Comic books these days are most often filled with stories that go for five to six issues, long enough to collect into a trade paperback. Some storylines go much longer than that, but it’s rare that there will be a “done in one” issue in-between or in the middle of a larger story. But when it does happen, those single issues can be spectacular. Here are a few single issue stories that are my favorite.
Animal Man was initially intended to only be a four-issue mini-series by Grant Morrison and Chas Truog. However, those first issues sold so well that DC decided to make it an ongoing series.
After the end of the first storyarc, Grant Morrison then realized that he needed a new story. Something that was weird, something about art. Something that involved the relationship between artist and reader.
Enter: Crafty the Coyote. “The Coyote Gospel” is partially from the perspective of Crafty, a Wile E. Coyote-type character from a world of cartoon violence, who appeals to his creator so that the violence may stop. The creator grants Crafty his wish...but only in return for entering the real world. It’s a strange and sad story that blends metafiction and tragedy together to make an outstanding comic book. (Morrison would follow this up later on with even more metafictional stories, culminating in an outstandingly fourth wall-breaking ending.)
How many comic books stop right in the middle of a storyline to tell a completely unrelated (yet still somewhat relevant) story? I can only think of one: The Sandman.
Gaiman had finished his first storyarc (“More Than Rubies,” later collected into Preludes and Nocturnes) and had started on his second one, “The Doll’s House.” However, right in the middle of the arc, there was “Men of Good Fortune,” a tale about Hob Gadling, a man who made a deal with Death so that as long as he wasn’t tired of life, he wouldn’t die.
The story goes through each of Hob’s visits to the same pub to meet with Dream each hundred years. We see Hob when he is happy and cheerful and when he is depressed with nothing. We get to know him and through him, we see a different side to Dream as well. A side that craves both understanding and companionship. “Men of Good Fortune” is a good look at the main character through someone else’s eyes.
Kurt Busiek had a long, epic run on Avengers in the early ‘00s and his run ended with the culmination of his long running “Triune Understanding” storyline as well as an invasion by Kang in the very epic (and 16-part) “Kang Dynasty” story.
But that wasn’t his last issue. His last issue was the one right after that. It was called “Lo, There Shall Come... an Accounting!” and it was about two accountants from the Maria Stark Foundation coming to ask the Avengers (specifically Captain America, Thor, Beast, Iron Man, She-Hulk, and USAgent) about the damage they caused during a fight with the Elements of Doom.
Each character is presented nearly exactly as they should — Beast quips as he explains how he accidentally crashed a Quinjet; the USAgent is brusque and arrogant as he shows no care for collateral damage; and She-Hulk even uses her own lawyer-y skills to explain why a lawsuit is baseless. It’s a fun and funny story, ending with the auditors walking away, the older one saying that they’ll just “fudge it” a bit. After a long and grueling story like “Kang Dynasty,” this was the perfect palette cleanser.
There are some great single issues of Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson’s post-cyberpunk masterpiece to choose from. There’s issue 5, “What Spider Watches on TV,” which is hilarious in its satire of everything television. But the best single issue is, in fact, the most realistic and the most depressing: “Business.”
It’s about children prostitutes — Spider Jerusalem, bastard with a heart of gold, takes them out to a fast food restaurant in order to interview them and find out why they do this, what happened to them. The conversations that entail are both enlightening and utterly heartbreaking.
This culminates in Spider’s conversation with a social worker where the moral of the issue is printed out in big, bold letters:
“Everyone’s looking for someone to blame. Society. Culture. Hollywood. Predators. Looking everywhere but the right place. Children are very simple, Mr. Jerusalem. Very easy devices to break, or assemble wrong. You want to know who did this to these kids? Only their parents. That’s the thing no one wants to hear. Every time you stop thinking about how you’re treating your kid, you make one of these. It really is as simple as that. It’s got nothing to do with the failure of the society or any of that. It’s got everything to do with the responsibility of making a human. Why are your kids selling themselves on the streets? Because you fucked up the job of raising them. That’s what no one wants to hear. That we can’t blame anything outside our houses.”
Zot! was Scott McCloud’s tribute to superhero comics in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s. The main character was Zachary T. Paleozogt or “Zot” for short and he came from the “far flung future of 1965” (actually an alternate Earth perpetually stuck in a retrofuturistic 1965). He went on adventures with his robot butler and his friends from our Earth, including Jenny and her brother.
Towards the end of the run, however, Zot became stuck in our Earth and the stories became more mundane. These were the “Earth Stories,” stories told about Jenny and her circle of friends, with Zot as only an occasional character. Of these, “Normal” is the best: it is about Jenny’s friend Teresa and her struggle to figure out her feelings toward another girl, Pamela. Pamela has been labeled a “dyke” by the mean kids at school, whom Teresa hangs out with, but Teresa has feelings for her...and yet she can’t bring herself to talk to her, she is so afraid of being ostracized. At one point, she asks Zot if, on his world, “Would they think I was normal?”
Sure, the story is sometimes ham-fisted with its message, but it came out in 1990. That type of message was needed back then. Overall, it’s a simple and powerful story. (Also: keep reading after the letters/author’s note page. You won’t regret it.)
Do you have any other suggestions for single-issue comic books?