The countdown to the best Spider-Man comic stories continues with some classics from his co-creators Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, as well as some modern storylines.
5. “If This Be My Destiny” from Amazing Spider-Man #31-33 (1966-1967)
One thing in the 1960s that set Marvel Comics apart from its Distinguished Competition was that they did multi-part, serialized storylines decades before the “graphic novel” was ever thought of. One of these classic storylines was “If This Be My Destiny,” from artist/plotter Steve Ditko and scripter Stan Lee. Spider-Man is looking for the Master-Planner, who has been stealing various radiation-type devices, while Peter Parker is beginning college, dealing with some relationship issues, and worst of all, the poor health of his Aunt May. The comic’s most iconic moment happens in Amazing Spider-Man #33, where an exhausted Spider-Man is stuck in slowly rising water beneath the wreckage of the Master Planner’s base, and must will himself to dig his way out and get the serum to cure Aunt May, who has radiation in her blood because of a transfusion she got from Peter in an earlier storyline. It’s an image of individual strength and willpower
“If This Be My Destiny” is an excellent story because Steve Ditko skillfully ties together the most pressing issue in Peter Parker’s life (Aunt May’s sickness) with a thrilling tale of supervillains and subterfuge. Ditko puts Spider-Man through the wringer in this comic in an epic “snatch a defeat from the jaws of victory” moment when the Master Planner’s men steal the special ingredient that Spider-Man and Dr. Curt Connors (formerly the Lizard) were going to use to make the cure for Aunt May. This incident causes Ditko to foresee Frank Miller’s Daredevil with a montage of brutal beatdowns, as Spider-Man shakes down every criminal in the city before happening on the Master Planner’s base almost by accident. Ditko’s depiction of a deadly-serious Spider-Man is a little frightening, as he sidelines the clever web tricks for pure strength.
Even though Lee and Ditko have Peter Parker behave dickishly around fellow Empire State University students Harry Osborn, Gwen Stacy, and Flash Thompson because he is so consumed by his concern for both his studies and his sick Aunt May, Amazing Spider-Man #31-33 presents Spider-Man at his most admirable. Spidey pushes through physical pain and utter exhaustion to grab the serum and save his aunt, and Ditko puts his bruises on display when Peter Parker visits May and gets some money from J. Jonah Jameson for getting exclusive pictures of the Master Planner’s real identity as Dr. Octopus. Because he doesn’t want the people he loves to meet a similar fate as Uncle Ben, Spider-Man pushes through pain, ridicule, and makes any sacrifice possible to save them. “If This Be My Destiny” is a shining example of this characteristic in him, and Steve Ditko and Stan Lee weave together Spider-Man’s life in and out of costume to tell a compelling story with real human stakes in the midst of bright costumes and villain lairs.
4. “Kraven’s Last Hunt” from Web of Spider-Man #31-32, Amazing Spider-Man #293-294, Spectacular Spider-Man #131-132 (1987)
Some long-time Spider-fans are definitely going to say that “Kraven’s Last Hunt” is too low on this list. In this six-part crossover from writer J.M. DeMatteis and artist Mike Zeck, Kraven, a leopard skin wearing joke of a jungle-themed supervillain, is re-cast as one of Spider-Man’s greatest foes. He defeats Spider-Man in combat, takes his costume, and buries him alive, then becomes a “superior” Spider-Man, using more brutal methods to keep the streets of New York safe and singlehandedly capturing the cannibal serial killer, Vermin. However, Kraven doesn’t realize that the “man” part is more important than the “spider” part of Spider-Man.
“Kraven’s Last Hunt” is like a poem in comic book form, with recurring images, symbols, and words, as well as repeated allusions to William Blake’s “Tyger, Tyger.” It’s one of the most visually beautiful and terrifying Spider-Man stories, with some gruesome sequences, like when Kraven buries himself and eats spiders so that he can defeat Spider-Man in combat. The comic also shows the limits of dark superheroes, because at the time Spider-Man was wearing his black costume – not the classic reds and blues. Without his relationship with Mary-Jane Watson, the Daily Bugle staff, and his kindness even towards disgusting creatures like Vermin, he would just be a dark vigilante with a spider motif – like Kraven in this series. The power of these relationships to give Spider-Man strength and motivation is captured by Mike Zeck in a splash page where Spider-Man claws out of his grave with the caption “I love you,” as his love for Mary Jane helps him overcome death.
“Kraven’s Last Hunt” is evidence that even the most lightweight villains can be compelling and interesting, as J.M. DeMatteis and Mike Zeck depict Kraven the Hunter as a man of honor and madness, someone who wants to defeat his greatest foe before he dies. He is such a classy fellow that he leaves a “confession” saying that he impersonated Spider-Man in lieu of a suicide note, and realizes that it’s Spider-Man’s humanity and empathy that makes him a great hero, not his powers.
3. Spider-Man Blue #1-6 (2002-2003)
You never forget your first love, and Spider-Man Blue is proof that Peter Parker never forgot his –namely, the blonde, hair tie-wearing Gwen Stacy, who was cruelly killed in “The Night That Gwen Stacy Died.” Writer Jeph Loeb and artist Tim Sale of Batman: The Long Halloween and Superman For All Seasons fame craft a love letter to Silver Age Spider-Man and the stories of Steve Ditko, Stan Lee, and John Romita Sr. in this timeless miniseries. The book uses a clever, emotional framing device of Spider-Man recording his thoughts about Gwen into an old tape recorder, which allows for honesty and perspective as the older Peter looks on his early days as a college student and crime fighter. Most of the book is dedicated to the supreme awkwardness of the love triangle between Peter Parker, Gwen Stacy, and Mary-Jane Watson, who infuses the story with a real energy when she sashays into Spider-Man Blue #2 and immediately calls Peter “my guy.” There is also an overarching plot with a shadowy foe sending various bad guys to fight and test Spider-Man, all in an effort to deduce his secret identity in an homage to the serialized narratives that Lee and Ditko brought to Amazing Spider-Man even in its infancy.
Like all his work, Tim Sale provides some gorgeous full and double-page character-defining spreads, like Gwen and Peter riding a motorcycle together, Spider-Man shaking off a cold to fight two Vultures, and a solemn image of Spidey leaving a rose on the George Washington Bridge in honor of Gwen’s death. He’s an excellent storyteller too, and turns the joke villain – the Vulture – into a creature of the night, as he lurks in the shadows and defeats Spider-Man when he least expects it. Sale also expertly juggles the spindlier, more individualistic art style of Steve Ditko with the confident, romance comic-inspired work of John Romita Sr throughout Spider-Man Blue. His men and women are gorgeous, for the most part, but they are sometimes creepy, like when Harry Osborn starts mentioning his father or hints at his drug problems. Sale’s greatest achievement is creating amazing chemistry between Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy through glances, touches, and eye flutters that culminate in a well-earned and damn sexy kiss on Valentine’s Day. This proves that Spider-Man stories work best as romantic comedies that just happen to feature some punching in the background.
However, for all its heroic flourishes, perfectly-timed Spidey quips from writer Jeph Loeb, and clever action scenes (like when Spider-Man uses a tip from Gwen in science class to take down the formidable Rhino), Spider-Man Blue is a melancholy read. Spider-Man Blue #6 is all about how Spider-Man wishes he spent less time fighting jerks like Kraven the Hunter, and more time talking to, laughing with, and smooching Gwen, especially in light of her untimely passing. The final issue of the series is framed against a house warming party for Peter and Harry Osborn’s apartment, and that is where Spider-Man wishes he was. It looks at the inner conflict between Peter Parker wanting to have a normal existence with a girlfriend/wife and social life, and fighting crime so that no one ends up like his Uncle Ben. Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale definitely fall on the “should have spent more time with his loved ones” side, closing with a scene where Peter Parker and his wife Mary Jane realize how much they miss Gwen. I definitely felt blue after re-reading this great Spider-Man story, and maybe you will too (the caption where he talks about not expecting to bury Gwen before Aunt May is super painful).
2. “Death of Spider-Man” from Ultimate Spider-Man #156-160 (2011)
If Tom Holland ever starts acting like a diva, the suits at Marvel can always wave these comics in his face. But, in all seriousness, “Death of Spider-Man” is the perfect ending to Peter Parker’s 11-year journey in Brian Michael Bendis, Mark Bagley, and some other artists’ run on Ultimate Spider-Man. The story begins when SHIELD is stupid and bureaucratic as usual, and the Green Goblin breaks himself and the Sinister Six out of containment. Dr. Octopus wants to retire and be a scientist, so the Goblin kills him. Over the course of “Death of Spider-Man,” Spider-Man fights the Sinister Six by himself, takes a bullet for Captain America, and gets left to bleed out. In the final battle, he fights and defeats the Green Goblin, who has stolen power from the Human Torch. It is an unrelenting series of battles, and inker Andy Lanning cleans up Bagley’s pencils, showing how much Peter means to his friends and family. He isn’t the only hero in this story, with Aunt May shooting Electro, and Mary-Jane running over the Green Goblin with a van she stole.
The Ultimate Universe (the alternate universe where these stories took place) was a bleak place, with a racist, jingoist Captain America, an Iron Man who was constantly drunk and recorded a sex tape with Black Widow, a Wolverine who liked 18-year-old girls, and much more. Spider-Man was much too good for it, and gets badly hurt when he accidentally ends up in the middle of a firefight between the Ultimates (this universe’s Avengers) and Nick Fury’s black ops team. Instead of taking him to a hospital or somewhere to patch him up, Captain America and company continue to fight a futile battle, and Spider-Man uses his webbing to keeps his organs in. This is especially ridiculous, as Cap told Spider-Man that he had doubts about him going into action right before he got the call to fight Fury’s team. Bagley’s battle scenes aren’t fluid and stylish, but full of pain and punishment as Spider-Man absorbs hit after hit without getting any kind of medical attention.
“The Death of Spider-Man” ties up Spider-Man’s arc neatly and tragically as he dies at the hands of the man who genetically engineered the spiders that give him his wonderful abilities. He also sacrifices himself so that Aunt May, Gwen Stacy, and his superhero roommates, Human Torch and Iceman, don’t suffer the same fate as Uncle Ben. Forgotten by the adult heroes who were supposed to train him, and pursued by raving psychopaths, Spider-Man becomes the ultimate superhero, never giving up even if that means his life. His sacrifice inspires the young African-American/Latino teenager Miles Morales to become a new Spider-Man, and Miles currently stars in the comic simply titled Spider-Man, which is still written by Brian Michael Bendis.
1. Amazing Fantasy #15 (1962)
In the final issue of a struggling anthology comic previously called Amazing Adult Fantasy, a pop culture icon was born thanks to Steve Ditko and Stan Lee. The original incarnation of Spider-Man was truly more spider than man, with pages of him leaping and crawling over rooftops while frightening passer-bys instead of his smooth swings through New York. The plot of this comic is known to anyone who has seen Spider-Man, Amazing Spider-Man, or any of the various films. A nerd goes to a science exhibition, gets special abilities from a radioactive spider, finds fortune and fame on TV with his powers, lets a robber go one day, his uncle is murdered, and his killer is later revealed to be the same burglar. With great powers come great responsibility, and there’s an origin story for you.
Except for his depressing origin and loving relationship with his Aunt May and Uncle Ben, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s original Spider-Man/Peter Parker isn’t a likable fellow. He’s always telling people about his scientific knowledge, and brags to himself when he creates his own web fluid to swing from walls. In one thought bubble, he even says that he doesn’t care for any humans other than Aunt May and Uncle Ben, and Peter wears that glasses-at-the-end-of-his-nose-perpetual-scowl-face that Steve Ditko would return to throughout his career.
However, Amazing Fantasy #15 is an innovative superhero origin story, as it is one of the first to feature a solo teen superhero, someone who wasn’t a sidekick of an adult hero (Human Torch was a member of the Fantastic Four at the time). It also has an arc to it, as Peter Parker must learn to be a hero after his uncle’s death, beginning as a selfish daredevil and ending with vowing to be more responsible with his great powers. Like most of us, Spider-Man doesn’t immediately stop purse snatchers after getting superpowers, and uses his superpowers for his own gain until a personal tragedy forces him to change his ways.
Dark Horse’s ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ Graphic Novel Series Is The Fourth Season We Never Got
“Alright, Team Avatar is back!”
Avatar: The Last Airbender is- and will always be- my favorite television show of all time. Its sixty-one episode story never ceases to amaze me every time I rewatch it, but it always leaves me wishing that Team Avatar could reunite for another adventure or two, whether that be for explanations regarding their future lives before the events of its successor series or completing yet another unresolved plotline.
After all these years, I finally discovered what I had been looking for; more Avatar that is on par with the storytelling and animation of the original series that will make any fan squeal with joy. Its time for fans to step up and recognize what should practically be considered as The Last Airbender’s fourth season; the stories that are still making their way to printing presses rather than television production.
If you are craving for more Avatar in anticipation for the Netflix live-action remake, wanting something to fill your desires after a rewatch, or even just dying for a new story after a first viewing, then this series of graphic novels will surely peak your interests. Team Avatar’s adventures are far from over because Dark Horse’s Avatar: The Last Airbender graphic novel series is the fourth unforeseen season of the show that you always wanted and it is something that every fan should indulge themselves in whether they are looking for some ongoing laughs from the heroes or serious answers to what they want to know most.
From Moving Presentations to Still Pages
In 2010, show producers Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko originally pitched an idea to Nickolodean; to continue Team Avatar’s story through a 90-minute television special known simply as The Search. This story would have wrapped up all loose ends by closing off the story’s only real cliffhanger, the resolution for the disappearance of Zuko’s missing mother. Despite interest in the project, the executives at Nickelodeon ultimately deemed that the special would never see the light of day on the small screen as they declined the proposal in favor of creating an original series about the next Avatar who would succeed Aang.
The Legend of Korra was conceived thanks to the failed pitch that was The Search, but that did not stop DiMartino and Konietzko from allowing their unused story to go to waste. During the concept stages of Korra, the two producers managed to strike a deal, allowing Nickelodeon to partner with Dark Horse Comics in order to finish the final story of Avatar: The Last Airbender while tieing in many of the events that would build up the world seen in the The Legend of Korra through a series of various graphic novels- which are still ongoing today.
The Search, The Promise, Team Avatar Tales, Smoke and Shadow, North and South, and the currently ongoing Imbalanced are the story arcs that truthfully culminate into the epilogue fourth season of The Last Airbender that fans have pleaded for. Each volume adds up to about one or two new full-length episodes of the show that have the same story-telling and animation quality as what we originally fell in love with. These stories help establish events that strengthen the extended continuity that The Legend of Korra added to Team Avatar’s story while giving The Last Airbender’s fans more of what they want; stories featuring their favorite characters that do not threaten the shows neverending appeal- if anything they add more to love about an already fantastic series.
Continuing What Was Already Perfected
The graphic novels produced by Dark Horse Comics are a justifiable canon extension to Team Avatar’s story that is both written and supervised by the shows original creators [DiMartino and Konietzko]- in other words, there is no need to worry about a new interpretation helmed by people who do not understand the series’ core ethics and values that can easily be misinterpreted just for unreasonable box office profit. Each volume of every story arc serves a legitimate and well thought out purpose to the world of Avatar. A single page is never wasted.
“There is no war within these walls.”
Each story arc continuously builds on the world of Avatar by presenting a slow technological transition into the twentieth-century inspired landscape seen in The Legend of Korra, while showing audiences what the characters and locations had in store during the near distant future after the defeat of Phoenix King Ozai and Prince Zuko’s reconquering of the throne. The comics allow the two series to seamlessly transition into one another by explaining how technology, freedom of speech, political ideology, and spiritual connection all began to expand over the course of just a few months as the four nations slowly became more united under the helm of the last surviving Airbender and the previously banished fire lord.
Every character is written as if they were pulled directly from the source material- just as they should be since the original producers behind both Avatar and Korra are directly involved with the production of every page printed in these books. Characters and locations are constantly being built up to fit their future roles seen throughout The Legend of Korra. Nothing ever feels out of place in these graphic novels. Reading through these books made me feel as if Avatar had never ended; a feeling that every reader should feel when they have fully emerged back into a previously ended story. Every word, character, and location builds an authentic atmosphere that will quickly pull you back into what you previously loved. Seriously, try and not to read these three panels below without hearing each character’s voice in your head.
If you have not read any of the current set of available graphic novels, I highly recommend you purchase at least one of the stories in order to see if this is what you are looking for- and believe me, it will not disappoint. While The Promise is the direct sequel to the finale of The Last Airbender– literally, as the first volume takes place seconds after the last scene in ‘Sozin’s Comet Part 4’ before the credits roll- the graphic novel that I personally believe will completely sell you on this series is The Search; the story arc that contains a resolution you are probably dying to know the answer to. Just sit back, throw on a soundtrack compilation, and enjoy where you last left off in the world of the four nations.
The Top Ten Space Opera Comics
Logan continues his list, this time giving his top 5 picks for the best Space Opera Comics.
The list of best comic book space operas continues from Part 1 and enters the 21st century, with a pair of crossovers from Marvel and DC, some indie excellence from Image Comics, and the great Black Mask Studios among the top 5:
5. Annihilation (Marvel; 2006-2007)
Even though it was released at the same time as Marvel’s famous Civil War event, cosmic counterpart Annihilation arguably holds up better a decade later. Annihilation is a beautiful hybrid of military science-fiction and space opera, following a rag-tag band of Marvel cosmic characters as they battle Annihilus and his Annihilation Wave, a group of bug-like creatures who are being manipulated by Thanos and want to suck the whole universe into the Negative Zone. The stakes are immediately raised when they wipe out the entire Nova Corps, except for Richard Rider. Annihilation is responsible for bringing now-popular characters like Star-Lord, Drax the Destroyer, Nova, and Gamora into the limelight. Without this comic, there would probably be no Guardians of the Galaxy film, even if its tone is way grimmer, and Peter Quill is more crazy than sexy and charming in it.
Instead of crossing over into every Marvel comic under the sun, this event consisted of a prologue one-shot, five four-issue miniseries, and a six-issue core miniseries simply called Annihilation, written by Keith Giffen and drawn by Andrea DiVito. The minis remind me of George R.R. Martin using different narrators in A Song of Ice and Fire, and they provide different perspectives on the war against the Annihilation Wave. They are also more character-driven, whereas Annihilation is the big blockbuster finale, even if it doesn’t end in complete and utter triumph while leaving some threads open for Annihilation: Conquest and the excellent Nova solo comic, which immediately comments on how petty the heroes’ in-fighting in Civil War is in light of the events of its sister crossover.
Annihilation: Nova is the Hero’s Journey with a sense of humor, as future Guardians of the Galaxy writers Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, along with superstar artist Kev Walker, show how Richard Rider goes from runt of the Nova Corps litter to the leader of the fight against the Annihilation Wave. Annihilation: Super Skrull and Annihilation: Ronan cast the Marvel villains Kl’rt the Super Skrull and Ronan the Accuser as noble figures, with Kl’rt making a heroic sacrifice. Ronan’s story has an added element of existential crisis from writer Simon Furman, as he must find purpose in a world where the Kree have stripped his Accuser rank and are ruled by bureaucrats who don’t care how many Kree warriors die. Annihilation: Silver Surfer is the most cosmic comic of the bunch, with Silver Surfer and former Heralds of Galactus banding together to stop the nefarious figures that are using Annihilus and his carnivorous insect crew like puppets on strings.
Andrea DiVito and Scott Kolins are the standouts on Annihilation and Annihilation Prologue, as far as the art is concerned. They can lay down a double-page spread showing the destruction of planets and cosmic beings, while also highlighting the human moments in the middle of the action, like the rage in Drax’s face every time Thanos is mentioned.
Annihilation and its follow-up, Annihilation Conquest (who can resist Ultron in space?), are memorable comics because they are good science fiction stories that happen to take place in the Marvel Universe. They add extra depths to characters that are one-note villains, like Super Skrull and Ronan, and tell a story about the cost of war and unlikely allies banding together in the face of disaster. If you pick up one Marvel “event comic” from the 2000s, make it Annihilation.
4. Sinestro Corps War (DC; 2007-2008)
In the DC Universe, the Green Lantern Corps are space cops who have overcome fear and can use their power rings to create projections of anything in their imagination to protect the universe. On the other side of the coin is the Sinestro Corps, who use yellow power rings to bring order to the universe through fear. The two sides comes to blows in the “Sinestro Corps War” storyline, told in the pages of Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern and Dave Gibbons’ and Peter Tomasi’s Green Lantern Corps, with art from Ethan Van Sciver, Ivan Reis, Patrick Gleason, Angel Unzueta, and countless fill-in pencilers, inkers, and colorists that bring these almost Biblical – and quite emotional – space battles to life. There are a lot of cooks in the kitchen, but “Sinestro Corps War” succeeds because Johns take these godlike characters’ feelings and insecurities seriously, while also lifting Sinestro into the pantheon of archvillains. It was a coming out party for the Green Lantern franchise and may have partially been responsible for the greenlighting of the 2011 film.
The idea for “Sinestro Corps War” came from an obscure Green Lantern story by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons of Watchmen fame, one that is very rooted in DC Comics continuity. However, Johns leans on a tremendous team of artists, including Reis and Van Sciver, to depict past events, like Hal Jordan becoming evil in the 1990s, all the way through to the present conflict. His almost religious reverence for the DC stories of the past pairs nicely with Gibbons’ cheeky character-driven writing, which makes even the most D-list members of the Green Lantern Corps compelling, like the combat medic Soranik Natu, who patrols Sinestro’s home planet, or the planet-sized Green Lantern, Mogo. A throwaway joke in a Moore and Gibbons comic becomes the heart and soul of Johns, Reis, Gibbons, and Gleason’s creation.
Fear is a powerful motivation for most human beings’ actions, and Geoff Johns leans on this terrifying, yet true reality to orchestrate the DC Universe’s finest soap opera since the days of Jack Kirby. He uses the emotional component of the Green Lanterns and Sinestro Corps’ powers, not just for cool action scenes, but also to explore the motivations and feelings of those who wield them, including the walking mediocrity, Hal Jordan. “Sinestro Corps War” established Ivan Reis (currently on Justice League of America) and Patrick Gleason (currently drawing Superman) as their go-to artist for blockbuster stories, while still keeping in mind the human aspects of these big-time characters, and not just doing double-page spreads. Best of all, it set the stage for Blackest Night, the most epic non-Grant-Morrison-written DC comic that didn’t make this list (because it is more of a superhero/horror book than space opera).
3. Saga (Image; 2012 to present)
When I started thinking about comics I was going to write about for Space Opera Month, Saga immediately popped up into my head. This Eisner, Harvey, and Hugo Award-winning science fiction comic by Brian K. Vaughan (Y: The Last Man) and Fiona Staples (Archie) is about a couple named Alana and Marko, who are from the perpetually-warring planet and moon of Landfall and Wreath. They fall in love, have a beautiful daughter named Hazel, and then go on the run from a variety of pursuers, including morally-ambiguous bounty hunter The Will, Mario’s ex-fiance Gwendolyn, a spider-legged bounty hunter named The Stalk, an aristocrat with a TV for a head called Prince Robot IV, and a cat named Lying Cat (who is literally a lie detector). One of the best parts of Saga is seeing Staples’ creative – and occasionally disturbing – design for the different beings that Alana and Marko run into, including a hipster teenage ghost who is their babysitter, an adorable and loyal (fan favorite) seal creature named Ghus, anthropomorphic fishnet stockings who live on the pleasure planet Sextillion, and countless others.
Even though it happens on a variety of strange planets against the backdrop of complicated political intrigue, Vaughan and Staples make Saga about the difficulty of starting a family, even though there are plenty of fire fights, magical duels, and timely escapes. Alana and Marko fight a lot of the time, and recently in the comics they have been separated. The series also doesn’t keep Hazel (who is the comic’s narrator) a baby forever. At the time of this writing, she has grown into a rambunctious little girl, who is slowly becoming aware of what the outside world thinks of her parents’ actions.
Hazel’s coming of age and Alana and Marko’s relationship struggles keep Saga grounded, while Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples indulge in some seriously cool worldbuilding – like a romance novel that’s a secret revolutionary treatise, or how Alana used to be a kind of soap opera actress – while fleshing out an ever-expanding supporting cast. At its core, however, Saga is about how creating and nurturing life is better than taking one, even if it seems like the senseless violence will never cease… (Warning: Saga kills off characters on a Whedonesque level)
2.Starlight (Image; 2014)
He’s most famous for his violent, entertaining, and more than a little sophomoric Kick-Ass and Kingsman series, as well as a revisionist take on Marvel heroes in Ultimates and Civil War, but Starlight showcases a more mature side of comics’ Scottish enfant-terrible, Mark Millar. It also has some gorgeous Moebius-meets-Norman-Rockwell (but with a sense of humor) art from Goran Parlov (Fury MAX). The comic is about an elderly man named Duke McQueen, who saved the planet Tantalus and its queen from the tyrannical Typhon when he was a young man. After his victory, he left Tantalus to be with his beloved wife, Joanne, who passes away from cancer in Starlight #1. Duke is ridiculed for the outlandish accounts of his adventures, and is a lonely old dude who is almost forgotten. However, in Starlight he is called to save Tantalus from a new tyrant – with the help of his number one fan Krish Moor, who looks like he belongs in the Speed Racer universe, but has a sad backstory similar to Batman.
What makes Starlight so endearing is the character of Duke McQueen. Sure, he ends up being a double blaster-wielding, double-fisted hero in the end, but the early issues set him up as a sad old man who misses his wife. Goran Parlov is fantastic at drawing vehicles and sci-fi weaponry, but he also nails the sad moments, like Duke sitting alone and smoking under the stars, or a place setting for a family dinner that no one bothered to show up to. These emotional sequences make the action in the back half of the series that much exhilarating, as Duke inspires the Tantalans to rise up against their new tyrant, Kingfisher (who looks like Darth Vader and has the appetite for luxury of Jabba the Hutt).
Starlight is the old New Testament quote “No prophet is accepted in his hometown,” but on an intergalactic level. Sure, Duke saved a whole planet, but he’s treated as a crank by his family and neighbors. Duke’s journey from retired hero to returning hero is thrilling, and he’s a selfless, noble man with wry one-liners to boot. The miniseries is worth reading for Goran Parlov’s command of the comics medium ,as he excels at everything from double-page spreads of tyrannical mining planets, to furious car chases, and even an old man watching the stars that he once saved. It’s a pity that this was his last interior art, as of early 2017.
1. Space Riders (Black Mask; 2015, 2017)
With its Jack-Kirby-meets-a-Grimes-album cover (or a really well-done punk rock zine), art from artist Alexis Zirritt, and anything goes/picaresque-style plotting from writer Fabian Rangel, Space Riders is a fucking awesome four-issue space opera miniseries from Black Mask Studios, one of comics’ most innovative publishers. Space Riders follows the adventures of Capitan Peligro (Spanish for “Captain Danger”), his first mate Mono (a religiously devout baboon), and Yara, a badass, yet level-headed female android (who saves the crew’s bacon multiple times). Their ship is the Santa Muerte, a literal flying skull that has been discontinued by the EISF, the Space Riders’ employer. There is an overarching plot featuring gods, a tomb, and the fate of the universe, but Space Riders is really a comeback story, as Capitan Peligro must prove himself to his superiors and regain his rank and ride. He must deal with the legacy of his father, who was also a Space Rider, as well as also try to get revenge against his rival, Hammerhead.
It only took a few pages of Space Riders #1 to make me fall in love with Alexis Zirritt’s art and colors. Every page that he draws deserves to either be a poster or an album cover. With his intense reds and wobbly, seemingly LSD-laced pencils, Zirritt makes faster-than-light travel seem like the scariest shit ever for a human being. Jumping to hyperspace isn’t some mash-a-button-and-escape deal for Capitan Peligro, but a dark night of the soul, as he goes a little mad and ends up wrecking the Santa Muerte. This comic is packed to the gills with generally cool stuff, like a double-page splash of a space whale getting harassed by Viking-themed space biker gangs, along with your usual space opera fare, including killer robots and tractor beams. There are layers to this coolness, however, like the space whale being a riff on Moby Dick (but with Peligro wanting to protect this majestic – and possibly divine – creature instead of killing it like that windbag Captain Ahab). It’s a nice environmental parable that isn’t schmaltzy thanks to the presence of Tarantino-esque one-liners, chest mounted machine guns and – did I mention the Viking motorcycle gang?
Space Riders is a wild ride of a comic book, and it’s one of the books on this list that I feel comfortable recommending even to people who aren’t into science fiction, but still like cool action and characters with problems. Fabian Rangel and Alexis Zirritt don’t waste time on oodles of exposition, instead just throwing readers into intense situations and never letting off the gas. Capitan Peligro gets a solid character arc as he evolves from an utter fuck-up, and refuses promotion so he can be free to fly through space with his crew, beating bad guys and figuring out more about the mysterious dying gods in the current series, Space Riders: Galaxy of Brutality.
The Top Ten Space Opera Comics
Before advances in visual effects, comic books and strips were arguably the best places to experience epic stories of swashbuckling heroes, princesses, and extraterrestrials in galaxies far, far away.
With a “special effects budget” that is only dependent on the imagination of the writer, artist, and colorist, comics are the perfect medium for space opera. Before advances in visual effects, comic books and strips were arguably the best places to experience epic stories of swashbuckling heroes, princesses, and extraterrestrials in galaxies far, far away. George Lucas himself wanted to make an adaptation of Alex Raymond’s comic strip Flash Gordon as his second feature film after THX-1138, but legendary Italian director Frederico Fellini had the rights. This compelled him to make his original space opera, Star Wars, and the rest is movie and merchandising history. Decades after the original Star Wars trilogy wrapped, its spirit of adventure survived in the Expanded Universe Dark Horse comics, a sort of homage to the movie’s debt to Flash Gordon as well as other comic books, like the bande dessinee Valerian and Laureline, and the future technology and machines found in the artwork of Jack Kirby.
Even though there are some great (and not so great) comics based on sci-fi franchises, like Star Wars, Serenity, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, all the comics on this list aren’t based on pre-existing media, however. Some of them take place in the shared Marvel and DC Universes, and others have inspired current or future films, but they are all original visions of war, the future, heroism, and cool stuff blowing up brought to life on the comic book page by some of fiction’s greatest creative minds, including Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples, Dave Gibbons, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Moebius, Jim Starlin, and of course, the King of Comics himself, Jack Kirby.
In chronological order, here are the top ten best space opera comics that you should check out.
10. Valerian and Laureline (Dargaud; 1967-2010)
The long running series of Valerian and Laureline bande-dessinees are the perfect hybrid of time-travel science fiction and space opera, with some stories following the dashing pair of spatio-temporal agents to different planets, and others to different eras. The main setting is the 28th century, when Earth is a utopia, space and time travel are just a fact of life, and most of the inhabitants spend their time on leisure activities, not work. Valerian, Laureline, and other spatio-temporal agents protect this peaceful existence from space-time anomalies and other threats. The comics, which were all written by Pierre Christin, drawn by Jean-Claude Mezieres, and colored by Eveline Tranle, began as simple fights between good and evil, but became much more complex as the series progressed and looked into the nature of death, feminism, and democracy, especially its ability to be corrupted and turned into imperialism.
Christin writes Valerian not as a superhero or moral authority, but as kind of goofy, someone stumbling into situations feet first. For example, in the first Valerian story, “The City of Shifting Waters,” he complains about climbing skyscraper stairs in a ruined 1986 New York, and is taken captive by a gang of looters until Laureline saves him. Laureline is definitely the smarter of the pair, even though she sometimes ends up in damsel in distress (which Christin plays for satire of gender roles in later installments). The dynamic between Valerian and Laureline gives the comics a lot of energy to go with Christin’s dense, yet fast moving scripts, Mezieres’ glorious and humorous art, and Tranle’s shrewd color choices.
The Valerian and Laureline comics are truly a joy to read, espousing humanism and cooperation in the face of tyranny and evil through exciting 50 page bites. For a modern reader, they feel like the perfect combination of Star Wars (which was influenced by the comic) and Doctor Who, with space battles, time travel, foot chases, and witty banter galore. You haven’t lived until you’ve witnessed a human/robot fight in Yellowstone National Park with bison peacefully grazing in the background.
9. “Fourth World Saga” (DC Comics; 1970-1974, 1985)
After saying that dialogue bubble filler and carnival barker Stan Lee was the sole creator of the Marvel Universe, and generally treating him like garbage, Jack Kirby jumped ship to DC Comics in 1970. He was basically given a blank check, and after passing on marquee titles like Superman, he became the writer and artist on Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen. From this Z-list title, he launched his famous “Fourth World Saga” and created iconic characters like the New Gods Mister Miracle, Big Barda, and Orion, along with their arch-nemesis Darkseid, who is set to appear in a future Justice League film.
The “Fourth World Saga” spread across the New Gods, Mister Miracle, and Forever People comics, focusing on different inhabitants of the planet New Genesis, which is locked in eternal warfare with the totalitarian Apokolips. New Gods tells the story of Orion, the champion of New Genesis, who goes to Earth to prevent Darkseid from finding the nefarious Anti-Life Equation and wreaking havoc in the universe. It’s biblical in scope and scale, and contains the great twist (almost a decade before Empire Strikes Back) that Darkseid is Orion’s father. Forever People is like American Graffiti with superheroes, as a team of young inhabitants of New Genesis also trying to stop Darkseid and his mortal allies, Intergang, who are led by the new publisher of the Daily Planet. Mister Miracle is about Scott Free, an escape artist from New Genesis, who takes on the mantle of Mister Miracle after his mentor is killed. What makes this comic stand out from the other Fourth World titles is the strong relationship between the physically unimposing Scott and his warrior-wife, Big Barda, who formerly worked for Darkseid’s Female Furies.
Jack Kirby’s purple prose and “hip” slang in the Fourth World books may not have aged well, but few artists have rivaled the power of his figures. From Orion wrestling with Darkseid’s Parademons, to the the Forever People zooming by or Mister Miracle make a death defying escape, Kirby’s art is full of energy, and the punches and holds he draws have real weight behind them. His trademark “Kirby krackle” adds to the otherworldly factor of his work, and complements the outlandish, yet enduring costumes for characters like Orion, the enigmatic Metron, Mister Miracle, and Big Barda.
“The Fourth World Saga” is filled to the brim with imaginative ideas that could take a whole series of articles to describe, and features some of Jack Kirby’s most kinetic pencils. It stands with Frank Miller’s Daredevil and Chris Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men as one of the greatest comics of the 1970s, and also inspired the DC Animated Universe, as well as modern storylines like Final Crisis.
8. Dreadstar (Epic/First Comics/Malibu; 1980-1991, 1994-1995)
Although he was responsible for killing off the second Robin, Jason Todd, writer/artist Jim Starlin is probably the best known American space opera comics creator. He even wrote and drew a Thanos graphic novel for Marvel as recently as 2016. His greatest original creation is the long running series Dreadstar, a blend of the fantasy, post-apocalyptic, sci-fi, and superhero genres that featured an anthropomorphic cat as a POV character. It was the flagship title of Epic Comics, a creator-owned imprint from Marvel that was a forerunner of DC’s Vertigo, home of classic comics like Sandman, Hellblazer, and Fables.
Dreadstar is both a swashbuckling adventure comic and a meditation on war and religious fundamentalism. The basic setup of the world is that there is war between the authoritarian Monarchy and the Instrumentality, a kind of Spanish Inquisition-meets-Scientology theocratic government with special teleporting technology. Starlin’s drawing of Vanth Dreadstar, the last survivor of the Milky Way galaxy and receiver of a magical weapon, resembles DC Comics’ socially conscious hero Green Arrow, and he renounces violence to be a farmer until the planet of cat people he lives on is destroyed. He then ends up leading a crew of misfits to end the war between the Monarchy and the Instrumentality, and bring a kind of peace to the remaining galaxies – except that he, the cybernetic magician Darklock, the cat person Oedi, and the telepath Willow occasionally work with the Monarchy, as Dreadstar isn’t just a simple good vs evil story.
Jim Starlin’s art has power and energy like Jack Kirby’s work ,although his faces are a little more distinct than the King’s. He also uses colors and angles that give off a trippier vibe, like when Dreadstar and his crew rob a vault, or the Lord Papal is imbued with special abilities by a nefarious higher power. Making the magic more surreal and the scientific elements of Dreadstar clean and more technical reinforces the sprawling comic’s main ideological conflict between the sacred and secular. Unfortunately, the series has never been properly concluded by either Starlin or his replacement writer, Peter David (X-Factor).
7. The Incal (Humanoids;1981-1988)
The Incal is a series of five graphic novels written by Spanish filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky and drawn by legendary French artist Moebius. It is considered one of the masterpieces of the comics medium, and follows the rough-and-tumble misadventures of a hard-drinking, prostitute-frequenting P.I. named John DiFool, who comes into possession of the Light Incal, an object of great power. He and his talking pet seagull Deepo go on the run from a variety of factions, including the badass mercenary Metabaron, seeking to take the Incal for themselves while simultaneously embarking on a spiritual journey.
Moebius’ art and Yves Chaland’s colors capture the essence of dystopia in The Incal. Sure, there are cool flying ships and aliens, but also overcrowded public transportation, filthy tunnels, and a president who makes his own cloning into the television event of the season (after reruns of a game show called Piss and Feces). There is a clear distinction between the “glowing” upper class and the “unwashed masses” in power and opportunity. However, Chaland uses irridescent tones any time the Incal speaks to DiFool while trying to break him out of his slumber and into a spiritual awakening. He eventually ends up teaming up with the Metabaron and others in a great battle of good and evil between the Dark and Light Incal.
Alejandro Jodorowsky and Moebius capture humanity at its most grotesque and most transcendent in The Incal. This is a comic that features an elderly upper class woman seeing a wolf man prostitute, but also a flawed man finding self-realization through something that would be a mere MacGuffin in another creative team’s hand. The Incal has a political and spiritual conscience as well as cool vehicles and gorgeous Moebius cityscapes.
6. Infinity Gauntlet (Marvel; 1991)
One can only hope that the upcoming Avengers Infinity War film is at least as half as epic as writer Jim Starlin and artists George Perez and Ron Lim’s Infinity Gauntlet miniseries. In the story, Thanos, who collected all the Infinity Gems in the Thanos Quest series, puts them in the Infinity Gauntlet and wipes off half the life in the universe to impress his mistress, Death. This half includes the Fantastic Four, X-Men, and Daredevil. Thanos is on a hubristic a rampage for the most of the miniseries, and even defeats such powerhouses as Chaos, Order, and Eternity
Though he left the series after issue 4, Infinity Gauntlet is a testament to George Perez’s mastery of both the superhero team-up and the cosmic epic. He and Lim draw scenes like Thanos becoming one with the universe or the death of the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen with style and ease, providing readers with iconic moments, like when Captain America, leading a troop of battered, beleaguered heroes, tells Thanos that he’ll never win. Infinity Gauntlet is a study in escalation and hubris, with Thanos finally bested by his own insecurity after a roller coaster ride of a series.
Infinity Gauntlet is what Marvel and DC Comics events should aspire to be. The stakes are high and the splash pages are big, yet Starlin, Perez, and Lim leave room for characterization. Infinity Gauntlet provides the climax of the messianic journey of Adam Warlock that began when Starlin created him in the 1970s. Thanos’ final fate is pretty brilliant, and it’s a shame that multiple “Infinity” sequels had to ruin that fantastic ending.
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