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.
As we approach the halfway point, here come some of the comics you might have expected to hit the #1 spot…
60: Scalped #35 – Listening to the Earth Turn
Published by DC Comics (Vertigo) in 2010
Written by Jason Aaron
Drawn by Danijel Zezelj
Coloured by Giulia Brusco
Lettered by Steve Wands
Every so often Scalped would tell the story of characters as a one-off, never to be revisited again. Here, joined by new artist Danijel Zezelj, the series turned its attention towards an elderly couple who live a relatively solitary life, working their land, living their lives, devoted to each other and to the world they’ve built for themselves. Both husband and wife have narrative boxes, but they compliment each other rather than contrast: this is an exercise in showing a happy, intelligent relationship where each half of the married couple form a cohesive, but individual, sense of the whole. We get into their heads and they stay there, immediately refreshing and likeable and full of life, even as times change and that life grows harder. The comic focuses on their connection, but also their situation: we get an idea of their lives together, and their present-day situation, as they struggle to get through a difficult winter. Each sequence is full of tiny details that matter, small beats in the story which carry the narrative in stirring and heartfelt fashion.
Everything builds beautifully – but it does so with solid, believable lead characters as the base. Aaron has rarely done such a beautiful character study, and Zezelj conveys the narrative in terrific form. There are palpable issues with Scalped in concept, but if those are put to one side, it’s rare to find a comic as composed, weary and dignified as “Listening to the Earth Turn”.
59: Gotham Central #6 – Half A Life: Part 1
Published by DC Comics in 2003
Written by Greg Rucka
Drawn by Michael Lark
Coloured by Matt Hollingsworth
Lettered by Willie Schubert
Gotham City is defined by the superheroes and villains who fight through it… not so much by the civilians who have to live and work there every day. That’s part of what made Gotham Central so intriguing as a series. Set in the police station, the series quickly revealed itself to be a police procedural, as interested in unravelling day to day crimes as it was with dealing with the wreckage from supervillains. After five issues which gave a look at the uncompromising tone shared by writers Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka with artist Michael Lark (whose artwork was worn, lived-in, a perfect fit for the intentionally tired aesthetic of the series), the sixth issue caught everyone offguard.
A very slow burn narrative surrounding the character of Renee Montoya, one of the more charismatic cops, sees her targeted by a criminal she tried to put away. As the pressure builds and builds in the precinct in small, distinct ways, the reader is distracted away from her and towards other characters – until the final page reveals a huge twist for the character at the time, and a radical step forwards for DC as a company. Renee is outed as gay, a photo of her kissing a date put up on a locker at work. Although it isn’t until later issues that we see why somebody is trying to ruin her life by outing her before she’s ready, the last page still carries a huge impact. Readers spent the last twenty pages getting to find out about her life, her family, and her job – the question left on their minds is: what happens to all that now?
58: Marvel Two-In-One Annual #7 – And They Shall Call Him… Champion!
Published by Marvel Comics in 1982
Written by Tom DeFalco
Drawn by Ron Wilson
Inked by Bob Camp, Mike Esposito, Frank Giacoia, Dan Green, Armando Gil and Chic Stone
Coloured by George Roussos
Lettered by Jim Novak
This is the superhero content we deserve! Marvel Two-in-One annual was just another regular issue in the line, not expected to be anything special, but then out of nowhere it just gave us one of the best stories in comics history. The annual sees a new foe arrive on Earth, determined to work out if the planet is worthy of continued existence… and he wants to decide that worth by challenging Earth’s mightiest heroes to a boxing match. After several of the possible representatives for Earth are either ruled out or unable to last long in the ring with this alien Champion, it falls to everyone’s favourite blue eyed Thing, Ben Grimm. Towel over his head and tape wrapped around his wrists, Thing steps into the ring.
And he refuses. To. Fall.
For three rounds he goes toe-to-toe with the Champion, taking a beating, but he keeps standing up and squaring off again, showing his true Yancy Street Spirit. In the end, the Champion declares Earth worthy and leaves – but this issue belongs to The Thing, one of the best-detailed heroes in comics, who shows his heart, soul, and resilience. That’s why he’s Aunt Petunia’s favourite.
57: Hulk: The End – The Last Titan
Published by Marvel Comics in 2002
Written by Peter David
Drawn by Dale Keown
Inked by Joe Weems and Livesay
Coloured by Dan Kemp and Avalon Studios
Lettered by John Workman
In the aftermath of global apocalypse, only one person is left standing on the planet: Hulk. Or, rather, two, because Bruce Banner – courtesy of Hulk’s ability to defy radiation and regenerate from injury – is also still alive, leaving the two unmatched enemies left with only each other for the remainder of time. Wandering a barren, radioactive desert, Banner thinks about his sins, and his relationship with Hulk, who is always watching from the inside, and always ready to ensure his own survival. Banner himself is ready to die, but knows he can’t because the Hulk will always stop him from doing it. And so the reader is set: we have forty pages watching the pair try to reckon with each other, but always forced to do so alone. They’re together, but can’t hold conversation, and writer Peter David plays to that dynamic and twists it in spellbinding, clever ways. This is very much a comic where the strident Hulk has a lot of feelings which Banner tries to rationalise in his overclever scientific brain (as happens often with Hulk stories) but it plays out in evocative fashion, complete with a wrenching finale which changes Hulk forever and leaves him, for the first time, worried about his future. That this is an alternate universe means there can be a definitive end to the story, and one of the consummate Hulk writers in the character’s history leaves his tale in a stark, bold place.
56: Suicide Squad Vol 1 #10 – Up Against The Wall
Published by DC Comics in 1988
Written by John Ostrander
Drawn by Luke McDonnell
Inked by Bob Lewis
Coloured by Julianna Ferriter
Lettered by Todd Klein
A period of downtime for the Suicide Squad turns out to be a false sense of security, as they’re invaded by “the Batman” in a standout issue which turns Amanda Waller from an icon to a legend. After Ostrander and McDonnell start out by giving us a look at the current status of the team (spoiler: it’s not great) after a particularly rough mission, it feels like we’re being given an issue which breaks down the previous storyline and sets up the next one, essentially the middle part of an overall story, a decent but not notable issue. Then it slowly dawns upon the reader that the new guy who just showed up is actually Matches Malone – and that Matches Malone is one of Batman’s false identities. Sure enough, he reveals himself in a particularly effective scene and then goes about his business, sailing under the radar of everyone apart from Waller.
She catches on to him, sends the remnants of her team to unsuccessfully take him down/successfully stall Batman, and then comes face to face with him herself. And it’s in that moment that a legend is born, as we get to see what we never get to see: Batman meeting his match. Their back and forth is electric, generated by the real feeling of respect that the series has worked so hard to invest into Waller’s character. Readers want to see her keep her dignity when faced by the most dangerous threat she’ll meet: so to see her actually win the conversation is massively rewarding, and incredibly enjoyable. Nobody gets past “The Wall”.
55: Civil War: The Confession
Published by Marvel Comics in 2007
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Drawn by Alex Maleev
Coloured by Jose Villarrubia
Lettered by Chris Eliopoulos
A whole issue where one character delivers a soliloquy? That’d be a Brian Michael Bendis comic, then. Coming as a truly dark coda to the mixed-bag event that was Civil War, this one-off issue is really a closing of the door for Tony Stark’s past and opening up instead to his imminent future as the face of Marvel. As Tony sits in a room and talks to an unseen second figure, we hear him pour out his worries, concerns, and beliefs in a way which hadn’t been articulated in this sort of form perhaps ever, with Bendis taking a familiar, long-running character and carefully reworking him into something that could fit a more modern era. This Iron Man saw a point of no return and then crossed it, making his breakdown in this issue a fairly shocking moment, and a pretty damned required moment of humanity for a character who was elsewhere being portrayed as essentially ‘the devil’. Marvel always looked at heroes as being human, but that normally meant showing their true heroic nature was their human one – this was showing that heroes could be every bit as weirdly conflicted and wrong, even as they went about their heroic business.
The final page is well done, considering the whole issue required it to be something worthwhile in order to make the whole one-shot relevant at all: Bendis specialises in finding some little kernel of authenticity in his reworking of traditional characters, and here that turns out to be the conclusion of Iron Man’s entire narrative to that point.
Click here to read an essay on this issue by Matt O’Keefe!
54: New X-Men #121 – Silence: Psychic Rescue in Progress
Published by Marvel Comics in 2002
Written by Grant Morrison
Drawn by Frank Quitely
Coloured by Hi-Fi
Lettered by Richard Starkings
Early on in Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s run on New X-Men, they were told that Marvel were running a theme called “Nuff Said”, in which every comic the publisher put out would be banned from having any dialogue. So, of course, the creative team decided to tell a story set inside the mind of Charles Xavier, featuring a telekinetic dismantling of the male psyche, the reveal that Xavier had a twin sister whom he killed in the womb, and rampant rule-breaking for the X-Men mythos. Quitely takes the issue as an opportunity to be incredibly particular with his storytelling, slowing down the story for Morrison’s script so as to give the pacing an unearthly feel, as if the characters were walking underwater the whole time. This is also a showcase for the two characters who had the most drastic story turns in the run – Emma Frost and Jean Grey, the two psychics who were headed on a collision course the whole time. Although in some ways a grandiose piece of spectacle, the team throw in enough small character beats that the reader is utterly sucked in on this psychic operation.
And of course, the comic contains dialogue at the end: who in their right mind would ever try to tell Morrison and Quitely what they can or can’t do?
53: Solo #5 – Darwyn Cooke
Published by DC Comics in 2005
By Darwyn Cooke
Solo was a project run by DC editor Mark Chiarello, each issue of Solo gave a different cartoonist 48 blank pages to do whatever they wanted. As a result, each issue is wildly different, but its issue #5 which stands out for offering opportunity to Darwyn Cooke, one of the most distinctive talents in comics, and a cartoonist who in many ways feels like the soul of DC Comics. His issue of Solo is framed with a series of encounters at a drinking hole, with frequent author surrogate Slam Bradley propping up the bar and having a night just like any other. Inbetween are all kinds of other stories, with Cooke trying out his hand at noir, detective stories tongue in cheek raunch, and autobiography.
Cooke was an unabashed fan and unreconstructed in his outlook – his characters each serve a purpose, and they each take a part of his voice and give him a greater form of expression. Each story within his issue of Solo gives you a little part of his voice, and showcases his deep affection for the medium and his unique ability to experiment with what it could and can be.
52: Superman Vol 2 #75 – Doomsday!
Published by DC Comics in 1993
Written by Dan Jurgens
Drawn by Dan Jurgens and Brett Breeding
Coloured by Glenn Whitmore
Lettered by John Constanza
Deliberately designed as spectacle, the issue which killed off Superman delivers a simple, but powerful message about DC’s most powerful hero. Attacked by a random creature called Doomsday which destroys everything in its path, Superman finds himself the only person strong enough to hold back the monster and save the world from its wanton path of destruction. That’s it: that’s the story. This isn’t particularly deep or moral, but it’s Superman going above and beyond in order to make sure that the world is safe for everyone. Outmatched by a creature every bit as powerful as he is, and without any capacity to be talked down or calmed, every page of this issue is a splash page, with Jurgen’s flitting between supermuscled punches and quieter moments of counterbalance.
The issue ends with two double-page splashes showing Superman’s death, but the crucial point in the issue comes earlier, following the actual killing blows landed by Superman and Doomsday on each other at the same time. The impact is seen through Jimmy Olsen’s camera, as the issue cuts from Superman to showing the people who matter most to him: Lois Lane, Jimmy, his parents, his fellow heroes, and the people of the world. Doomsday is defeated, but Superman dies in the process, and the issue is every inch the statement that it needed to be.
51: Batman #404 – Year One, Part One; Who I Am, How I Came To Be
Published by DC Comics in 1987
Written by Frank Miller
Drawn by David Mazzucchelli
Coloured by Richmond Lewis
Lettered by Todd Klein
David Mazzucchelli is one of the finest artists to ever work in comics, and when DC paired him with Frank Miller to redefine Batman’s origin story, it resulted in a stunning story, a masterclass which has stayed with the character ever since. Miller follows two plot threads as they wander past one another without quite touching: new arrival to the police force James Gordon, and the returning billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne. Both of them have pasts they’re trying to work past, and looking to find some kind of redefinition within Gotham City. Those two agendas take the characters in the same direction, without either being aware the other even exists: Wayne dresses up and takes to the streets, starting a street fight without any plan of what he intends to do when he wins – and no awareness of what would happen if he lost. Gordon, by comparison, tries to stick to his morals on a corrupt police force, getting attacked by his colleagues for his troubles but ultimately forcing his way through. Year One’s creative team are every bit as determined as its two lead characters, as Miller works overtime to depict an entire and whole Gotham City for Mazzucchelli to unveil to readers. And it looks just terrific: Gotham feels like a real city, but one with incredible touches that give it that feeling of being just a little otherworldly. Working together, this is a confident and assured opening issue for what would become the defining Batman story.