Marvel Comics turned 75 this year. As we celebrate Marvel’s 75th anniversary, it’s hard to imagine how long the comic book company has been around. Even though Marvel Comics first debuted in 1939 with Marvel Comics #1 (featuring decidedly different superheroes like the Human Torch, Ka-Zar and Namor), the company truly came to its own in the 1960s when writer Stan Lee and artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko introduced the world to new and dynamic superheroes.
These masked marvels like Spider-Man, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four, the Avengers and the X-Men quickly captured readers’ imaginations. Without exaggeration, Marvel Comics changed the comic book world and left a permanent mark in popular culture and its characters are still vibrant today. Incredibly enough, it can be said that they’re more popular today than when they were first introduced in the 1960s .
While Marvel superheroes have successfully transitioned into other media like films, toys, games and such, let’s not forget that the core of their appeal are with the comic books. Whether they’re just single stories in individual issues or epic mini-series and story arcs, the following are, based on my opinion, the best stories from Marvel’s 75-year history.
Age Of Apocalypse: Spanning several different X-Men titles over several months, this massive storyline was about an altered reality where Professor X’s assassination in the past led to Apocalypse conquering North America, and Magneto leading the X-Men in a desperate attempt to stop him and correct history. Just seeing the alternate takes of our favorite mutants was a joy to read.
Avengers Disassembled: Boasting top writers and artists like Brian Michael Bendis, Paul Jenkins, Robert Kirkman, Steve Epting, Dave Finch and George Perez, this comic book crossover spawned from The Avengers #500-503 into other superhero titles and upended most of the Marvel Universe. The team is literally ripped apart from within by an insane Scarlet Witch. Many heroes are killed and the Avengers were catapulted into new popularity with this controversial story arc.
Born Again: Daredevil has never been lower or a more captivating read than in this classic story arc spanning Daredevil #227-231. That is due to the genius writing of Frank Miller and the art of Dave Mazzucchelli. Daredevil’s worst enemy discovers his secret identity and systematically destroys the blind superhero’s personal world plunging Daredevil into his own worst hell.
The Captain: This underrated Captain America tale by Mark Gruenwald, Tom Morgan and Kieron Dwyer spans Captain America #332-350 and has Steve Rogers abandoning his role as the iconic hero and going underground. Meanwhile, a super patriotic, though unstable, replacement is picked by the U.S. government to take over, but as we see, it’s not easy living up to a legend.
Civil War: Probably the last great mini-series produced by Marvel pits its most iconic heroes against each other. As Iron Man and Captain America took opposite sides against the U.S. government’s superhuman registration act, Marvel Comics was changed forever and the mini-series’ impact is still with us today.
Deliverance: The famous “Demon in a Bottle” story arc from Iron Man #120-128 bravely introduced the notion of a superhero being truly human and becoming an alcoholic. Tony Stark’s (Iron Man) alcoholism would resurface to even greater effect several issues later after his nemesis Obadiah Stane orchestrates a series of attacks. Stark soon became unable to continue being Iron Man and hit rock bottom culminating in Iron Man #182 when a now-homeless Stark battles not only the cold elements, but his own inner demons.
Days of Future Past: The greatest X-Men story ever made reflected the height of the historic collaboration of Chris Claremont and John Byrne. In this exciting two-part tale from The Uncanny X-Men #141-142, robotic Sentinels have hunted mutants nearly to extinction in the near future, so one mutant is sent back in time to alter history.
The Death of Captain America: One immediate aftermath of the Civil War mini-series was Ed Brubaker’s gut-wrenching examination of the death of an American legend. Coldly assassinated before standing trial, Captain America’s death led to another hero taking up his mantle and a serpentine plot by Cap’s greatest enemies.
The Death of Gwen Stacy: The two-part story from The Amazing Spider-Man #121 & 122 is considered by some as the end of the Silver Age of Comics. This emotional tale about Spider-Man’s nemesis, the Green Goblin, killing his girlfriend was a gut punch not only for Spider-Man but his many followers who were stunned by the tragedy.
The Doctor Is In: John Byrne wrote and drew some outstanding comic books during his Marvel tenure. Before Deadpool came along, Byrne’s rendition of She-Hulk had her hysterically breaking the fourth wall. In The Sensational She-Hulk #5 story titled “The Doctor Is In” she had to not only contend with Doctor Bong, but with literally walking across comic book pages (ads included). Marvel Comics was rarely funnier than with this particular issue.
The Hulk Vs. The Thing: Marvel is known for how often its superheroes fight each other. This early story from Fantastic Four #25 & #26 is one of the best since its primarily a battle royale between two of Marvel’s strongest titans. The Stan Lee-Jack Kirby classic is at the same time a story about determination and fighting against the odds, in particular with the Thing.
If This Be My Destiny…!: The story arc from The Amazing Spider-Man #31-33 had Spider-Man run through exhausting trials to gather serum for his dying aunt. His quest culminated in issue #33 with a story titled “The Final Chapter!”. In the issue, our hero is trapped under tons of steel and rubble and in danger of drowning with the serum just out of reach. Spider-Man has to find the fortitude to free himself and his effort was memorably inspiring.
The Galactus Trilogy: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby reached their creative peak in this three-part story in Fantastic Four #48-50. The story introduced more cosmic elements to the Marvel Universe and some unforgettable characters like Silver Surfer, the Watcher and, of course, the gigantic, planet-eating force of nature, Galactus.
The Infinity Gauntlet: This 1990s mini-series event by comic legends Jim Starlin, George Perez and Ron Lim defined the notion of an EPIC storyline where the evil Thanos gets nearly omnipotent power and Marvel’s heroes are powerless to stop him. Aside from the massive battles and the large cast, The Infinity Gauntlet was also a thought-provoking look at the nature of power.
Marvels: This four-issue mini-series by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross came out of nowhere and took the comic book world by storm. It follows the adventures of everyman Phil Sheldon who is our witness to the dawn of a new age filled with fantastic heroes. Marvels was perfectly aligned with Busiek’s poignant script and Ross’ Rockwellian paintings.
Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars: One of the earliest mega events by Marvel is one of its most exciting. The premise is simple: a bunch of superheroes and supervillains are transported to a battle by an omnipotent being and told to kill each other – let the fighting begin!
Marvel Zombies: Robert Kirkman, the creator of The Walking Dead, penned this grotesque account of Marvel’s heroes becoming flesh-eating ghouls. Darkly humorous, this popular mini-series spawned many sequels and spinoffs. After all, it isn’t everyday you see the likes of Spider-Man or the Hulk feasting on Galactus!
Mjolnir’s Song: Walter Simonson redefined Thor during his stint as writer and artist for Thor’s comic book. His best stories had Thor turned into a frog, and an alien (Beta Ray Bill) wielding Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir. Simonson’s tenure culminated in The Mighty Thor #380 where Thor faced off against the Midgard Serpent. What made this larger-than-life even more grand was that it was told only using explosive splash pages. A befitting depiction for an epic battle!
Squadron Supreme: Mark Gruenwald’s twelve-issue mini-series was a memorable send up of the Justice League and took a look at how things would be really like if superheroes took over the country. Each captivating issue focused on a specific hero, which allowed for terrific character development, while advancing the plot to its logical and tragic conclusion.
Under Siege: Marvel’s premier superhero team, the Avengers, have faced many tribulations, many of them like the “Avengers Disassembled” story arc brought them to the breaking point. But Roger Stern and John Buscema’s epic story in The Avengers #273-277 saw the team taken by surprise and badly beaten by a who’s who of their greatest foes. Yet, they found the will to keep fighting despite their hopeless situation.
Vicious Circle: This single story from The Incredible Hulk #340 is not the first time the bestial Hulk and the savage Wolverine fought each other, but it was the best. Thanks to Todd McFarlane’s detailed and electrifying pencils, this vicious battle went the extra distance and showed readers a truly gory and feral fight as if the two opponents were just stray dogs fighting over scraps.
Welcome Back, Frank: Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon revived the Punisher with this hard-hitting and violent twelve-issue mini-series simply titled The Punisher. Frank Castle (the Punisher) returns to New York to take on a crime family and despite his efforts winds up with a group of misfit friends. Elements from this mini-series were actually used in the Thomas Jane live-action film.
What If?: Marvel Comics helped popularize alternate reality stories with the What If? series. In these imaginary tales, superheroes often died or faced different outcomes from an altered events. Whether it was Gwen Stacy being saved or Michael Korvac destroying the universe, the cautionary stories in the series were usually intriguing to read.
Who Is Scorpio: Starting with Strange Tales #153 and continuing through early issues of Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. artist/writer Jim Steranko embodied the experimental pyschedelia comic book art movement of the late ’60s with his trippy take on Marvel’s super spy. His artwork expanded boundaries to an extent not even seen today. The first issue of Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. was the height of his work with its mind-bending artwork.