The best DC Comics stories of all time feature heroes such as Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and the rest of the Justice League. But how many of the legendary comic book tales behind those heroes have you read?
Whether you're a time-worn DC fan who's looking to re-read some favorite comics, or a DC newcomer looking to dip your toes in the comic books that started it all, here are Newsarama's picks for the best DC Comics stories of all time.
10. Whatever Happened To the Man of Tomorrow?
How do you eulogize the history of a character in two short issues? That's the question Julius Schwartz sought to answer, and he hired Alan Moore to do it - and he did with 'Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow? (opens in new tab).'
With the events of Crisis on Infinite Earths (opens in new tab) effectively ending the Silver Age, Schwartz imagined that his last two issues editing the Superman line were to be the last in human history. In two short issues, Alan Moore created a road map through Superman's history that included his most fearsome villains and his closest friends.
And ultimately, he gives the man who has everything the one thing he lacked: a perfect ending. Part of the reason that this is such a pitch-perfect tribute to the Man of Steel is that legendary artist Curt Swan handled the art. He had been drawing Superman since 1948 and from the opening letters "This is an imaginary story" to that final, knowing wink from 'Jordan Elliott,' this one feels like a Superman story through and through.
It honors the legacy of one of the world's greatest heroes while simultaneously thumbing its nose at the continuity changes that were to take place.
9. The Return of Barry Allen
In the wake of Crisis On Infinite Earths, Wally West became the new Flash, graduating from sidekick to superhero with the death of his mentor Barry Allen. Wally's transition wasn’t without growing pains, however. He failed to gel with readers until Mark Waid began his landmark run on Flash, giving Wally the depth that his predecessor had often lacked.
While it’s hard to argue that there was ever a lull in Waid's original Flash run, 'The Return of Barry Allen (opens in new tab) ' is likely its apex. In this story, Wally is confronted with the return of the deceased Barry Allen – a story that, under another writer's pen, might have been heartfelt schmaltz, but for Waid, was an examination of Wally's ascent to true heroism, and the moment that solidified him as the one true Flash.
Over the course of six issues, Wally and Barry struggle to share the mantle of the Flash until the truth of the return is revealed. Written in a conversational style reminiscent of Wally recounting the tale to a friend, it's as much a conversation between Waid and readers about legacy and heroism as it is between the characters on the page.
'The Return of Barry Allen' is something of an unsung pioneer of modern comic books, blending an everyman perspective with a modern narration and a grasp of classic ideals that make it one of the best examples of late 20th-Century superhero storytelling, and one of the best DC stories of all time.
8. The Judas Contract
When 'The Judas Contract (opens in new tab)' began in New Teen Titans #42, the surprise wasn't Terra's apparent heel turn. Marv Wolfman and George Pérez had spent nearly a year introducing Terra to the Titans and making her part of the group and then letting readers in on her terrible secret months before the Titans would learn her true nature.
The shock of that issue was just how totally and thoroughly she and Deathstroke owned the Titans because she knew all of their secrets at that point. At the height of their creative energies, Wolfman and Perez's stories were about the unique individuals that made up the Titans. All of the characters are so strong that the introduction of a wildcard like Terra to the team was a great way to shake things up.
'The Judas Contract' also focuses on the story of Dick Grayson versus Deathstroke as the two warriors maneuver their allies to counter the other's forces, culminating in the one-time Robin's transition to his new superheroic persona as Nightwing.
Just as Grayson moves out of his mentor's shadow, this story proves that the Titans are much more than just a Justice League junior varsity team.
7. Sinestro Corps War
For years, the Green Lantern Corps stood as the universe's best and brightest, defending the galaxy through the use of the most powerful weapon in the cosmos — their emerald power rings.
But with the action-packed space opera epic 'The Sinestro Corps War (opens in new tab), (opens in new tab)' Geoff Johns and Dave Gibbons, along with A-list artists such as Ivan Reis and Patrick Gleason, showed Hal Jordan and company they weren't the only ring slingers in town.
Featuring the debut of the fear-powered Sinestro Corps, 'Sinestro Corps War' was a pivotal moment for the Green Lanterns as both an organization and as a franchise, with a murderer's row of iconic DC supervillains thrown against the team, including Parallax, Cyborg Superman, Superboy-Prime, and the Anti-Monitor himself.
Yet this book also had key moments of the Green Lanterns rising to this unprecedented challenge, with beats such as John Stewart trading interstellar sniper fire with the hermit crab-like creature known as Bedovian, the Guardians revoking their eons-old edict against killing, or the promotion of Daxamite Green Lantern Sodam Yat as the new, all-powerful Ion as he tackles the unstoppable Kryptonian Superboy-Prime.
Culminating with some huge battles and personal redemptions, 'Sinestro Corps War' also led to a greater expansion of the Green Lantern universe as a whole, hinting at the rise of five more corps based on the colors of the emotional spectrum. This explosion of creativity and action not only solidified this as one of the greatest Green Lantern stories but one of the greatest DC stories in history.
6. The Dark Knight Returns
30+ years after its original four-part release, Frank Miller, Klaus Janson, and Lynn Varley's The Dark Knight Returns (opens in new tab) is undeniably one of the most powerful Batman stories ever told. A violent tale acted out behind a backdrop of Cold War paranoia and nightmares of a teenage uprising, The Dark Knight Returns follows Batman as he comes out of retirement to wage war against a Gotham City that will no longer tolerate one man taking the law into his own hands.
Miller's Bruce Wayne is a silver-haired cowboy dropped into an '80s dystopia, a burly bag of aching bones who finds himself physically outmatched by a new generation of vicious gangs and the return of his arch-nemesis the Joker. Finally, as nuclear war breaks out between the U.S.A. and the Soviet Union, it's up to Superman to take down a Batman hell-bent on cleaning up Gotham's streets.
Although written and illustrated when Miller was just 29, The Dark Knight Returns feels like the work of a much older man. It's a satirical look at the evolving media landscape of the '80s when TV became more youth-oriented and even the news began to turn towards entertainment, as exemplified by the many talking heads who narrate the book's events in ways that benefit their own twisted agendas.
Although time and countless issues of a harder-edged Batman have since softened the original impact of Frank Miller's pessimistic take on the World's Greatest Detective, its place in comic book history cannot be understated. For that reason alone, 'The Dark Knight Returns' deserves a place in every reader's library.
5. The New Frontier
In a modern era of cynicism in comic books, the late Darwyn Cooke was able to showcase the latent optimistic potential of the DC Universe in the now-classic New Frontie (opens in new tab)r (opens in new tab). The story is everything that Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns aren't, with DC's marquee characters exhibiting their best traits and inspiring the world and readers alike to fight towards a better tomorrow at the dawn of the nuclear age. Cooke captures an America fresh from World War II and before a cultural shift where the only way comic books could be respected was if they were dragged through the gutter first.
New Frontier is unabashed in its love of the superhero as an icon for what humanity could strive towards. Often under-served characters like Martian Manhunter, Wonder Woman, and Adam Strange are given their best interpretations here. Cooke simultaneously gets to the core of these characters and, through this, reinvents them at the same time.
Cooke's art is a perfect marriage of influences from DC's storied history - from Jack Kirby to the Fleischer Superman cartoon and Batman: The Animated Series. Even the creator's art style brings out the best of DC's Silver Age with each hero smiling into the sunrise in a post-war art deco style. Darwyn Cooke's magnum opus, New Frontier is a portrait of DC's best side and embodies all the courage and hope that these characters represent in a perfect love letter to the Silver Age of comic books.
4. All-Star Superman
Grant Morrison's intent with the 12-issue series All-Star Superman (opens in new tab), one that took almost three years to finish its original publication run, was to create a Superman story that was both fresh and timelessly classic. He does so by tasking the simple question of how Superman would spend his last days on Earth.
In a way that's an antidote to his previous exploitative death of the '90s, Superman is seen completing a series of tasks, or 'trials' in the most mythical (or perhaps even biblical) sense. It's a narrative that celebrates everything we have ever loved about the Last Son of Krypton. Morrison funnels his encyclopedic knowledge of the Man of Steel into a singular story in a way that never feels didactic, allowing cameos and appearances from virtually every era of Superman comics without ever needing to crack open the Multiverse to do so.
Stripping the character down to his most heroic of essentials, Frank Quitely makes a career-defining turn on the book, casting the hero as a super relaxed version of a near-omnipotent alien. From the barrel-chested Superman, a logical extension of what the ultimate human being would look like, through to the polar opposite in the vulnerable Lex Luthor, Quitely has a way of capturing both the majesty and the humanity of these characters.
All-Star Superman remains a quintessential Superman story for new readers through to those with much deeper long-boxes.
3. The Great Darkness Saga
Legion of Super-Heroes' 'The Great Darkness Saga (opens in new tab)' is one of the oldest stories on this countdown, and hasn't seen many references in the modern DC Universe, but it stands steadfast as an example of what DC stories can accomplish when they combine the classic with the nouveau and find common ground in disparate ideas.
'The Great Darkness Saga' tells the tale of Darkseid, dark lord of Apokolips, making his way into the 31st century. The story brought together numerous villains of the Legion of Super-Heroes, uniting them with aspects of the 20th Century DC Universe. It defined the era of the Legion and set the stage for what came for years after.
'The Great Darkness Saga' is not just the highlight of Paul Levitz and Keith Giffen's run on Legion of Super-Heroes, it's one of the greatest tales of the modern DC Universe, and a prime reason so many fans still clamor for the Legion even when they aren't part of DC's line.
2. Crisis On Infinite Earths
DC's continuity leading up into the '80s was rich with nostalgia but convoluted with inconsistencies, leading to the first real mega-event in the company's history: Crisis on Infinite Earths (opens in new tab), which shook DC to its core, remixing its timeline and heralding the beginning of a continuity-shuffling practice repeated every decade since.
Introducing the literally Earth-shattering threat of the Anti-Monitor, this Crisis threw together dozens of heroes from across the Multiverse and was the scene of the then-shocking deaths of Barry Allen and Supergirl. Marv Wolfman and George Pérez juggled a universe full of characters, packing together more panels and action in one issue than many modern series fit into a trade. Earths lived and Earths died, resulting in a true epic that has withstood the test of time 30 years later.
The legacy of Crisis also cannot be overlooked, with the streamlined continuity establishing Wally West as the new Flash, and launching into well-received series such as John Byrne's Man of Steel (opens in new tab), Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli's Batman arc 'Year One' (opens in new tab) and George Pérez's Wonder Woman run (opens in new tab).
1. Kingdom Come
Kingdom Come (opens in new tab), Mark Waid and Alex Ross's tale of the old guard of DC heroes facing obsolescence in a world protected by a younger and more vicious generation of superheroes is just as powerful now as it was when it was first published in 1996.
Thanks to Waid's understanding of the titanic personalities he handles, his presentation that makes them feel human instead of lofty gods, and Ross' gorgeous painted visuals, Kingdom Come is often the first book mentioned when people are asked what their favorite DC stories are.
While Kingdom Come stands as an emotional testament to Mark Waid's almost superhuman knowledge of the DCU and Alex Ross's immense talent behind a brush, it also rewards readers who find themselves coming back again and again to Waid and Ross's dystopian Elseworlds series. Whether it is the fact that Ross used the image of his own father, a reverend himself, as the inspiration for point-of-view character Norman McCay or Waid's cameo-filled final showdown that still reveals new heroes amid the din of battle, this story feels new with every reread despite being on shelves for over 20 years.
Kingdom Come is a classic in every sense of the word, and continues to stand as the best story that DC has produced – and with 2021 marking the 25th anniversary of the story's release, we expect some renewed attention from DC.