… and the universe will never be the same again!
We like a list here at Shelfdust, and this year we decided to ask over 150 different comic book critics to choose their favourite event storyline of all time. You know the type – something big, dramatic, crossing over a dozen different comics across the course of a few months, with everybody being effected by whatever it is that happens at the end of the story. Whether it be a Crisis or War of some kind, or just the latest in an annual routine which sees Earth invaded by some kind of bigger and badder threat than any that Earth has seen for, well, at least six months or so.
Event stories have the ability to push characters further than they’ve ever been before; to shock readers with bold narrative choices and grandstanding action sequences; and change the way people think about comics which have been with us for decades. Which comics did our critics pick as the top fifty of all time? Read on to find out, with the list updating every week until we reveal the winner!
50: Night of the Owls
Our list begins with Night of the Owls, a crossover which worked through every single Batman title and served as the first proof of concept for the New 52 as a unified direction for DC. After setting up the idea that a secret society called “The Court of Owls” had been secretly controlling every move made in Gotham City for centuries, creators Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo used the second arc of their run on Batman as an opportunity to display the true power of the mysterious underground organisation. The Owls unleashed an army of assassins known as “Talons” on the city, leading heroes like Batgirl, Batwing and that Batting Gentleman himself to take to the streets to try and prevent the assassination of major city leaders. Even Jonah Hex, living in the wild west version of Gotham, got involved.
What probably saves Night of the Owls from feeling like a story where the heroes systematically rout their enemy is that across the course of the story we find out a few pieces of information which had more lasting effect than a simple one-night-fight. Nightwing turns out to have been groomed from a young age to be a Talon; the leader of the Owls ends up revealing himself as Lincoln March – a man who then suggests that he’s Bruce Wayne’s secret brother (?!) and takes off to fight another day. It also doesn’t hurt that it was the first really big storyline of the New 52, a relaunch of DC’s entire line which brought in a lot of new readers. If you were reading DC at the time, you were reading the much-hyped Batman comic, and Night of the Owls was the first notable story in that run. Also: Starling was in it, and Starling ruled.
49: Fall of the Mutants
“Do you know what your children are?”
As is often the case with X-Men crossover stories, Fall of the Mutants took the form of several somewhat-interconnected stories which ran parallel to each other across Uncanny X-Men, X-Factor and New Mutants. With Chris Claremont and Louise Simonson pulling the story together, though, those connections turn out to be far more harmonious than you might have expected. We have the X-Men up against a demon from Forge’s past; X-Factor coming to terms with the fact that Angel has become Archangel, part of Apocalypse’s new Horsemen; and in New Mutants you have, uh, a story about Bird-Brain and the Ani-Mator. Ahem.
Maybe the most memorable part of Fall of the Mutants, which has an epic lean from start to end, is just how it all concludes. The X-Men are all killed, only to be resurrected by one of Claremont’s favourite mystics.Realising the world thinks they’re dead, they decide to go somewhere nobody will ever think to look for them: Australia. But while the story itself is great, and it takes the characters into very unexpected places, one underrated aspect of the crossover is this: we’re talking about an event which is entirely pencilled by Marc Silvestri, Walter Simonson, and Bret Blevins. How were we ever so fortunate?
48: Cosmic Odyssey
Jim Starlin knows how to put on an event. Backed by – unimaginably – Mike Mignola as penciller, Cosmic Odyssey saw him take his intergalactic approach across to DC for a four-part story which asked the question: what if there was something so very unstoppable that even Darkseid was scared of it? The story starts with the realisation that Darkseid needs help to content the overwhelming Anti-Life Equation, and along the way finds time for gods, robots, monsters and demons, all drawn with a singular style by Mignola. There’s the argument that Starlin’s Darkseid is basically Starlin’s Thanos, but the story thrives in the way it takes unexpected characters and uses them to change the world. John Stewart gets a major role here, for example – but then there’s also the unexpected attention given to Forager, as part of a Batman subplot which has a very satisfying payoff. Starlin gets to throw strange characters together, and it largely works.
There was likely a worry that Starlin would offer a re-run of his previous stories when he moved across to DC, but Cosmic Odyssey proved that there was still a lot of compelling narrative to be found floating out in the deepest, strangest parts of space.
47: X-Men: Second Coming
It’s not all going to be DC/X-Men/DC, promise. In Second Coming, the X-Men finally got a narrative push after spending several years floating around somewhere in the middle of San Francisco Bay. The story served as a follow-up to the long-form Hope Summers storyline, in which the “mutant messiah” returned to the present-day and promptly found herself in the middle of a fight for survival. Every anti-mutant bigot on the planet understandably reacts rather badly to the news that Hope is alive and well, and so they set out to take out the remaining 200-or-so mutants left on the planet in one fell swoop.
With Craig Kyle and Chris Yost running the show, the body count is high: Nightcrawler gets an arm through the chest, Vanisher is shot, Ariel is blown up, Hellion loses his hands, and Karma loses a leg. Oh, and obviously Cable dies, because that’s what Cable does. In the carnage, what emerges is a new future for the mutants, as Hope’s existence appears to reignite the mutant gene around the world and give them back their future. It’s a harsh and violent comic, which brings a stark and bleak approach to the characters – not many events pause halfway through for a funeral issue where everybody yells at each other, after all.
46: Milk Wars
The Young Animal imprint created a huge amount of buzz when it was announced. “Gerard Way is running a line of comics!” everybody screamed in excitement as they hastily went to put their eyeliner back on and listen to Helena. What was perhaps more of a surprise was that the quality of the comics in the imprint was so strong, with an experimental style which was sometimes annoying, but oftentimes genuinely pushing the comics industry forward, offering a sharp reminder that comics are meant to be weird. The first big swell of momentum led to Milk Wars, a four-part crossover story which brought Young Animal more firmly into the rest of the DC Universe. It arguably also marked the peak of the project as a whole, as Young Animal noticeably felt like it was wrapping-up after the event finished, and started winding down.
Milk Wars played off the recurring Doom Patrol antagonists Retconn, a corporation who want to water-down all the DC superheroes in order to repackage them and sell them off to an intergalactic trader called Manga Khan. The Young Animal characters find themselves in a 1950s-style world where Superman is a Milk Man, Batman is a priest, and Wonder Woman is a housewife. The joy in the story comes from seeing how the Young Animal characters – never averse to taking the long way round a solution – try to save the day. It’s not exactly what you might have thought.
45: The Great Outdoor Fight
Every year 3000 dudes travel to California for a no-holds-barred three-day fight, where only the baddest will get out in one piece. And this year? Achewood’s Ray and Roast Beef have both decided to enter the fight. Arguably the most famous Achewood storyline, The Great Outdoor Fight was a huge undertaking for webcomic creator Chris Onstad, who merges his brilliant sense of humour with surprisingly massive stakes for the characters. It’s another peak for a comic which is primarily made up of peaks, as he ties Ray’s quest for victory to his desire to get to know who his father – a previous winner of the fight – was. Along the way we get to see Ray and Roast Beef systematically work their way through a huge fight, taking down people, forming protective groups, and ultimately deciding the take on the system itself and burn The Great Outdoor Fight to the ground.
It’s heady stuff, told in short strips which have a constantly high hit-rate and finds room amidst the battle for some incredibly strange tangents and some unexpectedly heartfelt moments. Plus if you want to see Ray just straight-up wreck a whole bunch of people, then you’re going to be very happy here. The guy’s a freakin’ machine.
44: War of the Realms
The culmination of Jason Aaron’s run writing Thor saw him reuniting with Russell Dauterman for a major event, as the wars of the nine realms finally came crashing down upon Earth. Across the previous few years, the Thor comics had established that the Dark Elf Malekith had been waging a war to take over Asgard, Midgard, Jotunheim, Svartalfheim, Vanaheim, Muspelheim, Niflheim, Alfheim, and Nidavellir. Thor was out of the picture, replaced by Thor – Jane Foster, who took up his hammer – and everything was changing. Every other realm fell across the length of Aaron’s tenure as writer, leading to Earth as the final battleground. Which, conveniently, meant that all the other heroes could now get involved and punch some frost giants.
So it all concluded here, with Avengers, Asgardians, and several Thors all reappearing to take on Malekith’s last assault on the Realms. In particular, Matthew Wilson’s colours do a masterful job in making this look absolutely wonderful, creating a vibrant take on the battle for Earth which made the story feel different to all the other times that there was a battle for Earth. And Aaron manages to give the majority of his very large cast a chance to reach a conclusion in their years-long journey, wrapping up most of his story in stirring fashion.
43: Avengers Vs X-Men
Hope Summers, MVP? She once again took the centre-stage in Avengers Vs X-Men, as the Phoenix Force’s interest in her led to a globe-trotting brawl between the two biggest teams in Marvel. The unique creative approach saw all five Marvel “architects” (writers Jason Aaron, Brian Michael Bendis, Ed Brubaker, Jonathan Hickman and Matt Fraction) swapping between each other on issues of the 12-part central story, while perhaps-more-interesting things took place in the tie-in stories. They were joined by artists like John Romita Jr and Adam Kubert as the series went on – but really, and no disrespect, but this is another story that Olivier Coipel completely runs away with, creating beautiful work wherever he goes.
It’s hard to say that the Avengers Vs X-Men fight was particularly hard to choose between – nobody likes the Avengers, even when the X-Men become literal Phoenix Gods towards the end of the story – but the unpredictable nature of the story kept readers interested throughout. This comic goes off in some seriously strange directions as it continues, and features some beats which don’t land how the writers wanted them to. Xavier dead? Oh no, must be a Wednesday. But the hyperactive storytelling is compelling to follow in its own way, and AvX left a permanent mark on the Marvel Universe.
42: Mutant Massacre
Terror in the sewers, as a group of mutants called the Marauders kicked off a major event for the X-Men by infiltrating the underground to initiate a horrifying massacre of all the outcast mutants who lived away from the rest of the world. Mutant Massacre lives up to its name, with hundreds of mutants murdered before the X-Men can follow them into the sewers and stop the carnage. It’s a shockingly violent and brutal storyline from Claremont and the Simonsons, which at one point saw Warren Worthington actually get crucified by the Marauders. Yikes. Angel: the last mutant you want to take with you into an event storyline, it seems. Guy always gets trashed in these things.
Although primarily a horrible war in the worst circumstances, Mutant Massacre works as a lasting reminder of some of the core parts of “the mutant metaphor”. Here we saw the Morlocks, who live underground because their mutations make them look physically different, or scare humans too much, chased down and murdered by a team of supervillains who embody the traditionally athletic and attractive build of superhero storytelling. That the X-Men are too late to save the day, and that they have to go to some real extremes in order to stop the Marauders, was not what readers would have expected. As is usually the case for Claremont and the Simonsons, they took what sounds like a simple premise and turned it into a complex and compelling study of class structure and societal prejudices.
In which Brian Michael Bendis finally wrote a story with an ending. Siege is the finale of his grand “Dark Reign” era, which saw Norman Osborn take over running the country with the assistance of a vast team of villains (including his Thunderbolts, whom he turned into the new Avengers; Namor; Emma Frost and Loki). The heroes all either went into hiding or in one case became a Frankenstein, and Norman was left to run the world with only his sanity for company.
So that didn’t go so well. After everyone got tired of the devastatingly obvious megavillain going even more bonkers whilst in charge of the nuclear codes, they eventually banded back together to take him out as part of the four-part Siege storyline, where everybody gets a chance to kick Norman into the dust. Olivier Coipel was once more in charge of the art, which means everything looks magnificent – especially the crash of Asgard, which is a major part of the story. There’s also a famous bit where one of the Avengers is literally ripped in half and Coipel draws every bit of viscera allowable in a mainstream comic. Basically, though, Siege is just about watching the villain get beaten down comprehensively… something which never happened in Bendis comics at the time. Cathartic, and published seven years before Donald Trump would go on to win the US Presidency.
Come back next week for entries 40 – 31 in our countdown!
Good list, though I have to disagree with your characterization of the Marauders as good-looking athletic types who are juxtaposed against the deformed Morlocks. No one could say Scalphunter, Blockbuster, Scrambler, Riptide, Sabretooth, or Harpoon are ever drawn conventionally handsome, and Prism is man made of living crystal. Athletic, sure, but put them in ragged clothes and they’d fit in with the Morlocks. In addition to the scale and impact of the carnage, what made it novel and more horrific is it was mutants killing mutants, something we hadn’t seen in the X-titles before. The point of this crossover is that things had changed, the enemies were now deadlier and more ruthless and the X-Men’s status quo completely disrupted. The mansion is abandoned as a home and base of operations, and longtime members Nightcrawler and Kitty are so badly injured they leave the team for over a decade, iirc, paving the way for the biggest team lineup shakeup since Giant Sized X-men #1. And Warren isn’t just crucified, his wings are destroyed, which leads to the character being forever changed as Archangel.