Have you ever found yourself flipping through a stack of back issues without any real goal in mind, hoping a title might jump out at you? The comics fly past under your fingers, and your eyes glaze over a little as a litany of unrelated titles and a swarm of numbers without any sequence cruise on by, forgotten as soon as they are seen. The problem with a giant stack of back issues – especially one that is disorganised – is that without knowing what you’re looking for going in, chances are you’re not going to find anything. Some of the best piles of back issues can be found in places you least suspect, too, like a garage sale or a second-hand store. I’m never prepared when I find these piles, and more often than not, I leave without buying a single one.
A friend of mine has a great solution for this. He keeps a list of every comic he is interested in picking up in his wallet (although a smart-phone could do the same job, he’s old school and prefers paper wherever possible). If you don’t keep a list of back issues you’d like to pick up, I encourage you to do so. When you make that list, I have three titles I think you should to add to it.
My favourite issues of any comic book series are always the one-shots, the tight stories that stand on their own and can be told in the space of thirty or so pages (It’s a bit ironic that my long-winded self prefers brevity in comics, but there you have it). The lovely part about one-shots found in back-issue bins is that you can get a complete story and not have to worry about larger continuity, where the comic fits in a time-line, and (perhaps most importantly) finding the rest of the story somewhere else at another time. If you dig a good, tight comic book story, put these titles on your list.
Ultimate X-Men #41 (March 2004)
Ultimate X-Men #41 is a winner on two levels. First and foremost, this comic is a triumph of atmosphere. It tells the story of a teenager who wakes up one morning with mutant powers. In that respect, his story doesn’t seem that far removed from your average mutant book, but Ultimate X-Men #41 gets interesting when seeks to ask what happens when that mutant power cannot be contained and is immediately and eminently lethal. The mutant, who remains nameless but does sign a note to his mother with the letter J, quickly realises that he is the source of the complete devastation of all life around him and runs off to the wilderness to hide. Wolverine is sent to find him, but the end goal is not to bring J back to Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. Wolverine is sent to kill J, using the justification that if the story of J’s mutation were to become publicly known, “that’d be it for mutants,” that there is a “bigger picture kind of thing going on.”
And therein lies the comic’s strength: the bigger picture is implied in tightly focused story about J. Ultimate X-Men #41 has very little dialogue prior to Wolverine’s arrival, and even afterward, it is a comic that revels in its own decompressed style. In most panels, Wolverine just says “yeah,” allowing J to realise his own story as he tells it back. The emotion behind the story is telegraphed through David Finch’s pencils. As emotional and reactionary as J is, Wolverine stands as a stoic counterpoint. Where Finch draws J in a variety of emotional states, and indeed spends entire pages showing the transformation of those emotions across J’s face, Wolverine stays neutral the entire time. Even his dialouge seems stripped of emotion, somehow always flat and level – and this is where the comic’s second level of success resides. Wolverine is an enigma, and here he is preforming a necessary but very unsavoury act. Is J’s death at Wolverine’s hands a mercy killing? Is it murder? Is the killing for J, for mutantkind at large, or both? Was it really Professor X who sent Wolverine, and does killing a young mutant fit with his vision for mutantkind? These questions and more lurk below Wolverine’s uncharacteristically calm demenor. That subterranian potential really makes this single issue sing, and just feeds back into the overall atmosphere of the book. Although Wolverine’s actions here will come to bear later in the Ultimate X-Men story, I don’t feel that takes away from how the story plays out in Ultimate X-Men #41 when it is read on its own. This story offers the very best thing that a book on mutants can: humanity. Despite the genectic differences, at the end of the day, mutants are still people.
Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic #38: Faithful Execution (Feb. 2008)
Faithful Execution is an interstitial issue of Knight of the old Republic, filling a gap between two major story arcs. It is guilty of some plot and character recap, so a couple lines of dialogue won’t mean much to a casual reader. It is nevertheless a good read. Faithful execution tries to do two things at once. Despite the publication date, it is a Halloween story; a classic locked starship murder mystery. Normally Star Wars and horror don’t go hand in hand, but this side of the story is entire adequate, if a little predictable. Where Faithful Execution really shines in its exploration of a droid’s view of morality and sense of place.
Droids in Star Wars are not necessarily subject to Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, but there is still room for great storytelling where a droid’s sense of morality and duty conflicts with the orders it has been given. Faithful Execution’s real star is the mostly catatonic loader droid Elbee. Elbee was once ordered to destroy himself, an order that was faithfully executed. After being repaired, Elbee’s blind acceptance of the order that caused his own destruction results in a logical fault. It takes the outside influence of another droid, the unwilling accomplice of the Halloween story’s murderer, for Elbee to become enlightened. Although droids must act according to their master’s wishes, they are given agency in how those orders are carried out. For Elbee, recognising that agency to do right empowers him to be a kind of superhero – working with a much more benevolent master, Elbee sees hope for the future, something he lacks when this comic begins. That simple evolution makes this particular issues of my favourite Star Wars series stand out from the crowd.
Green Lantern Corps. #25: Powers That Be (Nov. 2013)
Written as a tie-in to the New 52’s Year Zero Batman event, Powers That Be is a cross-over comic and as such does not seem like a likely candidate for a gripping one-shot, but here we are. The present action of the story involves John Stewart and his fellow marines attempting to evacuate civilians from Gotham City in the face of a hurricane. The present action is balanced by a ‘twenty years ago’ segment where Stewart’s mother explains some of the intricacies of the civil rights movement to her son. The lessons Stewart learns from his mother that day twenty years ago come to bear in the present when the civilians prove to be in the thrall of Anarky and Stewart’s commanding officer is a little too gung-ho about removing them from the path of the storm. Stewart’s strong will and understanding of good allow him to bring a quickly escalating situation to a peaceful resolution, but at the cost his military career. Batman makes an electrifying two panel cameo at just the right moment, too.
You might notice that my summary makes no mention of Green Lantern. That’s because this story takes place before John Stewart joins the Corps. It’s a superhero comic book from a time before John Stewart was a superhero – a Green Lantern title without so much as a whiff of a power ring. It serves to illustrate that what makes a superhero isn’t just the powers, but also the character of the person behind the suit. Stewart’s great willpower is evident here, but so is his basic humanity and his absolute need to do right. It’s like Guy Gardner explains when he brings fellow Red Lanterns Skallox and Zilius Zox to Earth for a tour (and I’m paraphrasing here) – powers can and often do drive people mad. It takes somebody special to wield superpowers for good and the betterment of others, and this one-shot keenly demonstrates that John Stewart is exactly that kind of person. In a word: it is not the green lantern ring that makes John Stewart a superhero.
If you can’t wait to find these books in a back issue box, all three are available from digital shops online, although the Star Wars title is currently only available in a collection from Marvel’s store. All three comics can be found in collected editions as well!
Ultimate X-Men #41 is part of Ultimate X-Men Vol 8: New Mutants and Ultimate X-Men Ultimate Collection Vol 4.
Knight of the Old Republic: Faithful Execution can be found in Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic Omnibus Vol. 3, or KOTOR vol 7: Dueling Ambitions
Green Lantern Corps #25: Powers that Be is available in Green Lantern Corps vol. 4: Rebuild or the DC Comics Zero Year hardcover collection.