September 2017 is SYFY’s 25th anniversary, so we’re using it as an excuse to look back and celebrate the last 25 years of ALL science fiction, fantasy, and horror, a time that has seen the genres we love conquer the world of pop culture. For us, that means lists! ALL THE LISTS! We’ll be doing two “25 greatest” lists per day all throughout September, looking back at the moments, people, and characters that shaped the last quarter century. So keep checking back. Please note: Our lists are not ranked; all items have equal standing in our brains.
What items in our lists were your favorites? Did we miss something? We welcome respectful debate and discussion, so please let us know in the comments!
When we started polling SYFY WIRE staff for the best comics stories for the last 25 years, there was an explosion of suggestions. There are a few stories that showed up on every, or nearly every list, of course. There were several that overlapped, too, showing up on two or three lists from individuals. But there were also a lot of solo nominees, driving the list of nominations up into the 80s. Dropping that down to just 25 was nearly impossible, frankly.
Still, we’ve come up with a list that shows a fairly wide variety of American comics of the last 25 years, giving fans a wide variety of possible favorites. Your own list will vary, and it should – comics are so incredibly subjective. There are creators on our other “best of” lists that aren’t represented on here, and vice versa. No one will agree with all 25 entries, but hopefully you’ll see at least a few of your favorites.
Remember, we’re presenting these in alphabetical order, not any kind of direct ranking.
There have been many great Superman stories in the last 25 years (and a few others were nominated), but nothing so encapsulates what people love about the character like All-Star Superman. With an over-arc about Superman facing mortality and individual stories that explored that theme through supporting characters, we got to see the humanity in this super-powered alien like we never had before. If one moment stands out above the rest, it’s from Issue 10, when Superman stopped a young girl from committing suicide not by just grabbing her and using his physical prowess, but by telling her she’s stronger than she thinks.
Annihilation and Annihilation Conquest
The cosmic corners of the Marvel Universe had been largely ignored for several years; since Marvel’s bankruptcy, creators there had focused largely on the “street-level” characters. But Keith Giffen, along with editor Andy Schmidt, set out to change that with a space-bound epic that renewed Nova, Silver Surfer, Super Skrull, Ronan, Galactus, and the villain Annihilus in major ways. The series also spun off to launch Nova and Guardians of the Galaxy – the latter being the team that would make it to the big screen in the MCU a few years later. Annihilation Conquest, the sequel spearheaded by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, continued the rebirth of the cosmic characters, with Quasar, Star-Lord, Moondragon, Gamora, and Adam Warlock all getting significant spotlights. Most importantly, these stories were far-reaching, varied, and a lot of fun.
You may know David Mazzucchelli for his work on Daredevil: Born Again or Batman: Year One, stories that largely renewed or reinvented their respective characters. But his solo, creator-owned book Asterios Polyp is probably the best work he’s ever done. The simple story of a professor who has a drastic identity crisis delivers a philosophical look at where destiny and freewill diverge. It has as much in common with a slice-of-life film as it does an epic Greek poem, and explores the medium of comic books in a unique way.
Batman: Grant Morrison’s Run
In 2006, Grant Morrison began writing Batman, and he would stay on various Bat-books until 2013. In that span, he co-created (and killed – he got better) Damian Wayne, the son of Batman, killed Bruce Wayne (he got better, too), launched an international franchise of Bats called Batman, Inc., and incorporated basically every moment of Batman’s history directly into his canon. Guys, he brought Rainbow Batman back. This story was wild, spanned millennia, and left Batman richer in character than he was before Morrison arrived.
Batman: The Court of Owls
Widely considered the best of the New 52, this Batman story by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo changed the way fans look at Gotham City, Batman, his sidekicks, and his legacy. The introduction of the Court of Owls in the first story arc of the Batman flagship series after the reboot gave fans a look at a Gotham that had centuries of history leading to the rise of the Batman. It gave an epic mythology to the franchise beyond anything that had been done before, and includes elements Snyder is still revealing today, six years later. The Court has already made it into animation and even live-action on Gotham, proving its popularity.
Batman: The Long Halloween
You could pretty much pick one (or two or three) of Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s collaborations and put it on any "best of" list, but The Long Halloween was unique. It took place from one Halloween to the next (and was actually released that way), with a different holiday featured in each issue, and a gauntlet of villains run along the way. The story has Batman the detective and Batman the superhero. It has mob bosses and supervillains. It adds some amazing depth to Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent. This is a quintessential Batman story.
Birds of Prey: Death of Oracle
There are any number of Gail Simone stories that could be on a list like this, but this four-issue story surpasses those, all for its emotional weight. Despite having “Oracle” in the title, this story was one of the best Black Canary stories ever, with the character having to finally confront events that happened to her decades earlier (in another stellar story, The Longbow Hunters). Thanks to the villain Mortis, Canary directly addressed her PTSD from terrible torture, and broke through the other side. While accelerated, it’s a great look at PTSD and the necessity of confronting the past.
Black Panther (Christopher Priest)
Christopher Priest’s run on Black Panther from 1998 to 2003 took the character, often relegated to being an also-ran in the ranks of the Avengers, and made him into the ruler he was always meant to be. He’s instantly elevated into the role he ostensibly already had, as the leader of the most technologically advanced nation in the world, one that lived in isolation, and was happy to stay that way. T’Challa’s life as a ruler included interfacing with Everett K. Ross as an envoy from the U.S., fighting Erik Killmonger, and becoming a leader among the Avengers. If any of that, or those names, sound familiar, it’s because all of those aspects are being used for Black Panther’s future in the MCU.
DC: The New Frontier
Darwyn Cooke’s look at the edge of the Golden and Silver Ages of DC Comics is filled with classic moments, giving every member of the Justice League their due in spectacular fashion. It’s beautiful, moving, fun, intense, hilarious, and basically anything else a superhero comic can be. When it came out, it won three Eisner Awards, three Harvey awards, and a Shuster Award. We could read Cooke’s Wonder Woman all day, every day, forever.
Deadpool: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly
Want to fall in love with Deadpool? This story from Gerry Duggan, Brian Posehn, and Declan Shalvey will do the trick, as Deadpool, Wolverine, and Captain America – three old soldiers of different stripes – team-up for an emotional adventure that mixes tragedy and humor, just like Deadpool, himself. Deadpool finds in both Wolverine and Captain America something to aspire to, in different ways. This story is the start of ‘Pool truly respecting and looking up to Cap, and expanding himself into a more three-dimensional character than he often gets the chance to be.
Hawkeye: My Life as a Weapon
The run on Hawkeye by writer Matt Fraction and artists David Aja and Javier Pulido was unlike anything anyone had seen in superhero comics before it. The first arc established Hawkeye as the hero who fought bros, teamed up with Hawkeye (the… other one), and earned the name “Hawkguy.” The sense of style and excitement was unmatched. The ability to poke fun at Hawkeye, and even at other superhero comics is just icing on the cake. Bro, read this book, bro. Bro.
When Valiant Entertainment relaunched their lineup of titles, Harbinger was one of the first to get the reboot treatment. In the initial 25-issue run of the series, Joshua Dysart and Khari Evans (and other artists) gave us the story of Peter Stancheck, Toyo Harada, and what it means to have power. This is a story in the grand tradition of the X-Men, but firmly ensconced in the modern day. The teenage characters of Harbinger make mistakes (horrible ones), and the adults are flawed but have real goals of their own. If you’re going to build your universe’s first crossover on a series and a set of characters, you can do a lot worse than Harbinger. We can’t wait for what’s next.
Hellboy in Hell
When Mike Mignola decides to write and draw an entire story for his character, Hellboy, you just sit back and watch – and enjoy. So what happens when Hellboy loses, dies, and gets sent to Hell? The Descent, the first story arc, tells that exact story. We get a new look at Hellboy, the character, and what his destiny truly is. As Hellboy learned the true nature of freewill, we discover just what his nobility is. As the final Hellboy story, Hellboy in Hell may teach us more about the character in ten issues than the years of stories before did collectively.
What might the DC Universe come to? That’s what Mark Waid and Alex Ross attempted to discover in Kingdom Come. Their series looked at what Superman and the Justice League stand for as heroes, especially when confronted by a new generation of heroes that want to handle things with more extreme prejudice. Through a look at this possible future, readers saw just what made the DC Universe, and its core heroes, so special. Their archetypes came about full force, and characters were able to evolve. There’s a sense of legacy and hope in the face of pain and tragedy, which can only be told using DC’s superheroes, as this creative team proved.
Greg Pak, Aaron Lopresti, and Carlo Pagulayan just wanted to make Hulk happy, right? That’s what the Illuminati said, anyway, when they sent Hulk away from Earth. Instead, he landed on Sakaar, a planet where aliens are brought to fight in gladiator battles for the entertainment of the Red King. Yes, this is the story of Gladiator Hulk and his rise to power, and yes, it’s as awesome as that concept sounds. There’s also the deeper story of how Hulk and Bruce Banner finally come to grips with each other – at least, for a while. This will be partially adapted in Thor: Ragnarok later this year.
Planetary is simply the best deconstruction of superheroes in comics. Warren Ellis and John Cassaday put together a look at the characters of U.S. superhero comics and the nature of superhero comics in general that broke it down to its most basic core, then built it back up. It’s beautiful, an epic that spans the history of superheroes in a way nothing else had before or has since. Cassaday’s realistic art (with colorist Laura Martin) helped sell this outrageous science fiction story nicely.
Preacher “Until the End of the World"
The second volume of Preacher showed just what Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon were capable of producing. It’s no surprise, then, that the first season of Preacher’s TV adaptation borrowed significant elements (including Jesse as a kid, with his dad telling him he has to be one of the good guys). This is the story that the entire series needs to work, and explains how Jesse, through abuse and loss, came to be the man he is. It also includes peak Steve Dillon, especially in the strange but exciting action scenes.
Sinestro Corps War
When Geoff Johns came onto Green Lantern with Green Lantern Rebirth, he had an epic plan to make the Lantern Corps the same center of the universe that Oa occupied. That plan started to come to fruition in the Sinestro Corps War with Dave Gibbons, Ivan Reis, Patrick Gleason, and others. Here, he began his reinvention of the emotional spectrum in earnest, re-establishing the Sinestro Corps as the “Yellow Lanterns,” mentions the Red Lanterns, and sets up the Blackest Night epic, in which all the Corps of light come together. This was, quite simply, the reinvention of the entire basis of the DCU, so, yeah, it’s on the list.
Star Wars: Darth Vader (2015)
Kieron Gillen and Salvador Larroca had quite the task at hand, producing the first officially canon Star Wars comic ever, after Marvel Comics took over the license of sister company Lucasfilm in 2015. It took them only one issue to show that they had what it took, and would tell a story worthy of the Dark Lord of the Sith. In a story full of intrigue and double-speak (much like the Sith, themselves), the final pages of the story reveal that, while Darth Vader is on a mission, for some casual fun he slaughters a tribe of Sand People on Tatooine – old grudges much? The book would later introduce fan-favorite characters like Doctor Aphra, a young female “Indiana Jones” type in the Star Wars universe with… flexible morality… and the evil murder-droids Triple Zero and Beetee. It’s fun, packs a punch with every page, and was the perfect way to start a new era of the galaxy far, far away.
A tragically short-lived series, The Vision from Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta didn’t have much to say about superheroes, but it had a whole lot to say about the nature of humanity. When Vision decides to make himself a wife and two kings to fight back the inevitability of being alone, he uses them to attempt to make himself feel more human. It doesn’t work, at least not very well. His family, meanwhile, fails at humanity, openly, and starts to hate it pretty quickly. What follows is a story that’s at times difficult to read, but says so much between the lines that it’s worth reading repeatedly.
The Winter Soldier
When Ed Brubaker relaunched Captain America alongside Steve Epting and Michael Lark, they set out to do the unthinkable: bring Bucky Barnes back from the dead. What they did while accomplishing that task is tell one of the best comics stories ever. Bucky Barnes returned, and it was revealed he had never died in the first place. Taken by the Russians after his tragic near-death in World War II, he was conditioned to be the perfect killer, eventually crossing paths with his former best friend. It’s a heartbreaking story, but also an awesome story of spies, political intrigue, cold war tactics, brainwashing, and a heavy dose of superhero action.
Ultimate Spider-Man: The Death of Spider-Man
We were told that the Ultimate Universe was different, and that there, dead meant dead. While other characters, like founding X-Men member Beast, and many others, had died already, the death of Peter Parker changed everything. In this story from Ultimate Spider-Man creators Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley, Peter gets put through the gauntlet. Along the way, he gets shot by the Punisher, fends off Electro, Kraven, and Sandman while injured, and overcomes the odds to take down a souped-up Goblin, Norman Osborn. But the fight is too much, and Peter doesn’t survive, dying in the arms of Mary Jane, with Aunt May, Gwen, and Johnny Storm by his side. The legacy of Peter Parker was picked up, of course, by Miles Morales, the former’s death paving the way for the latter’s rise. In that, Ultimate Spidey lives on.
Usagi Yojimbo "Grasscutter"
Stan Sakai’s epic of a samurai rabbit has had a lot of fun and meaningful moments, but “Grasscutter,” volume 12 of the series, which won multiple awards, shows off the potential of the series wonderfully. “Grasscutter” spans hundreds of years, pays off ten years of Usagi Yojimbo, but also works perfectly well if it’s the very first story of the character you’ve ever read. It has the biggest battles and craziest action of the series, and a deadly villain named Jei that has to be seen to believed, and does it all without losing a sense of humor or anything else Usagi had established up to that point.
A post-script to X-Cutioner’s Song, this might be the best single issue of an X-Men comic ever. In it, Doc Samson comes to do some crisis counseling for the members of X-Factor, getting into the heads of Wolfsbane, Quicksilver, Polaris, Strong Guy, Multiple Man, and Havok, and showing them to be just as human (and full of human insecurities) as those of us without fabulous mutant powers. It’s an entire issue of conversations, and it does more in one issue to establish its characters’ personalities than entire runs have done. Side note: there’s a sequel to this story, X-Factor Vol 3 #13, that’s worth checking out, too. Both are written by Peter David. Joe Quesada was the artist on the first, and the sequel was done while he was editor-in-chief.
Y: The Last Man “Whys and Wherefores”
The final full arc of Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra’s magnum opus is wholly unexpected, terribly depressing, strangely hopeful, and ultimately the only way Y: The Last Man could have really ended. The turns the relationships took, the deaths toward the end, the ultimate fate of Yorick -- they’re all shocking moments. The tears of the penultimate issue were at least somewhat wiped away by the hope of the finale, but being left unsettled, much like Yorick himself, brings the reader closer to the character than they already are.
These were OUR choices from the last 25 years. What are yours? Let us know in the comments which big comics stories from the last 25 years you’d put on your list!
And check out the rest of our "25 Greatest" lists here!