It feels like a lifetime ago when I used to be an avid reader of books — comic books, to be more precise. Yet, when I was asked to do this article for the first Saturday of May (Free Comic Book Day, for non-nerds), I found myself enamoured by the numerous avenues this feature could take.
An article about the most essential stories to read on this day? Maybe a list of best Free Comic Book Day offerings in history? Or just a Batman celebration to commemorate the anniversary of his first appearance in Detective Comics #27 (cover date May 1939)? But leave it up to Covid-19 to mess up the best-laid plans… Free Comic Book Day got postponed to August 2021 just as I began writing this.
Regardless, the train had set its motions, and I began to reminisce about my childhood, about the heroes that wear capes, about the medium as an artform and how its stories often have a way to connect like no other.
After carefully considering a number of options, I landed finally on the topic of my personal favourite issue #1s in comic book history. What I have compiled are seven single issues that can serve as gateways into the worlds of these superheroes and heroines. So, without further ado — and as Heath Ledger's Joker proclaims in The Dark Knight (2008) — "Here we go."
Grant Morrison & Howard Porter
(DC Comics, 1996)
The story I keep telling myself about where my comic book fandom began — witnessing this work of art in my oldest friend's house sitting on a table in an early 2000s evening. Everything about it fascinated me (yes, even the 90s-ness of it all). A long-haired Superman, the classic yellow symbol version of Batman, Aquaman's hook for a hand, the contrast between the white-eyed masks of Wally West's Flash and Kyle Rayner's Green Lantern to Martian Manhunter's red eyes — all of it left me in awe! I will die on the hill stating that this first arc written by Grant Morrison is his magnum opus (not his later more convoluted works), where Howard Porter's art magnificently brings together the A-list of DC's biggest superheroes after the previous era of Justice League focused on more comedic hijinks with the Guy Gardners and Blue Beetles of the world.
Spider-Man Versus Wolverine: High Tide #1
Jim Owsley & Mark Bright
(Marvel Comics, 1987)
The true story of how my comic fandom began — witnessing this marvel on a random New Market shelf while strolling by with my mother on a late 90s morning. "Versus" stories always excite the little kid that exists in a lot of people (just look at the pandemic-era box office of Godzilla vs. Kong (2021)), and this clash between my two favourite Marvel characters really captured my imagination. Spidey against Logan left an indelible mark on my tastes for this kind of entertainment, as the issue is packed with brilliant visuals, insane action sequences, and a strong story throughout. I will always appreciate the polar opposite viewpoints presented in the quippy Peter Parker characterisation compared to the gruff Wolverine in this story opener that set the stage for the rest of the miniseries.
Batman (Volume 2) #1
Scott Snyder & Greg Capullo
(DC Comics, 2011)
A modern day masterpiece sprang up during the legendary run of Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo's perfectly layered "The Court of Owls" storyline. Probably one of the only true gems of the ill-fated "New 52" initiative, and also one of the few entries highlighted in this list which will not be coloured through nostalgic glasses. When I read this back in the early 2010s, I could completely comprehend everything unlike the more childish exuberance I feel for the stuff I read in my childhood. The artwork took a little getting used to, but the introduction of the Court of Owls concept remains one of the most important additions to the Batman-mythology in recent times. A must-read and must-have for fans of the Caped Crusader, and a great entry point for modern Batman.
Ultimate Spider-Man #1
Brian Michael Bendis & Mark Bagley
(Marvel Comics, 2000)
Oh, the Ultimate Universe. Definitely one of the first instances where I felt that comic books as a medium can always recycle familiar stories with fresh new spins on them. To put that statement into perspective, let's discuss the Spider-Man origin story (bear with me). By now everyone knows the major beats about a radioactive spider biting Peter Parker's hand, thanks to the Sam Raimi trilogy, or the Andrew Garfield movies (greatly inspired by the Ultimate line), or the numerous retellings in the comics through flashbacks or alternate realities; so ingrained is the story that Tom Holland's newest take did not even need an introduction. But I'd argue that the best reworking of this well-trodden origin story was penned by Brian Michael Bendis, in the first issue of the landmark Ultimate line. The fact that it made things fresh despite changing very little from the broad strokes made it a masterstroke on the part of Marvel to undertake such an approach (later to the benefit of the Mouse House).
Green Lantern: Rebirth #1
Geoff Johns & Ethan Van Sciver
(DC Comics, 2004)
This kickstarter of an issue was certainly the spark that lit the Green Lantern fire in my heart. With the thankless task of reviving the dead Hal Jordan (last seen as the villainous Parallax at the tail-end of Zero Hour (1994) and The Final Night (1996)), Geoff Johns juggled numerous threads that were then carried forward and paid off in the next two arcs, Sinestro Corps War (2007) and Blackest Night (2009-2010). These three books comprise a trilogy that fans and critics alike celebrate as the crowning work in the Green Lantern canon, receiving comparisons to the original Star Wars trilogy. The fact that this issue laid the foundation that legitimately made Green Lantern the central figure of the DC Universe in the late 2000s is an achievement that warrants its inclusion here on its own.
The Dark Knight Returns #1
(DC Comics, 1986)
It is definitely the most underrated of the four issues that comprise the seminal The Dark Knight Returns, but issue #1 has a soft spot for me, as it has one of the cruellest twists in comic book history near its end. Not only is it shocking on its own but it also begs an interesting examination of the "Is Batman or Bruce Wayne the true mask?" question. It was a clever and cathartic scene that left quite an impression along with the fact that everything that happened in later issues came about due to the excellent build-up created in this one in regards to future antagonists of the story (the Mutants, the Clown Prince of Crime, and the Man of Steel). You have to tip your hat to Frank Miller at his 1980s apex for this incredibly dark take on the World's Greatest Detective and his enigmatic rogues gallery (including a certain Big Blue Boy Scout). The issue's cover alone is as striking as the medium has ever produced.
X-Men (Volume 2) #1
Chris Claremont & Jim Lee
(Marvel Comics, 1991)
Rounding out this list is one of my absolute favourite issues, period. In a return to the 1990s nostalgia that I revel in, we will now head to Xavier's Institute for Higher Learning. X-Men #1 — for decades the highest-selling single issue comic book, with over seven million units shipped — remains the quintessential comic book rollercoaster to start your mutant journey with. The issue, titled "Rubicon", is of great significance to the X-Men series; it manages to revamp Magneto into a menacing threat, introduce the Asteroid M base that is to play a large part going forward, and perhaps most notably, the issue solidifies the iconic costumes most synonymous with the X-Men characters. While admittedly an acquired taste, Jim Lee's visuals are gorgeously realised here, and Chris Claremont's inspired writing conjures up the past, recapping every dynamic present in the comic book to set up future events. This issue is truly the best of both worlds.
So, there you have it, folks. This list is by no means meant to be holistic, but rather a start off point. And that's the purpose of a day for giving out free comic books — to begin the gradual immersion of new generations into the never-ending stories of the heroes they have become familiar with on the silver screen. Be it on the first Saturday of May or later this August with the coronavirus less of a factor than it is now ideally, I hope you all enjoy these seven superhero-focused #1s recommended here.
Mir Zariful Karim has written for The Prestige Magazine. He currently works for Antopolis, and maintains his diet of Coca-Cola, comic books, and professional wrestling.