Comic books existed before superheroes, but superheroes continue to dominate the medium. So, anyone discussing the most influential comic books of all time must refer to introductions of the world’s greatest heroes or innovations in storytelling and form.
These superhero comics represent just how far the genre has come and how it can continue to press forward.
1. Action Comics #1 (1938)
It all started here. Sure, precursors to superheroes appeared in pulp novels, and even a version of Superman himself showed up in the story “Reign of the Superman” that writer Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster published in 1933. But costumed superheroes did not debut until Siegel and Shuster revised their character and brought him to National Publishing, where he would debut in Action Comics #1. Superman became an instant sensation among children and soldiers, leading to an explosion of imitators.
2. Marvel Comics #1 (1939)
Magazine publisher Martin Goodman recognized the potential profits of superheroes and jumped right in by setting up a subsidiary called Timely Comics and creating the series Marvel Comics. Marvel Comics #1 introduced Prince Namor the Sub-Mariner, an anti-hero who still appears in modern comics, as well as Angel and the Human Torch, who get reimagined twenty years later.
Goodman’s foray into comic books also opened a position for his wife’s nephew, an aspiring young writer called Stan Lee.
3. Detective Comics #27 (1940)
When National called for more superheroes, artist Bob Kane answered the call. Drawing inspiration from Leonardo DaVinci’s sketch of the flying man, Kane designed a hero with a black domino mask, a red jumpsuit, and black leather wings. He dubbed the character “Bat-Man,” a name that stuck even as writer Bill Finger redressed the character with the pointy mask and iconic logo we know today. Finger and Kane debuted Batman in Detective Comics #27, forever changing pop culture history.
4. Batman #1 (1940)
Like Superman before him, Batman launched a solo comic almost right away. But unlike Superman, Batman’s first issue introduced one of the greatest villains ever. Inspired by the Conrad Veidt film The Man Who Laughed, Jerry Finger designed the Joker as a criminal with a permanent grin, a twisted inverse to Batman’s heroic darkness. The Joker died at the end of Batman #1, but he would return to terrorize Gotham time and again.
5. All-Star Comics #8 (1941)
Female superheroes soon followed their male counterparts, with Fantomah — created by the enigmatic Fletcher Hanks — breaking the mold in 1941’s Jungle Comics #15. But the greatest female superhero came a little later when psychologist and writer William Moulton Marston and artist Harry G. Peter brought Wonder Woman to All-Star Comics #8. Marston imagined Wonder Woman as a model for peaceful conflict resolution, leading to some interesting stories and one of pop culture's most influential characters.
6. Showcase Comics #4 (1956)
The superhero boom fizzled as soon as it started, with the genre losing its adult readership at the end of World War II. Many companies and series folded, but DC Comics stuck around thanks to radio and television shows starring Superman and Batman. In 1956, editor Julius Schwartz gave superheroes another shot, reimagining some of the company’s most popular characters with a sci-fi spin. That project began with the Flash in Showcase Comics #4, the comic that inaugurated the Silver Age of comics.
7. Brave and the Bold #28 (1960)
Schwartz’s new Flash scored with readers, as did his reimagined Green Lantern a few years later. The project worked so well that the editor commissioned a team book modeled on the Justice Society of America from the Golden Age. In Brave and the Bold #28, writer Gardner Fox and artist Mike Sekowsky put together Green Lantern, the Flash, and new creation Martian Manhunter with reactivated Golden Age heroes Aquaman and Wonder Woman to form the Justice League of America. The issue thrilled readers, making the Justice League the premier team in superhero comics — at least until the Fantastic Four came along.
8. Fantastic Four #1 (1961)
Comic book fans weren’t the only ones impressed by the Justice League. When magazine publisher Martin Goodman saw the sales numbers, he pulled aside his editor Stan Lee and told him to give superheroes a shot. Lee turned to artist Jack Kirby, who had penciled imaginative monster stories for Goodman since co-creating Captain America in the 1940s. Kirby designed a sci-fi-based team of adventurers called the Fantastic Four, who had the powers of superheroes and the ambitions of explorers. Kirby’s out-of-this-world plots and visuals, combined with Lee’s spunky dialogue, made superheroes feel fresh and real. Fantastic Four #1 drew in a new group of readers, leading to the dawn of Marvel Comics.
9. Amazing Fantasy #15 (1962)
Lee commissioned several more conflicted and monstrous heroes from Kirby, including the Hulk and Giant-Man. But he didn’t have much faith in Kirby’s design for a bug-themed hero, tossing the character to artist Steve Ditko and debuting the hero in the soon-to-be-canceled series Amazing Fantasy. Ditko’s awkward figure work proved the ideal approach for Kirby’s character Spider-Man, amplified by Lee’s moody dialogue. Spider-Man closed out Amazing Fantasy with issue #15 and leaped over to Amazing Spider-Man #1, becoming the most recognizable figure in superhero comics.
10. Avengers #4 (1963)
Now that his heroes had proven just as impressive as those at DC, Goodman needed one more thing to outdo his rival. He needed his own Justice League, which he got with the Avengers #1. While those first few adventures, drawn and potted by Kirby and scripted by Lee, had their charm, the Avengers didn’t become the Avengers until their fourth issue. That’s when the team recovers a man frozen in ice, Steve Rogers, aka Captain America. Cap joins the team and sets the Avengers apart from all predecessors.
11. Fantastic Four #52 (1966)
After its first year, the Fantastic Four settled into the traditional look and feel of superhero comics. But Kirby still used the team as an outlet for every aspect of his imagination, sending the quartet across the globe and galaxies. In Fantastic Four #52, Kirby and Lee fleshed out the Marvel Universe by introducing an African nation called Wakanda and its protector, the Black Panther. This first depiction of Black Panther had its faults, but it planted a seed that became one of the most compelling fictional worlds in pop culture history.
12. Green Lantern/Green Arrow #76 (1971)
For all its rhetoric about the Marvel Universe existing in “the world outside your window,” most superhero stories still adhered to power fantasies. Heroes fought supervillains who wanted to conquer the world, far removed from the problems of normal people.
That began to change when writer Denny O’Neil and artist Neal Adams brought together the space-faring Green Lantern and loud-mouthed archer Green Arrow in Green Lantern/Green Arrow #76. As the green team trekked across America, they dealt with issues such as wealth inequality, racism, and social unrest, issues that couldn’t be punched into submission. Modern readers may find Green Lantern/Green Arrow #76 a little preachy, but it represents important first steps in the evolution of superhero comics.
13. Amazing Spider-Man #121 (1973)
After Ditko and Lee left the book, the Amazing Spider-Man hit a lull, despite the involvement of writer Gerry Conway and artist John Romita. The creatives did their best to continue the grounded adventures of the titular web-head, but the usual job and school woes didn’t cut it anymore. So they decided to raise the stakes by letting Spidey’s arch-enemy, Green Goblin, discover his secret identity and threaten his girlfriend, Gwen Stacy.
At the end of Amazing Spider-Man #121, the Goblin throws Gwen off a bridge. Spidey shoots a web, thinking that he’s saved her, but in fact, dooms her by causing a recoil that snaps her neck. At that moment, Spider-Man learned the true cost of his great power.
14. Giant Size X-Men #1 (1975)
Lee and Kirby introduced the X-Men in 1963 as a riff on the Doom Patrol at DC Comics. The team had its fans and remained a going concern, but never enjoyed the success of the Avengers or Spider-Man. That began to change with Giant-Size X-Men #1, in which a new team of mutants came together to rescue the original team.
Writer Len Wein and artist David Cockrum created edgy, modern characters to reflect the new team’s global focus, including Kenyan Storm and German Nightcrawler. Wein also brought along a minor adversary he created for the Hulk called Wolverine, putting together a team that would soon lead the most popular and influential comic book of the next twenty years.
15. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1 (1984)
What started out as a goofy parody of Frank Miller launched a pop culture phenomenon with toys, cartoons, movies, and comics.
However, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird may be the work they’ve done to help other comic book artists and writers. The popularity of the Turtles reminded readers that Marvel or DC need not publish the best superhero comics and that those who write and draw the stories deserve to profit from those stories. That battle continues today, following in the steps of these heroes in a half-shell.
16. Crisis on Infinite Earths #1 (1985)
As the oldest continuing shared fictional universe, the world of DC Comics had grown convoluted and confusing. Following the push for relevance, DC editors could no longer explain how Batman and Superman could be the same guys running around since World War II, or how to make sense of the many multiple realities where their characters existed.
Their answer came in the form of Crisis on Infinite Earths, a twelve-part maxi-series from writer Marv Wolfman and artist George Perez. The story involves a multiversal monster called the Anti-Monitor, who destroys all alternate realities and DC stories into a single, coherent narrative. Crisis sometimes reads like a series of editorial mandates, but Wolfman and Perez find room for emotional moments, such as the sacrifice of the Flash.
17. The Dark Knight Returns #1 (1986)
While the main DC Universe left the Silver Age behind with Crisis on Infinite Earths, creators such as Frank Miller revitalized its heroes with out-of-continuity tales such as The Dark Knight Returns. Drawing from his love of pulp fiction, Japanese manga, and Jack Kirby art, Miller weaved a tale of a defeated and retired Batman, forced back into action after Gotham City becomes a cesspit. His activity draws the attention of old friends and foes, including a Superman under the control of Ronald Reagan.
With The Dark Knight Returns, Miller emphasizes the darkness just hinted at in previous superhero comics, permitting other creators to push the envelope when even dealing with flagship characters.
18. Watchmen #1 (1986)
The twelve-part maxi-series Watchmen often gets lumped alongside The Dark Knight Returns, and not just because both began in 1986. Writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons take a cynical, realpolitik approach to superhero comics, using its team of costumed adventurers as a stand-in for Cold War tensions. However, where The Dark Knight Returns too often gives into empty cynicism, Watchmen finds notes of complexity and even compassion in its story. With its dense and often poetic visual style, Watchmen remains a more interesting project than even today’s readers realize.
19. Animal Man #1 (1988)
Miller and Moore did their part to deconstruct heroes, but even they didn’t go as far as Scottish writer Grant Morrison on Animal Man. At first, Morrison and penciler Chas Truog seem to follow in Miller’s footsteps, putting goofy D-lister Animal Man through a series of personal and existential horrors. However, Morrison uses that setup to tell a metatextual story, one that ends with Animal Man tracking the source of his suffering to the writer himself. Despite the sometimes nasty content in Animal Man, Morrison’s approach keeps things playful and hopeful, reminding readers that superhero comics can be smart and fun.
20. The Sandman #1 (1989)
Comic books made plays toward literary respectability long before a former rock critic called Neil Gaiman reimagined the old DC Comics character Sandman. However, Gaiman achieved the feat not by leaving superheroes behind but by bringing literature and mythology into superhero comics. Along with top-level artists such as Sam Keith, Colleen Doran, P. Craig Russell, and more, Gaiman tells an epic tale in which Shakespeare, Greek muses, and Japanese Ghosts interact with the Justice League and G.K. Chesterton, maintaining the dignity of everything involved.
21. Silver Surfer #50 (1991)
Not every comic book reader has fond feelings about the collector’s boom of the 1990s when speculators bought up special issues of X-Men and Batman in the hopes that these floppies would be worth thousands in the future. To capture the attention of investors, Marvel and DC indulged in gimmicks, starting with the foil-embossed cover of Silver Surfer #50. The gambit worked, turning a heady cosmic comic into a best-seller. Even if people disagree about the positive or negative effects of the gimmick cover, no one can deny that it changed the superhero comics industry for decades.
22. Spawn #1 (1992)
For all the work that Eastman and Laird did to fight for creators’ rights after the publication of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1, they couldn’t quite replicate the explosion that followed the founding of Image Comics in 1992. Image launched when hot-shot artists from Marvel, including X-Men’s Jim Lee and Spider-Man’s Erik Larsen, jumped ship to make comics about characters they created and owned.
The creation of flashy Spider-Man artist Todd McFarlane, Spawn may not have been the most respected of those first superhero comics. However, Spawn had the hype to make Image a legitimate contender, one that continues to publish excellent creator-owned work today.
23. Ultimate Spider-Man #1 (2000)
Although Marvel Comics never felt the need to reboot its entire universe as DC did with Crisis on Infinite Earths, they did worry that they lost the youthful edge that gave the company its reputation. In hopes of returning to basics, Marvel launched a new universe with familiar characters, starting them all from scratch. The experiment had mixed results, but the best of the bunch was Ultimate Spider-Man, written by Brian Michael Bendis and drawn by Tom Raney.
Bendis and Raney gave the world a teen Peter Parker, first getting bit by a radioactive spider in the year 2000. That fresh approach paved the way for the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies, which in turn set the stage for the MCU, all while retaining everything that made Spider-Man great.
24. Invincible #1 (2003)
For all the success that Image Comics enjoyed in its first decade, the upstart company did not inspire respect. That began to change with Invincible, created by Robert Kirkman, Corey Walker, and Ryan Ottley. Invincible trades in superhero tropes, with variations of established characters from Marvel and DC. But Kirkman and co. are fearless in letting the characters grow and mature, shaking off the stagnation that bogs down so many mainstream superhero comics. Over 140 issues, Invincible grew a world familiar to superhero fans while taking the characters to places they do not often see.
25. Ultimate Fallout #4 (2011)
Marvel’s Ultimate Universe may have started as a fresh and exciting take on well-established characters, but enthusiasm flagged after a decade. Even the great Ultimate Spider-Man, still written by Brian Michael Bendis, ran out of steam, repeating the same convoluted plot points from the mainstream universe. Editors responded in the most extreme way possible, by killing off many of its biggest characters, including one Peter Parker.
But the Ultimate Universe did not go without a Spider-Man for long. A short story in Ultimate Fallout #4 written by Bendis and penciled by Sara Pichelli, introduced a new kid with spider-powers, an Afro-Latino teen named Miles Morales. Since his quiet debut, Miles Morales has grown into one of the biggest stars in the Marvel Universe, fronting major motion pictures, video games, and, of course, his own superhero comics.
Greensboro, North Carolina resident Joe George writes for Den of Geek, Sojourners Magazine, The Progressive, Think Christian, and elsewhere. Joe's areas of geek expertise include horror, science fiction (especially Star Trek), movies of the 60s and 70s, and all things superheroes. He posts nonsense from @jageorgeii on Twitter and from @joewriteswords on literally every other social media site in the world.