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illustration (c) Josť Villarrubia 2000 digital

illustration (c) Josť Villarrubia 2000
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Art by Chip Zdarsky. Copyright 2002.

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TOPS OF THE POPS

Welcome to a brand new monthly column wherein our opinionated reviewers get even more opinionated! Tops of the Pops is an opportunity for both PI reviewers and readers to expound upon the greatest comics ever created. Simply put, each Tops column is a single contributor's vain, narcissistic, blue-eyed list of top 10, all-time, personal favorite comic storylines or single issues.

Some of the comics mentioned below are easily attainable in trade paperback form; some are uncollected and more difficult to get. But in each case, we've made suggestions about where even the most rare/oblique issues can be found. And to inaugurate this first column and make some of the issues even easier to find...

CONTEST CONTEST CONTEST

...we're running a little contest. Simply submit your own personal top 10 list to the PopImage Forum. Two winners will be picked at random to receive the entire DEFENDERS run of "The Headman Saga" (never collected in any form) as well as some other hard-to-find goodies from the list below.

TOPS OF THE POPS:
Reviews Editor Alex Bernstein's Top 10 Picks

DEFENDERS VOL. 1 #31-40, ANNUAL #1
"The Headmen Saga"
Writer: Steve Gerber
Artist: Sal Buscema
Inker: Klaus Jansen and others
Marvel Comics
1975

Okay, so they brought the comic back and everyone's wondering: Nighthawk? Hellcat? Valkyrie? What's this about?! Well, let me tell you...before Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, and the entire "British Invasion", there was American Steve Gerber and Marvel's "B"-line of comics during the '70's. These were experimental books, not watched so closely by Stan Lee, where artists and writers were left to create whatever the hell they felt like creating: e.g. TOMB OF DRACULA, WEREWOLF BY NIGHT, WARLOCK (see below), HOWARD THE DUCK, and, especially, THE DEFENDERS. Gerber's DEFENDERS run was solid from the beginning, but with issue #31 he started his massive "Headmen" storyline mixing heavy satire, social observation, slapstick, science fiction, psychology, soap opera, whacked-out imagery, and good-old-fashioned superheroics into a heady, orgiastic brew. Whether Gerber had a master plan or made it up by the seat of his pants, who knows, but this kind of storytelling wasn't seen again in comics until WATCHMEN.

Some highlights: The Headmen (villains with physical deformities/superpowers involving their heads) capture Nighthawk and literally transplant his brain into one of their own, the mystic Chandu. Valkyrie goes on a quest for her true identity and winds up in a women's prison. Dr. Strange (never better in a leadership role) faces off against Nebulon the Celestial Man and hordes of malevolent clowns appearing everywhere all over the country. A mysterious Elf has a gun. Hunters kill Bambi. Luke Cage joins the team. And on and on. Stunningly, Gerber ties all these disparate ideas into a coherent, emotional narrative. By the time it ends, you actually want to join the team. Excuse me, the non-team. An underrated peak for Marvel in the early '70's.

"The Headmen Saga" is not currently available in any trade paperback or collection as far as I know, but Marvel will probably put one out any day now. Otherwise, submit your top 10 list to the PI forum and win the entire run, today!


FANTASTIC FOUR VOL. 1 #48-50

"The Coming of Galactus"
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Jack Kirby
Inker: Joe Sinnot
Marvel Comics
1966

I read it first in MARVEL TREASURY EDITION #2 and let's just say it worked extremely well with the gigantic, oversized treatment. What stays with me to this day was that Reed wasn't able to shave. Beaten, overwhelmed, the city being ripped apart around him -- he looked like a man at the brink of exhaustion. Rarely, to this day even, do you see something as seemingly irrelevant as stubble on a comic character's face. It was this kind of well-thought-out detail that made the entire "Galactus Trilogy" so powerful, and gave it the sense of reality that used to be Marvel's hallmark. Add to that Kirby's photo-montage backgrounds of deep space, Stan's crowning story, the introduction of the Surfer, and, of course, Galactus himself (clearly the most unstoppable character in the Marvel universe to date), all playing against the sheer humanity of the FF, and you have epic drama unsurpassed to this day in comics. The only Marvel story you really must read.

"The Galactus Saga" is available at most comic stores and at Amazon.com in the inexpensive ESSENTIALS format, or as a higher quality MARVEL MASTERWORK.


LOVE AND ROCKETS VOL. 1 #21-26

"Human Diastrophism"
"Blood Of Palomar"
by Gilbert Hernandez
Fantagraphic Books
1989
di·as·tro·phism (dI-'as-tr&-"fi-z&m) n. The process of deformation by which the major features of the earth's crust, including continents, mountains, ocean beds, folds, and faults, are formed.

Hailed as the Gabriel Garcia Marquez of comics, Gilbert Hernandez had been telling stories of the little village of Palomar in L&R, for years. Always, his "Heartbreak Soup" serial was wistful, poignant, and rich in character moments. But in "Human Diastrophism" he crafted his most powerful, human, and tragic story. Beginning with a plague of monkeys assailing the village, Beto moved from subplot to subplot, from Luba's love interests to Tonanzin's protests to murder mystery. The story is rich in symbolism, and it included, perhaps, the most horrifying denouement ever in comics. "Human Diastrophism" beat out Alan Moore's V FOR VENDETTA for a Harvey Award in 1989, which should give you an idea of the scope and quality of this material.

"Human Diastrophism" can be purchased at Fantagraphics.com in the collected trade paperback BLOOD OF PALOMAR.

MARVEL PREMIERE #???
WARLOCK #9-
MARVEL 2-IN-1 ANNUAL #1
AVENGERS ANNUAL #7
"The Magus"
Writer/Artist: Jim Starlin
Inker: Al Milgrom
Marvel Comics
19

CAPTAIN MARVEL gave Jim Starlin a place to get his chops and experiment with new characters. But WARLOCK is his magnum opus. Taking the somewhat simplistic "Warlock-as-Christ figure" theme from the previous Len Wein/ Gil Kane run as a jumping-off point, Starlin pumped it to the stratosphere, mixing in superheroics, '70's psychedelia, avante garde imagery, and leftover impressions of his own Catholic upbringing. What came about was a long saga, running through at least four different titles, that was unique, emotional, trippy, and mesmerizing, and one which defined the word "cosmic" at Marvel. This may have been one of the first times that a writer/artist had such a complex, adult saga to tell. (Certainly, at Marvel, anyway.) And his art is gorgeous. Unfortunately, except for THE DEATH OF CAPTAIN MARVEL and a couple of moments in his "Metamorphosis Odyssey" (DREADSTAR), Starlin never reached these heights again, settling instead for the more commercial fiascos of INFINITY GAUNLETS ad nauseaum, besmirching the high quality of his own earlier work (and characters). But for a few moments in the early '70s, Starlin spun pure gold.

Starlin's WARLOCK run is not currently available in tpb form, but may be available at comic shops online.


X-MEN #129-137

"The Dark Phoenix Saga"
Writer: Chris Claremont
Artist: John Byrne
Inker: Terry Austin
Marvel Comics
1980

What can I tell you? In 1980, nothing in comics was more exciting than watching the "Dark Phoenix" storyline unfold. The New X-Men had finally begun to establish themselves as mainstays in the Marvel universe, and Claremont and Byrne were building their thrills higher and higher with each issue. The Cyclops and Phoenix love story was engrossing. New characters Nighcrawler, Colossus, Storm, and, especially, Wolverine were thrilling to watch develop. The Hellfire Club was cool and scary. The thing was actually becoming a freaking "event." Even Jim Shooter made a contribution, forcing Claremont and Byrne to tag the "correct" ending on the story (although they've negated it so many times since). Before they had cartoons and movies and 50,000 spin-offs and competitors, the X-Men were simply the most FUN comic being made. Forget everything you've seen since, this one's still worth the price of admission.

"The Dark Phoenix Saga" is easily available at most comic stores and Amazon.com both in the ESSENTIALS format and as a collected trade paperback.

WALT DISNEY COMICS DIGEST #34

"No Such Varmint"
"The Many Faces of Magica DeSpell"
by Carl Barks
1972

While racking my brain for the perfect Barks story for inclusion here, I realized that my first experience with the Great Duck Man included not one, but two of my all-time favorite stories. During the late 60's Gold Key published Walt Disney and Golden Comics Digests, mammoth (160+ pages) anthologies of all their best kid's comics. WDCD #34, one of the best in an entirely enjoyable series, showcased the whole Duck Family Tree. Each story in the digest hit a different character, from Buck Duck (western relative) and Moby Duck (seafaring) to Grandma and the Jr. Woodchucks. But of course, the Donald and Scrooge stories -- "No Such Varmint" and "The Many Faces of Magica DeSpell" -- are vintage Barks and stand head and shoulders above all else. ("Varmint" is a classic out-of-work-Donald vs. the Loch Ness Monster, with gigantic perspective shots of the monster practically filling entire pages; "DeSpell" is an absolute edge-of-your-seat thriller with Scrooge and the boys vs. DeSpell in the heart of the jungle no less.)

Quite a few of the shorter pieces are also by Barks, but even the non-Barks material is very entertaining. And I bought it for 50c! For quality alone it is worth a hundred times that, easily.

WALT DISNEY COMICS DIGEST #34
is often listed on E-bay at a fairly reasonable price (approx $5). Various Barks collections including the two stories above, can often be found at Gladstone.com, as well as other worthwhile internet venues.


WATCHMEN #1-12
Writer: Alan Moore
Artist: Dave Gibbons
DC Comics
1986

"Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl..."
from All Along the Watchtower by Bob Dylan

I was never a fan of Bob Dylan until I read "Two Riders Were Approaching," the final issue of WATCHMEN. Like every chapter in this history-making saga, the epigrams (and therein the title chapters) were particularly relevant to the story and sublime. The final riveting chapter underscored everything that had come before it. Rorschach and Night Owl sped their way across the frozen tundra towards what would truly be their final encounter with the mastermind of this saga. (If, for some reason, you haven't actually read WATCHMEN, I won't ruin it for you here.) It's almost easier these days to list Alan Moore's crappy stuff than his good stuff. (It's certainly a much shorter list.) Even after assessing SWAMP THING, MIRACLEMAN, and the entire ABC line, among others, WATCHMEN still stands as simply the finest comic book work ever created. It could almost transcend comics -- except it is, in so many ways, an homage to the entire form -- as well as a ripping good yarn in and of itself. Should comics have stopped being created after WATCHMEN? Possibly. At least DC Comics had the integrity to leave the characters alone after Moore finished his story.

WATCHMEN
is easily available at most comic stores and at Amazon.com as a collected trade paperback.

JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #100-102

"The Seven Soldiers of Victory"
Writer: Len Wein
Artist: Dick Dillon
DC Comics
1972

Your first comics are almost always your lifelong favorites , and so it goes with JLA #100-102 for me. (My first JLA comic was actually #101, so I really came in halfway through the story and had to search for months for part one. No comic shops in those days!) My nine-year-old brain was just spinning with all these guys running around, their names flashing above each chapter. The JLA, the JSA, Metamorpho, Wonder Woman (in her Mrs. Peel phase), Zatanna and Black Canary (both in fish nets), Hourman, Batman, Starman, et al. -- all searching through time for the lost "Seven Soldiers of Victory" before the Iron Hand could crush the Earth. Wow! And the Soldiers? The Crimson Avenger! Speedy! The Star-Spangled Kid (now there was a cool name for a hero)! One of them even died at the end! The art by Dick Dillin served the cast and story beautifully. The story by Len Wein was exciting and emotional, but most of all it was FUN. In my mind there's never been a "team-up" to equal this seminal outing of the JLA/JSA.

"The Seven Soldiers of Victory" should be hitting the JLA ARCHIVES in about 4-5 volumes (i.e. 3-4 years). Until then it's pretty easy (and inexpensive) to find at E-bay in addition to quality comic book shops online.

HATE #8-9

"Follow that Dream"
by Peter Bagge
Fantagraphics Comics
1993

Stinky sticks a feather duster up a certain part of his anatomy resulting in a "gimmick" that turns his band, "Leonard and the Love Gods", into the hottest thing around. Loading up the van with best friend Buddy Bradley as their manager, the boys go on a raucous tour, picking up chicks and taking every advantage of their newfound grunge success. Depressed over the loss of his bitchy gal, Val (a much more interesting girlfriend in my mind than whacked-out Lisa ever turned out to be), Buddy and Stinky argue across the heartland. Taking some cues from Crumb and other underground cartoonists of the day (but really leading most of them), Pete Bagge created the smartest, funniest, truest underground comic of the '90's. HATE should've become the new Simpsons, Beavis, or South Park. But somehow it never evolved past the comic. Still, HATE was brilliant and hysterical; particularly these two issues, in light of where Buddy and Stinky's relationship would head in years to come. Let's hope it one day makes it to the big screen.

"Follow That Dream" is available through Fantagraphics.com in the second HATE collection "Buddy the Dreamer."

DOOM PATROL VOL. 2 #26-29
"The Brotherhood of Dada"
Writer: Grant Morrison
Artist: Richard Case
DC Comics
1992

Twenty years ago Alan Moore breathed life into comics by taking superheroes seriously. By NOT taking them seriously (and quite often giving them a good, swift kick in the "arse"), Grant Morrison carved out his own niche. Grant focused his attention on the irony, absurdity, and the rich, inherent embarrassments of his source material. And no comic fit that vision more than DOOM PATROL. Leaping into the series with a narrative on Robotman's never-mentioned-but-obvious-once-you-thought-about-it emasculation (only Cliff Steele's brain survived the crash that made him "Robotman"), Grant took "dysfunctional" to unheard-of peaks.

Applying satire, slapstick, conceptual twists, and visual and verbal puns, Grant hit his stride with the brilliant "Brotherhood of Dada" storyline. Led by the almost-stick-figure Mr. Nobody, The Brotherhood "deconstructed" not just the Brotherhood of Evil (from the original DP), but almost every "super-villain" group ever. And the story featured my all-time favorite comics battle: Rebis (Grant's hermaphroditic retread of the original DP's Negative Man) and The Quiz (the Quiz' power: she has every super-power you haven't thought of yet). Not even the JLA could stop (or even understand) the Brotherhood and their destructive "Painting that Swallowed Paris," But thank heavens the all-new Doom Patrol could!

"The Brotherhood of Dada" is not currently available in trade paperback form. No doubt DC will be issuing a collection any year now.



And some picks that didn't quite make my Top 10...

"Terror on the Planet of the Apes" by Doug Moench and Mike Ploog (PLANET OF THE APES magazine); Chester Gould's DICK TRACY; E.C. Segar's POPEYE; Don Rosa's "Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck" (UNCLE SCROOGE) and "The Universal Solvent" (WALT DISNEY COMICS & STORIES); "The Nearness of You" by Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson (ASTRO CITY); and almost any 100 PAGE SUPER-SPECTACULAR from DC.


Alex Bernstein
is Reviews Editor for PopImage.


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