I spent way too much time thinking about something others might rattle off very quickly: who my favorite comic book writers are, and what it would take to displace them. This was based on a comment on a message board where someone asked for a top three.
For the last decade plus, my list of my three favorite comic book writers has been the same. The main criteria is how many of my favorite comics they’ve done. I suppose there is the alternate possibility that someone can be on top on the strength of limited material. In literature, examples would include Dante with the Divine Comedy, Chaucer with the Canterbury Tales, or Homer with the Iliad and the Odyssey. But I just haven’t come across a comic book that much better than what anyone else did. Maus is really good, but I wouldn’t rate it so highly that it will surpass the entire bibliography of a writer whose work I like.
I’m not making an attempt at the time to articulate what the writers do well, or why a particular comic is so impressive. It’s a bit tautological. They’re good because their work is good.
In third place on my list is Frank Miller. He has the lightest record of any of these writers, in terms of number go books written, but he probably wrote more comics on my personal top ten with Daredevil: Born Again, The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One than anyone else. Other great work includes his earlier Daredevil run, 300, and Sin City.
In second place is Stan Lee. There are some arguments that he owes too much to the artists he worked with, who often plotted the stories and should be considered co-writers, but he’s done too much good for it all to be the result of coincidence. It’s not just the Lee/ Ditko Spider-Man that’s really good, but Lee/ Romita Spider-Man. And there’s the Lee/ Kirby Fantastic Four, as well as the Thor run they did. And impressive collaborations with other artists on Daredevil with Wally Wood, and Silver Surfer with John Buscema and Moebius. I count The Galactus Saga, and ‘This Man, This Monster” as one story, which gets in my top ten, but there are others on the margins (Amazing Fantasy #15 and the Master Planner saga are easily in my Top 25.)
In first place is Alan Moore. Watchmen is just my favorite comic book ever. But he wrote an inordinate number of my hundred favorite comic book stories, with the best Superman stories (until maybe All-Star Superman), Batman: The Killing Joke, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Miracleman/ Marvelman, Top Ten, From Hell, and his run on Swamp Thing. There are some other great comics I’m neglecting here.
This is all subject to change as I read more comics, although I’ve read plenty so far.
There are a few names that might be on the list if I reread some of their material, and come to appreciate how well it holds up. I could see an argument for Neil Gaiman, especially given the riches of his Sandman run. Grant Morrison’s been more prolific, and has decades of impressive comics with All-Star Superman, New X-Men, Batman/ Batman and Robin/ Batman Inc./ Arkham Asylum, Doom Patrol, JLA, The Invisibles, Animal Man.) All-Star Superman and the Sandman arc Season of Mists are in my personal top ten. With these guys, I’m familiar with their material. I need to reread it to see if their fifth best holds up as well as Alan Moore’s Top Ten, or Frank Miller’s Elektra saga (come to think of it, I should probably reread those as well.)
There are some classic writers who might end up being in my top three if I read enough of their work, and come to appreciate its quality. Harvey Kurtzman excelled in several different categories with the early issues of Mad Magazine, EC’s military comics, and The Jungle Book- an early effort at a graphic novel. His EC coworker Al Feldstein also produced some memorable work, with their Horror, Sci Fi, and New Direction titles, although I’m probably biased against writers whose material is so brief. It doesn’t allow for great character development, although there is a counterpoint that I’m judging their work by the wrong standard, given that Shakespeare’s sonnets or Beatles songs aren’t going to deliver in that category either.
Otto Binder (Captain Marvel, Silver Age Superman) is another writer who could conceivably be one of the best ever, although I need to read and reread more of his stories. Hugo Pratt’s work is tremendously acclaimed, although I haven’t read any of it.
There are several cartoonists who drew the work they wrote, which could make it difficult to assess their talents as writers. Osamu Tezuka is the manga giant who has demonstrated significant variety in subject matter, with Adolf, Astro Boy, Phoenix, Blackjack and Buddha. Will Eisner’s Spirit anthology is exceptional, and has recurring characters/ longer stories, and then he had his innovative graphic novels. Carl Barks devoted the bulk of his professional career to a sub-genre of licensed comics. And then there’s the Hernandez brothers. Chris Ware would also be on this list.
I’m neglecting the great writer/ artists who worked on comics strips, like Charles Schultz, George Herriman, Milton Caniff, and Bill Waterson. It’s possible that one day I’ll go deep enough into their work to definitively say that one of them is superior to Frank Miller.
There are other writers I greatly admire, although I know enough about their work to not rate them too high. This category would include Mark Waid, Brian Michael Bendis, Kurt Busiek, Ed Brubaker, Garth Ennis, Brian K Vaughan , Mark Millar and Geoff Johns. The main rule is that I’ve read plenty of really good comics from all of these gentlemen. I’ll make the quick aside that the writers are all male, though I think it’s due to factors that made women less interested in writing comics. The top female writers seem to be Gail Simone and Kelly Sue DeConnick, which is a bit worrisome in that they’re good, but from what I’ve read, not all time greats. It’s entirely possible that I’m biased in favor of the writers who impressed me when I was in high school, and that I’d have had a similarly positive reaction to the work of someone like G. Willow Wilson.
I haven’t read enough of Al Feldstein’s comics to know whether he’s a better writer than Kurt Busiek, but I’ve read enough to be able to rate Miller higher than Busiek. It’s an odd situation where I don’t know if I’d consider Kurtzman to be better than Frank Miller, or lower than Garth Ennis. Many of these writers are all alive, and producing new work, so it is possible that they’ll surpass their impressive ouvres. If Mark Waid adds to his record a run on the level of Gaiman’s Sandman, or a creative spurt like when Miller wrote Batman: Year One, The Dark Knight Returns and Daredevil: Born Again in quick succession, he’ll be in my top three.
Incidentally, my top ten, as the number of favorite comics produced seemed to be the basis for where a writer ranked:
- 10. Sandman: Season of Mists
- 9. The Galactus Saga/ This Man, This Monster
- 8. The Night Gwen Stacy Died
- 7. X-Men: Days of Future Past
- 6. The Dark Knight Returns
- 5. Batman: Year One
- 4. All-Star Superman
- 3. Daredevil: Born Again
- 2. Maus
- 1. Watchmen