Books, Comics

The Top Ten* Superhero** Comics*** of All Time****

*       Alan Moore Homage, and a possible 11th title in this list.
**     Limited to the two mainstream companies that have copyrighted the word.
***  Which have been collected into self-contained collections referred to, but not necessarily all the time, as graphic novels.
***  Temporally located around the turn of the 20th century.

Raja Sen wanted me to list my top 10 superhero comics. I looked up a list I had done a few years ago for Men’s World magazine, and decided that nothing in it deserved to change, except for some of the accompanying text.


Sleeper A nifty mash-up of noir intrigue and super-villainy, Sleeper is Ed Brubaker and Sean Philips’ story of a covert operative within the ranks of a criminal organization, whose dual life takes its toll on his moral judgement, his interpretation of right or wrong becoming skewed as he is manipulated as a pawn between the warring organization and the government. Crime fiction, except super powers are involved.This is one of the rare superhero graphic novels that blend costumed characters with gritty street-level realism and manages to make the combination work without dissolving into excessive grimness or parody.

The Brubaker/Philips team have worked on numerous collaborations, straight-up crime fiction or mash-ups with other genres – check out FataleCriminal and the new ongoing Fade-out.

hitmanbatman1 hitmanbatman2

Hitman – For a writer who claims to hate superheroes, Garth Ennis sure knows how to write a classic superhero title. Hitman, featuring a happy-go-lucky assassin who obtains telepathic powers and uses them to kill supervillains is a complete revelation. This overlooked gem of a comic, within a span of sixty chapters, transformed itself from an irreverent laugh riot poking fun at mainstream icons like Batman and Green Lantern into a blood-soaked tale of friendship and sacrifice.

This series also features Dogwelder, possibly the greatest superhero ever created on any medium.

Dogwelder 1



Ultimates – Remember the first time Samuel L Jackson made an appearance at the end of Iron Man? That scene would never have happened without The Ultimates. Hell, nearly every bit of characterization of the characters in the Marvel movies was based on this series, a modern-day reworking of the popular Marvel supergroup The Avengers. Scottish writer Mark Millar interpreted the superhero phenomenon as a military project led by the United States army, and gave rise to a number of startling variations of familiar characters – Captain America as a duty-bound soldier trapped in the idealism of the ’40s, Giant Man as a wife-beater, Thor and his thunder-god ramblings as a sign of possible insanity, and Hulk as a sex-crazed cannibal. It could have been cheap schlock, but two things – Bryan Hitch’s magnificent cinematic artwork and Millar’s liberal use of the contemporary political climate elevates Ultimates from a Michael Bay ripoff to a tome worth of the ages.

There was a sequel (pretty good!), another (really bad!) and a bunch of other sequels (oh good lord!). They had creative names such as Ultimate Comics: The Ultimates, All-New Ultimates, and Avengers vs New Ultimates. Whether you choose to read them is entirely up to you, but please don’t expect me to sympathize.


Marvels/Kingdome Come The reason these two titles are tied is not because they both feature the painted art of Alex Ross. It’s because each graphic novel, one from Marvel, the other from DC, uses Ross’s art to imbue their respective universes with an amount of gravitas. While Busiek’s script for Marvels dealt with key events in the lives of the superheroes through the eyes of a photojournalist, Mark Waid wrote of an alternate future where heroism was all but dead, and it would take earth’s retired superheroes to avert the destruction of all humanity. Marvels and Kingdom Come both celebrate the iconic nature of superheroes, and you cannot help but mention both of them in the same breath.

Sometimes I get the feeling that these two series are exercises in fan-service for readers who grew up in the 60s and 70s. Other times, I marvel at the fact that long before the movie industry got their act together, Alex Ross’s art was the closest you got to seeing these characters as real people.

Starman  What made James Robinson and Tony Harris’s Starman so special was the way it honored the long and checkered heritage of the character ( there had been five versions of Starman over 5 decades), and at the same time showed the evolution of a novice underdog into someone worthy of taking up the family mantle. Over the course of 81 chapters, Jack Knight – the son of the original Starman of the 1940s. A hero who refuses to wear a costume because he finds super-heroics at odds with his day job, a regular joe who finds friendship in the most unlikely places and a man who travels across the universe (and through time) for his love.

According to the contract between DC and James Robinson, the character of Jack Knight cannot be used in any subsequent stories without Robinson’s explicit permission. This is one of the rare instances when a comic company’s trademarked character is reserved for exclusive use for a writer.


All Star Superman – They said Superman was boring and unhip, too noble to be taken seriously. It took Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s epic saga to elevate this age-old superhero to the glory he rightfully deserves. All-Star Superman embraces the silly Silver Age elements of the Superman mythos – the bumbling secret identity, the curious girlfriend, the evil nemesis –  and transforms them into a poignant, engaging saga of a god-like being who sees the potential in humanity and serves as an inspiration to everyone. This twelve-part series is possibly the Superman story ever written – and drawn.

Artist Frank Quitely’s pencilled work was directly used to print the comic, without a traditional inker. The digital coloring was done by Jamie Grant under specific instructions from Quitely, which gave the comic a distinctive glow and highlighted every bit of the artist’s detailed art.


Daredevil: Born Again  When Frank Miller, once the regular penciller for Daredevil, was invited back to work for Marvel in 1986, he crafted an elegant story of the crimefighter’s greatest defeat, and his greatest triumph. Drawn by artist David Mazzuchhelli in a sleek, minimalist style, ‘Born Again’ is a story that borrows equally from American crime fiction and Christian theology. It pits Daredevil in a no-holds-barred struggle against the Kingpin, a crime lord and arch-nemesis who discovers his secret identity and decides to destroy his reputation and his life.

Miller and Mazzuchhelli would team up again the same year for Batman: Year One, a look at Batman’s early career. Director Christopher Nolan borrowed a number of elements from Year One for his movie, Batman Begins.

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns This was Batman’s finest hour. Donning his costume after 30 years of retirement, the Dark Knight fights mutant juvenile delinquents, has a final showdown with his archnemesis the Joker, and goes up against the US government by fighting mano-a-mano with Superman. Frank Miller and Klaus Janson’s story of an aged superhero’s comeback merged the cynicism of the Reagan administration and the paranoia of the Cold War with a twisted, media-centric worldview. It is one of the definitive Batman stories, an instant classic that has just gotten better and better with time, and has influenced – for good or for bad – every single Batman story that came after it.

Miller did a sequel to Dark Knight Returns in 2001, but a lot of story elements were changed post-9/11. The series was not so well-received because of its computer-generated coloring and idiosyncratic storytelling.

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Miracleman What would it really be like if superpowered beings really walked the earth – the ways in which humanity might change, if society would ever be the same again. Alan Moore’s Miracleman answers these questions, and how! This sixteen-chapter storyline is a deconstruction of every superhuman cliche that has ever been worked into the page of a comic. By the end of his run, after you have had your brain seared by the concepts (including the harrowing visuals of destruction that follow an epic battle between Miracleman and his erstwhile protege), you will never look at another superhero comic the same way again.

The reason why Miracleman is not on many people’s radar is because it used to be out of print for nearly a decade, following legal issues about ownership of the character’s rights. Marvel comics are now reprinting the entire Moore and Gaiman run, bringing this classic series to a whole new generation.


Watchmen And then there’s this, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ towering achievement – a twelve-chapter Last Word on the very idea of the superhero, a story set in an alternate 1980s where Nixon still presides over the USA, and masked vigilantes walk the streets. A work so precisely structured that even today, two decades after its publication, there is still no other work in the medium that can challenge its presence on the top of any such list. All that is to be said about this series has been covered already – and if you still haven’t read it, well, shame on you.

And then there’s Before Watchmen, a series of ruthless moneygrabbing corporate comics terrible storytelling choices absolutely brain-damaged prequels that DC published 2 years ago, which were meant to convince the publishing industry that the franchise is bigger than a work of art. Needless to say, lessons were learnt and hasty retreats were beaten. Whew.


Morrison/Quitely’s All-Star Superman

(A modified version of this was originally published in Rolling Stone India, November 2008.)

All Star Superman

It ‘s interesting (and a little surprising) to note that flagship characters like Superman or Mickey Mouse, both of whom have been around for the greater part of a century, have very little in terms of memorable stories starring them. More so in case of Superman, whose universal recognizance is equated with one-dimensionality, whose corporate image is so strong that just last month, a Superman comic whose cover showed Clark Kent sharing a beer with his father was pulped and reprinted, the label on the bottle on the new cover saying “soda pop” instead. There’s also the problem of the storytelling engine associated with the character – Spider-man has a low bank account and woman problems, just like the rest of us; Batman is dark and psychologically complex enough to appeal to the insecurities of the valium generation, but Superman – a god-like being whose sympathies lie with the human race, whose limitless powers are channeled for the betterment of mankind – pisses off our cynical selves. We just cannot wrap our minds around the concept. Superman is boring. Superman is a square.

Grant Morrison does not agree. A Scottish writer known for his 90s’ revamp of half-forgotten Silver Age DC characters like Animal Man and Doom Patrol, Morrison took up the reins of coming up with a distilled version of the Superman character. Morrison’s vision of Superman is one that is unencumbered by all these years of continuity baggage. He expects the reader to be onboard from the get-go – succinctly displayed by his recounting of the familiar origin in four phrases, on four panels, on one page. Morrison’s Superman was in no way removed from the iconic character we know. Nothing is different, yet everything is new. These twelve issues of All-Star Superman are, without doubt, the greatest Superman story ever written.

An origin in four panels.

Dying Planet. Desperate Scientists. Last Hope. Kindly Couple.

The first thing that hits you when you read All-Star Superman (and I recommend you do so in a single sitting, for optimal effect) is the chutzpah of the writer. The overall arc, made up of single and double-issue stories, revolves around the idea of Superman’s own mortality. In the first few pages, Superman discovers that he is dying, because of a trap laid down by his arch enemy Lex Luthor. Before his death, he has to conclude his earthly affairs and, according to a messenger from the future, must accomplish twelve feats that will save multiple universes. As the story progresses, we travel galaxies, dimensions and time-lines with the Man of Steel, as he battles his own fate and finally surrenders to it. The last few issues proceed at a break-neck pace (and yet, with moments of quiet calm) to an ending that reflects grief, awe and hope.

In an industry primarily known for recycling themes, Morrison spews out fresh, hallucinatory ideas in every other page. Throw-away lines speak of voluminous histories – characters like the Subterranausauri, led by Dino-Czar Tyrannko, the Ultra-Sphinx, Zibarro, Luthor’s assistant Nasthalthia ( “call me Nasty!”), super-scientist Leo Quintum could stand on their own and provide fodder for years and years of super-stories.  While these new additions to the Super-stable, along with the familiar members of the cast – Jimmy Olsen and his signal watch, Lois Lane, Perry White, the Kents, the Phantom Zone, the Bottle City of Kandor, Krypto the Super Dog – have integral parts to play in Morrison’s epic, the storyline is still about Superman. The coolest thing about the writer is the way he gets the Man of Steel like no one else before him has. (Consider a  line like this – “As she spoke, I watched 35000 dead skin cells scattering like confetti…like promises…like the dust of dead stars”.)

 It is to artist Frank Quitely’s credit that he takes all of Morrison’s ideas and brings them to life. Quitely, Morrison’s long-time collaborator weaves the writer’s threads into a shining tapestry of lines and colors; his Superman is lazy-eyed and self-assured, godly and yet human. His traditional panels – a far cry from his anti-geometric experiments evident in WE3 and Flex Mentallo, gives the story a quiet dignity, just as his full-page splashes punctuate its most unforgettable moments. A teenage Superman flying to save his father is just as hard to forget as the image of the Man of Steel kissing Lois on the moon. Jamie Grant’s colours over Quitely’s unique pencils permeate the book with a distinct glow, one that makes it stand out from the profusion of muddily-colored superhero books on sale nowadays.

“Not my pa”

A kiss on the moon

Not that the book does not have its share of negatives. For as good a writer Morrison is, he is also too clever sometimes, deliberately opting for confusing panel transitions and obfuscated storytelling to bombard us with his postmodern interpretation of the Bizarro world – where we encounter Zibarro, the Bizarro Bizarro. (2013 update: I have warmed to the Bizarro storyline since I read it last) I also have a problem with portraying Lex Luthor as a self-important, deluded buffoon; in seeking to inject his stories with the flaky trippiness of stories from the 50s, Morrison undoes the depth the character has been imbued with over the years. But that’s just my inner nerd whinery, never mind.

There have been some good Superman stories over the years, of course. But for one or two meaningful stories, the monthly comics are rife with hackery, wherein writers tried to come up with gimmicks to appeal to fans – Superman died, was resurrected, got a new hairstyle, got married, got a new costume with electrical powers, had multiple reboots of his origin. Of course, none of it really stuck. All-Star Superman, on the other hand, is everything the monthly Superman series is not, and should have been. It is a moving story of a hero that has withstood half a century of cultural ripples. A hero who is not one of us, but one we can aspire to be.