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Jim Butcher's Picks
Start with the Amazing Spider Man. What can I say about Spidey that hasn't been said by a lot of other people? Not much, probably, except that he's always been my number one superhero, because he's always been concerned not simply with what he can do, but also why he should (or shouldn't) do it. There's an implied philosophical core to Spider-Man which appeals to me, and which of us doesn't love to see one of our fellow nerds do well?
More than any other series growing up, X-Men was about the disaffected outsiders struggling to make a difference with the strengths that had been given to them. This particular storyline was where I got into comics in a major way, and encompassed some fairly gritty storylines--characters got hurt and killed. Particularly chilling (and awesome!) was Colossus's confrontation with Riptide, as well as Psylocke's duel with Sabertooth!
In the Marvel Universe, there are all kinds of heroes and villains running around doing all sorts of insane things, but the Asgardians are kind of special, and none more so than Thor. I mean when Thor shows up, you know things are going to Become Unnecessarily Epic. Whether he's taking on the Midgard Serpent or storming the gates of Hel wearing the Destroyer's armor as his own, you know that when Thor walks in, the special effects budget is going to ratchet up double-time. You just know that local contractors in the Marvel Universe love to see Thor getting ready to throw down.
The New Mutants were awesome because they weren't awesome. X-Men trainees who could barely use their powers, or who had powers that just weren't suited to battle, the New Mutants floundered and flailed their way from one adventure to the next--but by the time they wound up marooned in Asgard for a while, things were getting pretty good. Plus I had a huge teenage crush on Magik.
One of my only non-Marvel titles, I feel like I have to mention this one as a story that helped set the tone for Batman for decades after. The Joker comes across as scarier, in this story, than in any other that I'm familiar with, someone who has enough humanity that you almost feel sorry for him--but not so much that he won't kill you with the poisoned joy buzzer in his hand. The ending is one of my favorite of any graphic novel, hands down.
Possibly the greatest and most satisfying sop to rabid fan denial in the face of the end of a series in the history of the world, Buffy's stories continued as graphic-novel adventures make an enormous amount of good sense. Freed of the creative constraints like episode budgets, the limits of special effects, and committees, Whedon got to have Buffy and the gang get into epic levels of weird that couldn't possibly have been shown well on the small screen. It's not over. IT'S NOT OVER.
Okay, let's face it, this series could basically have been called "Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends" (ba-dump-bump CHING), but it encapsulates the single most awesome feature of the Marvel universe--how tightly interwoven its story world really is. Characters know each other, bump into each other, and their actions have an effect that can spread throughout the story of the entire spectrum of Marvel characters. My personal favorite featured Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, and was the main reason I wrote the good Doctor into the Spidey novel I wrote for Marvel.
Because sometimes you just get sick of dark heroes and anti-heroes and troubled heroes and grey heroes and you Just Want A Hero, capital-H, a paladin who has a genuinely righteous cause and who kicks ass and takes names in the name of justice. He's a perennial because you just can't find a protagonist who embodies the virtues of classic heroism any better than Captain America. More than anyone else in the Marvel Universe, Captain America has your back.