One of my favorite comic book writers is Kurt Busiek. He’s one of the storytellers who pulled me back into comics in the mid-‘90s and his work has given me countless hours of enjoyment since then. Therefore, to celebrate Kurt Busiek for no other reason than that I can, here’s a list of his ten best comic books according to me.
This low ranking is no indictment against Busiek’s run on Superman. There are good books that didn’t even make the list. Busiek turned in several classic Superman stories. His opening story, “Up, Up and Away,” which he co-wrote with Geoff Johns is incredible. And his magnum opus, “Camelot Falls,” with artist Carlos Pacheco is a phenomenal epic. Busiek introduced new characters, reinvented old ones and wove it together into a wonderful tapestry. If the rest of his run had matched those two earlier stories, Busiek’s Superman would rate even more highly. Unfortunately, his later offerings like “The Third Kryptonian” and “The Insect Queen” weren’t as illustrious.
Secret Identity was one of the last stories to come out of DC’s Elseworlds office. It’s the story of a young boy named Clark Kent who is surprised to discover that he shares Superman’s powers as well as his name. We follow Clark’s journey of discovery. We meet up with him again as an adult. We watch him get married, have children and grow old. Secret Identity is a heart-warming story that manages to avoid being maudlin. It’s one of the best Elseworlds, and one of Busiek’s best as well.
Kurt Busiek is known for his superhero work but these next two entries prove that he’s a great writer in any genre. Shockrockets came out under the short-lived Gorilla Comics banner. It’s a futuristic world, filled with flying vehicles. And it’s the story of a young boy who dreams of growing up to be one of the Shockrockets, just like young American boys might dream of being one of the Blue Angels or another fleet of fighter jets. Busiek does an excellent job of creating a new character with all of his hopes and dreams. And he sets his story against an amazing science fiction backdrop. It’s filled with action, and with heart. The Stuart Immonen art is a wonderful bonus.
Arrowsmith is Kurt Busiek’s entry into the fantasy genre. It’s the story of another young boy who signs up as a volunteer in the US Army for World War I. Except this isn’t quite our world or our history. This world is one of magic. There are rock ogres and fairies and magicians. Spellcasters take the place of fighter pilots. And magic takes the place of mustard gas. Yet Busiek doesn’t allow the setting to become the story. The focus remains on young Fletcher Arrowsmith as he falls in love, experiences the horrors of war up close and becomes a man. Carlos Pacheco provides the beautiful art.
I admire Kurt Busiek’s flexibility. This list has already seen a couple of other genres and an Elseworlds. Now, it welcomes a cross. But not just any crossover. This is the contender for the best crossover ever written. It’s Kurt Busiek and George Perez’s amazing epic JLA/Avengers. Busiek takes the standard crossover story-telling tropes and amps it up to eleven. He doesn’t bring in one McGuffin to get the story rolling. He brings in all of them- every major mystical artifact that the JLA or the Avengers have ever tried to track down. He doesn’t just have the teams fight and team up. He has them wage an epic battle in which Thor fights Superman while Batman and Captain America stare each other down. Every page is filled with treats to look at yet the story moves briskly along. This is the crossover by which all others should be measured.
Working for one of the big companies has been compared to playing in somebody else’s sandbox. But Busiek isn’t merely borrowing someone else’s toys. He re-invents them and passes them along to others richer than they were when he found them. That’s especially true of Thunderbolts. Busiek took the former Masters of Evil and turned them into the pretend heroes, Thunderbolts. But Thunderbolts became more than a one-issue surprise (although it’s certainly one of the best of those, as well). It developed into a story of redemption as some of the villains preferred their new heroic roles. Songbird and Atlas became stars while Moonstone and Citizen V became wonderfully complex villains. With Mark Bagley on board as artist, the Thunderbolts were one of Marvel’s best books at the time.
Conan made me so happy. Some observers had been writing Kurt Busiek off as past his due date. Then Busiek went out and won an Eisner Award for his one-shot reintroducing Conan to a new generation. Busiek’s Conan was rough and swarthy. The stories were rich and detailed. And the art was beautifully rendered by Cary Nord. It was a very different style from Robert E. Howard or Roy Thomas. Yet it worked incredibly well as Busiek made Conan his own, mixing magic and muscles with equal aplomb.
Kurt Busiek took a title that was 35 years old and made it his own. He was respectful to the past, incorporating many of the characters, villains and situations that appeared in the book when he was young. But he wasn’t stuck in the past, introducing new team-mates like Justice and Firestar for readers to relate to, new characters like Silverclaw and Triathlon (who’s still appearing in Avengers: Initiative) and new threats. He knew how to defy expectations, such as having the team fight Morgan LeFay in their first battle instead of Loki, and how to exceed them, as he did in “Ultron Unlimited.” He was paired with George Perez, Alan Davis and Kieron Dwyer as artists. And he expanded on the regular title, with an Avengers Forever limited series and an Avengers/Squadron Supreme annual. Busiek’s tenure on Avengers was one of the best runs on any superhero title ever.
This is the comic book that made Kurt Busiek a star. Busiek jokes that he was a ten-year overnight sensation. And he admittedly paid his dues for a long time before working on Marvels. But I’ve read a lot of his pre-Marvels work, like Red Tornado and the Liberty Project, and there’s no way it measures up to Marvels or the stuff he wrote afterward. Marvels is intricately personal, as shown through the eyes of photographer Phil Sheldon, yet also joyously grandiose. It captures the wonder and the awe of superhero comics while also being down to earth. It ranks as a masterpiece of the comic book medium. And it did pretty good things for artist Alex Ross’ career, too.
1. Astro City
I can name so many favorite Astro City stories. There are the big epics, like the Confessor story and the Tarnished Angel. There are the one-shots, like the Samaritan and Beautie specials. There’s even the short story, “The Nearness of You,” showing what it’s like to lose a loved one to a space-time disruption in a cosmic crossover. I can name so many favorite Astro City characters. There are the homage characters, like Samaritan, the supernatural characters, like the Hanged Man, and the ones that are delightfully unique, like the Bouncing Beatnik. I can name so many favorite Astro City moments. There’s Astra learning how to play hop-scotch, the Junk-Man giving away his own plan so that people will be aware of his genius and the evil twin defense as reasonable doubt in a court of law. Astro City has everything and does everything. It tells us what it’s like to be a by-stander as the world’s heroes go into action. And it tells us what it’s like to be a hero who only wants a good night’s sleep. It is the best of the best.
And that’s my top ten. I know I had a hard time getting the list down to ten; I had to fold Avengers Forever into Avengers and leave out The Power Company. So feel free to post a response with your own favorites and suggestions.