In 1939, Professor Horton announced to the world his creation: a synthetic being with control over fire. The reaction wasn’t quite what he’d expected: the crowd demanded its destruction. Soon after, an undersea monarch began a vengeful quest against humanity, and a scrawny kid from Brooklyn was transformed by science into a superhero.
Beginning life as Timely Comics, the company that would become Marvel started publishing the stories that would one day form the core of its shared universe 80 years ago—though that idea wouldn’t reach its full flower until the 1960s. Across those eight decades, the company has redefined comics in innumerable ways, and in celebration, Marvel is releasing Marvel Comics #1000, which includes 80 stories from 80 different creative teams (including a mix of rising stars and veterans) all linked by a mystery that dates back to the pages of 1939’s Marvel Comics #1. Meanwhile, that classic issue, which includes the origins of the Human Torch and Namor the Sub-Mariner, among other stories, is being reissued as a deluxe hardcover with bonus art, essays, and homages to its iconic cover.
In the meantime, here are 15 of the company’s signature stories—moments that utterly changed the game, bringing new life to superhero storytelling again and again for eight-thenths of a century—and all of them are included in our ongoing Buy 2 Get 1 Free sale on Marvel Comics, running now through September 2. (Before you start yelling at us in the comments: we’ve intentionally left out some of the most famous stories—Infinity Gauntlet among them—because hey, they’re already super famous.)
1. The Human Torch vs. the Sub-Mariner (1939)
Long before Stan Lee and Jack Kirby gave birth to the what would become the Marvel Universe, the company’s first two major heroes met… and immediately started fighting. Carl Burgos and Bill Everett were the two genius creators who kicked everything off with their respective creations, the android Human Torch and anti-hero Namor, the Sub-Mariner. These well-defined and dynamically drawn characters stood out among the era’s many Superman/Batman knock-offs. The Torch was rejected by fearful humanity before learning to control his powers and fighting for good, while Namor could have easily been a villain were it not for his noble motives—he generally had good reason for waging war on humanity, but still. In the run-up to their first meeting, Namor’s been electrocuted by the state of New York, which only enrages him further; the Torch is enlisted to stop him. Their first multi-issue battle ends in something a draw, but it’s not the last time they’d meet. Crossovers were rare in those days, and though that type of battle would eventually become a Marvel staple, it would take a few decades. The fight was later gorgeously reenacted by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross in Marvels.
2. The Coming of Galactus (1966)
The prologue is over… now it’s time for the true beginning of the Marvel Universe as we know it. Having kept the lights on at the company throughout the ’50s, feeling fed up with comics, and on his way out the door, an almost 40-year-old Stan Lee teamed up with veteran Jack Kirby to create the weird and tormented Fantastic Four. The unlikely combination of real-world problems, superhero action, and fourth-wall-breaking humor that Lee and Kirby pioneered in that seminal book has never been matched, and was never more impressive than when they introduced Galactus, the giant godlike planet-eater whose coming was preceded by his herald—and Kirby’s singular addition—the Silver Surfer. Literally and figuratively, comics had never been bigger, and comics’ all-time greatest creative duo had never been better.
3. The Kree-Skrull War (1971)
Marvel hit a new high with this early-’70s epic that served as a culmination of many a cosmic and trippy plot thread while opening the door for many more. Trying to describe the plot to someone who isn’t steeped in comic book tropes and history is a bit like trying to explain a soap opera to someone who’s never seen it—it’s better to just encourage them to dive right in. Suffice it to say that this particular soap involves an intergalactic war with a giant cast of characters and multiple heroic teams; a timely, McCarthy-ish attack on extraterrestrial immigrants; a mutant/android love story; and the shape-shifting cows on which the plot turns.
4. Black Panther’s Rage (1973)
Though he’d been around for some time, and was already an Avenger, this run on Jungle Action was the first time that Marvel really dug into the Black Panther’s story, letting him be the star rather than a supporting character. Returning to Wakanda with his American girlfriend, T’Challa faces a new adversary: Erik Killmonger, whose father had been worked to death mining Vibranium. The blockbuster movie draws a lot from the story, but don’t miss out reading the original, which is a masterpiece of serial plotting, proving that a superhero narrative could maintain momentum and tell a single story over a stunning 13 issues.
5. This Woman, This Warrior (1977)
AKA Captain Marvel Begins. It was a big deal, in 1977, that Carol Danvers solo series was named Ms. Marvel, the Ms. part being explicitly feminist at the time. Also, in-book, the title character was running a new Daily Bugle spin-off magazine named Woman. (A little on the nose, sure, but they were trying.) The one-time Air Force officer had gained superpowers from Avenger Mar-Vell and, while her road to superhero superstardom would be long and rocky, Ms. Marvel was the book that laid the groundwork for Kelly Sue DeConnick’s 2012 rebranding of Danvers as Captain Marvel. Carol suddenly became a Marvel A-lister, which itself made the movie version inevitable.
6. Demon Bear (1984)
The original New Mutants series that began in 1982 became a fan favorite by amping up the drama and tragedy elements of the X-Men via the addition of healthy doses of teen angst. Rather than doing a cute young mutants thing, the creative team went deeper and darker—a style that reached its height with the “Demon Bear” saga, in which indigenous mutant Dani Moonstar sets out to confront the entity that murdered her parents years earlier. Which doesn’t go well. She winds up in a hospital during a snowstorm as her teammates join her to battle the beast. It’s all drawn by groundbreaking artist Bill Sienkiewicz, whose scratchy, energetic pencils push the story into full-on horror, and the teen mutants to their limits. There’s a movie version sitting on the shelves at
Fox Disney, and maybe someday it will actually come out.
7. Kraven’s Last Hunt (1987)
Spider-Man’s faced darkness in his time—it’s too tempting and too easy for writers to put the quippy hero through the wringer. This one’s different, though: it’s the story in which Peter loses definitively to a villain who had once been among the cheesiest in his rogue’s gallery. A dying Kraven decides that he’s had enough of the games that he and Spidey have played over the years, and so he kills him. No elaborate plots; no last-minute reprieves. What follows is intense and more than a little disturbing, and the artwork matches the creepiness beat for beat. The story not only redefined a formerly b-list villain, it pushed monthly, mainstream superhero comics into new territory. When Dan Slott, Humberto Ramos, and company decided to kill off Peter Parker in the run-up to the similarly game-changing Superior Spider-Man, it’s hard to imagine they didn’t have this story in mind.
8. Armor Wars (1988)
Bob Layton and David Micheline were in the middle of their second of two long runs on Iron Man when this epic began, and while they had already cemented themselves as very possibly the hero’s greatest ever creative team (see: Demon in a Bottle from almost a decade earlier), it was here that they rose to new heights. When Tony’s tech gets stolen by rival Justin Hammer, Stark becomes determined to neutralize it all before any damage is done. Since the tech has already been sold off to government agencies and even other superheroes, this puts him at odds with not just villains but the Avengers as well. This story had consequences for years, and complicated the friendship between Iron Man and Captain America in a way that would pay off almost twenty years later in Civil War.
9. The Man Without Fear (1993)
Frank Miller’s 1980s run on Daredevil is one of Marvel’s all-time best, but he does himself one better here in teaming with John Romita Jr. to retell Matt Murdoch’s origins—integrating much of the mythology that Miller introduced in his earlier work with the character. Seamlessly melding the Stan Lee/Bill Everett work in the 1960s with a more modern take, the book is a masterclass on the by now tried and true “superhero origin retold” genre, carried out by a creative team at the top of its game. What’s laid out here would form the basis for similarly legendary run by Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev, and cemented a standard of quality that other future creators would work hard to maintain.
10. Alias Jessica Jones (2001)
The 1990s saw plenty of dark and violent, but not necessarily mature, comics storytelling. Industry-wide, shock value had been frequently prioritized over thoughtful storytelling. Created for Marvel’s adults-only MAX imprint, Alias introduced Jessica Jones, a deeply troubled PI with a dark past who happened to have superpowers. With her street-level view of the Marvel Universe, she solved often very ordinary cases in a world of superheroes, slowly revealing herself and recovering from personal trauma. The R-rated moments (including a slightly notorious sex scene in the very first issue) never feel gratuitous, reminding us that adult-oriented comics could be emotionally compelling rather than merely titillating.
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11. The Winter Soldier (2007)
Ed Brubaker and company reintroduced Bucky Barnes with a retcon so deftly handled that we were happy to ignore the sacrilege involved. With an impressive mix of spycraft and superheroics, Steve Rogers was made to face a new, gritty reality that wasn’t ashamed to incorporate some of the more out-there elements of the character’s history—and what follows is a dark and wildly compelling mystery that set much of the tone for the movie version (a movie many rank with the MCU’s best).
12. Old Man Logan (2008)
Another book that inspired a movie (2017’s Logan), here Mark Millar and Steve McNiven propelled an aging Wolverine into a dark and fully realized alternate future in which things have not turned out well for the X-Men, or anyone else. So successful was the book that Marvel has returned to the apocalyptic landscape more than once, even introducing the Old Man Logan character into modern-day X-Men books. But this story stands on its own.
13. No Normal (2014)
This is the second appearance of Ms. Marvelon this list, but we’re not talking about Carol Danvers this time. No, it’s Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American Muslim teenager from Jersey City who gained shapeshifting powers when her Inhuman genes were activated. Not only did the book bring some much-needed diversity to Marvel’s roster, but it also planted a flag for teen supers—Marvel’s legacy characters had long-since grown up, and attempts to introduce new, younger characters over the years had mixed results (despite some hits with Young Avengers, Miles Morales, and Runaways). The fun and very human Kamala brought the spirit of early Spider-Man back to Marvel, paving the way for popular characters like Miss America, Squirrel Girl, and Moon Girl.
14. If She Be Worthy (2014)
Whosoever holds this hammer, if she be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor. Such was Jane Foster’s strength of will that Mjolnir refashioned itself to suit her when she picked it up in the absence of the previous Thor. Over the course of her adventures, she’d face down threats to all of creation while battling cancer in her human guise, ultimately sacrificing everything in the best heroic tradition. But her fight begins here—and continues on the big screen in the forthcoming Thor: Love and Thunder.
15. The Immortal Hulk (2018)
The buzziest book in Marvel’s 80th year offers an impressive new take on one of the company’s foundational characters. Al Ewing, Joe Bennett, Ruy Jose, Paul Mounts, and company have reimagined the Hulk by focusing on his inability to die. None of Marvel’s heroes really can, of course, but here that immortality is incorporated into a full-on horror story starring an unkillable monster—told from the monster’s point-of-view.
What are your favorite Marvel moments?