The problem with comic books is that there are so many of them published over the years you can't help but miss a few of the good ones. For every stinker you buy, there are bound to be a one or two great ones you skipped altogether.
Let's jump beyond the obvious choices like Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns, and let's pick some of the lesser-known stories you might have missed over the years. Some of these were back-up stories in a book, while some carried the spotlight, but they all only lasted one issue. They might not have resonated with some effect throughout the comic universe for years to come, but they are great storytelling and worth the time and effort to find.
X-Men #159 - "Night Screams"
What do you get when you combine mutants (comic's most popular hero type) with vampires (television's most popular villain type)? You get X-Men #159 from 1982!
This one is a rarity because 1) it's a self-contained story and 2) it's got Dracula himself returning to the Marvel Universe! Dracula basically ruled the 70's for Marvel as their horror comic of choice, and this reappearance of him in the most popular book of the day made happy readers everywhere. Storm becomes seduced to the dark side...a familiar setting for this team that made for a tense story.
At the time, this was the first time Marvel's mutants had ever faced a villain of this magnitude. Sure, they'd fought Magneto a hundred times or so, but this was a villain they couldn't even touch! Dracula tossed them around like they were nothing.
And though Nightcrawler's religious leanings had been hinted at in earlier issues, this was the first time we got a strong acknowledgment not only of the depth of his beliefs but of the power behind them. His famous, "I believe!" statement with the cross was the turning point of the battle for the team. In the end though, they couldn't even claim a clean victory over Drac, as he left on his own after a confrontation with a now-free Ororo.
This was a high point for the X-Men during the early 80's. They were the most best-selling comic book out there, and this story managed to show one of the reasons why.
Fantastic Four # 245 - "Childhood's End"
This is another big issue from 1982, and it stands out for a lot of reasons. The Invisible Woman returns to the Baxter Building to find Reed and Ben trashed in the hall and some mysterious blond guy choking Johnny. As soon as the stranger tosses Johnny aside, Susan finds herself fighting for her life against a villain who can somehow counteract her powers.
This was a great issue because it finally allowed Susan to cut loose and show herself a powerful hero in her own right and not just the customary damsel-in-distress she was for the first years of the FF's run. She does things in this issue with her powers that she'd never done before (breaking her fall from the top of the Baxter Building by creating a giant, invisible force cube, for one thing) and every single thing she tosses at the guy just doesn't seem to work.
In the end, the villain turns out to be a very familiar character in a different form, and the only way Susan defeats him is by emotion and not power.
This issue also reveals a big secret from another member of the team: Ben Grimm. As one last act of kindness, the "villain" of the story offers to heal the Thing. But as he probes Ben's mind, he discovers a secret that he mentally shares with Mister Fantastic: Ben doesn't want to be cured! All his years of trying to come up with a cure for Ben, and Reed suddenly finds out Ben didn't actually want him to succeed in any of them.
And finally, the identity of the bad guy in this story gave us a glimpse into the future possibilities of a regular character in that book. Over the years we've seen glimpses of what he might become, but nothing on this scale of power yet.
The Incredible Hulk # 340 - "Vicious Circle"
A Hulk/Wolverine confrontation isn't something new, but this particular match-up from 1988 actually was. For the first time, Wolverine was facing off against the "smart" Hulk. No longer just brute force, Hulk now kept a clear head through it all. And to top it all off, Wolverine actually tried to be the voice of reason this time around!
Of course, things never turn out the way they're supposed to in a comic book. Eventually, Wolverine pops the claws and it's off to the slash-and-smash for the two of them.
The thing that helps set this issue apart is the artwork from Todd McFarlane. His style gives a savage look to this brutal smackdown, and it really makes this story memorable.
I've never been a fan of the grey Hulk look. To me, it sort of makes him look more like Frankenstein than a hero, but it adds to the story here. Throw in my favorite Wolverine costume, and you have a winner.
Of course, as with every confrontation these two have, there is no clear cut winner. Interference at the end of the fight causes them to break it up and move on, but while it lasts this is one of their better battles.
Next week, we look at 3 more essential stories!