of the thing (again, a power he doesn't have, although he could have just stood there and concentrated on it and made it rust really fast) and Phantom Girl, whose nipples you have to figure just went ker- SPUNG!, is looking for Erg, thinking "Whoa, he blows stuff UP, that's like much cooler than bouncing or eating everything, the Legion's gotta take him NOW...!"
Only to find an empty containment suit, with a white wisp of smoke curling up from the empty visor. Erg... had a power he could only use once... because it would kill him. ::sniffle::
I'm a sucker for endings like that, I really am.
I should note, for those in the audience weeping now at this moving spectacle of heroic sacrifice (and you'd better believe I did the first time I read the story, what with those lovingly rendered tears running down the cheeks of Phantom Girl as she stared at that crumpled, forlorn, lifeless uniform), that Erg-1 eventually came back, saved the Legion from some dope called Molecule Master, and got admitted to full membership, whereupon he promptly changed his name to Wildfire, changed his personality to obnoxious smart ass, and never displayed ANY of the abilities he had in his try-out again, becoming simply an energy being who flies around and blasts people. I have no real clue if he survived Crisis or not, but to be perfectly honest, the decent, valiant, heroic Erg-1 wasn't very similar at all to the character named Wildfire anyway, so it really doesn't matter.
All the Bates-Cockrum LEGION stuff is very much worth reading, and has a very special spot in this aging fanboy's heart, but another story in particular, "The Fatal Five Who Twisted Time", is worthy of singling out as well. Like most time travel stories in comics, this one makes very little actual sense, but the Cockrum art is simply astounding, and seeing the Legion of Superheroes travel backwards in time to battle the Fatal Five, who have disguised themselves as members of a traveling circus in Smallville, would be worth a modern day cover price, let alone the measly twenty cents I paid for my copy at the spinner rack.
- "The Avengers/Defenders War"
Few of us are blessed enough to remember a time when multi-title, universe-wide crossovers weren't a yearly marketing event. However, there was indeed such a time, and in that time, the war between the Avengers and the Defenders for possession of Prester John's lost Evil Eye was an astonishing, unprecedented, and thrilling innovation in comic book storytelling. Interweaving between issues of AVENGERS and DEFENDERS, this was a story the likes of which few modern writers would be capable of plotting or scripting even adequately, much less with the dashing style of Stainless Steve Englehart.
As with most of Englehart's plotting back in his prime, this story was solidly built on previously established continuity. In this case, Steve wove together Loki's then-blindness, Dormammu's longing for vengeance on Dr. Strange, the Black Knight's being turned into a statue by the Enchantress, and a lost, nearly all powerful mystic artifact last seen in an old issue of the Fantastic Four, into a plot in which two master villains wound up tricking two rival superteams into seeking out the scattered pieces of the Evil Eye, each thinking that the other one was planning to use the pieces to conquer the world, while all they actually wanted it for was to help them turn the Black Knight human again.
Although the plot was, for the most part, a straightforward quest tale, broken down into chapters featuring certain members of one team battling members of the other team in a formula that hearkens back to the Justice Society of America, Englehart's extraordinary capacity for in-depth, concise, always intriguing, and beautifully believable characterization turned what could have been a ho-hum superteam beat 'em up into a thrilling, globe-spanning, heart stopping adventure that did not let up until the very final moments, when a beleaguered... ah, but I don't want to spoil it for you. Naturally, the good guys win and evil is once more foiled, but the manner in which it all comes about is something that must be read and savored for oneself.
For the most part adequately aided and abetted by the trustworthy if boring Bob Brown (on the AVENGERS chapters) and the somewhat more talented Sal Buscema (on the DEFENDERS stuff), the story unfolds crisply and clearly. If one wails for the lost visual potential in the rather stiff and dull presentation Brown gives us of the swashbuckling swordfight between the Valkyrie and the Swordsman, it's a relatively small kvetch, and almost made up for by Englehart's snappy word balloons. Sal Buscema turns in some excellent work, especially in the battles between Hawkeye and Iron Man, and later on in that same issue, when the Black Panther teamed up with Mantis, goes up against the wiles of Dr. Strange. The sight of the Panther darting out of an Indiana corn field, leaping from the ground to the top of a fence to the top of a tractor seat to the top of a corn silo and finally, straight into the stunned stomach of a low-flying Sorceror Supreme, is something to pop the eyes of any adolescent superhero fan, and still fills me with admiration 25 years later. Later chapters featuring Captain America vs. the Sub-Mariner (Cap had limited super strength back then, but yeah, Subby still pretty much cleaned his clock) and Thor vs. the Hulk were plenty of fun, too, although to an 11 year old eye, the Thor-Hulk battle, which wound up in a classic stand off, was kind of a disappointment.
As, way back then, I wasn't buying AVENGERS but had been a DEFENDERS fan since Day One (however, this crossover got me started on what was to be a lifelong addiction to Earth's Mightiest Heroes) I was, naturally, rooting for the Defenders. (Given that they numbered the Silver Surfer, Dr. Strange, and the Hulk amongst their storied ranks, I'd have to have been out of my mind to put my allowance on the Avengers, anyway.) Who won? Well, truth and justice, naturally, but it should be admitted, with at least a moderately loud "YEAH, baby", that prior to Cap and Subby figuring out the two teams had apparently been tricked, the Defenders were kickin' Earth's Mightiest Ass all over the landscape. Whoo hoo!
- PSI FORCE (Fabian Nicieza & various, including most notably Ron Lim)
Yes, Virginia, there is a NEW UNIVERSE title on my BEST SUPERHERO STORIES OF ALL TIME list, and there's even another one (Jim Shooter's STAR BRAND) on my Honorary Mentions list. Wherefore springs such perfidy? For where this is one truly great comic book series, even given the generally lousy art it suffered through, except for one or two issues that were drawn by, I think, Paul Ryan, or someone else much better than a very young Ron Lim, or the awful at any age Rodney Ramos. In an era suffused with so called 'realistic' treatments of superhuman characters (WATCHMEN and DARK KNIGHT were both big right around then) and equally, or even more, overrun with teen age superteams, PSI FORCE simply blew everything else away... so it was kind of a pity that only I and, apparently, The Mad Maple, were reading the book. Superhuman teens hunted across the Earth by international conspiracies, renegade corporations, and the CIA, psychotic Russian near-deities that were as dangerous and unpredictable as they were unstoppable, amazingly cool inside references to BUCKAROO BANZAI, and some of the most consistently interesting and even likeable heroic characters ever written in a supergoober funny book, all combined to make PSI FORCE one of the comics I looked forward to most every other month in the late 80s. And liking PSI FORCE as much as I did made the ongoing frenzy in a post-Shooter Marvel Bullpen to destroy, piece by piece, Shooter's brainchild, the New Universe, in the most humiliating and embarrassing manner possible, all the more unbearable. As the world of the New Universe became steadily more and more suffused with mean spirited and vindictive editorial directives from gleeful cowards taking a jackal-like joy in dismantling the work of a man they had never dared to criticize while he was actually working for Marvel, I became more and more disillusioned about the entire industry of comics.
Apparently, Fabian Nicieza did, too, as after the New Universe was finally, mercifully, laid to rest, he never even tried to write to this standard of excellence again. Selling out enthusiastically to the cadre of late-80s marketing strategists who proclaimed that all Marvel comics would now be targeted at an adolescent target audience presumed to be stupid, Nicieza went on to phone in half hearted scripts for the half witted teen team concept The New Warriors, apparently content to get a monthly paycheck and never, ever, push any kind of creative envelope or make any real effort to excel again. Those who have only seen Nicieza's truly lame work on stuff like WARRIORS, NOVA, and a few scattered other projects have no idea of the heights Fabe-o is truly capable of scaling, and that's both a pity and a shame. Still, for those few of us lucky enough to pick up an issue of Fabian's PSI FORCE before it was killed and buried, a legend died when the New Universe finally went under.
- STARMAN (Stern & Lyle)
"Wait... wait..." they're saying, their faces starting to be suffused with appalled horror, "you... you don't mean that idiot with the terrible costume who got killed during that Eclipso crossover, do you? Oh GOD NO!"
Yep. Him the guy.
I know. To the truly intelligent comics fan these days, there is no Starman except that awful wank with the hockey stick and no costume written by James Robinson and currently taking up space in JSA. Oh, wait. Did I say 'truly intelligent'? Perhaps I should amend that, and substitute 'knee jerk trendy yuppie pop culture wastoid comics fans who THINK they're intelligent because they've read all Neil Gaiman's fantasy novels and they really 'get' them' for 'truly intelligent'.
Yeah. Yeah. Certainly, anyone reading this will be convinced of my wisdom, good will towards men, and generally generous nature by that.
But this isn't about the Robinson STARMAN, or the fine, fine fellows who somehow think he's a worthwhile character despite an absence of any actual qualities or substance that would incline one to think so. This is about one of many other characters DC has given relatively brief test runs to that made use of the name "Starman"... and, to my mind, the only really good one.
Will Peyton was a rarity in new comics heroes for the late 80s... a genuinely nice and admirable guy who, upon receiving superpowers, became a superhero because, you know, he thought it was the right thing to do. (BORing, the Robinson Starman fan sneers at this point, in their oh so sophisticated, modern, cynical tones. You mean he doesn't sort of stumble accidentally into a morally non-judgmental career as a mostly undefined, laid back, unconventional kind of super-activist in between bouts of slacking and ineffectual rebellion against the orthodox, structured establishment? Nope. And he didn't whine 24-7-365, either. What the hell kind of superhero is THAT?) As lovingly written by Roger Stern and appealingly drawn by Tom Lyle, Peyton's Starman was both likeable and worthy of respect, and Stern's plotting, which had fallen to a grievously low standard during several at best mediocre years on AVENGERS, recovered beautifully with both this book and the contemporaneously published POWER OF THE ATOM. While the folks who heaped disdain and abuse on this character during his title's relatively brief run were seemingly legion, it should be remembered that the most popular characters in the history of recent comics have been the new X-Men, and the New Teen Titans have a lot of fans, too. I found the comic and the character both utterly charming, and still mourn its cancellation and his demise.
I grant you, the first, purple and yellow, costume was pretty revolting.
- D.R. & QUINCH (Moore & Davis)
I imagine it's possible that quite a few modern comics readers have never heard of Alan Moore and Alan Davis' irrepressibly psychotic, genocidal, and relentlessly hilarious duo of Poster Boys For Non Political Correctness. If so, it's a damned shame. Long before LOBO and AMBUSH BUG, D.R. and Quinch were running around the spaceways with enormous energy cannons in their hands, blasting to carbonized fragments anything that moved slowly enough to let them, and laughing hysterically while they did it. Utterly without virtue as role models or any redeeming characteristics whatsoever, D.R. and Quinch epitomized mindless, random, insanely funny sociopathy, as they rebelled against any and every example of authority they could find or imagine in the most reprehensibly irresponsible and massively destructive fashion imaginable. In one story, they even traveled back in time, as part of a class project, and destroyed the entire Earth, although no one really cared, because there was no demonstrable sentient life on the planet, anyway.
Alan Davis does some of his earliest artwork here, and in some ways it's hard to judge just how good it is, since he's drawing nothing but ugly aliens doing really strange things from the first panel to the last. However, everything is clear and more than that, visually uproarious; it's difficult to imagine Moore having a better collaborator.
Back in the mid 80s or early 90s (I'm old, leave me alone) someone or other put out a small, square, black and white collection of all the D.R. & QUINCH stories, which really pales in comparison to the full color, very large size they were first published in in 2000 A.D. But if that collection is the only place you can find these, by all means, snatch it up. In any form, these are stories that belong in the collection of any true comics fan... although it occurs to me that they are by no means superhero stories, so I'm once again breaking my own rules by including them.
- Steve Englehart's INCREDIBLE HULK
Drawn by then-perpetual HULK artist Herb Trimpe, this relatively brief run of early 70s Incredible One issues is often overlooked, even by studious Englehart fans. That's a pity, because in my opinion the 'child-like' Hulk has never been depicted better, and only as well years later, under Roger Stern and Sal Buscema.
In even his brief stay on the title, Englehart nearly reinvented the Hulk, introducing a slew of stuff that would stick around forever in Hulk continuity and the memories of Hulk fans, writers, and editors, including Betty's first husband, Glenn Talbot, Betty's first transformation to the Harpy, the very first Wendigo story (which later, under Len Wein, led to the debut of an obscure and quickly forgotten character named Wolverine), the death of the Mimic, the first seeds of Hank McCoy's transformation to his blue-furred form, the introduction of Jim Wilson, and, well, probably the only stories in which anyone has ever remotely come close to being able to take the Mobile Organism Designed Only for Killing seriously. He also moved the Hulk from America to Canada in what was doubtless a comic book first, and established exactly why it is the Hulk is always in torn purple pants - Bruce Banner really likes purple. Englehart's run was distinguished by his usual riveting character work and beautifully scripted captions and dialogue, superior plotting, and, well, about the best artwork Herb Trimpe was ever gonna do. While generally obscured by the more cosmic and philosophical plot and scripting wonders that were yet to come in AVENGERS, DR. STRANGE, and CAPTAIN AMERICA, this early effort of Englehart's still stands out, to me, as a nice chunk of some of his finest writing.
- BRAVE & THE BOLD by Bob Haney & Jim Aparo
Just how long Bob Haney wrote BRAVE AND THE BOLD for I have no idea, although I have some reference books at home that might tell me. However, while I usually put everything, good or bad, on the writer, in this case, picking out this particular entry for my BEST COMIC BOOK STORIES OF ALL TIME list, I have to say that Jim Aparo's art is integral to that opinion. In fact, both Haney's incredibly surreal, totally continuity screwed, yet somehow always very satisfying and enjoyably structured, scripts, and Aparo's extraordinarily fluid artwork that combines the best qualities of Milt Caniff and Neal Adams, are absolutely necessary to get BRAVE AND THE BOLD on that list. It's the fusion of the two's talents that does it. Haney may well have written other goofy B&B stories prior to Aparo being assigned to the book which I simply don't remember; conversely, Aparo, I know, has done absolutely stunning artwork on other strips, like ADVENTURE featuring both THE SPECTRE and AQUAMAN; and I couldn't care less. It's only here, where Haney's "I don't give a flying frick about continuity, I'm just gonna write a cool story" approach to scripting, combined with Aparo's absolute mastery of the two dimensional sequential storytelling art form, to produce a run of comics that, while they had and have absolutely no lasting impact on the 'reality' of the DC Universe that they presumably took place in, are nonetheless indelibly burned into my memory and, I suspect, into the memory of anyone who ever read them.
A few random examples: one particularly deranged issue featured Batman teamed up with World War II hero Sgt. Rock to stop some sort of sabotage/espionage that was going on in an overseas American embassy. Rock was assigned to embassy security and, other than a slight shading of grey in his hair, didn't look a day older than in any issue of OUR ARMY AT WAR, all of which must have taken place a good thirty years prior to that particular issue of BRAVE & THE BOLD. Haney just didn't care. A bunch of fans asked to see Batman team up with Sgt. Rock on the letters page, Haney wrote a story. Similarly, when people requested a team up between Batman and Wildcat, Haney set about to give us a thrilling tale of desert adventure and corporate intrigue, without the slightest reference to the fact that each hero lives on a different version of Earth, and on Wildcat's Earth, Batman was a contemporary member of the Justice Society of America who had, at that point, long ago retired, turned his superhero mantle over to the adult Robin, and taken up a career as Gotham City's police commissioner. Perhaps strangest of all is the story in which Batman, in response to some American Indian rites performed in a possible alternate future, has his spirit pulled into Earth After Disaster and solidified, so he can help Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth... who recognizes Batman, because he's read BRAVE & THE BOLD comic books!
But no matter how "what the HELL is going on HERE" the plots got, one thing you could consistently count on in a Haney BRAVE AND THE BOLD story was that it would be entertaining, thrilling, and fun. And the ones drawn by Jim Aparo would look amazing, too. A great many fans insist on referring to the Neal Adams Batman as being visually definitive, but my money is on Jim Aparo. No matter how completely freaked out the scripts might get... even ones where Batman actually died at the start of the story and only managed to triumph over the evildoers because the Atom slipped inside his skull and jumped around in his brain running his body like a great big marionette... these issues were always memorable, remarkable, and enormously enjoyable.
Well, that's the BEST list, more or less dealt with. Looking over that list, I imagine most people... well, most comics fans, especially, most comics fans around my age... are a little shocked, if not by what's on it (although there are doubtless more than a few hypothetical readers nodding their heads as they read STARMAN, and then doing a double take and wondering 'who the great leaping fugg are Stern & Lyle?'), then by what is noticeably not. No WATCHMEN? No DARK KNIGHT? For God's sake, have I lost my mind? Nothing by Peter David, Grant Morrison, Mark Waid, Roy Thomas, James Robinson, Garth Ennis, Jamie Delano, or any of those other, you know, hoity toity la dee dah 'oh we're just so bloody GRAND' writers. (I know there's a big one I'm leaving off the list, too... some guy who writes, like, TRANSMETROPOLITAN and THE AUTHORITY and like that. However, I can't remember his name right now, so screw 'im.) No Will Eisner? No for God's sake JOHN BYRNE? No X-MEN stories? No SPIDER-MAN stories? No Chuck Dixon BATMAN stories? No NEW TEEN TITANS? What about all those Frank Miller ninja stories in DAREDEVIL? Am I frickin' deRANGED?
However, you never know, I might correct some of these deficiencies with my list of Honorary Mentions. We'll find out, in Countdown to Senility: Part Two - HONORARY MENTIONS.
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John Jones, the Manhunter from Marathon, IL, no longer dwells in Marathon, IL. I think we all know by now that John is a hopeless loonie. I mean, really. He didn't put WATCHMEN on a BEST SUPERHERO COMICS OF ALL TIME list with 28 entries on it? What the hell is WRONG with this man? I'll bet he lives in a swing state and voted for Ralph Nader. Bastard.