With the rise of digital comics and the ubiquity of comic collections, today really is a golden age for comic readers. There is very little we cannot find—online, at a store, or through our library—to read and enjoy, from the early works of Jack Kirby and Will Eisner to the most recent collections from Kate Beaton or Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips or Colleen Doran. There’s a plethora of comic stories out there, and more are coming out every week.
But with this wealth of comics, it can be tough to keep up with the newest books, even if one tries to narrow it down to just a handful of titles from specific. Even with all the new books coming out, there are still those standout series in your longboxes, or on your shelves, that will call you back for a re-read and a reassessment. These are the comics that touched you somehow—maybe it was your introduction to a particular artist or character, or just a great concept that was extremely well executed. Often tinged with a strong dose of nostalgia, they’re the books that still give you that tingle in the pit of your stomach that takes you back to a time that feels more vibrant. Like visiting an old friend you haven’t seen for a long time, these series make you feel warm and comfortable, and bring a smile to your face every time. Here are three of mine…
G.I. Joe (Larry Hama, et al., published by Marvel Comics)—
This was the first comic book I collected and will always be an important title because of that. I started with issue 23 of the series—“Cobra Commander Captured at last!”—and it was all engines ahead, after that one. I collected up through #140 (featuring the Transformers, by that time) and backtracked to gather all the previous issues, either through reprints or the digests available at my local bookstore, and these comics rarely disappointed.
The battle of good vs. evil and the cool costumes—and ninjas! Natch—were what initially drew me in, but it was the writing that kept me hooked. Hama crafted some great characters, and their interpersonal relationships, along with the political intrigue inherent in the concept of Cobra and its battle against this covert and “superheroic” military unit, was exciting and engaging. Though soap operatic, to a great degree, there was something more complex and more adult at work in Hama’s storytelling. Sure, scenarios may have been outlandish and overblown, but it never felt like he was writing down to his audience. There was a definite line between good and evil, in the comic, but many of the characters’ personal morality skewed toward a hazier shade of gray, which infused the stories with something missing in most of my other comics. And, most important for me, though each issue contains the requisite exposition to bring newer readers up to speed, Hama was able to deftly weave this into the dialogue in a manner that rarely felt forced and, at the very least, was lyrical, which kept the exposition from stifling one’s appreciation of the reading experience.
Finally, it should be noted that there were a stellar number of artists who worked on this series. There was the legendary Herb Trimpe, Ron Wagner and Rod Whigham (two of my favorites on the title), Marshall Rogers, Tony Salmons, Mark Bright, Geof Isherwood, and even art from Hama himself, along with memorable covers by the likes of Michael Golden and Mike Zeck. G.I. Joe has a great pedigree, and it’s a comic that, today, still holds up and excites the kid in me, when I sit down to read it.
Sandman (Neil Gaiman, et al., published by DC/Vertigo comics)—
This was the series for me, when it was originally published, and it is what helped make Neil Gaiman one of my favorite writers. The Sandman was unlike almost any other series I was reading, at the time (I had yet to compile a full collection of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing), and it hit me at just the right age. I was in high school when the first issue was published, and was entering my senior year when I discovered the series, with issue #8, “The Sound of Her Wings.” Gaiman’s concoction of horror and magic, ancient myth and a literary sensibility, spoke right to me. And as the series progressed, the realization that he was overlaying all of these various stories with a single narrative that would see the main protagonist evolve, in as extreme a way as possible for the embodiment of Dream, only added to my appreciation of this series. It’s a masterpiece, in my opinion, and one that rewards subsequent readings with new insights.
Sandman hit at a time when the comic book publishers were just beginning to look at collected editions as a viable publishing avenue. When this became the expectation—that the single issues would be collected into a lasting volume—something occurred with the serialization of many comic books—writers (or the editors), would plan storylines to be six issues long, allowing for a standard length collection that could be priced appropriately and sit alongside all the other six-issue collections on the shelves. Thankfully, Sandman came before this—and I might argue that Gaiman would not have fallen into that trap, but who can say?—and the storylines within the comic spread across however many issues were needed to tell the story properly, whether it be five issues or seven or thirteen. These were often interspersed with a series of single-issue stories, vignettes that felt like a nice respite between arcs but, in many cases, were later revealed as integral pieces of the overall narrative. Yeah, I love this comic.
And, again, like Hama above, Gaiman was afforded the opportunity to work with a wonderful complement of amazing artists, including Charles Vess, Colleen Doran, Mike Dringenberg, Sam Kieth, Kelley Jones, Jill Thompson, Marc Hempel, and many others. These comics are not just wonderful stories, but they are also a feast for the eyes. Some of the most beautiful comic art can be found in these volumes, especially the final one, “The Wake,” which includes art from Michael Zulli, Jon J. Muth, and the aforementioned Vess. And don’t forget the covers by the inimitable Dave McKean. Just, seriously, beautiful, wonderful, amazing stuff. Seek it out if you haven’t already.
Suicide Squad (John Ostrander, Kim Yale, Luke McDonnell, et al., published by DC Comics)—
The mid-80s is my “Golden Age” of comics. It’s the point when I was still relatively new to comics and collecting, and all the series I read, at the time, just had an immense impact on me. Primarily, I was a DC guy, with titles like the Flash, Justice League, Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, and such occupying much of my interest, though I did have occasional forays across the way, to Marvel, with the likes of Avengers and Captain American and Silver Surfer (ah, Ron Lim, you did the Surfer right). But the book at the top of the pile, every month, was Suicide Squad.
This was a comic that was unlike all the other superhero books I was reading. A collection of villains, and psychologically suspect heroes, tasked by the government with the dirty jobs that the pristine heroes could not be expected to do (assassinations, prisoner escapes, covert ops in foreign lands). If they were successful, and survived, their sentences would be commuted. But…there was always the chance they could die on the mission, and that threat was very real. With the likes of Captain Boomerang, Bronze Tiger, Rick Flagg, Enchantress, Gypsy, Vixen, Deadshot, and Amanda Waller, “The Wall,” along with a fantastic supporting cast, this was a book that surprised and engaged month in and month out. There was real pathos and melodrama, thanks to Ostrander and Yale, and it was wonderfully illustrated by the likes of McDonnell, Karl Kesel, Geof Isherwood, John K. Snyder III, and others. And, like Hama with G.I. Joe, Ostrander & Yale managed to layer in the exposition without weighing down the narrative with it, a task far harder than it looks. I love this book, and if you were disappointed with the movie (or even if you enjoyed it) you should seek out these original stories, because they are some great, exciting, and fun comics.
Now, what are yours?