Superhero Comic Books 201: Continuing Your Education

So you have probably already viewed my previous post on which superhero graphic novels serve as the best jumping point for getting into their adventures. I hope you have taken some time to read a few read a few of them. There is also a good chance that if you are a comic book fan, many of these same books are already on your shelf.  As such, you may be wondering where to go from there.

I’m not just talking about a specific characters continuing adventures. That’s easy enough. Once you have the origin down everything else just kind of falls into place. However in reading these adventures or seeing these films you may wonder,  quite simply: why superheroes. What makes them so iconic or heroic. That is why I’ve compiled this list to take you further into the world of superheroes

1.The Dark Knight Returns – Frank Miller, Lynne Varley and Klaus JannsenThe Dark Knight Returns

-Considered one of the best Batman stories, this graphic novel reintroduced the idea of Batman as a grim and gritty character. While the comic books of the 70s took him seriously most didn’t notice until this story. Batman still remained firmly entrenched in the Pow! Wam! KABAM! bright and campy days of the old Adam West series. Then this story came along and changed everything, and even paved the way for Tim Burton’s first Batman film to take the world by storm.

Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns sets the Batman in a dystopian future and looks at what motivates the man behind the mask. Batman has been in retirement since Robin died but one night he is called back into action. Like it or not, he can’t escape his calling. Gotham is overrun with a new threat and it’s up to the Dark Knight to stop it. Joined by a new Robin, a girl named Carrie Kelly, Batman’s crusade continues as he battles the Joker, government forces, and even Superman.

2.Watchmen – Alan Moore and Dave GibbonsWatchmen

-The only graphic novel to make Time Magazine’s 100 best Books of the 20th century is a deconstruction of the superhero genre. Using thinly veiled expys of characters owned by Carlton Comics, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons crafted a brand new world on the brink of Armageddon and analyzed what truly made a hero. When the Comedian discovers a dangerous plan, he is killed by his actions. Rorschach investigates and discovers a vast conspiracy.

In this universe, Dr. Manhattan, a true Superman who is closer to the Neitzschian Ubermensch then Clark Kent, has no humanity. The Comedian, a Captain America like figure, has no morals or compassion. Night Owl a Batman type, has no drive. In the face of Armageddon these heroes don’t seem at all heroic. What we see in the climax is that real heroes are those who have the strength, courage and morals to stand up and do what’s right and say “enough is enough” when it comes to evil.

3. World Without Superman – VariousWorld Without Superman

-The follow up to The Death of Superman, in which Superman gave his life to stop the monster called Doomsday, this story sees the world try and cope with out the world’s greatest Superhero. Despite the fact the character first appeared in a title called “Action Comics” this story is light on the action, but heavy on heart. This was the story that made readers almost believe for a moment that DC Comics had actually killed Superman.

In the aftermath of Doomsday’s rampage the city of Metropolis is in shambles and Superman lies dead. As the city struggles to rebuilt, the world says it’s goodbyes to the Man of Steel.  We see Jonathan and Martha Kent struggling to come to terms with the loss of their son, Clark, while the world mourns him as Superman, we see Lois grieve the loss of the man in his entirety and struggle to put her life back together, and we see the rest of the Justice League and the other heroes try to carry on the Man of Steel’s work and honor his legacy. Even his enemies mourn his passing, knowing that their lives will probably be even worse against the other heroes. We see why Superman is so “Super” because he protects the innocent, he saves lives and he inspires others to be their very best.

4. Spider-Man: The Night Gwen Stacy Died Stan Lee, Gerry Conway, and Gil Kane.Death of GwenStacy

This is the story that some consider the one that ended the silver age of comics. Prior to this arc, while heroes began to be flawed, there was still an idealistic air over them. While they may have experienced some level of tragedy that was way in their past as part of the backstory. No one they love was ever hurt as the heroes always managed to arrive just in the nick of time. This was true, even for the hapless Peter Parker.

That is until his arch-nemesis, The Green Goblin, aka Norman Osborne, discovered Peter Parker was Spider-Man .Furious with Peter over what had happened to his son, Harry. Norman vowed vengeance and decided to strike Peter where it hurt the most. Green Goblin abducted Peter’s beloved girl friend, the beautiful Gwen Stacy and held her hostage over the Queensboro bridge. When he dropped her that led to the snap heard around the world. After that, no one, even a supporting character was “safe”. It was an incident that would haunt Spider-Man forever and force him to remember why it is with great power comes great responsibility, as well as teach him that vengeance only leaves him empty.

5. Crisis on Infinite Earths-Marv Wolfman and George PerezCrisis on Infinite Earths

The tagline says it best: worlds died, worlds survived and the DC Universe was never the same. In 1985, DC Comics realized that their continuity had gotten way to muddled, so writer Marv Wolfman and artists George Perez released an unprecedented story line that would rest the entire DC Universe. In Crisis on Infinite Earths a being from the anti-matter universe of Qward is seeking to destroy not just the Earth but every earth in every possible time line. His goal is simple, to remake the universe in accordance to his grand design and be the supreme ruler. In order to do that he needs to amass the energy of thousands of dying worlds.

Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern and the rest Earth’s heroes unite to fight this threat and every hero has their time in the sun. Small time heroes are as well focused and written as big heroes like Superman and Batman. At its core, however, this story focusses on Barry Allen, the original Flash. This story also sees the deaths of three prominent superheroes as the universe heads long towards oblivion. It’s a story that highlights the noble, selfless heroism of these characters, as well as highlights just what it really takes to bring not only these characters, but the rest of the world together to save the planet.

6.       X-Men: Days of Future Past-Chris Claremont, John Byrne and Terry Austen.days-of-future-past-comic-cover-1

The X-Men have always tried to fight for a better tomorrow, but what if that tomorrow becomes a nightmare, and Xavier’s dream is never realized? In the wake of the death of a prominent US Senator the US government has initiated Project Wideawake. An army of giant robot hunters known as Sentinels have been commissioned to hunt down mutants and in the process not only have mutants been eradicated, but other superhumans including Spider-Man, Captain America and Iron Man have been killed.  Other mutants are herded like animals into concentration camps to await their imminent death.

A small band of survivors, including Kitty Pryde, Wolverine, Storm, Franklin Summers ( the son of Reed Richards and Sue Storm of the Fantastic Four) and Rachel Summers ( the daughter of Scott Summers AKA Cyclops and Jean Grey) struggle to stay alive. Sending Kitty Pryde back in time via telepathy, they come to realize that the only way to stop this mutant holocaust is to go back and change the past. The X-Men soon find themselves having to try and protect a man who would rather see them all dead. Like Crisis on Infinite Earths, this is a story where anyone, even your favorite characters, could die.

7.     Kingdom Come– Mark Waid and Alex RossKingdom_Come_2

There greatest challenge that superheroes have to face isn’t a supervillian it’s relevancy. Despite how good Watchmen and  The Dark Knight Returns were they ushered in and endless slew of grim, dark and gritty stories, all of which lacked the originality or good story telling of the two pinnacle work. This also meant that superheroes reached a point where you couldn’t tell who was the hero and who was the villain.

In this story Superman is in self-imposed exile, Wonder Woman returned to Paradise Island, Flash is all but lost in the Speed Force, Green Lantern has removed himself from humanity and Batman runs Gotham with robotic drones. In the wake of the Joker’s deadly rampage through Metropolis people demanded swift action and when Superman couldn’t deliver, they turned on him. These original heroes were replaced by vicious antiheroes. When tragedy brings Superman back, the world rushes headlong towards the Apocalypse as Reverend Norman McKay is guided by the Specter, God’s Angel of Vengeance to witness these events. In one pivotal moment Reverend McCay is forced to try and appeal to Superman’s humanity in hopes of saving the world.

8.    Marvels-Kurt Busiek and Alex RossMarvels

This is the story of the Marvel Universe. An ordinary reporter witnesses as the events of the Silver Age of marvel unfolds. From reflections back on the golden Age, including Captain America , and the original human torch, to the rise of mutants, the Assembling of the Avengers, the return of Captain America, the coming of Galactus and even the death of Gwen Stacy, all the pivotal moments of Marvel are included in the story packed with exquisite art.

Phil Sheldon has been covering these “Marvels” for some time and sees them initially as the pinnacle of humanity. However as the cracks in their armor begin to show, and some heroes are perecieved as threats he begins to start questioning these “marvels”. This culminates in the deaths of Captain Stacy and his daughter, Gwen. When Spider-Man seems unable to save these two, he begins to see that these heroes may not be able to save any one. We see that what has made these Marvels so endearing is their ‘humanness’,  through their flaws and failings and their continual desire to try and do the right thing.

9.    Civil War-Mark MillarCIVWAR_CVRS.indd

While most comic book fans would not dispute any of my other entries on this list, this story would no doubt be met with some controversy. In fact it remains as divisive among comic book fans as it did when it was first published back in 2006. This story opens with The Marvel Universes equivalent of a Cops-like reality show .When a group of young , inexperienced heroes faces off against some unstable villains, led by Nitro. Nitro detonates and destroys an entire block of Stamford Connecticut, including a school.

Backlash ensues against the superheroes and Johnny Storm is in a comma when he is attacked outside a New York City Nightclub in response. A grieving mother confronts tony Stark and makes him ask the same question asked by Alan Moore’s classic story, “who watches the Watchmen?” To this end, and knowing full well from his own experience what can happen when he was out of control,  he proposes a Superhuman registration act in which heroes would be required to register with the federal government and receive proper training. Those who do not comply would be jailed. This does not sit well with all the heroes, namely Captain America who remembers the concentration camps and internment camps and this has seen full well where good intentions lead. Spider-Man is caught between the two sides as brother fights brother and even the Fantastic Four are briefly torn asunder. This story would have serious consequences on the Marvel Universe, and it is strongly recommended to read the tie-ins to catch the full narrative of this story.

10.   The Rocketeer-written and illustrated by Dave Stevens.rocketeerdeluxe628

And now for something completely different. In my personal opinion, this should be number one. While 80 % of these stories are deconstruction, Rocketeer is a more hopeful idealistic story. Gone is the jaded cynicism of the modern era or the post 9-11 paranoia. Instead this story is set in a much more nostalgic and seemingly “simpler” time.  1930’s Hollywood, Dave Stevens The Rocketeer is a homage to the pulps and serials of the Golden Age. Steven’s breathtaking art work is icing on this exquisite cake that has become a favorite among comic book fans. The Rocketeer, like Batman and Iron Man is just an ordinary guy, and like the Hal Jordan Green Lantern he’s a tad bit reckless, but deep down he had a heroic spirit.

Cliff Secord is a struggling stunt pilot hoping to make it big, and desperately trying to maintain the affections of his girlfriend, Bettie. When he and his mechanic buddy Peevy uncovers a top-secret rocket-pack, Cliff’s life is changed forever as he becomes the hero known as the Rocketeer. While it may lack any of the “grim grittiness “ that most current comic fans look for, this one has something that a lot of stories are missing: pure nostalgic fun. So grab a rocket pack and soar high with Dave Stevens’ The Rocketeer. It’s loaded with two fisted action, bold heroics, dazzling damsels, terrifying villains, an earnest yet struggling hero, and even some surprise cameos. If your wondering what really makes a hero, take a gander at this story and see how it shows that it’s really about an ordinary guy who finds some way to overcome his obstacles.

Regrettably as I limited this list to 10 I left of three glaring omissions, Allan Moore’s phenomenal Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow and The Killing Joke, and Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman. All three stories are extraordinary in their own ways and are worth reading.


About jonathondsvendsen

Hi! Thanks for stopping by my blog! Somehow you stumbled upon it. Whatever brought you around, I'm glad you're here. I am a free-lance writer and independent scholar of pop-cultural mythology, living and working in Minnesota. An aspiring mythmaker, I dream of voyages through space, fantastic worlds, and even my own superhero or two. I am also an established public speaker and have guest-lectured for college classes on the topic of comic book superheroes. I graduated from Bethel University in 2007 with a degree in Literature and Creative writing. I also write for the website Head on over and you can check out my book reviews , a few fun interviews and even my April Fools Day jokes.
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