Jun 11, 2020
The 10 best comics maxi-series (part 1 of 3)
So a few things are going on right now. HBO is airing the sequel series to the Watchmen comic; the CW is airing their five-part crossover event “Crisis on Infinite Earths”, which looks so intriguing I feel I might have to actually watch it; and DC is finally [!] publishing the last issue of their Doomsday Clock series this month. So I thought with all these things happening, it might be fun to look at the format of the “maxi-series” and explore my top 10 favorites of all time.
To qualify for this list, there are certain criteria I wanted to adhere to; the first is how to define a “maxi-series”, and I decided it had to have run twelve issues. Sadly, this means comics like Shadow: Year One, V For Vendetta, and Shockrockets were disqualified. Second, the intention of the series publishers and creators has to have been from the outset that the series would run a set number of issues, and not be an ongoing whose run happened to have been cut short. And third, I had to have actually read the series (sorry, Tom King fans). Some people might be shocked that some comics didn’t make the list, such as Marvel’s original Secret Wars. Well, honestly, some stories didn’t resonate with me, while others felt unnecessarily drawn out, or in some cases, they just didn’t age well. So without further delay, let’s look at the first part of my top ten.
10. Sun Devils
Published by DC Comics in 1984 through 1985, Sun Devils was a twelve-issue series written by Gerry Conway and illustrated by Dan Jurgens, along with an assist by Roy Thomas. The story featured a ragtag team of pilots brought together by fate to take on the Saurian Empire, led by the villainous and insane half-breed Karvus Khun. Dan Jurgens’ art was admittedly a little rough in the early issues, but later on he seemed to come into his own, although that might be due to Rick Magyar’s inks in the first couple of issues. Later on, Romeo Tanghal and Steve Mitchell took on inking duties. Along the way, there were some adjustments to the art—“course corrections”, if you will. The character Annie’s eyes were unnaturally large at first, which was maybe influenced by anime, which was becoming steadily more popular in the west at the time. And the character of Scyla went from an easy seven-foot-plus to maybe 6’6″. I had no problem with either creative decision, and I think if I had been buying the series monthly at the time, I wouldn’t have noticed all that quickly.
Sun Devils was a fun read in the classic space opera mold, with our heroes fighting an oppressive empire in possession of a doomsday weapon. The story doesn’t exactly re-invent the wheel, and the Star Wars influences are obvious. But that being said, the series does hold a certain nostalgic charm for me. It’s also a bit of a product of its time in regards to its visual aesthetic. For example, look at the character Myste and her resemblance to the artwork of the late Patrick Nagel, who had become quite prominent at the time.
So yes, the series did borrow from various sources, and perhaps that’s why it ranks so low on my list; the book doesn’t have its own distinct identity the way other works do. But if I had to pick a favorite character in the series, it would have to be Scyla, the cigar-chomping citizen of Earth’s asteroid belt.
One may draw the inevitable comparison between her and She-Hulk, but I think that’s unfair. Yes, both are tall, attractive bad-ass women, but Scyla’s personality feels much more distinct. As a smuggler and outlaw, she can be impulsive, but also smart and streetwise.
In re-reading this series in preparation for these articles, I realized that the character of Myste was actually bisexual or lesbian. It’s interesting to note that between this and the character of Arnie Roth in the pages of Captain America, comic book writers were showing they weren’t afraid to introduce non-hetero characters into their stories. Part of this was no doubt a desire to address the fact that homosexuality existed and people shouldn’t be afraid of it, and also, I think the writers were showing a certain level of faith in their fanbase. When people talk today of the comic book industry being full of racist, sexist, and homophobic fans, I can only find it amusing, because honestly, we’ve been exposed to this stuff for decades and I don’t think I ever heard anyone complain. Is there an element of intolerance out there? Sure, but it’s a very, very vocal and very, very small contingent, and those in the industry are only giving them an unjust amount of attention.
9. Camelot 3000
It’s the year 3000 and aliens have attacked Earth. A young archaeology student named Tom Prentiss hides from the invaders in a recently discovered crypt where the legendary King Arthur rests, but now awakens in England’s greatest time of need.
If anyone thinks Doomsday Clock’s ridiculous release schedule is unique, allow me to mention Joss Whedon’s and John Cassady’s run on Astonishing X-Men in the early ’00s, as well as Camelot 3000, burdened by delays caused by the fact artist Brian Bolland lived in Great Britain and writer Mike W. Barr in the United States. In an era predating digital media, the two had to overcome the logistical difficulties involved. Combined with the fact that Bolland’s utterly amazing art meant he wasn’t the fastest artist tended to slow the process down a bit. It took a long, long time for the last issue to come out, and frankly, when it did, I was stunned. But man, was it worth the wait.
Camelot 3000 was notable not just for its scheduling problems. It was the first comic directly sold to comic stores and the first to be called a “maxi-series”, and it was the first comic to be printed on the higher quality baxter paper. So I suppose if you wonder where the start of expensive comics began, here it is. All the same, Bolland’s stunning art deserved the bright white stock it was printed on.
Mike Barr delivers an amazing old school tale of heroism. We have betrayal, one of the oldest and most heartbreaking love triangles ever told, as well as what was for the time one of the most mind blowing plot lines I had ever seen in comics: Tristan being reincarnated into a woman’s body and the angst she goes through. Starting off as a man in ancient times, he’s reincarnated into the body of a woman and frankly hates it. This leads to her leaving her husband at the altar, and even going as far as to almost betray Arthur for Morgan le Fay’s promise to give her her old body back. You might be saying, “But Tom, it’s the future, why doesn’t she just get a sex change?” Well, part of the problem isn’t just Tristan being a woman; it’s that she’s markedly weaker than what she was. Tristan had been a knight, the optimal physical specimen of his age, and if she’s going to be a man again, she wants to be the ultimate man, and to regain what she has lost. And part of her motivation is Isolde, her lover of old, has been reincarnated into the body of a woman and she wants to renew their past relationship the way it once was. In the end, love conquers all.
The comic isn’t without some problems. For example, King Arthur’s raiment feels a little too four-color super heroic; he’s wearing that outfit right out of the tomb. Guinevere is reincarnated into the body of a military leader, yet her field clothing consists of something that could be found on a figure skater. And the story does feel a bit racist, in that Galahad is reincarnated into the body of a Japanese man and of course he’s a 30th century samurai. But those are minor nits. Camelot 3000 is a tremendously fun read.
8. Crisis on Infinite Earths
Once there was a multiverse where a plethora of Earths existed, with their own heroes and villains. And then a being known as the Anti-Monitor appeared, bent on destroying all that he could not control. Universes would burn in the anti-matter furnace of his rage, and heroes from across the multiverse and all across time and space would rise to face him. And not everyone would survive the experience.
“But Tom!” you might cry. “Crisis only rates at number eight? How can this be?!” Look, I don’t deny George Perez’s art is among the best in his career, and Marv Wolfman’s ability to juggle so many characters and plot lines is admirable. And yes, there’s no denying that Wolfman and Perez repeatedly drive home the cosmic stakes in a time when that didn’t feel so, well, commonplace the way it became in the decades since. You truly felt like things were about to change and in a big way. The Flash had died, Supergirl had died, and Wonder Woman had been undone. There was one universe and one Earth, and it set the stage for reboots and re-envisionings aplenty. So why doesn’t this series rank higher? Why does it come up short? I think for me, it was the fact that I couldn’t really latch onto anyone. When the series began, the Monitor put together a team consisting of Firestorm and Killer Frost, Golden Age Superman and Green Lantern John Stewart, WWII-era heroine Firebrand and Infinity Inc. member Obsidian, and Arion of Atlantis and Solivar of Gorilla City, which was an eclectic group of heroes, to say the least.
And when it looked like the series was going in one direction, it felt as if things shifted gears, with this team ultimately meaning nothing. Think about JLA/Avengers. There we had every person who had been a member of those teams appear, and yet the focus was on a relatively few characters on both teams. There were very human moments that happened across all four issues, and while we do get that with Crisis, they feel fewer and farther apart. There isn’t the same sort of intimacy we later saw in JLA/Avengers.
They have Detective Chimp in a cameo with some other talking simian, and as someone utterly clueless as to who they are, it didn’t mean as much. Princess Amethyst goes blind, and does this plot line get resolved somewhere else? There are a lot of moments like this. Please don’t think I hate this series because I don’t; quite the opposite, in fact. It’s a tremendous amount of fun seeing so many heroes and villains in one place across a multiverse torn asunder.
7. Top 10
Imagine a metropolis where every being possesses either super powers or equipment that makes them a potential hero or villain. Now imagine being a law enforcement officer given the thankless task of policing this city. Welcome to Top 10 Precinct. The product of the fertile imagination of Alan Moore and artist Gene Ha, Top 10 is one hell of a weird ride, and a visually stunning experience where it feels like almost anything can happen. And despite the seeming insanity of this city, there’s still an internal logic to it, with the elastic madness being cemented to the ground by the concept that there’s a police force, and hence rules to follow. Top 10 seems to exist solely for Gene Ha to have fun, with everything from a drunken Godzilla-like monster showing up to protest his son’s arrest to the squad investigating the murder of the Norse god Baldur.
And while these one-shot stories are enjoyable, what really holds the series together are two things: The first is Moore and Ha take the time to give every police officer and detective a measure of depth and a chance to display some personality. They have virtues and flaws, and the creators did a wonderful job of juggling so many personalities. The other thing that holds the whole thing together are the cases. While some are short-term, like the aforementioned murder, there are long-term plots that weave their way through the fabric of the story. Part of what makes the series wonderfully re-readable is that while the serious nature of the plots (well, most of them) are compelling, the entire run as a whole is wonderfully irreverent, celebrating superhero comics by poking fun at them, the same way Keith Giffen used Ambush Bug or John Byrne had She-Hulk breaking the fourth wall. Comics can be silly, and there’s no reason to shy away from that.
“Galactapuss”. Genius. And even with all this craziness going on, there’s rock music playing from one of the neighboring apartments and you can read the lyrics. I could spend 20 minutes just staring at every page, taking it all in, and searching for sight gags I might have missed before. I shudder to think of how many pages of notes that Alan Moore wrote Gene Ha for every page. We get Charlie Brown mashed up with Doctor Doom, a flock of winged heroes flying through the air, and every ad and marquee we see is a gag. The whole thing is a masterpiece. But if you’re looking for superhero fights, you’ll be disappointed; sure, there’s violence, but that’s not what Top 10 is about. It’s a refreshingly different sort of comic that couldn’t be sustained for more than twelve issues. It was the sort of story the maxi-series was made for.
Next week, I take a look at my sixth, fifth, and fourth picks. Feel free to speculate in the comments below what those may be.