As requested (well, someone requested it…) here’s a list of my recommendations for the ten “gotta have it” series/volumes (as before, I cheated a little by suggesting some series that have multiple volumes) that DC has produced as part of its Showcase Presents line of oversized, cheap, black and white trade paperbacks. As before, I’ll start with the caveat that I don’t think there are really any bad choices; DC has gone in for variety instead of depth, producing a staggering array of different series from their Silver Age. Only a few have gotten more than one volume (ironically, two of those are what I’d consider the most skippable, the staggeringly dull Flash and Green Lantern…yes, I went there, Geoff Johns…) and so there’s a lot of material to choose from. Best of all, they’ve been very good about representing their non-superhero material. DC was sometimes at its best when doing war, horror, or western comics, and they’ve put some of their best stuff out. (Cutting Enemy Ace from this list was the hardest thing I’ve had to do in a long while.) (I lead a sheltered life.)
10. Ambush Bug. To be honest, I’d actually have left this off the list, except for my lingering fear of a miniature jihad being declared upon me in the comments list by rabid Ambush Bug fans. Don’t get me wrong, there’s some very funny, very iconic material here. But it took Giffen a while to figure out what was funny with the character, and fan demand forced him to keep going back to the well long after his best material was used up. So what you’ve got is a volume with a very funny middle, and a tremendously uneven beginning and end. Still worth reading for the middle, though.
9. Hawkman. I seem to be all alone in feeling this way (or, at least, I didn’t get the chance to impose my fanboy opinions on DC continuity for a generation like some comics writers I’ve already mentioned…) but I’m of the opinion that the Silver Age Hawkman was the most fun incarnation of the character. Sure, he’s a little goofy; he’s a space cop with a medieval weaponry collection who’s come to Earth to learn our law-enforcement techniques. But the backstory they cobble together actually makes it all work, and Katar and Shiera are a fun couple with good romantic chemistry. And there’s just something fundamentally awesome about seeing a superhero swoop down and beat the crap out of a guy with a mace.
8. Adam Strange. Of course, now we know that he’s part of the DC universe and is an honorary Justice Leaguer and is probably Doctor Strange’s sixth cousin once removed or something, but back in the day, this was a great stand-alone science fiction comic. Adam was a fun character, Rann was a fun setting in the Flash Gordon mold, and the (literally) star-crossed romance between Adam and Alanna is sweet and touching in a way that you don’t traditionally get in “boy’s comics”. (I’m not saying they’re only for boys; only that DC aimed them at a predominantly male audience at the time.) The series suffers a little once the JLA gets involved–too many space-traveling characters makes his plight a little harder to sustain–but there’s still a lot of good material here.
7. Superman. Yes, yes, yes. We all know that Superman is square and lame and uncool and overpowered and bland and…except that he’s not. Back in the Silver Age, Superman was a snarky wiseass who almost appeared as a Trickster figure in most stories (not the Barry Allen Flash bad guy, the archetypal Trickster of myth who provides moral guidance to the hero in the form of cryptic riddles, jests, and pranks.) There are issues where he acts as a “genie” to a criminal he inadvertently wronged, making amends with “wishes” that he deliberately gets wrong; issues where he turns the tables on Mr. Mxyzptlk by going to the 5th dimension and playing pranks on him; there’s even an issue where Superman contends with the IRS. The Silver Age has a reputation for goofiness, but most of the comedy was intentional, and it holds up pretty well even today.
6. Legion of Super-Heroes. The problem that the LoSH has in attracting new readers is that it has a large cast and a long, tangled, sometimes impenetrable mythos (which has been confused even further by multiple reboots.) The solution? Start at the beginning, and read it in big chunks. You get many of the classic Legion storylines here, before the retcons and the reboots and the re-reboots and the un-retcons and the time-jumps and the clones and the time-jumped clone retcon reboots clutter it all up. Plus, Lightning Lad gets space madness and hunts down a giant space whale. Hooray for Gooba!
5. Metamorpho. This is the absolute apex of comics as Pop Art. It effortlessly straddles the line between inadvertent camp and expert satire of camp until you’re never quite sure whether it’s taking itself seriously or not. It has the best set-up of any comic book ever; Metamorpho is working for the only guy who can cure him of his freakish super-powers, only the man in question is an amoral crackpot who wants to kill Metamorpho for dating his daughter. Only, of course, he can’t, because he needs Metamorpho to keep resolving all the crises he keeps getting himself into. Add in the actual freaking reanimated Neanderthal butler, and you have a recipe for brilliant insanity. If I could pick a single title to revive, I would go back and revive Metamorpho and I would shamelessly hammer things back into the shape they were in the Sixties, because it is fucking awesome.
4. Jonah Hex. Things get just a little tricky here, because I picked the best horror, war and western comics for 4, 3, and 2, but my placement of them is slightly arbitrary. If you prefer westerns to horror, or war to westerns, rejigger these three accordingly. Because really, there’s nothing concrete in my head that puts Jonah Hex behind the next two on the list. It’s a sharp, nasty, wickedly grimly funny comic about a heartless drifter who desperately tries to conceal the fact that he’s not quite as heartless as he pretends to be…but who’s still a lot more heartless than the bad guys he comes across. It’s a wonderfully prescient take on the genre that feels oddly modern despite being almost forty years old.
3. Sergeant Rock. This is where Enemy Ace almost went, but really, it’s so hard not to recommend Sergeant Rock. This is Joe Kubert at his finest (yes, so was Enemy Ace) but it’s also one of the most iconic heroes of the genre. Rock is the archetypal sergeant, and even the most fervent pacifist will feel their blood stirring as he guns down Ratzi troops with the help of Easy Company. Really, once you’ve read these, you won’t need to read any other WWII comic.
2. House of Mystery. What’s to say? This is Joe Orlando taking the horror comic back to its roots after years of blandness and boredom, skirting the edges of the Comic Code and relying on the snarky, self-aware humor of Cain to glide over the bumps. It’s got some wonderful Sergio Aragones gag pages, some excellent twist endings, and beautiful art that looks great in black and white. And you’ll probably understand a lot more Sandman references afterwards, too.
1. The Elongated Man. Yes, really. The Elongated Man is the single best volume of Showcase Presents, a non-stop joy from beginning to end. It’s like reading an Agatha Christie collection, except that Tommy Beresford has stretching powers. Every single one of the strips presents an instant grabber of a mystery, and Ralph and Sue solve them all with grace, style, and panache. (Perhaps it’s more like The Thin Man, with a super-stretchy William Powell…) And the art…the art will make you understand exactly why Carmine Infantino was a motherfucking legend of the Silver Age. His pencils are dynamic, powerful, and his use of Ralph’s powers in the fight scenes is absolutely inspired. You’ll actually believe that a guy who stretches is a major ass-kicker, and you’ll also believe that he’s a brilliant detective and a devoted husband and an awesome character that deserves to have his own A-list series. (Warning: Side effects may include wanting to cockpunch Brad Meltzer.)
There you go, my recommendations for the top ten. You may present your alternate takes in the comment section. (I’ll probably agree with them, too. I had to make some hard choices to get this down to ten: Batgirl, Batman and the Outsiders, Booster Gold, The Doom Patrol, Supergirl, The Unknown Soldier…)