When it comes to iconic story arcs that are popular and influential for superhero comic books, some of them admittedly just aren’t that good. Fans opinions can be heavily influenced by nostalgia or their love of grim and gritty, regardless of whether that grim and grittiness is needed or realistic. But some of the major comic storylines are still incredibly impressive in their execution from any standpoint. Let’s look at some of the most famous comic book story arcs and talk about why they’re actually impressive on both technical and storytelling standpoints, even today.
What are your favorite major story arcs? Why do you think they hold up well? Talk about it in the comments!
Teen Titans: The Judas Contract
The premise of "The Judas Contract" arc of the Teen Titans title is really simple. The Titans are betrayed by a team member who was a mole all along and even though they plead with her, she rejects redemption and hates them until the end. The story is still extremely emotionally effective in showcasing the horror of betrayal and clever in how it makes the villains actually savvy and successful. In the context of the time period, it worked even better though.
Terra’s story happened at the same time as Kitty Pryde’s over in the X-Men. She was another plucky young girl who joined a team and slowly got adjusted to their lifestyle and was generally adorable.The audience expected Terra’s storyline to go the same way. Even when she was revealed to be a mole, everyone was sure she’d be redeemed and come back into the fold. But she didn’t, in subversion to everyone’s expectations. She played the readers like she played the characters.
Even though I wasn’t around when the original storyline came out and prefer the lighter and softer cartoon version from an emotional attachment standpoint, I have to admire the comic for how clever it was in taking the readers for a ride and how the story part still holds up even if you know the big “twist”.
The storyline does have some really questionable underlying nonsense, such as how Slade, a man in his fifties, is excused for sleeping with a sixteen-year-old girl because “she came onto me”. Statutory rape is statutory rape. And George Perez admitted in an interview that Terra wearing heavy makeup, having sex and smoking was supposed to be what convinced the reader she was evil. Rather than her, uh, actual betrayal. But outside that weird stuff, it’s worth a look.
X-Men: The Dark Phoenix Saga
Chris Claremont’s "Dark Phoenix" saga in the X-Men is very famous. It’s been adapted several times (very badly by the X3 movie, which tried to combine it with another Claremont arc: God Loves, Man Kills). Though dated in some aspects, it still holds up as a really solid story. The buildup to Jean’s darker self emerging was carefully and painstakingly done and heartbreaking climax where Jean realizes she must accept the consequences of her action and sacrifices herself is a solid culmination of the storyline. It shook up the X-Men books in a huge way at the time. Many future authors would sadly retread it over and over again, but the rehashes were never as solid as the original.
Marvel's The Infinity Gauntlet
The 1991 Infinity Gauntlet miniseries was a story where the stakes couldn’t be higher. Thanos erases half the life in the universe, all because he wants to make Death- yes, as in the embodiment of the concept- his girlfriend. While the series ends with what’s essentially a giant reset button, the cosmic nature of the story is sold very well and the art’s generally great. It and the stories that follow it are going to be adapted into the upcoming two-part Infinity War movies.
X-Men: Days of the Future Past
The Days of the Future Past storyline, where Kitty Pryde travels back in time to stop a horrifying alternate future where mutants are hunted down and killed by robotic guardians called Sentinels, is short but effective. Alternate Timelines are always a whole lot of fun and the one presented in Days of the Future Past is rich with possibilities. We see our heroes on the brink of death and it’s terrifying to see how easily the sentiment of humanity could turn against them and drive them into extinction, Kitty desperately struggling to prevent this timeline makes for a great hook, and the story also contributes a lot to the current Kitty’s character arc, showing her the effective and amazing woman she could grow to be.
The story is memorable enough that it’s been adapted into other media, like the X-Men animated series and the The Days of the Future Past movie.
Fantastic Four: The Trial of Galactus
This storyline from John Byrne’s run on Fantastic Four is famously fascinating for good reason...the heroes decide to put a weakened Galactus on trial. You know, the dude who devours worlds. This is followed up a trial for Reed Richards. The question becomes whether Galactus can truly be condemned for doing what he needs to survive. It question’s Galactus’s role in the cosmology of the Marvel universe in an interesting way, whether you agree with it or not and there were some truly inventive splash art. The reveal that Galactus looks different to every race that sees him, and only looks humanoid to humans, was a neat touch too.
Superman: Secret Identity
Superman:Secret Identity has been called one of the best Superman stories of the past twenty years and it certainly deserves that title. The story is not set in the main continuity of the DC Universe, but a world like our own, where real superheroes don’t exist and Superman comics do. The main character of the story was named Clark Kent by his parents and had endured mockery and bullying all his life as a result. Then, one day, he suddenly gets Superman’s powers out of nowhere.
The story is a smartly written and incredibly thoughtful piece on the mythology of superheroes and how it intertwines with our reality. It offers a more realistic take on the Superman story in some respects (this version of Clark has to be far more careful about not being seen and maintaining the secret- hence the title- and he also catches the attention of the government and has to consider compromising with them) and sometimes affectionately pokes fun at the mythology, but mostly it pays homage and respect to it. The way the comic is interspersed with Superman panels in classic Silver Age artstyle to illustrate certain points amidst the more realistic artwork is especially clever.
The characters of the story are also well-rounded and strongly written. The romance between the Superman and his version of Lois (Chaudhari rather than Lane and she was set up with him as a joke by their friends) is sweet and authentic. The four issue miniseries is definitely a great read and a beautiful love letter to the Superman mythos.
Teen Titans: The Terror of Trigon
"The Terror of Trigon" is another classic Teen Titans story by Marv Wolfman and George Perez that still holds up today. It tells about Raven's father, Trigon, a horrific demon, coming to earth and ushering about the apocalypse, turning the world into a twisted stone mass. Only the Titans and a few allies are spared and Raven is fully taken over by the demonic power that dwells inside her. It’s a battle that’s the stuff of nightmares, expertly drawn and as dramatic as can be. A particular highlight is when the Titans face down evil reflections of themselves and explore their deepest fears and greatest psychological issues in the process.
I was introduced to this story through the version in the Teen Titans cartoon. It’s less intense in some ways and has way more plot holes, but I still prefer that version in many ways thanks to my stronger emotional connection and how Raven had way more agency in the cartoon storyline. However, I still feel the comics version is expertly done and rightfully deserves its place in the comic book hall of fame.
Batman: No Man's Land
The huge year-long Batman crossover event where Gotham was abandoned by the rest of America and forced to fend for itself in a lawless state was an ambitious one, but ultimately successful in my eyes. I still remember it as one of my favorite crossovers. It certainly had a ton of flaws, as one would expect from an event of this size, but it also introduced a lot of great characters, like Cassandra Cain’s Batgirl. It had all the heroes in Gotham struggling to keep their city together in a way that gave new insight into them and that’s enough for me.
52 was a weekly maxiseries chronicling a year where Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman were absent and the superheroes had to carry on without them. It’s memorable for being a story that focused on previously minor characters in the DC Universe, like Booster Gold, Elongated man, Renee Montoya, Animal Man, offering some solid stories with nice character development that or the most part came together pretty well. Thanks to the series, a lot of these characters were bought to prominence and gained new fans. DC has tried other maxiseries in its stead, but none of them have really recaptured the solid storytelling of this one.
The JLA/Avengers crossover was a fun idea and the product was a solid story. It was beautifully illustrated by George Perez and it was a real treat to see some prominent DC and Marvel characters interact. There were a lot of nice character moments, like the Avengers being shocked at how much nicer the citizens of the DC Universe were to their heroes. It’s worth a read.