Shelfdust asked over a hundred comic book critics, podcasters, vloggers and commentators to pick their personal, subjective favourite ‘first’ comic book issues of all time. They didn’t have to pick the comics they thought were notable or “important” – we asked them to pick the best opening issues based on their personal taste, and then took their rankings and compiled them into a huge master list of over 300 separate comics. From there we ended up with a top fifty list, which we’re counting down all through December.

We’ve counted down the first forty entries, which leaves us now with just ten comics left to go. Which will win? The only way to find out is to read on….

10: Sandman #1
Written by Neil Gaiman
Drawn by Sam Kieth
Inked by Mike Dringenberg
Coloured by Robbie Busch
Lettered by Todd Klein

Told across decades, the first issue of Neil Gaiman’s revelatory series details the capture and imprisonment of Dream, one of the Endless People who control the minds and hopes of mankind. Joined by Sam Kieth, Gaiman tells a compulsive, contorted story which dwells on the details of craftmanship: the effort that goes into creating magic has never been so painstakingly put together before, and it results in a mesmeric issue which immediately draws readers into its world. You can read the issue when it’s bright daylight; pouring rain; darkest nighttime and the effect is still the same. You’re drawn completely into Gaiman’s world, full of lyrical darkness, punishment, and poetic cruelty. The story not only follows Dream but his impact on the world, drawing out every consequence and outcome for maximum effect before launching a cathartic revenge on everyone who has held him down for years. It’s a riveting first issue, told gruesomely by an immensely talented artistic team.

9: Giant-Size X-Men #1
Written by Len Wein
Drawn by Dave Cockrum
Inked by Peter Iro
Coloured by Glynis Wein
Lettered by John Constanza

With this issue Len Wein and Dave Cockrum essentially created the X-Men Franchise, one of the longest-running and most compelling stories in comic book history. Giant Size X-Men saw the original X-Men characters trapped on a mystical, treacherous island – forcing Professor Xavier to recruit a new team of heroes to try and rescue his students. That led to the arrival of iconic characters like Nightcrawler, Storm, and Colossus to the series, alongside a return for Wein’s creation Wolverine. The story created a worldwide appeal for the X-Men, bringing in characters from around the world – which helped bring actual meaning to the “mutant metaphor”. Here were black and asian characters for the first time in the X-Men team – here were characters who experienced actual prejudice and could relate to it not just in the comic book way, but offering a first glimpse of intersectionality. That’s not to say it’s all in this comic – but the DNA is laid out here for the X-Men franchise to then regenerate.

8: Sex Criminals #1
Written by Matt Fraction
Drawn by Chip Zdarsky
Coloured by Becka Kinzie
Lettered by Drew Gill

Nobody forgets their first time. Matt Fraction’s writing can be the absolute fastest in the world, racing like a whip between characters and story points with no time to breathe and no introductions offered. Sex Criminals, on the other hand, saw a much different side to the writer – a more personal, calmer, and restrained version of Matt Fraction came out. The issue follows only one of the two central characters, Suzie, as it jumps around in her timeline and establishes that whenever she orgasms, she pauses time. Literally, time pauses around her. That might seem a very strange concept for a series, and with Chip Zdarsky as artist you might expect this whole thing to be a manic, silly piece of business. But the surprising thing is how carefully paced the whole thing is: this is a considerate piece of work, which settles on Suzie with authority and fleshes her out completely as both character and narrator. Sex Criminals is a series about two people who have sex and then commit crimes, sure, but the first issue is a beginner’s guide to sexual experience, told by an engaging lead character and which is more openly compelling and heartfelt then you’d ever expect.

7: X-Men #1
Written by Chris Claremont and Jim Lee
Drawn by Jim Lee
Inked by Scott Williams
Coloured by Jim Rosas
Lettered by Tom Orzechowski

Announced as “the dawn of a new era!”, the first issue of X-Men by Claremont and Lee changed everything for everyone. The X-Men – who were reassuring soap opera figures – suddenly turned into blunt-force action heroes through the mighty penmanship of Jim Lee. Every page of this issue could be (and probably is) a poster on someone’s bedroom wall, designed to amaze and inspire readers. This was an attempt to really turn the X-Men into a blockbuster beyond all proportion, with an epic scope and grandstanding characters who jumped off the page and felt magnificent and mighty. Even as Claremont allowed the characters time to ruminate on their pasts, Lee was dragging them off into the here-and-now, their prickly creative partnership setting off all kinds of problems down the line whilst filling the issue with a taut, wiry energy. All the cool characters get to show up here and prove themselves – Gambit, Psylocke, Wolverine, Rogue – whilst the slightly more muted characters like Jean or Cyclops suddenly got a massive boost in personality and verve. Everything feels bigger and bolder, and the X-Men never seemed so essential or important before. Or since?

6: All-Star Superman #1
Written by Grant Morrison
Drawn by Frank Quitely
Inked and coloured by Jamie Grant
Lettered by Phil Balsman

Grant Morrison took eight words to describe Superman’s past and the team of Frank Quitely and Jamie Grant took one defining image to show his present. The first image of the 12-part maxi series takes its time to then really see Superman, focused as it is on how every character in his orbit are currently experiencing him. Lex Luthor is getting desperate; his colleagues at the Daily Planet are experienced and acclimatised to his “perfect” nature, and the world as a whole is a safe and reliable place thanks to his help. Then comes the big twist: Superman’s most recent rescue mission has given him an overdose of radiation from the sun. He’s the most powerful he’s ever been… but it’ll kill him. From there, it’s business as usual, but everything is heightened with the knowledge of what’s just happened. The comic itself radiates with all that extra energy, as Quitely – one of the greatest artists in Western comics – creates some wonderful and magnificent pieces, and each page has at least one line of dialogue which feels lasting and memorable. “Only nothing is impossible” says one of the characters, and that feels like the defining thesis of All-Star Superman as a whole.

5: Ms Marvel #1
Written by G. Willow Wilson
Drawn by Adrian Alphona
Coloured by Ian Herring
Lettered by Joe Caramagna

Ms Marvel is probably one of the most notable superhero characters ever created. Devised by editor Sana Amanat with writer G. Willow Wilson and artist Adrian Alphona, Kamala Khan’s first appearance is immediately appealing and delightful. There’s a weight on the comic that comes from creating an Asian-American, Muslim hero, but none of that is shown here – Kamala is first seen lusting after food, and spends the rest of her issue alternating between wonderful clutz and worried teen. Alphona has no interest whatsover in playing things simply, and he throws in all kinds of strange creatures and background jokes into every panel of the book. The message is clear: although there’s an “importance” in having a character like Kamala, what’s most important is that she’s actually fun, silly, and enjoyable to read about. There’s an assured creative hand guiding her, as well as all the other characters in her world, who are quickly and effectively sketched in by Wilson. We see how Kamala has that superhero gene within her, but also how she differs from any other hero. It’s a dynamic, iconic debut.

4: The Wicked + The Divine #1
Written by Kieron Gillen
Drawn by Jamie McKelvie
Coloured by Matthew Wilson
Lettered by Clayton Cowles

Every ninety years, twelve people become Gods – powers, magic, everything – but after two years of being a God, they’ll die. That’s the concept of The Wicked and The Divine, and it’s a strong one. Even without taking into account Jamie McKelvie’s stylish, sleek artistry and Matt Wilson’s ecstatic colouring, even without taking into account the surprisingly sharp knife Kieron Gillen is holding behind his back the whole time – just that concept alone is a fantastic one. WicDiv then proceeds to jump straight onto centrestage to offer a showy performance that looks at myth, iconography, devotion, and idolatry whilst quickly building up a fascinating lead character and a world which understands its high concept whilst offering some modern cynicism and paranoia into the mix. It’s a heady mix of concepts, and you could see things easily falling straight down a trapdoor if it weren’t for the heavy heart that beats behind the light and free dialogue. WicDiv wants you to think this is a breezy, hedonistic trip into a world of stardom – but it never forgets that this is a short-lived infamy, and that the life of a God rests firmly in the hands of their believers. It’s a first issue which flourishes within its central conceit rather than being overshadowed by it, and it glows with excitement for what’s to come.

3: Hawkeye #1
Written by Matt Fraction
Drawn by David Aja
Coloured by Matt Hollingsworth
Lettered by Chris Eliopoulos

Oh, bro, you knew this was going to happen. Hawkeye’s impact remains just as strong today as when it first came out – for a comic which felt like a “moment”, that moment has certainly proven that it can last. Every inch of Hawkeye’s first issue feels like it was meticulously planned for months, but flies by effortlessly. There are so many callbacks and sequential ideas here within the storytelling that it gives the feeling of being a quiver full of arrows – the creative team carefully set up a new arrow to the notch and then send it flying out towards the target. There’s something hugely satisfying about this issue, whether it be the no-frills approach to Hawkeye himself (who is at least as much a mess as he is a hero here) or the narrative leaps which allow the story to call back everything it sets up so they hit the mark as a pure bullseye. The characters are funny and fallible, setting a unique and distinct tone away from the expected superhero theatrics – and creating a template which every other writer attempted to make their own in the years which followed. None of them matched up to Hawkeye, though. There’s just something about it which marks it as something special. It was meant to be just another solo title for Marvel, but it came out as something definitive and new.

2: Watchmen #1
Written by Alan Moore
Drawn and lettered by David Gibbons
Coloured by John Higgins

Alan Moore may only be in this list once, but he makes it count. Of course we all know everything about Watchmen at this point and then some, being a reimagining of the Charlton superhero characters told across twelve issues. It champions the downbeat and the dour, with everything coated in a thick layer of melancholia and each character saddened or lessened by something in their lives. There’s a sense of realism in that, which is quickly thrown out the window (if you see what I’m saying) in favour of showing the reader how this is very much still a strident and zealous superhero tale. That’s emphasised through leading character Rorschach, a vigilante who is aggressively non-corrupt even whilst his thought process is clearly muddied by his own anger, fear, and prejudices. You can see slivers of the original characters within these new shells, but for the most part this is something which not only builds on what came before, but reaches down to shatter the foundations and create something entirely its own and unpredictable. Watchmen is often suggested as a good “first” comic for people to try, and that’s absolutely not true – but I think it’s probably suggested largely because this first issue is so gripping and tense, and the atmosphere falls down on the reader immediately. Reading Watchmen again, that first issue offers something which feels both magical and thoroughly isolated from anything before or since.

1: Saga #1
Written by Brian K. Vaughan
Drawn by Fiona Staples
Lettered by Fonographiks

The greatest first issue of all time is Saga #1. Five-time entrant to this list Brian K. Vaughan teamed up with the relatively unknown artist Fiona Staples to create something bigger than any comic before – an epic event which would travel across galaxies and between planets, with a huge cast and scope. And yet it all starts with a birth – one that’s more graphic and muddled than you’d normally see in a space fantasy, and one which sets the scene for what readers could then expect across the rest of the series. First and foremost Saga is crude and very funny, guaranteeing a level of authenticity within its structure which then gives the reader something to root for as they learn more and more about the outside world around the central characters. Comics don’t need to offer any sort of restraint and yet so many consistently hold themselves back – Saga, by comparison, goes all-in every single time, which can be wearying over time… but here feels massive and exciting. There are people with wings and horns and magic exists and so do spaceships; robots wander around and there’s an interstellar war and animals can talk and there’s a whirlwind romance at the heart of everything!

The title should be a clue, but there’s just so much of Saga. This first issue is triple-sized which, yes, is cheating a little. But it’s the only way the series could have started. Nobody is holding back anything. Fiona Staples delivers incredible and unforgettable work, creating images which last for the reader long after they’ve finished reading – and excels at revealing both the wider landscape and the intimate character-work needed for the narrative to fall together into place. It’s a forward-thinking issue which has time for a gun battle, spy narrative, fantasy quest, monster battle, and a robot sex scene. There’s never been anything else like Saga. We don’t know currently when it’ll come back or how things will finish – but one thing which will never be taken away is how vibrant and wonderous that first issue is. It’s a worthy winner of our poll.



Thank you to all the critics who submitted their lists in this year’s Shelfdust poll. They include (but are not limited to!):

Adam Messinger; Al Kennedy; Alasdair Stuart; Alex Hern; Alex Lu; Alex Spencer; Alison Lanier; Andrew Wheeler; Avery Kaplan; Bobby; Brandon Davis; Charlotte Finn; Chase Magnett; Chloe Maveal; Chris Eddleman; Claire Napier; Colin Smith; Dan Grote; Dave Buesing; Elana Levin; Erik Tramontana; Gabriella Tutino; Gary Moloney; Graeme McMillan; Gregory Paul Silber; Holly Raidl; Jason Jeffords Jr; Jason Sacks; Jon Erik Christianson; Josh Hilgenberg; Jude Terror; Kayleigh Hearn; Keith Pille; Kirixin; Kyle Pinion; Latonya Pennington; Logan Dalton; Matt Lune; Matt Sibley; Matthew Elmslie; ; Muireann McGlynn; Murphy Leigh; Philippe Lablanc; Priya Sridhar; Rich Johnston; Ritesh Babu; Ryan K. Lindsay; Samantha Puc; Sara Century; Sara L. Jewell; Sean Dillon; Seb Patrick; Steve Foxe; Steve Lacey; Tiffany Babb; Tim Maytom; Tom Shapira; Tom Speelman; Trevor Van As; Zachary Jenkins; Zack Quaintance; Ziah Grace and me. Other critics also participated but requested not to be named. Thank you, mysterious critics!


Through 2020 Shelfdust will be counting down the list each week as part of a new podcast called Shelfdust Presents! The first episode will be up later today, and then each Monday afterwards our host Matt Lune will sit down with a different critic for a chat about each one of the comics which made the master list, starting with Thunderbolts and finishing with Saga. We hope you’ll enjoy it!


This post was made possible thanks to the Shelfdust Patreon! To find out more, head to our Patreon page here!