5. AVENGERS WEST COAST #69, "Grudge Match" by Roy Thomas, Dann Thomas & Paul Ryan, 1991
An issue that's entirely a long fight between two characters is a pretty daunting task for any writer to get right. An issue that's entirely a fight between two characters with entire subplots and character arcs fleshed out is a whole other thing. But that's where Avengers West Coast #69 just takes the cake for elegant story-telling. Centered around Hawkeye and US Agent having a violent fight regarding the new line-up of their Avengers team, Roy and Dann Thomas manage to characterise the two Avengers perfectly. Hawkeye may be getting his ass well and truly kicked but he still displays everything that makes Hawkeye Hawkeye and US Agent is his typical loudmouth jerk self but is shown as being not entirely reprehensible throughout. The whole issue is just a fantastic read. The fact Roy and Dann manage to interject subplots with Scarlet Witch, Hank Pym and Wasp, and the entire restructuring of the team underneath a 22 page blow-out between two characters is something that modern writers should aspire to be able to do. Paul Ryan pencils one of the best drawn-out and simple fights without it ever seeming overlong and he even manages to make Hawkeye's god-ugly 90s armor look half-decent. The issue is just a fantastic display of how decompression should be done.
4. DAREDEVIL #181, "Last Hand" by Frank Miller, 1982
This is pretty much everyone's favorite Daredevil issue and there's a reason: it is genuinely fantastic. It does something very few comics can do successful: it reads as the fantastic apex of several month's of storytelling and it also reads perfectly as a stand-alone story. It's a story entirely told from the perspective of Bullseye that feels both monumentally epic and puzzlingly sympathetic. It's not until you've finished reading it that you think back and realise these things. Daredevil hardly features until the final few pages, Miller cleverly chose to make this issue is all about Bullseye. And of course, we have the beautifully understated death of Elektra mid-way into the story. It's just a truly great issue that manages to feel like an issue that features a complete epic story arc in it's 30-something pages. If you only ever read one issue of Daredevil, I think anyone who recommends any other issue is just mentally damaged. This is perfect, flawless comics.
3. CAPTAIN AMERICA #345, "Surrender", by Mark Gruenwald & Kieron Dwyer, 1988
This is another example of a talented writer being able to fit about 20 sub-plots into one issue and having it come out majestically. This issue features almost every member of Captain America's then-cast reaching some sort of significant turning point in their own stories as well as subsequently furthering the overall story too. As the cover makes no effort to hide the fact, the issue juxtaposes the struggles of Steve Rogers with that of John Walker as the two face plights that are pretty different but due to fantastic writing seem as perfect mirrors. The thing is, it's tough to really nail down what makes this issue great, and the thing is it's got everything. Plot advancement, fantastic art, superb action, meaningful character deaths, relationship progression and a clearly defined purpose. In an issue that is a pivotal point in the direction of John Walker's life, it also proves to be just as pivotal in the direction of the lives of Nomad, D-Man, Diamondback and Falcon. It feels more like a neatly woven tapestry than a comic book, I could really babble on about how the scene between Captain America and Nomad or the scene with D-Man are just great examples of character work, but the thing is these are barely pages of the story. What's even more staggering is the following 3 issues manage to consistently uphold this standard of quality.
2. THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #400, "A Death in the Family", by J.M. DeMatteis & Mark Bagley, 1995
The Clone Saga is easily regarded as an overly long nonsensical low-point in Spider-Man's history that most people would sooner forget than seriously dig for highlights within. The real tragedy is crowbarred in the middle of it all is possibly one of the finest issues of Spider-Man ever written. Aunt May returns from the hospital after a stroke and the issue documents the following week as Peter, Mary Jane and, yes, Ben Reilly respond to Aunt May's sudden improvement as they also face the constant threat of May's mortality. Among countless lovely moments, the highlight is a scene between Peter and May where May reveals she's always known Peter is Spider-Man and she passes away shortly afterwards. Yes, Aunt May died in the 90s. It was the most beautiful moment of a cesspool of bad Spider-Man stories and of them all it was the only one that they decided needed retconning. The thing is, I'm sure many Spider-Man fans want Aunt May to just die already and the thing this issue does is it manages to make the welcome and very expected death pretty gut-wrenching. Whether it's the scene between Peter and May regarding Spider-Man, Ben Reilly having being unable to see Aunt May one last time and having no one to comfort him or May dying in Peter's arms... it's an emotional and brilliant issue with some fantastic Spider-Man art from Mark Bagley which puts his lauded Ultimate Spider-Man work to shame.
1. CAPTAIN AMERICA #401, "After the Storm", by Mark Gruenwald & Rik Levins, 1992
Steve Rogers has a problem. That problem is he's a pretty dull character. He's too goody-goody. It's really hard to feel for a character who's already perfect. This issue, however, does a superb job at finally making Steve Rogers "problems" sympathetic and saddening. On one hand I was going to say "This is more of an Avengers issue, really" but then I am forced to take into account that for an Avengers issue this would've been the Steve Rogers show. Premise is Steve is depressed. Another tough thing to get across well in an issue without it seeming annoying. Gruenwald manages to, once again, prove that he really is the master of Captain America when he makes Steve's constant disappointment and disillusionment with the Avengers and his own leadership skills so incredibly touching. Simple things like saying goodbye to Quasar or calling US Agent his "pal" feel incredibly emotional. And that's because all these moments have a lot of emotional-baggage and character development to them. For a 22-page issue, we really get Cap's relationship with his fellow Avengers handled so perfectly. It's not just the best issue of Captain America, it's also the best issue of the Avengers.