Hard-Traveling Fanboys: Countdown (Top Writer/Character Pairings)

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 five list and debate the merits therein.

Greg: Welcome, everyone, to the third or fourth biggest party of the summer! After a few columns focusing on cinematic projects, we are back to talk about our true love — print comics.

Nick: Mainly because we weren’t clever enough to come up with some kind of Fantastic Four-related countdown.

But that’s OK because Russell Sellers has you covered on the FF front RIGHT HERE AT PLACETOBENATION.COM!!!!

Cheap pop.
Cheap pop.

Greg: But rest assured, this column will somehow manage to be even more fantastic than the recently released box office bomb from Fox.

Nick: And probably seen by more people. ANYWAY, we’re here with a Countdown this week that we should probably explain a bit. You may remember, and who could forget such a masterpiece, that back near the beginning of our HTF careers, we wrote a Countdown piece focusing on top creative teams.

Well, this time out, we’re taking on our favorite writer-character pairings. Perhaps we’ll revisit character-artist pairings at some point in the future, but for now we’re focusing on interesting stories about interesting characters doing interesting things.

Greg: Have you ever tasted a rich, buttery, flaky croissan’wich from Burger King? Well, that delicious merger of sizzling sausage, fluffy eggs and American cheese on a toasted croissant is a lot like those special, all-too-rare pairings between writer and character in comics that just seem to fit.

These are writers that manage to get in the heads of these characters and explore them from vantage points never before seen. These are pairings that, whenever they occur, draw our interest immediately, regardless of the circumstances.

So without any further delay, let’s kick things off with Nick’s fifth-place selection.

Nick’s No. 5. Scott Snyder – Batman

Zero04Greg: Since his days on Detective Comics more than five years ago, Scott Snyder has proven to have a mastery over the world of the Dark Knight. The book regularly tops the comics sales charts, and 40-plus issues into his New 52 run, Snyder shows no signs of slowing down.

Nick: Now, when I sat down to make this list, I soon realized that I could easily do an entire top 5 of just my favorite writers and my favorite comic book character, Batman. I did my best to limit the appearances of The Dark Knight here, but the most recent writer to take on the flagship Batman title could not be denied.

Since the New 52 began in 2011, Snyder has been the man steering the Bat-ship at DC, and his run has cemented itself as one of the greatest Batman ongoings of all time. He came out of the gate firing on all cylinders with “The Court of Owls” and “Night of the Owls,” both giving us a Batman and a Bruce Wayne who is forced to shed his invulnerable persona he puts on because he realizes that the enemy he faces knows more about his city and even him than anyone he’s faced before.

Snyder soon followed his Owls epic with an outstanding Joker yarn, “Death of the Family,” that gave Snyder an opportunity to share his views on the way Batman’s allies affect his standing as a crimefighter and his relationship with his greatest enemies. It also laid bare many of Bruce’s greatest flaws, namely his inability to truly trust even those closest to him.

Next up was “Zero Year,” a story that was controversial when announced. Why was it controversial? I’m not entirely sure, to be honest. Yes, Batman origin stories have been done to death at this point, but Snyder had done nothing but knock stories out of the park to that point, and that’s exactly what he continued to do with Zero Year. It was able to pay tribute to the origin tales that came before it while also charting its own course and providing a unique vision for a pre-Batman Gotham completely unlike any other version of the city we have seen. In the end, Zero Year is able to stand on its own two feet alongside even such greats as “Year One.”

But Snyder wasn’t done yet. He next provided us with “Endgame,” a book which instantly became one of my favorite Joker stories of all time. This version of the Joker is menacing, funny and terrifying all at once. His scheme also helps to drive Bruce to the very end of his rope, to the point where Bruce is even willing to give up his life and his crusade just for the opportunity to stop The Joker once and for all. And while we’ve praised Greg Capullo’s art in the instantly iconic Batman #40, somebody had to write it. Snyder showed an incredible ability to choreograph a comic book fight that lent not only thrilling action, but emotional weight.

Snyder’s still kicking around in the Batman universe, now telling the story of what became of Bruce Wayne after his fateful battle with The Joker beneath the city’s streets and of Jim Gordon trying his best to be the Bat the city needs. It’s been fantastic stuff thus far, and I for one can’t wait to see where it goes from here.

Greg: Without question, Snyder breathed new life into the Batman family of books. Coming in with fresh eyes and a childlike exuberance for the character, he established a new status quo without ever relying upon it as a crutch. Rather than run from controversy, Snyder has dared to create change in the mythos, exploring familiar dynamics in new and interesting ways for the last several years.

In 10 years, people will be looking at “The Court of Owls” and “Endgame” the same way we look at older Batman classics.

And speaking of Mr. Snyder, I went a little outside the box …

Greg’s No. 5: Scott Snyder – Dick Grayson (Nightwing/Batman)

1X0UYjDNick: Is it fair to say then that you have your Dick out of a box?

Greg: No.

Nick: You see, there was a popular Saturday Night Live sketch called “Dick in a Box.” This is like that, but out of the box instead of in the box.

Greg: Just like Vince McMahon, the Hard-Traveling Fanboys always have our finger on the collective pulse of American pop culture.

Nick: HYUK HYUK. YOU GOT IT, PAL.

"A-hyuck, hyuck, hyuck!"
“A-hyuck, hyuck, hyuck!”

Greg: In any event, at the dawn of the decade, Scott Snyder got his first major ongoing superhero comics work when he was called upon to take over Detective Comics with issue 871. At that time, due to convoluted circumstances, Bruce Wayne wasn’t actually under the Batman cowl, Instead, it was longtime sidekick and successful hero in his own right (and my favorite comic book character) Dick Grayson.

Now, before I delve into Snyder’s all-to-short Grayson resume, let me mention that I was hell bent on fitting Nightwing somewhere into this countdown. Unfortunately, there haven’t been a lot of what I’d consider great Nightwing stories. Probably the closest was Peter Tomasi’s all-too-brief run on that title, but even he didn’t capture my ideal version of the adult Dick Grayson as well as Snyder.

I’ve often bemoaned how DC Comics treats Dick like an also-ran. Under the pen of Snyder, however, he became a true A-lister. Snyder’s “The Black Mirror” isn’t just one of the best Batman stories I’ve read, it’s THE best Dick Grayson story I’ve read.

Nick: I’ll co-sign on that. The Black Mirror is an all-time great Batman story, even if it isn’t (the one true Batman) Bruce Wayne beneath the cowl. If you haven’t read this, fix that soon.

Greg: Snyder writes a Dick Grayson who is struggling with the baggage of filling Batman’s shoes while trying to keep his life, and Gotham, together. Many of the themes Scott has explored throughout his Batman run were first introduced here — man vs. city, for instance. An overriding concept throughout Black Mirror is that Gotham is a character unto itself, and one that affects Dick Grayson in far different ways than his mentor. This was the evolution Dick had needed as a character for so long — mature, weary, and yet still optimistic and humorous. It was the freshest take on Batman in ages.

But Snyder wasn’t quite finished with the character. He also co-wrote the excellent “Gates of Gotham” mini-series, which explored the titular city’s origins while also weaving a modern story with DickBats and Robin. Even after Dick surrendered the cowl back to Bruce, Snyder continues to write him expertly, whether it’s a key role in “The Court of Owls” or a short appearance in “Endgame.” Snyder simply gets the character and how to write him in a way I’m not sure anyone else ever has.

One of my comic book dreams is for Snyder to write a Nightwing ongoing (or even another Dick-as-Batman story), and perhaps that’s still a possibility.

Nick’s No. 4. Jason Aaron – Thor

thor-and-two-mjolnirsGreg: I knew this one would make your list, as you have raved about this pairing for years now. And with good cause!

Nick: I’ve made this somewhat blasphemous statement before and I’ll make it again here — Jason Aaron is the greatest Thor writer of all time. Even if he never writes another good Thor issue in his life, his 25-issue run of Thor: God of Thunder is the finest 25-issue run in the character’s history. I love Walt Simonson as much as the next guy, but Aaron is the new all-father.

Why is Aaron the greatest of all time? Many reasons, but to state it simply, it’s his ability to write a Thor that can truly be all things to all people. Want humor? Thor and his supporting cast are often laugh-out-loud funny. Want hammer-slingin’ action? Battles against Gorr the God Butcher, Malekith and Dario Agger won’t leave you disappointed. Want Tolkien-style fantasy rooted in a deep mythology? Thor’s place in Asgard alongside his fellow Gods is a prominent part of the series and was even expanded to include countless other Gods from across the Multiverse in the greatest Thor story of all time, Godbomb.

And if Aaron now wears the Asgardian crown, “Godbomb” is his crown jewel. His original creation of Gorr the God Butcher is instantly among my favorite Thor villains, and is one I hope to see threatening the God of Thunder in the decades to come. Gorr was a tragic figure that remained at least somewhat sympathetic even throughout his villainous turn and all the way to the bitter end. In the story, Aaron also gets to bring to life one of my favorite Thor concepts I’ve ever seen brought to the page — the Thors three. Modern-day Avenger Thor crosses the time stream to join forces with a pre-worthy Thor and future king of Asgard, Old King Thor to create a triumvirate of badassery, ale drinking and hammer swinging the comics industry has never seen the likes of before.

Aaron wasn’t a one-trick pony, however, as he followed up Godbomb with my favorite single issue possibly of all time. Thor: God of Thunder #12 is a perfect examination of what it truly means to be Thor. If you haven’t read those first dozen issues of T:GOT, that’s something you need to fix immediately.

I could go on and on, but I’ll stop here for brevity’s sake. But, suffice it to say Aaron and Thor have a chance to continue to climb up this list as the years go on.

Greg: There isn’t much I can add to that, except to say I also love Aaron’s take on Thor. Though I’ve only read his first two arcs, he’s done more to make me a fan of the God of Thunder than any writer who preceded him. It’s truly a magical pairing, one I hope to read and re-read for years to come.

Greg’s No. 4: Dan Jurgens – Superman

the-death-and-return-of-superman-1992-1993-page-168Nick: I must admit that I’m largely unfamiliar with this pairing. The floor is yours, sir.

Greg: This list is all about personal preference, and when it comes to emotional investment, few pairings can compare to this one for me, because it defines my comic book-reading childhood. John Byrne deservedly gets credit for shaping the version of Superman with which I most identify — that post-Crisis Kansas farmboy who identified himself as Clark Kent first and Kal-El last. But by the time I started reading comics regularly, Byrne had moved on and been replaced by an outstanding team of writers that included Roger Stern, Jerry Ordway, Louise Simonson and the first creator whose name I ever learned, Dan Jurgens.

As the writer/artist on the lead Superman title, Jurgens crafted the stories that formed my worldview of superhero comics and what they should be. Each issue was packed with action, and I found myself identifying with Clark more than any other hero at the time. Jurgens’ Clark was a good man who occasionally messed up but never stopped trying to do the right thing. And, like me, he was constantly dealing with the weight of expectations and the fear of screwing up. Yet each and every issue reminded me of what it meant to be heroic, to never stop fighting for what’s right.

Jurgens crafted the beyond-iconic Death and Return of Superman arc alongside his cohorts, and was solely responsible for the actual “death” issue that sold like the hottest of hot cakes (and I’d know, since I bought two copies). Very rarely has a comic book made me cry. The last panel of Superman #75 accomplished that when I was 8. That’s a testament to Jurgens’ art and his ability to captivate kids in my generation.

Earlier this year, Jurgens revisited the character in the Convergence: Superman two-shot, and the magic was back. It was like I’d never left Clark and Lois’ sides, and at the end I was content that I’d finally gotten some closure on my favorite take on the Man of Steel. To my delight, I later found out DC was turning it into a series and letting Jurgens take on the characters once again. I can’t wait, and I hope that others share my enthusiasm, because it’s totally distinct from anything else being done with Superman at the moment.

Nick: Even a novice Superfan like myself was completely enthralled by that Convergence two-shot. Can’t wait for the ongoing.

Nick’s No. 3. Geoff Johns – Sinestro

HalandSinestroGreg: Ooh, a great choice that is off the beaten path.

Nick: Much like I said with Batman earlier, I easily could have made a top 5 of nothing but Geoff Johns’ various reinventions and fresh takes on the characters of the DC Universe. But, in narrowing down this list, it became increasingly apparent that Geoff Johns contribution had to come from his absolutely amazing run on Green Lantern. And even just from that subsection of the DCU, there were numerous options. Kilowog, John Stewart, Superman Prime, Atrocitus, Larfleeze, Saint Walker … the list goes on.

But, tough as it was, I was able to narrow the choice down to just two. Those two just so happened to be the two characters that Johns’ nearly decade-long run was really about in the end — Hal Jordan and Thaal Sinestro. And, as tough as it was, I had to go with the fallen Lantern himself.

Look, I love Hal Jordan. I especially love him when Johns is writing him. But, Jordan was already a big-time player. He’s one of the icons of the DCU, and no contrived heel turn can change that. Sinestro, however, was a different story.

Thaal Sinestro was once a Vincent Price mustache-twirling villain with a head approximately three feet in length. He challenged Jordan and the GLs numerous times throughout the decade, but was rarely treated as a serious intellectual or physical threat. Jordan always bested him, sometimes in laughably casual fashion. That all changed with Johns.

We actually meet Sinestro in “Green Lantern: Rebirth” far before Hal is ever reborn. And Sinestro continues to pop up time and time again throughout Johns’ epic. Whether it’s amassing and leading the fear-mongering Sinestro Corps or forging an uneasy alliance with the GLs during the Blackest Night, Sinestro was never too far away from the story’s narrative center.

And when it came time for Johns to end his run, it was Sinestro there alongside Hal, helping to strike the winning blows against the Guardians and the First Lantern, Volthoom. That alone should be enough to show how much care Johns put into reinventing the Sinestro character.

But, above all the pivotal roles he played in all the various events, Sinestro is best remembered during this run for the way his relationship with Hal was rewritten. The two were simultaneously bitter enemies, old friends, professional rivals and in some ways, brothers. This complex relationship defined an era of Green Lantern comics, and this version of Sinestro will live on in history as the one that firmly planted Sinestro in the upper pantheon of comic book villains.

Greg: Beautifully stated, and I couldn’t agree more. Like you, I could fill this list with nothing but Geoff Johns character pairings, but I opted to limit myself. And, again like you, I found myself picking between Hal and Sinestro. Ultimately, you’ll have to wait to see my selection, but suffice to say Johns is responsible for making Sinestro what he is — nothing less than one of comics’ greatest villains.

Sinestro spent the majority of his first four decades being a forgettable caricature of a supervillain. Under Johns, he transformed into a multidimensional, fully realized character, one capable of loving, hating, terrifying, fearing and all the contradictory personality quirks that make us human. He was Hal Jordan’s greatest rival, and his best friend. He wore many hats, but through it all he was compelling and one of the driving forces behind one of comics’ greatest titles.

Greg’s No. 3: Chris Claremont – Wolverine

Frank-Miller_Chris-ClaremontNick: Ah yes, here we must pause for me to admit that originally Greg planned on just using Chris Claremont’s X-Men until I called him out for not sticking to one character. What can I say? I’m a stickler.

"You just killed that man with a trident!"
“You just killed that man with a trident!”

Greg: Yes, due to my partner’s Mr. Terrific-like commitment to fair play, I had to alter my selection.

Nevertheless, if there’s one character who most represents Claremont’s considerable achievements writing Marvel’s most popular team, it’s Logan-san. When Claremont took over the X-Men in the mid-’70s, Wolverine was a barely established hero with little compelling outside his abilities and razor-sharp claws. Over the course of the next two decades, Claremont forged the pop culture phenomenon we know today, a character capable of anchoring two movie franchises and seemingly dozens of comics at a given time.

Every important, lasting aspect of Wolverine’s character owes itself to Claremont — Weapon X, the amnesia, the Sabretooth rivalry, his time in Japan, Madripoor, etc. Claremont’s 1982 Wolverine limited series (created alongside the legendary Frank Miller) is still the most important Logan story, absolutely essential to those seeking a deep understanding of the character.

Subsequent writers, such as Larry Hama, succeeded by building upon Claremont’s foundation. Recent writers have failed by deviating too far from the core Claremont established. The duality that defines Wolverine must never be completely lost, and it’s that Claremont-created inner struggle that makes Wolverine my favorite hero in Marvel’s extensive library.

Nick’s No. 2. Jeph Loeb – Batman

batstory8bGreg: Man, sometimes mediocre minds think alike, because…

Greg’s No. 2: Jeph Loeb – Batman

batman-the-long-halloween-1-pg26Nick: Now, if you’ve read any of our columns that focus on comic book television or listened to any of our comics podcasts, you might find this selection a bit strange. And make no mistake, Jeph Loeb doing anything outside the DC Universe is almost always an unmitigated disaster.

HOWEVER, that does not and has never applied to his DC work, especially that on The Dark Knight himself. I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Batman fanatic, and have read pretty much every story of note during the character’s existence. So, it isn’t faint praise when I say that Loeb’s collaborations with Tim Sale produced not just my favorite Batman story of all time, but my TWO favorite Batman stories of all time. “The Long Halloween” and “Dark Victory” are the 1-2 punch that I always recommend to any comic book newcomers who have an interest in the Gotham City mythos. In those stories, we get a Batman who is a detective first and a brawler second, something that is all too often reversed in Batman stories. It’s a Batman with heart, mind and soul. He cares about those around him, and internalizes the tragedies that occur, especially those that impact Harvey Dent.

In Dark Victory, we also see Bruce react with genuine emotion toward Dick Grayson when he is forced to watch his parents die much the same way Bruce was. It’s an empathy that isn’t present in nearly enough Batman stories. As awesome as the stereotypical stoic badass that’s always two steps ahead interpretation of Batman is, it’s Loeb’s Bruce that feels the most relatable and the most human.

And honestly, those two stories would probably be enough to find Loeb a spot on this list. But, that’s not all there is. He also produced an anthology story called Haunted Knight that, while not up to TLH and DV, is a damn fine Batman book in its own right. He also gave us a more modern take on Batman in the pages of Superman/Batman, and his take on the partnership between Bruce and Clark is the best I’ve read.

For my money, Loeb is the best writer to tackle my favorite character. That made him a shoo-in for this list.

Greg: All that praise, and you forgot to mention my favorite Batman story and the one that brought me back to comics in the first place. It’s a story I’ve told more often than Ric Flair tells drinking stories, but it was Loeb’s 12-issue Batman arc with Jim Lee, “Hush,” that reinvigorated my interest in comic books. It’s basically a greatest hits edition of Batman, touching on nearly every major member of the greatest rogues gallery in comics and weaving an adventure that introduces a compelling new nemesis and drives Bruce on an around-the-world journey.

Whether it’s noir mystery in “The Long Halloween,” hard-hitting action in “Hush” or swashbuckling superheroics in Superman/Batman, Loeb captures the perfect middle ground between the various terrific takes on the Caped Crusader. He’s clearly rooted in Frank Miller’s Batman, but he also brings in elements from Denny O’Neil, Bruce Timm and Paul Dini. This is the Dark Knight Detective I’d recommend to anyone. Go pick up any of these books — Long Halloween, Dark Victory, Haunted Knight, Hush or Superman/Batman. They’ll give you a strong indicator why Batman is the most popular of all superheroes.

Nick: Shows you how great the man’s Batman work is when I can forget a story as good as Hush.

Nick’s No. 1. Brian Michael Bendis – Ultimate Peter Parker

ultimate-spiderman-160-page31Greg: No great shock here, as your love of Ultimate Spidey is as well documented as Germans’ love of David Hasselhoff.

You guessed it: Frank Stallone.
You guessed it: Frank Stallone.

Nick: There were many pairings I considered when Greg and I first settled on this topic  for Countdown. I made an initial list of 20 and whittled it down to 5 from there. Well, it would be more accurate to say that I had a list of 19 to whittle down to 4. I say that because from the getgo, there was absolutely no doubt what had to be No. 1.

Everyone has their one book that brings them in to comics and most have a book that cements their love for the GENRE.

"Genre!"
“Genre!”

But, for me, those books were one and the same. The original volume of Ultimate Spider-Man is my comic book alpha and omega. The beginning and end of all things. My interest in the medium has waxed and waned over the last 13 years, but USM has been the one constant.

And that isn’t because of great action, plot or art. (It had all that as well, by the way.) No, my love for Ultimate Spider-Man is at least 65 percent due to the way Brian Michael Bendis wrote an admirable, relatable, believable Peter Parker. I discovered the book when I was a teenager, and for my money, Ultimate Peter is still the most realistically written teenager in comics history. Peter was at times arrogant, rash, irrational, mopey, hilarious, noble … he was a myriad of emotions and hormones, much like most teenagers are. And yet, through it all, Bendis’ Peter was the definition of a hero. Once he learned that with great power comes great responsibility, he never stopped trying to do what was right. Sure, he struggled along the way. Relationships were ruined and rebuilt and Spider-Man’s public reputation took more than a few dings along the way, but Peter never stopped trying to help people and never stopped trying to do what he thought was right.

Ultimate Peter’s time has come and gone, but the impact he left on my fandom and in some small way, my life, will never be forgotten. I love Geoff Johns and I love Batman, but it will always be Bendis and Peter Parker that will hold the most special place in my heart.

Greg: There’s really no way to make up for emotional connections. It’s the reason Jurgens’ Superman made my list, and it’s the same reason a contemporary of Bendis’ tops mine.

Greg’s No. 1: Geoff Johns – Green Lantern

green-lantern-20-page-60Nick: I can’t really argue this choice. Johns’ version of Hal narrowly missed my list, and perhaps should have been on.

Greg: While Loeb brought me back to comics after a five-year absence with his Batman run, it was Geoff Johns’ resurrection of another hero from my childhood, Hal Jordan, that reeled me in for good.

Over the course of nearly 10 years and somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 issues, Johns made me believe in superheroes again. I was never a big Green Lantern fan as a youngster — I mean, he had white streaks in his hair! Yet there was something about the ring, something about the Corps, something about the concept that appealed to me. Well, clearly Johns was in the same boat, because he seized upon that concept and modernized it, retconned it and amplified it into something never seen before, and in the process he brought Hal Jordan from the bottom of the B list to the top of the A list.

No other writer can strike the delicate balance between smarmy, cocksure fighter pilot and unflinchingly heroic space cop needed to fully appreciate the greatness of Hal Jordan. Hal’s a lover AND a fighter, a joker AND a warrior, a jerk AND a saint. He is many things to many people, and Johns brings those qualities to the forefront every time he gets a chance to write Green Lantern, whether during the aforementioned decade-long epic or in the current pages of Justice League.

I firmly believe that if anybody with a passing interest in superheroes were to be exposed to Johns-penned Green Lantern stories, that character would instantly shoot near the top of their favorite characters list.

And, if you want an issue to encapsulate the beauty of this pairing, look no farther than the finale — the epic Green Lantern #20 from 2013.

Nick: Couldn’t agree more with all of this. For my money, Johns’ Green Lantern might be the best run on a single title in DC history.

Greg: And with that, we come to yet another conclusion. Come on, folks — if you don’t have any feedback for THIS column, you never will for one!

Nick: Let us hear your thoughts on our lists and let us know your favorite writer-character pairings. Hit us up on Twitter (@gphillips8652 and @nickduke87), email (GregP@placetobenation.com and NickD@placetobenation.com) or through the Place to Be Nation Comics Facebook page!

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.