War Rocket Ajax, a comic podcast hosted by Chris Sims (X-Men 92′, Deadpool: Bad Blood) and Matt Wilson (Everything Will Be Okay) just crossed a major threshold. Since 2009, the pair have been ranking comic book stories. Each episode follows the hosts as they catch up with what they have been doing and review a handful of the week’s comic. But the crux of the show, and what has made it so popular, is the famous, or infamous, ranking of the best and worst comics of all time.
But Why Tho: Where did the idea to rank stories come from?
Chris: The bit was originally inspired by something that Tom Scharpling did on the Best Show called “The Order of Everything,” where the gag was that he would rank everything that existed, based on people calling in with suggestions, so that he ended up having to decide if, like, air conditioning was better than Let It Be. I think we both figured that the joke was that we would say we were going to rank every comic book story ever published, which would be impossible. Instead, the joke became that we were actually doing more and more as it went on, and actually having to decide if the “Sluggo is Lit” Nancy strip was better than the entirety of Steve Ditko’s Mr. A. Which, by the way, it is.
Matt: It’s kinda not even close.
But Why Tho: Did you ever imagine you would get to 1000 stories?
Matt: Absolutely not. I don’t think we ever had any ambitions at all for this thing. The idea for this segment was just to fill time after our interviews for a while, but then it became kind of inexplicably popular and important to people, a way for them to find old comics to read. The longevity of it is totally a fluke.
Which rankings have you gotten the most flack over? Highest and lowest?
Chris: The ones that are controversial are usually not the ones you’d expect. I’m pretty sure the most disagreement we’ve gotten from listeners was when we ranked Marvel Two-In-One Annual #7, where the Thing fights the Champion of the Universe. Matt and I love that story, but we’ve had people come to us and be like “Hey, I read that and… I mean, it’s okay?” It’s why we ended up making the joke about how the list already exists and we, like Michelangelo sculpting David, are just revealing it.
There was one that was legitimately controversial, though, and that was Holy Terror. That’s the Frank Miller book that’s basically Batman vs. 9/11, but went so far off the rails that DC didn’t end up publishing it, and it now stars a character called “The Fixer.” Neither of us really wanted to read it — and there are some books that we’ve flat-out said we don’t want to read for the list — but we eventually agreed to do it if our listeners donated, I think it was $500 for CAIR. They came through very quickly, and so we ended up reading it and having this long, really big discussion as we were ranking it about what makes it bad, and whether it’s worse that this thing exists in its current form as opposed to being the Batman story that was originally intended. It wound up being the penultimate comic on the list, but we had a listener or two who thought it should’ve been ranked dead last.
Matt: And we totally get that impulse. It’s a pretty indefensible book. Our reasoning had nothing to do with Holy Terror not being morally repugnant. It most assuredly is. But so is Identity Crisis, the bottom of the list, with its treatment of women and mental illness. That combined with its lasting popularity and influence, while Holy Terror has been largely forgotten, is why we went the way we did. The list is sort of an ongoing debate with broader comics culture, and, aside from a very small minority, nobody defends Holy Terror.
But Why Tho: What was the hardest book to rank and why?
Matt: I don’t know that any single one was the hardest, but I think it gets harder the closer you get to the top. So like, when we ranked the recent Mister Miracle series, comparing that against some of the other best comics ever made, it’s a tough call to find that exact perfect spot. Come to think of it, Watchmen, which is also in the top 10, was a tough one to rank, because there’s the story itself, and then there’s everything that comes with the story, all those wrong lessons comic creators have taken from it for 30-plus years.
Chris: Yeah, we decided early on that a story’s legacy was going to be a factor in our decision. “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate” is not really a “good” story, for instance, but it’s the foundation of a huge chunk of the superhero genre, and even the comics media that was all built on top of it. It has to come into the discussion, “Did this ruin something? Did this turn something bad into something that fit better?” We try not to give passes to things for being products of their time, but that’s a big part of it. As for what was most difficult, a lot of the really polarizing stuff comes easily, but there’s this whole section in the middle for books that are Just Okay that we really have to get granular in comparing. And then there’s something like “The War of Jokes and Riddles,” which we spent like half an hour literally trying to decide if it was good or bad.
But Why Tho: If you could move one of your rankings would you? And if so, which comic?
Chris: On the one hand, Maximum Carnage is in the 800s and that book is good, actually. On the other, one of the weirdest things about the list is that it’s kind of a snapshot of how we feel about a given comic when we were ranking it. It’s tough to set aside recency bias, or to overcorrect when you’re trying to, even. Plus we’ve been doing this thing for like 6 years, so tastes change. I don’t know if I’d want to change something, but every now and then we’ll run across a comic and think “how did that get here?”
Matt: But even with that, I don’t think I’d change anything. The stories are what they are. They’re in print as they are and won’t change. We have re-ranked stuff in our list of characters that we do, because they’re evolving and changing all the time. They can be damaged or fixed. But these stories will always be what they are, even though the cultural climate around them does change. The only possibility of re-ranking that I’d imagine would come if we look back at something in 20 years and realize it wasn’t as good as we thought. And I’d be very shocked if we’re still doing this in 20 years.
Chris: I would not be.
But Why Tho: What is the biggest challenge when it comes to ranking comics and has it gotten easier or harder as you have added more to the list?
Matt: It’s definitely getting harder. As more and more stuff populates the list, we have more and more things to compare a single story against. And it’s not all apples to apples comparisons. As Chris kind of alluded to earlier, how can you compare, like, Maus against Planet Hulk? And yet we’ve done it. Now there’s so much on the list, we’ll just look at what’s at the various hundred marks — 100, 200, 300 — and see if what we’re looking at kind of fits there.
Chris: One of the weird quirks of the list is that 90% of it is done from memory. We don’t really see the lists until Matt pulls one out of an email and reads it while we’re recording, so it’s a very in-the-moment decision, with us occasionally dropping by the Fandom wikis or grabbing a book off the shelf to flip through while we talk about it. As a result, there are some occasions where we’ll misremember something, or forget a part of a story. We had a long conversation about “Planet X,” from the Grant Morrison New X-Men run, with both of us going “why do people not like this story? I remember it being great when I read it 14 years ago!” and then having people come at us with “did you guys forget THIS part?!” That’s one of the few times we’ve gone back and had to address a ranking on another episode.
But Why Tho: As a critic, I often have to put aside my fangirl brain when reviewing comics. Was there a book you wanted to love, or do love, but know it is categorically not great.
Chris: There’s a story where Superman and Batman fight vampires in South Carolina and I want that story to be so much better than it is, but here we are. Also, I think one of the strangest discussions we’ve had on the show was about Ben Marra’s Terror Assaulter OMWOT: One Man War On Terror, where I remember saying “I really like this comic but I cannot in good conscience recommend that anyone read it.”
But Why Tho: Is your next goal 2000?
Matt: Yeah. I think by the time we get there, we’ll have ranked every comic story, right, Chris? I think there are probably about 2,000 stories in the history of the comics medium.
Chris: That seems like a pretty high estimate but sure.
Until 2000 Chris and Matt continue to talk about and rank comics on War Rock Ajax as well as write various books and comics. You can find War Rocket Ajax on their website, podcast services everywhere, and Patreon.