History books, or at least the history books concerned with such matters, will tell you that DC Comics’ origins date back to the founding of National Allied Publications in 1934. Fans are more likely to tell you that the publishing company truly began with the release of Action Comics #1 in 1939. That was the issue that introduced the world to Superman. That was the issue that got DC into the superhero game. It was released at a time when the public demanded new and exciting heroes participating in incredible adventures. As for the issue’s story… well, it wasn’t exactly classic literature.
Eventually, DC and other comic publishers would begin to explore the creative capabilities of comic book storytelling. Soon, their heroes were involved in stories that forever changed the way we looked at comic books and, more often than not, our own world. When we talk about the best DC comics storylines, we’re not grading on a curve. These aren’t just great comic book stories; they’re stories that are good enough to be worthy of a position next to the great novel.
These are the 15 Best DC Comics Storylines Ever.
Note: Vertigo comics were not taken into consideration.
15 Sinestro Corps War
The Green Lantern is a generally underrated character when it comes to compelling storylines. Even still, this 2008 event comic is considered to be the definitive Green Lantern story by many. It begins with a relatively simple premise that involves Sinestro forming his own army of villains to oppose the Green Lantern Corps. That’s a concept that many other comics and forms of entertainment have played with in the past. The real genius of the Sinestro Corps War is – in a word – escalation.
Event comics such as these are infamous for the way in which they shake up the dynamic of their respective universes by featuring events that would never otherwise occur, but Sinestro Corps War is a true masterclass in how they can play with the mythology of a series. The various writers (many of whom are DC’s best) who contributed to Sinestro Corps War took no prisoners in terms of exploring the history of the Green Lantern. The result is a true epic that explores and invariably alters nearly every aspect of this universe. It’s the kind of tale that makes you forget you're holding your breath because you are concentrated on the implications of what just occurred.
Wonder Woman, much like Aquaman, isn’t usually associated with the best DC stories. Despite being one of DC’s big three, Wonder Woman hasn’t always been treated with the same level of respect that Batman and Superman typically receive. One glowing exception to that unfortunate trend is the 2002 one-shot issue Hiketeia. The comic’s name references the name of a vow that Wonder Woman makes to protect a young girl by the name of Danielle Wellys. Right from the start, Wonder Woman has some doubts regarding Danielle, but her honorable nature inspires her to stay true to her word. That word becomes much harder to keep when Batman shows up to capture young Danielle for previous crimes.
Hiketeia is the kind of story that Wonder Woman should have received many, many years ago. It’s not a reinvention of the Wonder Woman character so much as it is a different perspective on what distinguishes her from other comic heroes. At a brisk pace, this comic examines what honor in the world of superheroes really means while delivering thrill after thrill.
13 JSA: The Golden Age
The Golden Age is an Elseworlds tale and not the last one we’ll be talking about on this list. As with all other Elseworlds stories, The Golden Age is based on a premise that involves that involves the question “What if?” In this case, the fantastic scenario at play involves Justice Society of America members who have retired following the events of World War II. While they adjust to life in a world that no longer seems to respect them or their ideas, a new group of heroes take their place and try to find purpose in a country that no longer seems worth fighting for.
The basic idea shares similarities with the premise of Watchmen and some other stories, but The Golden Age is much more interested in examining the often romanticized view of post-war America from a haunting new perspective. The Golden Age is a war of ideas that any modern American will be able to relate to. While it does rely on a few absurd comic conventions to get its point across, The Golden Age is a remarkably relevant story that dares to examine the damage that fear can cause.
12 Batman: The Black Mirror
The Black Mirror is a Batman tale for a new generation. In this universe, Dick Grayson has assumed the role of the Dark Knight and is struggling to really come to terms with his new role. He still lives in the shadow that Bruce Wayne’s Batman has cast over the city of Gotham, but the same cannot be said of the city’s criminals, who are testing the new Batman’s limits. Into this scenario comes an old face whose ability to spread fear may be greater than Batman’s. Now, all who fight for hope in Gotham must look deep within themselves if they are to fight another day.
With The Black Mirror, Scot Snyder did what some thought was impossible and gave us a definitive Batman tale for the modern age. His story is one of generations and legacies. Much like how The Joker forced Bruce Wayne to come to terms with his darker side, the arrival of a new threat forces Dick Grayson and those close to him to come to terms with the fact that they are all damned to a life of war and horror. It’s truly haunting.
11 Red Son
It’s tempting to summarize Red Son as the story of what would happen if Superman was a Russian. In essence, that is the premise this comic is built on. Instead of landing right in the heart of rural America, the Kal-El of Red Son lands right in the middle of the Soviet Union. Based solely on that concept, you might think that this is a story about an evil Superman. To a degree, that is true. Red Son does feature moments of Superman being evil, Lex Luthor being the hero, and all the other warped perspectives you might associate with an Elseworlds tale.
Ultimately, though, Red Son proves to be a remarkably subtle story. It’s not about evil and good so much as it’s about trying to honestly imagine how a change of environment might impact the legacy and actions of Superman. Remarkably, the exploration of that scenario leads to one of the most complete and honest examinations of the Superman character. It’s the comic book world’s greatest attempt to answer questions relating to nature vs. nurture.
10 JLA: The Tower of Babel
Tower of Babel is a Batman story disguised as a Justice League adventure. As many of you probably know, Batman is a paranoid individual. Because Batman doesn’t have the natural gifts of heroes like Superman and Wonder Woman, he must rely on his ability to anticipate all possible contingencies that may occur when he is fighting evil. Tower of Babel deals with the possibility that Batman is so paranoid that he even keeps thorough files on every member of the Justice League, just in case he ever needs to take them down. Then, it addresses the consequences of what happens when those files fall into the wrong hands.
Spoiler alert: The Justice League manages to defeat those wrong hands. That’s not the important part. What makes Tower of Babel so exceptional is the way that it establishes a fragile relationship between Batman and the rest of the Justice League and then snaps it in two. How can the rest of the Justice League ever trust Batman when they find out that he has been keeping tabs on them? This story not only answers that question, it addresses the possibility that Batman is actually in the right.
9 The Return of Barry Allen
Following the events of Crisis on Infinite Earths, Wally West replaced Barry Allen as The Flash. As tends to be the case with such dramatic shifts in status quo, some readers were slow to accept the new Flash. Others just hated him outright. The Return of Barry Allen was inspired, in part, by that negative reception. In this story, the one and only Barry Allen returns as Wally West is still trying to find his own place into the world. As if that wasn’t bad enough for young Wally, he also begins to notice that something isn’t quite right about the recently returned Barry.
The Return of Barry Allen is a coming of age story and a mystery. While the many surprises that come from unraveling the details of Barry Allen’s return are thrilling, it’s the story of Wally West becoming a true hero that steals the show. Anyone who has ever struggled to find their place in the world (especially if they’ve been compared to a sibling or someone else close in their life) will immediately relate to this expertly placed plot about what it takes to find the strength to be your best.
8 The Judas Contract
The Judas Contract represents the culmination of some of the most patient storytelling ever exhibited in the world of comics. It began with the introduction of Terra Markov. Terra was an obviously powerful young superhero who the Teen Titans welcomed as one of their own. Not long after she joined the team, however, it became clear that Terra had a dark side. She was an emotionally unstable young woman who wasn’t above using all her abilities to get her way. The Judas Contract reveals Terra’s true nature as a collaborator who has been working with Deathstroke to bring the Titans down.
This is the Titans at their lowest point in terms of cohesiveness. Through the actions of Terra and some of his own guile, Deathstroke manages to devastate the Titans from within. Oddly enough, this actually brings out the best in Dick Grayson, who begins to execute strategies designed to counter Deathstroke before every fatal blow. This is the storyline that gave birth to Nightwing and cemented Deathstroke’s legacy as one of comics greatest villains. It’s essential reading.
7 Batman: The Long Halloween
Gotham City is no stranger to murders, but the death of mobster Johnny Viti on Halloween is one that every citizen of the city will likely remember for years to come. It served as the first in a string of bizarre murders that occurred on every major holiday. Someone was targeting Gotham’s mobsters, and for once it wasn't Batman. The mystery of who was bringing down the city’s underworld would consume some of Gotham’s most prominent habitants and forever change the dynamic of crime in Gotham.
With The Long Halloween, writer Jeph Loeb effectively used Batman as the lead in a noir gangster story worthy of Humphrey Bogart. You could argue that the heart of this story is the identity of the mysterious Holiday Killer, but focusing on that lone (albeit incredible) aspect really does diminish the scope of this tale. The Long Halloween is the story that finally tells us how supervillains came to replace mobsters in Gotham. It became the first comic to acknowledge the Batman: The Animated Series version of Two-Face's origin and make it comics canon. Most importantly, it set an unbeatable precedent for how good a Batman detective story can be.
6 Whatever Happened To The Man of Tomorrow?
The year is 1997, and Superman has been missing for 10 years. Some recall the circumstances that preceded his disappearance, but nobody is entirely sure what happened to the Man of Steel. In an effort to uncover the full story, a journalist by the name of Tim Crane visits Lois Lane. Believed to be the last person to have seen Superman alive, Lois begins to recall what some believe to be the final moments of his life in order to finally answer the question posed in the story's title.
It would be a crime to spoil the exact answer to that question, especially as Alan Moore’s defining Superman story is still well worth the time of anyone who appreciates great storytelling. What can be said is that the events that lead to Superman’s disappearance rank among his most challenging moments. Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? maximizes the potential of some of Superman’s B-villains and uses them as the catalyst to a story that finally forces Superman to come to terms with the idea that he might not be around forever. The ending might not be the canonical end of Superman, but it’s hard to think of a better one.
5 Crisis on Infinite Earths
In the mid-eighties, DC executives realized that their creative practice of using multiple universes in order to cover up some of the gaping canonical plot holes left over from the Golden and Silver Ages was no longer sustainable. They decided that some kind of order needed to be established. Marv Wolfman and a team of artists were given the seemingly impossible task of bringing every DC universe together as part of an event that would unite them forever. What they came up with is quite possible the greatest major comic book event of all-time.
Through the use of a being known as the Anti-Monitor, Wolfman and co. were able to bring together the multiverses by ensuring their equal destruction. Rather than treat the various versions of famous characters as a creative hinderance, Wolfman recognized that he was able to create a seemingly infinite series of moments that no fan would have ever dared imagine before. If you ever want to know how beautifully chaotic comics can get, Crisis on Infinite Earths is the story for you.
4 The Dark Knight Returns
What is there left to say about The Dark Knight Returns? Along with Batman: Year One, this is the comic that is regularly credited with establishing the version of Batman that we know and love today. It is also credited for helping to usher in a new era of mature, darker storytelling in comics that led to many of the entries on this list. What more is there to say about The Dark Knight Returns? How about the fact it remains one of the most compelling examples of the power of comic books as a story telling medium despite the fact that it has inspired so many other classic works?
The Dark Knight Returns represents the first time that many readers encountered a version of Batman who no longer believes in himself or his mission. He is crippled by doubt and has convinced himself that he no longer needs to be Batman. His return to that role is both selfish and noble. This is the story of what happens when a superhero refuses to let go, and how even the strongest of men can have everything they believe in destroyed by time.
3 All-Star Superman
When it was announced that Grant Morrison was going to start his All-Star Superman run, fans wondered what plans he had in mind. The popular theory was that Morrison was going to essentially reboot the character and adapt him for a more modern age. Morrison had a different idea. Instead of reinventing Superman, he wanted to remind us all why we loved the character in the first place. To do so, he crafted a story revolving around Superman learning he has about a year left to live. In his final days, Clark Kent must get his life in order.
The unwavering nobility of Superman has long been a source of controversy among comic fans. Some even mock him for it. What All-Star Superman does better than just about any other Superman story is explain why Superman’s nobility is, in fact, his greatest quality. Having just learned that he is about to die, Superman proceeds to spend what may very well be his final hours doing everything he can to make the world a better place. This is an unwavering reminder of why Superman is indeed the world’s greatest hero.
2 Kingdom Come
We live in a time when it feels like people are more divided than ever. Without getting into the issues, it’s clear that there is an ever-expanding generation gap dividing the way the world once was and the way the world is now. Kingdom Come is an Elseworlds tale that deals with this very issue by imagining a future in which Superman is retired and a new generation of superheroes have emerged. The problem is that these young heroes have adopted a reckless and violent style that in no way represents the beliefs of the old guard. When the recklessness of one of these heroes contributes to the destruction of Kansas, Superman leads the old generation of heroes into one last fight.
Superheroes have always fought to save humanity, but this is one of the few times that they fight to save humanity from the dangers that superheroes bring into their lives. This new breed of heroes may not have outright evil intentions at the start, but their inability to properly contain their powers and enthusiasm soon turns the world into a war zone. On the other end, you have Superman and friends who are well past their primes and struggling to do good once more. Somewhere in the middle is a real future. It’s just a shame that one side has to win.
There have been a few comics on this list that try to imagine a world in which superheroes have been forced to retire. For the most part, the world usually isn’t a better place because of it. Who wouldn’t want heroes to come along and beat all of our problems into a fine pulp? Watchmen’s view on the matter is much different. In the world of Watchmen (which is frighteningly similar to our own) the problems of the world go much deeper than a couple of supervillains threatening peace. Who needs them when humanity is slowly destroying itself?
There is not a single major character in Watchmen who doesn’t suffer from some critical flaw. Whether they be alcoholics, sociopaths, or something else entirely, everyone in Watchmen has their own reasons for trying to find out why a former vigilante was murdered-- and few of them have anything to do with bettering the world. The layers of this story are too deep to unravel in full here, but there’s an argument to be made that the story’s most lasting quality is the argument that people humanity is better off with a common enemy than with a common hero. That's a topic few mediums have ever dared to cover.
Are DC's best stories lines also your favorites? Let us know in the comments.