Longbox Graveyard #18
One of the pleasures of publishing Longbox Graveyard has been meeting other fans in the online comics community. One of the first to comment on this blog was the enigmatic Mars Will Send No More, who has proven a kindred soul with his love of Marvel’s “Cosmics” and his admiration of classic Bronze Age comics runs, such as Walt Simonson’s Thor. Mars further endeared himself by giving me good-natured grief over my Top Ten DC Comics Characters list (and responded with a wobbly list of his own), so when he threw down the gauntlet on Twitter about doing a Top Single Issues list, I was eager to pick it up.
Mars has already led off with a thoughtful Top Issues list at his own blog, with a far-ranging collection of deeply personal choices well outside the mainstream focusing on dinosaurs, dragonflies, and monoliths, and with little reliance on “dorks in tights punching each other.” Lacking Mars’ eclectic tastes, my list is almost entirely about costumes in Fist City, but that’s a good thing — it means we can provide lists with minimal overlap, and together recommend a full twenty single issue stories worth reading. (Well, fifteen, actually, but more about that later).
Like my Marvel and DC Top Characters lists, this list of Top Single Issues isn’t comprehensive. These aren’t the best stories ever told, or the best-selling, or the best-known, or the most significant. They’re just my favorites, to the degree that I can remember them after reading comics for better than thirty years. My list is idiosyncratic and deliberately so, and presented in no particular order. They’re just superior stories I feel are worthy of note.
my blog, my rules … any objections?
A staple of the Golden Age, the single issue story is a dying form. Even in the Bronze Age which is the focus of Longbox Graveyard, the emphasis was generally on two-part stories, with the single-issue form usually reserved for the dreaded fill-in story. In recent years the single-issue story has all but vanished from DC and Marvel books, as storytelling has “decompressed” into six or twelve issue arcs intended for republication as trade paperbacks.
It’s a shame the form is going away, because the single-issue format forces creators to focus on a small and polished slice of action, with only minimal reference to greater events. Single-issue stories strip away many of the things I most dislike about comics — languid storytelling, dense continuity, and long and confusing fight scenes — in favor of economical storytelling. A single-issue story is harder to write than a multi-part arc, but when done well, a single-issue book is about as good as comics get.
For this list I tried to pick stories that genuinely stand alone, without directly extending into the previous or following issues. I looked for stories with minimal dependence on continuity (though some continuity is impossible to avoid in comics), and I wasn’t especially concerned about page-count — if the tale was published as a single story, then it was eligible for the list, whether it was a 48-page original graphic novel or a Will Eisner seven-page masterpiece.
Speaking of which …
While I appreciate and respect Golden Age comics, I don’t much like reading them, preferring the reinvented sensibility and sophistication of Silver Age and later stories, but for Will Eisner’s Spirit, I make an exception. Partly this is down to Eisner’s work being so modern — or at least seeming modern, given than Eisner practically invented modern comics storytelling whenever he put pencil to paper. Eisner is a comfortable destination for modern comics fans wishing to sample books from a distant era — I guarantee you will flip to the copyright page and shake your head in wonder that these stories were published decades before the 1961 birth of the Fantastic Four.
My knowledge of Eisner is far from comprehensive, and that I have so much of his work still to discover is a happy problem to have. I am working my way through the hardback Spirit Archives, which collect the Spirit in publication order, but I also jumped the line and picked up The Best of The Spirit, spotlighting twenty-two Spirit tales from the 1940s and 1950s. Any of those stories would be worthy members of this list (and Eisner could take every slot on my top ten!), but for today I’m restricting myself to a single story — “Ten Minutes,” originally published in September of 1949.
You don’t need to know a lot about the Spirit to enjoy this slice-of-life story — the Spirit is basically a guest star in this particular strip, which tells the tale of the last ten minutes of the life of Freddy, a neighborhood nobody who crosses the line to capital crime and pays the price in this short-but-sweet seven page story. Delivering a complete story in just seven pages is difficult, but Eisner embraces the time limit of the story, telling us in the first caption that the story will take ten minutes to read, then counts down the time by putting a stopwatch in the first panel of every page that follows.
What would seem a gimmick for any other creator is just another day at the office for Eisner — in those seven pages he tells possibly the first “real time” story in comics history; introduces us to luckless Freddy; shows us how his shiftless frustration boils over into a heartbreaking murder; follows Freddy to his own foredoomed end; and shows how a heedless world goes on ticking, oblivious to Freddy’s little rise and fall. Like all of Eisner’s work, it’s a tight, soulful story told with masterfully illustrated emotion, humor, action, and pathos.
You can read “Ten Minutes” (in just ten minutes!) and other classic Eisner tales in The Best of The Spirit.
Winter Soldier: Winter Kills
This book almost doesn’t make the list, because it’s deeply enmeshed in Marvel continuity, drawing on the Civil War cross-over event, and two years’ worth of Ed Brubaker’s run on Captain America (to say nothing of the seventy-five years history of Cap himself). But the book is so sharply-written that I cannot leave it off my list, and Brubaker, as always, uses continuity with restraint, deepening the entertainment for readers who understand the references, while at the same time imposing few barriers to new readers.
The story is simpler than it sounds — a lonely Christmas Eve in New York for the Winter Soldier (Captain America’s resurrected World War II sidekick, Bucky Barnes), the first such holiday “back in the world” for Barnes, who was thought lost during the war, and is trying to shake off the effects of being a brainwashed Soviet sleeper agent for the last half-century. Christmas Eve isn’t silent night, of course, as Barnes gets pulled into a raid on a Hydra base, and the book does have a nice bit of action, but where the story shines is in it’s characterization. Barnes, Nick Fury, and the Sub-Mariner all have richly nuanced dialogue in this tale, and Captain America, appearing entirely in flashback, tells the only joke of his life when he reminiscences about punching Hitler.
The story concludes with a poignant graveyard scene that I referenced in my Top Marvel Characters list two weeks ago, which again displays the right way to use continuity, as Barnes struggles with guilt from his murderous past, and receives friendship and emotional support from the least likely source — the remote and imperious Sub-Mariner. A beautifully-written and pitch-perfect story.
You can read this story (along with the best Captain America stories ever written) in the highly-recommended Captain America Omnibus Vol. 1.
The Song of Red Sonja
In my review of the Barry Windsor-Smith era of Conan the Barbarian I remarked that Conan stories follow a certain formula — but it’s a good formula. The formula is front-and-center in issue #24 of Conan the Barbarian, which marked the second time we’d meet Red Sonja, and the last time Windsor-Smith would pencil the book.
The plot is something you’ve seen a hundred times before — Conan and Sonja are off to steal some treasure, and along the way there’s a tavern brawl, a tower to climb, and a giant snake to kill. By-the-numbers stuff, for all that it is brilliantly drawn by Windsor-Smith, who’s insane attention to detail could not be appreciated in the original printings, but which is marvelously on display in the Dark Horse Conan reprints.
What makes this issue stand out from others of its era is Roy Thomas’ script. The plot may be off-the-shelf, but Thomas provides sharp dialogue that shows Conan at his headstrong and lusty best. Conan knows that Sonja is taking advantage of him, but he figures it’s worth it for a chance at some treasure and (even more promising) the hope of getting inside Sonja’s pants. For her part, Sonja seems unusually tempted by Conan, musing that breaking her vow of celibacy for Conan wouldn’t be such a terrible thing, and seeming at least slightly guilty when she steals the treasure, hops a horse, and tramples over Conan at the end. This is one of the very few Conan stories where the Barbarian doesn’t get the girl … and the story is better for it.
John Buscema would take over the book with issue #25, and overnight Conan would seem to age about ten years. The youthful, narrow-waisted Windsor-Smith barbarian would be replaced with Buscema’s powerful, thick-shouldered brute. That pending change makes the scene where Conan and Sonja frolic in the pond unexpectedly sweet and innocent. Conan’s youthful joy in that scene — and his childish punching of a wall out of frustration on the final page of the story — would feel inauthentic with Buscema’s version of the Cimmerian, but Windsor-Smith’s more subtle pencils unintentionally capture the end of Conan’s adolescence.
The Song of Red Sonja is reprinted in Dark Horse’s The Chronicles of Conan, Volume 4.
The Anatomy Lesson
Swamp Thing #21 is not just a great comic — it might be the single most important book published by DC Comics in the 1980s. This is where Alan Moore made his mark in American comic books, proving that he could magnificently re-invent one of DC’s most cliched characters — in one stroke changing the way we looked at superheroes, and opening the door for Watchmen, which DC would publish two years later.
The Anatomy Lesson is vintage Moore, coloring inside the lines of Swamp Thing’s past history while simultaneously turning the book inside-out. The Anatomy Lesson tells the tale of Swamp Thing’s autopsy, conducted by the sinister Jason Woodrue, who makes the startling discovery that Swamp Thing isn’t what we thought he was at all. Rather than a man who because a swamp monster, he’s a swamp monster who dreams of being a man — the ghostly aftershock of a dead scientist, who created a body for itself (including non-functioning internal vegetable organs) in imitation of the human form it once wore.
Not content to tell us one of the most unexpected and brilliant origin stories of all time, The Anatomy Lesson also winds in a horror story where narrator Woodrue hatches an elaborate revenge scheme using Swamp Thing’s not-so-dead-after-all corpse, told with creepy mood, atmosphere, and blood.
(Swamp Thing scans courtesy of the ubiquitous Mars Will Send No More)
The Anatomy Lesson kicks off one of the all-time great runs in comics, but it also stands alone as a superior single-issue story. Not that it matters — read this tale and you’ll be hooked for the duration.
You can read The Anatomy Lesson in Saga of the Swamp Thing Volume 1, or check it out online over at Mars Will Send No More!
Sometimes the best way to write about icons like Batman and Superman is to not write about them at all. Kurt Busiek’s Astro City is inhabited by iconic heroes who are clearly supposed to be those more famous characters, but possessing their own names and costumes, Busiek has the freedom to approach these well-known heroes in new ways, without regard for the continuity or publishing agendas that encumber the “real” characters.
In the very first issue of Astro City, Busiek tells one of the finest Superman stories of all time — except it isn’t about Superman! Our hero is Samaritan, strange visitor from another world, who is faster than a speeding bullet, and in his alter ego is a mild-mannered reporter for a major metropolitan newspaper.
OK, it’s Superman. But don’t call him that, OK? We don’t want DC’s lawyers showing up and ruining the fun over in Astro City.
In Dreams tells the story of a day in the life up Super– eh, Samaritan, from the morning when he dreams of flying free through the skies without a care in the world; to his commute to work where he stops a tsunami before arriving at his newspaper office; then sneaks away to knock out a giant robot and contain an exo-biological outbreak. And that’s just before lunch! On his break, Samaritan meets with the not-Justice League, and through the rest of his long day gets on with the full-time business of being (call it what it is!) a superman, fighting bad guys, accepting awards, and rescuing a cat from a tree. Samaritan even pauses to lament there is no time in his life to have a relationship, before streaking into orbit to dispatch a monstrous supervillain, then flying home to sleep, and dream (again) of soaring through the clouds without the weight of the world on his shoulders.
It’s a great story, and that’s exactly what a day in the life of Superman must be like … but it’s not the kind of story you could tell in Superman, demanding as it does a new story every month that can’t be more of the same-old same-old superpowered routine. But the anthology format of Astro City allows Busiek to tell just this kind of story without regard for topping himself the month after, and the result is a fun, breezy, and insightful romp that ranks among the finest Superman stories you will ever read. (Except that it’s not Superman … wink wink).
In Dreams is reprinted in Astro City, Volume 1.
And that brings me to the end of this week’s list.
But wait! That’s only five issues! A proper Top List must have ten entries!
You’re right … but I’ve blithered on long enough for a single blog, and if I’ve learned nothing else from writing a weekly column it’s to never do in one blog what you can divide into two! So I’m going to cut this list off at five, and return in a couple weeks* with a second column to complete my list. That will give you time to sample some of these stories, and (more importantly) it will give me time to unearth five more worthy single-issue tales from my vast Accumulation. Thanks for reading!
*Editor’s note: Rather than publish another Top Single Issues list here at Longbox Graveyard, the feature morphed into my Dollar Box feature category, where I look at single issues and short runs of comics where the original cover price was a dollar or more. Check it out!
NEXT WEEK: #19 Tomb It May Concern
LONGBOX GRAVEYARD TOP TEN LISTS