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.
Here we go: we’re inside the top twenty of our list! Get ready for a few surprises as we find out the last few comics before we head into the top ten, which’ll be coming next week. It’s really really tense now! If it isn’t one of these ten, then which comic will be #1??
20: Doom Patrol #63 – Empire of Chairs
Published by DC Comics (Vertigo) in 1993
Written by Grant Morrison
Drawn by Richard Case
Coloured by Daniel Vozzo
Lettered by John Workman
In the hands of Grant Morrison, Doom Patrol morphed into something completely unknown and bizarre. But in his final issue, the series gave readers something entirely more familiar – and it was that familiarity which made it one of the strangest stories of all. Starting off with an almost aggressive normality, the comic sets itself between two worlds. The first is one which team member “Crazy Jane” seems to be stuck within, a sterile hospital ward she’s been consigned to by doctors who don’t believe any of her stories about being part of a Doom Patrol. Jane is tied to a bed and being threatened with electroshock therapy: her doctors are too busy arguing over her treatment to pay much attention to her stories.
The second world is the world Jane believes herself part of, where she stands alongside the Doom Patrol’s remaining members in a last-ditch attempt to save the world. The stories in each world spiral towards their perhaps inevitable conclusions, as one leads into the other, perhaps, possibly, hopefully. Its that note of optimism which underpins the issue, and series as a whole, with this final issue of the run beautifully constructed by Richard Case in order to highlight Jane’s life so far, and her hopes and dreams as a person. She knows that there is a bigger, brighter world, with real colour and life to it – and as the issue reaches the end, we see her reach out a hand back into that world, for better or worse. It’s a poignant finale for Morrison’s time on the series, which sees Jane leave a lasting mark on both worlds.
19: Watchmen #1 – At Midnight, All The Agents…
Published by DC Comics in 1986
Written by Alan Moore
Drawn by Dave Gibbons
Coloured by John Higgins
Lettered by Dave Gibbons
There’s something inherently sad about Watchmen, which feels at times like a 12-part alternate universe eulogy for superheroes and their golden age. Of course the series is one of the most acclaimed of all time, and is the book which changed the medium forever in both wonderful and less inspired ways. But the first issue is just so utterly downhearted about everything, and it pulls the reader into Alan Moore and especially Dave Gibbon’s world in a way unlike any other comic. Set in a city which is dark and set in a country which is at risk of global war and annihilation, a former superhero is murdered in his apartment, sparking a search for who the killer could be – and why they did it.
The issue is held tight in the hands of breakout character Rorschach, the last remaining active vigilante in the city who is violent and disturbed, and immediately perceives the murder was a targeted hit against him and his kind. His investigation leads him to meet his former teammates, who have all fallen into some kind of boredom or despair with their lives since they put away their costumes. Foreboding and dark, the first issue of Watchmen propelled readers into an alternate, acerbic take on the concept of heroes and justice, but still manages to contain enough dark British humour that it wouldn’t be lost in a dull despair. This is strong work, by two careful craftsmen, and it lands with a heck of a final punchline.
18: Hawkeye #19 – The Stuff What Don’t Get Spoke
Published by Marvel Comics in 2014
Written by Matt Fraction
Drawn by David Aja
Coloured by Matt Hollingsworth
Lettered by Chris Eliopoulos
After an attack leaves Hawkeye’s brother using a wheelchair and once more impairs his ability to hear, the series pauses once more (as was its knack) and follows the ramifications of the injuries on both Barton brothers. With Clint unable to hear, the issue introduces sequences of sign language into the pages as his brother Barney tries to talk to him, only to be met with silence. The introduction of sign language and lip reading changes the way the reader has to approach the issue, although this isn’t the focus of the issue – it’s a necessity, sure, but the issue has more to offer than just necessity. This is a jumbled look at two jumbled-up brothers, whose bond is as strong as their ability to beat each other up and split on each other. Fraction’s script points the characters as being too alike to be in the same room for too long, but shows Barney genuinely trying to help. He already knows ASL, which is a first indicator, but flashbacks then signal further just how long Barney’s been trying to be the proper brother to Clint.
The issue cuts away from Clint, and speech bubbles return for those sections, which help build up the surrounding plot and head it’s formless self closer to where the finale will be headed shortly – at its core, though, this is a story about Clint and Barney Barton, and the lengths they’ll go to when they’re watching each other’s back.
17: Ms Marvel Vol 1 #1 – Meta Morphosis
Published by Marvel Comics in 2014
Written by G. Willow Wilson
Drawn by Adrian Alphona
Coloured by Ian Herring
Lettered by Joe Caramagna
Kamala Khan is probably the best character created in comics within the last decade at least, a kind-hearted but eternally grumpy young girl who gains superpowers when powerful mists of change sweep down across New Jersey. But the first issue of her series isn’t really about the superheroics, but the core of her character which builds into that superheroic aspect later on. This is character study in the abstract; a completely weird and unique approach to life in the city. Kamala’s life is defined more by her opposition to traditional values than those values ever really being applied to her: she’s a young Muslim girl with a family who range in belief, but really just feel like a standard family, everybody with their own weird things going on. Kamala’s is her interest for superheroes – she writes fanfic, she defies her parents because it seems like it’ll be more fun than it is, and she ends up wearing Captain Marvel’s costume at the end of the story – but everyone else gets the time to be strange in their own ways. Nobody is normal here, and that’s what grounds the story in normality.
Adrian Alphona is an absolute star in this issue, especially as he’s asked to go very close to repeating story beats from Runaways. He skips away from it happily, and his style has evolved enough by this point that he’s keen to throw in jokes as often as he can, often as curious and surreal background details. This is a comic which has a hedgehog throwing up a peace sign using giant foam gloves: at every stage Alphona’s style just helps to emphasise the beats of G. Willow Wilson’s engaging and upbeat character work. There’s just so much fun stuff going on in the comic, and it’s a joy to read. Kamala Khan is very much a defiant character who tries to step away from what she views as boring and expected of her, and it leaves her falling into as traditional and entertaining a superhero origin as you could imagine.
And it leaves Kamala realising to be careful what she wishes for.
16: Giant-Sized X-Men #1 – Deadly Genesis
Published by Marvel Comics in 1975
Written by Len Wein
Drawn by Dave Cockrum
Inked by Peter Iro
Coloured by Glynis Wein
Lettered by John Constanza
A bridge between the original run of X-Men comics headed by Stan and Jack and the new run about to start courtesy of an up-and-comer called Chris Claremont, Deadly Genesis sets itself out into a series of acts, each one heightening the story and expanding out the world of the X-Men in wonderful, iconic fashion. When the original X-Men team are captured on a mysterious desert island, Charles Xavier trawls the world looking for a new team to help bring them home, in the process introducing some of the best characters to ever step foot into the panels at Marvel Comics. Wein brings back his creation Wolverine, but also brings in Colossus, Nightcrawler, Storm, Banshee, Sunfire and Thunderbird to stand alongside him – as designed by Dave Cockrum, some of the most instantly recognisable characters and costumes that the superhero world has seen. But aside from quickly telling several brilliant ‘origin’ stories which gives purpose to the disparate team, the issue stands out for its ability to expand out the X-Men’s purpose whilst adding more detail (and more power) to “the mutant metaphor” which helped the series to have a solid and different identity to any other comic of the time.
The original X-Men had their problems, but those are nothing compared to the woes of the new team – Nightcrawler is introduced being chased by an angry pop holding pitchforks, for one. Here the idea of being ‘different’ gets a real exploration, whether it be Storm’s powers leading her to be hailed as a goddess, or Sunfire’s refusal to be put into a box simply because he’s a mutant. Deadly Genesis launched a whole team of wonderful, iconic characters, and formed the backbone that allowed the X-Men to proudly stand tall for decades to come.
15: Superman Annual #11 – For The Man Who Has Everything…
Published by DC Comics in 1985
Written by Alan Moore
Drawn by Dave Gibbons
Coloured by Tom Ziuko
Lettered by Dave Gibbons
Superman celebrates an offbeat birthday in another collaboration between the team who’d go on to create Watchmen together, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. This comes at a time in Moore’s career where his relationship with DC was a cordial one, balancing the shared universe in one hand whilst sharpening it with the other. He was able to imbue hope and anger into his comics in direct opposition to one another, and in this comic addresses that struggle directly. Wonder Woman, Batman and Robin arrive at the Solitude of Fortress for Superman’s birthday only to find he’s been tangled up in a creature called “the Black Mercy”, which traps the victim in a dreamlike state and gives them their heart’s desire, all the while slowly sapping the life from them. As Wonder Woman fights the culprit, Mongul, inside the Fortress in what should only be a losing battle for her, the comic jumps into Superman’s head to show us what his wildest dreams look like – and how they fall apart under his unique scrutiny.
We see Superman back on Krypton, with a happy family… but it doesn’t work. Reality ensues even in the dream, as Dave Gibbons confines the story and ramps up the pressure as Krypton is overrun by protests and the ruling party come face to face with anarchy and progress. As Superman wakes up, we see a darker and more fierce side of him than ever before. But anger doesn’t win the day – Jason Todd does, outthinking the villain and saving the day in front of the three biggest heroes in the DC Universe. In the end, the most powerful force of anger loses out to hope on this day. As Moore makes clear though, there will always be another day…
14: Fantastic Four Vol 1 #51 – This Man… This Monster!
Published by Marvel Comics in 1966
Written by Stan Lee
Drawn by Jack Kirby
Inked by Joe Sinnott
Lettered by Artie Simek
“Occasionally a tale needs no introduction!” Stan Lee exclaims in the introduction to issue #51 of Fantastic Four, which comes immediately after Galactus has been chased off Earth and the Silver Surfer been banished there. Although both get fleeting references in this issue, however, the central concern is on the Fantastic Four themselves. They just stopped the greatest threat they’ve ever seen – so what do they do next? The answer is that they build on the heightened character drama which made the series such a hit with readers, as Kirby’s world-building is matched by Lee’s keen characterisation to develop out both the cast of characters and the greatest scientific universe they’ve started to delve into. The story sees a rival of Reed Richards swapping powers with The Thing, who has been questioning himself and his likelihood of ever having a “normal” life. The villain leaves Thing without powers – and heads to the Baxter Building in an attempt to get revenge on Reed once and for all.
That’s the premise of the story, but what immediately grasps the reader is how much consideration and detail went into the scenery around it. Reed heads into a “radical cube”, with the imposter Ben holding the only safety line. The question the story asks is whether the imposter will save Reed when time comes – but it’s hard to focus on that when you have Kirby’s incredible design of the radical cube to contend with, which looks impossible and incredible. Kirby contents himself with arranging a strikingly-told story whilst Lee seems to be having a ball with arranging the characters themselves and how they fit within it. There’s a perfect balance between their two strengths here, which flits from a trip into negative space within the space of a panel to exploring the mindset of this man who has imbued himself with The Thing’s powers and appearance. His emotional journey buoys the story, fittingly, with his final moments proving to be incredibly affecting. It’s not what you look like, he realises, summing up the core of Marvel’s philosophy – it’s what you are on the inside that matters.
13: Journey Into Mystery #645 – Everything Burns: Aftermath
Published by Marvel Comics in 2012
Written by Kieron Gillen
Drawn by Stephanie Hans
Lettered by Clayton Cowles
The journey of a young Loki caught the attention of a new generation of readers, and the final issue of Journey into Mystery tricked them all. It was only ever going to end in tragedy and defeat, of course, but this new iteration of one of Marvel’s most enduring and popular villains had once again convinced everybody that things could turn out alright in the end – only to have to suffer through the consequences of what turned out to be a bitter lie. Everything burns, and everything eventually returns to its original state. For the last issue written by Kieron Gillen, regular cover artist Stephanie Hans – whose painted style is luminous on the page, otherworldly and extraworldly in style – joined him to close the chapter on this part of the character’s story. Having spent the whole run building ambitious goals and lies and twists on top of one another, all of them have fallen apart by the time we reach the end, as everyone betrays our young hero and Loki has no choice but to once more sacrifice himself.
The final issue places twist upon twist on Loki, and in turn the reader, who is brought straight into his world as he sees everything burn down around him and all chances of hope snuffed out ruthlessly. He has to return to form in order to save the day – but having worked so hard to create a new definition for himself, the issue ends with Loki snatching both defeat and victory at the same time. Journey into Mystery was one of the first comics to bring in the concept of “feels” for readers, and this last issue is filled with them. It’s a triumphant final issue for the creative team, and one which closes the book – but leaves the character room to, y’know, find a new one to jump to instead.
12: Hitman #34 – Of Thee I Sing
Published by DC Comics in 1999
Written by Garth Ennis
Drawn by John McCrea
Inked by Garry Leach
Coloured by Carla Feeny and Heroic Age
Lettered by Patricia Prentice
Don’t get Garth Ennis started on America. Or rather, do, but only if you want to hear an Irish comics writer at his most poetic. It’s rare for Ennis to bring in a superhero, but even rarer for that superhero to get treated with a level of respect – and yet when Superman drops down onto a rooftop next to Hitman in issue #34 of the anarchic series, that’s exactly what he gets. The issue is largely a conversation between Superman and Tommy, who is chuffed to bits that the greatest, noblest superhero of all time has just stepped into his life. The visible excitement Tommy experiences seems to substitute him into Garth Ennis’ shoes, who himself seems giddy for the opportunity to write from a pretty different perspective. It leads to one of the standout issues of the run, and a rumination on heroism, Americana, and the Superman himself.
The way each character approaches the other says everything about them. Superman treats Tommy is good faith, which leads to a bit of a dark moment once they say their farewells and we find out what Tommy was doing on the roof in the first place. In turn, Tommy’s typical cynicism is still present, but watered right down as he deals with someone he genuinely considers a hero. It’s a fascinating meeting of different minds, as we see the path Ennis has taken set starkly against the path of every other comics writer. In turn, John McCrea revels in making Superman this big padded figure with a massive smile and empathetic body language, which Tommy reacts to as acceptance and understanding. If someone like the Hitman can share a conversation with someone like the Superman, then comics must genuinely have a place for everyone. Garth Ennis has spent a lot of time thinking about America, and his perspective is that’s there’s space for everyone to be whoever they want. Even if their choice is pretty friggin’ off-colour.
11: Sandman #8 – Master of Dreams, Part 8: The Sound of Her Wings
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
Death takes many forms, but only Neil Gaiman and Mike Dringenberg could have decided she’d be your cool older sister going through a goth phase. “The Sound of Her Wings” closes the first Sandman “story”, with Dream having escaped the prison he was cast into, reclaimed his power, and returned to the world once more. Having finished the story, though, the character doesn’t know what he will do next – perhaps mirroring Gaiman’s own thought process when he realised his series was going on to an eighth issue – and finds himself stuck in a rut. He feeds birds in the park.
With the arrival of his big sis, we finally get to see someone who can speak to Dream on his own level, and who has a bit of actual power over him, rather than borrowed or temporary power. And hearing her rip him apart for acting the tormented loner instead of coming to her or any of his loved ones for help is… cathartic, especially given some of the previous issues. Death is a breath of fresh air, really, and the issue clearly adores her and everything she brings – which is a really interesting way to consider her. Fun, incisive, flighty and on-point, she’s the most freeing character the series has introduced, and it opens up the wider narrative world of the series, and provides us with some new perspective on what death really means. Why do we fear this woman whilst we look forward to dreaming, which makes us just as powerless? As this at-times breathtaking issue posits, death comes as a friend, not as an enemy.