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.
We’re now entering the second half of the top 100 lineup, and there’s a real mix this time round! Some superheroes – well, a lot of superheroes, that’s sort of your lot here – but mixed up with some real surprises from the far past and not so recent, uh, past.
50: Watchmen #12 – A Stronger Loving World
Published by DC Comics in 1987
Written by Alan Moore
Drawn by Dave Gibbons
Coloured by John Higgins
Lettered by Dave Gibbons
How much hope can you find in the utter destruction of New York, and the deaths of millions of people? That’s where we find ourselves by the time we reach the final issue of Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ epic treatise on superhero storytelling. The issue begins with near-total devastation and then hones in on our remaining characters to see how they can possibly attempt comprehension of what’s happened. Gibbons starts off with whole splash pages, silent, showing exactly what’s happened, before putting every character in the same location for a tight finale which forces everybody to talk to one another and try and form some kind of compromised new world.
Moore’s ability to put coherent and conflicted characters shines through in this last issue, the different heroes forcing each other to make a series of moral choices, and in the process creating some of the most defining images in DC’S history. What seals it is the lack of bombast: this is presented as matter-of-fact, almost innocuous at times, and that ramps up the pressure on the characters to fascinating degree. That there’s moments of levity and hope in such a downbeat and harsh landscape leaves Watchmen’s final issue as a powerful read today.
49: Giant Days #1
Published by BOOM! Studios in 2015
Written by John Allison
Drawn by Lissa Treiman
Coloured by Whitney Cogar
Lettered by Jim Campbell
The first issue of Giant Days had a lot of tricky bits to try and get out the way, but it was through embracing them that John Allison turned his self-published comics work into a reinvented critical and commercial success at American publisher BOOM! Studios. The three main characters, all girls in their first year of university, had previously been introduced to each other in three self-published comics made by Allison – so here we start in medias res, so to speak, with the girls already aware of each other and now starting to really explore and deepen their friendship, as they try to deal with who they’ve been and who they want to become now they’re at University together. With wonderful cartooning from relative newcomer Lissa Treiman, this is a comic which defies expectation at every turn and provides a fast-paced, whipsmart coming-of-age piece which realises that the most fun part of “coming of age” is making huge, whopping great hilarious mistakes along the way.
48: Ultimate Spider-Man #28 – Sidetracked
Published by Marvel Comics in 2002
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Drawn by Mark Bagley
Inked by Art Thibert
Coloured by Digital Transparency
Lettered by Chris Eliopoulos
Why pick an issue where Spider-Man doesn’t save the day? In Ultimate Spider-Man #28, his girlfriend Mary-Jane is just as excited as the reader is to see her hero go put a stop to the rampaging Rhino, who is causing incredible carnage through New York City. He never makes it, though, in an issue which instead offers a more subtle and canny take on power, responsibility, and just who Peter Parker is. Escaping the school library to go put his costume on and save the day, Peter repeatedly finds himself caught up in other drama which stops him from getting out the door – from a parent-teacher conference with Aunt May to an unexpected conversation with an upset Gwen Stacy.
Brian Michael Bendis’ script changes the pace at intervals, slowing right down for each new obstacle in Peter’s way before speeding up to the fight before… slowing down again for a new obstacle. It could all be really frustrating, but in fact the issue instead feels utterly charming, because each one of these obstacles is more than it seems. Talking to Gwen Stacy is just as important for Peter as punching a villain, and here we see the character realise it. Ultimate Spider-Man was brilliant, and this issue shows off how clearly it understands the guiding principles behind the character, and why readers love him.
47: Action Comics #1 – Superman, Champion of the Oppressed
Published by DC Comics in 1938
Written by Jerry Siegel et al
Drawn by Joe Shuster et al
Otherwise known as “the reason we’re all here”. In 1938 Jerry “Jerome” Siegel and Joe Shuster gave us the Superman, and comics were never the same again. Their story – just one part of the first issue of Action Comics – quickly set up an alien who landed in Earth as a child and grew up amongst humanity, developing relative super-powers as he grew up which he determined to use as a champion for anyone suffering from oppression. He rips down steel doors, deflects bullets and throws around gangsters… but it’s all in service of doing what is right and just. As dashing and heroic as Superman is, the team make sure that readers understand its his essential sense of humanity which gives him his strength.
The impact of two Jewish creators taking on the “superman” at a time when the world was plunging into a World War spurred on by anti-semitism can’t be overlooked: this was a direct and political move on their part, and one which has created a lasting beacon of inspiration for generations of children. The issue ends a little abruptly and has a roughness to it, but this is a timeless piece of work, which genuinely made the world into a brighter place.
46: FF #23 – Run
Published by Marvel Comics in 2012
Written by Jonathan Hickman
Drawn by Nick Dragotta
Coloured by Cris Peter
Lettered by Clayton Cowles
There was no knowing on what kind of note Jonathan Hickman wanted to end his long-term run with the Fantastic Four comics, but FF #23 provides a surprisingly serene, and just genuinely nice point for the title to end. It ties over the loose end of there being two Franklin Richards, with an older version of the character having previously travelled back in time to interact with his younger self. And here we see him setting new ground rules for the younger Franklin, who has reality-shaping powers which allow him to literally create a universe should he have the imagination for it.
The most important one? That there are no rules: the universe is what he should make of it. Or will make, given his powers. That opening up of possibility defined Hickman’s run with these comics, and aided by the wonderfully expressive style of Nick Dragotta, this final issue of FF gives the most overlooked member of the Fantastic Four his opening to go run through the universe and make his own future.
45: Sandman #6 – Master of Dreams, Part 6: 24 Hours
Published by DC Comics (Vertigo) in 1989
Written by Neil Gaiman
Drawn by Mike Dringenberg
Inked by Malcolm Jones III
Coloured by Robbie Busch
Lettered by Todd Klein
One of the most disturbing comics published in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series came early: issue #6, drawn by Mike Dringenberg, is a slowly unravelling nightmare filled with some of the most upsetting ideas ever put to the comics page. This is the one where Dr Destiny, a fairly minor DC Universe villain, enters a diner whilst in possession of one of the three magic items which give Dream his power, a ruby. That ruby aids the user to control and invade the minds of others, and in the hands of a deeply troubled, sadistic man like Dr Destiny, that leaves the diner’s patrons in severe trouble. Across the course of 24 hours Destiny commits countless atrocities with the small group he quietly holds hostage inside the diner – having them confess their deepest sins, torture themselves and each other, defy their own identity, and ultimately force them all to start killing in other in personal, intimate ways.
The issue is deliberately horrifying in concept and execution, showing that Sandman wasn’t just a chance to tell stories about stories: it could tell a nightmare just as easily as it could tell a dream. Destiny doesn’t even seem to be particularly interested in the sadism he’s indulging in, not is he aware of how deeply cruel his acts are – his casual and curious outlook throughout the issue is one of the most alarming parts of the whole thing.
44: Ms Marvel Vol 1 #6 – Healing Factor: Part One
Published by Marvel Comics in 2014
Written by G. Willow Wilson
Drawn by Jake Wyatt
Coloured by Ian Herring
Lettered by Joe Caramagna
Once you get past the origin story, superhero comics tend to accelerate up a gear, and Ms Marvel takes the opportunity of a second story arc to really get into the head of its main character, silly and clever and fun as she is. The issue continues to rush headlong into the modern-day life of a young Pakistani girl living in modern-day New Jersey, sending her to her local mosque inbetween bouts of madcap superheroing. G. Willow Wilson’s creation made an immediate impact when she arrived at Marvel – a Muslim girl taking on a prominent superhero role within a new Marvel Universe – and settled down almost immediately into superhero life. This issue is so much fun, giving Kamala a team-up with Wolverine in which she immediately brings up her fan-fic about him before going on to face down her nemesis, who appears to be a cockatiel bonded with the clone of Thomas Edison. Ms Marvel is so profoundly strange as a series that it’s really easy to fall in love with it, and here Jake Wyatt makes sure to mix her action-packed sequences of heroism with bonkers physical comedy and deliberately crazy character work. Ms Marvel became part of Marvel so easily that it’s worth remembering the high level of difficulty the creative team were working with from the start. That she came across so idiosyncratically brilliant is testament to the good nature of the series and pure sense of fun it conveys.
43: Superman Vol 1 #149: The Death of Superman
Published by DC Comics in 1961
Written by Jerry Siegel
Drawn by Curt Swan
Inked by George Klein
Presented as an imaginary story by the creative team – because who would seriously consider actually killing Superman, right? – “The Death of Superman” is a wildly imaginative story presented in three parts, which offers as much spotlight on Lex Luthor as it does for the man of tomorrow. The first part sees Luthor sees a glowing rock in prison which leads him to develop a successful working cure for cancer. Hailed as a genius and a hero, he starts working to redeem himself, with Superman the first person convinced by the turnaround in his character. As various mobsters attempt to kill Luthor now he’s free from prison, however, Superman has to take increasingly complex labours in order to keep the man safe – eventually building an inescapable space station for Luthor to continue his work.
That proves to be the kryptonian’s downfall, however, as Luthor then reveals his true colours and gleefully kills Superman with kryptonite poisoning. The issue then shows what comes next, and how the galaxy responds to Superman’s death. Siegel and Swan show the impact Superman has had on the galaxy in an affirming and downbeat storyline, but its their approach to Luthor, who truly comes off as a brilliant villainous mind, which gives the issue its strength. His final scenes are a terrific summation of his character, as well as his hubris.
42: Wonder Woman Vol 5 #4 – Wonder Woman Year One: Part 2
Published by DC Comics in 2016
Written by Greg Rucka
Drawn by Nicola Scott
Coloured by Romulo Fajardo Jr
Lettered by Jodi Wynne
Each retelling of Wonder Woman’s origin seems to add to the complexity of Themyscira, the paradise island home of the heroine and the Amazons. Here, writer Greg Rucka makes a return to the character after years away, this time joined by artist Nicola Scott, who wastes no time at all in making the island her own. Scott’s depiction of the island and the women who live on it is far more richly realised than before, in turn offering more diversity in the Amazons and opening up their way of life in a bright and colourful way. Romulo Fajardo gives life to the island and everyone on it, a bright and twinkling paradise hidden away from the rest of the world.
Matched against the beautiful backdrop is a carefully-judged look at Diana and her mother’s relationship, as the former gets swept up into a tide of events which will ultimately lead to her leaving the island forever. The impact of this heightens thanks to the way that the artistic team portray Themyscira – and Diana’s relationships with the women there, which feels more complicated and realistic than in some of her past stories – so that her final decision to leave the island carries far more weight to it. There’s agency in her choice, which is as important a part of her origin as anything else. Rucka keeps things from getting overly sentimental, instead landing on a sweet, romantic tale which leaves on a note or promise and foreboding. What happens after you leave paradise?
41: Monstress #1
Published by Image Comics in 2015
Written by Marjorie Liu
Drawn by Sana Takeda
Lettered by Rus Wooton
The first issue of Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda’s Monstress throws every punch and draws blood each time. A chaotic and intoxicating dark fantasy, the series features career-best work from Takeda as she takes on a whole world of magic and power, giving soul to each page and establishing the genuinely scary stakes of protagonist Maika’s mission. That mission takes the reader along a beaten-down path as we follow Maika and several other captives as they try to survive a brutal slave regime they’re sold into – but Maika herself has allowed herself to be captured, and its her quest to escape and take down the power of the whole operation which forms the crux of this issue.
Whole series have less story than this one issue, which keeps a methodical and at-times terrifying approach to the horror in the jail cells of the slaves, and the forces they’re up against. Liu makes the quest feel hopeless just as she offers some glimpses of victory for Maika, but a victory which would cost her almost as much as if she failed. The issue has an assured tone which builds to a shattering finale, and a coda which leads readers into the series proper. It’s an incredible, thrilling issue.