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 1 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. 2 While my comics world has expanded significantly since then, Marvel has largely been my North Star throughout, 3 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 4 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, 5 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. 6 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, 7 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 arrived, 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 8 and two featuring a guest artist. 9 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 10 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!
There are a lot of reasons the X-Men are one of the most interesting franchises from throughout Marvel’s history, but for me, I find it especially fascinating how every comic reader seems so particular about which iteration of Marvel’s Merry Mutants are the best. There’s no real consensus. Everyone has their own favorite, and quite often, your X-Men fandom exists in pursuit of everything you loved about that particular run or team.
But if there is one run that generates the most widespread adoration, it’s writer Chris Claremont’s initial span with the characters from 1975 to 1991, who may not have created the concept but certainly defined it for almost everyone, including the creators who followed him. One could argue very easily that I should have just made the first 15 years or so of this exercise an X-Men comic of some variety and called it a day, if only because these characters owned the 80s and 90s for Marvel, and so much of that came from Claremont. But I’m not going to do that.
What I will do, however, is give 1988 to 1990 to the flagship book of the line, Uncanny X-Men. 11 This stretch is a super fun one, lasting from the Fall of the Mutants story arc to my beloved X-Tinction Agenda, a crossover with New Mutants and X-Factor that doubles as the first trade paperback I ever owned. There’s a whole lot to like here, including the squad’s time in the Australian Outback, Inferno, the first appearance of my guy Gambit, and more, but maybe the greatest strength of this stretch – beyond Claremont – is the art. Marc Silvestri handles the bulk of it, with the rather underrated Rick Leonardi existing as the change-up that gives Silvestri time to do what he does.
Yet the artist who owned this period for the X-Men was Jim Lee, someone who today is DC’s co-publisher and Chief Creative Officer but then was a guy stepping in to give Silvestri a breather. That is until Lee took it over for his own run, becoming the biggest artist in comics over that stretch. It’s fascinating rereading all of that run now, as even with the greatness of Silvestri and Leonardi on display, there’s just something different about Lee. An energy, freshness and potency that just felt new. There are a lot of reasons to pick Uncanny here – it’s a fantastic stretch for the book for one, but it’s also a big chunk of the arguably most fondly remembered run ever for the characters – but Lee’s ascension cannot be ignored in terms of the lasting impact this title had on the medium.
This is the only double-up on the entire list, so I’m not going to call this one a full-fledged win for Roger Stern, Mike Mignola and Mark Badger’s Doctor Strange and Doctor Doom: Triumph and Torment. This title has had little to no impact over the years, save for playing a part in Mignola’s rise in popularity, and it’s a comic that has even had difficulties staying in print. So it’s not a big deal in terms of questions two or three on my list.
But when I was trying to determine the title that won this year – 1989 was one of the final two years I locked down – I was discussing the merits of Uncanny X-Men versus Triumph and Torment with my wife when she pointed something out: it was clear that I was much, much more excited about the latter comic. 12 This graphic novel that finds Strange and Doom squaring off in a challenge to be the greatest sorcerer in all of the Marvel universe and then paring up in a quest to save the soul of Doom’s mother is, in my opinion, an absolute banger. It’s an astonishing achievement, from Stern’s plotting and characterization to Mignola and Badger’s art. And I cannot emphasize the latter artist enough: Badger’s inks and colors are absolutely essential to the success of this book. He perfectly complements Mignola in every way, and when combined, this book is about as good looking as any comic from the entire decade.
So yeah, it doesn’t get the full win. Its impact is far too limited to take the spot, so Uncanny X-Men is the winner for 1989, full stop. But I will say that qualitatively and in regards to my purely subjective take, it’s the finest comic released that year and maybe my favorite comic I read for the first time during this exercise. Because of that, I had to give it a write-up, even if it totally betrays the objective of this project.
There was a different comic penciled in here for almost the entire span of this project. It was X-Men from Chris Claremont and Jim Lee, a new title that saw its first issue become the greatest selling single issue comic of all time. 13 It was the pick for that reason, and also because it was arguably the single point that flipped the power in comics from writers to artists for most of the 90s, playing a huge part in the rise of Image in the process. 14 It was a massive book, and one that set off a chain of events that changed comics forever. However, it’s also a comic that has little-to-no lasting impact from a narrative standpoint and, if I’m being honest, it’s not much of a comic, really. It’s a great showcase for Jim Lee’s art! It’s kind of cool in a wildly over the top sort of way! But that’s about it.
Conversely, you have The Infinity Gauntlet. In terms of longevity of impact and the broader conversation about comics and superheroes, The Infinity Gauntlet is a titan, and one that continues to connect with readers decades later as well as acting as the foundation for the biggest moment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date. It would have been a slam dunk if not for one thing, and it’s a secret I have to admit.
This won’t be a popular take I feel.
Here it is.
The Infinity Gauntlet did not age well. At all.
It’s a great idea! It has fantastic art from George Perez and Ron Lim! There are some tremendous moments! But rereading it revealed a series that’s kind of a drag throughout much of it. I think it’s fine, and it’s certainly cool. But it taking the top spot here was mostly due to a lack of high end competition from a qualitative standpoint and because it’s such a monstrous hit that continues to have an immense impact throughout the wider world of entertainment. That makes it a certain winner. But yeah, it’s not my favorite comic from this list. In this case “not great” is carried by “super important,” which is a reasonable assertion, especially considering this is one of the few comics that has elements from it referenced in casual conversation amongst non-comic fans.
When I was growing up, Peter David’s Incredible Hulk run one was one of my absolute favorite comics out there, especially once he partnered with Gary Frank during the time where The Professor personality – aka the Hulk that was both smart like Banner and strong like The Hulk – was dominant. I dug the Joe Fixit stories, but there was something about The Professor and his relationship with everyone around him that just totally worked for me. It was a very good comic, with another gear looming.
And then the Future Imperfect story came, a two-issue, squarebound comic series by David and George Perez starring The Professor in the future squaring off against an older, far more brutal iteration of The Hulk called The Maestro, and that gear was reached. My love became a fervent passion.
Future Imperfect is, in my opinion, one of the truly great superhero comics from the 90s. It’s a story of a man literally at war with himself, as The Professor personality of The Hulk learns first hand that just because he’s intelligent now doesn’t mean he can’t be a monster, furthering a whole lot of what David was digging into within his larger run. Perez was an incredible fit on the title, as his highly detailed art helped ground this world of the future, adding weight and import to the proceedings throughout it. The Maestro was truly frightening within their hands, with his weathered skin and devolved face perfectly matched the monster within. And I know this is totally young David Harper peeking through my memories, but the first sight of Rick Jones’ trophy room – filled with items like Captain America’s shield, Wolverine’s Adamantium skeleton, Mjolnir, Professor X’s hoverchair (which Jones used to get around), and other relics from superheroes, all painstakingly detailed by Perez – was genuinely one of the coolest scenes in a superhero comic that I’ve ever seen. 15
The impact of these comics have largely been limited overall, as The Hulk is a character known for eternal change that largely depends on who is tackling him. But I will say that the specter of The Maestro looms large in Al Ewing and Joe Bennett’s Immortal Hulk, with that name almost being dropped as a potential title for the current “Devil Hulk” personality. We even saw The Professor show up in Avengers Endgame. So while these comics may not return to the comic conversation as much as they perhaps should, they’re certainly not forgotten. These are great comics, and ones that were hugely important for me as a reader growing up.
In the street war that existed between publisher defining four issue mini-series with art from Alex Ross in the mid 90s, I have long been Team Kingdom Come. I remember reading Marvels when I was a kid, and I was just like, “UGH, more action…what even is this!” With Kingdom Come, I had all of what Marvels offered but also immense, unforgettable moments and uncanny, amazing action sequences. It wasn’t a contest. Kingdom Come became a comic I revisited yearly while Marvels was mothballed in longboxes long ago.
I knew I’d have to revisit Marvels for this exercise, though. It just celebrated its 25th anniversary, and was one of those comics that carried a ton of esteem from people around comics. This was not a surprise. It’s Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross. I get why people love it, but 10-year-old David Harper’s brain could not ignore how this series just didn’t jive with him. I was, after all, Team Kingdom Come. That’s just how things were.
“Were” is the important word there. I reread Marvels for this project, and while I’m still Team Kingdom Come, now I’m also Team Marvels. This comic was an absolute wonder, a heartfelt, emotional read that takes readers throughout the rise of the Marvel Universe through the eyes of an average man. Revisiting it not as a 10 year old but as a responsible adult with a way different view on the world changed everything, and I connected with the experience of photojournalist Phil Sheldon as the Marvel universe grew before him in a way I just couldn’t have then. Like Kingdom Come, this comic and its messages are more important than ever. Sheldon’s experience illuminates how much fear and our own biases can color our views on the world around us, with the mutant-centric second issue being the standout in this regard. Seeing how Sheldon’s perspective changes when he inadvertently takes a young mutant girl into his home is incredible, and ultimately leads to one of the more heartbreaking scenes in any comic I’ve ever read. It’s perfectly written by Busiek, with perhaps even better art by Ross.
This four issue series deserves every bit of the praise it has earned over the years, and it was a true coming out party for Ross, one of the greats in comic book history if only for his painted work on both this and Kingdom Come. It’s an ingenious idea – what did the rise of superheroes, mutants and everything else look like from the perspective of the common man? – but a concept that was greatly outdistanced by its execution. That in of itself makes this book a true marvel, and one I’m glad I revisited in this process. 10-year-old David Harper clearly did not know what was up, because this is a heck of a comic.
I’ll be honest with you: this is one of the few comics I did not even bother to go back and reread. I didn’t feel as if I needed to for two reasons, with the first being that it wasn’t a particularly great year for Marvel, and the second being that I hold the larger Age of Apocalypse storyline in such high esteem that it would have taken this spot over almost any comic. It’s an irrational confidence built off reading this for the first time at the right time in my life – my childhood – but you also have to realize one key fact about Age of Apocalypse to also know why its memory looms so large. It’s a completely insane comic, especially in the context of where the X-Men were then.
This comic completely devastated the X-Men universe, putting every title into an entirely different timeline that spun out of one change: what if Professor X had been killed in his youth before bringing his dream to the mutants of the world? Basically, Apocalypse would have taken over the Xavier in the way, and we would be left with a land of slavery, war and terror in place of the one we knew. Because of that, reading it at the time felt like the absolute apex of the “nothing will ever be the same” emotions superhero comics always aim to deliver, and with creators involved like Mark Waid, Warren Ellis, Joe Madureira, Andy Kubert, and Chris Bachalo, these aren’t just empty calorie comics. They’re often gorgeous, well-crafted releases that establish the world and create the stakes necessary to maximize the uniquely desirable stress we all crave as superhero comic readers. Sure, all superhero comics work out in the end, but no comic has ever made me wonder, “How will they fix this?” more than this one. I genuinely couldn’t believe it at the time.
It was also a remarkably well thought out crossover event, or whatever you’d like to call it, as it had two bookends – X-Men Alpha and X-Men Omega – with new, unique four issue mini-series that replaced each of the main titles for the duration. That structure worked, and worked well. Few have ever nailed that element as well as this one did.
Oh, and in terms of impact, it’s both an idea that Marvel cannot stop revisiting – the Age of Apocalypse universe was returned to in several comics, most notably Uncanny X-Force – and there were even multiple minis and an ongoing of that name. Also, the creators of today are often people just like me, worshipers of the X-Men who were stunned by the events of this larger story. Its impact has been felt, is being felt and will be felt going forward because of that.
Spider-Boy #1 was a very fun comic from Karl Kesel and Mike Wieringo – the latter of whom is on my short list of favorite artists ever, so I’m thrilled to get this terrific talent onto the list any way I can – that technically wasn’t even published by Marvel. It was from Amalgam Comics, which you may recall was a spin-off from the 1996 DC vs. Marvel event 16 that found the characters from each publishers’ history fused together into new characters. In this case, it was Spider-Boy, which married all of what we know and love Spider-Man for with the excellent parts of Superboy, aka Kon-El. It was an inventive little jaunt, and one that the entire creative team – particularly Kesel – clearly had a blast putting together. I liked it. It was a good comic.
However, as you might be thinking, it’s a strangely weak winner of this year. There’s a reason for that. It’s a…what do they call that again? Oh yeah, take it away, Drax.
Here’s where I drop an actual take for once: despite my fond 12 year old memories from this year, 1996 was absolutely, 100% the worst year of my lifetime for Marvel. And not just creatively! In December of 1996, the publisher filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. It was a tough, tough time for the publishing giant, and a low point that was almost unthinkable in really any other decade of Marvel’s existence.
This isn’t about that, though. This is about the creative side of things, and 1996 was slim pickings. In fact, I was having such a tough time trying to find something worthwhile for this year that I actually recently reached out to Douglas Wolk, someone who is literally writing a book about reading every Marvel comic ever, for additional perspective. He had some suggestions, but even Wolk described that year as “iffy.” The year’s most notable releases were hits, through and through, as the X-Men had the Onslaught event, which led into the whole Heroes Reborn deal from Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld in which they reinvented the Fantastic Four, The Avengers, Captain America and Iron Man in another universe, and then the aforementioned DC vs. Marvel crossover. To 12 year old David Harper, these comics were supernovas of entertainment. 23 years later, they’re mostly known as flawed, desperate attempts to reignite a publisher hitting rock bottom at the time. You could probably argue that outside of Amalgam, the part of those comics that comes up the most these days in the comic conversation is that very strange drawing of Captain America Liefeld drew, and again, metaphor.
Spider-Boy was a genuinely good, fun comic, but it also existed as a rare positive offshoot from what was a creatively bankrupt year for the publisher. Because of that, its position here is more as a representation of this rather troubled year than as a titan from the living memory of the House of Ideas.
As you likely know, Rob Liefeld and Fabian Nicieza created Deadpool in New Mutants #98. As you likely know, Ryan Reynolds plays the character in movies. As you likely know, a shocking amount of children wear shirts and backpacks adorned with the Merc with a Mouth.
This comic from Joe Kelly and Ed McGuinness is the connective tissue between the first item in that previous paragraph and the other two. While Liefeld and Nicieza needed to create the character for all this to happen, Kelly and McGuinness were the people who – please don’t get mad at me, Rob! – developed the version of Deadpool the world knows and sometimes shockingly loves today. This was the foundation of the fourth wall breaking, the weird “is-he-or-isn’t-he-a-hero” position in the comic hierarchy, and basically everything else we know about the character. From an impact standpoint, this comic was everything for the character, and it’s the first title almost any Deadpool fan will bring up if asked about which title defined the character the most. It’s also the character’s first ongoing, so there’s a good reason for all of that.
But let’s not sleep on one perhaps forgotten fact about this series: it was actually really good! Kelly is an incredible writer, and while almost everyone would choose something like I Kill Giants as his best work, this was without a doubt the one that changed his career. The voice he created for this world defined it forever and he also created a level of empathy for the often-inhuman Wade Wilson that previously didn’t exist. The larger story built around T-Ray, interdimensional law firm Landau, Luckman & Lake and a variety of other characters was an impactful one – much of that came later on in the volume, though, well after we exceeded the bounds of this year – and it put the character in a position to not just be hilarious all the time, but to grow and form actual relationships. These were necessary steps in expanding the character beyond his often two-dimensional roots.
And while Pete Woods also did solid work during this year of the title – McGuinness only worked on the first nine issues, only seven of which were published in 1997 – McGuinness helped make this book an instant hit with fans thanks to his rare balance of potent action, effective character acting and visual humor. Not every artist can do any one of those things, but McGuinness is equally successful at all three. That’s tough, and it helped both make this book pop while also grounding it. Incredibly, this was also the artist’s first run that was longer than two issues, so good job by you, Ed!
But yeah, ultimately, this wins the year because it created the version of this character that became a phenomenon, both in comics and outside of them. That’s a big deal.
This is a really easy one. I love this comic. It deservedly won the Best New Series Eisner in 1999 because it was so dang good. It was in fact so dang good, not just earning empty hype but living up to it in each and every one of its 12 issues. It helped turn artist Jae Lee into a superduperstar. And, lastly, at least for this paragraph, it helped legitimize Marvel Knights, further selling the vision Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti had for Marvel’s broader properties.
Because let’s face it, if they could find the right way and right team to make The Inhumans deeply interesting, they obviously had a good direction for things. That’s a huge part of it too. The Inhumans are a rather hit-or-miss lot, and this story was maybe the apex of their existence – someone is going to yell at me for that take, but that’s what I believe! – as well as one that helped solidify their position going forward. It’s also one of the only comics I’ve ever read that I’ve never heard someone say a bad thing about, 17 which may not seem like a big deal, but spend enough time on the Internet and you’ll find someone trashing anything. But Paul Jenkins and Jae Lee’s Inhumans? Pristine!
Bonus point: it also featured the creation and debut of Yelena Belova, a character who will be one of antagonists in the upcoming Black Widow movie.
There were a whole lot of titles I considered here. It pained me to not make Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Welcome Back, Frank storyline in The Punisher the winner for 2000, as that’s far and away my favorite title of that year. Christopher Priest and friends were still doing work on Black Panther. Both New X-Men and X-Force/X-Statix were reinventing the kinds of mutant stories we get in fascinating, entertaining ways. Runaways and Captain Marvel stood tall as personal favorites. And in terms of sheer impact, The Ultimates was a titan in the global sphere of superhero entertainment.
It had to be Ultimate Spider-Man, though, and it deserved a big, solid chunk of time here not just for its quality (which was significant) or its record-setting creative team of Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley, 18 but because of its massive, lasting impact in terms of where Marvel would go from here. In fact, you could make a pretty strong case that the creation of Ultimate Spider-Man was a demarcation point for Marvel moving into a new era, and one that continues onto this day.
While Marvel Knights played a huge part in the publisher’s turnaround during this timeframe, especially considering how Joe Quesada quickly rose to the position of Editor-in-Chief at Marvel, if this decade belonged to anyone for Marvel, it was Bendis. He was the main man there, revitalizing The Avengers with New Avengers, writing a slew of event comics, and creating a wave of memorable characters in the process. He defined the aughts at Marvel. Ultimate Spider-Man was his first foray into the House of Ideas, and it was paramount to establishing the writer there as well as the tropes that he helped tether to them, such as decompression (which the early issues of this title are a perfect example of) or chatty, casual tones to dialogue. This was the scribe’s beachhead into Marvel, and his immense 17 year run as the publisher’s unofficial architect-in-chief all started here.
Of course, this title also established the Ultimate universe, a massively important line for a time that carried an outsized impact in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and one that eventually led to the creation of Miles Morales. I can’t chalk that up as a win for this stretch of the title, but I can say without the early success here, that character would never have been. This was a very good comic, and a comic that impacted Marvel in an enormous way. It had to be the pick.
Weirdly, I tried very hard to have almost any other title win this year. Not because I don’t like it – that’s definitely not the case – and not because I don’t think its worthy. It’s because this comic is fundamentally built on everything that preceded it, and it was maybe the most notable example of a “back to the basics” comics I can think of. 19 So when you think of my second criteria for determining the winner of each year, this one seems very odd. It didn’t impact comics as much as it felt the impact of them, as Joss Whedon and John Cassaday basically distilled the X-Men down into their purest form and gave us this. Because of that, I almost straight up deleted it from consideration at the jump.
But I didn’t.
And that’s because Astonishing X-Men ruled 2004 at Marvel Comics.
That comic was a sensation from the jump. While some readers soured on it over the years and much of its run ended up being delayed like crazy, 2004 was encompassed by the “Gifted” arc and the first issue of the “Dangerous” arc that followed, before any of the main issues with the title hit. It was a huge hit, and one that was at the tip of everyone’s tongue in comics that year, even outdistancing DC’s Identity Crisis event on the sales charts. 20
But more than that, this is where I drop yet another of my definitely unpatented takes on you: “Gifted” may very well be my favorite X-Men arc ever. That story is filled with more A+ moments, great character work, and gorgeous art on a pound-for-pound basis than just about anything else on this list, 21 and it’s one that the mere thought of it fills my head with visions of moments I love. The return of Colossus. 22 The ultimate Fastball Special. The best X-Dragon ever. That meeting in the weirdly scaled version of Hawaii in the Danger Room. You name it. This is a X-Men highlight reel as much as it is a comic book, and I mean that in a very good way.
There were a lot of great options here, including the continuation of the first year of New Avengers. But if I had to pick one comic that achieves the best mix of quality and impact – plus one that I completely, absolutely love – it’s Ed Brubaker, Steve Epting and friends on Captain America, which saw two tremendous arcs take place over this year in “Out of Time” and “The Winter Soldier.” It’s an incredible comic and Brubaker’s finest work for the publisher. But the most impactful aspect of this comic is obvious in retrospect, and that was the decision the team made to do the one thing no one had ever dared do at the publisher: it brought Bucky back.
Bucky, or The Winter Soldier as he was known initially in this story, had been dead almost the entire time Marvel had existed, never coming back after his pal Cap returned. But Brubaker and Epting resurrected him here, and it was a decision that paid off both within this narrative and the long-term, as Bucky became a staple of Marvel’s comics going forward as well as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This year of comics actually was as important for any Marvel movie as any single comic was, as Captain America: The Winter Soldier – my favorite entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe – used these comics as substantial reference points. 23
This was a giant comic. Qualitatively. Impact-wise. Personally. It helped Brubaker become the star he was, and it was loaded with outrageously great art from people like Epting, John Paul Leon and Michael Lark. It was a big year for Marvel, but this was the only real option.
This was far and away the hardest year from the entire list – I’ll be writing more about why in another piece – but when it came down to it, it was between two titles, despite my efforts to jam Nextwave into winning the year.
It was between Civil War and the cosmic space epic Annihilation, 24 as these two event comics had by far the largest ramifications on the broader Marvel universe of anything from the year. I made a strong case for the latter, reasoning that cosmic Marvel was dead at that point, so lifting a side of the Marvel universe from nothing to something of note was of more value than the impact Civil War had. Plus, I just like Annihilation more as a comic and as an event. That was a considerable feather in its cap.
It was also delusional. The only choice here was Civil War, a comic that obviously impacted the Marvel Cinematic Universe directly in the form of Captain America: Civil War, but one that set the course of the entire Marvel comic universe for a five year period, taking readers through a series of events of sorts – The Initiative, Secret Invasion, Dark Reign, etc. – that governed its larger story during that entire period. It was a fulcrum from which the rest of the comics pivoted from, creating a rift between Captain America and Iron Man, the Superhero Registration Act, the 50 state initiative in which every state gets a hero, 25, and a whole lot of other stories.
Its impact was line-wide, and lasting. While you could say House of M was the first Marvel event comic of the modern era, this was the one that fully ignited that publisher’s torrid love affair with the concept once again, as it truly was an event. I remember Civil War #4 dropping during a week comics were delayed here in Alaska, with that shipment inexplicably, horrifically being delayed by multiple weeks. I was fiending for that comic so badly, dear readers, I found a way to download it from the Internet because I needed it. 26 That’s right: this comic about the fundamental tenets of right and wrong led to me actually committing a very minor crime. Please do not tell anyone. But that’s how persuasive this title was. It wasn’t part of the comics conversation; it was the comics conversation.
It was also a fun comic that was very much in the vein of what you’d expect from Mark Millar, as the writer has always excelled at blockbuster titles like this. He had an able partner in the brilliant – but also slow, as we discovered when the title saw delays – Steve McNiven. It wasn’t the best comic at Marvel that year by any means. You could probably argue it was the most entertaining one, at least amongst straightforward superhero stories. 27 However, its quality is almost secondary to its victory here, because its impact was so outsized it just could not be ignored. It’s the clear winner.
I already wrote extensively about how good this run of Captain America was for 2005’s entry, so I’m not going to go too deep here. It’s a great comic, and one that didn’t lose a single step as the team got further into its run.
The big, notable change here, though, was the death of Steve Rogers. Issue #25 saw the character killed off, with Bucky Barnes eventually stepping in to pick up the mantle of Captain America. It was about as dramatic of a change a title could go through without relaunching or changing its name entirely, and somehow this title was just as good without its titular character (or at least the original version of Cap). It’s all because of Brubaker’s planning, as this was just a beat in his long, intricate idea for the title. 28 This move was the kind that generates massive attention outside of comics, and thankfully, anyone who picked it up because of that death was treated to an absolutely exceptional comic, as Brubaker and Epting delivered throughout the entirety of their respective times on the book.
While there are a couple other points you could target as the ones that led to the rise of the Guardians of the Galaxy, including 2006’s Annihilation and 2007’s Annihilation Conquest: Star Lord mini-series, if you read anything about what fueled James Gunn and Nicole Perlman when they wrote the first film, it was Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning and friends on this very title. Those other two comics laid the groundwork, but DnA were the ones that created the voice and defined the modern day squad. Without them, it’s possible the Guardians would never have become movie stars that are toys and backpacks and any number of other types of merch, let alone a substantial presence in the comics to this day.
Also: this run was terrific. It was a hit, particularly relative to where the Guardians usually were, but it was also a deserved one. It was a very, very good comic. It redefined the cast and achieved a hard-to-nail blend of funny and action packed, all while building off existing continuity and plowing the road for future stories to come. The usage of a mechanic not unlike The Office’s staff interviews also gave the title a unique feel, and one that was a bit of a zag from the zigging we saw in other Marvel titles. The biggest problem with this volume is it’s so good every effort since sizes up poorly in comparison, creating a tough benchmark for anyone to live up to. That’s a problem for later, though, not 2008. In 2008, the Guardians were the tops, and on their way to becoming comic book giants.
First off, let’s address the slight cheat in the room. This is two titles, and it doesn’t have a cute “two series that are one” mechanism to tether them together. This is just me dropping a loophole up in here, and saying, “This is my article and I can do what I want.”
Second off, man, there were a lot of comics I could have included here but didn’t. I originally had Uncanny X-Force and its Dark Angel Saga in 2011 and Matt Fraction and Dave Aja’s Hawkeye in 2012, with 2011’s Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man looming large as well given that it was Miles Morales’ first title. 29 There was a lot of traffic to get through to give Jonathan Hickman’s sprawling saga that took place over Fantastic Four and its replacement and eventual sister title FF the win for four years.
But it deserves it for a number of reasons, not the least of which is it’s both my favorite Marvel story from the past decade and, in my opinion, the best one as well. That obviously plays a huge part in the proceedings, as those are items one and four in my question based rating system. But let’s talk about impact. While Hickman wrote other comics for Marvel before, this story was what began a seven year run of dominance for the scribe at the publisher, with the foundation of the line-altering event comic he wrote in 2015 – Secret Wars – coming within these two titles. This isn’t just a good comic; it was a hugely important one in the larger scheme of Marvel comics, which is a layer of impact that takes precedence over movie impact for my system.
Also, and this cannot be underrated: FF #23 by Hickman and artist Nick Dragotta is my favorite comic ever. It is everything I want from a comic book, and it’s a perfect encapsulation of the blend of wonder, family and imagination these incredible creatives accomplish throughout this four year run.
The character of Thor has obviously had a fair amount of great stories throughout his existence, two of which were cited in the first entry of this article. But for me, the pinnacle of the character were The God Butcher and The God Bomb arcs that kicked off Thor: God of Thunder, a storyline that launched in 2012 but the bulk of which played out during this year.
Qualitatively speaking, I barely need to say much more than “Jason Aaron wrote it and Esad Ribic was the artist.” That pretty much covers it. But this story was a truly inventive one, and one that featured a frightening new villain in Gorr the God Butcher that instantaneously became a pantheon villain for the character. 30 I once described Aaron and Ribic’s run on this book together as the most metal Marvel comics that have ever been made, and I stand by that. These comics absolutely rule, with a scale and scope that staggers readers, existing over millennia and across the reaches of space. It’s truly unbelievable.
Also, this storyline is what launched Aaron’s seven year run with the character, a run that has had a massive impact on Marvel’s line and one that will eventually play a big part in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Plus, Gorr the God Butcher’s weapon All-Black the Necrosword loom outside of this story, particularly in the work of writer Donny Cates. It’s a big deal, and one that’s only getting bigger in the long-term.
While Miles Morales likely holds the title as the most important character introduced this decade, Kamala Khan is the 1b to his 1a, and a hero that arguably paved the way for other notable young reader friendly titles that came after her’s like The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl and Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur. This character was a sensation, generating immense news coverage for a number of reasons – not the least of which was her being a Muslim superhero – to the point where a newspaper inexplicably interviewed me about it, which was extremely confusing for me at the time. It’s a comic of great importance, but let’s not forget one thing: it’s also very, very good.
G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona managed to develop one heck of a comic here, and one that felt lived in from the jump. Khan was a relatable character in the vein of Peter Parker, and one that we couldn’t help but root for. Wilson cultivated an exceptional cast to surround Khan with – her family is the heart of the book – and her engagements with fellow superheroes were endlessly charming. It was a fun, fully realized title that had a special vibe about it, much of which stemmed from Alphona’s art. Alphona has always had the rare gift of making everything in a world feel real, no matter how fantastical it was, and his work here certainly did that. This is an earned spot for a number of reasons, but the work of the creative team is at the core of it.
This year brought the end of Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers and New Avengers runs, and with it, the literal destruction of the Marvel Universe in the first issue of Secret Wars. This ultimately resulted in an additional eight issues within that series designed to pay off every story beat the writer developed starting with the beginning of his Fantastic Four run and to realign the Marvel universe going forward. Shouldn’t have been a problem, right?
It wasn’t. Each and every one of these comics is amazing, and its culmination in Secret Wars – a top two all-time event comic for me – is an astonishing achievement filled with immense payoff, memorable moments and god level art by Esad Ribic. I mean, I could write for the next hour about how spectacular that scene from issue #8 where Dr. Doom rips Thanos’ spine out was, and that’s just one scene. It’s a tremendous comic, as were both of his Avengers titles.
And from an impact standpoint, nothing could compare. It was obviously massive for Hickman’s larger bibliography, and it set the tone for the larger Marvel universe for the year and going forward. That’s impossible to compare to, even if there were other fierce contenders.
Speaking of other fierce contenders, I so desperately wanted to put The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl here. You have no idea how much I wanted to put Doreen and friends in this spot, or really all spots, as I love that comic and endlessly rep for it. I considered just overruling my own rules to place it here, and if this was year one for the title, I might have.
But The Vision had to take 2016, as its 12 issue run – which actually launched in 2015 – was a critical darling in a way that Marvel comics rarely are, earning the 2017 Eisner Award for Best Limited Series or Story Arc and becoming a crossover hit with readers looking for superhero comics that trended a bit more towards the erudite side of things. This was all deserved. It’s an excellent comic, with Tom King, Gabriel Herandez Walta, Jordie Bellaire and Claytonw Cowles crafting a powerful, haunting story that carries with it a long shadow, as it’s hard to consider any characters featured within without the work this team did with them.
It also helped launch King into the stratosphere, as he may have been doing work for DC around then – including Grayson, Omega Men and Sheriff of Babylon – but it was his work for their main competition that gave the writer the juice he needed to become a giant at that publisher. That may not be something that impacted Marvel itself, but it was a big moment for one of the defining voices of the latter half of this decade.
2017 was sort of a weird year for Marvel, as it was one in which a whole lot of their best work was on the periphery of the line while top books didn’t particularly inspire. That creates a whole lot of good but not great contenders in the process. But if there was any title that was worthy, it was this one. While much of the rest of Marvel’s line was largely wayward, a metronome steadily moved on at the core of it, as Jason Aaron’s Thor run – now with dazzling duo of Russell Dauterman and Matt Wilson on art – continued with The Mighty Thor and its lead at the center of it, Jane Foster (aka Thor).
While I wouldn’t say this was the peak of this team’s run, it was still a heck of the year for the title, with The Asgard/Shi’ar War, a very fun, sprawling arc that paired Thor with previous Jason Aaron favorites like Quentin Quire and Kid Gladiator, and the beginning of The Death of Thor arc that brought this volume to its conclusion leading the way. These stories gave Dauterman and Wilson plenty of opportunities for massive, gorgeous visuals, proving themselves one of the finest artistic collaborations in the medium with each and every issue they produced together.
This was a great comic during an uneven year for Marvel, and one that proves the value of being a constant at a publisher known for change.
Immortal Hulk wears the belt of the most beloved Marvel ongoing of the past two years, and I wouldn’t say it’s particularly close. Al Ewing, Joe Bennett and friends have created something special here, an ongoing series in which each issue reads like an event while still feeling as if it’s part of something bigger, a delicate but important balance in an era that often effectively begs readers to wait for trade. It’s a scary comic, but one that endlessly draws you back in with an inventive, exciting story that builds off of decades of Hulk related stories from inside and outside of comics. It dared utter the name of the Maestro, the Lord Voldemort of Hulk comics, a move that’s the ultimate heat check for a Hulk comic, but one I’m confident it could pay off if it wanted. It’s unreal good, and even a hit, somehow turning the often sleepy Green Giant into a bonafide top 10 seller in the direct market. It’s a heck of a thing, and there are no signs of it stopping either.
One other note: while it’s too early to say what the impact of this comic could be, I will say I hope Marvel tries to emulate its art rotations as much as possible. Bennett being as fast as he is and Ruy Jose inking him helps immensely, as it allows for quicker turnaround times from the main art team. But the way Ewing writes the book and how the whole team approaches it delivers natural breaks that fit a fill-in artist (or artists!) so nothing feels jagged or forced. It allows for this title to have zero waste and no loss of momentum, an aspect of it that I believe has played a substantial part in its rise. We’re used to stops and starts in comics, with lulls and jagged art changes at times. Immortal Hulk has been headed steadily in one direction throughout, and it’s all the better for it. More of that, please.
Some might scoff at this pick concluding my look at the comics that won every year of my life at Marvel. “It’s only five issues deep so far!” you might say. “David’s just a sucker for charts,” you could be thinking. And yes, both of those things are true. We are still in the early days of Jonathan Hickman’s run with the X-Men, and a whole lot could change. Moira’s sixth life could have been her time working at Baskin Robbins serving ice cream, a story beat that ultimately leaves many readers unfulfilled. There could be a chart deployed within an issue in which Hickman mocks readers by attempting to average how much time he made each of us waste speculating about these comics. The final four issues could be POV issues starring Eyeboy. There’s a lot still to get through, and it’s possible it won’t pay off.
But ever since these comics launched with House of X #1 on July 24th, they have owned the comics conversation in a way few titles ever do. Other comics might as well not even exist for many readers, including myself, as House of X and Powers of X are the only titles I’ve read each week 31 since they launched as I’ve tirelessly devoured old Marvel comics during the stretch run for this project. They are completely reinventing and reigniting Marvel’s great sleeping giant franchise, generating significant orders and huge in-store sales, a blend that is not always a sure shot for your average Marvel release. These are the biggest comics of the year, regardless of publisher. It makes sense too: they’re incredible comics, with Hickman, Pepe Larraz, RB Silva, Marte Gracia, Clayton Cowles and Tom Muller straight up killing it.
And, it is worth noting, they are also the titles that finalize Jonathan Hickman’s position as the person who most defined this decade at Marvel. With Fantastic Four and FF, his larger Avengers run and now this, he has sculpted Marvel’s three flagships in a way few creators even get the opportunity to try, let alone succeed at. It’s the perfect coda for Hickman’s decade at Marvel, and a hopeful point of transition for the House of Ideas going forward.
That’s it! Let’s talk about how wrong I was with between one and all of my picks. Join the discussion on the SKTCHD forums!
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!↩
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.↩
Please note, I said North Star, not Northstar.↩
Meaning I can’t just say Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ Criminal won every year they published that title at Icon.↩
Shouts to Fred Van Lente and Jefte Palo’s Taskmaster mini-series from 2010!↩
More on that year later, both in this piece and another one.↩
It’s Bob Harras, of all people!↩
Those are Sal Buscema and Jackson Guice, so it’s still rather good looking.↩
Including very recently by Jason LaTour, David LaFuente and friends in a Spider-Ham story, of all places.↩
Even though I’m going to have a slight cheat here in a minute.↩
Which I should note I had never read before taking on this project.↩
8.1 million copies of it were ordered.↩
I say arguably because Lee was generally a secondary figure in putting Image together, at least initially, as it was really Rob Liefeld and then Todd McFarlane that instigated that whole deal. For more on that, here’s a history piece on Image I wrote for The Ringer.↩
So cool that it really felt like Mark Millar and Steve McNiven emulated the idea in Old Man Logan 16 years later.↩
If you remember that fondly, I wrote the actual history of its creation on SKTCHD, which you might enjoy as well.↩
Please don’t send me links showing me how wrong I am.↩
The pair had the longest continuous run of any creative team ever at Marvel.↩
Coming off Grant Morrison’s New X-Men, this was a reset to everything people knew and loved.↩
Talk about comics that didn’t age well, sheesh.↩
Besides you, Born Again.↩
I picked this up in trades after it had dropped, so I already knew about this beat thanks to Wizard Magazine. It did not dilute the moment at all for me. I still loved it.↩
To the point they even had Brubaker himself make a cameo in a scene where Hydra was resetting Bucky’s brain again.↩
Which, if you’d like to read more about, may I advise reading my oral history of that event I kicked SKTCHD 2.0 off with?↩
Shouts to Patsy Walker, Hellcat, Alaska’s one-and-only superhero!↩
I later bought it as well.↩
Nextwave lapped it roughly 1,000 times over if you include all superhero titles.↩
I say that without any actual knowledge. That’s just my read on it.↩
If it was the character’s first appearance, I might have even given it to him.↩
And is returning in the upcoming King Thor mini-series from Aaron and Ribic.↩
Besides ones I read for podcasting reasons.↩