The best non-superhero comic books of all-time: 91-100

Ok, I’m probably going to regret this, but here goes.

I thoroughly enjoyed Rolling Stone’s recent blog regarding the 50 best non superhero graphic novels of all time. I thought it was a nice blend of populism & art house douchebaggery. And of course I thought they got a lot wrong. So….I decided to make my own list. And of course I couldn’t just keep it to 50. And of course even whittling down to 100 was hard. I’m going to post the list gradually over the next couple of weeks/months, but first, here are the rules/things to remember:

  • Any type of comic book could qualify to be on the list: single issues, trades, collections, original graphic novels, newspaper comic strips, mangas, webcomics etc. Sometimes one arc made the list, sometimes an entire series.
  • I tried to keep this to one book per creative team. Otherwise the list would have looked something like this: 1-20: Chris Ware. 21-40: Dan Clowes, etc.
  • This is not even remotely comprehensive, or even fair. For example, there aren’t that many comics on the list from before the 1970s. Or even before the 80s or 90s. It obviously isn’t because there weren’t great comics before then…that’s just when I fell in love with comics. Still, I think it’s a fairly diverse list.
  • There are probably at least 3 or 4 books on this list that could have/should have, been considered on a list of the best superhero books of all time. Bah.You and your rules.

P.S. Yes, I plan on tackling the superhero genre next. In about 6 months. Here goes.

100. Nightly News by Jonathan Hickman (Image, 2006)

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This kind of slapped me in the face when it came out almost a decade or so ago. Although somewhat clumsy compared to some of the work that Hickman has done since, Nightly News still delivers a visceral gut punch, as well as valuable social commentary, that’s rare among modern mainstream comics. The only sad thing here, is how valid the criticisms that Hickman levels against modern media still are.

99. Birth Of A Nation by Reggie Hudlin, Aaron McGruder, and Kyle Baker (Three Rivers Press, 2005)

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In 2005, it was still unpopular to criticize America Foreign Policy, especially as interpreted by George Bush & Dick Cheney. And so Birth of A Nation was a welcome breath of fresh air. In Kyle Baker, Aaron McGruder finally had a cartoonist talented enough to give his vicious barbs some depth, and Reggie Hudlin gave the project gravitas that it wouldn’t have had otherwise.

98. Den by Richard Corben (Fantagor, 1973)

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Before Cerebus, before Bone, and before Hellboy, Richard Corben’s Den put the E in epic. Part Princess of Mars adventure story, part Robert Howard Cthuluian horror yarn, Den easily escaped the handcuffs of the genres it was inspired by, due to the vibrancy & buoyancy of Corben’s artwork.

97. Elephantmen by Richard Starkings and various artists (Image, 2006)

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Even after 8 years on the stands, Elephantmen still manages to zig when you think it’s going to zag. Originally conceived as a fairly straight forward sci-fi detective story, Starking’s exploration of modern bioethics & geopolitics has evolved into a masterclass in world building, with some of the most exciting artists in modern comics providing a stunning visual centerpiece.

96. The Last Musketeer by Jason (Fantagraphics, 2008)

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I picked The Last Musketeer, but really any of Jason’s bizarre little anthropomorphic character-mysteries could have gotten the nod. Athos (the Last Musketeer, duh), is our hero here. He’s hundreds of years old, and down on his luck. A martian invasion gives Athos one last stab at heroism and redemption. Jason’s whimsical approach to adventure storytelling only serves to heighten the emotional impact.

95. Smoke by Alex De Campi & Igor Kordey (IDW, 2005)

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The political thriller is a relatively unexplored genre in the comics field, and De Campi’s take on an England not far from our own, remains one of the best of the modern era. This sits on the stands very nicely with other antifascism landmarks such as V For Vendetta, Maus, & The Dark Knight Returns, and Kordey turns out some of the tightest lines of his career.

94. The Adventures Of Barry Ween Boy Genius by Judd Winick (Oni Press, 1999)

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Although Winick’s reality TV stint in the early 90’s manages to still keep him from being taken seriously in comics, he really is a compelling character writer. Barry Ween was his first foray into fiction comics, and it still stands up as a thoroughly entertaining (not to mention extremely funny) adventure comic, but with a character focus not often seen in the genre. He deftly combines booby jokes and action storytelling with a serious peek into what utter loneliness looks like.

93. Blacksad by Juan Diaz Canales & Juanjo Guarnido (Dark Horse, 2004)

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The idea of talking animals serving as a metaphor for mid-20th Century race relations is a compelling one, but it’s Guarnido’s lush painting that really is the star of this show. If it weren’t for how stunningly beautiful every page is, I’m not sure we would be considering this as much more than just another decent detective story. But each page is stunningly beautiful, and so a run-of-the mill gumshoe yarn becomes a gorgeous work of art. Such is comics.

92. DMZ by Brian Wood, Riccardo Burchielli, and various artists. (Vertigo, 2006)

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Even years after it’s end, DMZ still serves as an effective response to the modern marriage between big government & multi-national corporations, and really shines a bright spotlight onto the current leaning towards isolationist tendencies that can be found all over current American politics. What makes this series special however, is that is gives us a lead character that is so likeable, and so empathetic, that we forget (for a time), just how serious the subject matter that we are discussing is. He makes us believe that we’re reading just another thriller, when in fact we are looking at a very possible future for our continent.

91. Green River Killer: A True Detective Story by Jeff Jensen & Jonathan Case (Dark Horse, 2011)

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Part autobiographical memoir, part true crime thriller, Green River Killer is one of those books that really shows just how transcendent the medium of comicscan be. Jeff Jensen is the writer here, and the son of one of the detectives assigned to the Green River Killer case.  The road he takes on here is utterly unsensational. There is no big “Ah Ha” moment, no violent chase scene. It’s the story of one part of a years-long investigation, and the toll it took on a family. This small story approach gives even more weight to the bigger story, showcasing just how important the details can be in storytelling. Jonathan Case is the perfect artist for this biography, utilizing shadow & light effectively, yet sparingly.

Next up: The Mob, giant killing, and Buddha!

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The Great Comic Book Cull Of 2010/2011 Part 42: Marvel Comics – Deadpool, Daughters Of The Dragon, Dr. Strange, and The Exiles

Deadpool – Deadpool Classic Vol. 1

Deadpool might be the last original Marvel character to really gain mainstream popularity. When you consider that he was created almost 20 years ago, it shows how much people care about the current slate Marvel characters.

His popularity is mystifying to me. I will give a no-prize to anyone that can give me even one reason why the character still endures. Rereading this collection of his first few solo mini series did nothing to change my mind. The fun, cartoony art by Ed McGuinness and Joe Madureira are overshadowed  by the infantile humour and poor pacing, and I’m more than a little embarrassed that I bought this in the first place.

CULL

 

Daughters Of The Dragon – Samurai Bullets

Sometimes the math doesn’t add up. I’ve long been a fan of these former supporting cast members, not to mention that I love the writing team of Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti. I also think that Khari Evans has a lot of potential, and has a big future in store for her in the comic biz. Then why don’t I like this more? I think it’s because they are trying to tell so many types of story at once (superhero, kung-fu, blaxploitation), that they lose their focus, and forget to tell a cohesive one. Although there’s some joy here, it’s ultimately not compelling enough to keep.

CULL

Doctor Strange – Master Of The Mystic Arts

This is a digest collection of some the good Doctor’s earliest adventures by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Brief primer: Former great surgeon goes to Tibet to regain the use of his hands after a terrible accident. He meets the Ancient One, a Tibetan yoda that teaches him how to become Earth’s greatest sorcerer. These are breathtaking stories, and Ditko was never stronger than his work on this 1960’s mind-fuck.  Unfortunately the digest format doesn’t do this amazing work justice, but I’ll keep it until I can replace it with the Marvel Masterworks version. Essential for fans of 1960’s Marvel comics.

KEEP

Doctor Strange – The Oath

Doctor Strange is probably the most successful Marvel character never to have his own successful series. There have been numerous shortlived attempts at doing more with Doctor Strange, but it’s never seemed to work, and for the most part Marvel seems content at using Strange as it’s resident deus magical ex machina. The Oath was a mini from a few years ago, written by Brian K. Vaughan, with some incredible art by Marcos Martin. This a little-known gem of a story, one that focuses a little more on the Doctor part of the character than the Strange part. Although Brian Vaughan is more known for his creator-owned comics, this is one of my favourites of the superhero work that he’s done.

KEEP

Exiles – Exiles, A World Apart, Out Of Time, Legacy, Unnatural, Fantastic Voyage, Time Breakers, Age Of Apocalypse, Bump In The Night, A Blink In Time, Earn Your Wings, World Tour Book 1 and 2, The New Exiles Enemy Of The Stars, Starting Over

This is the kind of series that gets launched regularly by both major publishers, but rarely seem to work for any period of tine. The concept was designed to take advantage of the endless amounts of alternate universes that Marvel seems to create on a weekly basis. The Exiles were a team of characters tangentially related to the X-Men. They were comprised of characters from different alternate realities, all teaming up to solve “cracks” in the multi-verse. No, I don’t know what that means either. I do know that what should have been another generic team book became one of the more interesting straight superhero books that Marvel published in the first half of the last decade. At least that’s how it started. But the reason why the book worked wasn’t the characters, it was writer Judd Winick, and the minute he left the book, it didn’t take long for it to become yet another bland superhero comic.

Why? Character vs. Plot. Winick is a character guy, and he spent a lot of time crafting a team of well-rounded, two dimensional character, with some real emphasis on their relationships, both romantic and otherwise. When Tony Bedard too over the book, character got pushed down in favour of crazy, intricate plots, involving as many alternate realities as possible. While some of those stories were readable, any hint of “specialness” that the book previously had was soon gone. By the time Chris Claremont started to write it, the book was just downright awful.

Exiles, A World Apart, Out Of Time, Legacy, Unnatural, Fantastic Voyage: KEEP

Time Breakers, Age Of Apocalypse, Bump In The Night, A Blink In Time, Earn Your Wings, World Tour Book 1 and 2, The New Exiles Enemy Of The Stars, Starting Over: CULL

Next up: the Fantastic Four!

 

The Great Comic Book Cull Of 2010/2011 Part 10: DC Comics – Green Arrow

Green Arrow is a character I’ve always liked, because for a long time he was of of the fewDC heros that I would say had any real character depth. He’s abrasive, passionate, and has numerous flaws. In short, he should have been published by Marvel. He’s never taken off from a sales perspective, and DC finally decided to smother their grandma with a pillow and killed him off in 1995.

5 years later, they brought him back . They enlisted Kevin Smith, who had a bit of a rep as a character saver due to his work on Daredevil, to do the deed. He concocted an extremely convoluted, yet entertaining epic that brought Oliver Queen back from the grave. It was a huge hit, and since then GA has been a prominent part of the DCU.

Green Arrow The Longbow Hunters

This is often considered one of the great DC stories of the 1980’s. Keep in mind the context of the time. Year One, Watchmen, and Dark Knight had been huge successes, and so DC did numerous reboots that brought some of their characters back to their grim and gritty roots, even those that had never had grim and gritty roots. This brings us to Green Arrow, and The Longbow Hunters. GA and Black Canary move to Seattle, and even though she used to be a member of a group that saves planets on a regular basis, Canary gets kidnapped by drug dealers and GA has to save her, which isn’t so good for Black Canary, but did turn out to be pretty good for Gail Simone, who ended up making her career on fixing the damage done to Canary in this story. Arrow goes a little nuts, and there’s a lot of complicated spy stuff that isn’t very interesting, and this sets the tone for Green Arrow stories for the next 7 or 8 years.

When I compare this to some of the more recent Arrow stories, I can’t say that this is a very good book, though Mike Grell’s artwork here is stunning. For me, I prefer fun and cocky Green Arrow to angry and brooding Green Arrow. Not that I don’t want emotional conflict in my superhero books, but the GA stories around this time seemed to fit Batman much better than they did the Emerald Archer. Again, this might be more of a personal taste thing than anything else, but this incarnation of Green Arrow just leaves me cold.

KEEP, just barely due to the great art and the importance of the series.

Green Arrow –  The Kevin Smith Trades (Quiver/Sounds Of Violence)

So now GA has been dead for 5 years, and his son has been wearing the mantle of GA in his absence. Only problem is, he’s extremely boring. So DC decided to bring back the original, and got Kevin Smith and Phil Hester to do it.

To my surprise, there’s still a LOT to love about these trades. They require a pretty serious love of obscure DC continuity, and Kevin Smith uses every single DC character he’s ever heard of in an attempt to really bring Ollie back in style. Smith really had a knack for this character, and this arc would be the basis for Ollie Queen’s characterization for most of the next decade. There’s also plenty to hate here. Kevin Smith never met a word balloon he didn’t love to fill, and his inexperience with the medium is apparent time and time again. Every page is crammed with text and art, and the story is so busy that sometimes you forget to breathe. That being said it’s still a good “back from the dead” story, and Phil Hester’s art is what I’ll always think of when I think of Green Arrow, mostly due to his stellar work here.

KEEP

Green Arrow –  The Archer’s Quest

For the follow-up to Quiver, DC enlisted well-known novelist Brad Meltzer, to write his very first DC story. Since then he’s written numerous arcs for DC, but this may still be his best. It’s essentially a love letter to Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams famous “Hard Travelin’ Heroes” Green Arrow/Green Lantern stories of the 1970’s, and remains one of my all time favourite Green Arrow arcs. It’s a story that really shows off how many shades of grey that the character has, and is must reading for any DC fan. Phil Hester is still doing the pencils here, and still knocking it out of the park.

KEEP.

 

Green ArrowThe Judd Winick trades (Straight Shooter, City Walls, Moving Targets, Heading Into The Light, Crawling From The Wreckage, Road To Jericho)

So having guys like Kevin Smith and Brad Meltzer write your books is great when you’re trying to create interest in a character relaunch, but when it came time to finally get a permanent writer for Green Arrow, DC went to Judd Winick. Winick seems to be one of the most hated writers in comics. Now, you should take that with a grain of salt, as the same people who call for a writer’s death are also the same people who are buying every book that writer is involved with. It makes no sense, but that zombie-like habitual buyer is part of the reason why comics is in such a state of flux right now.

Now, I happen to like Winick’s writing for the most part. I find him to be an extremely character focused writer, and as such he comes up with occasionally unconventional scenarios for his characters, and his story arcs tend to focus on the emotional after effects of superheroics, rather than the actual superheroics themselves. To that end, Winick created a rich supporting cast for Ollie here (His son Connor, the new Speedy, a great new villain in Brick), and spent several years building up the notion that Ollie Queen had an extended family in the truest sense of the word.

Now, if you went to an average comic book message forum, you’d probably get a lot of people who disagree with me. Why? Because Winick puts his grown up characters in grown up situations. That’s it. It’s that simple, and the fact is that many superhero comics fans are only fans of a certain type of comic, which means that anything that challenges their narrow definition of what comic books are must be hated and feared. Probably the biggest controversy of his arc was that he gave Green Arrow’s young sidekick the HIV virus. This was an extremely gutsy move on Winick’s part, and to this day it’s stands out for me as a great example of character development. It added a lot of layers to both that character and to Green Arrow proper,

Now, that’s not to say the run is perfect. It loses steam near the end of the series, and the art is very inconsistent in places (though seemed to get better when Scott McDaniel took over the penciling duties. But all in all this was a good run for a mainstream superhero book.

KEEP

Green ArrowYear One.

Although GA is one of the most interesting characters in the DCU, he also has one of the least interesting origins in the DCU: He was rich, got stranded on an island, and then when he got off the island he became a superhero. So by that logic the cast of survivor could apply to be in the Justice League. Andy Diggle and Jock attempt to salvage something interesting out of it, but to no avail.

CULL.

 

 

Green Arrow & Black CanaryRoad To The Altar, The Wedding Album, Family Business, A League Of Their Own, Enemies List

So imagine you are an editor at DC comics. You have lots of popular characters, but lots of those characters can’t actually sustain their own books. Two of your writers have spent the last several years rebuilding two of these characters from scratch, and brought them to the point where they both have successful books that are also critically acclaimed. So what do you do? If your answer is “Cancel both books and completely fly in the face of the last 5 years of characterization and have those characters marry each other and then start a new book with the two of them that isn’t remotely as interesting as the books you cancelled?” then you should be in charge of DC Comics. Yep, they married Green Arrow and Black Canary (yes, technically they didn’t cancel Birds of Prey until later, but the removal of that character from the series was the first real nail in the coffin of that book), the two characters least likely to actually settle down in a monogamous relationship in the DCU. Batman and Superman would make a better couple. But they did it, and so it was Judd Winick’s job to salvage the baby from the bath water. While I’ve read MUCH worse, and this wasn’t a horrible series by any means, it also wasn’t great, and from the beginning of the arc the whole thing screamed “EDITORIAL MANDATE”.  I’m keeping the first arc that features the wedding, but getting rid of the rest.

The Wedding Album: KEEP. All others. CULL

Next up: Green Lantern!