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Comics Should Be Good Top 50 Countdown! – #21

Here’s #21! Click here for the master list!


The Saga of Swamp Thing #21

Most people think of Swamp Thing #21 when they think of #21, and most people would be correct, as Alan Moore’s famous story (his second issue on the title), “The Anatomy Lesson” is one of the most famous single issues in comic book history (probably THE most famous issue not involving a first appearance or a death).

This is the issue where Moore reveals that Swamp Thing, long thought to be scientist Alec Holland, transformed by a chemical explosion into a, well, swamp thing, was NOT Holland! Holland, in fact, died in the explosion, but the chemicals animated some swamplife into THINKING it was Alec Holland!

That sounds trippy now, so you can only imagine how trippy it was of a concept twenty-four years ago!

This was really the beginning of Moore’s tour de force work on Swamp Thing, and it is one of the most memorable single issues of the last quarter century.

Let me also note the awesome art by Stephen R. Bissette (Pencils) and John Totleben (Inks),

That’s not to say that there aren’t other notable #21s out there, because there are, including three BIG ones!

The JLA and the JSA first teamed up in Justice League of America #21.

Amazing Spider-Man Annual #21 was the marriage of Spider-Man.

And the famous GI Joe “silent issue” was GI Joe #21.

Lesser-known issues include:

Abe Jenkins, the Beetle, first showed up in Amazing Spider-Man #21.

Another future Thunderbolt, Erik Josten, first showed up in Avengers #21.

Sandman #21 was the prologue to Season of Mists.

Name some other neat #21s!


[…] Comics Should Be Good! » Comics Should Be Good Top 50 Countdown! – #21 […]

FF# 21 brought Nick Fury to the “modern” world of 1963 or so, and introduced the Hate-Monger, revealed (stale stale downright petrified spoiler) to be Adolph Hitler at the story’s end.

Swamp Thing is definitely the right pick here, though.

And just off the top of my head, wasn’t Sandman #21 the dinner with the Endless, intoducing the siblings? That was pretty significant.

Marvel’s Star wars #21 – “Shadow of a Dark Lord” was Darth Vader first non-movie appearance (i.e. after the first 6 issues that covered “A New Hope”)

Planetary #21 was “Death Machine Telemetry” – you know the one… Elijah Snow goes for a cup of tea and a sit-down…

You know I’m really looking forward to #8 now… Even though I know it probably not going to be The brilliant Invaders issue (Union Jack)…

Tom Fitzpatrick

August 2, 2008 at 6:16 am

A-men to Alan Moore.

Too bad, he hasn’t completed his magmum opus “BIG NUMBERS.”


August 2, 2008 at 6:25 am

I remember buying this when it came out (as I was a Swampy fan back then), and when I was finished reading it, I was left with a sense that the face of comics, as a whole, had just changed.

AWESOME stuff!


Didn’t the Beetle make his first appearance in the Human torch strips in Strange Tales though?

@Cestrian: Yeah the Beetle debuted in Strange Tales #123.

Amazing Spider-Man Annual #21 was the marriage of Spider-Man.

Wait… Spider-Man was married?!?!

(Sorry. I had to be the one.)

Wow, that’s an abundance of huge #21 riches. The first JLA/JSA team-up, the Spidey-wedding … but yeah, “Anatomy Lesson” deserves the title.

I would (and did) think first of JLA #21 myself, because those crossovers were such a huge highlight of my childhood reading, but no question that this is a good choice, too.

I am shocked and saddened that you didn’t mention the debut of Space Cabbie in Mystery in Space #21, however. Also the Patriot in Marvel Mystery Comics and Weisshaupt in Cerebus, but mostly Space Cabbie.

Meh. G.I. Joe was the issue for me on this one. That cover of Snake-eyes was everywhere when it came out.

Yeah, JLA #21 is hands down the more significant and monumental issue. I know there’s a lot of love for Moore and Swamp Thing on CBR, but revising the origin story was more a necessary bit of maintenance. It can’t possibly compare to connecting DC’s Golden Age and Silver Age super groups for the first time; kicking off the labeling of different DC universes (Earth 1, 2, 3, X, S ad infinitum); and establishing the reoccurring “Crisis” theme that ended up as the vehicle for at least one major company-wide retcon, a bunch of annual events, and the current continuity-altering smash-em-up. This is the Big Daddy.

Andrew Collins

August 2, 2008 at 1:18 pm

G.I. Joe #21 and Sandman #21 are both personally significant for me. The former because it was the first comic I ever bought for myself when I was about 7 years old, and the latter because it was my first issue of Sandman, which then led me to discovering the other pre-Vertigo mature DC titles. At the time, I must have read and re-read each comic a hundred times…

That said, I have no qualms about this pick. Swamp Thing #21 has a special place in comic history and it’s for good reason.

One personal gripe though, but when is DC ever going to get around to including issue #20 in any of their reprints??? I know it’s Moore finishing off the previous writers’ storylines, but it’s still Alan freakin’ Moore! With Bissette & Totleben no less! DC is doing a new hardcover series of Swamp Thing collections next year and I’m hoping against hope that they start with issue #20…

Patrick Joseph

August 2, 2008 at 2:37 pm

Andrew: What I would love to see is a reprint that goes back to issue 16, which is where Bissette and Totleben start drawing the book, as well as beginning the story that Moore wraps up in #20.

The onslaught of bug based Arcane creations and the mossier Swamp Thing start there.

Another vote for JLA #21, for the same reasons as cited by Mason King.

What happened to John Totleben? I never see him do anything anymore. Has he published anything significant since Miracleman?

I believe Totleben has been suffering with some kind of degenerative eye condition that makes it nearly impossible for him to draw anymore.

GI Joe has personal significance for me because it was the first time I was really blown away by a comic as a kid. I only came to Swamp Thing much later, so The Silent Issue (which, to be fair, is really what it’s known as, so as a “famous number” it fails the test) holds sway over me.

Pedro Bouça

August 2, 2008 at 6:42 pm

The 21st Tintin album, The Castafiore Emerald, takes a break from the usual globetrotting adventures the series is famous for and shows what happens when the famous opera singer Bianca Castafiore comes to spend a few days on Captain Haddock’s Marlinspike manor.

Easily the funniest book on the series, it’s also considered the best by most critics (myself included). Lots of “all-time best comic stories” lists worldwide have it in a high placement. However, it’s a low-selling album for the series standards, probably due to the lack of action.

Famous belgian comic writer/critic Benǫt Peeters wrote a whole book analysing the album, Lire Tintin РLes Bijoux Ravis, a rare honor for any comics.

The album was first published in 1963, after serialization on the Tintin magazine.

Hunter (Pedro Bouça)

But what I really want to know is what happened in Quasar 21.

Yeah, strangely I really want to know, too.

Seriously, Swamp Thing 21 above ASM Annual 21 or JLofA 21?
While Swamp Thing may be the better written issue, the other two are far more important in the history of comics.

The first 4 you listed are all great choices, though I too would have gone for JLofA 21. If nothing else, there prob wouldn’t have been a need for the Crisis and all the reboots and retcons had that story never happened.

Interesting, Pedro, that that particular story is the best reviewed. For me, the best Tintin stories would Cigars of the Pharoah and the Blue Lotus. I loved the story from the first carried into the second, and tied up some of the loose ends.

Random Stranger

August 3, 2008 at 3:46 am

“While Swamp Thing may be the better written issue, the other two are far more important in the history of comics.”

Not a chance. The JSA/JLA’s significance pales beside A Flash of Two Worlds and the annual isn’t even in continuity any more.

Swamp Thing, on the other hand, is the snowflake that started the avalanche of mainstream mature comics. It’s very likely DC’s Vertigo imprint wouldn’t exist without it. It set off the “British invasion” that lead to so many great titles I think its silly to list them. So which is more important: a comic that started a tradition that has long since fallen by the wayside, a comic that changed a character’s status in a way that has since been undone, or the comic that was the first domino in movements that changed the face of comic book publishing?

Pedro Bouça

August 3, 2008 at 4:36 am

“Interesting, Pedro, that that particular story is the best reviewed. For me, the best Tintin stories would Cigars of the Pharoah and the Blue Lotus. I loved the story from the first carried into the second, and tied up some of the loose ends.”

Well, CIgars is considered part of the early books in the series, when Hergé still didn’t much research or worried about avoiding the stereotypes that still plagued his work.

Blue Lotus, on the other hand, is the first Tintin masterpiece and marks the turning point of the series. From then on, Hergé’s research would be much more careful and the series ceased to be the simple “gag of the week” comic it was and got far more ambitious.

Other acclaimed books on the series are Tintin in Tibet (which shares with Castafiore Emerald the status of best reviewed album) and The Calculus Affair, the best straight adventure on the series (and Benoît Peeters personal favorite).

The public, on the other hand, tends to prefer the treasure hunt in the Unicorn/Red Rackham books and the Moon books, the big sellers of the series.

Hunter (Pedro Bouça)

Hey, Stranger (great name, BTW):

Respectfully, I think you’re giving that particular issue, ST #21, a little too much credit. It was essentially a reboot issue in a long run of stories that eventually helped inspire the Vertigo line and more mature storytelling in general (Sandman is an important channel here too, as well as a “Watrchmen” and “DK”, etc.), but I think it’s a stretch to imply that none of that would have occurred without this particular issue. Not so much the first domino — I think it’s more a prelude to greater things.

And while “Flash of Two Worlds” first introduced a Golden Age DC hero into Silver Age continuity, JLA #21 took that idea and multiplied it by 10 and then squared it. It set the ground rules for the burgeoning DC universe. It provided the conceptual conduit for integrating major characters from DC’s past and from several other publishers (Fawcett, etc.). It introduced the annual summer-event “Crisis” storylines that ranged across dimensions and almost certainly would add characters and worlds to the DC universe.

Of course, Brian’s feature is just as much about “the issue you remember first” as much as “significance,” so there’s a lot of room for nostalgia in the equation. I grew up in the Bronze age, so JLA #21 to me was the Rosetta Stone and Magna Carta of DC comics.

Still haven’t read this – and I have no excuse.

It’s a hard choice. Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing had more impact on the direction (pretentiously British) writers went in comics than anything else of the era, but JLA-meets-JSA set up DC’s absolutely disastrous way of handling continuity for decades to come. If any number deserves a tie, it’s this one.

You’ll not be disappointed with the events of Quasar #21! In this issue, which apaprently was cowritten by Garth Ennis, a villain captures Quasar, strings him up, and starts whipping him. he’s supposed to count each whip stroke. Quasar counts “one,” followed by “one,” then “one,” and so on. The whipper gets so upset and enraged by Quasar’s nerve that he WHIPS QUASAR TO DEATH, THEN CUTS HIS HANDS OFF. Now, it hadn’t yet been established that Quasar would die and come back more times than bell bottoms. So his buying it here, in such a brutal non-magic non-cosmic way, was shattering.

Re: the tradition of Crisises being a thing of the past..

I’m sorry..what’s the name of the series that DC is banking being the great golden egg…Final..something?
How many times has that cover been done?

As for the Spider marriage. Let’s see…there’s something called Brand New Day which is still all about the marriage. There’s a book, Spider-Girl, that’s sprung from the marriage. Despite Joe Q’s protestations, Peter’s marriage to Mary Jane and it’s demonic dissolution is going to hang over the title and the character until it’s undone.

The fan in me wants it to be JLA #21. But Anatomy Lesson is the right choice. Moore makes a retcon that is both worakable, bold, and not just an excuse to clean up a previous screw up. He never had to even do the retcon, but knew the story would give back a sense of “anything can happen” to a by then, delapidated and tired horror/superhero title. This also prety much started DC’s “British Invasion” and laid the groundwork for the Vertigo imprint.

In the light of history, the JLA/JSA crossover, while still epic for the time, still didn’t do anything that had not already happened in Flash, when the Golden Age and Silver Age versions met. It was carrying on a precedent set forth in Flash #123, not starting up a new era for comics in it’s own right.

while swamp thing is obviously the right choice, another notable #21 that not a single person has mentioned is DC Special Series #21, the first time frank miller drew batman.

as for the argument between swamp thing and justice league, it’s ridiculous how much people are undervaluing the anatomy lesson. first of all, how many issues in comic history does the average fan instantly know the story title of? the anatomy lesson, days of future past, oh wait, i can’t think of anymore.

but really, this is THE single issue that launched virtually everything good about comics in the last 25 years. british writers? it started here (no gaiman, morrison, or ennis without this issue). vertigo and mature reader comics in general? it started here (sandman wouldn’t have been given a chance without the success of hellblazer first. hellblazer spun out of moore’s swamp thing). writing being more important, or at least as important, as characters, art, and action? it started here (really, this is the first issue in comics history that became valuable and sought after solely because of who wrote it. that’s kind of important, don’t you think?)

but even if all of that didn’t matter, and this was just another issue that came and went, i mean, read the damn thing! it’s a truly amazing story! it’s in a 2-way tie with daredevil 181 as my favorite issue ever.

if modern comic history were compared to rock n roll history, then watchmen, dark knight, and sandman would undoubtedly be the beatles, stones, and dylan. but swamp thing is still the elvis that started it all, and “the anatomy lesson” is “that’s all right mama”–the opening salvo of a whole new thing.

“this is THE single issue that launched virtually everything good about comics in the last 25 years”

A bit of hyperbole, no?

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