The Hit List (Or Phil's Good Reads)
Published 8/2/2014 12:00:00 AM by Glenn Carter
The Hit List
Or ‘Phil’s Good Reads’ - What Graphic Novels, Collected Editions and Individual Comics our esteemed publisher considers essential for the new comics fan (and even the old jaded ones).
These are in no specific order and are what I regard as pinnacles of comics storytelling.
1. Captain Britain: The Jasper’s Warp (Moore w/ Thorpe & Davis)
Pretty much my favourite superhero story, although in fairness you have to include the Dave Thorpe stories as the scene-setter. The striking thing about this series is that while it was delivered in 7 page instalments, it has a real kind of box-set feel to it. Taken out of ‘Marvel Continuity’ it tells the story of a troubled superhero returning to the fold after alcoholism, self-doubt and mental health problems drive him over the edge. Given new abilities by Merlin, Brian Braddock is plunged into a different reality, or in truth realities, comes up against the ultimate villain and an almost indestructible foe. To say it’s a ‘rollercoaster ride’ is an oft-used term, but this really is.
2. A Contract With God (Eisner)
Most people would include this, but as this was the very first ‘Graphic Novel’ I purchased (and still own the first edition), it has a strong place in my heart. Tales of the tenements from depression-era USA seems like an unlikely combination to be a success and it was released in the late 70s when superheroes and X rated comics abound. It’s just poignant, reflective and hard-hitting – the stories never age. A timeless collection.
3. A Remembrance of Threatening Green (McGregor & Rogers + Austin)
Adolescence prompted the purchase of this in 1978: it had boobies and girl-on-girl action; but it was just a hard-boiled detective story in a Chandleresque style and could easily be adapted into a very workable motion picture. Clever, twisting and a real example of just how under-rated Don McGregor was.
4. The Griffin (Vado & Felchle)
At a time when there were new companies trying to create new superheroes in new universes and all failing; DC collected a comic produced by a small publisher, about a super-powered guy, newly-coloured, in a prestige format, and it failed miserably. I harped on about this in my Comics International columns for what seems like ever, but that’s because it’s a clever, intelligent, relevant piece of comics fiction. Our hero is kidnapped by aliens, turned into a supreme super-soldier to fight their wars and then gets homesick, breaking all his vows and plunging his family – believing him dead for 20 years – into all kinds of problems. Snappy dialogue; excellent stylised artwork and an ending.
5. We3 (Morrison & Quietly)
I love my animals. I approached this with a little trepidation. It ticks every box. It looks great; it reads well and it has an ending that while not what I would have wanted, is the best I could have hoped for. The rabbit every time for me.
6. Maus (Spiegelman)
The seminal Graphic Novel in many ways. Still a tough read, but an essential one. Does for comics what was needed – to be propelled into the realms of high art. This is heaped lavish praise because it deserves it. But be warned it is hard work and is disturbingly accurate.
7. Swamp Thing (Wein & Wrightson)
The first 10 issues of DC’s tribute to gothic in a time when gothic wasn’t at all fashionable. These are essentially 10 monster stories with a backdrop of weird science, mystic Lovecraftian undertones, pathos and frustration. Many forget that Alec Holland was a man before he became an elemental god. This sets the scene for everything that followed with this character; without this Alan Moore, arguably, may never have become the household comics name he is now. They are dated; there is a naivety about them that is charming and had they been done now they probably would have been 18-rated.
8. Fish Police (Moncuse)
Before the many failed series with a number of different publishers, Comico released a collected edition of the first stories. Newly coloured, this was the book that tempted me back into comics in 1988. It’s pure metafiction, but you don’t find that out for a long time (and not in this book). A ‘man’ wakes up in an undersea world that is inhabited by talking fish. He doesn’t get it, but everyone else seems to think he’s ace crime fighter Gil of the Fish Police, so he goes along with it – after all, he must be dreaming…
9. Crisis on Infinite Earths (Wolfman & Perez)
This isn’t a classic; arguably it’s dreadful with a denouement that suggests Marv Wolfman was either a Born Again Christian or a New Age hippy; yet this is a collected series that crams everything in and the kitchen sink. Cleverly linking in to DC history, this pits every single hero (and villain) who ever existed in DC’s convoluted, bloated and unfathomable continuity against an almost unbeatable foe. It is the forerunner to every ‘blockbuster’ crossover that has ever been produced by anyone. It is essentially a 12-part massacre, with the occasional real surprise (Flash, Supergirl) and allowing DC to catapult its old staid image and try and relaunch for a more comics-savvy generation. For a complete, self-contained superhero slugfest, but enough pathos to bring a tea to the most cynical of eyes, this is something I often find myself drawn back to.
10. 566 Frames (Wojda)
I know, I published it, but I did so for a reason. Having been tempted back to comics, this cemented the feeling I had done the right thing, at the right time. 566 Frames is a story awash with magical realism; it tells the story of Wojda’s ancestors from the perspective of his mother telling him while he is growing in her womb. People who have read it believe, like me, that it is destined for awards. Funny, creepy, emotionally fraught at times, it is stylish storytelling at its best.
11. Amazing Adventures #34 (McGregor & Russell)
As a 14 year-old comics reader, believing that even the characters I cared least about where pretty much indestructible, this comic resonates with me even today. It is a classic that no-one else in the comics firmament seems to even acknowledge as good, let alone brilliant. “A Death in the Family” (long before it was used in Batman) is, I believe, part of the inspiration for Alan Moore’s Fury. It was the first time I encountered death and futility in a comic; it hit home hard. Characters that sat on the periphery of my comics interest were systematically wiped out by an almost indestructible robot that with its dying circuitry, mocks the hero in the futility of his conquest. It was the most perfect example of a pyrrhic victory I have ever seen. It looks fab too.
12. Daredevil #266 (Nocenti & Romita Jr)
“A Beer with the Devil” – just when your life can’t get any worse; it does. Daredevil has been something of a perennial whipping boy for writers; most notably Frank Miller; but ocenti took all of that and made it worse. This was the culmination of a storyline that saw DD die; get the crap kicked out of him by even rubbish villains and find himself lower than snake shit. He then gets temptation thrown at him; it’s the ultimate downer and it was a comic that I recommended to people who didn’t think superhero comics were capable of being cerebral. I believe it to be the single best issue of this highly-praised and much-maligned comics character.
13. The Incredible Hulk #222 (Starlin + Wein + Alcala)
“Feeding Billy” – do you know, the Hulk has been through a lot and possibly the best era for this big green softy is probably Peter David’s excellent run in the 1990s – it redefined the character. Yet back in the 1970s when Herb Trimpe, Sal Buscema, Len Wein and a bunch of other Marvel stalwarts were producing him, it was all pretty much ‘Hulk Smash’ stuff. Cosmic acid-casualty Jim Starlin took just one issue to show us just what ‘monster’ means. This is a dark, nasty tale about cannibalism, cute decoys and the true nature of survival of the fittest. Never before or since has the Hulk been in such a feral and creepy situation.
14. Gumby Winter Fun Special (Purcell & Adams)
At the time, I was a retailer, and I bought this more on a whim than anything else. There was no apparent reason for ordering it apart from Art Adams. The character meant nothing to most British people and yet, when it arrived, it quickly became one of the most re-ordered comics in the history of my shop. Why? Well, it looks nice, It also, possibly, the funniest thing I have read in a comicbook – ever! It’s essentially Santa Claus versus the Devil, with homage after homage to comics greats. It’s funny too, did I mention that?
15. Fish Police Special (Moncuse)
This came out to coincide with the graphic novel collection and introduced the concept to Comico. This 48-page special fills in the blanks surrounding the book and takes it a few steps further. There is a priceless and pointless discussion about the presence of stairs in a world populated by fish; beer; oblique references that wouldn’t be out of place in classic episodes of The Simpsons and examples of why someone, somewhere, thought this was an excellent concept for TV.
16. Detective Comics #475 (Englehart & Rogers w/ Austin)
Was there ever a better Batman? Seriously, O’Neil & Adams made him look better than ever before, but Englehart introduced a feel to the Bat books that has been copied ever since. This was Marshall Rogers at his groundbreaking best; this was Batman with a supporting cast of characters that you started to actually believe in. this was ‘The Laughing Fish’ and the arrival of the darkly psychotic and utterly bonkers Joker. This was, in my opinion, the real reason why Batman became the iconic 80s character he did and no one acknowledges it, much.
17. Coventry #1-3 (Willingham)
Yeah, I know, this isn’t even a completed story, but this blatant forerunner to DC’s Fables series (also by Willingham) was considerably weirder and had the makings of possibly one of the most interesting series that never came to anything. Coventry is the 51st State of the USA and the only one where magic is still practised; it introduced us to some interesting characters; it read like a David Lynch series and it stopped, abruptly, for reasons I’m sure I could discover but have never bothered. This is like one of those great TV series that gets cancelled after 7 episodes because no one got it.
18. Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction #2 (various)
Marvel dipped into black & white magazines in the mid-1970s; attempting to jump onto the ‘buzz’ that Creepy and Eerie had created for Warren Publishing. There are surprisingly many extremely loved comics from this relatively cheaply produced: Monsters Unleashed, Dracula Lives, Tales of the Zombie, Howard the Duck, Rampaging Hulk, Savage Sword of Conan, Planet of the Apes, Deadly Hands of Kung Fu, and a whole bunch more. In fact, thinking back, there was almost as many of these black & white large format magazines being published than there was almost entire output of comics outside of DC and Marvel.
Why then this specific issue? Originally it was because of a single story – War Toy – quite an extraordinary little tale for its time and one of those rare gems – a comics story written in the 1970s that is virtually untouched by the passage of time, despite being rooted in what writer Tony Isabella saw as a possible future (I always thought it would make a brilliant film). Drawn by George Perez and Rico Rival, this story alone is worth the stereotypical entry fee... But, listen to this roll call: Frank Brunner (a kind of 1970s trendy Gene Colan clone); George Perez; Alfred Bester; Denny O’Neil; Frank Robbins (turning in arguably his finest work); Mike Kaluta; Don Thompson; Bruce Jones; Gerry Conway; Rico Rival; Don McGregor, David Kraft; Tony Isabella; Roy Thomas; Chris Claremont; Alex Nino and Jim Mooney, which genre fans will look at and consider as one very impressive team of people working on a cheap black and white magazine. Some of these books were crap, but oddly enough, these stories, this idea, the way it was produced could arguably be classed as a forerunner to allow this kind of product into the mainstream. The publishers Marvel imitated with these books were not successful and neither were these books, particularly, but it introduced a new way of comics being produced.
19. The Rocketeer (Stevens)
When I came back to comics, Dave Stevens was one of the main reasons. I have lived through the deaths of many of comics’ greats and people I have loved and admired, but when Stevens died in 2008, I felt robbed and that the world was deprived of someone with his talent and modesty (compared to similar styled artists and their inflated opinions of themselves). The Rocketeer isn’t rocket science; it’s a mishmash of fact and fiction, a sumptuously rendered Betty Page and a real Howard Hawks feel. It’s just a great big load of fun, with a sexy 1950s twist.
20. Back For More (Wrightson)
Here’s a real oddity: published by Archival Press of Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1978, I’m not even sure you can get this any longer and it just contains a bunch of Bernie Wrightson reprints, but what a bunch. No wonder Stephen King was and is a fan of this guy. My main reason for buying anything Wrightson related in the 1970s was down to the aforementioned Swamp Thing, which had blown me away. Looking back at his even earlier stuff and his incredibly odd imagination, you have to wonder whether he was just a bit too black for American horror fans. A totally forgotten masterpiece!
21. The Tale of One Bad Rat (Talbot)
Bryan and I have known each other a long time, so when this book was originally released, I wrote the first news story about it – and created a funny anecdotal story about where to put the line-break in a headline. If I had to stick my neck out, I’d suggest this was one of the most influential comic stories of all time, because it got nothing but positive press. The subject, the execution and the production of this masterpiece in dramatic storytelling without a cosmic battle or hyperbole is almost beyond criticism. The subject matter is difficult; it meanders along in its own way and it bestows upon the reader ‘the knowledge’. The ‘Knowledge’ is the understanding that comicbooks are not just superheroes and have a place alongside the most treasured works of art the world has produced. It’s also a wonderful story and you might cry.
I could give honourable mentions to an almost duplicate number of other GNs and comics I’d recommend you read – Corben’s NeverWhere, Satrapi’s Persepolis, The Hulk: The End, McGregor & Gulacy’s Sabre, complete stories from titles such as the Nocenti/Romita Daredevil, Peter David’s first run on the Incredible Hulk, Adventures of Superman, Munden’s Bar, Aztec Ace and the list could go on and on; but in the end I had to list the things that I still have; that despite selling my comic collection twice over are the things that, for sentimental reasons alone, I can’t part with.