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Stories That Mattered: Essential Stories From DC Comics’ 75 Years

We’re a bit late to the party, but this week we’ll be celebrating the 75th anniversary of DC Comics, with a look at the medium, the company and the characters in a selection of bonus features running Monday through Friday. This is one of those articles. Be sure to join us for the rest.

It’s been 75 years since DC burst on the scene. I don’t imagine too many of the suits behind the scenes expected it to last quite this long. The wonderful folks over at io9 came up with a 75-book list of essentials and it’s a pretty good list, but it’s heavily toned towards “important” narratives rather than “good” narratives. It’s a fair distinction. Comic books are a young medium, and – being frank – most of the early writing sucks. The Golden Age Batman and Superman narratives were semi-decent stories (in many ways better than those that followed), but the truly awful dialogue makes them nigh impossible to read. I thought I’d just put together a list of some of the highly recommended DC stories I’ve picked up over the years.

Definitely important... not so sure it's essential...

Watchmen

It’s an obvious choice, so let’s get it out of the way. This story singlehandedly ushered in the modern age of self-aware comic books, and explored the notion of pseudo-realism within comic books – or at least the examination of what might happen when the fantasy intercepts reality. A lot has already been said (and I’ll probably write a review soon enough), but it should be kept in mind that the series wasn’t intended as the iconic ‘new direction’ it became, it wasn’t intended to summon gritty realism into the fantasy genre. It’s also worth noting that this is the only graphic novel to make Time’s list of the best books of the 20th century. So you know it’s good.

Sandman

This is probably my favourite DC comics narrative. Written by author Neil Gaiman (the man behind Coraline), it’s an epic fantasy in the style of the old myths and legends, following Morpheus, the King of Dreams, as he escapes nearly a century in captivity and sets about rebuilding his domain. Arguably one of the best stories about storytelling ever written, Gaiman weaves a wonderfully complex, yet breathtakingly elegant, tale of love, faith and betrayal. It’s simply magical. I’d almost certainly place it ahead of Watchmen, but perhaps that’s due to the way the Moore’s text has soaked into popular consciousness over the past two-and-a-half decades. If you are going to read one story on this list, make this it. And read it in the oversized Absolute editions.

Y: The Last Man

Proof that comics can do more than just superhero narratives, Brian K. Vaughan has constructed this story in the best science-fiction traditions (recalling Frank Herbert’s The White Plague and probably doznes more, just with the gender reversed). Imagining a world where a plague has wiped out all men (as the title implies), the series is a stunningly well-put together high concept, looking at – quite literally – the fall of man.

Starman

Remember how we talked about the enduring concept of the superhero and how taking them apart was only really fun if you put them back together again afterwards? As if delivered in a direct response to Watchmen, James Robinson’s Starman is a direct challenge to the deconstruction of the superhero. Following reluctant legacy hero Jack Knight, the series ran for 80 issues and gave us character growth and development across its run, as well as ingenius elements like Times Past, which helped colour in the rich tapesty of the cross-generational saga. If there is a single superhero narrative than can be read cover-to-cover (and deserves to be), it’s the Starman.

Batman

Now we come to the big guns. I’ve decided to cheat and include the essential Batman and Superman stories (as well as Green Lantern) under one heading each, because in theory they are one long narrative, right? One ridiculous convoluted narrative, though, but still. What are the truly essential Batman stories? It’s easy to identify the important ones, but the truly great ones are somewhat harder to come by, perhaps because there are so many out there. Frank Miller’s early work with the character – The Dark Knight Returns and Year One – are highpoints in the medium and ushered in the version of the character that Nolan brought to the screen. Denny O’Neil’s legendary late seventies run is still awaiting collection and – despite occasionally being a bit uneven – still reads as one of the better earlier superhero comic runs. Other than that, The Long Halloween is one of the definitive Batman stories and all of Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka’s Gotham Central deserves a read, if only for it’s absolutely intriguing premise (the execution is pretty awesome as well). And Arkham Asylum is a wonderful book well worth a read for Grant Morrison’s reimagining of Batman’s warped little world and David McKean’s amazingly expressionist artwork.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

Yes, it’s another Alan Moore story included in this collection. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen takes a trick somewhat unique to the medium – intertextuality and crossovers – and applies it to something a bit broader than whether Superman knows Batman. Moore posits a world where all fiction coexists – Captain Nemo is pals with Alan Quartermain and they foil Fu Manchu together, or where John Carter encounters the martians from War of the Worlds. So ridiculously literarythat the absolute editions – again the benchmark of quality here – come with the complete scripts for your literary culture-ification (it’s a word); but at the same time so pulpy they’re never less than great fun.

Superman

It’s hard to find a really good Superman narrative. Mostly because all the best stories with the character seem to exist out of regular continuity. Sure, John Byrne’s Man of Steel reboot has its moments, as does The Death and Return of Superman (if you can find it properly collected), but there’s really no mainstream title that really captures the essence of the character. Outside of the regular continuity, you’ll find fascinating stories like Mark Millar’s Red Son or Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman. Perhaps ironically, give his role in picking apart the superhero archetype, Alan Moore may be the best writer the character has ever had – the deluxe edition of Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? is a must.

Swamp Thing

Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing gave birth to modern comics as we are aware of them. That is not hyperbole or exaggeration. That is gospel. Check them out for the first truly ‘mature’ comic book ever printed. That they feature brightly coloured rhyming demons and primary-coloured aliens doesn’t hurt much either. Therre’s a whole offshoot of comics that this made possible you should probably look at – Sandman is the prominent, but Animal Man also falls within that net – but it all began here.

Green Lantern

This is probably the most controversial element on the list, because it’s the most modern. Geoff Johns rewrote the rule book when he resurrected Hal Jordan, who was turned evil and killed off in the mid-nineties. He’s drafted a comic book fantasy epic since, turning what has always been a second-rate book into arguably DC’s most consistently high quality comic. Though still on-going (but seemingly almost at its conclusion), the story has managed to become perhaps a wonderful meta-fictional treatise on the state of the medium, as the hokily-empowered (hokily is word) colourful corps wage wore upon the concept of darkness and blackness within comics. It lacks the self-importance of Grant Morrison’s similarly themed narratives, and – above all – is just fun, but I think it stands with the great runs.

This list is surprisingly skewed towards superheroes. Depending on how flexible you are, there are only two titles (Sandman and Y: The Last Man) which aren’t actually superhero titles, though Sandman does involve various DC universe characters tangentally. I’d make the case that Watchmen and Swamp Thing aren’t conventional superhero narratives, with the latter falling into the ‘horror comic’ genre that has been part of the medium since it began publishing. But what do I know?

There is a lot of Alan Moore on there though. And certainly deservedly.

3 Responses

  1. When you read the series, follow along with the Swamp Thing Annotations to discover even more hidden details. http://tinyurl.com/2jc7

  2. Please, make similiar list for Marvel

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