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.

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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.

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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.

Comics, Movies

A Reaction of sorts

Ok, this is it. Nine years – counting the time we knew of Christopher Nolan about to direct a movie called Batman: Intimidation Game, taking over from Darren Aronofsky’s I-just-snorted-four-lines-of-coke re-imagining of Bruce Wayne as an orphan working for a car mechanic named Big Al. No clue of what to expect from a director whose only credentials were a movie that played backwards and a remake of a Norwegian thriller.

Intimidation Game sounded like it meant business. Begins sounded like a Nintendo product – kid-friendly, whimsical and not at all Batman-y, if you get what I mean. Until you saw it. When did you see it? Do you remember at all? Before I saw it for real, at the IMAX theater in Hyderabad, I was there that first Friday, at Rex at Bangalore. I am fairly sure other people I came to know later that year saw it there too, and the comic-karma part of me – the one that gets goosebumps at the cheesiest references and storytelling loop-backs – sort of wonders if all of us roared at the screen in unison when Bruce Wayne stood up in the cave under his mansion, even as the agents of childhood dread swooped around him. That moment when the two-note leitmotif throbbed and soared through the speakers in the theater and you could not stop grinning like an idiot because good God, you never thought things would look this good, Christopher Nolan, you magnificent man.

Digression: If there has ever been a case of my wanting to go back in time and apologize to a creator, it would be to Hans Zimmer, whose theme for Batman Begins I dismissed as being ‘not memorable enough’. I thought his two note theme was  pedestrian, that they could not stand up to the grandeur of Elfman’s Spider-Man, at that time my personal benchmark for memorable superhero scores. I was wrong. I was so, so wrong. Those two notes, coupled with the variations on the swirling sonic tapestries in the lower register – the rumbly whoosh of bat wings, and the slowly-building orchestral sweeps – showed me how less is more. Add the dissonant Joker variant of the same two notes in The Dark Knight, and the primal chants echoing throughout the third movie, and you have probably one of the finest examples of minimalism and compositional idiosyncrasy on display. And I won’t even get into the playfulness of the piano-based Catwoman theme. Deep breath. This soundtrack is destined to be on repeat in my playlist for quite some time.

And you should also go check out the official app. Yes, Zimmer has actually come up with an iPhone app for the soundtrack, where the music, on auto mode, shifts based on what you are doing. In-app purchases let you buy the complete music suite (far more than the 52-minute soundtrack release) for $4, and enhanced auto-modes (there is one that plays at night, and another at sunset). Your fingers brushing against the mic can create interesting Gotham-city effects in the music. It’s been a few hours since I downloaded the app, and I feel giddy with happiness.

End digression.

So, uh, you watched The Dark Knight Rises, right? And you hated it, or were underwhelmed, or loved the shit out of it. Does not matter, really. What matters is this:

For the first time in the history of this 73-year old character, we have a complete story, with beginning, middle and end. The life and times of Bruce Wayne as the singular vision of a creator (and his sidekicks, if you count Jonathan Nolan and David Goyer along with Nolan senior) No studio interference, no pandering to fans, no insulting the audience. With all respect to the likes of Frank Miller, Denny O’Neil/Neal Adams, Jeph Loeb/Tim Sale, Bill Finger/Jerry Robinson/Dick Sprang et al, you tried, gentlemen, and you got really close, but this man did it. He gave us a beginning, a middle and an end. He stole, borrowed from and was inspired by you, he built on your work in a different medium, took audacious decisions on his own, paid absolutely no attention to studio demands (the Riddler? Seriously?), did not throw us knowing winks and in-jokes (or as I call it, scraps and bones for the masses). These weren’t the comic-book movies that Marvel Studios churn out every summer, those disposable, interchangeable three-act popcorn fests.

These were Something Else. Something that gave us a city where street names do not end with surnames of artists and writers. The Mark of Zorro was replaced with Mefistofele, and instead of skin bleached by Axis Chemicals, we had knife-blades and make-up. We saw that third-degree gasoline burns are just as potent as acid thrown at one’s face. Analgesic mists instead of steroids pumped into one’s bloodstream, a complete lack of resurrection-inducing medicinal pits or wise-cracking youngsters. A butler with a military background rather than one in theater. Random characters that had more lines of dialogue than Bruce Wayne’s mother ever did, the poor woman. Concentrated writer-directorfu thrown at your faces, howdja like that, huh?

But of course, with great directorial vision comes great personal baggage as well – gobs and piles of unadulterated plot, movies that felt crammed with Things Happening everywhere, a trilogy that could probably have been unpacked  into a septalogy, or at least a quadrology. I would be lying if I said that all three movies do not exasperate me at times, with their convenient cause-and-effect scenarios and their over-reliance on technological paraphernalia. It would have been nice to not see the Batman buffeted about by agents beyond his control – because we all know that Bruce Wayne is a control freak who plans every contingency, who has all the escape routes mapped out. (and we are wrong. Wrong fucking universe. Repeat after me – this isn’t a comic book.) I am hardly a Nolan apologist, the man does not get everything right. But even with some atrocious trees in there, the woods are lovely, dark and deep.

The Dark Knight Rises is also the first work that manages to come out of the shadow of Frank Miller’s imposing epic. Rises makes use of its ending to tell us that Bruce Wayne’s story is done, that there is no comprehensible need for a man who has given his all to his city to return as a broken old man. (it’s somewhat fitting too that the acronym TDKR leaves people confused about what’s being talked about – the 1986 or the 2012 version) And let me tell you, this is monumental, you guys, this getting-out-of-Miller’s shadow thing.

(Oh shit, I think I am now getting into emo-mode when talking about the film. Let’s talk about old-timey boyhood stuff instead)

Knightfall, cheesy as it feels now, was the Batman storyline when I was in high school. The first time I found back issues in Guwahati stores was in 1996 or so, and I did not finish completing the run (yes, Knightquest and Knightsend included. Yes, single issues painstakingly bought from the AH Wheelers and Western Book Depots and various Book Fair sales over the years. This was before BitTorrent and Flipkart made your lives easy, young ones) until 2003 or so. One painful moment in 2002 was seeing Legends of the Dark Knight #63, the final issue of the Knightsend saga in nemesis Chun’s collection. I found it a year later at a book-store in Delhi, if memory serves correctly, but the sting of seeing that one elusive comic-book in a collection that is not mine still lingers. Knightfall is also emblematic of 90s DC, where the company was shaking up every major character right after Superman’s death. Batman was broken, Wonder Woman was replaced by Artemis, Green Lantern went nuts. It was fun just looking at the house ads at that time. And things did not end with Knightsend, no sir. There was Prodigal after that, where Dick Grayson became Batman. Troika, that was Bruce Wayne’s return, complete with Black collectors’ cover. And followed by an endless slew of editorial-mandated crossovers – Contagion, Legacy, Cataclysm, No Man’ Land.

Times and editorial divisions changed, all these nineties “events” were swept under the rug like embarrassing relics of a chromium-cover-infused past. Batman fans got onboard with Hush, along with recommended Bat-canon books, the perennial Millers, Loeb/Sale’s Long Halloween and Dark Victory. Funnily enough, Batman RIP and the newer Morrison stuff did the exact same thing, getting rid of Bruce Wayne and having Dick Grayson replace him in the regular comic-books, and obviously nobody bloody remembered that it had all been done before. Bane became a one-note character used for much sidekickeSuch is the nature of the comics business.

Bully for Nolan, for a masterful use of a little-remembered, much-misused character in a lucha mask and the concept of a dystopian Gotham City cut off from the rest of the world. Most of the No Man’s Land comic read like sci-fi to me, somewhat divorced from the tone of what we expect from a Batman story. The way the winter of the Gothamite’s discontent was portrayed in the film is completely in line with what has gone before, Cillian Murphy’s I-am-not-quite-all-here appearance being the icing on the cake.
“Life-affirming”, the person I talked about this movie for the first time after watching it, said. “It’s like Bruce finally understands that not having a fear of death is great. but having the will to live is far far more powerful. It’s such a great, counter-intuitive message to put in a Batman movie, man.” I know how it feels. The Dark Knight Rises made me want to go to work (my 3:40 AM show finished at around 6:22 AM) and finish all my goals for the next quarter in a single day. It made me want to go rewatch the first two movies – yes, I had not indulged myself, partly because I did not need to, I remembered every detail of the last two movies. I did watch them again over the weekend, and now I need to figure out how many times and when I should pop in next-door (one of two true IMAX theaters in LA, FYI) to take in the moments of the film again.

Last point: I loved the way Anne Hathaway is introduced. Was the simpering maid act in the beginning a back-handed reference to Michelle Pfeiffer’s clueless Selina Kyle in Batman Returns, before the cats resurrect her? The way she changes her expression as she realizes that she’s been found out – oh hell yeah. Oh, and the “cat-ears” are sunglasses. Well-played, production team!