The craft of comics is known for being a veritable testing ground for all manner of sublime storytelling ethos, and Screen Rant is counting down the most influential of those tales of all time. In a field of many great artists and inventive writers, some stories simply stand a cut above the rest, holding up against the test of time while managing to provide an ineffable spark that pushes the medium ever higher.
From classic storylines featuring beloved characters to graphic novels that flip comics’ most iconic elements on their heads, the impact of these tales persists decades after their publication. Without further ado, here’s the 10 most influential comic stories of all time.
10 Kingdom Come
Alex Ross and Mark Waid’s classic 1996 Elseworlds story Kingdom Come is a landmark book in many ways. First, it is a virtuoso performance by Ross, eclipsing his earlier Marvel work, 1994’s Marvels, and fully imagines the DC heroes in ways which perhaps will never be equaled in terms of their realistically-depicted grandeur. It is, nevertheless, a piercing criticism of the logical repercussions of superhero fiction, most notably in the overt Christian parallels which seemed to be echoed in an older Superman’s totalitarian efforts to control a population of super-powered individuals run amuck. Unable to avert an apocalyptic end, Kingdom Come did what few series have truly done right since, which is tell an end-of-days narrative for the superhero that does not betray the ultimate good-intentioned wholesomeness at the base of the concept. In doing so, it is one of the most honest-seeming stories of its type: the type where, even with the best intentions, a world of superheroes doesn’t always go right, or get saved.
9 From Hell
The genre of horror comics is a long and hallowed tradition within comics, but the most influential story in modern times belongs to Eddie Campbell and Alan Moore’s From Hell. Taking a historical dive into Victorian England and a particularly unsettling fringe theory surrounding the Jack the Ripper murders, what Campbell and Moore manage to deliver is not only a masterwork of horror, but the definitive historical fiction as well, packing a wallop of an ending supported by one of the most remarkable endeavors of fact-based research ever performed.
Aside from a marvelous sense of turning conventional history on its head through meticulous perusal of primary sources from Moore, Campbell’s artwork is truly gripping, appropriately dark, but with a human soul that grants an oddly charming sobriety to the mostly agoraphobic affair.
8 The Ultimates
The Ultimate Universe had a fair number of influential stories by the time Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch introduced their realism-infused take on the Avengers in 2002, with Millar’s own Ultimate X-Men already having made a splash. Millar brought something special to the title though: an uncompromising and vividly immersive journey through a world in need of heroes. Aided by an all-time effort by Hitch, The Ultimates gave a certain humanism to the team, and by extension the Marvel Universe, that has seldom been equaled in terms of how well realized it felt. Stand-outs included the abusive Hank Pym, a cowardly Bruce Banner and a redoubtable Janet Van Dyne.
Though not without its hiccups, this strange fluke of the market has since become one of the most influential titles in the history of the medium. It was these characterizations, particularly of the governmental organization S.H.I.E.L.D., the characters Iron Man and Captain America, and of course the everyday tone of the world itself, which would go on to become part of the foundation of Marvel Cinematic Universe, one of the leading film franchises in the history of the entertainment.
7 Truth: Red, White & Black
The issue of race has long been the subject of some of comics’ greatest stories, going back to EC Comics’ 1953 short “Judgment Day!”, originally published in Weird Fantasy #18. However, it was not until 2003 with the miniseries Truth: Red, White & Black by Robert Morales and Kyle Baker that this concept made full impact. Told in Afro-influenced impressionism rarely managed in modern comics, the story followed the original Captain America, Isaiah Bradley, introducing the secret history of racism and immoral government experimentation behind the sterling image of the better-known Cap.
African-Americans have historically been underrepresented in the pantheon of comics heroes, with few characters of that race ever starring in their own titles or appearing as the kinds of symbols of the community that icons like Captain America were. While Marvel had largely been on the forefront of these efforts, with heroes Falcon, War Machine and Blade all given space on the stands, Truth went further. It boldly told a story where the reason no one knew about the original Captain America Isaiah Bradley is because he was betrayed by his government over the color of his skin. This story was the first in a renewed effort to level the playing field when it came to race in comics, and its influence persists.
6 The Death of Superman
There are few story arcs that can be said to have a permanent, lasting effect on the industry as a whole, and one that most certainly does is 1992’s The Death of Superman, but for the absolute wrong reasons. Although not unheard of, if a major character’s popularity seemed to be in question, up until this story arc, it was common practice to either revamp them or quietly shuffle them off to the background. Not so for the event masterminded by Dan Jurgens, Louise Simonson and Roger Stern, which saw hitherto unknown villain Doomsday show up, nearly kill every member of the Justice League and then viciously beat Superman to death in the streets of Metropolis before dying himself.
There’s always going to be peaks and valleys with a specific characters’ sales, but following Clark Kent’s death and miraculous return (alongside four other imposter Supermen), the main vehicle gradually shifted towards death. Nearly every single major comic book character suffered seemingly irrefutable, irreversible deaths before being unceremoniously revived from both DC and Marvel since this episode set the stage. While the build-up to the supposed death was done with quality fanfare, it has since become the first of a gradual trend towards lower quality storytelling in the medium.
5 X-Men (Kirby and Lee)
When discussing the most influential comics of all time, it would be remiss to not bring up the legendary team of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, whose partnership led to the creation of the most iconic stable of characters in all of comics. Though responsible for The Fantastic Four, The Avengers and The Incredible Hulk, it was their third-tier team, The X-Men, which would ultimately prove to have the most influence over time than their more successful contemporaries. Following five students gifted with amazing mutant powers through a series of battles against their evil counterparts, X-Men offers something that their rival books lack: a template for how comic books would eventually evolve.
As a running narrative for pupils of Professor Charles Xavier, what unfolds over the early run of X-Men is something quite surprising in retrospect: a quality story of a band of fledgling heroes fighting against impossible odds for the sake of a humanity that hates and fears them. Though still in its infancy at this point, this template the team provided, including very real undertones of isolation, self-doubt and perseverance in the face of bigotry, would go on to become the industry norm for a vast number of titles leading up to present day.
Comic books originate from the simple funny pages of the once omnipresent print periodicals which once dominated the media market, and there are certain traditions from these humble beginnings which endure: funny animals, family foibles, historical adventure yarns. When Art Spiegelman first published Maus, the transliterated tale of his own father’s experience as a Jew in a concentration camp, fittingly in his own magazine Raw beginning in 1980, it lifted a veneer from the medium’s golden days which still to this day has never quite been replaced, and with good reason. In some ways a cruel satire on the old Mickey Mouse comics, Maus shatters the barriers of cultural taboo by unflinchingly describing the terrors of institutionalized racism and genocide under the thin metaphorical disguise of substituting social groups for common animals: Nazi cats, collaborator pigs, and Jewish mice.
What the final product amounts to is one of the most harrowing historiographical documents in the medium, constructing in plain language the cost of hatred and the generational effects of such societal cruelties as the Holocaust. A book that offers no easy answers, Maus is now considered an essential work of the medium, opening the doors for many other discussions of uncomfortable social issues.
3 The Sandman, “The Kindly Ones”
Having already taken readers for an unforgettable ride throughout his Sandman series, writer Neil Gaiman decided he would do the impossible and knit together a seamless end for the King of Dreams. This story arc, “The Kindly Ones,” (drawn primarily by Marc Hempel) would prove to be among the most imaginative, sprawling and mesmerizing works ever put to page, telling the tale of how Lord Morpheus met his end in a penultimate act to the series that is a true celebration of the power of stories.
“The Kindly Ones” in total serves as a comprehensive and apt demonstration for the potential of the medium as a whole. It achieves this through patient world-building, adding in immense nuance and weight to each minor detail slowly and gradually, all the while including beautifully evocative scenes for each of the dozens of major characters across the story, a balancing act that likely will never be equaled in its emotional resonance. Ever the mad scientist, Gaiman brings this monster to life with gusto, making it a supreme example of how to tell a complex fantasy.
2 Spider-Man, “If This Be My Destiny…!” (The Master Planner Saga)
The Amazing Spider-Man by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko might be among the most influential runs of all time, and it’s not hard to see why. Following the crime-fighting saga of newspaper photographer Peter Parker, the series was known for its colorful characters, animated art style, and the main draw, Spider-Man himself, a beleaguered everyman turned friendly, neighborhood superhero.
All of these elements coalesce into the “Master Planner Saga,” where Spider-Man uncovers a ring of masked terrorists committing crimes across New York City. Eventually forced to track them down to their hideout when the serum for his Aunt May’s blood disease is stolen, these early issues of Amazing Spider-Man (#31-33) provide, in their most unadulterated form, the beating heart of what makes superhero fiction relevant through a disarmingly personal and mature psychological approach. One man against an army of goons headed by a maniacal Doctor Octopus, “If This Be My Destiny…!” distills in quietly defiant fashion what makes a great hero. This story serves as the gold standard for all superhero tales that came after.
There are truly few stories in any medium that can be said to transcend them, but Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen can assuredly be counted among them. An airtight moral fable masquerading as colorful entertainment, Watchmen is a testament to the virtue of philosophical discussion. Set in an alternate version of the 1980s in which real-life superheroes have ended up changing the course of historical events, Watchmen presents a seamless narrative that asks real questions of its audience in ways that few comic books before or since have ever accomplished. In the process, it does not back down from criticizing the efficacy of superheroes as a phenomena in general.
What truly makes Watchmen such an incredible work is its deconstructions of superhero archetypes through its fully realized characters, including the conflicted Nite Owl, Dan Dreiberg, and the psychotic Rorschach, who in many ways ends up being the heart of the narrative. For better or worse, Watchmen is responsible for the introduction of physical and emotional realism into the comics industry, and will go down as the most influential title in the medium’s history with room to spare.