Reviewer extraordinaire Zack Smith reveals his top nine comics from a lifetime's reading, from his early affection for SCROOGE MCDUCK to his passion for Lawrence Marvit's SPARKS.
13 March 2006

Zack Smith has been one of Ninth Art's most prolific, eclectic and articulate reviewers for the past four years, and he recently joined the site's Forecast team. His articles for the site have included reviews of Jules Feiffer's TANTRUM, Rich Koslowski's THREE FINGERS, the works of Jeffrey Brown, and Ted Naifeh's COURTNEY CRUMRIN books. A masters graduate in journalism, he makes his living working at his city newspaper, and maintains a personal blog, She Smelled Like Oysters.

Carl Barks

I got into comics because of DUCKTALES. For those that don't remember, it was a Disney cartoon that aired in syndication in the late 1980s, about Uncle Scrooge McDuck and his nephews, and how they'd roam the world looking for treasure. Mom made the mistake of finding out it was based on a comic, and giving issues out as favours for my birthday party.

The original Uncle Scrooge stories by Carl Barks were what got me into comics, because they were like the cartoon, but better. Sure, you didn't have Launchpad the crash-prone pilot, but the comics also lacked the sentimentality and overt moralising you got with the cartoon.

This was the best volume, collecting a dozen gorgeously recoloured Barks adventures with commentary by the author. Christmas, 1987. That was a good year.

I met my best friend because we were the only ones in the third grade who read these comics. We're still friends today.

Fabian Nicieza and Mark Bagley

I got into superheroes because Gladstone, who had been publishing the Disney books, stopped. Disney itself took it over, and it just wasn't the same. I figured I should 'grow up' and start reading superhero books like everyone else. My definition of 'growing up' may be slightly tilted.

This was one of those weird little traumatic books for me, because the cliffhanger didn't have a happy ending. Marvel Boy, who'd accidentally killed his abusive father with his power, was on trial, and he was found guilty in this issue.

And I was fried. It was a lot more morally complex than what I was used to dealing with in comics. The hero had killed, he was found guilty in a court of law, and he accepted his sentence. It was one of those "everything's not black and white" moments in life. I drifted away from the book after a while, but this stuck with me for a long time.

My man Zeb Wells did a revival of the NEW WARRIORS last year, and I helped him with getting some perspective on the characters. He named a character for me, who got killed by a flesh-eating virus. That was pretty cool.

Shane O'Shea and Ogden Whitney

I never really had a down-cycle when it came to comics. You know, where you lapse as a teenager, and then you come back when you discover some cool book that speaks to the mature person you are now. When I was 12, sure, I discovered girls, but I also discovered that I couldn't talk to them. And there were so many weird old comics out there; it was fun to try to find the imaginative stuff.

Silver Age and '70s Kirby DC was always great: METAL MEN, METAMORPHO, KAMANDI, the original DOOM PATROL, all that mental stuff. But HERBIE, this bizarre strip from the 1960s, was one of my favourites.

The saga of a fat kid so lazy he couldn't even utter a complete sentence, yet could somehow derive every last power you could think of from a lollipop, was, I suppose, the ultimate comic nerd fantasy.

It had all kinds of fans: Scott Shaw did a whole week of Oddball Comics devoted to it, Marv Wolfman almost got his big break from a 'Write a Herbie Story' contest, and Bob Burden teamed him up with the Flaming Carrot. Hell, even John Byrne did a Herbie story.

The reprints I read were the ones by A+ Comics, which teamed the older stories with weird, random stuff from older Silver Age and Charlton books. They had Fatman, the Human Flying Saucer in one. Good, goofy stuff.

I was always amazed that this never became a Nickelodeon cartoon or something. Herbie was, and is, the man.

Paul Chadwick

My dad didn't like a lot of the comics I read. He was always confiscating SANDMAN or something because there was some sex or violence he objected to. I bought the first issue of SACHS AND VIOLENS at my local comic shop, and showed it to him, and he was so pissed that he went down to Capital Comics and let the guy know he didn't want me reading stuff like this.

This was 1993, around the time of Mike Diana, so yeah, they got scared. I had a shit time trying to get Vertigo books all through high school.

CONCRETE, with its gentle, introspective stories of a man trying to deal with the possibilities and limitations of a powerful body, was one of the few mature books my dad didn't object to. There was some sex and violence, but he understood the context. It was kind of a nice bonding experience for us; we finally had a comic we both liked.

I met Paul Chadwick last year, and commissioned a watercolour of Concrete discussing travel books with my dad as a Christmas present. Dad framed it and hung it in his office.

Christopher Priest and Howard Porter

This one is probably my most obscure choice, but it represents two things that obsessed me in high school: Christopher Priest's writing and short-lived DC books.

DC was open to a number of different books throughout the mid-to-late 1990s, a few of which had good runs (HITMAN, STARMAN), and the rest... didn't. I'm talking about AZTEK, CHASE, YOUNG HEROES IN LOVE, that whole crowd. You have to give the company props for trying something different, but it was a state of constant frustration.

THE RAY was the first of these series I picked up, and also my first exposure to the writing of Christopher Priest. And when I was, I dunno, 14, 15, 'Graveyard' was the funniest book in the world to me. The story is that the Ray, having just come off a city-shattering confrontation with his archenemy, his girlfriend dumping him, and running into Superman while drunk, has to cover the night shift at his fast-food job.

And that's the whole plot.

Opening with Ray's dealings with a bunch of rich, white college boys and a bunch of black, urban college boys, and descending into an encounter with the Black Condor (who just wants to order a salad), the book was a strange mixture of social humour, personal introspection, and just plain weirdness. And I dug it. You can read it online at Priest's website.

It was always lousy with these short-lived DC books. You'd get into them, then they'd get cancelled and everything would be tied up in one issue. It was one more thing that sucked about high school. Not only did I read comic books, I read the comic books that no one else read.

Kyle Baker

Like SCROOGE, I owe this book for one of my best friends. I started college in 1998, and my parents let me have some money, and because I just stole all my music off the net, I used a good bit of it to catch up on indy books I'd missed.

WALLY was one of my first purchases, and I laughed myself stupid. Kyle Baker had, and still has, one of the best senses of pacing in all of comics. The book would be worth it alone for the 'Sands of Blood' and 'Hamlet' sequences.

Anyway, the long and short of it is I met a guy in Scholar's Forum who I'd known in high school, and we hadn't gotten along, and we got to talking and I found out he used to be in comics. I loaned him WALLY and he wound up buying like $600 worth of stuff in the next few months. He went with me to San Diego once, and we talk all the time. So, Bateman, this memory's for you.

David Lapham

I probably got into this one because of one of Randy Lander's reviews. I didn't have the internet in high school, but the few times I got on it I found Snap Judgments. And Randy was cool, because there was finally someone writing about the obscure books I liked. I got into a lot of indy stuff because of him, and we later became friends.

The other thing this one reminds me of is Foundation's Edge on Hillsborough Street in Raleigh, where I pretty much lived during college. It was right across the street from the library and next door to a bank. The selection was incredible and the clerks were fantastic. I still drop in when I'm in town to get some wisdom from Scott or Erich or Rick McGee, master of all knowledge.

Anyway, they would have these sales a couple times a year, and Rick was canny to mark a couple of prestige items way down so people would discover them. It worked, curse his blood.

This was a great impulse-buy that really opened up my eyes to some great storytelling. Dave Lapham crafted some of the most utterly relentless stories in comics, crafting suspense over what could happen while also throwing in some laugh-out-loud comedy. I was utterly spoiled for the series after this, and could have naught but the hardcovers, where his spectacular art could be truly appreciated. I still find new stuff each time I go back to this book. Poor Virginia.

Lawrence Marvit

I reviewed this one for Ninth Art when it came out. I was in a mixed place in my life; I'd lived at home throughout college and was finally moving away from my friends. And I had a lot of trouble connecting with people, still do. SPARKS really spoke to that.

It was one of the few times a comic book made me cry, and the only time where I frantically e-mailed every reviewer I could think of to get the word out. It didn't sell very well, and most people I know simply wouldn't pick it up because it's expensive and long.

I was mad about that for a while. It was a time when a lot of people were really screaming about how comics needed something new, and this to me was a lot better and more substantial than most of the books people were heralding. That this isn't better known, and that creator Lawrence Marvit hasn't done more books, is a real crime.

Neal Adams, Jose Ortiz, Alex Toth, John Severin, Bernie Wrightson et al

Grad school was a mixed time for me. I hadn't gone away for college, and now I was living in an apartment complex where my next-door neighbours had a rock band and the girl above me had very noisy physical relationships. And I was trying to get through grad school, had no car, couldn't leave town, nothing but bars everywhere. I got really depressed and, while I didn't do drugs or drink myself stupid, I lost pretty much all faith in myself and my writing. It kind of sucked.

I had a hard time keeping up with my friends back home for my first couple of quarters, so the only people I still knew were from the Internet. I was big on Delphi, and I tried to keep my sanity by buying cheap back issues on EBay.

I got the WARREN COMPANION from TwoMorrows one summer, and set out getting the back issues with the best stories. CREEPY #75 was the big one, because it had 'Thrill Kill' by Neal Adams. It's a short, Eisner-esque piece about an urban sniper, narrated in the form of a newspaper interview after the fact. The COMPANION picked it as Warren's all-time best short story.

The issue was impossible to come by via bids, but this dude I knew online, Adam White, offered me his copy. The book was great, just a spectacular read from start to finish, with not only 'Thrill Kill' but also the amazing 'The Escape Chronicle' by the forgotten genius Jose Ortiz. Just some of the best black and white artwork I've ever seen.

Comics have never really been an escape for me. They've been a kind of stimulant, because a good one opens you up to the possibilities of the imagination - not so much with radioactive spiders and last sons of Krypton, but with how far an idea can go.

This article is Ideological Freeware. The author grants permission for its reproduction and redistribution by private individuals on condition that the author and source of the article are clearly shown, no charge is made, and the whole article is reproduced intact, including this notice.

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