Hard-Traveling Fanboys: Countdown (Favorite Writers)

Mild-mannered reporters by day, Greg Phillips and Nick Duke share an intense love of comic books that has made them the Hard-Traveling Fanboys. And if there’s anything that fanboys love, it’s debating what book is better than another book or which character is “cooler.” Enter Countdown, a monthly column where Greg and Nick will give a top 5 list and debate the merits therein.

Nick: Welcome back, occasional readers, to the pages of Countdown. This week, Greg and I are going to thrill you by praising our five favorite comic writers of all time. Again, as with every Countdown, these are our favorites, not our opinion of who is the actual best ever.

Greg: In last week’s edition of Secret Origins, Nick and I told you about our mutual love of Green Lantern and how that forged a comic book bond between us. This week, we’re listing our favorite comic writers. Any list like this is completely subjective, so be sure to tell us some of your favorites on Facebook, Twitter (@gphillips8652 and @nickduke87) or on our PTB email accounts (Greg’s and Nick’s).

Without any further ado, let’s kick things off with Nick’s No. 5 selection.

Nick’s No. 5: Paul Dini

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Greg: The man responsible for many of the great stories in DC’s animated catalogue also has a strong history in comics.

Nick: Now, when most people think of Paul Dini, they think of television, not comics. However, while his body of work in the comics industry may not be as large as some of the other writers I considered, I would argue that the quality of the work that is there is as high as anyone’s.

For example, consider the character of Hush, who was introduced in outstanding fashion by Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee, only to be badly mishandled in “Hush Returns” by a new creative team.

Greg: Ugh, what a disastrous story that was.

A.J. Lieberman might make our list of least favorite writers.
A.J. Lieberman might make our list of least favorite writers.

Nick: Dini came in a few years later and used the character brilliantly in his runs on both Detective Comics and Streets of Gotham. I love Scott Snyder’s current Batman run, but I still hold a deep desire to see Dini get his hands on the main title one day. Plus, even though they aren’t comics, Arkham Asylum and Arkham City were both penned by Dini, who almost serves as one of the leading Bat-experts these days.

No one writes a better Bruce Wayne, and Dini also excels at incorporating the other members of the Bat-family without his stories feeling crowded. For this, Dini earns a spot on my list.

Greg: I echo your sentiments. Dini’s great work on Detective Comics, Streets of Gotham and Gotham City Sirens stands the test of time, but he also had some great stories in Batman Adventures, as well as the excellent story “Mad Love.”

Nick: He helped create Harley Quinn, now a mainstay character. How many writers can say they made a permanent addition to the Bat mythos?

Greg’s No. 5: Peter Tomasi

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Nick: One of several writers who just missed the cut for my list.

Greg: Other than Geoff Johns, no single writer was more responsible for my love of the Green Lantern mythos than Pete Tomasi. He started as an editor, working with Johns to craft the story that would carry the franchise for years. But it was his work as writer of Green Lantern Corps, which he took over around the time of the Sinestro Corps War, that really got him on my list. He managed to do the impossible and write a Kyle Rayner that I could not only tolerate but really enjoy. He did similar work with John Stewart, Stel, Hannu, Vath Sarn, Isamot Kol, Princess Iolande and Soranik Natu. But his crowning achievement was his work with longtime GL Guy Gardner.

I’ve liked Guy since I was a kid, when he was the biggest jerk in the world and constantly getting into trouble in the works of writers like Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis. But what Tomasi did, following the lead established by Johns and Dave Gibbons, was turn Guy Gardner into one of the most well-rounded characters in all of DC lore. In Corps, we saw Guy grow up before our eyes. He never lost his edge, but he gained maturity, wisdom and (most importantly) the respect of his fellow Lanterns. Nobody writes Gardner as well as Tomasi, especially Guy’s friendships with Stewart, Rayner and Hal Jordan.

Nick: Guy had kind of been in a stagnant position for the better part of 10 years, and no writer has done more to make Guy a more relatable and ultimately likable character than Tomasi. However, he did all that without sacrificing the elements of Guy’s personality that made him entertaining in the first place.

Plus, Tomasi got to play with the other members of the Corps more than any other writer in the 2000s, and he did an excellent job of juggling them all.

Greg: But his great work doesn’t end with Corps. Tomasi also wrote my all-time favorite run on Nightwing, a terrific series that was cut short just as it was hitting its stride. He wrote a Dick Grayson that was confident and self-assured of his place in the Batman Family. It had all the humor, action and wit I expect out of my favorite character.

And I also have to give credit to Tomasi’s current run on the Batman and Robin title. He does a wonderful job of conveying emotion through his characters.

Nick: It’s very telling that when it came time to deal with the emotional fallout of Damian Wayne’s death, they turned to Pete Tomasi.

Nick’s No. 4: Frank Miller

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Greg: Just as Tomasi barely missed your list, Frank barely missed mine. Along with Alan Moore, Miller is perhaps the most influential writer of the last 30 years.

Nick: I know the man has caught a lot of flak in recent years for his more modern works, but that in no way takes away from the absolutely legendary body of work he built throughout the 1980s.

Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns may be the two best Batman stories ever told, and both were penned my Miller. Not only that, but he also gave us 300, Sin City, Ronin, iconic runs on Wolverine and Daredevil, in addition to countless other quality stories.

Greg: I agree. He’s kind of like Ric Flair in that way — he may be a shell of his former self, but that former self was groundbreaking and holds up as some of the best work in his field.

Nick: His stylistic interior monologues have been imitated by countless writers throughout the years, but none have been quite as effective at using the device. I could go on and on, but there’s not really much else I can say about Frank Miller that hasn’t been said before.

Greg: Miller’s contributions to Daredevil and Batman defined those characters for everyone who followed. You cannot read a Batman story in 2013 without seeing Miller’s influence. His Daredevil was the template followed by everyone from Ann Nocenti to Ed Brubaker and Brian Michael Bendis. It’s hard for any writer to transcend the medium, but Miller, for a decade, did just that.

Nick: Plus, he served as the inspiration for The Goddamned Batman Twitter feed, so there’s that.

Greg: Speaking of Frank Miller …

Greg’s No. 4: Chris Claremont

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Nick: As iconic as his X-Men run is, I actually haven’t read much of it, so I’ll let you take the stage on this one.

Greg: The man who worked with Miller on the definitive Wolverine mini-series is also the man responsible for the success of the X-Men line. Sure, the X-Men were around for a decade before Claremont came on board, but make no mistake — he is the one who crafted almost all the great X-Men stories we watched on the cartoon, in the films and, really, in the comics. It was Claremont who brought characters like Kitty Pryde, Colossus, Nightcrawler and Wolverine to the forefront. He wrote the best versions of Cyclops, Jean Grey, Rogue and so many others.

He’s responsible for “The Phoenix Saga,” “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” “The Mutant Massacre,” “God Loves, Man Kills,” and that’s just scratching the surface. Claremont brought a level of thought and emotion to comics that had been mostly missing from the Big Two. He also understood better than most of the writers who followed him how to really capture a team dynamic. There was no real “lead character” for much of Claremont’s run. Everyone got a chance to shine.

And then there’s that Wolverine mini-series, the spiritual inspiration for this past summer’s excellent film. The mini-series defined Logan’s voice for decades to come. While some of Claremont’s modern work hasn’t been as strong, nobody should ever forget how important he is to this art form.

Nick: Well said, sir.

Nick’s No. 3: Alan Moore

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Greg: The first name that will appear on both our lists.

Nick: Another somewhat predictable choice, but a necessary one. If I were compiling a list of the best comic writers of all time, it’d be hard not to have Moore at No. 1. He’s given us works such as V For Vendetta and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, both of which are exceedingly deep works of art that can be read multiple times. He also wrote some outstanding one-shot DC stories, such as “For the Man Who Has Everything” and a few Green Lantern stories that wound up serving as the inspiration for much of Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern run.

Greg: And, of course, there’s Watchmen.

Nick: Then there’s Watchmen, which is arguably the greatest graphic novel ever produced. It’s one of the most beautifully scripted, intelligent stories the medium has ever seen, and a large part of that is due to Alan Moore. For all his eccentricities, the man is still the standard by which all other writers are measured.

Greg: I’ve never encountered a comic book writer who affected me intellectually as much as Moore. “For the Man Who Has Everything” is my pick for the best Superman story ever, and V for Vendetta blew my mind when I recently read it. Moore’s work not only holds up, it seems to get better with every read-through. “Tygers” is a GL story that is just bursting with ideas and imagination, for instance. Every time I read it, I find something new despite its brief page count.

Nick: Then there’s his extended run on Swamp Thing, which I’m not as familiar with, but is generally regarded as one of the great all-time runs on a monthly title.

Greg: He had, and still has, that rare ability to dig beyond the surface of a concept and make it work on multiple levels. And, most impressively, he manages to do this without making the material impenetrable and without beating readers over the head with his techniques. His work escapes the level of pretentiousness that can be found with some heady writers.

Greg’s No. 3: Jeph Loeb

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Greg: I can hear some on the Internet cringing, but I don’t care. While he’s certainly had his share of clunkers over the years in both Marvel and (to a lesser extent) DC, Loeb wrote my all-time favorite Batman stories, the best Superman/Batman team-up ever and some really great Superman stories along the way.

Nick: Loeb might be one of the greatest Batman writers to ever pen the character. The Long Halloween and Dark Victory stand as two of may personal favorites. I don’t necessarily like the way he handles some other characters, but there’s no questioning his understanding of the Batman universe

Greg: As many now know, Loeb’s “Hush” was the story that brought me back to comics after a five-year absence. It’s a story that encompasses everything I love about a Batman story – tragedy, a mystery to solve, a focus on his relationships with those around him, a little romance and a ton of action, not to mention some great twists and turns along the way. It remains my favorite Batman story.

But let’s drop “favorite,” and go to “best.” The Long Halloween and Dark Victory, which you mentioned, stand alongside The Dark Knight Returns and Year One as the best Batman stories ever written. Simply put, nobody does a better job of capturing Batman’s inner thoughts like Loeb. His dueling inner monologues in Superman/Batman made that series a blast.

Nick: He’s a writer who just understands every aspect of the character and can incorporate them all. Some Bat writers do great detective stories, some do great superhero fare, some do forays into the supernatural, but Loeb is the man who can blend all the elements seamlessly.

Greg: Indeed. I think you’re right — that versatility separates him from other great Batman writers.

Nick’s No. 2: Brian Michael Bendis

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Greg: I’ve not always been the biggest Bendis fan (due possibly to a lack of exposure), but the first volume of Ultimate Spider-Man, which I recently read for the first time, started changing my mind. He also wrote some excellent stories in New Avengers. I wish I’d read more of his work, but I’ll lay out on this one and let you explain why he stands out in your mind.

Nick: As we’ve discussed numerous times, I love me some Brian Bendis and Ultimate Spider-Man, which Bendis has written throughout its several incarnations over the last 13 years. To me, no writer better captures just what makes Peter Parker such a great character and why he’s a guy we all can relate to. He writes the best version of most of Peter’s supporting cast, in my opinion. He also deserves major credit for being one of the godfathers of the Ultimate universe, as he’s also written several event stories for the universe and had runs on other solo Ultimate titles.

However, he also gave us the book that played a major role in starting Marvel’s Max imprint — Alias. His creation of Jessica Jones took off in a big way, and she is now a fixture in the mainstream marvel universe. More importantly, that book showed Marvel that there were lots of interesting adult-themed stories that could be told in the Marvel U.

Greg: The character was so popular that she’s now getting a Netflix TV show based on her exploits.

Nick: Indeed she is, a show I personally can’t wait to see. Like you, I also enjoyed his New Avengers work, although I haven’t read much of his recent 616 stuff. Perhaps the biggest reason I love him, however, is his use of realistic dialogue. There isn’t a writer in comics who can make conversations feel as authentic and true to life as Bendis does. It just goes to show that comics don’t always have to be about action. Sometimes the words in the bubbles can steal the show, and none do so more often than Bendis’.

Greg: I did admire how Bendis wrote believable teenagers in Ultimate Spider-Man. It kind of reminded me of when I was in high school at the same time the books were published!

Nick: But above all else, he’s largely responsible for making me love comics as much as I do now, and that’s something I’ll never be able to accurately convey my appreciation for.

Greg’s No. 2: Alan Moore

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Nick: I’ve said my piece, so you just go ahead and tell us about your affinity for comics’ resident warlock.

Greg: We’ve already said a lot about the mysterious wizard of comics, but I’ll reiterate that Moore is the writer who made me realize how literary comics could be. Growing up, I never imagined comics could have the same intellectual depth as classic novels. Then, in college, I discovered Watchmen. And “For the Man Who Has Everything.” And “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow.” And “From Hell.”

But his strength isn’t just theme or plot. He also writes marvelous characters. We haven’t even mentioned “The Killing Joke” yet. It, along with Miller’s DKR, redefined the Joker and helped mold him into comics’ most iconic villain.

Objectively speaking, I think he’s the best writer the comic book profession has seen, though he’s not quite my favorite.

Nick: Well, normally, I would now list my number one and talk about it. However, this time, Greg and I are firmly in agreement on our favorite writer in comics. So, without further adieu …

Nick and Greg’s No. 1: Geoff Johns

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Nick: There are tons of reasons why Johns is my pick here, but the best one is this: No writer I’ve encountered has done a better job of taking concepts and characters that I had no interest whatsoever in and completely selling me on them. Green Lantern, Aquaman, Firestorm, Stargirl, Cyborg, the list just goes on and on. It’s led me to praise him in much the same way I do film director Chris Nolan: Anything either of those two creators do, no matter what it is, I’m going to give a shot. No writer gets the benefit of the doubt from me the same way Geoff Johns does.

Greg: As we discussed in Secret Origins, Johns is the writer responsible for the convergence of our respective comic obsessions. His Green Lantern run was the best ongoing roller coaster ride I’ve ever been taken on in the wacky world of comics. Through the whole series, we both reacted monthly to the characters, situations and ongoing conflicts that hit Hal Jordan and his arch-enemy/friend Sinestro. Everybody had at least one character (and at least one corps out of the emotional spectrum) they could relate to and identify with throughout his Green Lantern run.

Nick: And that doesn’t even begin to mention his handling of “event” books. Infinite Crisis, Blackest Night, Brightest Day and most recently, Forever Evil, are all examples of crossovers done right.

But above all else, it’s his complete redefinition of the Green Lantern universe that has earned him my undying support. He took characters and concepts that were barely a footnote in DC lore and built a years-long saga out of it.

And he has almost singled handedly taken Sinestro from C-list villain to perhaps the most compelling character in all of comics. Johns’ Green Lantern finale, GL #20, stands as one of my favorite single issues of all time, as does his Sinestro Corps Special one-shot.

Green Lantern #20 remains our favorite comic book of 2013.
Green Lantern #20 remains our favorite comic book of 2013.

And, as you said, there was a period of five years where there was no book we awaited more each month than Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern. He’s done brilliant work throughout his career, and I can’t wait to see what he does next, especially since he’s so involved with DC’s film and television plans. But I feel like I’ve done all the typing here. Greg, take it away.

Greg: I completely agree, Johns gets the benefit of the doubt from me, no matter the character. I can’t think of anyone else in modern comics who has taken on so many different characters and done so well with them. Johns’ Flash was one of the best ongoing runs in that character’s existence (especially his five-year run with Wally West). His Green Lantern was the best run in that character’s existence. Combine that with amazing runs on Teen Titans, Action Comics, JLA, JSA and Aquaman, and you’ve got the most prolific DC writer of the last decade. And, for me, the best.

If you had told me in 2011 that Aquaman would become one of my favorite titles and favorite heroes in all of comics, I’d have laughed in your face. But that’s the case today, as Johns has done what he manages to do with all these characters — dig out what’s already great and add to it tenfold. He did similarly awesome work on characters like Black Adam, Black Hand, Hector Hammond, Captain Cold and the Rogues, Hawkman and Booster Gold.

He’s also written many of my favorite single issues. The two you mentioned are both on my short list, as is Blackest Night #1. He also had a very cool take on Batman in his “Batman: Earth One” graphic novel, and his Superman work is the best DC put out in the 2000s.

Nick: Throughout this list, we’ve praised writers for being great handlers of certain characters or families. But the truth is there’s not a better universe-wide writer than Geoff Johns. He seems to just have an inherent love for all the DC characters, and there’s no writer I’d rather have the direction of the company in the hands of.

Greg: I think you just perfectly captured what makes Johns so great — love. He clearly loves the DC Universe, the heroes, the villains and the fans. That love comes through on every page, every hit and miss. Every writer should love the characters and believe in his or her work, and Johns clearly does.

Nick: Well, that just about puts a bow on this month’s Countdown. Be sure to be back next week, when we take a look at the first volume of Mark Waid’s Irredeemable. In the meantime, let us hear your favorite comic writers on Twitter, Facebook or via email.

Greg: Thanks for joining us, as always!

Author: Greg Phillips and Nick Duke

Greg and Nick share two passions above all others, both of which involve people in spandex punching each other. Reporters by day, they also insist on being called "Two Dudes with Attitude" but can't decide who is Kevin Nash and who is Shawn Michaels.