20 BEST COMICS OF THE LAST 20 YEARS
Looking back at the finest comics of SFX’s lifetime.
A lot’s happened in the world of comics during SFX’s run: the rise, semi- collapse, then rise again of Image Comics; the arrival of further new publishers and universes, from Valiant to CrossGen; and endless character makeovers, retcons and universe reboots. We saw huge sales collapses for mainstream superhero comics even as, concurrently, the movies spinning out of them stampeded the box office. And then there was the ever- more- pervasive influence of Japanese manga, and the unstoppable rise of individual hits like The Walking Dead, often driven by the arrival of established film and television writers in the medium. A heady time, then, but what stands out? What comic books have really innovated and propelled the industry forward? And what should you look to pick up in graphic novel form? Let’s see, shall we…?
Running for the first five years of our life, Garth Ennis’s Preacher – a Tarantinoesque road trip undertaken by an unlikely Texas churchman after he’s accidentally gifted with divine power – was hilarious, shocking, and flirted with bad taste gleefully. Your standard creator- owned book these days, you might say, but Preacher showed more ambition and control than its many imitators, helped in no small way by artist Steve Dillon’s quietly sensational storytelling. It was always an HBO show on paper – and, finally, a Seth Rogen/ AMC series seems imminent.
Y: The Last Man
Y: The Last Man made its mark by eschewing the in- your- face approach of most adult- orientated science fiction comics, instead telling a quieter story of the end of the world, one where something ( a plague, perhaps?) has killed off everyone with a Y chromosome, leaving only women – and a lone male survivor, the frustrating Yorick Brown. Created by writer Brian K Vaughan and a female artist, the quietly potent Pia Guerra, it built a compelling, credible picture of how an allfemale society might struggle into a working model of sorts – and what happened next.
The idea of fairytale characters being forced to live in the real world isn’t unique – American TV has dished up both Grimm and Once Upon A Time since – but this longrunning Vertigo series by writer Bill Willingham and assorted artists ( notably Mark Buckingham) is the best realised of them all. The Big Bad Wolf, Snow White, Cinderella and more have been forced out of their European fable homelands by “the Adversary” ( eventually revealed to be Pinocchio creator Geppetto) and are now hiding out on New York’s Upper West Side.
League of Extraordinary Gentl emen
Initially this was just a “Justice League of Victorian England” – creator Alan Moore grabbing fantastical period literary characters ( notably Captain Nemo, Mr Hyde and the Invisible Man) and throwing them together in a dark, witty stew that referenced both the original works and all the familiar tropes of superhero teams. The first two stories – which pitted our heroes against Fu Manchu and the Martian invasion from The War Of The Worlds – are the most conventional, and remain many people’s favourites; all, though, are dense with background detail.
All - St ar Superman
Making Batman seem cool is one thing; doing the same with Superman – the first proper superhero, with his Dudley Do- Right personality and inventive but easily mocked supporting cast – is something else. But from 2005- 2008, writer Grant Morrison and artist Frank Quitely did just that, revelling in all that can be considered naive and silly about the Man of Steel. In a nearperfect series of done- in- one, not- incontinuity tales, they didn’t make Clark Kent fresh again so much as reminded us why he’d been the most compelling superhero all along.
These days, teams like the Avengers and JLA clash at the box office almost as often as they do on the spinner racks, but it wasn’t always like this – and much of what’s exciting about current superhero stories, on paper and on screen, can be placed firmly at the door of The Authority – Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch’s in- your- face reinvention of the form that added widescreen Michael Bay action, a willingness to acknowledge the consequences of actions, and vip, vigour and vim in helpings not seen since Jack Kirby.
This alternate version of The Avengers was the highlight of Marvel’s ultimately failed “Ultimate” universe – basically, the same stories told again, but with a sleek modern hipness – and the current Marvel movie universe owes almost as much to The Ultimates as it does the works of Stan and Jack, from the Samuel L Jacksonmodel Nick Fury to Hawkeye’s wisecrack- free scowling. Hot on the heels of the astounding Authority, and by two of its creators, this was clever, big budget superhero storytelling firing on every cylinder.
The big comics have a problem: their core characters are all at least 50 years old. So how can you make the medium appealing to a new generation? Well, perhaps with comics like Runaways – new schoolage heroes existing in the Marvel Universe. This tale of Buffy- esque Californian teens attempting to make up for the evil done by their parents, a gang of supervillains called the Pride, stuttered saleswise, but the critical acclaim was loud – for fans of youth teams from Teen Titans to Young Avengers, this was a key book.
Astonishing X- Men
The Joss Whedon Run In terms of ambition, wit, confidence and emotional thump- to- the- heart, Astonishing X- Men proved to be serial adventure storytelling at its absolute pinnacle, ramping up the thrills and mystery with every instalment. With writer Joss Whedon it’s not just the big action moments that matter, but the masterful feats of misdirection too, while the dialogue is to- die- for. Oh, and he totally gets that the X- Men is the story of a dysfunctional, put- upon family too – one where everyone counts, and gets their moment to shine.
The Jonathan Hickman Run There’s an argument that says the Fantastic Four is the most important comic of them all, but in recent years ( and certainly during SFX’s lifetime) it’s always existed in the shadows of the X- Men, Avengers, SpiderMan et al. That changed, however, with a smart, lengthy run that finished in 2012. It was by writer Jonathan Hickman ( plus artists like Steve Epting), and it saw the Human Torch dead ( although he was later resurrected), the costumes gone monochrome, and Reed and Sue’s brainy kids, Franklin and Valeria, stepping into the limelight.
The Grant Morrison Run Intense, strangely jerky and not always easy to follow this may be, but it’s also the most vital and surprising Batman has been in decades, the coolest storyline for the eternally coolest superhero. Morrison handles mainstream superhero books with the same confidence and ambition he does his more personal work – indeed, at times the added constrictions seem to benefit him – and his Batman run is full of great moments, unexpected references to near- forgotten adventures from Bruce Wayne’s past, balancing every baffling moment with genuine thrills.
Following Y: The Last Man, Brian K Vaughan dropped out of comics for a bit, then made a spectacular return with Saga, one of the most compelling space operas of recent years, a fairytaleesque epic of spaceships, alien worlds, gender politics and high adventure. We follow a mismatched, mixed- species couple on the run with their baby daughter while, behind them, an intergalactic war between magical and scientific factions rages. For some, Saga has become this generation’s Star Wars – and with the added benefit of robot- on- robot sex scenes too.
The Walking Dead
In this world of box set TV show bingeing, an extended indie project like The Walking Dead – by writer Robert Kirkman and, largely, artist Charlie Adlard – makes perfect sense. A black- and- white zombie story, you’d have expected it to be a modest cult hit, no more, but its mix of strong characterisation, genuinely surprising storytelling and horror violence has not only spawned a hit TV show, but saw the landmark 100th issue shift over 380,000 copies, making it the biggest- selling comic book of recent years.
Mark Millar’s incredible run as a movie ideas machine is quite unprecedented in modern comics, and the project that kicked down the wall for him – doubtless screaming some obscenity while breaking its ankle as it did so – was Kick- Ass, a “What if superheroes were real?” story that eclipses all similar efforts through wit, sharp twists, ultra- violence, and a commitment to the idea that nobody in this universe has superpowers. While relentlessly pottymouthed and morally dubious, it’s also undeniably charming – not to mention cinematic as hell.
American Vamp ire
This ongoing creatorowned Vertigo series from DC superstar Scott Snyder also contained – in its early issues – the first comic scripting from a certain Stephen King. It started with a bang, then, and has continued at similar pace, Snyder turning out to be exactly the superstar everyone had expected him to be. It tells of a new American mutation of the vampire species – extended of fang, laughing at sunlight, and feared as much by worried Eurovamps as by their human victims – as it colonises the 20th century.
Spring 1999 saw two Warren Ellis series appear through Wildstorm: the bombastic The Authority and Planetary, a quieter tale of troubled “superhero archaeologists” poking around in the corners of a wider comic book universe and uncovering its mysteries and dirty secrets. Our heroic trio are field agents for the mysterious Planetary organisation, and encounter thinly disguised versions of Tarzan and Superman, Godzilla and Thor, eventually coming into conflict with a rival group looking to use the strange phenomena they uncover for evil ends.
There was once a rich “funny animal” strain to American comics – think Carl Barks and Scrooge McDuck – and Jeff Smith’s black- and- white, independently published Bone, which ran for 55 sporadic issues until 2004, was a rare and welcome modern variation on the theme. Inspired by Barks and Walt Kelly’s Pogo, it played like a gag- heavy Lord Of The Rings, with three blob- like creatures at its core. Since collected into one massive, 1,300- page volume of sweeping fantasy and light- hearted comedy, Bone makes for a refreshing respite from angst- filled superheroes.
Jimmy Corrigan, The Sm artest Kid on Earth
Can comics be art? Look at most of them and you’d have to say no – or, at least, not at any level of ambition above your typical smartly crafted James Cameron movie. But then along comes something like Chris Ware’s semiautobiographical, often text- free, and always flashback and parallel- storyline heavy Jimmy Corrigan, telling what appear to be the fantasies of a sad, lonely middle- aged man alongside the 1893 World’s Fair adventures of his grandfather as a little boy. Swamped with awards, it rewards repeated readings like few other comics.
Alan Moore’s America’s Best Comics – a halfdozen somewhat interlocking monthly comic books, all written by Moore – was some feat of creation and endurance, but it was a while before it became clear that Promethea was the most ambitious and personal of them all. Beginning with a young girl gaining the powers of a magical Wonder Woman- like figure, and ending with joyful Apocalypse, it was visually ambitious, highly experimental, and increasingly rammed with lectures on feminism, the occult and the tarot that delighted and infuriated comic book audiences in equal measure.
There have been remarkably few true cyberpunk comics, but Transmetropolitan is one: the tale of a rogue, flawed Hunter S Thompsonesque gonzo journalist in a dystopian future, and his violent, self- destructive attempts to break people out of their ruts and, specifically, bring down two corrupt American presidents. Spider Jerusalem is a polarising character – creators Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson would have it no other way – and his rambling, biting adventures can seem tiresomely childish at times. Put together, though, these 60 issues are a remarkably sustained satire.
Agree with our choices? Vote on the list at gamesradar. com/ sfx- 20. Next issue: TV shows.
Boy, that’s one wellenforced No Smoking rule.
The Walking Dead are also often The Eating Dead… Professor X not pictured because he’s reading it mentally.
“And don’t set fire to my kitchen again!”
Kick- Ass – or is that ass- kicked?