It’s a tough job to break down the single best comic book issues of all-time when you’ve been regularly reading comics for over three decades. I know there are some of you out there that have been reading for far longer. That’s a lot of monthly reading!
Still, when I give it some hard thought, I find the stories that moved me the most, for various reasons, quickly come to mind. Actually, they always seem to stay there.
They are the stories that I go back to and read regularly, again and again. They provide excitement and heartache. They elicit an inquisitiveness with life, and they stimulate an enhanced love for the art form.
For me, then, the following five comic books are my favourite single-issue comics of all time.
The Question #1
The first issue of the monthly series The Question blew my mind and has stayed with me since it’s first publication in 1987. The opening splash page is still engrained in my head: a faceless man wearing a fedora, wrapping his trench coat tightly around himself as he stands outside a dimly lit warehouse in the cold, nighttime rain. The narrator tells us that he, our protagonist, is about to die. The last panel of the last page of this comic makes good that promise.
The issue is audacious. And it’s brilliant. And it began my ongoing love affair with Charles Victor Szasz (the faceless hero known as the Question), Lady Shiva (his martial art compadre) and the works of series writer Denny O’Neil and series illustrator Denys Cowan.
Crime, heroics, martial artist, eastern philosophy, and questions of responsibility and identity were the hallmarks of The Question. I once wrote about the series – and this specific issue – in another article found here. Today, you can read the entire acclaimed series in six trade paperback compilations.
The Question is, hands down, one of the best comic book series ever produced and the first issue is one of the best single-issues I’ve ever read.
The Sandman #8
The Sandman, written by Neil Gaiman and drawn by a host of amazing artists, is one of my favorite comic book series’ of all time. Like many other fans, issue #8, illustrated by Mike Dringenberg, is one of the greatest in a long line of great issues.
It’s here, many pundits (including this one) state, that Gaiman truly found his voice for the series. And, for a fantasy tale that centered on the anthropomorphic personification of dreams, that voice was distinctly human. Hell, I wrote my final English Literature essay on the subject in high school. (I like to fancy I was ahead of my time.)
Here, in issue #8, Dream (the Sandman), wallows in the momentous predicament he was able to extricate himself from during the previous storyline. At his side, offering advice on life, as well as a shoulder, is his sister, Death. Not your regular, hooded and scythe-bearing Grim Reaper, Gaiman’s Death was a young Goth-girl who looked like she was directly swiped from the music clubs I was just starting to spend my weekend evenings enjoying.
It cemented my love of The Sandman – and, of course, this particular issue.
The Amazing Spider-Man #294
I can’t even remember why, but I asked for the six-issue “Kraven’s Last Hunt” (also known as “Fearful Symmetry”) series-within-a-series for Christmas, not long after it was originally published within the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man, Web of Spider-Man and Peter Parker The Spectacular Spider-Man in 1987. A cousin of mine found the comics (where, I don’t know), and wrapped them up for me in a small box. I spent my Christmas holidays reading one of the best, most moving Spider-Man stories ever created.
Of the six issues, it was the fifth chapter, found in Amazing Spider-Man #294, that blew me away – and it stays with me to this day. Kraven the Hunter was the main antagonist here. You could argue that this was indeed, his storyline and not Spidey’s. Under the direction of writer, J.M. Dematteis, and artist Mike Zeck, it was here that I discovered the mature themes that a simple superhero comic book could convey. Not to be a spoiler sport, but it’s Kraven’s suicide in this issue that rocked me into thinking that a comic could be whatever a writer or artist wanted it to be.
Here was the humanizing of a reprehensible villain. And a spotlight on the dedication, the responsibility, and the psychological and moral impediments that true heroes must overcome each and every day.
A beautiful story.
Crisis On Infinite Earths #8
Crisis on Infinite Earths is the grandfather of the modern, line-wide, universe-altering blockbuster story in the comic book publishing world. We’re used to them now. DC, Marvel (and later this year, Valiant) are “all in” with the once-a-year summer/fall sales boost these types of stories produce. Crisis, however, is the one by which all others are compared.
I won’t get into the crux of the series. You can read a little bit more about it here. But I will mention Crisis on Infinite Earths issue #8, a story that really begun with the Flash’s capture in Crisis #1.
Interestingly, readers had just put down the previous issue, which detailed the monumental and heroic death of Supergirl. I can’t emphasize enough how much the world (and patrons of comic book shops everywhere) were moved by that particular story. Writer Marv Wolfman and artist George Perez followed that gut punch with a smash to the heart.
The Flash, a favourite Silver-age superhero of many, trapped and tortured by the series’ villain, the Anti-Monitor for seven straight issues, dies alone – while saving the world. Here. the Flash is the epitome of what it means to be a hero: selfless sacrifice in the face of death with no regard for notoriety. His heartbreaking demise remains the most beautiful example of all that can be good in a man.
In comic books, death is now a way of selling more copies of books. With Crisis on Infinite Earths #8, it had important meaning and, sadly, probably signaled the end of a child-like adoration for the medium.
Definitely a special series and issue.
Perhaps the greatest single-issue comic book that I’ve ever read is the fourth issue of that series, a story that takes place on Mars and details the origin of Dr. Manhattan. You know, never mind comic books. This particular issue is one of the most amazing stories that I’ve read in any form of fiction.
That said, the story works best in the medium of sequential art, where Gibbons’ illustrative work, panel layouts and breakdowns serve to strengthen the written word of Moore. Although it may be sacrilege to show this story in any medium outside of the one it was originally intended, you can experience it here, as an “animated” comic book:
The play of words, their repetition, the inherent imagery, and the pace of the reading is wondrous poetry. There had never been anything like this in comic books before issue #4 of Watchmen, titled “Watchmaker”, and there hasn’t been anything quite like it since.
“All we ever see of stars are their old photographs” Moore wrote.
It’s absolutely beautiful. This artistic medium can be so, so beautiful.