Shelf Life: Revealing the Secret Handshake Comics

Thu, August 8th, 2013 at 3:38pm PDT | Updated: August 8th, 2013 at 5:00pm

Comic Books
Ron Marz, Columnist

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Revealing the Secret Handshakes in Comics

There are secret handshakes among comic pros, especially artists. No, not hidden knowledge about how to break in, or how to navigate the editorial process, or how to get a San Diego hotel room within eight blocks of the con. I mean secret-handshake comics, issues that are recognized in the creator community as special, the kind of work that can influence a whole generation.

Of course, that's also true of landmark runs. Stan and Jack's "Fantastic Four" or Walter Simonson's "Thor," to name just two, have inspired multiple generations to create comics. I've written previously on my favorite runs, all of which succeed as long-form stories, as well as yielding classic stories of one or a few issues.

The same can be said of miniseries or short runs. I could mention things like the Miller-Romita, Jr. "Man Without Fear," Windsor-Smith's "Weapon X," Stelfreeze's "Domino" and "Matador," Miller's "Ronin," Garcia-Lopez's "Cinder and Ashe" or "Atari Force," "Monkeyman and O'Brien" by Arthur Adams, and so many more.

But for this secret-handshake list, I'm only talking about singular issues -- standalones, one-shots, short stories. These are comparatively brief, brilliant gems. They're also not quite as well known as some others, something like "The Killing Joke" or "For the Man Who Has Everything" from "Superman Annual" #11. But that's the "secret" part; they're not as widely recognized, but they're still almost shorthand among creators. If you know these issues, you get it. You're in the club.

I got in touch with a number of my artist friends, including Bryan Hitch, Sean Murphy, Bart Sears, Dan Jurgens, Phil Hester, Peter Krause and Andy Lanning, and picked their brains to come up these dozen issues. These aren't by any means the only secret-handshake comics, but these are the ones at the top of my list.

Doctor Strange #55: Writer Roger Stern's run on "Doctor Strange" is underappreciated as a whole, especially the issues drawn by Marshall Rogers and Paul Smith respectively. But issue #55 by Michael Golden and Terry Austin is the artistic high point of the run, maybe the artistic high point of Doctor Strange as a whole. I could just as easily have listed Michael Golden's seminal work on "Avengers Annual #10," but I'll always love Doc a little better.

Batman and the Outsiders Annual #1: Kevin Nowlan penciling, inking and coloring. At the time, I'd never seen anything like the angular art style, not to mention the color palette. I have very little memory of the story, but I can still vividly recall specific panels from the issue.
Legends of the Dark Knight #54: This issue is commonly pointed out as the job where Mike Mignola took the major step -- in both art and story -- that would lead him to Hellboy. Stark, simple, powerful. Gorgeous color work by Mark Chiarello.
Legends of the DC Universe #6: Robin meets Superman for the first time. The art is credited to Dave Taylor (layouts) and Kevin Nowlan (finishes and color), but it feels almost purely, gorgeously Nowlan. The sparse script by Kelley Puckett gets out of the way and lets the art tell the story. That Chris Moeller cover ain't too bad either.
Daredevil #191: Maybe I'm breaking my own rules here, since this issue is part of Miller's larger "Daredevil" run, rather than a completely singular entity. But this story of Daredevil playing Russian roulette with a paralyzed Bullseye succeeds as a standalone work, as well as part of the larger whole. The artwork has a different, rougher quality than Miller's other, Klaus Janson-inked issues, thanks to Terry Austin's pen.
Detective Comics #442: Damn near every Alex Toth job belongs on the secret-handshake list. This slot could just as easily belong to "F-86 Sabre Jet" or "The Crushed Gardenia," but I think there's a special allure to Toth and Batman together, especially with Archie Goodwin along for the ride, as he is in for "Death Flies the Haunted Sky" in this issue of Detective.
WildC.A.T.S. #25: Dave Johnson (inked by Kevin Nowlan) and Travis Charest illustrate an Alan Moore script split between Earth and outer space. The Johnson/Nowlan pages were even colored by Glen Murakami. Turn your nose up at the '90s-tastic chromium cover if you want; it's everything between the covers that matters.
Batman: The Gauntlet: Lee Weeks is one of the most consistently underrated artists in the industry, especially on street-level characters like Daredevil, Spider-Man and Batman. This is less a Batman story than a Robin story, but Gotham City and its denizens have rarely looked this perfect.
Savage Sword of Conan #6: Specifically, the "People of the Dark" story, illustrated by Alex Nino. After debuting during the "Filipino Invasion" of the 1970s, Nino made his mark across a wide range of comics, which might have something to do with why his notoriety is not commensurate with his immense talent. This design-heavy Conan job is among his best. The entirety of "People of the Dark" can be seen on a blog, but I'm not entirely comfortable linking directly to it. It's out there if you want to look, though. (Nino's design work for Disney animation is also breathtaking, and well worth tracking down.)
Creature from the Black Lagoon: Any number of Arthur Adams jobs could go on this list, everything from "X-Men" to "Jonni Future." Maybe I'm moved to pick this one because I was able to see a number of the pages being inked in person (again, by Terry Austin). The original boards were oversize, almost twice the size of standard boards, and stunning to behold. I remember Terry telling me he had to soak his hand nightly after long days of inking the pages.
First Issue Special #9: One of my favorite characters (Doctor Fate) drawn by one of my favorite people (Walter Simonson), wrapped in a Joe Kubert cover. I've always loved Dr. Fate as a visual and as a character. I can trace that affection back to the 1985 reprint of this Simonson-drawn story.
Aliens: Salvation: Mignola inked by Nowlan. You knew this was going to be on the list, right?

That's my dozen (and I didn't even get to mention "Batman" #400, "Superman" #400, Tony Salmons in "Legends of the Dark Knight" #85, or Jorge Zaffino in "Savage Sword of Conan" #162). What's your list?

Ron Marz has been writing comics for two decades, and thinks it's pretty much the best job ever. His current work includes "Artifacts" and "Ravine" for Top Cow, "The Protectors" for Athleta Comics and his creator-owned title, "Shinku," for Image. Follow him on Twitter (@ronmarz) and his website, www.ronmarz.com.

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