Almost 100 comic critics were asked to submit their personal choice of the Top Ten Single Issues they’ve ever read. The choice was subjective: some people chose to pick comics that meant something important to the industry, some chose ten comics that meant something personal for themselves; some simply picked ten comics they loved reading. And after compiling together all their choices into a master list, Shelfdust are excited to be able to reveal how the Top 100 looks.
Comics 90-81 feature some of the all-time masters of the format, as well as a few surprising recent comics which stand just as strongly alongside comics many would consider to be classics of the medium. We’ve got a few controversial entries here too!
90: Wonder Woman Vol 2 #170 – She’s A Wonder!
Published by DC Comics in 2001
Written by Phil Jimenez and Joe Kelly
Drawn by Phil Jimenez
Inked by Andy Lanning
Coloured by Patricia Mulvihill and Heroic Age
Lettered by Comicraft
There are quite a few mean-spirited claims people make about Wonder Woman, both as a character and as a series. There’s an idea she doesn’t have personality, she doesn’t have a defining goal, or she doesn’t have defining stories – and they’re all wrong, as anybody who’s read issue #170 of her second volume will know. Phil Jimenez writes and draws an issue that really does set out everything you might ever need to know about Wonder Woman all in one place, and shows off her definition as a character. He does so by tagging her with Lois Lane, who is drafted in to interview the Amazon for the first time, and does so with a slight agenda to hand – she wants to see Wonder Woman’s flaws, the cracks in her armour.
As we go about a typical day in the life of Wonder Woman, we do get those, but we also get to see just how wide and open the character’s appeal is, and how fascinating she can be when written with the deft hand of somebody who loves her. This issue doesn’t paper her over, but it instead sees her in a thousand different situations, dealing with each one in the way she deems best. It’s character study, but also expansion, and one which opens up the character in a million enthralling new ways.
89: Optic Nerve #12
Published by Drawn & Quarterly in 2011
By Adrian Tomine
A splash of colour comes to Optic Nerve in its twelfth issue, as Adrian Tomine offers readers several short stories, returning to the original format of his series. The first of the three pieces here follows a gardener who creates a new form of art media, but can’t get anyone to believe in it or him, to his frustration. Tomine addresses this in unexpected fashion, structuring the pages in some sort of weird formal experiment a black and white articles, before suddenly bringing in colours to the pages as a surprise to the reader.
Continuing on in colour, he then does a wryly funny character piece about a woman who finds out that she looks like a porn star – which slowly drains away the humour as the reality of the comparison starts to affect her social life. Finally, he throws in an autobiographical piece about his own comics which wraps things together in unexpected fashion. It’s all a neat showcase for Tomine’s approach to comics and art in general, which finds surprising thematic ties through the three stories and leaves the reader thinking a little more about what they’ve just read.
88: Mermaid’s Promise #2
Published by Viz Media in 1994 (NA)
By Rumiko Takahashi
Immortal love rears up in Rumiko Takahasi’s four-part “Mermaid’s Promise”, which follows the story of Yuta, who looks like a young man but has been living for hundreds of years by the time we meet him. This is because he once ate the flesh of a mermaid – which gives him seeming immortality, loneliness and all that might bring. He has a former fiance whom he was forbidden from marrying, and on his travels around the world looking for other people who share his immortality (which isn’t the easiest thing) he finally meets another, Mana.
As they start to grow closer, however, things are complicated by the reveal that his fiance is still alive 500 years since he was forced to leave her, somehow? It’s classic Takahashi, creating a tangled web of characters which is in turns hopelessly romantic and eerily chilling. They do, after all, share in common that they’ve eaten mermaid flesh. It’s all part of a rather long “Mermaid Saga” which Takahashi worked on for years, and the whole thing is sweet and charming, albeit entirely offbeat and unpredictable, as is her way.
87: Lucifer Vol 1 #26 – Purgatorio: Part 2 of 3
Published by DC Comics (Vertigo) in 2002
Written by Mike Carey
Drawn by Peter Gross
Inked by Ryan Kelly
Coloured by Daniel Vozzo
Lettered by Comicraft
There are many who would argue that Lucifer surpassed Sandman, the series it span out from, and it was with stories like Purgatorio that Mike Carey and Peter Gross would give that claim significant weight. Coming as a culmination of many of the ongoing storyline at that point, issue #26 brings in Death, one of the most popular Gaiman characters, to talk with the defeated and humbled lead character.
This marks the lowest that Lucifer had fallen in the series to date, and marks the point at which he starts to resurge – but the sacrifices along the way, many of which he doesn’t even acknowledge (being the mighty bastard he is), are what give the comic a shocking and traumatic final reveal. Carey and Gross (and Kelly) proved a formidable a surprisingly merciless storytelling force, and it is with issue #26 that readers got to see just how little interest they had in pulling their punches. It’s an issue filled with fascinating conversations, startling storytelling choices, and a gripping narrative. Maybe Lucifer actually was the better series?
86: His Face All Red
Self-Published in 2010
By Emily Carroll
Emily Carroll is one of the most skilled creators of horror working in comics today, and His Face All Red is a strange and compelling tale which leaves so much left in the mind of the reader. Following a simple-faced man and his charming better brother in a small village, the comic exists away from any real sense of time or place. There is a village, there are houses, there is farmland and there are dark woods. From there, Carroll weaves together a story which takes these simple elements and creates something obscure, unseen, and deeply unnerving.
First published online (and, I’m informed, then as a print edition, so it counts for this list), the comic slowly works its way into the heart of the forest, where our narrator commits murder and then leaves the body dropped down a deep pit. When he returns to the village proclaiming himself as the sole survivor of an attack, he’s a hero for only a short amount of time before his dead victim returns somehow, with only one thing for sure: that man is not the brother, but something else. Dread seeps through, as our narrator eventually travels back through the woods, down the pit, and to find out what was left back in that pit. What he finds…
85: Giant Days #10
Published by BOOM! Studios in 2016
Written by John Allison
Drawn by Max Sarin
Coloured by Whitney Cogar
Lettered by Jim Campbell
John Allison’s webcomics world made an unexpected transition into serial format and immediately seized readers with its fantastic sense of humour and startling level of depth. Ostensibly a story about three girls who go to university together and become friends, each issue deepened the bond between its leads and joined recognisable situations with high-brow eccentricity shaped and embraced by artist Max Sarin, as with issue 10.
This is the issue where “Big Lindsay”, a childhood friend, arrives at University to try and relive some of her glory days – at the expense of the rest of the cast, who spend the issue trying to keep up with her alcohol tolerance, slowly getting picked off by hangovers as the pages turn until only a few remain. The issue stands out for showing the path that could have been; for the comparison made between Big Lindsay and the rest of the girls, who have taken very different paths through life. As is key to Giant Days, though, all paths have the opportunity to lead somewhere positive, and Allison’s script wins through for showing that big-drinking Lindsay is just as human as the rest of the cast.
84: Daredevil Vol 1 #169 – Devils
Published by Marvel Comics in 1981
Written and drawn by Frank Miller
Inked by Klaus Janson
Coloured by Glynis Wein
Lettered by Joe Rosen
In which Frank Miller sums up the whole of Matt Murdock’s being in just one issue. “Devils” is towards the start of Miller’s acclaimed run with the series, and comes as he’s just started to take up both art and writing duties for the series, paired with Janson, Wein and Rosen artistically and with editor Denny O’Neil – no stranger to a noir story himself. The issue begins with Bullseye, one of Daredevil’s ensuring villains, escaping captivity, with Daredevil heading out to try and track down the killer before carnage ensures. Miller was experimenting with his storytelling here, pausing to detail fine moments and create a feeling of slow motion which works in tandem with Daredevil’s own specific set of superpowers.
“Devils” sees Bullseye reimagined, but doubles-down on the Matt Murdock of old: the conclusion sees him forced to fight on train tracks, the noise drowning out his ability to hear where his foe has gone. Although ultimately prevailing, the end of the fight leaves him with a moral conundrum, and in the hands of this creative team the reader can’t be sure which way Daredevil will turn – his final decision proves to be one of the defining character moments in his entire history.
83: Batman Vol 1 #471 – Requiem for a Killer
Published by DC Comics in 1991
Written by Alan Grant
Drawn by Norm Breyfogle
Coloured by Adrienne Roy
Lettered by Todd Klein
Batman has a lot of colourful villains, but a lot of them are just that: villains. With Killer Croc came a character with a little more nuance; a character who could be used in more interesting and complex positions, and used to question more of that authority which Batman – and the police – rely upon. With superheroes the idea is that if you catch a villain, tie them up, and leave them for the authorities, everything will be alright until the villain escapes again; but with Croc we got to see how the system itself let down a “villain”, arguably to the point where it created the villain entirely.
This issue is a heartbreaker, seeing Croc holed up underground with a group of homeless people who have come to – more or less – adopt him as part of their wider foster family. Batman, however, is on a mission which puts him onto the trail of this new home, which results in disaster. Grant and Breyfogle are brilliant at exploring the sad and inevitable path that the narrative must walk down, but one thing that’s often forgotten is how enjoyable their Batman was, himself: here, he’s heading out on missions with his pet dog, cracking jokes, and trying to do the right thing. That’s what makes it all the more tragic when that moral compass is set by the wrong authority.
82: The Spirit #4 – The Last Trolley
Published by Warren Publishing Co in 1974
Written by Will Eisner
Drawn by John Spranger and Bob Palmer
Inked by Will Eisner and Bob Palmer
Lettered by Martin deMuth
Did anyone try as much with the medium as Eisner mastered? With The Spirit, he found a perfect form for his experiments with comics, a somewhat blank detective who raced across the streets at midnight, seeking answers and justice for whatever case he was working on next. The Last Trolley is one of the most memorable issues in a series which became famous for having memorable issues, set on the very last working trolley bus in the city. Eisner perfectly captures that feeling of being sat on rattling public transport in the dead of night, the rails going “clackity-clack” around and around until it settles into your head.
On any given night there’s nothing conspicuous about it – but one night, a man drags in an off-kilter body which looks very much like that of The Spirit himself, costume and all, and things escalate from there. Everything about The Spirit is consumately crafted, from the arrangement of the page to the lettering, and here everything falls perfectly, wonderfully into place to create an evocative portrait of Eisner’s idiosyncratic vision.
81: Strangers in Paradise Vol 2 #1 – I Dream of You
Published by Abstract Studio in 1994
By Terry Moore
Love is a complicated thing if you don’t see it right in front of you, and it’s even stranger if you know it’s right in front of you but you don’t know how to go for it. So go the turmoils of Terry Moore’s long-running series Strangers in Paradise, which enters the list with the issue that marked a change of pace for the styling of the story. Ostensibly a slow-burn will-they love triangle between two girls and a guy, the second volume changes things around and kicks off a narrative more akin to a thriller. This being Moore, though, that doesn’t mean things are anything like less fanciful.
The issue starts off with Katchoo making fun of a man on a plane, whilst havoc reigns in the airport waiting room where Franchine and David pass time as they impatiently look for the plane to return. On arrival, however, Katchoo is noticeably colder, distracted and worried about something that happened with her during her time away. That drives a wedge between the characters and a new wave of complicated and intricate new narrative plans into the heart of the series. It’s a change of pace which works, tying everyone up in new knots and leading to some brave new places.