If you haven’t already read the post before this one to catch up.
- Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four
Some people would crucify me for placing this anywhere not number one. “It created modern superhero comics as we know them!” they would cry to their computer monitors. “Kirby is God” others would say. I’m not really disagreeing with any of this mind you. It’s the book that Marvel comics on the map in the 60’s at a time when superheroes were goofy cartoon characters who could do just about anything. I mean Superman was so powerful he could legit juggle planets, and yet he was still just a reporter in his day to day life. Batman was a few years away from dancing with Catwoman on TV. Comics weren’t really serious business in 1961. Then here comes Lee and Kirby with a set of characters that people could relate to…kinda. I’m sure plenty of people had annoying hot headed brothers like Johnny Storm and morose foul mouthed Uncles like Ben Grimm, but I doubt anyone had super genius narcissists like Reed in their family and Sue mostly gave new meaning to the “seen but not heard” trope by barely being seen. Also the choice to make them celebrities kind of takes away some more from them personally but does make sense. How else would people react to four super powered individuals who got their powers from a failed space mission? Chuck Yeager broke the sounds barrier in 1947 and he was all over the news when he died yesterday at 97. Imagine if he could lift cars over his head?
With that said Lee did a great job of giving each of the members of the team a unique personality (except Sue, that came later) and crafting unique villains for them to take on that would still be major players in the MCU to this day even though the FF themselves have waned in popularity over the years. Galactus is still a planetary threat riding around the cosmos gobbling up planets like Tums, and Doom has permeated the entire MCU over the decades, sometimes as a villain and sometimes as a reluctant ally. A duality that came from Lee. Or did it?
The whole Kirby is god line isn’t exactly hyperbole. It’s been a big debate exactly how much came from Lee or the artists he worked with over the past few decades. Kirby himself was a artist and a writer and would go on to create books for DC, while Lee would slap his name onto several books and created what’s known as the Marvel Method. A way of working where the writer sends the artist a bullet point of what the issue is about, the artist has the freedom to draw that however he or she wants, and then the writer goes back in after and fills in the word balloons with dialogue to match the art. This would sometimes cause friction as the artist would just change the story to whatever they wanted and then the writer would have to scramble to make up new lines to fit since the deadlines back then were weekly. So it’s easy to how a guy like Lee could seem like he was the father to this entire sprawling world, but when you get into the muck of it all it gets more complicated and since both men are now passed it’s going to be impossible to know for sure who came up with what. To me, they both worked on the book for 102 issues so I think it’s safe to say both are equally responsible.
So with Lee’s penchant for words and Kirby’s revolutionary art style they changed the game for decades to come with their stories about a family going on adventures through space and time. It’s such a sure fire premise that whenever anyone tries to change it the book falls apart. Though other writers have done better with the characters in my opinion they wouldn’t have been able to without the ground work Lee and Kirby mined for those 102 issues. They didn’t create superheroes, but they did bring them down to earth.
- Frank Millers Daredevil
You wouldn’t be remiss to know that Stan Lee and Bill Everett created Daredevil back in 1964, or that his first costume wasn’t the all red pajamas he’s been wearing for decades now and instead a red and yellow number that makes him look like a mascot for a mustard company. Most of the reason for that is because most of everything we know about the character save for how he got blinded as a child has been changed and retconned since the early 80’s once Frank Miller took over the book.
Miller, then a new comer, essentially broke the character down and built him back up from scratch. Sure he kept the Matt Murdock name and that he is a blind super powered crime fighter by night and a lawyer by day, he just changed about everything else. He took Daredevil away from other super hero comics and infused it with elements of noir and crime stories. Murdocks home of Hell’s Kitchen became as much of a characters as anything else in the series, and it certainly didn’t feel like a place you wanted to live in 1981. Miller also expanded on Matt’s origin by telling a young love story full of tragedy, as Matt would meet and fall in love with Elektra Natchios while in law school and while he would go on to fight crime, she would become one of the most deadliest assassins alive only causing chaos as she re-entered Matt’s life. Miller would also work in a long form story using The Hand a shadowy organization of ninjas that have ties to Elektra and Matt’s mentor/trainer Stick. While also keeping in the background the villain Kingpin just waiting in the wings to strike.
The book shot up in popularity and saved it from cancellation thanks to Miller’s work which only lasted for about 30 issues if you can believe it. Yet the things in those issues have been cemented and reworked again and again for the character until today. When they adapted Daredevil for a live action series for Netflix it was Miller’s work that got most of the shine, Kingpin was the main villain, Matt’s catholic guilt over what he does, Karen Page, and his version of the origin was used to introduce Elektra in season 2.
Miller’s work on Daredevil also signaled a dramatic shift in how comic stories would be told going forward. The gritty anti hero stories would produce a ton of clones thanks to Miller on Daredevil and also with his Wolverine miniseries he drew for Chris Claremont around this same time. Miller would then go on to work for DC producing two of the most seminal stories in that characters history with the Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns mini series, but I’m only counting runs on mainline titles for this list (miniseries will be a separate list one day. Thanks for the idea me.) For me though all of that begins here. Daredevil and Batman share a lot of the same DNA so it could be said Millers time on Daredevil were the training wheels for what he would do later with Batman. Which isn’t a knock on Daredevil, in fact I prefer his work on big red over Batman. In fact whenever anyone has asked me where they could start getting into comics, Millers Daredevil is always in that conversation.
- Alan Moore’s The Saga of the Swamp Thing
On the surface a character like Swamp Thing could be seen as a way to capitalize on the horror craze of the 1970’s and 80’s. A scientist, named Tom Holland, working in a swamp for some reason, has his lab explode as he’s working on a restorative formula and as he dive into the murky depths to put himself out, he rises out of the water a giant moss covered monster. From there he goes on to battle evil and crime that comes into or near his new home. He was mostly kept on the magic and horror side of DC comics for the first few years he was around being cast as a sort of Frankenstein’s Monster type of hero. That is until the book was canceled after 50 issues due to low sales.
When the series was revived, thanks to the Wes Craven film, in 1982 a new up and coming writer from Britain named Alan Moore took over the book and he wasted no time in telling a story that would change the character drastically and not only revolutionize the industry as a whole but would also push mainstream comics passed it’s Comics Code Authority ran PG’ness.
Moore would open up things up with a story entitled “Anatomy Lesson” which saw Swamp Thing killed and then dissected. Through this procedure it was discovered that Swamp Thing wasn’t a man named Tom Holland a moss covered swamp monster, instead Swamp Thing was a plant based life form who thought it was Tom Holland. That’s right. Swamp Thing is vegan. Turns out Holland actually did die when his lab exploded that night, but his blood mixed with his formula bonded with the swamp plant life under the water and created what was essentially a living plant man. The news of this did not sit with Swamp Thing very well and he went a little crazy. I mean how would you feel as a human being to suddenly realize your body isn’t real and a manifestation of your imagination due to being plugged into a giant super computer run and operated by robots to keep you in a vegetated state so your life essence can power the world? For me, that would make perfect sense. For you though, you might end up singing the opening parts of that Talking Heads song before swan diving off of large building.
That was only the start of what Moore had in store for the big giant green oaf. As Swamp Thing began to settle into his new life as protector of the green, he began a relationship with a woman named Abby Arcane, the niece of his greatest foe. Abby, for some reason, was enthralled by Swamp Thing and the two actually ended up in a relationship of sorts. Yet it wasn’t meant to last as the further Swamp Thing got into what he is the more distance it would take him from Abby. Eventually it would be found out that Swamp Thing is an elemental and a guardian of all plant life on earth, kind of like how Aquaman protects the sea. Which if you thought about it made Swamp Thing a kind of god. He can’t really be killed. He can show up anywhere there’s vegetation. He even held Gotham City hostage from Batman. If that’s not god like I don’t know what is.
Moore took a simple and easy premise to follow and expanded on it in ways no one could have forsaw. He dived so deep into the character and what it means to be a alive that it’s been near impossible for anyone to follow in his footsteps. There have been numerous attempts to re do a Swamp Thing series but none have risen to the heights of Moore’s run.
To further prove his influence, Swamp Thing was broken away from the main DC line of books and was the first one to be published without the Comics Code Authority sticker. This was due to the mature themes Moore kept putting into the book. Not wanting to do anything to hurt book sales DC created an entirely new sub publisher within their house called Vertigo that focused primarily on mature themed books and soon became a giant unto itself as most of the new influential writers and artists working would produce a book for them such as Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, which also took a old dusty DC character and reinvented it into something entirely new, then you have Grant Morrison’s Animal Man and Doom Patrol series followed by creator owned works like Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Preacher in the mid 90’s. None of that happens without Moore’s work on Swamp Thing pushing the boundries of what could be done in mainstream comics, while also telling a monumentally bat shit insane but utterly compelling story, and I haven’t even had to mention Watchmen. While Miller is a quick go to for people looking to get into comics, Moore is for people looking for a challenge within the art form. No other other writer has taken the concepts and ideas that came before him and reworked them in such a way that it becomes something else entirely while still maintaining the thing that made it popular in the first place.
- Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s Spider-Man
So while Lee and Kirby created the Marvel universe it was only a year later when Lee would start to turn his attention away from big cosmic super hero fair to more small scale and by proxy intimate stories. The stories coming out of The Amazing Spider-Man would become full on lore that to this day remains largely intact despite attempts to retcon or outright ignore large parts of it by other creators. Look no further than the film adaptations that have desperately tried to adapt Lee and Ditko’s major story arcs for Peter Parker and his friends. Whether it’s Uncle Ben’s death, Gwen Stacy’s untimely death (which they tried to do in both sets of movies) at the hands of Norman Osborn, the villain Sandman actually being a tragic figure, or the trademark Parker bad luck. All of these things were in the Lee/Ditko run of the book.
Now much like with Lee and Kirby who is responsible for what is in contention between Lee and Ditko. It’s known Ditko designed the iconic costume since he was the artist, as well as the looks of the other characters, but it’s fair to say Lee fleshed out the characters background while Ditko came up with the look and little things like the web shooters and spider signal. This is in contrast to how Jack Kirby tells it, as he takes credit for giving Lee the idea of a spider based hero. Whatever the case may be it’s not in doubt how influential this run and this character is for comics.
Before Spider-Man teen age heroes were only relegated to sidekick roles for adult superheroes. Also Spider-Man is the first hero to fully cover his entire face instead of using a cowl or domino mask. Peter Parker was also poor which was also unlike any other hero at the time. All of these little things served up Spider-Man to be the most relatable character in comics and garnered him a following larger than most other heroes. Each month people would pick up a new issue and read about Spider-Man saving the day but also how Peter Parkers personal life was just in tatters. It was the first time a super heroes secret identity was almost as interesting than it’s counter part which was unheard of back then. Lee doubled down on this by making each of Spider-Man’s villains related to Peter in some way. Whether it was Peter’s science teacher Dr Connors turning into The Lizard, or his best friends father Norman Osborn becoming his arch nemesis The Green Goblin and finding out his secret identity, or Dr. Octopus dating his Aunt May. This marked the shift in superhero tales becoming more like soap operas than pulp books and would have huge ramifications in comics for decades to come. These days it’s the norm for heroes and villains to become intertwined with each other, but back then Bruce Wayne was just a rich kid and Clark Kent used his x ray vision to sneak peaks at Lois. Even in Marvel it wasn’t the norm as Tony Stark was just rich with a lot of toys, Steve Rogers was a soldier, and The Fantastic Four were full time heroes. Spider-Man changed all of that by showing that people could actually become invested in who this person was and not just what they do when they dress up in weird pajamas. Spider-Man didn’t just make superheroes fun, it made them relatable.
- Chris Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men
So believe it or not picking this top spot wasn’t as easy. For awhile the previous entry was what I had in mind, but then I thought about the X-Men and it suddenly clicked. What could possibly be bigger than Claremont’s run on the X-Men? For one thing he lasted on the title longer than anyone else. He wrote multiple one shots, mini series, and spin off titles because his stories kept spilling out of his main title. His work was translated into films, video games, and a cartoon series. To this day when people think of the X-Men they think of a story that Chris Claremont wrote. The list is long and includes:
The Dark Phoenix Saga
God Loves Man Kills
Days of Future Past
The Wolverine Mini Series
The Mutant Massacre
And those are just the big ones. There’s 17 years of stories to pick from across multiple titles that are still in publication today. Claremont created the format Marvel still uses except they they had to replace him with a team of writers after he left, and it can be argued that the books haven’t fully recovered since. There have been famous creative teams on the titles over the years, but none have had the staying power Claremont had and have only tried to build off of what he did.
With the X-Men, Claremont took the team of mutants and made them into a full fledged society if a marginalized one. The teams problems went from villain of the month to more personal and metaphorical problems such as the government trying to create giant robots called Sentinels programed with the strict purpose to hunt down mutants. Compound this with some intergalactic adventures (it was the 80s’ Star Wars seeped into everything), and even some more fantasy based stories and Claremont covered literally every base there was and then some.
From that work Marvel was able to stave off financial ruin in the 90’s as Stan Lee would go and sell the various Marvel licenses to Fox and Sony, and Fox wasted no time in getting an animated series off the ground. This was followed up a few years later in 2000 when the first X-Men movie was released (though Blade was first). By X-Men 2 they were already dropping hints of adapting Claremonts most famous X-Men story the Dark Phoenix Saga. In fact Fox tried to adapt this not once, but twice and both times failed to capture the magic of what those issues had. It can be easily said that Fox really had no idea how to adapt such a large sprawling series into measley two hour chunks even after Marvel Studios would go on to be the template for mass cross over films. That aside it just goes to show how brilliant this man’s work was in the 80’s. Often imitated but never duplicated should be the title of his biography.
Though his post X-Men work has never caught on in the same way, it baffles my mind that he’s not held in higher regard like Lee, Kirby, Ditko, Romita, Bendis, and others are. It’s like everyone forgot what a monumental accomplishment he made while also being surrounded by the very things he’s created. He took all of the lessons Lee dolled out on Spider-Man and pushed it as far as it would go while also still being a fun superhero book. Fans would talk about which characters were going to hook up while also saying how cool Apocalypse is. Even right now in each of the X-titles a lot of the characters have reverted back to the costumes they wore during Claremonts time on the book and I don’t think that’s an accident. There’s simply a timeless quality to the work that has outlasted every reboot, update, and modernization the past 30 years have tossed at it. Think about that. He worked on those books for 17 years and we’re still seeing them bear fruit 30 years later. Meanwhile all of the other Marvel superheroes have gone through the ringer to stay modern and have changed supporting cast more times then I’ve changed underwear but the X-Men are still as large a cast as ever and all of that came from the mind of of one Chris Claremont.