It's new comics day, and for many of us that means a trip to our local comic store to pick up those amazing pamphlets filled with graphic storytelling. Everybody has been saying for years that "floppy" comics are going away, and soon we'll all just buy the trade paperbacks. What's the point in even dealing with floppies, when it's all written for the inevitable trade collection? You're just getting 1/5 of a story, they say.
But a single issue of a comic book series can provide a beautiful experience, that is unlike anything else. A single issue can tell a whole, engrossing story, or draw you into a story in an amazing way. Here are 10 single issues from ongoing series that stand on their own, and which everybody should read.
Before we start, let's set some ground rules: 1) all issues must be self-contained (for example, no two-parters, eliminating the classic Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow), 2) no issues from miniseries (so nothing from Watchmen, Kingdom Come, Camelot 3000, etc.), and 3) no one-shot graphic novels (kicking out The Killing Joke immediately, with my apologies to Barbara Gordon). This eliminates a lot of comics, arguably a majority of comics most non-comics readers might be exposed to, leading us to bring you some great stuff you might not have read. Enjoy, find something new you like, and argue away!
"When did the lunatics become psychopaths?" Ted Knight, Golden Age Starman and protector of Opal City, calls four of his contemporaries - the Golden Age Flash, Hourman, Green Lantern, and Dr. Mid-Nite to protect his city. One their old foes, Rag Doll, a formerly harmless villain, has returned with a lust for blood. Two infants are kidnapped by Rag Doll while his cult descends upon a retirement home. The night ends with Rag Doll in the custody of the Golden Age heroes, only to realize they truly are facing a new type of foe – one that will kill their families and friends if he goes free. Rag Doll mysteriously dies, with his body stolen from the morgue the next morning. This issue can currently be found in the Starman: Times Past collection.
9. Uncanny X-Men #201 – "Duel" by Chris Claremont and Rick Leonardi (with inks by a young Whilce Portacio)
Cyclops versus Storm with the leadership of the X-Men at stake (hint – Storm wins). A classic opening scene with the X-Men playing a super-powered game of baseball. The birth of a little baby that would one day become Cable. The beginnings of X-Factor and the return of the original class of X-Men. Comics used to cover this much ground in 22 pages – a story with as much widespread change as this issue would take two years in the current world of decompressed comics storytelling, but Claremont and company handled it effortlessly. Uncanny X-Men #201 can currently be found in the Essential X-Men Volume 6.
At the entropic heat death of the universe, eternal beings come together, gathering around the last existing star. You don't need to know their names; you've probably only seen Mr. Majestic before (the Wildstorm analogue of Superman). They gather…and wait. At the end of the universe, everyone wants to be warm, and everyone wants to be loved. Some have argued this may have been a story left over from Alan Moore's work for the British comic magazine 2000 A.D., with the characters changed to fix the context. This story can be found in the Alan Moore: Wild Worlds collection.
In Frank Miller's last issue as writer/artist on Daredevil, he tells a tale of two sworn enemies, sitting quietly in a room. Bullseye recently killed Elektra and tried to kill Daredevil's alter ego, Matt Murdock. Daredevil, in a sign of sorrow, sits at the hospital bed, a hospital bed he condemned Bullseye to after a paralyzing fall. Holding a six-chambered revolver, Daredevil looms over a crippled Bullseye, alternating pulls of the trigger in a game of Russian Roulette. Daredevil muses aloud, ruminating about imprisoning the father of a boy who idolized him. Matt Murdock ends the issue with no bullets in the chamber, but unwilling to give up his soul and what makes him human. This issue was recently reprinted in Daredevil #500 and Daredevil Omnibus.
Larry Hama, like Miller above, provides both art in story in this issue. I say story, as this issue lack words. This completely silent issue sees the always silent Snake Eyes breaking into Cobra Headquarters in order to rescue fellow Joe, Scarlett. This issue features phenomenal pacing and can be read in two minutes, telling a complete and valid story of two would-be lovers and a daring rescue. You will want to read it several times to witness the power of comics as a medium, even without word balloons. This issue was recently reprinted by IDW in the G.I. JOE: The Best of Snake Eyes collection.
What is a superhero without his friends? Ex Machina, in its 50 issue run, probably had 5 issues worth of action. The rest of the superb series was filled with the rise of a politician juxtaposed with his former, short-lived career as a superhero and his relationships with Bradbury, his friend and bodyguard, and Kremlin, the man who raised him. I'll be honest - I wrestled with what issue from Brian K. Vaughn's repertoire to include. I kept coming back to this issue, as it coldly defines the reality of the relationship between Mayor Mitchell Hundred and Bradbury, showing that Bradbury would gladly lay his life on the line for Hundred, without need for reciprocation.
This issue is currently reprinted in Ex Machina Deluxe Edition Book 3.
The series that jump-started the careers of Rob Schrab (The Sarah Silverman Show) and Dan Harmon (Community) is the closest we've been to a homemade comic book hitting the big time in a while (it even spawned a Sega Saturn game in the late 1990s). This issue sets the scene for the series, with an office worker buying a hitman robot from a vending machine to the save his job. As the story passes, the the robot becomes "self aware" and that he will self destruct after destroying his designated target, leading Scud to take on additional missions as a rogue assassin in order to keep his first target on life support. I love Scud - the series could have stopped after this issue, and the core of it's story would have been told, but Rob didn't give up, as he saw bigger and better things for his witty anti-hero. I'm glad he kept at it, with Schrab finishing his labor of love after a decade long absence by working early morning and late nights while directing. This issue can be found in reprinted in Scud: The Whole Shebang.
Dick Grayson (Nightwing) and Barbara Gordon (formerly Batgirl, now Oracle, and now Batgirl again in New 52 continuity) go on a "date" – Dick takes Babs to the circus he now owns in Blüdhaven, the circus where his parents died. We learn how Grayson and Gordon are different from Batman – they have made amends and "own" their past, while Bruce Wayne consistently runs away toward his past, using it to draw energy from. Near the conclusion of the story, Barbara tells Dick the one thing she misses most since being paralyzed by the Joker in the Killing Joke – the wind though her hair, the sounds beneath her feet as she flew through Gotham City as Batgirl. In one of the most romantic, sweet moments every placed within a comic, Grayson makes arrangements for the duo to fly through the air on the trapeze in the very tent in which the eldest Flying Graysons perished. This issue has not been reprinted, leading the issue itself to command $70-125 on the aftermarket.
2. Action Comics 775 - "What's So Funny About Truth, Justice & the American Way?" By Joe Kelly and Various Artists
In the aftermath of Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns comics went through a dark age. The 1990s were filled with anti-heroes like the Punisher and Wolverine, with the next decade taking it one step further - just look at any issue of Mark Millar's Authority run. This issue stands to answer one question - " Is Superman still relevant?" Yes, shouts Joe Kelly, who has since gone on to create the animated series Ben 10 and Generator Rex, as he shows that Superman can still beat the ultra-cool villain, do it with intelligence and class, and keep his self respect and the respect of Metropolis. You can give any person this issue, and they will walk away knowing what timeless heroes stand for within the comics medium. This fantastic story can be found reprinted in Superman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told Volume 1 .
What happens when the superheroes win? You've probably heard of Miracleman #15, one of the goriest and most sought after issues of the 1980s. But what happens after the destruction of London and the death of Kid Miracleman? The heroes win, they get their shit together, and they aim to make the world a better place for all, whether the establishment likes it or not. The poor are cared for, the world's nuclear arsenal is reported into the sun, and money is abolished - peace and tranquility on earth is made true in form. It's a dictatorship, with Miracleman later questioning his tactics, but a benevolent one. Moore leaves the character that projected him to UK stardom with this issue, and sends him off into the arms of protégé Neil Gaiman to tell the stories of regular people coming to grips with living in a Utopia. This issue is not currently in print due to the ongoing Miracleman/Marvelman legal struggles.
Comic book series can have zero issues, so why can't this list? Have you ever wished you could go back to your 12 or 13 year old self and tell them everything is going to be ok? Just let them know that while things may suck in the moment, life gets better. Mark Waid, during the height of his Flash run, got the chance. Wally West visits his prepubescent self in the form of a distant relative during a family barbecue, and tells a young Wally that everything is going to be alright. Wally reassures him that his dreams have meaning and value, regardless of what his parents think. Waid grew up in a small town in Alabama, and I'd like to think this is his chance to tell himself, and all of us, that things get better. This issue is collected in the trade paperback Flash: Terminal Velocity.
You cannot make a list like this without arguing with yourself for hours, so, included as honorable mentions are Hellblazer #27, Swamp Thing #53 (the "other" Alan Moore Batman story), Miracleman #15, Amazing Spider-Man #33 (Ditko and Lee at their best), Amazing Spider-Man #248, and Fantastic Four #265. Planetary #27 and Y the Last Man #60 were also not included due to spoiler ramifications, with these being the last issues of their respective series. Special thanks to Tony Veronese, Tripp Reynolds, Michael Williams, and Jonathan Cresswell for letting me bounce ideas off of them. Now, get to reading, or get to arguing!
Images courtesy of Marvel Comics, DC Comics, Neil Gaiman/Mick Anglo, IDW, and Rob Schrab.