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The GREATEST STORIES EVER!
By Michael Hutchison, with Rick Blackwell, Kurt Belcher and Chaim Mattis Keller

Before we even start off, I think I should make it clear that we're probably in over our heads in even trying to address this subject! First off, our staff is young enough that almost all Golden and Silver Age material is too old and expensive for us to have read, so we won't be able to include many older stories. Secondly, from an 80s- or 90s-centric standpoint, most of the "old stuff" can't hold a candle to works such as Watchmen or Kingdom Come. Although I'm sure there are a few readers out there who consider us too wet-behind-the-ears in not considering My Greatest Adventure #87 (the one where they fight the Nazi crab monster from space) in this article.

Additionally, there are dozens of comics which are noteworthy without being "great." Batman's first appearance in Detective #27 is noteworthy, but the story itself isn't anything to write home about. Ditto Action #1, which introduced Superman's origin but is all about some thugs cutting in on Clark Kent at a dance. Joker However, Batman #1, the first appearance of the Joker, is a very spooky story about the Joker mysteriously killing people without touching them. It's a collector's item, but it's also a good story.

I guess all I'm saying is, this column is limited to what we've read, so please be polite when you write in and tell us about the stories we missed!

All reviews are by Michael Hutchison, except where indicated. Louise Freeman Davis wrote such an exceptional review of the best Teen Titans stories that they filled an entire column; look for them in this month's "Classics Revisited."

"Crisis On Infinite Earths"

 One would almost think that this needs no explanation, but there are thirteen year-olds now reading comics who were still inside their mom's womb when Supergirl died! (Damn, I feel old!)
Crisis On Infinite Earths should be separated into two facets, really. On one hand, it was both the first and the greatest Crossover series of all time, with every character short of Captain Carrot making an appearance before the 12 issues were over.

On the other hand, it rewrote the well-established history of the DCU, leaving gaps and holes and inaccuracies that still creep up from time to time. And it opened the door for the rewrites of most of DC's major characters, which has been both a good thing (Superman and Wonder Woman being two of the better ones) and a bad thing (Hawkman, definitely), and I'm sure we all disagree on which is which in many cases.

The story itself is beyond reproach, with hundreds of heroes, villains and others all very much in character. Crisis is breathtakingly illustrated by George Perez, one of the few artists capable of visually conveying the sheer magnitude of the threat to Earth.

With the retroactive deletion of the original Supergirl…whose death was, at the time, a mind-shattering blow to the fans who thought all death in comics was either temporary or only happened to also-rans…the Crisis is remembered as the series which killed off the Flash, the very character who had ushered in the modern superhero era. What may not be remembered is that, at the time, poor Barry Allen's sacrifice was far overshadowed by that of Supergirl the previous month.

By the way, one of the best Crisis tie-in stories I've ever read isn't even a DC comic! Kurt Busiek's "astro City" had a story about an ordinary man who loses somebody important to him when she's retroactively deleted from history due to a major chronal event that no one remembers. While not referring to the Crisis on Infinite Earths by name, it's certainly a good parallel to Crisis and it displays a side of these major superhero conflagrations that we're never shown: their effect on Mr. Average Guy.

"Invasion!"

Crisis was the first major crossover series which had major ramifications on the DCU. It is unarguably the greatest and most influential, but it was rather hard to follow as its plot wandered this way and that. However, Invasion is my personal favorite, and it puts all other series since then to shame.
Dominators
Legends was pretty mediocre, memorable more for launching the Giffen League and the Suicide Squad than for its plot. Millenium was 13 years too early and combined a thrilling Manhunters menace with a poor "next generation of immortals" plotline. Armageddon: 2001 was a great idea for showing "alternate futures" in the annuals, but it really fell apart with its mess of a second issue. Zero Hour needs an entire column to explain why it was pretty bad. Final Night was interesting. Genesis featured our heroes gathered together to fight some vague concept that cannot be illustrated; it also contradicted Invasion! (as well as a lot of major theology, but that's another matter).

On top of the heap, we have the thrilling, enjoyable Invasion! This is the way all crossovers should be. Smart, action-packed, tightly-plotted…and most of all, a hell of a lot of FUN! Invasion! also gave us the metagene, the semi-plausible explanation as to why a guy in a nuclear explosion doesn't just die. (Of course, it doesn't explain why 1/7th of the population of Nagasaki didn't become superheroes after the bomb was dropped; sometimes I hate pointing out flawed premises.)

I should also point out that the thing was 80 pages, no ads, for a few bucks. Not bad for that much entertainment!

"Giffen's Legion of Super-Heroes"
Chaim Mattis Keller

   What happens to super-heroes when their careers are over? While there are many opportunities to explore this question in the present-day DC Universe, the theme was handled best in the setting of the DC Universe's far future.
At the end of the August 1989 issue of Legion of Super-Heroes, the Legionnaires and several former Legionnaires, all in costume, declared victory in the conflict known as the Magic Wars. Three months later, there was nary a costume to be seen. Bit by bit, we Legion readers learned what had happened in the intervening five years. We learned that the former Lightning Lad, Saturn Girl and Lightning Lass are running a plantation and helping to feed a starving universe. We learned that the former Cosmic Boy and Shrinking Violet were drafted into their planets' armies, and that both sacrificed much to do what they believed was right. We learned that the former Sun Boy was working for the government of Earth, blind to the fact that it was no longer as benevolent as it was in the most recent issues of the Legion comic, and that the former Polar Boy was rotting in prison for protesting that lack of benevolence. We learned that you can take the costume off the Legionnaire, but that doesn't make him or her any less a hero.
The first thirty-six issues of this new Legion of Super-Heroes magazine, written by Keith Giffen (and drawn by him, Al Gordon and Jason Pearson as well as numerous guest artists) painted a brilliant picture on the easel of the DC Universe's thirtieth century. In addition to seeing what the ex-Legionnaires were like in a cosmos that had moved beyond the Legion, it showed us what the entire cast of characters is like. What do super-villains do when the heroes they once fought are no longer active? Well, some rule worlds, some become hired guns…almost every character who had ever played a significant role in Legion history could be seen, and, to those familiar with the characters' history, their new appearances (with a few exceptions) were solidly rooted in their established personalities. The writers tantalized readers with glimpses of what had occurred in the missing five years, and figuring out the full story behind a change in a character or world became a fascinating guessing game. The writers' use of text pages and a nine-panel standard page appearance, both elements taken from the Watchmen series, gave the reader more story for his or her comics dollar than any other book being published at the time. The stories were peppered with references to obscure people, places and events in Legion history that had old-time Legion fans constantly checking their back-issue collection and had new readers (including this writer) frantically scrambling to assemble one. And by the thirty-sixth issue, the Legion, despite the difference in character since its prior incarnation, held its head up high in triumph over the alien Dominators who had subtly conquered Earth. Their spirit lived on.
To be sure, that period of Legion history had its faults. A forced retcon in the fourth and fifth issue caused a lot of confusion that may very well have kept readership low. However, the creators managed to make lemonade out of that lemon and they brought into existence Laurel Gand, who has been one of the most popular Legionnaires since her introduction. There were several controversial stories which many readers felt violated an established character's history, but even then, those stories managed to be mature and thought provoking. And the art was often muddy, although it did accurately set the tone for the series. Despite these problems, though, I consider the first thirty-six issues of the 1989 Legion of Super-Heroes series to be one of the Greatest DC Stories of All Time.

Dark Knight

"The Dark Knight"

 I know, everyone calls it "The Dark Knight Returns" now…but before 1986, Batman was usually referred to as "the Dark Knight Detective", hence the originality of the title.

This book is certainly dated, as Frank Miller couldn't resist commenting on such mid-1980s topics as the Soviet Union and Ronald Reagan. Fortunately, David Letterman and Dr. Ruth Westheimer are still alive and well. (Well, not in the book, but in real life!)

This is one of the few books that I don't feel needs a big review, since any comic fan worth his salt has read it. All I can say is, this is one of the few books I can read over and over and over again. (But only the graphic novel. I wouldn't touch my originals. And luck of luck, my subscription sent me TWO copies of issues one and two!)

Tied in with this story is Miller's in-continuity revisions to Batman's origins with "Batman: Year One", which was not only a great story but also the most imitated title in DC history.


"Watchmen"
Kurt Belcher

If you're reading this and have no idea what Watchmen is, or you have heard of it and offer some pale excuse like 'I've never had time to read it!', then e-mail me so I can come over to your house and slap you.

I first read Watchmen just a few years ago, and just to show that there are no excuses, I found my copy in a bargain bookstore for a measly couple of bucks. Like you poor fellows addressed above, I was only dimly aware of the book, and had only heard cryptic comments on how it had revolutionized comics, and regretted to hear that it had led to the dark, grim and gritty phase that the medium is only now passing like a painful kidney stone. Like those fools, I didn't know just how really true those comments were until I experienced the source behind them for myself.

Rather than give you boring plot exposition that could keep us here well into the next millennium, I'll focus on the purpose of the article, 'The Greatest DC Stories Ever Told'. When it comes to writing an article about Watchmen, it's much harder to decide what not to talk about. We could probably explore the intricacies of an ongoing title like, say, Witchblade, on one page but to say everything there would be to say about Watchmen would take a work even longer than the mini-series itself. Much, much longer. Besides, those of you who've read it know what I'm talking about, and those of you who don't would only have the experience of reading the book fresh ruined for you something which, in my opinion, is more precious than gold.

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons structured the book as a finite, self-contained exploration of a world where masked heroes are common, and show us the mores and attitudes that would be present in a world like that, both for the common man and the heroes themselves. All questions raised in the story will be answered by the time the story's over. By the end, all of the characters will have made some sort of realization about their lives, their purposes and the world around them. Some of them don't survive the journey, others feel no impact whatsoever.

Alan Moore's use of parallel storytelling, with flashbacks falling alongside the action of the present, or actions in two different locales taking place together, not to mention the connections between the events, and how their impacts will eventually be felt. Moore fully fleshes out the characters in his story, and explores every aspect of those characters, from the impotence of the mild-mannered Nite Owl, to the mother-daughter conflict between the younger and older Silk Spectres, and the vicious child murder that drove Rorschach over the edge.

Also since that trip and that first reading, I've been mystified.

Watchmen is the work that opened the doors for many of the innovative comics we have today, and led to what acceptance comics have as an art form today. Despite that, it has never really been as celebrated and given the due that other great comics have gotten in its stead. I realize Sandman was a masterpiece, and a groundbreaking book, but would it have happened had it not been for Watchmen? I doubt it. Batman: The Last Halloween was one of the ultimate Batman stories, but if not for the innovation in the form of a mini-series that was Watchmen, someone probably would've said, "Sorry, Jeph, the idea's too wild."

Still, forget about the acceptance from a comics-reading audience, what about other mediums? How can this book be this good and not be considered a classic of literature? Why isn't Watchmen hanging in an art gallery somewhere?

Those are all good questions, questions I can't answer. Maybe someday teachers at big-name schools and elsewhere will look back and say, "Boy, 'Slaughter-House Five', 'Stranger in a Strange Land', 'Watchmen' did the Twentieth Century have some great pieces of literature, or what?" I doubt it'll ever happen, and I'll doubt I'll ever understand why.

But we can dream, can't we? Watchmen
Here's a little something some of you might not know. Watchmen didn't appear as Alan Moore originally wrote it. Watchmen was originally written to include characters today known affectionately as 'the Charltons'. These are characters that were originally created and published under the Charlton Comics company, which later became defunct and was bought out by DC, characters and all.

Those characters included Captain Atom, both Blue Beetles, Thunderbolt, Peacemaker, Nightshade, the Question, and a host of others. Watchmen was written to explore the characters mentioned above, just before the characters were integrated with the characters that DC had made famous. To make a long story short, DC had decided to use the characters in their own universe, and ruled against Moore using them in his story. Therefore, Moore created his own characters to replace the characters he had wanted to work with.

    Here's the rundown:
  • Dr. Manhattan - Captain Atom
  • Nite Owl - Blue Beetle
  • Ozymandias - Thunderbolt
  • Comedian - Peacemaker
  • Silk Spectre - Nightshade
  • Rorschach - The Question

Today, if Moore had been allowed to use the Charlton characters, at least Watchmen would've been remembered, if nothing else, as the first 'Elseworlds.'


"The Killing Joke"
Killing Joke

 Another brilliant story that's even more effective with a little historical perspective! The 1970s had featured a very tame "Joker" series, watering down the character to a sad, slightly silly villain. His appearances were getting more and more pathetic, as he really doesn't have any powers and that smiley-gas was getting old. I know that calling the character a "laughingstock" isn't really effective, given his clownish appearance, but he'd lost that deadly edge. "The Dark Knight" helped to make the future Joker a menace…now it was Alan Moore's turn to make the "real" Joker a villain to reckon with.
"The Killing Joke" was a fascinating exploration of the Joker's possible past. It shows how he became "The Red Hood", his confrontation with the Batman, and the moment that drove him into madness. It also features a marvelous moment where Batman makes a last-ditch attempt to reach out to the Joker and appeal to his sanity.
But the hell with that. We know why this story will always be remembered: the moment Joker shot Barbara Gordon through the guts. Many decried it as exploitative, but I think it's brilliant. The Joker doesn't need any powers or abilities; with just a gun and a camera, the Joker was once again in the top spot of Batman's enemies. He would always be remembered as the man who shot and crippled Batgirl, and would never be taken for a joke again!

Makes his taking a crowbar to Robin rather superfluous, doesn't it?

Manhunter
"Manhunter"
Rick Blackwell

 The year is 1973. The comic is Detective # 443. The main character is the Batman. The story is called Deathmask written by the late Archie Goodwin and pencilled and inked by Jim Aparo. This duo does a very nice job. However what I want to talk about is the 8 page back-up story also written by Archie Goodwin. This one's pencilled and inked by Walt Simonson, long before he became a legend.
Detective 437

Inspired by Jack Kirby and Paul Simon's Manhunter, this Manhunter is Paul Kirk and as the first thing you read in this saga states "He stalks the most dangerous game".

Building on what Simon and Kirby started, Simonson and Goodwin establish an elaborate background for Paul Kirk. Now he is both hunter and the hunted…pursued by one of those dark and little-known agencies called the Council, which he betrayed. He is armed with a healing factor (think fountain of youth) and pursued by his brothers, all clones. This tale is more James Bond-ish, despite the brightly colored (although sleeker) ninja garb, of red, white and Blue and a touch of gold.
Manhunter 1

This hero(?) carries a gun. Interpol's red-haired Christine St. Clair pursues him from one end of the globe to the other. She starts off her hunt in the first of the 7 issues, The Himalayan Incident in Katmandu, in which she is paying a Man named Haj for information. Haj tells her tale that sets the fast pace and characterization that will drive this series to it's Ultimate conclusion in Gotterdammerung. In just 8 pages, Mr. Goodwin is able to show you just how clever Paul Kirk is and still leave you mystified. Mr. Simonson does more in 8 pages than most artists do in a book. . As the series progresses he does multi-paneled pages that will leave your jaw dropped.

Not to spoil any thing for anyone but let's say the final chapter is awesome! With its 20-page conclusion, the appearance of the Batman, etc., it leaves you begging for more.

In 1974, the final chapter, Gotterdamerung, won The Academy of Comic books award for best story.

In 1984 DC collected all 7 issue into a one shot simply called Manhunter which sold for $2.50. This is one of the rare masterpieces you can still find at less than cover price.

"Justice League: Breakdowns"

   Actually, I'd recommend Giffen's entire Justice League run…every annual, every tie-in, Justice League Europe, all of it…but Breakdowns was a heck of a lot of fun. It's a bit of a meandering plot, but from the moment Guy brutally beats up Blue Beetle, all the way to the wonderful moment that the second-rate character Silver Sorceress sacrifices her life to stop Dreamslayer, "Breakdowns" was a delight (and is sorely overlooked as a series worth turning into a Trade Paperback).

And I just love the fact that the title is a pun on Giffen's job (providing the plot and breakdowns).

"Justice League Quarterly #10"

   Not only does Mark Waid turn in a great story about Booster Gold seeking revenge-before-the-fact on the mob family whose descendents ruined his life…but he turns in a classic little Seinfeld-ish story called "When Titans Date." It's just one of my favorites that I had to include. GO BUY IT!

"The Golden Age"
Rick Blackwell
Golden Age 1
   Think Comics are for kids? Especially those long underwear-wearing types? Well you're half-right. The other half is more mature themed stories wrapped up in that 4 color look some of us look back upon with fond memories. Case in point: The 4-issue prestige Elsewhere saga called THE GOLDEN AGE. Written James (Starman) Robinson and beautifully pencilled and inked by Paul (Leave it to Chance, X-Men) Smith and atmospherically colored by Richard Ory.

The Golden Age takes you back to a time we look back upon as a simpler time. The early 40's and using the title of the first chapter it begins " With The world at peace". Paul Smith and Richard Ory are brilliant here as they open this first part of the story in beautiful mono-colored hues echoing the films of the day…gorgeous Black and white. A home front kept clean by brightly colored men. That is until August 6, 1945…THE BOMB. The end of the war and the beginning of the end of the GOLDEN AGE.
Golden Age 2

The Justice Society of America members are now older, not necessarily wiser and life hasn't been kind to all our old friends. In a way you could say it was the worst of times. In fact that's about all you could say.

Yes the world no longer at war is honoring its heroes. For one minor (super) hero Tex Thompson a.k.a. Mr America it is a glorious homecoming. Parades abound. Under orders from President Roosevelt Thompson poses as an S.S. officer in Germany while striking from within as The Americommando.

Without giving too much away for those who have yet to read this saga. Let's say all is not what it seems. James Robinson makes us peek beneath the mask of these old friends and find out they're more than one-dimensional. Paul Smith makes it all come to life. Yes, our heroes come together, but not like in any adventure from their early days. Yes there is a great villain revealed. Yes there are some happy endings and some not so happy.
In the end beyond being a good read that answers, "Whatever happened to?" The Golden Age dares ask (as Howard Chaykin put it): "Are we a country still trying to convince itself it was a land of innocent dreams?"

Golden Age 3

Detective #572: "The Doomsday Book"

   Detective Comics' 50th Anniversary issue is a terrific read. I also like the fact that someone remembered that Batman isn't the only character in Detective Comics! Mike W. Barr pulls together a far-reaching plot as a descendent of Dr. Moriarty, the enemy of the world's first true detective, plots to kill the Queen of England. Batman and Robin are there to stop him, of course…but so are Slam Bradley (the star of Detective Comics #1), Elongated Man (the very first character Barr wrote, back in 'tec #444)…and a surprise appearance by a very old detective!

"The Man of Steel"
Man of Steel
   This one's debatable. Many consider John Byrne a spawn of evil for undoing the decades of Golden Age and Silver Age stories. Me, I think there was more good than harm done by this rewrite of Superman's history. The Kents are alive, there aren't hundreds of other Kryptonians wandering around, Kryptonite is beyond priceless (and there's only one kind), his relationship with Batman is tenuous, his powers have reasonable limits…and both Lois Lane and Lana Lang are much more interesting than they were before.

Of course, a lot of the discarded chaff has been brought back at the rate of a comic a week over the last dozen years…and I still think it was reckless of Byrne to remove Superman from JLA history…but the six comics that started it all are rich and beautiful. No matter what's happened in his books since, the "Man of Steel" gave Superman more depth than he'd had before.

Suicide Squad #10 "Up Against the Wall"

   Batman hears of a government agency which is putting criminals out on the streets and he decides to investigate. A moody, atmospheric, well-paced tale that is representative of the high quality found in the entire run of Suicide Squad. (Once again, I'm tempted to run the whole series as "The Greatest"!)

Kingdom Come

"Kingdom Come"

Does anything need to be said about this one?

We think not.
Enjoy the nice artwork
by Bob Riley!


All characters are ™ DC Comics

This column is © 1998 by Michael Hutchison and the authors listed above.

All artwork is © 1998 by their respective artists.



All scanned artwork is ™ and © DC Comics
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