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.
Things are getting pretty tense now, right??
30: Y: The Last Man #1 – Unmanned
Published by DC Comics (Vertigo) in 2002
Written by Brian K. Vaughan
Drawn by Pia Guerra
Inked by José Marzan, Jr.
Coloured by Pamela Rambo
Lettered by Clem Robins
The first issue of Y: The Last Man is as brilliant an opening as any comic has ever managed. Helped by a fun, brisk script from Brian K. Vaughan which whisks round the world and between a disparate set of characters who’ll ultimately form the basis of the series as a whole, the debut issue stacks a lot of plates on top of each other, spinning them seemingly effortlessly with perfect balance. At the core is Yorick Brown, a bratty but relatable leading man who finds out by the end of the issue that he is now THE lead man in the world, with every other man dead of some unknown cause. The issue sets up several characters through their role in society, often defined through the direct or indirect role of men around them – and then removes that from their lives forever, so we can see what happens. The impact of the series’ inherent concept is so blunt and powerful that the creative team don’t need to do anything more than show it in order to throw the reader into a whole new world.
Immediately engrossing, the issue sets readers up for everything to come – but just by itself, this is one of the most impactful and enjoyable opening issues of any series ever made. The creative team immediately click together, offering a world of male-free possibility.
29: New Gods Vol 1 #7 – The Pact!
Published by DC Comics in 1972
Written and drawn by Jack Kirby
Inked by Mike Royer
Lettered by Ben Oda
The 70s saw Jack Kirby achieve some amazing things, and create some of his most expressive and demanding comics. New Gods is undoubtedly amongst the best work he ever put together, but it’s with the seventh issue of the series that the sheer scope and scale of his grand creation became apparent. This issue jumps right back in time to show the beginnings of the epic war between Apokolips and New Genesis, starting with a tragedy and expanding it out to reveal what caused the current, temporary peace which the two sides had reached as of the first issue of this series. There’s certainly character growth, but more than that there’s an incredible sense of the incredible to everything shown in the comic. This feels like a real, tangible war, even as Kirby creates new and crazier inventions of war on each page. Everyone has a perspective and voice, even as they’re swallowed inside the terrible war that leads many of them to their doom later on in the issue – or even the panel in which they’re introduced.
Kirby also uses this as an opportunity to really build up the politics of this story, showing the rise of Izaya, who takes the front line in the war for New Genesis after suffering directly at the hands of Darkseid. Darkseid himself grows as a manipulator and eventual leader for Apokolips, his ascension through the ranks fitting perfectly into the character as he was introduced, but showing his development through the war as he takes advantage of the system to remove his enemies. We then see the future – the pact of the title, and what it means to the characters of Scott Free and Orion, who would form such important parts of the story moving forward. This is stirring, inspiring stuff, with Kirby at a new height creatively and firing on all cylinders.
28: OMAC #1 – Brother Eye And Buddy Blank
Published by DC Comics in 1974
Written and drawn by Jack Kirby
Inked and lettered by Mike Royer
In many ways Jack Kirby’s visions of the future were pretty much accurate, although sadly 2018’s design work is somewhat lacking in comparison to the King’s unparalleled sense of innovation. In OMAC, Kirby took on both writing and art duties as he looked at the role of the forgotten and underrepresented working within the corporate machine, and he gave them a chance to fight back by putting a different, more determined engine inside the body of young Buddy Blank. Blank is a generic everyman type, weak and bullied by his co-workers, in love with the only person who shows any sign of kindness to him. He’s an invisible part of a generic and immediately sinister company, but when he goes wandering down into the forbidden levels of the building he finds out just how shocking and evil this corporation is.
It’s an absolutely wild first issue from Kirby, told from an angry perspective and charging forwards with considered aggression. Just as he is caught and about to be killed by the higher-ups in corporate, Buddy is turned against his knowledge into “OMAC”, a god of war who is invulnerable to bullets. And he causes MAYHEM. Glorious, joyful mayhem, under Kirby’s pencils. But although there’s an element of revenge to the story, it’s not hard to forget that this is nothing Buddy signed up for. When he turns into OMAC his whole character changes, and it’s a harsh reminder that he’s swapped one corporate industrial machine for another – albeit one which gives him an amazing mohawk and the ability to reign down chaos on anyone who opposes him.
Click here to read an essay about this issue by Graeme McMillan!
27: Sandman #18 – A Dream of A Thousand Cats
Published by DC Comics (Vertigo) in 1990
Written by Neil Gaiman
Drawn by Kelley Jones
Inked by Malcolm Jones III
Coloured by Robbie Busch
Lettered by Todd Klein
What do cats think about when they’re lying on the carpet in front of the fire, eyes closed and sleeping? Well, clearly their desire to one day overthrow and replace humanity as the leaders of the waking world, according to one of the standout issues of Sandman. With Kelley Jones arriving as artist for the issue, Sandman #18 turns its attention to the ambitions of our four-legged frenemies, watching them join up to spread the word of their new goal. First and foremost, Jones is great at drawing cats, which certainly helps, and their cat-based perspective expands across the pages to give this issue a clear and different feeling to every other issue of the series. The story sees a group of cats gather to hear the story of another cat, a Siamese housecat whose kittens were taken from her at birth and drowned by her owners. As she travels looking for reason and revenge, she meets Dream, who has taken on the form of a cat, and offers her explanation for why humans were given control of the earth anyway.
Even for a series predicated on being able to be anything at any time, it’s a step away from the expected, and one which has left a permanent impression on readers. Or perhaps that’s just because if we don’t keep the comic in mind at all times, we might lose our place as the ruling race on Earth?
26: The Wicked & The Divine #13 – Commercial Suicide
Published by Image Comics in 2015
Written by Kieron Gillen
Drawn by Tula Lotay
Coloured by Matthew Wilson
Lettered by Clayton Cowles
Commercial Suicide is a particularly dark story period for The Wicked & The Divine, and the issue which names the arc is especially unnerving. The series is about a group of around 12 people who are imbued with the actual power of a God, but with the proviso that they will only be allowed to live for two years before they die. All the power in the universe, but guaranteed death within two years. Who would take on that offer?
As imagined by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie, pop stars, basically, as most of the group in this generation’s pantheon use their powers to create music and art. This issue, drawn by guest artist Tula Lotay, looks at the one member of the group who hadn’t been seen until this point – and the one who is most reluctant and aware of the nature of her fame. Tara is a naturally beautiful woman who receives the powers of godhood, and finds that fame comes horrifically to a women – for all her “fans”, she’s subject to the cruelest gossip about her life, considered to be untalented and coasting on her looks, and hated by people at a time when social media makes mass organised hate incredibly easy. The issue slowly narrates her thought process until revealing that her narration – hand lettered – is actually a potential suicide note, with the grotesque threats and hatred directed at her by the anonymous masses overwhelming for her. It’s thoroughly bleak, giving the character her voice just so we can realise how her voice has been ignored and shunned by everyone around her. She has so much to say, but nobody wants to hear her say it. Brutal and uncompromising, the ending is sadly inevitable – for a fantasy, this is upsettingly realistic and recognisable.
Click here to read an essay about the issue by Muireann McGlynn!
25: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns #1 – The Dark Knight Returns
Published by DC Comics in 1986
Written and drawn by Frank Miller
Inked by Klaus Janson
Coloured by Lynn Varley
Lettered by John Constanza
A comic that changed what Batman could be, and what comics were capable of. Frank Miller’s vision of a future sees an old-age Bruce Wayne, years after putting away his cape and retiring into sad solitude, returning once more to remind Gotham City of what they should fear. Each issue of The Dark Knight Returns stands by itself and as part of the whole, but the first issue is the one which really brings everything together and convinces the reader that this is truly something different. Miller’s story – coloured wonderfully by Lynn Varley, an essential part of the series and the reason it evokes such powerful memories today – is all about action and counter-action. Every choice leads to ten more decisions made, each of those having a consequence and lasting effect which, in an alt-world where Miller has free reign to do anything he wants, carries a heavy and engaging weight. Bruce Wayne carries that on his shoulders for the issue, up until the point that he puts his costume back on and gets back on the streets, feeling himself reborn as the twenty-year old he once was when he first started as a vigilante.
Miller doesn’t take any of the simpler options available to him in the story – it would be simple to make Batman’s return heroic and brave and amazing, but we immediately see that this is a man who is on some level still lying to himself, and shouldering a burden which perhaps he cannot ever really carry. Throughout the issue he cuts to reaction – from the media, from friends, from established DC characters and from new characters created for this story – and it acts as a constant reminder of the ripple effect from Bruce’s decision made in this story. Miller has never been more himself than in building up this vision of Gotham City, which is already deconstructed even before the supervillains start showing up.
24: Flex Mentallo #4 – We Are All UFOs
Published by DC Comics (Vertigo) in 1996
Written by Grant Morrison
Drawn by Frank Quitely
Coloured by Tom McCraw
Lettered by Ellie de Ville
Flex Mentallo seeks to act as an exploration of superhero comics, and in its final issue it finds some answers. The four-issue story is set up as a mystery, but it’s down to the reader if they choose to see it that way because the final issue of four provides its answer in the most metafictional way possible. That’ll put some people off, of course, but ultimately Flex Mentallo concludes in the strongest possible fashion, somehow taking disparate ideas and hurtling them all down together in a connected spiral of humanity. Everything in the issue is some kind of discussion point for comics as a whole, as the struggling, dispirited comics artist who has been delivering his suicide message down the phone for the past issues now realises why he felt the need to take his life. It’s because he put his love in the wrong place, essentially, using comics as a filter for a world he couldn’t really understand.
It’s so, so hard to explain Flex Mentallo as a series. The idea is ultimately that superheroes are the only real and lasting thing in the world, a mythology which outlasts any human life. As the artist comes to the idea that he no longer rejects the power and mysticism of superheroes as a medium, genre, or concept, he finds his own source of power again and is able to see the world through golden-aged eyes once more. The villain in this series is a “darker and edgier” advocate who finds an idealistic hero like Flex to be ridiculous. But when Flex Mentallo flexes his muscles, that deliberately vague “muscle mystery” power proves to still have an affect on our antagonist, causing him to lose immediately. There is still a part of us all which wants to believe heroes, and that’s what gives them power over all of us. This miniseries ends with a triumphant moment, masterfully delivered by Quitely, which brings the age of superheroes back to the world. Think whatever you might want of Morrison’s statement – he makes it well.
23: Saga #1 – Chapter One
Published by Image Comics in 2012
Written by Brian K. Vaughan
Drawn by Fiona Staples
You were wondering if Saga would appear in the Top 100 list, weren’t you? The latest long-term project from writer Brian K. Vaughan was a gamechanger for Image as a whole, and also brought artist Fiona Staples to deserved widespread attention. Staples is the key factor in why this book works at all, her artwork creating an spectral quality to a particularly crazed new take on the Universe. In her hands, the galaxy feels almost supernatural, a strange and confusing place filled with strange and highly confused characters. That clashes wonderfully with Vaughan’s script, which turns the other way and gives these unpredictable characters some terribly human speech that immediately makes them recognisable. The central idea of the opening issue is that there’s a war between two sides which has engulfed multiple worlds and in the middle of it all: a baby is born.
The parents’ struggle to get her out the warzone so they can escape to somewhere peaceful is the core of Saga as a whole, but this opening 60-page issue condenses everything into one single escape from immediate danger, and it’s as thrilling as it is funny. Vaughan’s to-the-point, sweary dialogue serves to undercut the style of Staples’ ethereal character and world design, but it all works brilliantly in giving the comic a lived-in feel even as it explores the most fantastic parts of the universe. Saga is commonly described as being an epic series, and with the first issue Staples and Vaughan ensure that things start off memorably.
22: Bitch Planet #3 – Too Big To Fail
Published by Image Comics in 2015
Written by Kelly Sue DeConnick
Drawn by Robert Wilson IV
Coloured by Cris Peter
Lettered by Clayton Cowles
Bitch Planet, Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro’s revision of the exploitation genre to take a more intersectionality feminist approach, sees a dystopian future where women are easily labelled as criminal by the men in their society, and sent off-planet to a penal colony where rules don’t really apply. The “crimes” vary from assault to being a bad mother, or simply because a husband wants to get rid of his wife so he can have a mistress instead. It’s simply a way for men to get rid of the women who they think are forging too much identity or personhood, so they can keep a patriarchal system in place and label the women around them as “non-compliant”. In the third issue of the series, guest artist Robert Wilson IV comes in as the creative team focus in on the character of Penny Rolle, who arguably stole every scene she was in prior.
Penny is a fat black woman, simply, and a patriarchal society finds her objectionable simply for that. Adverts play out throughout the issue for various dietary techniques, most of them horrifying, and there’s a constant feeling of unease in the way other characters look at Penny, whose only joy and release of tension comes through her baking. Her appearance is her crime, for them, and in this world that’s crime enough for her to be sent to prison. The desire for her to conform into their vision of what women should be is completely undone by the final moments of the issue, however, as Penny is “confronted” by her captors, who wire her to a machine that will show her what her ideal self should look like. That ideal self? Herself, exactly as she is, a fat black woman. Stuck inside the federal machine which is cruel and prejudiced directly against her, Penny is exactly who she wants to be, and that’s something they’ll not take from her.
21: Hawkeye #6 – Six Days in the Life Of
Published by Marvel Comics in 2012
Written by Matt Fraction
Drawn by David Aja
Coloured by Matt Hollingsworth
Lettered by Chris Eliopoulos
Scrolling backwards and forwards over a six-day period, this issue of Hawkeye sees David Aja having a whole lot of fun/hard work as the reader truly gets into the mindset of this particular comic, and it’s leading man especially. When Hawkeye gets a concussion during an Avengers mission (which is laid out like a 2D beat ‘em up arcade game), he takes the good advice of his binge-watching colleagues and goes home, to rest for the holidays and try to set up his TV. This doesn’t go well, namely because a gang of tracksuit-wearing criminals threaten the building, and because not even Tony Stark can help him untangle his HDMI cables. Although there’s a faint undercurrent of threat throughout the early issues of Hawkeye, and this issue is the worst things have been so far, the series is still light and frothy at this point, a fun read filled with merrily disposable ideas, all locked into place by a three-man artistic team who are working like clockwork. Whether abstractly detailing the ideal setup for a TV system or casually weaving back and forth in time across a week-long period, this is the Hawkeye team enjoying themselves.
The pin-point accuracy of the artistic team is met by the inherent slobbiness of Hawkeye as a character, as gleefully highlighted by Fraction at every turn. Here is a grubby mess of an Avenger, fingers twitching at all hours of the day and unable to persuade the landlord (who is technically working for him) to go fix a TV aerial for one of the other residents. It’s a really enjoyable mixture of elements, which could have imploded in incredible fashion but somehow holds itself together to create a heroic sitcom of sorts which finds time for all kind of weird detours whilst still hiding a careful narrative framework in the background the whole time.