My book editor wants an annotated list of “key works” for the superhero genre, and so here’s a draft of the third and final installment. The adjective “key” is intentionally ambiguous, and the focus is on authors. As before, I’m limiting myself to only four works per era. The Fourth Code Era begins when Marvel officially dropped the Comics Code in 2001, so the first time the Authority didn’t have authority over a majority of the industry. And the Post-Code Era begins in 2011 when DC dropped out too and the Code ceased to exist. We’re only five years into that current period, so the last four works here are the most tentative.
Fourth Code Era, 2001-2011:
Bendis & Gaydos’ Alias (2001-03). Brian Michael Bendis is one of the most prolific Marvel writers of the 21st century. He wrote Ultimate Spider-Man (2000-2009), has been the primary author of multiple Marvel cross-over event series, including Avengers Disassembled (2004), House of M (2005), Age of Ultron (2013), and Civil War II (2016), and as of 2016 was writing Spider-Man, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Invincible Iron Man. He partnered with artist Michael Gaydos to create Alias #1 (November 2001) through #28 (January 2004), after which he continued the characters Jessica Jones and Luke Cage in The Pulse and New Avengers. Gaydos, who also works in fine art and graphic design, renders his characters in a strikingly less idealized style than standard superhero comics art, with little or no attention to muscular and sexualization, while employing overlapping panel arrangements that highlight atypical amounts of undrawn gutter space. Gaydos’ approach parallels Bendis’ avoidance of standard superhero story tropes, including costumes and fight scenes. Alias is also notable as the first series published under Marvel’s MAX imprint, created for the equivalent of R-rated content when the company stopped working under the Comics Code. This series is collected under the title Jessica Jones: Alias, and Bendis and Gaydos reunited to continue the series in 2016.
Morales & Baker’s Truth: Red, White & Black (2003). The idea of a World War II super-soldier program mirroring the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis experiments, in which the U.S. Public Health Service intentionally infected and left untreated hundreds of black men, originated from a comment made by Marvel publisher Bill Jemas to Marvel editor Axel Alonso (Carpenter 2005: 53-4). Alonso solicited a proposal from writer Robert Morales, and Kyle Baker, who had illustrated a Vibe Magazine comic strip with Morales, penciled and inked the series, #1 (January 2003) – #7 (July 2003). Alonso required changes when Morales’ script drafts veered too far from the Tuskegee events, but the tragic ending in which the black Captain America, Isiah Bradley, suffers permanent brain damage akin to Muhammad Ali, was Morales’ (Carpenter 2005: 54-5). The story is a uniquely grim but historically honest reimagining of Marvel’s Golden Age. Baker’s art is significant for stepping outside of the standard range of representational styles by taking the most overtly cartoonish approach in superhero comics at that time. The following year, Morales wrote eight issues of Captain America, with the last, #28 (August 2004), featuring both Steve Rogers and Isiah Bradley in the “Captain America & Captain America” cover banner and logo. Bradley’s appearance and the debut of his grandson, the Patriot, in Young Avengers #1 (April 2005) established the events of Truth within official Marvel continuity.
Simone’s Birds of Prey (2003-07, 2010-11). In 1999, Gail Simone co-founded the website Women in Refrigerators, which featured her list of dead or depowered female characters, created in response to Green Lantern #54 (August 1994) in which the hero finds his murdered girlfriend in his refrigerator. She wrote for Bongo Comics’ The Simpsons, and then for Marvel’s Deadpool in 2002, before moving to DC’s Birds of Prey in 2003. Simone wrote #56 (August 2003) to #108 (September 2007) of the first series, as well as #1 (July 2010) – #13 (August 2011) of the second. She significantly expanded the all-female cast and the role of Barbara Gordon, the original Batgirl, who leads the group as Oracle. Wheelchair-bound after the rape and maiming depicted in Alan Moore’s 1988 The Killing Joke, Oracle is one of the few disabled but non-superpowered superheroes in the genre. Simone collaborated with a range of artists, including penciller Nicola Scott who continued to work with her on her next project, Secret Six, in 2009. Simone also moved to Wonder Woman in 2008, becoming the title’s longest running female creator, Batgirl in 2011, and Red Sonja for Dynamite in 2013.
Rucka & Williams’ Batwoman (2009-10). Following the Neil Gaiman-scripted funeral of Batman in the previous issue, Detective Comics #854 (August 2009) – #863 (May 2010) featured the redesigned Batwoman as its cover series. Greg Rucka wrote all ten episodes, and J. H. Williams III penciled all but two. The original character was introduced in 1956 as a love interest for Batman and so arguably a response to Frederick Wertham’s claim that Batman and Robin were lovers. The rebooted lesbian character was introduced in 52 #7 (June) and as the cover feature of #11 (July 2006). She was DC’s highest profile LGBT character, a theme Rucka continues by introducing Police Captain Maggie Sawyer (a lesbian character created by John Byrne for Superman in 1987) as her long-term love interest. Williams’ use of two-page spreads and complex framing sequences are some of the most innovative layout designs since Steranko’s and Adams’ late 60s work. Batman returned as the cover feature of Detective Comics #864, and Batwoman, as co-written and drawn by Williams, moved to her own ongoing series with the one-off Batwoman (January 2011) and Batwoman #1 (November 2011). The Rucka-Williams’ Detective Comics #854-860 are collected under the title Batwoman: Elegy.
Post-Code Era, 2011-present:
Fraction & Aja: Hawkeye (2012-15). Matt Fraction, husband of fellow Marvel writer Kelly Sue DeConnick, wrote the complete series, #1 (October 2012) – #22 (September 2015), with several artists, including David Aja who penciled roughly half of the issues. Aja’s style is reminiscent of David Mazzuchelli’s Batman: Year One and Daredevil: Born Again art, but incorporates non-naturalistic elements of abstract signage and diagrams to innovative effect. The series was one of the most acclaimed during the period of its three-year run, especially #11, an episode told from the perspective of the main character’s dog, and #19, an episode told primarily in American Sign Language. Both Aja and Fraction worked and continue to work on a wide range of Marvel titles.
De Connick’s Captain Marvel: Earth’s Mightiest Hero #1-17 (2012-15). The original superhero Captain Marvel was created by Bill Parker and C. C. Beck for Fawcett Comics in 1939, after which DC sued for copyright infringement. The court battle continued until the early 50s, when Fawcett closed its comics division. Marvel later trademarked “Captain Marvel” by creating a new character with the same name in Marvel Superheroes #12 (December 1967). The supporting character U.S. Air Force Major Carol Danvers was introduced in #13, and, after developing her own superpowers, was reintroduced in her own series in Ms. Marvel #1 (January 1977). The character underwent a range of changes, until assuming her predecessor’s name in Captain Marvel #1 (August 2012). Working with a wide range of artists, DeConnick wrote the first series, #1-17 (January 2014), and continued through the second series, #1-18 (July 2015). DeConnick is one of the leading writers in contemporary comics; her other recent collaborations include Pretty Deadly with Emma Rios, Bitch Planet with Valentine De Landro, and Parisian White with Bill Sienkiewicz.
Wilson & Alphona’s Ms. Marvel (2014-15). After Carol Danvers relinquished the name in 2012, the new Ms. Marvel character and series debuted with #1 (February 2014). Kamala Khan, a Muslim teenager living in Jersey City, NJ, is the first Muslim character to lead a superhero series. The concept originated with Captain Marvel editor Sana Amanat, who grew up as a Pakistani-American Muslim in a predominantly white, Christian New Jersey suburb. She approached writer G. Willow Wilson, who was born in New Jersey and moved to Cairo after converting to Islam in her early twenties, and artist Adrian Alphona to create the series. Kamala Khan’s origin story both reiterates standard superhero tropes, while simultaneously overthrowing them, especially through Kamala’s relationship to her Pakistani parents and community. Alphona’s art departs from the comparably naturalistic of style of his 2003-04 Runaways in favor of a style that exaggerates human proportions and so offsets Kamala Khan’s shapeshifting ability. Alphona was the primary artist for the original run, drawing #1-5, 8-11, and 16-19. Wilson continued as writer of the ongoing All-New All-Different series beginning #1(January 2016), with Alphona appearing sporadically as a co-artist.
Coates & Stelfreeze’s Black Panther (2016-17). Journalist and senior editor Ta-Nehisi Coates is well-known for his articles in The Atlantic and New York Times. His Between the World and Me won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2015, the same year the MacArthur Foundation awarded him its renown “genius grant” and Marvel invited him to write an eleven-issue Black Panther series. Following an opposite trajectory as Neil Gaiman, who began in comics and established a high-profile literary career afterwards, Coates is the most prestigious author from outside of comics to enter the genre. He partnered with Brian Stelfreeze, a Marvel and DC artist since the early 90s. #1 (June 2016) premiered as one of the year’s top-selling comics, leading to a spin-off series, World of Wakanda, to be co-written by Coates, poet Yona Harvey, and fiction writer and essayist Roxane Gay, who is an associate professor of English and literary journal editor. Harvey and Gay are Marvel’s first female African American writers.
Comics challenge traditional ideas of art.
Usually a statement like that implies “good art” or “high art” and the supposed challenge of whether comics as a mass medium can be included in such categories. They can and they do. But the challenge I’m talking about is less aesthetic and more metaphysical.
Comics artists create art in order to create comics. That sounds obvious enough, but unlike most art forms, the object the artist creates—the physical piece of paper with ink on it—is not the art. Traditionally, a comics artist draws on artboards, and then a printer uses those artboards to produce a comic. The comic is the work of art. The artboards can (and should) be called works of art too, but they’re not the art that is the comic–which, weirdly, has no original. A comic is its multiple copies.
Compare that to, say, Andy Warhol (who was all about the art of copies). If you buy a framed Warhol print—or button, postcard, or t-shirt—you don’t imagine you now own “a Warhol.” But if you buy a comic, you do own it. And, if it’s the first run of, say, Action Comics No.1, it’s worth as much as some Warhol originals. And yet, a copy of the cover of Action Comics No. 1 on a poster, postcard, or t-shirt is, like any Warhol copy, just a copy.
So some copies are copies and some copies are the thing itself. And that’s just a pleasant weirdness of comics. Except some of that weirdness bleeds back into the original art that isn’t the comic but is the comics artboard.
When I visited the Society of Illustrators as part of a recent research trip to New York, they were exhibiting a Ralph Steadman retrospective. Steadman began his career as a freelance cartoonist in the 60s for a range of English magazines–including Punch where, appropriately enough, the word “cartoon” originates. Before the first Punch cartoons in the 1840s, a “cartoon” was the cardboard-like material artists used for drawing architectural sketches. Neither kind of cartoon used to hang in art museums, which tend to prefer works like Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon.”
Which is probably why I paused so long at Steadman’s parody:
It appeared in Town magazine in 1967. Or maybe only its reproductions did. Unless all those reproductions were the “cartoon” or “comic,” and the object hanging in the Society of Illustrators is something else–a work of art certainly, but not the mass produced “comic” that appeared in the magazine.
I realize I’m splitting metaphysical hairs here, but I ask because Steadman’s framed “original” is unlike most I’ve seen on a museum wall. Note these four spots:
Those are whiteout, something definitely not included on the gallery plaque underneath it:
That description, “Pen and Indian ink on paper,” should also include the word “collage,” since Steadman’s talk balloon and pointer are cut from a separate sheet of paper and affixed atop the larger sheet:
You might also notice the ghostly hint of letters behind the fully inked ones, so add “Pencil” to the list too. And it’s not just the Seurat parody. As I promenaded through the pictures in the exhibition, I found the same techniques used on nearly all of them:
Steadman even corrected his STEADmans:
Usually the glued paper and correction fluid is used for exactly that, corrections, ways to cover lines that he regretted drawing. But it’s more than stray lines and reshaped edges. He sometimes dropped in whole figures after the fact:
The art term for such a correction is “pentimento,” Italian for “repentance,” what artists apparently experience when painting over what they wish that hadn’t painted in the first place. Except Steadman isn’t exactly “painting” in these cases. According to the wall plaque, his materials are only pen and ink. Because what curator, even one employed by the Society of Illustrators, is going to consider typewriter correction fluid an “art” material?
Which gets us back to metaphysics. Are these masterful objects hanging on the walls works of art themselves–or are they a stage of production in the process of creating the works of art that are the cartoons that appeared in the mass produced magazines? As I said already, of course they’re art–but the exclusion of the words “correction fluid” and “collage” also reveals a curatorly queasiness with their in-betweeness.
“Real” art–or “good art” or “high art”–would never include such materials because those materials reveal Steadman’s artboards as artboards. They’re not made for a gallery. They’re made for a printing press. Here’s one of Steadman’s most famous images of Hunter S. Thompson as it appears in its frame and as it appears on a gift shop shelf:
Setting aside the considerable fact that the “reproduction” includes color but the “original” doesn’t (imagine if Seurat or even Warhol left his colors to the whims of printers), notice what happens to all of those unsightly whiteout blotches:
They go from unsightly to unseen. Which of course is the point. Steadman’s work exists to be reproduced. In a very real and weird sense, the “Vintage Dr. Gonzo” postcard I brought home from the retrospective is closer to the intended work of art than the work of art hanging in the retrospective. So many of Steadman’s framed pieces include whiteout and scissored paper and erased pencil lines because those are the norms of artboards–and artboards aren’t the works of art he was intending to make. Each is an artifact of the process of making the mass produced image that in its multiple copies is the intended art.
The postcard cost me $1, but if you want to own a signed “original” (Four Color Silkscreen on White Rising Stonehenge Deckle Edge Paper, 19″ x 16″, Artist’s Proof Edition), it will cost you $6,000. Alternatively, you could find Thompson’s 1971 Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (first editions might go for about $1,250) and turn to page 79.
Arguably those mass produced illustrations are the “originals” too. Or you could find copies of the Rolling Stone issues that first featured Steadman’s “Gonzo” art:
There’s also a heavily STEADman-influenced comic book adaptation by Troy Little:
But that’s a metaphysical challenge for another day.
When Ryan Stills at Invaluable.com asked me about my “superhero dream team,” he probably didn’t have this in mind: a real-world team based on actual superhumans, AKA Olympic athletes. As some of you may recall from past posts, I designed two of these in August, and three more have just joined their ranks.
I’ve revealed the secret identities of those original two Olympians already, but the other three remain masked. So consider this a test for whether superheroes really could keep their alter egos a secret just by stretching a little spandex across their faces. If anyone can unmask all five, I’ll mail you a copy of my book “On the Origin of Superheroes.” I’ll even cover the mailing cost because, to be honest, one of them is a bit of a mystery to me too.
So now here’s the team:
It’s hard leaving out some of my personal favorites (no Sienkiewicz!), especially from my own childhood and college years, but these ongoing lists are for my book “Superhero Comics,” and my editor wants the genre’s “Key Works.” Which sometimes overlaps with “stuff Chris loves” and sometimes doesn’t. I’m also keeping the focus on the authors, and that means defining a “work” by writers and artists (usually penciller). Also, to prevent someone like Alan Moore from hogging half the slots, I’m trying to impose a one-work-per-author rule. The Comics Code was revised in 1971, the first revision since it was created in 1954, and then revised again in 1989, so those are my historical markers.
Second Code Era, 1971-1988:
Claremont & Byrne’s The Uncanny X-Men (1977-81).
Chris Claremont has the longest run on any comics title. After Len Wein and Dave Cockrum’s one-issue reinvention of the series, which had been reprinting 1960s issues since #67 (December 1970), Claremont wrote The Uncanny X-Men from #94 (August 1975) to #279 (August 1991), as well as numerous spin-off titles including New Mutants, Wolverine, and X-Men #1 (October 1991), the highest selling comic book of all-time. John Byrne pencilled and often co-wrote #108 (December 1977) – #143 (March 1981), before moving on as writer-artist of a wide range of Marvel and DC titles including Alpha Flight (1983) and the Superman reboot mini-series The Man of Steel (1986). Byrne further developed the Adams-influenced visual style that would continue to define superhero comics for the next decade, and Claremont’s long-term approach to multi-issue plotting and characterization became increasingly standard. Claremont and Byrne’s joint run includes the X-Men’s most acclaimed narrative arc, The Dark Phoenix Saga, #129-138, ending with the death and funeral of Jean Gray—events Bryne would help to retcon out of existence during his five-year run of The Fantastic Four in 1986. Instead of Byrne, Claremont initially partnered with Neal Adams for God Loves, Man Kills (1982), one of the first graphic novels published in the Marvel Graphic Novel format, but because Adams refused a standard work-for-hire contract, Marvel replaced him with Brent Anderson. Byrne returned to Marvel in the late 80s to work on several titles including West Coast Avengers and Sensational She-Hulk, after which he wrote creator-owned titles for Dark Horse Comics.
Moore & Gibbons’ Watchmen (1986-87).
The most acclaimed superhero comic of all-time, the twelve-issue Watchmen, along with Frank Miller’s four-issue The Dark Knight Returns (1986), marks a major turning point in the genre, with a leap in psychological realism and a rejection of the Code-mandated triumph of absolute good over absolute evil. Moore initially plotted the series with characters DC had recently acquired from the defunct Charlton Comics. When editors objected, he and Dave Gibbons nominally redesigned the cast, creating morally flawed counterparts that interrogate the decades-old norms of the superhero character type. Because the series stood apart from the rest of the DC universe, Moore and Gibbons received unusual creative freedom, and the limited series format also enabled them to work in a closed narrative form that barred sequels, a rarity in comics at that time and a major factor in the series’ excellence. Time magazine listed Watchmen in its one hundred best English-language novels published since 1923 (Grossman 2010). Moore’s other major works include Marvelman / Miracleman (1982-89), V for Vendetta (1982-88), The Saga of the Swamp Thing (1984-87), From Hell (1989-96), and The League of Extraordinary Gentleman (1999-2003).
Miller & Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One (1987).
Following the successes of his first Daredevil run (1979-1983), Ronin (1983-84), and The Dark Knight Returns (1986), Frank Miller partnered with artist Bill Sienkiewicz for the graphic novel Daredevil: Love and War (1986) and the limited series Elektra: Assassin (1986-87) and penciller-inker David Mazzuchelli for the 1986 Born Again arc in Daredevil and DC’s history-redefining Year One arc in Batman #404 (February) – #407 (May 1987), ending Miller’s most productive period with DC and Marvel, after which he began publishing with Dark Horse. Year One, Born Again, and The Dark Knight Returns are widely regarded as Miller’s best work. Born Again, however, is marred by a literal deus ex machina ending, and though less genre-influencing than the fascist-leaning Dark Knight Returns, Year One’s time scope pushed Miller into storytelling innovations where John Byrne’s parallel The Man of Steel suffers in contrast. Unlike the sometimes cartoonish excesses of Miller’s Dark Knight Returns art, Mazzuchelli’s comparatively sparse style provided a realistic baseline rendered in short, grainy lines for the series’ much praised gritty effect. Mazzuchelli soon left superhero comics, publishing an adaptation of Paul Auster’s postmodern detective novel City of Glass in 1994 and the even more highly acclaimed Asterios Polyp in 2009.
Gaiman’s The Sandman (1988-1996).
Neil Gaiman entered comics as a fan of Swamp Thing and then as a journalist, interviewing Alan Moore and other creators for a 1986 Sunday Times Magazine article that was never published because the editor was expecting a Wertham-esque critique of the industry (Gaiman 2016: 265, 233). DC first hired him for the 1987 Black Orchid limited series with the Sienkiewicz-influenced artist Dave McKean, after which Gaiman requested Sandman, a minor and largely forgotten superhero created by Gardner Fox and Bert Christman in 1939 and briefly reinvented by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in 1974. Working with a wide range of artists including McKean for covers, Gaiman wrote the entire series, from #1 (January 1989) to the final #75 (March 1996), creating one of DC’s most popular titles of the 90s and drawing acclaim and readership from outside traditional comics audiences. Reprint compilations sold well in trade paperback formats, expanding readership beyond direct market comic shops to general bookstores. Though the title began before DC instituted its creator-owning imprint Vertigo in 1993, Gaiman retained copyrights, and when he left the series, it and its characters were not continued. Gaiman moved from comics to a highly successful and ongoing career in literary speculative fiction.
Third Code Era, 1989-2000:
Morrison & McKean’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth (1989).
The term “graphic novel” emerged in the 70s, and Marvel published “Marvel Graphic Novel” and “Epic Graphic Novel” imprints in the 80s that featured stand-alone works rather than collected reprints of pre-existing series. “DC Graphic Novel” used the same trade paperback format, but Arkham Asylum, published the October after the summer release of Tim Burton’s Batman film, was one of the first graphic novels printed in hardback—then a norm of non-comics literary publishing. It soon became one of DC’s best-selling graphic novels. Writer Grant Morrison had joined DC a year earlier, reviving the character Animal Man in a limited and then ongoing series and then Doom Patrol in early 1989. When DC assigned Arkham to artist Dave McKean, Morrison revised his original 48-page script into a 67-page, screenplay-like format, giving McKean greater freedom for his expressionistic paintings, which expanded to 120 pages. Morrison later worked on a wide range of superhero titles, including his own creator-owned The Invisibles (1994-2000).
McFarlane’s Spawn (1992).
Because Marvel refused to share copyrights, a prominent group of creators, including Spider-Man artist Todd McFarlane and X-Men writer Chris Claremont, left the company to form Image Comics in 1992. Spawn #1 (May 1992), one of Image’s first publications, was a top-selling superhero comic of the year, drawing new attention to independent publishers in the Marvel-DC dominated market. Image joined Eclipse, which had formed in the late 70s and was publishing Alan Moore’s and briefly Neil Gaiman’s Miracleman, and Dark Horse, which had formed in 1986 and featured Paul Chadwick’s Concrete and soon Mike Mignola’s Hellboy. Image Comics, distributed entirely through the increasingly dominant direct market system, never joined the Comics Magazine Association of America and so Spawn and its other titles were never subject to the Comics Code. Though McFarlane partnered with various guest writers, including Moore and Gaiman, their contributions are largely forgotten, and Spawn is remembered primarily for its impact on the wider industry. McFarlane, along with fellow Image artists Rob Liefeld and Jim Lee, also defined the hypermuscular and hypersexualized style of the 90s. Despite its emphasis on creator rights, Image, using the work-for-hire argument Marvel used against Jack Kirby, claimed full copyright of the character Angela co-created by Gaiman and McFarlane and introduced in Spawn #9 (March 1993). Gaiman won a lawsuit against Image in 2002, after which McFarlane relinquished his rights and Gaiman sold the character to Marvel where Angela was introduced in 2013.
McDuffie & Bright’s Icon (1993-97).
Another independent publisher, Milestone Comics formed in 1993 but in a distribution partnership with DC with both company logos appearing on covers. Milestone consisted entirely of African American creators who retrained ownership and creative control of their work. Dwayne McDuffie wrote or co-wrote all four of the initial titles, including Icon, penciled M. D. Bright, who, like McDuffie, had worked on previous superhero titles for DC and Marvel. The two collaborated on all but five issues of the complete run, #1 (May 1993) to #42 (February 1997). The series features a Superman-like hero who, instead of landing in the 20th century mid-west to be raised by white farmers, lands in the Antebellum South to be raised by an enslaved plantation worker. His Robin-like sidekick, Rocket, is black teenager whose out-of-wedlock pregnancy and motherhood are central themes of the series. The series is widely praised for bringing a diversity of accurately portrayed black characters to superhero comics. Icon ended when the market collapse of the mid-90s drove Milestone out of the comics business.
Waid & Ross’ Kingdom Come (1996).
The limited series Kingdom Come, #1 (May 1996) – #4 (August 1996), was co-written by Mark Waid and Alex Ross and painted by Ross. As an Elseworld imprint, the story features a wide range of DC superheroes, but outside of company continuity, enabling Waid and Ross to freely interpret and in some cases kill characters in a plotline involving the morally indifferent children of today’s heroes. Ross conceived the story while working with writer Kurt Busiek on the similar, four-issue Marvels (1994), and DC teamed him with Alex Waid, who had written for range of Marvel and DC titles, including Captain America and The Flash. The work is most significant for marking the highpoint of photorealism in the genre. In contrast to the comparably cartoonish standards of the period, Ross worked from live models and, instead of following the pencils-inks-colors process norm of the industry, painted in his preferred medium of opaque watercolors. While Bill Seinkiewicz and Dave McKean had achieved similar moments of painterly photorealism, Ross maintained the style across his work. Due to the labor intensiveness of the approach, he produced mainly cover art after Kingdom Come.
While there is no definitive canon for superhero comics, I’m working on a chapter for my forthcoming book that presents a list of “key works.” I’m defining “key” by a variety of elements including aesthetic quality, historical impact, and medium innovation. In terms of genre, a work’s influence on other creators is as noteworthy as its merits judged individually. Some works listed here are historically significant to the genre, some are individually excellent, and some are both. While a comics text might include anything from a single comic strip to a collected comic book series to a graphic novel created and published as a single work, I define and so divide texts according to authorship, usually writer-artist collaborations on a single series. When an ongoing comic book title changes authors, it also changes texts. While a complete list of key works might number into the hundreds, I’m imposing practical limits, selecting only four works from each of the six Code-defined historical periods. Here are the first eight:
Pre-Code Era, 1934-1954:
Siegel & Shuster’s Superman in Action Comics and Superman (1938-1940).
After premiering in Action Comics #1 (June 1938), the original incarnation of Superman was relatively short-lived. Jerry Siegel continued to write the character, but due to his failing eyesight co-creator Joe Shuster was no longer a primary artist after the second year. Shuster penciled and inked the Superman episodes in Action Comics #1-#5, penciled and co-inked #6-10, and then penciled or co-penciled all but three issues of #11-24 (May 1940), after which he contributed only sporadically. After the initial Superman July 1939 reprint edition, he penciled the entire 64-page quarterly Superman #2 and #3 (March 1940). Shuster’s run coincides roughly with Superman’s first arch-nemesis, the Ultra-Humanite, retconned in #13 as the mastermind behind Superman’s first year of adventures, seemingly killed in #21, and replaced by Luthor in #23. Shuster however retained some artistic control by subcontracting replacement artists himself through his “Shuster Studio.” Siegel and Shuster formally left DC, then National Allied Publications, after their ten-year contract expired and they lost their suit against the company for copyright of Superman.
Finger & Kane’s Batman in Detective Comics and Batman (1939-1943).
Because writer Bill Finger was employed by artist Bob Kane who alone was contracted by Detective Comics, Inc., Kane received sole creator and author credit for Batman. Though Finger appears to have been the primary creator, he wrote only the first two episodes before Gardner Fox’s six-issue run from #29-34, which introduced discordant supernatural and fantastical elements that Finger eliminated upon his return in #35. Kane and Finger’s partnership and creative control of the character ended through attrition. Finger wrote all of the Batman episodes in Detective Comics from #27-28, 35-59, seven of 60-68, and then only four of the next seventeen issues, leaving the series after #85 (March 1944). Kane penciled all but one issue from #27-74 and then four of the next eight, leaving the series after #82 (December 1943). Kane exclusively penciled the multi-story Batman #1-8 (December-January 1941), and Finger wrote all of #1-10 (February-March 1942). Batman #14 (December-January 1942) was the first without a story by Finger and #19 (April-May 1943) the first without art by Kane, after which both creators became increasingly rare. Finger wrote for a range of other DC titles, and Kane maintained credit for Batman after renegotiating his contract in 1949.
Eisner’s The Spirit (1940-1942).
In 1939, Will Eisner left his comics studio partnership with Jerry Iger to manage a 16-page tabloid-sized insert for Sunday newspapers distributed by the Register and Tribune Syndicate. Unlike almost all other pre-1980s creators, Eisner negotiated ownership of his work and received wide artistic freedom. The first insert was published on June 2, 1940 and featured the first seven-page The Spirit episode written, penciled, and inked solely by Eisner. Initially a police detective, Denny Colt is seemingly killed and buried but returns to fight crime under a mask and alias. Eisner had created and co-created previous comic-book heroes, including the Flame, Dollman, Blackhawk, and the copyright-infringing Wonderman, but The Spirit provided the opportunities for innovation that would establish Eisner as a central pioneer of the comics medium. Beginning May 3, 1942, Eisner, now serving overseas in the military, turned co-pencils and inks over to ghost artists and scripts to ghost writers beginning June 7. He contributed sporadically during the war, returned as the primary writer on December 23, 1945, and as primary artist January 12, 1947. His writing contributions decreased again in 1949 and his art in 1951, until he was primarily only supervising when the series ended October 5, 1952.
Marston & Peter’s Wonder Woman in All Star Comics, Sensation Comics, Wonder Woman, and Comics Cavalcade (1941-1948).
Wonder Woman was conceived by psychologist William Moulton Marston, who selected Harry G. Peter as artist and credited their collaboration under the joint pseudonym Charles Moulton. Marston also served on publisher M. C. Gaines’ advisory board for All American Comics, a sibling company to Detective Comics and National Allied Publication, later jointly known as DC. Wonder Woman premiered in All Star Comics #8 (December 1941), on sale during the bombing of Pearl Harbor, before expanding to Sensation Comics (January 1942), Wonder Woman (Summer 1942), and Comics Cavalcade #1 (December 1942). Marston’s run is notorious for themes of BDSM, which he intended to be instructional for young readers because he believed that sexual bondage—pleasurable submission to another’s loving authority—was central for conditioning good citizens. Marston died in 1947, but his writing continued to appear until Robert Kanigher officially replaced him on Wonder Woman #31 (September 1948). Peter continued on the series until his own death, with his last pencils and inks appearing in #97 (April 1958). With Superman and Batman, Wonder Woman is one of only three superhero characters in continuous publication since their pre-World War II premieres.
First Code Era, 1954-1971:
Lee & Kirby’s The Fantastic Four (1961-70).
Former Iger Studio employee Jack Kirby established himself as a major comics artist during World War II, most famously co-creating Captain American with Joe Simon in 1941 for Marvel’s predecessor, Timely. Kirby and Stan Lee’s nine-year run on The Fantastic Four, from #1 (November 1961) to #102 (September 1970), is likely the longest continuous collaboration on a single title in comics history. The first issue marks publisher Martin Goodman’s transition from the financially struggling Atlas Comics of the 50s to the soon market-leading Marvel of the 60s. The series redefined the superhero genre, while also retroactively exposing authorial and legal ambiguities that run to the core of the industry. Though Lee received sole writing credit, Kirby not only penciled but often produced storylines and drafted captions and dialogue independently, creating such characters as the Silver Surface without Lee’s prior input. Kirby died in 1994, and his estate filed for copyright termination for the characters that Kirby co-created. Marvel sued, arguing that he had been contracted on a work-for-hire basis. The Supreme Court was preparing to hear the case in 2014 when the recently Disney-purchased Marvel Entertainment settled out of court for an undisclosed sum. Had the Court ruled in favor of Kirby’ heirs, not only would Marvel’s blockbuster film franchise have been affected, but the precedent would have threatened all of Warner Brother’s DC copyrights too. Lee continued writing the series for a year following Kirby’s departure to DC in 1970, leaving the series after #115 (October 1971).
Lee & Ditko’s Spider-Man in Amazing Fantasy and The Amazing Spider-Man (1962- 66).
Although Kirby drew the first sketches of the character, Lee chose to collaborate with Steve Ditko, who had been working with Atlas/Marvel since 1955. Martin Goodman had little faith in the character, largely because teenagers were typically cast as sidekick not lead heroes, slotting the original eleven-page episode in the series-cancelled Amazing Fantasy #15 (August 1962). Increased sales however allowed Lee to reintroduce the character six months later in a new title, The Amazing Spider-Man #1 (March 1963), which has run continuously since. Ditko penciled and inked every issue through #38 (July 1966), after which he left Marvel for Charlton Comics. By the end of their collaboration, tensions between Lee and Ditko grew so high that the two reportedly no longer communicated directly, with Lee receiving Ditko’s completed artboards through a third party. Unlike Kirby, Ditko objected to Lee’s so-called Marvel Method in which pencillers worked without scripts and so assumed uncredited and uncompensated writing duties. Lee continued officially to write the series until #110 (July 1972).
Jim Steranko’s Strange Tales, Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., and Captain America (1967-69).
Jim Steranko applied for a position at Marvel in 1966 and, after auditioning by inking two unused pages of Jack Kirby’s original 1965 Nick Fury draft (Steranko 2013: 330-1), Stan Lee assigned him to “Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.” in the split-feature Strange Tales. Steranko inked Kirby’s twelve-page layouts for #151-153 and then wrote and produced all art from #154 (March 1967) to #168 and, when the series switched to twenty-page installments, #1-3 and #5 (October 1968) of its own title. After producing the covers for #6 and #7 (based on Salvador Dali), he created Captain America #110, #111, and #113 (May 1969), which featured crossover appearances by H.Y.D.R.A. and Nick Fury. Though Steranko’s total output was modest and, as evidenced by others’ fill-in work for Nick Fury #4 and Captain America #112, not always produced on deadline, his art was the most innovative since Will Eisner’s in the 1940s, overturning the layout norms set by Kirby during the preceding decade. Steranko however disliked the editorial changes Lee sometimes imposed. On #111, for example, a panel sequence was to read counter-clockwise, but Lee reordered the talk balloons so the images and dialogue contradict in the published version (Lee, Kirby & Steranko: 2014: 217, 280). As a result, Steranko produced only cover art for Marvel titles into the early seventies.
O’Neil & Adams’s Green Lantern Co-Starring Green Arrow (1970-72).
Neal Adams began his comics career illustrating newspaper strips in the early sixties, before starting at Warren and DC in 1967 and Marvel in 1969. Dennis O’Neil began as a writer at Marvel in 1966, before moving to Charlton and then DC where he famously reinterpreted Wonder Woman by eliminating the character’s powers and iconic costume in 1969. Like Steranko, Adams and O’Neil are often cited in the transition from the Silver to the Bronze Age. They first worked together on two issues of X-Men and two issues of Detective Comics published at the start of 1970, but they are remembered for their redesign of Green Lantern, which beginning with #76 (April 1970) included Green Arrow. Though Adams’ layouts are often as innovative as Steranko’s, his longest-lasting influence is the comparably photorealistic style he brought to the genre: “If superheroes existed, they’d look like I draw them” (Smith 2011). O’Neil brought a similar level of realism to the series by portraying Green Lantern outgrowing the naïvely simplistic understanding of good and evil that had defined superhero morality since the 1930s. After the title was cancelled with #89 (May 1972), the series finished as a back-up feature in four issues of Flash.
That, oddly, is the name of a poem. One by Alice Notley, from her 2006 collection Grave of Light. I’ve not read the book, but “The Ten Best Issues of Comic Books” was featured at the Poetry Foundation website, with a 44 second recording by the author. It’s as brief as it is improbable, just a list of titles and issue numbers, no explanations:
1. X-Men #141 & 142
2. Defenders #125
3. Phoenix: The Untold Story
4. What if. . .? #31
5. New Mutants #1
6. New Mutants #2
7. Micronauts #58
8. Marvel Universe #5
9. New Mutants #14
10. Secret Wars #1
I could debate the poem’s relative literary worth (moderate), or whether it should be considered a poem at all (most definitely), but I’d rather explicate the list itself, starting with dates and covers:
1. January & February 1981:
2. November 1983:
3. April 1984:
4. February 1982:
5. March 1983:
6. April 1983:
7. May 1984:
8. The 2009 publication date confused me, until I realized the content begins in 1982 for Iron Man, 1981 for Spider-Man, and 1987 for X-Men:
9. April 1984:
10. May 1984:
First thing you should notice: Ms. Notley and I went to high school together. How else to explain our nearly identical, late adolescent reading list? I attended high school from 1981 to 1984, the exact years covered by the list. And yet if you google Notley, you’ll see she was not born in 1966 like me, but 1945, putting her at 39 the year I graduated.
So, if we read the list as autobiography, why was the poet reading so much Marvel in her late thirties? And not just Marvel, but specifically X-Men. Nine of the ten issues feature team members. Six are written or co-written by Chris Claremont, the longest running writer for not just the X-Men, but for any comic book series ever. Even the New Defenders include three Old X-Men–plus one of Bill Sienkiewicz’s earliest painted covers. I would have thought that at least one of the three New Mutants would have featured Sienkiewicz too, but they’re all before he began drawing the series. Notley also departs twice from official Marvel continuity with an alternate version of Wolverine’s debut and Claremont and Byrne’s alternate version of the Dark Phoenix Saga in which Jean Gray survives. Secret Wars, by the way, is by far the worst comic on the list–and I say that having not read Micronauts, the true outlier here. I remember my brother had an issue or two of the series, tie-ins to the toy franchise. Sadly, marvel.wikia.com has no synopsis, but no X-Men are included on issue #58’s character list.
So what to make of this poem? It’s an aggressively obscure ode to the mostly early 80s X-Men, with a couple of turns inexplicable to even this professorial fanboy who was right there at the time. Though only an obsessive googler would know even that much. Is Notley a supervillain sending me on a diabolical mission to nowhere? On its surface, the poem is just that, its surface. An impenetrable list of references. No content, personal or otherwise. Its title suggests objectivity–favorite lists usually do–but the list itself is exceptionally subjective, the top ten of a very specific person who would have read comics at a very specific moment with a very specific reading bias. Yet the speaker (and I don’t think it’s an autobiographical version of Notley after all) gives us no hints about her criteria–and therefore no hints about herself either. We only get her pop culture skeleton. She remains invisible.
Or maybe intangible–like Kitty Pryde on that line-one cover of “Days of Future Past.” Apparently some timelines really can’t be saved.
Tags: Alice Notley