This week, my friends, I’m celebrating a milestone. It’s the big, big 400th edition of Everything But Imaginary, my weekly comic book column at CXPulp.com! I’m highly excited about it, and decided to take this opportunity to explain, once and for all, just why I read comic books. I’ll give you a hint. It’s got a lot to do with potential.
And as part of the celebration, in this week’s Classic EBI, I’m stepping out of order a little bit. Column #93 was scheduled to be next, but since I’m celebrating this milestone, I thought it would be nice to go back and celebrate the column’s very first milestone, EBI #100, from February 2, 2005. Let’s go, shall we?
EBI #100 SUPER-SIZED SPECTACULAR: WHAT COMICS DO I LOVE?
As comic fans, 100 is a huge number for us. It’s rare, especially these days, for something to last 100 installments, so when it happens it’s cause for celebration. How, then, do I commemorate EBI 100?
Part of my mission statement here, folks, is to talk about what makes good comics good. And that’s my favorite part of this job: turning people on to new comics, explaining why I think something is great or talking about how to make it better. So how better to handle this column than to talk about the greatest comic book properties I’ve ever read?
Then I hit another problem, because when I made my top 10 list, almost all of them were superhero properties, and comic books are so much more than that, and I didn’t want to focus just on superheroes.
Then I thought: “Duh. It’s my 100th issue, and I can make it super-sized if I want to.”
So that’s what you’re getting, friends — my 10 favorite superhero properties and my 10 favorite other comic properties. There won’t be any big surprises on this list. You’ve been reading for 100 columns now, you know what I like and I don’t like. The important thing here, the thing I hope you take away from this… is the why.
My 10 Favorite Non-Superhero Comics
10. G.I. Joe: Yeah, I’m a big kid and I know it. But that’s why this property is so great to me. Every little boy wants to play Army Man — well, G.I. Joe takes that concept to the extreme. And the greatest Joe tales ever were told in the comics — first in Larry Hama’s legendary run at Marvel, then with Josh Blaylock and Brandon Jerwa at Devil’s Due. What’s more, this is the property that jumpstarted the 80s nostalgia craze, and is one of the few survivors. Because it’s still really, really good. This property has grown and matured along with its audience. Guys my age fell in love with this comic book as kids. It’s amazing that, even as adults, it’s one of the best comics on the market.
9. PVP: Man, what’s left to say about Scott Kurtz and PVP? Birthed as a webtoon, turned into a successful comic, this title lampoons video games, office politics, pop culture, television, movies and everything else. It’s what Dilbert would be with a giant blue troll and actual punchlines. For me, to be actually funny, something has to be smart too, and PVP scores that in spades. I read it every day on PVP Online and I still geek out every time an issue arrives at the comic shop.
8. Strangers in Paradise: Terry Moore’s labor of love was one of the first serious, non-superhero comics I ever got into. It’s basically a love story about Francine Peters and Katchoo, but sometimes it’s a triangle with David or a quadrangle with Casey or a pentagon with Freddie. Sometimes it’s a mob drama. Sometimes it’s a sitcom. Sometimes it’s a romance. This is a title that can reinvent itself not just from story to story, but within the same issue. Moore’s work is unceasingly experimental and consistently interesting, and I love that.
7. Sandman. Neil Gaiman’s masterpiece, Sandman was the flagship title of DC’s Vertigo line, and is still a top seller in bookstores. Using bits and pieces of DC’s existing superhero universe, Gaiman instead crafted a haunting fantasy tale about the king of the Dreaming and his Endless siblings. Sandman is the only comic book ever to win a World Fantasy Award (and is likely to remain so, because the members of the Award federation were so incensed that a lowly comic book won that they changed the rules so they are no longer eligible). It’s a truly literary work, and it’s a book with a lot of crossover appeal as well, drawing in people who ordinarily wouldn’t read comics and showing them how much potential the art form has.
6. Fables: This is by far the youngest property on either of these lists, and it is a testament to how good it is that I’m mentioning it in this column at all. The brainchild of Bill Willingham, Fables takes all those fairy tale and storybook characters we read about as a child and casts them together in a bold new epic — alternately a drama and a comedy, it’s fast, smart, clever and engaging. Five years ago I never would have believed I’d be pulling for a reconciliation between Snow White and the Big Bad Wolf or reading stories about Cinderella pulling a Mata Hari routine on Ichabod Crane, but I’m reading them now. And I run — run — every month to see if it’s in my advance pack of reviews, because if there’s anything I like more than Fables, it’s telling people how good it is.
5. Archie: That’s right. America’s Favorite Teenager is making my Top 10 list. And you know why? Because it’s sweet. And innocent. And wholesome. And it’s something that each and every one of us can relate to at some point in our lives. I’d wager that at least 75 percent of comic book fans, at some point or another, have read an Archie comic. You have the love triangles, the goofy buddies, the brainiacs, the bullies, the jocks, the nerds, and it’s all wrapped up in a package that is perfect to hand to kids and entice them into reading comic books. If I ever have kids, when the time comes for them to learn how to read, you can bet that Archie is going to be part of the curriculum.
4. Uncle Scrooge: I love Uncle Scrooge for many of the same reasons I love Archie — it’s wholesome and great for kids and something we’ve all read, but Scrooge has even more going in its favor. A great Uncle Scrooge story is never dated, never too low for adults to read, never too highbrow for kids. And while Archie is primarily suited for slapstick comedy, Scrooge does it all. Want high adventure? Let’s go on a treasure hunt. Want romance? Weave the tale of Scrooge’s lost love, Glittering Goldie. Sci-fi? Fantasy? Monsters? Pirates? Cowboys? Mythology? Politics? Corporate scandal? With Scrooge and his nephews, you can tell just about any kind of story you can imagine.
3. The Spirit: The most famous work of Will Eisner is a borderline superhero comic (he does wear a mask and fight crime, after all), but it’s more than that. It’s a crime drama at its heart, but Eisner did some fantastic things with it. He delved into fantasy, comedy and horror — as many genres as Scrooge does, in fact, but he did it for a more adult audience and revolutionized comics while he was at it. There’s still one Spirit story by its creator left unpublished, a crossover with Michael Chabon’s Escapist, and I cannot wait for that book to see print.
2. Bone: This is one of those rare comic books to crop up in the last ten to fifteen years that will almost certainly become a classic. Written and drawn by Jeff Smith, this epic fantasy followed the three Bone cousins after they were driven out of their home and into a valley filled with strange and terrifying creatures. Smith tricked us all by playing up the first dozen issues or so of the comic as a lighthearted comedy before delving straight into hardcore, full-out Tolkien levels of fantasy. (Tolkien played the same trick with The Lord of the Rings, if you look at the early lighthearted chapters of the first book.) If you like fantasy, you have to read this comic, and you’ve got plenty of options to do so. You can hunt down the nine volumes of the series. You can put out a chunk of change for the ginormous one-volume edition. Or you can even get the new digest-sized reprints that Scholastic is now printing… in full color.
1. Peanuts: If you did not see this coming, go back and reread the last 99 EBIs. Charles M. Schulz was, quite simply, the wisest man who ever lived. A genius, a philosopher, a teacher, a friend. And he did all of his great work through a round-headed kid, a crazy dog, a kid who couldn’t let go of his blanket and a loudmouthed fussbudget. People don’t give him enough credit for the brilliance of Charlie Brown — when you’re reading that strip, he is you. His face is deliberately blank and featureless that anybody can project themself into his situation. We’ve all fallen for the little red-haired girl or lost the big baseball game. We’ve all gone to friends for advice only to be mocked. We’ve all fallen. We’ve all hurt. We’ve all cried. We’ve all laughed. And we do it all through the Peanuts gang. To read his comic, it would be easy to argue that Schulz thought the secret of life was, no matter what, to never stop trying to kick that football. It would be far harder to argue that he was wrong.
And now for the moment that far too many of you probably skipped down to read when I explained how this week’s column was going to work…
My 10 Favorite Superhero Comics
10. Batman: Some of you are probably stunned that he’s so low on this list, others may be stunned he’s on here at all. But remember, this is my list and I can do it however I want. Batman is a modern-day fable, something that all of us can look to and wonder. What we have, basically, is a normal human who had everything that mattered taken away from him, but instead of falling prey to the night, he conquered it and elevated himself to the status of the gods. His prime motivator is guilt — he believes, on some subconscious level, that he can bring his parents back and atone for the sin of surviving by spending his entire life fighting criminals. He’s probably the deepest, most complex superhero there is.
9. Captain Marvel: And I mean the real Captain Marvel — not Mar-Vell, not Genis, not Monica Rambeaux. I mean Billy Batson, a poor orphaned boy who was led down a dark tunnel to a wizard who, upon saying the magic word Shazam!, transforms into the world’s mightiest mortal. As deep and complex as Batman is, Captain Marvel is the opposite — simple and innocent. He is a good-hearted child given the ability to do great things. Heck during the Underworld Unleashed storyline, when the demon Neron was questing for the purest soul in existence, everyone automatically assumed he wanted Superman. When he made his move for Cap, they were proven wrong. Is it any wonder that, in his heyday, he was the most popular superhero there was? More than Batman, Superman or Captain America, kids of the 1940s dreamed of being Captain Marvel. And there’s something beautiful about that.
8. Justice Society of America/Justice League of America/Teen Titans: Am I cheating by lumping these three properties together? I don’t think so, because I think of them as being different stages of the same thing: a legacy of heroism. The JSA was the first team of superheroes in any medium. They are the old guard. The elder statesmen. They’ve done it all and seen it all, and usually did it better than you. They are everything you want to be. The JLA is the pinnacle of the modern heroes. They are the first line of defense. The strongest, the bravest, the fastest, the truest. If your world needs saving, these are the guys you call to do it. The Teen Titans are the future. They’re the heroes-in-training. They look at the JSA and JLA and know that this is what they have to live up to, that the world will some day need them to become that. And they don’t back down from that crushing responsibility — because they’re already heroes.
7. Captain America: Forget politics for a moment. I don’t care who you voted for in the last election or where you live in the world or if you’re from a red state, a blue state or a marzipan state. Think about what Captain America symbolizes. A scrawny little boy who so loved his country, so loved the ideals of freedom and democracy, that he served himself up as an experiment to save the world from evil — and in doing so became the greatest soldier of all time. Someone who fights nearly 70 years later for those same ideals. Someone who is not blind to the problems of the world but who has faith in the goodness of the human spirit to rise above those faults and build something grand. You can’t tell me there’s not something awe-inspiring about that.
6. Spider-Man: Possibly Stan Lee’s greatest creation, Spider-Man is amazing (pun intended) for many of the same reasons as Captain Marvel. It’s the story of a boy given incredible power to go out and do good… but he’s given more complexity because, like Batman, he is driven by guilt. He squandered his gift, used it selfishly, and as a result lost the only father he ever knew. He was the first really relatable superhero — having problems with women, problems with school, problems with money. He’s been called the everyman superhero. That’s definitely one of the things that has made him so great.
5. Green Lantern: I don’t care which Green Lantern is your favorite. Pick one. Alan Scott. Hal Jordan. Kyle Rayner. John Stewart. Guy Gardner. Kilowog. Arisia. Ch’p. Tomar-Re. Relax, gang, I could be going this way for a long time. Green Lantern, at least to the readers, started with one man — Alan Scott. It spread out to become an intergalactic peacekeeping force like none other. Heroes across the entire universe, all brothers and sisters of the ring. When one Green Lantern falls, another takes his place. The Corps will never be gone forever. And no Green Lantern ever fights alone.
4. The Flash: First it was Jay Garrick. Then Barry Allen. Then Wally West. But it wasn’t until Mark Waid really delved into the characters in the late 80s and early 90s that the Flash became what it truly is now — the greatest legacy in comic books. He’s not just a guy with super-speed. The Flash is an ideal. A mantle. A banner that will be worn for a time and then passed down. Bart Allen is next in line after Wally. And after him, there will be more to come, an unbroken line, stretching at least to the 853rd century, for that is as far as we’ve seen. But there will be even more after that, we know. You cannot kill the Flash. You can only kill the person in that mask today.
This, as a brief aside, is the reason that Green Lantern and the Flash compliment each other so well, and why each generation of these characters have formed a true bond. One is the symbol of Justice Universal. The other is the symbol of Justice Eternal.
3. The Legion of Super-Heroes: This is one of the first superhero comics I ever read, thanks to my Uncle Todd, and it remains one of my favorite. The concept has been rebooted and revamped several times over the years, but the core remains the same: a thousand years from now, a group of teenagers bands together, in the spirit of the heroes of old, to protect the universe from evil. It’s as simple as that. It’s also got some of the most diverse, most interesting characters in comics. The group has a fantastic history and, even more, looks to its own history as inspiration. Much like the legacy of the Flash, the Legion of Super-Heroes is about a promise… that even 1,000 years into the future, there will still be heroes, still be people ready to stand against the night, still be people willing to fight, to bleed, to die… to save the world.
2. Fantastic Four: I’ve tricked you by putting this here, you know. Because unlike the last eight items, the Fantastic Four aren’t really superheroes. They are superpowered beings who Reed Richards has cast as superheroes, to make them famous, to atone for his original mistake that stole their normal lives in the first place. No, the FF is much grander than a superhero. The Fantastic Four are explorers. Of what? Anything. Outer space. Inner space. Microspace. Cyberspace. The Negative Zone. The depths of the Amazon. The cold surface of the moon. The burning depths of the human heart. The Fantastic Four are a family, dedicated to plunging the boundaries of knowledge, to seeking out what’s out there beyond the realm of imagination. They are considered the first characters of the “Marvel Age” of comics, but age is not a factor for them. When the stories are written properly, the Fantastic Four is always, always about finding something new, something grand… something fantastic.
1. Superman: He was the first. He remains the greatest. Superman is an incredible tale on many levels. He’s an immigrant. He’s an orphan. He’s an endangered species. He’s an exile. And yet he still found a way to become the greatest hero in the world. I get riled when I hear people call Superman perfect, because that doesn’t sound like they really understand the character, that they’ve only seen the work of poor writers. He struggles against being alone, against his urge to use his power for his own ends, against the ability to become a conqueror and shape the world as he sees fit. His true power comes not from the distant Krypton, but from the heart of America, from Kansas. By raising the most powerful child in the world, Jonathan and Martha Kent are heroes in their own right, giving the world a protector who very easily could have become a despot. The “super” part of his name is not the important part. Far more importantly, he is a man, a man with a good heart and a gentle soul, an iron will and an endless reservoir of courage. He is the most human of us all. He is the human we all wish we could be.
So there you have it. Not just one, not just ten, but twenty of the greatest concepts ever put forth in comics. Not necessarily the most famous or the most popular, but the ones that speak to me more than any other, the ones I love even through the lean years — the Superman Red/Superman Blue fiascos, the spider-clones, the “Ninja Force” nonsense and even in the face of those Bad Writers Who Shall Not Be Named. Because even when these concepts are mishandled, there’s no writer on Earth bad enough to destroy what makes their core work. Even in the bad times, it is only a matter of time until a good writer (I’m looking at you, Gail Simone) finds that core, polishes it, returns it to the light and makes their stories great again.
FAVORITE OF THE WEEK: January 26, 2005
Two months in and Mark Waid and Barry Kitson’s new Legion of Super-Heroes has twice won my “favorite of the week” honor. In issue #2 Brainiac 5 leads a team of Legionnaires to Dream Girl’s homeworld of Naltor, where the youths of the planet have lost their ability to sleep and, with that, their precognitive abilities. It’s part sci-fi mystery, part superhero romp and part political drama. It’s great. Waid has frequently won “Favorite of the Week” for his Fantastic Four work – with that ending, it looks like he’s going to keep that distinction on a regular basis here with Legion.
Blake M. Petit is the author of the superhero comedy novel, Other People’s Heroes, the suspense novel The Beginner and the Christmas-themed eBook A Long November. He’s also the co-host, with whoever the hell is available that week, of the 2 in 1 Showcase Podcast and the weekly audio fiction podcast Blake M. Petit’s Evercast. E-mail him at BlakeMPetit@gmail.com and visit him on the web at Evertime Realms. Read past columns at the Everything But Imaginary Archive Page, and check out his new experiment in serial fiction at Tales of the Curtain.