20 BEST COMICS OF THE LAST 20 YEARS

Look­ing back at the finest comics of SFX’s life­time.

SFX: The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Magazine - - Contents -

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…?

Preacher

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.

Fa­bles

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.

The Author­ity

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.

The Ul­ti­mates

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.

Runaways

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.

Fan­tas­tic Four

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.

bat­man

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.

Saga

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.

Kick- Ass

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.

Plan­e­tary

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.

Bone

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.

Promethea

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.

Trans­metropoli­tan

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?

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