Three of the top ten grossing movies from last year, and five of the top fifteen, were based upon comic books. This weekend's release of The Avengers will likely make over a billion dollars by the time it leaves theatres. Comic books are the new mainstream.
This would shock teenage Poseur. When I was first started collecting comics, it was a fringe hobby that rarely bubbled up to the mainstream. There was an old Superman movie and Spider-Man popped up on the Electric Company for no particular reason, but by and large, comic fans inhabited their own world, well outside the mainstream of pop culture it now dominates.
Maybe it's because special effects finally caught up the demands of the material, but the super hero slowly crowded the traditional action hero out of Hollywood. Now, knowing the byzantine histories of even the most obscure comic characters now passes for some sort of cultural cachet (and you thought I was wasting my time, Mom!).
In honor of The Avengers release and the comic nerd's surprising conquering of pop culture, I attempt to rank the top comic book writers. Now, a few ground rules, as always. I eliminated anyone who is not first and foremost a comics' writer. Sorry, Joss Whedon and Kevin Smith. But also, this eliminated Neil Gaiman, who did amazing work on Sandman, but is now primarily known as a novelist and screenwriter. It just makes Gaiman too hard to rate.
Additionally, I'm leaving out the old vanguard. Kirby, Eisner, Lee, Kane... they are just too iconic to rate against guys still working. So I tried to limit myself to anyone who was active when they first started handed out the Eisner Awards in 1988. I'll look at work before then, but you had to at least be adding to your legacy in the past three decades. OK, caveats aside, here we go...
10 JEFF SMITH
By all rights, this slot should belong to Dave Sim. He's the pioneer of self-published comics that broke the stranglehold of the Big Two (Marvel and DC) over the industry. He's the fiercest advocate for creator's rights and he is the author of the longest-running comic series with only one writer. Also, Bone never quite attained the brilliant highs of the two Church and State volumes or Jaka's Story. The problem is that the quality of Cerebus fell off a cliff in the back half of the run, as Sim became more concerned with petty grudges and rambling tirades than his characters or telling a story. I'm yet to meet a comic fan who enjoyed the last 100 issues of Cerebus.
Smith, on the other hand, actually delivered on the promise of the self-published conceit. He published the first comic to have an established plot and ending of the entire run. It's also not like he didn't hit tremendous highs, like the Great Cow Race. Bone is essentially what would happen if Pogo landed in Lord of the Rings, allowing for great comedy and an epic, magical tale. Bone is one of the grandest achievements in the history of comics. Not bad for an all-ages book that never went the dark and moody route.
9 FRANK MILLER
Dark Knight Returns, Daredevil, Sin City, 300
Miller is one of the most influential yet most controversial comic book writers. Let's get into the influence first: his version of Batman is now the definitive version of the character, completely redefining a classic character. Every adaptation of Daredevil has been based on his work and the supporting characters he created (until the recent TV series did not use Elektra). Let's face it, Daredevil is a knock off version of Batman, and he raised the character to its own footing. Then he left for DC to write Batman as, well, the Daredevil he just wrote. So, in a way, Batman is now a copy of the knockoff.
Miller specializes in dark crime dramas. He takes hard-boiled to a new level, and there are monsters in every shadow of his universe. He makes ultra-violent revenge fantasies. While other writers have tried to deconstruct the vigilante hero, he has doubled down on the violence and the grime. He's been accused of racism and fascism, which strikes me as unfair. The guy just likes over-the-top violence porn.
8 MATT FRACTION
Hawkeye, The Immortal Iron Fist, Sex Criminals
Fraction has worked on some of the biggest titles in the Marvel universe (Iron Man, The Mighty Thor, and Uncanny X-Men), but he first established his reputation by rescuing the Iron Fist from obscurity. He helped raise the profile of the character from the C-list to one of the damned Avengers.
But Fraction makes this list because he scripted the single best comic book of the past decade from the Big Two: Hawkeye. Fraction made a superhero comic that was less superhero and more guy hanging out. There are some action sequences to be sure, but the comic is at its best when he's trying to hook up his TV or he's hanging out and grilling with the neighbors. It broke down the expectations of what a comic could be, and then he pushed the form with narrative tricks like a comic entirely from the point of view of a dog and one entirely in sign language, when Hawkeye goes temporarily deaf. He's now independent, writing Sex Criminals, a story about people who can stop time when they orgasm. You read that right.
7 GARTH ENNIS
Preacher, Hellblazer, The Punisher
Ennis started his career in the US by taking over duties on Hellblazer and the iconic John Constantine character. As a self-professed hater of superheroes, this was the perfect way to get into the industry. Constantine has few heroic qualities and there is no tights-and-capes get up. He took a burgeoning character and made him an icon. He'd later be the first writer to ever make The Punisher even the slightest bit fun, as he added a much needed comedic tone to the character.
But Ennis is going to go down as the author of Preacher. It's the story of a small-town Texas preacher who travels across the country to literally speak to God, who has abandoned heaven. Some of the religious themes are a bit on the nose, particularly its over the top evil fundamentalist characters. But the comic's strength is its supporting cast. I mean, Arseface.
6 CHRIS CLAREMONT
X-Men, New Mutants, Excalibur
Imagine a world without mutants. Before the mutant books become a veritable gold mine for Marvel, the X-Men were a poor-selling, critically-ignored cul de sac of the Marvel Universe. Claremont (along with John Byrne and Jim Lee) completely transformed that and turned the X-books into the driver of the company (before he retired and the collapse came... but enough about Rob Liefeld). He made the lack of popularity of virtue, casting the mutants as an oppressed minority in a struggle for civil rights.
By the end of his run, X-Men rebooted as a new title, and it is still the top selling single issue of all-time. He expanded the universe to focus on the students in the New Mutants, and he just got plain weird and goofy in Excalibur. He practically invented the crossover event, by tightening the bonds of his smaller universe in the Mutant Massacre and the Fall of Mutants. The titles got a bit too popular, which ruined the conceit of an oppressed minority as the mutants slowly took over all of Marvel's continuity.
5 ED BRUBAKER
Catwoman, Captain America, Daredevil
Brubaker did the Frank Miller career in reverse. He started working on Batman and then moved on to Daredevil. But before then, he rescued the character of Catwoman from about 30 years of terrible storylines. He completely redsigned and redeveloped the character, and turned her title into a best-seller. He took Daredevil in anew direction, dealing with the consequences of a vigilante getting arrested for going out into the streets and beating people up without authority.
But Brubaker's greatest triumph was his amazing run on Captain America. Cap, like Superman, is an iconic character who is really hard to write and make interesting. We love the concepts of them, but their actual books can be a bit of a slog (apologies to T. Kyle King). Brubaker grounded Captain America, focused on his personal relationships, particularly with the Falcon. But then he broke the cardinal rule at Marvel: the only characters who stay dead are Bucky and Uncle Ben. So he resurrected Bucky as the Winter Soldier in a wild storyline, breaking a near half century of continuity. Then he killed Captain America. And his run just got better from there.
4 GRANT MORRISON
X-Men, JLA, Animal Man, 52
Part of the British Invasion of writers in the 80s, Morrison started at DC by taking a little known character, Animal Man, and turning it into a must-read book. The title advocated veganism and environmentalism, and he seemed to cast his lot in with eco-terrorists. Morrison further stirred up trouble by penning The New Adventures of Hitler. He was denounced by a member of Parliament for his attacks on Margaret Thatcher.
When he went mainstream, he did so with gusto. Turning the Justice League into JLA in the 90s, he modernized the title and returned it to critical acclaim and best-seller status. He then went to Marvel and rescued the X-Men from a decade in the wilderness, kicking off his run by murdering 16 million mutants and then dealing with the fallout. He put the X-Men in leather and coats, ditching the spandex, and focused more on the students who created mutant fashion and even their own drug, Kick. When finished, he returned to DC to rewrite their continuity in 52, a weekly series spanning the entire DC universe, with the famed anagram: ""the secret of fifty-two is that the multiverse still exists." Oh, and he wrote a little Batman and Superman, too. The guy rewrote the book on DC (and the X-verse).
3 BRIAN MICHAEL BENDIS
Alias, Avengers, House of M, Powers, Ultimate Spider-Man
Bendis is a lightning rod of criticism among comic fans, mainly because he is the symbol of Marvel's addiction to events and crossovers. And I'll admit, it's a bad addiction and all of those tie-ins are just a giant scam. But strip away the tie-ins and just focus on the main title that Bendis penned, and he can tell one hell of a blockbuster story. He took the Avengers, another title that seems prestigious but is really hard to make interesting, and turned it into the centerpiece of the Marvel universe, mainly by killing several major characters, blowing up the mansion, and remaking the team. The Avengers became the springboard for the major events, and no one can write huge blockbusters with a cast of hundreds like Bendis, still finding space for small moments for the characters. Even House of M, which is a bit of a flight of fancy, has major repercussions in that it revealed what everyone's deepest desires were, providing the foundation to reveal Ms. Marvel's ambition and turn her into a modern star, renamed as Captain Marvel.
What's forgotten in all of the talk of Bendis' big events is that he made his bones writing smaller books that then became a part of everyone's pull list. Jinx placed a crime noir veneer on the spaghetti western. Powers is a crime procedural of two ordinary cops dealing with the crimes committed by or against superheroes. He took the fantastical and tried to ground it in the real world, culminating in Alias, in which a former super hero gives up tights and goes to work as a private investigator. Jessica Jones rejects the idea that great powers give you any responsibility, and the book culminates in a total breaking of the fourth wall, as one of the characters realizes it is a comic book and starts giving direction to the artist... which the artist follows.
Oh, and then he created the black Spider-Man, Miles Morales.
2 BRIAN VAUGHAN
Y the Last Man, Ex Machina, Saga
Working almost entirely outside the Big Two, Vaughan has established himself as the pre-eminent voice in comics. If he writes a title, you go buy it, sight unseen. He tackled the post 9/11 world in Ex Machina, imagining a superhero getting elected mayor of New York in the wake of the attacks due to his heroism. Predictably, it all goes to hell, as powers do not grant you keen political instincts or even good judgment. His current work is the epic space opera, Saga. He takes the fanatastical space war and drills down to the personal, making the story about a family of refuges, just trying to get through the intergalactic war intact.
His masterwork is Y: The Last Man. The central conceit is that every male mammal on planet earth dies at one time, save for our hero, Yorrick (and his pet monkey). Society plunges into chaos as the surviving women cope with the idea of humanity's impending extinction (and the disposal of the bodies of one half of the world's population). Yorrick is a deeply flawed hero, mainly due to his immaturity, and since we are primarily limited to his point of view, the series never quite explains its central mysteries, revealing them instead to not be all that important. Survival is.
1 ALAN MOORE
Watchmen, From Hell, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Marvelman, V for Vendetta, Swamp Thing
First off, he penned the greatest comic series of all-time, Watchmen. In it, Moore explores the nature of superheroes, vigilantism, and the lies we all tell ourselves. Going out, putting on tights, and punching people in the face is going to leave some might large psychological scars on an actual person. And if a real, honest to God superhero showed up, it would make costumed vigilantes irrelevant. It's a spectacular book that challenges the comic fan to explore why exactly we like this stuff.
But even had he never written Watchmen, Alan Moore would still be the dividing line between eras in comic books. He is the guy who picked up the medium and insisted it could be about something more. Really, it all starts with Swamp Thing. My God, Swamp Thing. It is the Zero Event of comic books, when comics truly aspired to be more than something you read once and threw away. He took over a poor-selling book about a man transformed into a monster, and then rewrote the tale to reveal that it was in fact the opposite: a monster that was trying to become a man, but couldn't. Even faced with this knowledge, people can't let go and face the truth. It was a tour de force.
The comic industry awards the Eisner Award every year to its top writer, starting in 1988. Alan Moore has won the award eight times. Only three other writers have won it multiple times (Vaughan, Gaiman, and Bendis), and those three combined for nine wins. Moore is a wrter so great he has written both the definitive Batman story (Killing Joke) and Superman story (What Ever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?). You can debate the other nine slots, but #1 is clear: Alan Moore is the definitive author within the medium.