For years, Marvel and DC have spent an almost inconceivable amount of time, money and editorial effort to develop their respective superhero universes. Decades of stories big and small have lured countless readers into their sprawling four-color realms. And yet, over the years, both publishers have failed to recapture the legions of disillusioned fans, many of whom have grown disenchanted with their cosmos. Every few years there seems to be another cosmic crisis or metahuman war promising to “change everything” for the umpteenth time. DC’s Rebirth, while a welcome step forward from the debacle that was the New 52, has been spooling out for over a year now. Marvel’s upcoming Legacy feels like little more than a blatant play at nostalgia.
In either case, both publishers seem to be missing the point. Too much continuity is a bad thing, especially when driven by sales rather than solid storytelling. At the end of the day, all we as readers want are well-crafted stories that allow us to escape the world outside our windows. But there is hope. The comics meta-verse is a vast super-cosmos in its own right and there are plenty of alternatives to the universes of the Big Two. Here are 15 of our favorite superhero universes that put the Marvel 616 and the DCU to shame.
SPOILER ALERT! Spoilers ahead for just about the entire comics multiverse!
Decades after his death, they still call Jack Kirby “the King.” There’s a pretty simple reason for that. No one — and we do mean no one — has impacted the medium of comics with the same bullish authority. Alone or in collaboration with writers like Stan Lee, he is responsible for creating the most iconic superheroes in history. Aside from his work for the Big Two, dozens of other creations exploded from the vast cosmos of Kirby’s imagination, including Captain Victory, Silver Star and Satan’s Six.
Although primarily disparate entities connected only through the mind of their creator, Dynamite Entertainment succeeded in building a cohesive universe around the properties in Kirby: Genesis. Helmed by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross, readers embarked on a journey through the forgotten corners of the King’s beautiful mind and were reminded that it doesn’t take decades of convoluted continuity to build a superhero universe, only a belief in the impossible.
The story of Malibu Comics is one tainted by controversy and mismanagement. That doesn’t mean they didn’t have a pretty rockin’ superhero universe, which at one point during the early ‘90s gave Marvel and DC a run for their money. Boasting a stable of diverse heroes known as “Ultras,” the Ultraverse provided an intriguing alternative to readers looking for superhero universe that was more streamlined and unencumbered by decades of continuity.
Heroes such as Prime, Rune and Ultraforce blazed new trails, often crossing over with one another, free from the confines of world-shattering, line-wide “events.” Eventually, Malibu was bought out by Marvel Comics, which made a half-hearted attempt to shoehorn the Ultraverse into the mainstream 616. The effort failed dismally and the wealth of properties have languished in editorial (and legal) limbo ever since. A damn shame, that, considering just how desperate the Marvel stable is for new blood.
13 VALIANT UNIVERSE
During the comics boom of the early ‘90s, a number of independent publishers launched their own shared universes, attempting to replicate or at least cash in on the same model that made DC and Marvel household names. It could be argued that Valiant Comics came the closest to providing readers with a viable alternative to the superhero universes of the Big Two.
Featuring a robust catalogue of properties and an in-story history that spanned millennia, the Valiant Universe proved to be an intriguing and sophisticated alternative to the DCU and the 616. Reborn in 2012 as Valiant Entertainment, the Valiant Universe has evolved into a grittier, more down-to-earth fictional world, where heroes and villains such as X-O Manowar, the Harbingers and the Eternal Warrior inhabit a realm steeped in political intrigue; where the existence of superhumans has real-world repercussions their competitors typically pummel to death with ham-fisted glee.
12 PROJECT SUPERPOWERS
Never let it be said that Dynamite Entertainment ever looks a gift horse in the mouth. As the first decade of the 2000s wound down, the publisher looked to the public domain for its next big project. Strip-mining the properties of defunct Golden Age publishers such as Nedor Comics, Lev Gleason Publications and Fox Comics, Dynamite recruited Alex Ross and Jim Krueger to construct a new superhero world from the ruins of long-forgotten properties like the Black Terror, the original Daredevil and the Fighting Yank.
Built upon a foundation of Ross’ inimitable talent for majesty and realism, Project Superpowers posited a world that had forgotten its heroes. By processing the deep vein of creative ore of the public domain, Ross and Krueger presented readers with a shared universe that was steeped in history and past glory while never losing sight of the present. The result was modern and majestic; alien yet deeply familiar.
11 RED CIRCLE
Archie Comics’ stable of superheroes possesses a long history that reaches back to the Golden Age with characters like the Shield and the Fox. Although universally known for the hijinks of Riverdale teens Archie Andrews and his pals, the publisher’s pantheon of heroes is surprisingly deep. Building upon the success of the digital-first series The New Crusaders, the Red Circle imprint was reborn as a well-crafted tribute to comics’ Golden Age that also reached out to new readers.
Recently transformed into Dark Circle, books like The Shield and The Black Hood have repositioned Archie’s superhero properties as grounded, real world heroes as far away from their predecessors as the CW’s Riverdale is from its print origins. Sophisticated, high-octane thrillers with diverse protagonists that better reflect the world we live in, Archie’s little corner of the comics meta-verse takes the risks Marvel and DC don’t have the intestinal fortitude to consider.
Mark Waid’s knowledge and understanding of the superhero archetype is arguably second to none. Who better then to deconstruct one of the genre’s most enduring icons? Based on a simple premise that can be boiled down to “What if Superman went rogue?” Waid’s Irredeemable read like a pre-apocalyptic countdown to the end of the world. Readers were shocked and sickened by the sheer brutality of Superman stand-in, the Plutonian, who murdered his way through his heroic colleagues, on his way to ravaging the entire planet.
Populated by a deep roster of familiar analogs, Irredeemable lived up to its name by exposing the inherent character flaws built in to our favorite heroes rarely explored by mainstream publishers. This is the story DC only wishes it could tell. Or maybe it doesn’t. Either way, Waid’s examination of the modern superhero stands as one of the most terrifying epics of the genre.
Milestone Comics debuted in 1993, founded by a collective of African-American comics creators who wished to increase the profile of minorities in the medium. Centered in the fictional city of Dakota, Milestone’s universe was populated with a refreshing mix of heroes from diverse ethnic backgrounds. Although perhaps best known for the creation of the teen hero Static, the Dakotaverse, as it came to be known, also featured powerful mystery men such as Hardware, Icon and the Blood Syndicate.
Plotlines tended to be grounded in the here-and-now, featuring stories that dealt with a wide range of social issues, including white-washing, racism and gang violence. Despite initial success, the Dakotaverse ended up as one of many failed independent superhero universe born in the ‘90s. Far ahead of its time, the Dakotaverse remains an important step in the representation of visible minorities in comics, a trend Marvel and DC are only now embracing.
What Jim Lee’s original Image Comics imprint lacked in originality, it more than made up for in style and spectacle. Initially little more than an extended riff on established comics properties such as the X-Men, the Wildstorm Universe eventually evolved into a more cohesive realm thanks to creators such as Alan Moore, Joe Casey and Warren Ellis. Set against the backdrop of an ongoing alien war between the Kheribum and the Daemonites, the Wildstorm Universe also featured a hefty dose of political intrigue.
What set it apart from other superhero universes was its realistic depiction of comic book archetypes in books such as The Authority, a book typified by its cinematic visual tone, unrelenting action and penchant for gut-wrenching violence. The Wildstorm Universe changed the way comics were made on a visceral level, tapping into readers’ desire for more mature content and sophisticated storylines.
The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman has never been one to pull his punches. Known for his exceptional character development and balls-to-the-wall pacing, Kirkman’s creator-owned superhero series Invincible took his talents to whole new level. Chronicling the life of the neophyte titular hero, the series continues to thrill fans with its unpredictable plotting and over-the-top superhuman violence. Rarely before had readers witnessed such epic carnage or run through such perilous emotional gauntlet.
Populated by an extensive supporting cast of heroes and villains that seemed both exceedingly familiar and absolutely unknowable at the same time, Invincible’s universe deconstructed the heroic archetype with a characteristic manic glee that has kept its audience coming back for more for almost 15 years. Concluding in 2017 with issue #144, Invincible serves as brutal cautionary tale that sets the iconic theme of “with great power comes great responsibility” on its ear.
6 TERRA OBSCURA
Like the aforementioned Project Superpowers, Alan Moore’s Terra Obscura relies on the forgotten public domain heroes of second-tier Golden Age publisher Nedor Comics for the basis of its superhero universe. Much brighter and more optimistic in tone than Dynamite Entertainment’s updating of these lost mystery men and women, Terra Obscura harkens back to an era of fantastic action and adventure unapologetically rooted in rubber science and comic book physics.
Featuring characters like the Black Terror, Doc Strange and the Woman in Red, Terra Obscura brought the fun back to modern funny books with its madcap nostalgia and ironic tone. While other universes seemed unable to escape the grim and gritty tone brought about by books like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, Terra Obscura remained true to its Golden Age roots and served as a beacon of light in a genre overwhelmed by shadow.
5 THE BOYS
While the rest of the industry was busy deconstructing the conventions of traditional superhero comics, Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson set about deconstructing the deconstruction effort in their ultra-violent, hilariously twisted satire The Boys. Set in a cynical world of corporate superheroics, in which the planet’s metahuman protectors were more often than not sociopathic mass murders, drug addicts and sexual deviants, The Boys lampooned the superhero genre’s bizarre obsession with unrelenting self-immolation by shining a spotlight on its innate absurdities.
The result was an unrepentant, hyper-realized superhero universe that flipped the bird at the genre without apology or remorse. While other universes seemed intent on slowly cannibalizing their own traditions and archetypes, Ennis and Robertson’s mad, mad world burned the superhero in effigy and danced an ecstatic jig through the ashes.
4 BLACK HAMMER
Not only is Jeff Lemire one of the busiest guys in comics, he’s also one of the smartest. Whether he’s plumbing the depths of the human condition in works like Roughneck or exploring the strange and wonderful cosmos of superhero fiction, Lemire brings an unparalleled level of insight and sophistication to his work. Black Hammer, his creator-owned superhero series with artist Dean Ormiston won the Eisner for Best New Series — and with good reason.
A haunting love letter to the epic cosmic tales of the Silver Age, Black Hammer follows a group of forcibly retired, painfully self-aware science heroes, who find themselves trapped in a pocket dimension that takes the shape of typical small town America. Equal parts mystery, science-fantasy and character drama, Black Hammer’s universe is ruled by its past, its protagonists mired in a rural hell that only reminds them of the prices they’ve paid to be heroes.
3 THE AMERICAN WAY
Set against one of the most turbulent eras in American history, John Ridley and Georges Jeanty’s incisive superhero political thriller The American Way explores the genre against the backdrop of the civil rights movement of the ‘60s. When the first black superhero, the New American, is unmasked during a huge battle with one of his insane teammates, it polarizes America’s heroes along racial lines.
A socially-conscious saga chronicling a superhero civil war that outstrips the weak allegory of Marvel’s adolescent fantasies, the series truly changes everything we’ve come to accept about our favorite heroic archetypes. Ridley not only challenges his readers’ perceptions of the heroic ideal but dares them to reconsider their long-established understanding of history and politics. A riveting examination of what it means to be a hero in America, The American Way presents a fictional world that may just be more relevant now than when it was first published in 2006.
2 TOP 10
Alan Moore will undoubtedly go down in the annals of comics history as one of the medium’s most accomplished and polarizing creators. One of his more popular works is Top 10, a superhero comic inspired by TV cop dramas such as Hill Street Blues. Chronicling the lives of the superhuman police officers of Neopolis’ Precinct 10, Top 10 was notable for Gene Ha’s hyper-detailed artwork and Moore’s masterful plotting and character development.
Each issue provided an escape to a labyrinthine yet grounded world of colorful heroes and villains just trying to get by like the rest of us. Using a powerful metaphor that bypassed the adolescent power fantasies of the comics of our youth, by artfully welding the typically extraordinary with the exceedingly mundane, Top 10 presented a refreshing and original spin on established conventions full of ingenuity and craft.
1 ASTRO CITY
Each of our previous entries is notable for one or more specific qualities that lift their universes above those of the Big Two. Kurt Busiek’s Astro City rounds out our list in the number one position because it successfully combines all of those elements into one ongoing saga. Set in a fictional metropolis boasting the highest concentration of superhuman heroes and villains in the world, the series explores numerous tropes of the genre with insight, wit and pathos.
Despite their ties to established comic book icons, the champions of Astro City are people first and superheroes second. Guided by Busiek, readers are able to look beyond the masks of heroes like the Confessor and Jack in the Box. By focusing on the “human” part of “superhuman,” Astro City brings our favorite archetypes down to earth, allowing us to reach into their lives and see them for the perfectly imperfect people they are.
Which universe would you escape to? Let us know in the Comments!