Really, pretty much anything by EC could belong here. Here is an entire company that always produced top quality stuff and never sold out. Friends, this is how comics should be. Thanks to Frederick Wertham, EC now only produces Mad Magazine, but they are an absolute legend in comics. Pretty much THE legend.
Right at the birth of the modern comic form, at the turn of the 1900s, Winsor McCay showed us all how to do it right. It's just beautiful. The art, the ideas, the realism, the incredible adventure... and all on one page without looking cramped in the slightest. Wow. Just wow.
from the 1950s
Back in 1950, the Reverend Marcus Morris (founder of The Samaritans) decided that comics were rubbish and he was going to make a good one instead. He succeeded. The 1950s Eagle is probably the greatest comic ever, and Dan Dare was on the front page. In this page you see Professor Peabody, the greatest ever answer to the claim that science is only for boys.
This is my second favorite single issue of all time.* It containing two of the best Hulk stories ever, dealing with deep emotion and big issues, then a wonderful Gene Colan sci-fi short, followed by the first half of a classic FF story. This is how all comics should be!
*My favorite issue of all time is the Marvel UK edition of The Count of Monte Cristo
This example is so packed with ideas that you could write an essay on every frame. And with Ron Smith's beautiful art, it's just sublime.
by Ken Reid's, from The Beano
(Scan is courtesy of Lew Stringer's blog.) Jonah could fight with Winsor McCay's Little Nemo for the title of greatest single page comic series ever. If an alien was to read Jonah they could reconstruct every detail of British culture and aspirations of the 1950s. It's also a psychological study of human motivations and fears. And it does it all effortlessly with so much fun! I could rhapsodize about every issue of this perfect comic strip.
Note the frequent use of real people. Here we have Incredible exploits, down to earth realism, and great value (a whole story on one page): this one has it all. Two things to note:
(1) Comedies can have a serious message. Just ask Shakespeare's Fool!
(2) The most educational stories were never intended to be educational.
Most educational comics (like most schools) are deadly dull. But the best stories teach the stuff that really matters (this one is about self image and will power), without even trying.
Just imagine doing what this kid does! Think about it! Visualize it! This comic teaches more science in one page than you get in a whole day of school: an emotional feel for chemistry, mechanics, energy, forces, and how experiments go wrong. Sure, the science is exaggerated, but that's what literature is: it's heightened reality. It was never intended to be realistic or educational (what a horrible word!), but great stories are always grounded in the real, and always mind expanding.
by the immortal Reg Parlett.
What this does is so simple and apparently effortless, but look at the message: the fox story looks at life from another's point of view, the work story is about sexism and cheating (Belinda's mother is a whole sub plot on her own), the school story is about the limits of what is appropriate. It's all about love and justice, and reminds me of Jack Kirby's quote: the stories are real. And that is what makes them great. Incredible adventures, down to earth realism, and amazing value for money: it doesn't get any better than this.
Another example where the greatest creators are educational without trying or wanting to be educational. These two comics cover the meaning of life. The greatest stories are just naturally full of powerful stuff. This is what education should be - reality, not sitting in a school being force fed stuff that is "good for us."
What about web comics? Try subnormality at Viruscomix. In my opinion it's the only comic published today that's worth reading. More ideas, more art, more entertainment and more worthwhile content per square inch than any other medium. Go, sphynx!
Maybe you think I'm crazy to look for deep meaning in throw-away comics that were churned out on a production line. But this is what the French journal Cahiers Du Cinema did for cinema in the 1950s: they took a second look at American movies, those trashy, commercial time fillers that nobody took seriously. And they said, "you know what, this is great art!" and slowly other people realized that they were right. Comics are like cinema. When you dig past all the rubbish, you find nuggets of gold.