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Comics and the History of Comics

I was lucky enough that despite being deprived and largely orphaned as a child that I grew up with access to the newspaper stand, Carvel ice cream, and the Spaldeen. At the age of 12 or so, I was hustling the Canarsie Courier at the L train station at Rockaway Parkway. On Wednesday's they sold papers to the local kids for a nickle and we then hustled them for a dime. I would sneak into the station and ride the train up to New Lots Avenue and hustle them on the train ride back to Rockaway Parkway (which was the terminal station). Across the street there was a newspaper stand on the corner of Glenwood Road and Rockaway Parkway. I picked up my first four comics from that newspaper stand with a Jerky counter in the back. Among these books was Action 453, Superman 292, The Flash 236 and the Fantastic Four 164.

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More books quickly followed. Quickly a collection grew and before long Jerry Kanowitz opened one of the first comic book shops, on Foster Avenue and Rockaway Parkway, specializing in back issues. These were the heady days of comic collecting and Jerry has FF#1, Avengers#1, Showcase#4 etc on display all the time. He had relationships within the industry, and was a real insider. He had the largest collection of back issues I had ever seen and we read everything in his bins. And he was a very warm fellow, with love in heart. They don't make people like Jerry any longer

I had the pleasure of going to Midtown Comics to pick up a copy of the new Fantastic Four reboot. Incredibly, the FF has not been published in almost 5 years because of a dispute of movie rights with Fox. It is frankly hard to understand, but the powers to be at Marvel killed the franchise and now it being return with much fanfare, with nearly 30 variant covers and FF covers on other books. It is Marvel marketing gone mad.

I got into a conversation with a couple and asked the man to name what he thought was the 10 best comic runs. He threw it back at me and I put together a list, only to find that it might be hard to get that list to only 10 runs. I've thought of this before and have written it up, but I think it deservers a permanent spot on my website, so here it is. The 20 best comic runs/or creations.

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The Top Twenty Count Down

  1. American Flagg! - By Howard Chaykin
    This is the book that launched the independent comics revolution in the 1980's, and that proved what creator owned comics could be about. It is a hard hitting, fast paced sci-fi drama about the corruption of the future world as corporate run governments and ethnic strife strip bare the nature of mankind and tear at the fabric of American liberty. You will come to believe that a cat can talk.

  2. Planetary - Warren Ellis and John Cassady
    The greatest rump through the thickets of comic creation and pop culture ever created. It perfects the comic arts and demonstrates how in the hands of a master that it can be a unique form of storytelling. Each story is a different style reinterpreted by Ellis and Cassady to fit into the larger Planetary extended family. Planetary makes you feel that all of comic book creation was just part of the Planetary plan all along, and in this way, is smashes through the barrier of reality and fiction.

  3. Krazy Kat and Ignatz Mouse - George Herriman
    This comic strip which was started in 1913 and sadly ended in 1944 defined cartooning as an art form. Krazy Kat stretches reality to its maximum perceptional degree of warp, where if stretched any further, it would be beyond comprehension of the human mind. The language used is barely comprehensible to the native English speaker. It is a form of pidgin English that Herriman seems to make up on the fly. Landscapes are psychedelic, with objects popping into and out of existence. And the reader learns to accept that all of this is normal.

  4. Gasoline Alley - Frank King
    Another comic strip of the earliest days, Gasoline Alley is centered on the Wallets Family, starting with Walter Wallet and his adopted son Skeezix in 1918. It starts as a neighborhood script in the heady days of the beginning of the Industrial revolution, the rise of the automobile and suburbanization. At some point, they decided the comic would have broader appeal in the post WWI population boom if a child was added to the cast, and so Skeezix literally shows up on the doorstep of a bachelors home, the otherwise jolly Walter Wallet. From this beginning, the script ages in real time, as we follow Skeezix growth, and Wallets family grow through the roaring 1920's, through the depression and WWII and into the modern era. It is truly impressive and one of the best insights into the national consciousness through the 20th century where it deals with race, technology, war, economics, and the love of a family over the generations.

  5. Archer and Armstrong - Barry Windsor Smith
    BWS made his big impact on the Comics business with the work he did on Conan the Barbarian. But his most creative and satisfying work was the guy pal book he did for Valiant in its heyday, Archer and Armstrong. Smith targets the book for the non-comics adult audience and he got a lot of personal satisfaction when the everyday people in his life picked up on the title and enjoyed it. The book focuses on the absurd relationship between an overweight, heavily partying, beer loving immortal named Armstrong, or more fully, Aram Anni Pada, and the high strung, high minded, religious fanatic Obadiah Archer who was brought up in a christian sect and raised in the martial arts with a mission to kill the infidel Armstrong. The collision of the two ends up creating a warm friendship and the two comically bounce from adventure to adventure, fending off the sect and trying to find time for a beer and moment to write some prose. Like the previous titles on this list, this book has a unique fabric to it and is unique to BWS and he love affair with these two characters. This book also produced my favorite cover with Archer and Armstrong #4.

  6. Detective Comics - Marshal Rogers, Terry Austin, Steve Englehart
    Many of the best books to be created appear on the newsstands (or wherever they sell comics these days) without fanfare and completely unexpectedly. The reason I pour over comic book racks, even today, is because of the Rogers/Austin/Englehart Batman. You never know when you are going to find something like this. Rogers created a version of the Batman so authentic, so gripping and so exciting, that over decades it simply couldn't be ignored and slowly emerged as one of the classic batman stories ever done. Englehart resurrected the great golden aged villian from the original Bob Kane run on the Batman, Hugo Strange, to produce the most gripping foil that the Batman ever faced. Psychologically complex and rich, the two match wits over several issues as the Pengiun, Deadshot and the Joker all make appearances. They also developed the greatest love interest that Batman ever engages with, the brilliant, elegant and perceptive Silver St Cloud who in the end learns that Bruce Wayne is indeed the Batman, on one of the greatest scenes that any Batman writer ever put to page, the emotional confrontation between the Batman and Silver in her bedroom during the night. If Bob Kane had the talent to create the Batman like Rogers/Austin/Englehart, he would have.

    The run on Detective Comics has produced my second favorite cover.

  7. Ms Tree - Max Allan Collins and Terry Beatty
    Of all the creations on this list, Ms Tree might well be the most unexpected by comic fans in the know. Ms Tree deserves its place on this list. For nearly two decades, Collins and Beatty's Ms Tree stands alone in its art and story. It is the perfection of the crime book. On the surface the book is about a women detective, and is a strike for a feminist agenda, but if so, the main protagonist, Michael (female) Tree, is a very reluctant feminist. She is a widower and a reluctant feminist at best, dragged into the world of men by a need to revenge the death of he husband and her need to protect her adopted son, who is the son of her husband from another wife. Along the way she deals with a laundry list of social issues that form the complex backdrop for her crime fighting and detective work. She is conservative in a working class way, repulsed by abortion clinics, misunderstanding the complexity of date rape and teen sex, handling a murder mystery while pregnant, while compromising with and scaling the walls of organized crime, corporate corruption and a largely imperfect world. Michael Tree is principled, and pragmatic. Little in her life is back and white, although many of her published books are.

    More than most books, Michael Tree feels like a real person, and you don't think about Max and Terry. You get totally lost in the narrative and person of Michael Tree and her world. The art carries this. It is not illustration, but comic art with a stylistic vocabulary, simplicity of line and form, and great craftsmanship that displays human emotion and facial expression, almost like Curt Swan's Superman, but will more complexity. None of the faces in Ms Tree's books like the same, yet all of them, that is Michael, Roger, Dan, Patrick, Rafe, Dominique Muetra, Mike Jr, and so on. Beatty knows how to signal to the facial recognition parts of the human brain with a minimal of line art, to move a story along with the depth of real life. You can almost hear the voices of Michael and her coworkers as the plot moves on

    Collins and Beatty's Ms Tree is such a great work that it has been published intact over at least four publishers. It never had a wide audience, and its publication has often been an editorial choice by people who have loved the book. Never has anyone ever interfered with the creative team. Once you get on with this character, you will want to read them all. These books are among the best the industry has to offer (even in B&W).

  8. Local - Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly
    Local is proof that one can fall in love with comic book character. Brian Wood wrote this warm story of a troubled teen who is a runaway from Portland Oregon to lives all across the United States traveling from city to city, trying to find a place to fit. With each issue we find Megan, city to city, in a different location each month. She not only transverses geography, but also time and life, growing from her teens into her twenties. It is a very personal story which is told with affection and grace. Megan, I love you! You and your freckles!

  9. The Sandman - Neil Gaiman
    They told me that if I don't include the Sandman, no one would take this seriously, so here it is. After the success of the independent comics in the early 1980's, especially with the publication of American Flagg!, DC editors, writers and artists started to look for ways to fold adult orientated titles and works into their line of comics. They made important relationships with British creative teams including Brian Bolland, Alan Moore and eventually with Neil Gaiman. By 1982, Camelot 3000 was produced hitting the stands just before First Comics reached the market. By 1983 Moore was working on The Swamp Thing which he popularized and revamped. Swamp Thing abandoned the Comics Code Authority and started to build its reputation for offbeat and more adult oriented stories. Gaiman wrote Black Orchard which got the attention of future Vertigo editor, Karen Berger in 1988. She asked Gaiman to revamp the Sandman and the rest is history. The Sandman is so complex it is hard to explain and even harder to explain how it found an audience. It takes a few issues to get the feel for it, and then it is very consuming. The art changes from storyline to storyline which means there is not a consistent look and feel to the book. You have to wonder if it hit the market today if it would have even had a chance to succeed.

  10. Green Lantern/Green Arrow - Neil Adams and Denny O'Neil
    By 1971, Neil Adams and Denny O'Neil had already made a reputation for there illustrative and innovative style in Batman books and the Brave and the Bold. But that was just preparatory work for what was to come with the ground breaking social conscious stories that would begin with Green Lantern 76 until the end of the run with Green Lantern 89. These books took on the questions of racism, fanaticism, poverty, and human rights straight on, almost to the exclusion of anything else. O'Neil had a career as reporter and that colored the art and the stories. Dialogues were unendated with the common slang being spoken by the young baby boomers, and used even the main characters. This book can be hard to find in top conditions because, frankly, it was thoroughly read.

  11. The Fantastic Four - Jack Kirby and Stan Lee
    When the Fantastic Four first hit the streets in August of 1961 (dated November), I doubt that even Stan Lee and Jack Kirby understood what they were uncovering and what was to come. The key to the Fantastic Four was how humanized the characters were and how grand was their stage. They had panics. They cried. They argued and fought with each other straight from the beginning. They played out their emotions on a huge stage built from the years of monster stories that Timely Comics delivered over years. Real people journeyed into optimistic adventuring. This was space age madness let loose every month in four color print. Almost everything written after the Fantastic Four is like the Fantastic Four. Audiences demanded complexity to there stories, and deeper motivations for villains and heroes alike. The FF themselves were colored with diverse motivations. The Thing was nearly an antihero. They pursued adventure, not criminals. They were celebrities who dispensed with secret identities. They lived in the real city of New York on streets we could identify and fought antiheroes like the pitiful Moleman and the noble Namor, and Royal and bitter Dr Doom. With the right creative team, the Fantastic Four is still one of the great venues for exciting stories. Unfortunately, without the genius of Kirby and Lee on the book, Marvel tends to destroy this book. They can't just find the formula and let it be.

  12. The Fantastic Four - John Byrne

    Without Kirby and Lee, the Fantastic Four was floundering in the 1970's and without direction. The book was missing its distinctive creative experimental flair and the family dynamics were breaking down into a soap opera. The result was tediously repetitive as stories that seemed to lurch from event to event without adding anything to the title, and little of the sense of wonder that fuels Fantastic Four adventures. It really takes a special artist with insight into the heart of the team to move the Fantastic Four. It is a very visual book and its writing has to be fanciful, yet still be believable enough to tie you into the plot. Stories need to progress one into the other without getting mired in too much negativity. No one could stand up to legacy laid down by Kirby and Lee and the results were languid and without direction.

    This all changes when John Byrne takes of FF duties.

    Byrnes Fantastic Four was visually brilliant, and the stories were full of meat. The family dynamics were fixed and optimism was reestablished. The more abstract and stylized artistic style complimented the themes of the FF, and a new visual vocabulary was established. John Byrnes saved the Fantastic Four and made them matter once again to the broader public, and in doing so created one of the greatest comic book runs in history. The Fantastic Four was now the vehicle of two of the most creative binges in comics history, the Kirby-Lee binge and the John Byrne binge. John Byrne was capable of stepping out of the shadow of Jack Kirby and to create something of his own, unique, and equal to the Kirby version of the Fantastic Four.

  13. Action Comics - Siegel and Shuster
    Siegel and Shuster just don't get enough credit for their creation of Superman. It seems that people feel that if it wasn't for Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster someone else would have come around and created something else very much like Superman. But that is not only a fallacy, but the attitude undermines the greatness that Superman was in the hands of their creators. Even by the most modern standards, Superman was an amazing artistic creation that took years for them to perfect before he popped onto the scene, nearly whole, in 1938.

    In fact, Superman was such a unique creation that editors at DC failed to comprehend its popularity and for several early issues of Action Comics, other storylines made the cover of Action, with Superman relegated to the back pages of the title it founded. They really just didn't understand. And not just DC. Dozens of other publishers reject the Superman concept. If not for Jerry Siegel's perseverance and faith in his creativity and project, we would never had seen Superman.

    And when Siegel and Shuster were taken off their creation, Superman changed, and not necessarily for the better. He became less threatening, tame, and just less super. Shuster's last Action Comics was Action 24... just 2 years of Superman stories.

  14. Superman - Gil Kane
    As DC was closing out the silver age legacy, including earth I and earth II, and preparing for Crisis on Infinite Earths, a window presented itself to do some old fashioned straight stories without worrying about character development, or continuity. Into this final chapter of the Pre-Crisis Superman came Gil Kane, who largely sculpted new Superman iconography and characters. He created the new Braniac, and the new Luther. He was cut loose, Superman being Super!!, in the Siegel and Shuster tradition. Gil Kane was made to do great Superman work. This was late in his career when he was given a lot of leeway to write and draw as he saw fit, and Kane produced one of the great incarnations of the Man of Steel.

  15. Cerebus the Aardvark - David Sims
    This practical joke that got out of hand is the ultimate satire and life project of David Sims. Alan Moore wrote, "Cerebus, as if I need to say so, is still to comic books what Hydrogen is to the Periodic Table."

  16. The Amazing Spiderman - Death of Gwen Stacy - Gerry Conway, Gil Kane
    The death of Gwen Stacy was a right turn for the Comics industry as new and grittier storylines shocked readers and excited them for generations. It completely altered the Spider-man franchise and this storyline is considered the beach head for what has been called now the Bronze Age of comics.

    One can disagree if this run created the Bronze Age, but there is no doubting that at the time it was as innovative story as had been written since EC was forced out of business in the 1950's and one of the most vital runs that had ever been attempted in mainstream comics. The books are beloved and watershed issues. This was the coming of age storyline for a generation of comics readers

  17. The Spectre - John Ostrander, Tom Mandrake
    The Spectre was the Golden Age creation by fecund imagination of Jerry Siegel (Superman's creators) and proof that Siegel is one of the greatest comic creators in history, and not just a one off accident with the creation of Superman. The Specter as an occult character, hasn't always worked well with the mainstream superhero genre. And yet the character was part of the original Justice Society and is squarely part of the DC Universe, although I think that often DC editors are confused what to do with him. No such confusion existed in the minds of Ostrander and Mandrake when they created what has to be viewed as the definitive Spectre and one of the most enticing runs put together. While the book had been socially relevant dealing is the complexities of abstract morality, and concrete problems like HIV, it never got so heavy or preachy to prevent excellent stories and superb art. Why more people have never heard of this series is that it is not always optimistic, and is not at all flashy. But it is one of the best creations ever done.

  18. Valiant's Magnus The Robot Fight - Jim Shooter, Bob Layton, Art Nicoles
    When Valiant Comics hit the stands it set off an explosion of new collectors and readers trying to find back issues for low print run releases. Jim Shooter, the veteran Marvel editor who started his career with Legion of Superheros and his writing into the DC letter columns, decided to strike out on his own, and produced one of the great spurts of sustained creatively ever seen in Comics. He took with him quality star artists like Barry Windsor Smith and Bob Layton. He developed superstar talents internally, especially David Lapham. The picked up Gold Key characters Magnus the Robot Fight (which was the Russ Manning creation that was inspirational to many comic creators of a certain time and age), and Solar "Man of the Atom". They revamped both books and then produces and X-man like spin-off called the Harbingers, Shadowman, Rai, the Eternal Warrior, XO, and Archer and Armstrong, and then they ran out of money. It is hard to believe. Most of these books could be listed in a top 20 listing of the greatest comics creations. Solar's books where truly amazing. Harbingers is still considered an ongoing hit. Archer and Armstrong has already been listed. In truth, if one can consider them all as a single creation, that would not be unfair and they could be listed as just "Valiant". I just felt I had to pick out two more, and one is Magnus the Robot Fighter because it was exciting to read. It was really really exciting to read this book and the opening scenes with A1 under the ocean, with the deep colors actually startled me at the time. I was left in awe of the power of the books. The story and art was rockem-sockem great, with lots of busy robots and long angles. Russ Manning left Shooter and Layton a rich and imaginative landscape which they thoroughly exploited.

  19. Shadowman - Shooter/Lampham (Yvel Guichet, Bob Hall)
    The last Valiant book to make this list is chosen because it is not just one of the great productions that have been done, but because its just so different and offbeat from any other title done during the period, or even since. Before character diversity was a popular theme in the media, Shadowman came out as an African American character which is centered on the themes of Voodo mythology. Both matters where treated with the utmost respect and Shadowman, aside from being incredibly entertaining, is the premiere example of what diversity of culture can mean in the comics medium. There is nothing forced in this book. It represents authentic Black American culture in its native environment with grace and dignity. And for that reason alone, it deserves its place on the top 20 list.

  20. Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. - Steranko
    Steranko's Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.E.I.L.D. is largely forgotten since the character was forced to change race in the spirit of diversity. It is too bad because the description of Steranko's Fury is very easy... James, Bond, Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson and every hiphop artist in the word WISH they were as cool as Steranko's Nick Fury... This is the ultimate is psychedelic bravado.

  21. Honorable Mentions
    When I started this, I thought it would rather easy and now that it is done, I realize that there are so many books that deserve to be on a list like this but didn't make my cut. Some of them are like Green Lantern Mosiac, Ditko's Spider-man, Claremont's and Cockrums's X-men, Millers Daredevil, Neil Adams and Denny O'Neil's Batman, Wirghtson's Swapthing, Dan Mishkin, Gary Cohn, and Paris Cullins's Blue Devil, McCay's Nemo in Slumberland, Simeonson's Fantatic Four, Gil Kanes Green Lantern, Jack Kirby's New Gods, Mark Waid’s and Weiringo's Flash, King's current Mr Miracle, Perez and Wolfman Teen Titans, Jim Starlin's Death of the New Gods, BWS's Conan the Barbarian, FF Galactus Chronicles (FF 47-49 etc), Cole's Plasticman, CC Becks Whiz, Kane and Fingers Detective Comics and Batman, Russ Mannings Magnus the Robot Fighter, EC's Tales from the Crypts, Orlando's and Wood Weird Fantasy, Eisner & Iger and Baker's Phantom Lady, Lampham's Stray Bullets, Terry Moores Strangers in Paradise, Maus, Hernandez brothers Love and Rockets, and so many others, and not just great, but the bedrock of the current fictional universe of Comics, TV and the Movies. How can any be left out? And then we forgot the Watchmen, and Millers Dark Night, Robinson's Starman, Lou Fine's Condor, Kirby's Captain America, Adam's Deadman, Roger's Mister Miracle, Kirby's New Gods, Robert Kanigher and Ross Andru's Metal Men, Osamu Tezuka's Mach Go Go Go, Mike Allred's Madman, Mike Mignola's Hellboy, Simonson's FF and Thor, and I'm sure everyone has a favorite for this list. There is so much to chose in the world of comics, so dive into it and pick up a comic today!