The Contest of Champions: Which Marvel Comic Won the Year for Every Year of My Life?

This week brings Marvel’s celebration of its 80th anniversary to comic shops everywhere, as Marvel Comics #1000 drops from literally tons of comic creators 21 right before we reach the official anniversary of Marvel Comics #1’s arrival on Sunday, August 31st. That’s an incredible, storied history – even if it is somewhat inflated, as Marvel also celebrated its 25th anniversary in 1986, meaning Marvel proper is actually 58 years old – and one that has helped the world of superheroes grow within the medium and outside of it, if the legion of announcements from the D23 Expo are any proof of that.

My personal Marvel story began with Marvel’s The Transformers, the Bob Budiansky fueled ongoing series that formed the foundation of the Robots in Disguise. But my love for Marvel – and comics – really took off when I discovered the X-Men. They were my true gateway into the medium, and kicked off what has been, roughly speaking, a 27-year love affair with comics. 22 While my comics world has expanded significantly since then, Marvel has largely been my North Star throughout, 23 a constant for me in a medium known for change.

That’s why I knew I wanted to dive into the history of Marvel Comics in my own way when I was began developing SKTCHD 2.0 back in January of this year. How would I do that? By attempting to figure out which comics won the year for every year of Marvel’s existence – consider it a comic book Contest of Champions – a task that once seemed unthinkably difficult at best or impossible at worst, but one that now seemed shockingly easy 24 thanks to the wonder that is Marvel Unlimited. With that app loaded and my iPad in hand, I started reading…well, everything. I did my best to fine tune the list of what I might read by creating a master list of titles that seemed the most esteemed or notable and dove in from there. By the time Marvel Comics #1000 was announced and the publisher expanded its entry point an additional 22 years, I had started to realize the error of my ways. That was a lot of comics, even if I attempted to cherry pick them.

So I decided to go in the opposite direction. Determining the winner for each year of Marvel’s existence was an insurmountable task because of the time requirements, especially when you stretched it to 80 years. But if I just looked at the 35 years of my life, that was a different story altogether. That could be done.

So that’s what we’re doing today. Over the past eight months – plus 27 years of pre-research – I’ve done what I could to read as many of the important or well-esteemed comics from my lifetime of Marvel Comics to settle, once and for all, which Marvel comic won the year for every year from 1984 to now. These could be ongoings, mini-series, graphic novels, arcs, single-issues, etc. If it had Marvel on the cover and it took place in an established superhero universe, 25 it was included.

But wait…how did I do that? Did I have criteria for this, or was it just willy nilly, I’m throwing in my favorites, reality be damned? You better believe I had criteria. This effort was guided by four questions of descending importance, as the answers to these questioned determined which title won the prize for each year. Those questions were:

  • How good was this comic?: This answer had the greatest weight behind it, and while that’s subjective, I did my best to separate myself from it as much as possible.
  • What impact has it had, either on comics or the wider world of entertainment?: This obviously is important, as I love a whole of comics that came and went with little long-term influence coming from them. 26 These titles ideally have a lasting impact, and while it could be in movies, television or other entertainment mediums, impacting comics – particularly the Marvel universe itself – is the most valuable here, as this is a comics first effort.
  • Is it still brought up in the comics conversation?: Similar to the last one, except this is purely built off whether or not people still talk about it. Reverentially. Derisively. Whatever. As long as it still comes up.
  • How much do I like it?: Lastly, and least importantly, is my own personal affinity for the comic. This operated as mostly a tiebreaker, or in some years, a straight up curse as I futilely tried to use this to jam a title I really wanted to win in for the top spot.

This is just one person’s take, though, so if you have competing thoughts for any given year, join the conversation in the SKTCHD forums. I predict this topic will be hopping, so come, share your perspective, and let’s celebrate the history of Marvel by endlessly arguing which comic truly won 2006 because honestly, 27 I had a hard time with that one.

One other note: shouts to my wife, Amber, who listened to my yammering about these comics for far too long and somehow distilled those thoughts into the lovely header images for each year within the piece. She’s much better at this than I am.

Right off the top, I have a potentially controversial pick. 1984 was the year both Secret Wars and The Transformers debuted, meaning the first event comic that doubled as the debut of Spider-Man’s Symbiote costume (which had an obviously lasting impact) as well as the series that defined the identity of all of the most famous Transformers did not earn the spot here. Both would be worthy selections. I just couldn’t do it.

I had to go with Walt Simonson’s run on Thor, as this two year period told the bulk of the larger Surtur Saga story and featured one of the single greatest moments in comic book history, as Skurge stood alone at Gjallerbru in Thor #362, a sequence that’s potent enough to make even the most hardened comic fan verklempt. Even more insane is almost the entirety of this stretch is written, penciled and inked by Simonson, with just one issue having a fill-in writer 28 and two featuring a guest artist. 29 This does lead to a bit of a downturn on the visuals before the stand-ins give Simonson a breather in the middle, but I’m hardly going to burn the guy for that. It was an outrageous run, and arguably one without compare for any writer/artist at Marvel.

This stretch is undoubtedly one of the two greatest runs with the character ever, and one that has a lasting impact in both comics and in the broader world of entertainment, as Thor Ragnarok found Taika Waititi manifesting beats from this story on the screen. But it’s the quality of this title that carries the day, as this is an unforgettable comic that also ages rather well.

This was the easiest decision of this entire exercise. In fact, after rereading it and doing the same with – or reading for the first time – a whole slew of other Marvel comics for this exercise, I came to a decision about Born Again: it’s the best comic Marvel has produced in my lifetime. Sure, there are others I might prefer – *ahem* NEXTWAVE – but this comic from Frank Miller and tha gawd David Mazzucchelli is rightfully considered a classic of the form, and the arc upon which all other Daredevil stories measure themselves against.

Here’s another take: it’s the best thing Miller ever wrote. The humanity within it, the ingenious plotting, how it builds off the fundamental nature of the characters, the interplay, the paranoia that seeps from its pages…it’s incredible. It’s like Miller himself is The Kingpin, except his plan actually pays off in the end. And incredibly, Mazzucchelli is his equal, as this all-time great artist delivered his finest superhero work within, perfectly delivering the weight Matt Murdock feels during his fall and the hope everyone discovers during his rise.

This comic had a lasting impact in Daredevil’s world and it’s certainly one that’s referenced 30 and talked about to this day. While it may not have created a line wide impact in an easy to track sort of way, it is a title that looms in the hearts and minds of Marvel readers and creators, a giant of the form with more longevity than any event or crossover could ever dream of.

Kraven’s Last Hunt was a crossover that took place across six issues on three individual titles – Web of Spider-Man, Amazing Spider-Man and The Spectacular Spider-Man – but it did something a bit different than we usually see, as it maintained the same creative team across all three titles. This was purely a J.M. DeMatteis and Mike Zeck joint, and one that earns its spot in the pantheon of the greatest Spider-Man comics ever made.

What makes it a funny selection for that, though, is how the character of Spider-Man is a secondary player throughout much of the story. And this isn’t me getting cute and being like, “It’s Peter Parker that stars in this story, actually.” When I say he isn’t a lead in this story, I mean Spider-Man is literally buried alive for two full issues, with the stars of this show actually being Kraven the Hunter, Mary Jane Watson and Vermin, making this title a Spider-Man comic of a much different flavor. It’s an often paranoid, fearful and haunting story, and one that barely feels like a Marvel comic at times, let alone a Spider-Man one. It is, however, an outrageously good comic, and because it’s from Zeck, it’s a gorgeous one as well. Zeck is an artist whose work doesn’t get as much shine as it should, but the guy was absolutely brilliant at the peak of his powers. This is an incredible showcase of his abilities as an artist.

It’s also an interesting story because it successfully killed off one of Spider-Man’s greatest rogues in Kraven, a death that may not have lasted – and was even recently emulated in the “Hunted” arc in Nick Spencer and Humberto Ramos’s Amazing Spider-Man – but did continue on for 23 years. So its impact was felt throughout the Spider-Man line for more than two decades, as it created a hole once filled by an outstanding villain.

The only not cool part about this comic? Kraven decided that the only way he could get into the right mindset to defeat his adversary was to go into a sealed chamber and fill it with spiders, clawing and eating his way out of there to earn his escape. That’s basically my nightmare, so reading through that part again made me wonder, “Was reading this as a kid the reason I’m so afraid of spiders?” Maybe! Thanks J.M. and Mike!

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  1. There are enough creators who worked on it to comprise several tons of weight…tens of tons even! There might be too many people who worked on this come even!

  2. I’m 35, but I only dabbled until I was 8 years old when the X-Men dragged me in for my first wave of reading with the polybagged Uncanny X-Men #294. It had a trading card within said bag, and I wanted that trading card.

  3. Please note, I said North Star, not Northstar.

  4. Well, relatively.

  5. Meaning I can’t just say Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ Criminal won every year they published that title at Icon.

  6. Shouts to Fred Van Lente and Jefte Palo’s Taskmaster mini-series from 2010!

  7. More on that year later, both in this piece and another one.

  8. It’s Bob Harras, of all people!

  9. Those are Sal Buscema and Jackson Guice, so it’s still rather good looking.

  10. Including very recently by Jason LaTour, David LaFuente and friends in a Spider-Ham story, of all places.

  11. There are enough creators who worked on it to comprise several tons of weight…tens of tons even! There might be too many people who worked on this come even!

  12. I’m 35, but I only dabbled until I was 8 years old when the X-Men dragged me in for my first wave of reading with the polybagged Uncanny X-Men #294. It had a trading card within said bag, and I wanted that trading card.

  13. Please note, I said North Star, not Northstar.

  14. Well, relatively.

  15. Meaning I can’t just say Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ Criminal won every year they published that title at Icon.

  16. Shouts to Fred Van Lente and Jefte Palo’s Taskmaster mini-series from 2010!

  17. More on that year later, both in this piece and another one.

  18. It’s Bob Harras, of all people!

  19. Those are Sal Buscema and Jackson Guice, so it’s still rather good looking.

  20. Including very recently by Jason LaTour, David LaFuente and friends in a Spider-Ham story, of all places.

  21. There are enough creators who worked on it to comprise several tons of weight…tens of tons even! There might be too many people who worked on this come even!

  22. I’m 35, but I only dabbled until I was 8 years old when the X-Men dragged me in for my first wave of reading with the polybagged Uncanny X-Men #294. It had a trading card within said bag, and I wanted that trading card.

  23. Please note, I said North Star, not Northstar.

  24. Well, relatively.

  25. Meaning I can’t just say Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ Criminal won every year they published that title at Icon.

  26. Shouts to Fred Van Lente and Jefte Palo’s Taskmaster mini-series from 2010!

  27. More on that year later, both in this piece and another one.

  28. It’s Bob Harras, of all people!

  29. Those are Sal Buscema and Jackson Guice, so it’s still rather good looking.

  30. Including very recently by Jason LaTour, David LaFuente and friends in a Spider-Ham story, of all places.