The comic book maxi-series has become something of a staple in the world of annual publishing schedules, at least for the Big Two comic publishers. DC and Marvel are not the only companies to attempt these giant-sized sequential epics, and they're not actually that good at them when you take a look at all the big events that have added up to nothing over the years.
However, diamonds do exist in the rough. DC and Marvel have knocked a few out of the park as well as smaller presses like Top Cow and even self-publishers. When narrowing it down to the 12 Best Comic Maxi-Series of All Time, we first had to define what a maxi-series is. It's possible you may not agree with some of the criteria, but for us, it's any planned limited series — not an ongoing series that was eventually canceled — epic in length and running for a minimum of 12 issues.
In some cases, they may be company-wide crossovers; in some, they are standalone titles; and in still others, they may be a series of mini-series that tell one overarching story.
With that in place, let's begin!
12 DC One Million
Unlike many of DC's misguided head-trip maxi-series that have become almost a yearly event in the comics industry, DC One Million has the advantage of being a particularly well-thought-out mind you-know-what. Set in the way distant future of the 853rd Century, the crossover event imagines what the one millionth issues of many of DC's most popular heroes would be like (because that just so happens to be when DC's titles would hit that mark if they stuck to a monthly publishing schedule).
This high-concept idea played out in 37 individual titles and a four-issue miniseries written by Grant Morrison, who handles the task far more capably than you would ever imagine possible with an idea so far out there. The original mini-series was a top pick in 1999 for readers of Comics Buyer's Guide in both the limited series and storyline departments.
11 The Punisher: Welcome Back, Frank
In 2000, Marvel gave us the hellish pairing of Frank Castle and perhaps his greatest wordsmith, Garth Ennis. The limited maxi-series was called Welcome Back, Frank, and in addition to the brutal violence that we have come to expect from this character, it gave us a legendary scene where Castle creatively utilizes a polar bear to do his bidding against a couple of adversaries. We don't believe we have ever seen such an inventive weapon.
The story centers on our hero doing what he does best – taking on the mob. Particularly, the Gnucci Crime Family. A telltale sign of a great story arc if it can make the jump from comics and actually influence a big screen interpretation. Welcome Back, Frank did so with the Thomas Jane Punisher film, giving us Joan, Spacker Dave, and Mr. Bumpo. The film's failings do nothing to take away from how raucously entertaining Ennis' version of Castle is, nor does it cheapen the work of art team Steve Dillon and Jimmy Palmiotti.
10 Earth X
Given how badly Marvel has bested DC in the film world, you wouldn't expect the home of Superman and Batman to be ahead of the game on the House of Ideas. However, go back to 1996, and the miniseries Kingdom Come would prove you wrong. Written by Mark Waid and Alex Ross, along with Ross' glorious artwork, the miniseries presented DC's heroes in the artist's inimitable style to critical and commercial acclaim.
It also prompted Marvel to follow suit with their own Earth X three years later, a more ambitious attempt at DC’s dystopian world with a denser storyline and, of course, the Marvel characters taking center stage. Coincidentally, or perhaps not coincidentally, Marvel's version was based on Ross' notes for Wizard magazine, which had asked him to imagine a Kingdom Come-styled universe featuring Marvel's characters. Earth X would spawn two sequels, but it is the workmanship of writer Jim Krueger and the imagination of Ross on this initial entry that make it stand out from both its own follow-ups and DC's original shorter effort.
9 Marvel’s Call of Duty
Marvel’s Call of Duty may not be one of the best remembered maxi-series, especially since its attempt at an ongoing series stalled after four issues, but the three interrelated minis comprising it gave us some of the few truly spine-tingling moments that we've ever experienced while holding a funnybook.
Conceived out of the 9/11 tragedy, which placed front-and-center the everyday heroics of our civil servants, The Brotherhood, The Precinct, and The Wagon (15 issues in all) places emergency service workers, firefighters, and police officers in paranormal situations within the Marvel Universe and makes even bigger heroes from them than they already are. For a country that was hurting at the time, this series was the perfect response to unspeakable tragedy, one that should be held in the highest of regards.
8 Rising Stars
Rising Stars by J. Michael Straczynski was a planned 24-issue limited series published by Top Cow and JMS' Joe's Comics imprint starting in 1999. The series itself bears remarkable similarities to the later-produced TV show Heroes from 2006. It centers on 113 "Specials," who receive superpowers after being conceived in Pederson, Illinois, on the night that a mysterious comet flies overhead.
The miniseries takes a Watchmen-like approach in depicting a world that is unsure about these superhuman beings — and vice versa. It's truly fascinating to see how the dynamics play out over the entirety of the run.
Unfortunately, Rising Stars is often remembered for its tumultuous publishing schedule as much as it is for being a great series. Top Cow tried cutting JMS out of the loop on a potential movie deal, so he withheld scripts after issue 21 and effectively killed all momentum the series had going for it. He eventually received an apology, though the damage was already done. To date, there have only been three additional limited series and three novelizations, and JMS has written none of them.
7 Marvel’s Civil War
Marvel's Civil War, the big crossover epic of 2006 and 2007, was a seven-issue limited series coupled with literally dozens of issues involving the company's main line of books, including multi-issue arcs in the pages of Black Panther, Cable & Deadpool, Captain America, Iron Man, Punisher: War Journal, and Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man to name a few. Particularly noteworthy here is how well Marvel manages to pit Captain America and his crew against Tony Stark and his.
Usually the reasons that superheroes fight are stupid, but the two main factions in Marvel's Civil War are divided over something that proves to be a reflection of the times — the prioritization of our safety versus our freedom. Stark's bunch become increasingly authoritarian as they work as agents of protection for the government. Meanwhile, Cap and his crew look at it as huge overreach. It was relevant then, but nothing like it is now, making the series one of the more visionary in the comic medium.
Suggested reading, in case you want to catch up before the feature film Captain America: Civil War and the comic book sequel Civil War II due out in June 2016: the collected editions of Civil War, Civil War: Spider-Man, Civil War: Avengers, Civil War: Front Line, Civil War: Fantastic Four, Civil War: The Underside, and Civil War: X-Men (3,600 pages altogether; not exactly light reading).
6 The Death and Return of Superman
The Death and Return of Superman launched with a 7-issue event that culminated with the Man of Steel's demise following a brutal fight with the alien force Doomsday. This came shortly after Batman's back was broken in Knightfall, so things looked bleak for fans of these characters at the time. Of course, now we know the permanency of what goes on in these mega-crossover events is all but nonexistent, but for dozens of issues, things were looking pretty hopeless.
The Death/Return storyline garnered national and international attention and brought in an army of new readers. Unfortunately, it falters after the middle portion, "Funeral for a Friend," but for the first 17 issues of its 38-issue run, it elevates the form and makes for compelling reading. Suggestion: buy the trades The Death of Superman and World Without Superman and quit while you're ahead.
5 Crisis on Infinite Earths
Crisis on Infinite Earths was a twofer: it not only celebrated DC Comics' 50th anniversary in style, but it also condensed and eliminated some of the key problems with the previous multiverse's continuity issues. DC launched it with little fanfare but managed to gain traction on the uniqueness of its ambition, competent writing from the legendary Marv Wolfman, and the artistic stylings of George Perez, who was assisted by Dick Giardino, Jerry Ordway, and Mike DeCarlo along the way.
Crisis did some shocking things for the time, killing off Supergirl and the Barry Allen Flash. It's also one of few maxi-series to have some lasting effects decades later, though that could be because DC hasn't gotten around to retconning every single plot point just yet. (Give them time.)
4 Midnight Nation
Midnight Nation is a J. Michael Straczynski 12-issue limited series – the other series he did for Top Cow during his Rising Stars run — that digs into philosophical dealings about God, the devil, and what it means to have a soul. What we like about Midnight Nation is that it has a singular focus, yet it's well fleshed-out and exactly as long as it needs to be, at half the length of the sometimes bloated Rising Stars.
While JMS would get into similar themes on his Marvel/Icon title The Book of Lost Souls, Midnight Nation has just enough meat on its bones to reach “epic” standing, and possesses a raw appeal to it that feels more fully-formed and sure of what it wants to say than its offspring.
3 Batman: Knightfall
Batman: Knightfall ran for around 70 issues from the spring of 1993 to the summer of 1994. It populated the comics Batman (#'s 492-510); Batman: Shadow of the Bat (#'s 16-30); Catwoman (#'s 6-7, 12-13); Detective Comics (#'s 659-677); Justice League: Task Force (#'s 5-6); Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight (#'s 59-63); Robin (#'s 7-9); Showcase '93 (#'s 7-8); and Showcase '94 (#'10). It found Bruce Wayne coming to terms with the fact that he can't keep up with the duties of his job. His fatigue eventually leads to the "breaking of the Bat" care of the super villainous Bane. From that, the Bat Family of superheroes is born.
Despite the fact that some of the creative decisions were uneven due to too many cooks occasionally stepping into the kitchen, this is quite the feat for long-form storytelling. While many stories half the size buckle under the weight of laborious sub-plotting, Knightfall has a clear focus and does a masterful job of keeping a crippled Bruce Wayne the star while giving weight to existing characters and breathing life into new characters, whose impact continues to be felt throughout the DC Universe of films and comics.
Watchmen is a 12-issue series you can either thank or blame for the current crop of gravely serious superheroes (save for Deadpool). For the first time in comic book history, writer Alan Moore took these feel-good super beings and dropped them into a world as ugly as our own, circa sometime in the 1980s. The results are anything but funny book material. There's sex, violence, and deep philosophical questions as to the morality of supermen and women imposing their own sense of justice onto our world.
The art is stunning, the characters are Moore's work at his best, and the ending is still as irritatingly satisfying as it was on first reading. While Moore may want to forget this period of his life, he used it to create a rare comic series that will endure for generations.
Jeff Smith's Bone is a great example of what the maxi-series can be: first being that long-form storytelling isn't something strictly for adults; and second being that children's entertainment can be as deeply layered and reflective of the human condition as anything else.
The influence of Carl Barks is alive and well in the pages of Bone, but the depth of story goes well beyond anything Barks had the chance to work on. That's a testament to Smith's skill on both writing and art more than it is a knock on any of the old Disney stuff.
Smith is included here because his intent from the beginning of Bone was to run it as a limited series, most of which he self-published except for a brief run through Image Comics. Bone made it to issue 55 before Smith willingly and methodically drew it to a close. If you can get your hands on a copy of the 1,332-page One-Volume Edition, we absolutely insist that you give it a go.
The next time you're in the mood for a comic story of epic proportions, try one of these out if you haven't given them a shot. And if you have but feel there's something better out there, we want to hear from you. Which maxi-series do you think are the best of all time? Sound off in the comments section below!