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.
Below we have the top 10, rounding out the list. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading the list, and that maybe it’s suggested some comics you’re now thinking of heading off to try reading. If you find the list fascinating, infuriating, fun or silly, please let us know in the comments! I’d like to thank every single comic critic, writer, podcaster or otherwise engager who so kindly donated their time to this project, and send in their top ten issues so they could be added into this master list. This wouldn’t have happened if we didn’t have a wonderful network of critics out there, and this is a golden time for people thinking and talking about comics.
Without any more delay… here is our top ten.
10: Daredevil #191 – Roulette
Published by Marvel Comics in 1983
Written and drawn by Frank Miller
Inked by Terry Austin
Coloured by Lynn Varley
Lettered by Joe Rosen
Frank Miller’s last regular issue of Daredevil sees the vigilante confronting both of his worst enemies in a single room: Bullseye and himself. With Bullseye unable to move after suffering severe injuries, Daredevil brings out a gun and begins to play a game of roulette between them both, pulling the trigger six times to see what will happen. As he does so, he silently reflects on what brought him to the room, and why he brought the gun with him. What follows is a coda to Miller’s run with the character, sure: it’s also an exploration of the impact that comics and superheroes have on their readers, and the lesson that children learn from their parents. Although the scenes of roulette are tense and hard to decipher – Miller would certainly dare to have the gun kill one of them, but would he choose to? – it’s the scenes inbetween which show Daredevil’s mental state that explain why this issue is so admired today.
We’re shown the scene as Matt Murdock experiences the direct impact he has had on a young boy whose father is involved in sideline criminal activities, and he gives the boy a chance meeting with Daredevil as a way to give them both a bit of happiness. That feel-good moment of inspiration gives entirely the wrong idea to the boy, though, who later sees Daredevil knock out and arrest his father later on. What message should the boy take from that? Should we view Daredevil as heroic for stopping the criminal act, or as reckless for allowing the son to see what happened? Is vigilantism as bad as the original act it stops, or are they equally to blame for rising violence in culture and in society? As the final pull of the trigger suggests, Bullseye and Daredevil are in this together, trapped doing this same routine forever.
9: The X-Men #137 – The Fate of the Phoenix!
Published by Marvel Comics in 1980
Written by Chris Claremont and John Byrne
Drawn by John Byrne
Inked by Terry Austin
Coloured by Glynis Wein
Lettered by Tom Orzechowski
Dread hangs over the first half of Uncanny X-Men #137, as the characters we’ve grown to know and love try to stop something which is perhaps inevitable: the execution of Jean Grey, one of the first students to ever step into the school. Due to the “Dark Phoenix” which has either possessed her, or become a part of her, or was always a part of her (I can’t keep up), Jean is responsible for the destruction of a planet, which killed all five billion lives on it. Her trial takes up the first half of the issue, presided over by various alien races and incredibly tense and ominous as a result. These are grander stakes than the series had ever tried before, with Jean in very real and present danger from the first page she appears in. She is responsible for mass murder, and yet she wasn’t wholly present for the act, because the Phoenix did it – and the X-Men all struggle with what that means. When Xavier bluntly invokes a challenge of combat to decide Jean’s survival, the team all take a night to consider what the trial means, and if it is something they can live with taking on – or live through, even.
From there, the fight begins, with huge stakes to who wins or loses – and the X-Men are, essentially, routed. Storm is taken out first, which is hugely powerful. She is Jean’s best friend, and she’s defeated first. Later pages see defeats for all the other members of the team, until only Jean and Cyclops are left. They storm out for a final surge, one last counter-attack, but things don’t go how either of them would want. This is a masterpiece, high-octane fighting with a palpable sense of purpose as drawn by John Byrne and Terry Austin. The X-Men are dazzling, but they aren’t good enough, and it’s heartbreaking to see them torn down so easily. There’s a last-minute appearance which seems like it could change everything… but Jean isn’t willing to go ahead with it, and so she sacrifices herself right in front of Cyclops, after apologising to him. It’s an incredibly powerful moment, as Jean acknowledges everything she’s been a part of and chooses to leave on her own terms. She isn’t defined by how the X-Men fight for her; how the Shi’ar, Skrull and Kree races fight against her; or by how Xavier cries for her. She defines herself, for once.
8: Animal Man #5 – The Coyote Gospel
Published by DC Comics (Vertigo) in 1988
Written by Grant Morrison
Drawn by Chaz Truog
Inked by Doug Hazelwood
Coloured by Tatjana Wood
Lettered by John Constanza
The fifth issue of Grant Morrison and Chaz Truog’s Animal Man revamp marks the point where the creative team had to start making up something new: this was originally a four-issue miniseries which stretched out into something more. It’s also seen as the point where Grant Morrison went from a gifted writer to somebody who was actively looking to change the medium in his own shamanistic way. You might think issue five would be a stall, as the creative team looked to find a new approach so they could now make Buddy Baker’s story into an ongoing piece. But instead, things went in a really unexpected direction, as they brought a wily cartoon coyote into the “real world” of the DC Universe, and away from his home in a more cartoony world where every animal was always fighting with no consequences or end in sight. When this wily coyote arrives in the real world, his endless failed attempts to catch his prey using complex schemes and gadgets is reversed: he becomes the hunted, sought out as the “devil” and repeatedly attacked by a human who blames the coyote for the sins of the world.
Yeah, there’s a lot to deal with right there. More, this is where Morrison famously started to question reality within the series, as the reader is put into the viewpoint of, well, God: from God’s eyes we see the coyote banished from the cartoon dimension and thrown into the real world, and from God’s perspective we see him start to alter or fill in parts of reality to fit his narrative. Even as it’s at its most tricky, the issue throws questions and thoughts at the reader without solving them, instead leaving the pretty dense thematic subtext hanging there, waiting for the reader to decide what they’ve just read. Animal Man doesn’t even have anything really to do in the issue: this is all about the messianic figure of the wily coyote, who is shot with a bullet made from a silver cross and left to die, arms outstretched towards the future it’ll never have. Wait! Is this all a Bible thing, then?? Fight it out amongst yourselves, scholars.
7: Watchmen #4 – Watchmaker
Published by DC Comics in 1987
Written by Alan Moore
Drawn by Dave Gibbons
Coloured by John Higgins
Lettered by Dave Gibbons
The devil of Watchmen is in the detail, which the tightly-constructed “Watchmaker” demonstrates more than any other comic in the series. This is the issue which focuses on Dr Manhattan, skipping artfully back and forth through time to show how he was created and what he grew into, as in the present-day the character struggles to hold any kind of grasp on the meaning of time itself. Everything happens at once for him, meaning nothing is of any weight or importance. That weightlessness is perhaps apt as he spends the issue floating above the surface of Mars, trying to find something he can hold onto – and failing, really, to do so.
The issue is hugely powerful in its weightlessness, though, casually laying moments in his life side by side in the famous nine-panel grid so we can see how he contrasts against himself from one moment to the next. In one panel, he is happy with his fiance; in the next, he’s cheating on her. The issue accepts that Dr Manhattan is both the most powerful person in its story and the person with least control over himself. He represents the capacity for growth which the human race has, but also their lack of understanding of consequences, and failure to appreciate how mistakes and traumas of the past are important in shaping attitudes for the future. That’s one theory, anyway – the issue leaves the reader to draw their own thoughts and conclusions about the story, because a story only carries the weight which the reader puts into it.
6: Multiversity: Pax Americana #1 – In Which We Burn…
Published by DC Comics in 2015
Written by Grant Morrison
Drawn by Frank Quitely
Coloured by Nathan Fairbairn
Lettered by Rob Leigh
Yes, Pax Americana lands higher-up on this list than any issue of Watchmen. I await all and any complaints. Published as part of “Multiversity”, which saw Grant Morrison and several artists team together to basically try and sum up comics as a potential medium against the actuality of the what the medium currently is, this was perhaps the most anticipated part of the entire series. Morrison and Quitely, reteaming again to offer a story featuring the Charlton superheroes who were used as the basis for Watchmen. Where Moore and Gibbons went for nine-panel grids, Morrison and Quitely instead go all over the place, settling mostly on eight-panel sequences – which puts huge, and yet easily navigated pressure on Quitely, who is one of the finest sequential artists of all time. Quitely fills each page with a careful pace that helps the reader walk up, down and round each page in consumate fashion, not only laying out the page but carefully, artfully ensuring that the panels are read in exactly the intended fashion in order to lay out the endless mysteries and motifs which Morrison’s script almost lazily throws off at the reader.
On one level, this is Morrison trying to emulate Moore, which seems to be a recurring theme in his early career that has resurfaced in later years. On another level, this is Morrison offering random disconnected thoughts in such a way as to make them seem connected, offering sequences designed around Steve Ditko’s Randian ideology, Judge Dredd, and his own previous multi-world stories. Everything is connected if you can convince people that it should be, and the greatest achievement of Pax Americana is that it leaves you wondering what you read, even as you feel like you’re only a second away from tangibly connecting all the disparate, weird tangents together. It’s an incredible comic, but one that knows exactly what it’s trying to do: complicate things for the reader and create its own cult of personality. Just as Watchmen has been eaten by the response to Watchmen, so Pax Americana leaves out enough breadcrumbs to keep Morrison fans chewing it over for years to come.
5: Saga of The Swamp Thing #21 – The Anatomy Lesson
Published by DC Comics in 1984
Written by Alan Moore
Drawn by Steve Bissette
Inked by John Totleben
Coloured by Len Wein
Lettered by John Constanza
There’s that measure of revenge for Alan Moore, though. His highest entry in the list is his first issue proper of Saga of the Swamp Thing, after quickly wrapping up the previous run of the series. “The Anatomy Lesson” sets the scene for the fantastical sense of horror and romance which will swirl round this series in equal measures for the duration of Moore’s tenure as writer, opening with the conceit that Swamp Thing has died – the anatomy lesson of the title is his autopsy. It’s easy to see the attempts to dissect and pull apart Swamp Thing as referring back to Moore’s open attempts to work out the character and find out what it is that will make the series work. There’s poetry in his narrative, and in his narration, with only three characters in this issue of any note, he winds them all around each other in fascinating, engrossing fashion, even as one spends most of their time lying frozen in a morgue. Steve Bissette and especially Len Wein – who colours the series which would go on to, really, surpass his previous run – give sickly, violent life to the pages, blurry and creepy.
As the two men performing Swamp Thing’s autopsy continue on, one of them learns something while the other doesn’t, and the creative team let us follow the smart one. That creates a sense of the inevitable for the rest of the issue which slowly grows tantalising roots and brings the story to fresh life – spoilers, but Swamp Thing does come back to life in the first issue of this long-term run with the character, and it’s satisfying and mystifying in equal measure. Somehow, this is a new and more defined version of Swamp Thing than before, even as the character leaves this opening story as a complete blank slate, uncertain of what might happen next. Romanicised, harsh but wry, this is the issue that showed Alan Moore was one of the most fascinating and intricate writers the medium had ever seen.
4: Hawkeye #11 – Pizza Is My Business
Published by Marvel Comics in 2013
Written by Matt Fraction
Drawn by David Aja
Coloured by Matt Hollingsworth
Lettered by Chris Eliopoulos
It’s never been clearer that a comic was iconic than when this issue of Hawkeye came out. With the central creative team of Fraction/Aja/Hollingsworth/Eliopoulos all firing on all cylinders, this is an issue which comes entirely from the perspective of Lucky, the pizza-eating dog adopted by Hawkeye at the start of the series. As a result, there isn’t dialogue in the issue so much as there is texture: Lucky can understand certain words used by the humans around him, but he’s really looking more for visual cues and wider context in order to understand what’s going on. The dialogue balloons are smudged aside from the occasional “Clint” “Kate” or “good boy”, because that’s not how Lucky sees the world. Every human is a connective set of instincts – Lucky connects Clint to getting given food, to Clint’s love of coffee, and to Clint’s use of a bow. These are all indicated as interlinked chains around the people in question, showing how Lucky prioritises people and what, at their core, they mean to him.
The issue is the second issue in a row to tiptoe around a major development for the series: a murder which has taken place on the top of the apartment building Hawkeye lives in. And Lucky does get a little tangled in the story, but without the full attention span to follow it up. Of course, a dog isn’t going to solve a mystery himself, although he can recognise good people from bad people and act on the spot when he sees them. He is constantly vigilant in his own world, which has its own heartbreaks and trials. The colouring and lettering are constantly used in ingenious ways to illustrate that world – when he’s focused on something, that section of the page is in colour whilst ‘dead spaces’ are left uncoloured and flat. It prompts the reader to think in the same way, looking for connective threads rather than having the story spelled out through dialogue and narration. That’s what makes the final beat of the story – which sees Kate essentially ‘dognap’ Lucky to keep him safe from Clint’s self-destructive nature – such a surprise. Everything was laid out in retrospect to lead to this point, but just like Lucky we don’t realise what this means until he’s out the door and heading cross-country in her car. It’s a fascinating, intricate story, told by four of the most impressive talents of the time.
3: The Amazing Spider-Man Vol 1 #33 – The Final Chapter
Published by Marvel Comics in 1966
Written by Stan Lee
Drawn by Steve Ditko
Lettered by Artie Simek
Steve Ditko and Stan Lee. Spider-Man. The Final Chapter. It’s everything you heard it was, and more. It pushes Spider-Man to his very last, and then pushes him further, testing just how far he can go before he will break, give up, and lose it all. Everything is on the line by the time Amazing Spider-Man reaches issue #33, with Aunt May dying in hospital of radiation poisoning and Peter having only just managed to defeat his nemesis, Doctor Octopus. To add even more weight on his shoulders, the creative team literally hold Spider-Man down with everything they can, which includes a huge metal weight which pins him to the floor in an underground base which is rapidly taking on water. This is comics going all-in, everything or nothing, a test of strength and test of courage which resonates beyond the time it was first devised, decades ago. A lifetime ago.
Every page of this comic pushes Spider-Man harder. First he has the beams to escape, so he can get the cure for his aunt. But then he has to escape the underwater base, which is crumpling in on itself and swarming with henchmen who are ready and waiting for him round every corner. He has to get the cure back, and find a way to test it on his own blood without arresting suspicion from his scientific mentor Curt Connors. Then he has to get that cure to his aunt, make sure the criminals are rounded up and caught, make sure “Peter Parker”, photographer gets the snaps and the exclusive, so then he can sell the photos to the Daily Bugle to pay for May’s care. Then, after everything, he has to get his broken and exhausted body back to the hospital to find out if his beloved Aunt made it through.
Ditko’s story is brutal and honest, an open attack on Spider-Man’s mind and body which sets out to be the hardest proving-ground. And Lee – aided by letterer Artie Simek – stands up to the challenge of the story, taking inspiration from Ditko and bringing Spider-Man to vibrant, defiant life on each page. For every fresh ordeal, Lee fights back with his battered hero and ultimately overcomes everything thrown at them. It’s a hugely inspiring comic, which hits right at the heart of the character – and the medium, for that matter – with the endless levels of soul which Stan Lee, on his best day, could bring to comics. It’s a perfect comic.
2: Astro City ½ – The Nearness of You
Published by Image Comics (Homage) in 1999
Written by Kurt Busiek
Drawn by Brent Anderson
Inked by Will Blyberg
Coloured by Alex Sinclair
Lettered by John Roshell and Comicraft
After a top ten marked by experimental, craft and concept-focused comics, here’s one with heart and soul. Kurt Busiek is one of the greatest writers in comics, and at the same time one of the more under-appreciated for his body of work. Busiek can turn from autobiographical pieces to grand superhero opera and beyond, and has done throughout his career – but on magical occasions he brings the concept of the former into the world of the latter. Astro City ½ is such a comic, an evocative and emotional story. For this issue, Busiek and Anderson (Brent Anderson, a wonderful artist who evokes the traditional style of superheroes whilst establishing his own form and command of the genre) follow a man who keeps having dreams of a woman he’s never met. The dreams take over his life, leaving him desperate to find out who this woman is, the woman of his dreams, who is perfect for him in ways he never realised existed. It takes a visit from one of the most mysterious denizens of this world – The Hangman – to establish just what has happened.
That’s the whole of the issue, more or less. Our protagonist sees a woman in his dreams, then the Hangman explains why, and leaves. But there’s so much within that simply story, which hinges on an idea which anyone reading superhero comics would have had, but it took someone like Busiek to take that idea and bring it to life. With Anderson letting each page flow through slowly, so the full impact of the reveal hits readers like a sledgehammer to the heart. It isn’t a comic where anything is at stake, particularly, but the team do such an adept job of making the lead character likeable that it feels like everything is at stake. The reveal is brought together so carefully that it’ll hit readers at different points, depending on how used to superhero stories they are, but it hits everyone equally: it’s breathtaking, and shattering. You don’t need to have read any other issues of Astro City to understand this issue, and that must have helped when it came to this list: everybody remembers the moment when Michael remembered Miranda.
1: All-Star Superman #10 – Neverending
Published by DC Comics in 2008
Written by Grant Morrison
Drawn by Frank Quitely
Inked and Coloured by Jamie Grant
Lettered by Travis Lanham
The last will and testament of Superman, as left by Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely, Jamie Grant and Travis Lanham, has been voted as the best single issue of all time.
All-Star Superman means a huge amount to so many people, and it’s easy to see why. The story, about an alternate-universe Superman who realises that he’s slowly dying of radiation poisoning, is one of the most optimistic and empowered superhero series ever put together. Every issue is brimming with vitality and energy, positively glowing with a warmth and humanity which feels perfectly at home with the character. Few comics have ever felt so bright as this, and “Neverending”, coming towards the end of the series, sees it shine strongest. The issue follows Superman towards the end of his time, as his illness becomes chronic and he finds himself thinking about his legacy and what he wants to leave behind for humanity. Every page peppers in something heartfelt and true: from Superman casually saving civilians from disasters to naturally finding a final way to save the bottled citizens of Kandor.
What marks Superman out along the way is his shared experiences and the people who he has helped and who have learnt from him: the Kandorians help him extend his lifespan, and he sends them to heal sick children in a hospital. Another key character is Leo Quantum, who acts as diplomat to the people of Kandor, and is ultimately trusted with the resources which will mean that they can continue Superman’s family line. Quantum is a new character, never seen before, and many will have seen him as a secret identity for a villain, or perhaps as some kind of twist: he’s not, he’s just a man inspired by Superman, and that’s the brilliant twist of him. It’s another moment which shows that this is an open and caring world that Morrison and Quitely have built. For once, there doesn’t have to be a cruel twist.
This is the issue which sees Superman pause to talk to a girl contemplating suicide, and to offer her two considerations: “it’s never as bad as it seems” and “you’re much stronger than you think you are”. This is a Superman who relates to people, who loves them, and who sees the best in them. This is a Superman who wants the best from people – and receives it, as a result. It’s a Superman who ultimately looks to his legacy by creating a world of his own, Earth “Q”, and as the issue continues that world continually grows and expands in a way much like our own. After thousands and thousands of years, though, Friedrich Nietzsche says “Behold, I teach you the Superman.” Shortly afterwards, an artist sits in his apartment and creates a new superhero based on that concept. Even in a universe which doesn’t feature Superman as a living, breathing person, ultimately there will always become a need for him, and that need will grow form.
There could never be a world without Superman: he’s too important to lose. It’s the best comic issue ever published.