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!
Everything comes down to this. When the dust has settled and editorial has started working on next year’s big story, there can only be one event left standing. Which is the best comic book event of all time??
10: The Death of Superman
What’s red and blue and dead all over?
For what is undoubtedly one of the most notable stories in comic book history, The Death of Superman is surprisingly simplistic. A monster breaks out of its confinement, goes on a rampage, and fights Superman to the death. There’s nothing much else to it, apart from some slight side-stories which add colour to the main battle, but don’t affect it. Superman fights against a monster called Doomsday, they beat each other half to death, then they get up and finish off the other half. Superman dies in killing Doomsday, and Lois Lane is there to watch him fall. It’s effective for how straightforward the whole thing is, despite being obviously planned rather carefully, and the subject of massive internal debate.
Although driven by editor Mike Carlin, the actual story took the work of a large cast of writers to complete: Dan Jurgens, Roger Stern, Louise Simonson, Jerry Ordway, and Karl Kesel were all involved in killing off Clark Kent “forever”, with Jurgens also taking on the role of penciller for Superman #75, which saw the end of the fight. That one was also named one of the top 100 single issues of all time, which speaks to the brutal effectiveness of the final moments of that fight, which get grander and grander with each turn of the page, throwing unbelievable spectacle at the readership. Even though he got better after he walked it off, the Death of Superman still feels like an event, something you can’t quite believe is happening even as it staggers towards its inevitable final moments.
9: Seven Soldiers of Victory
An experiment in editorial patience as much as anything else, Grant Morrison’s heady attempt to bring back the lost concept “The Seven Soldiers of Victory” took the form of 30 issues, split into seven four-part miniseries, two standalone issues at the start and end, and a tremendously complicated publishing schedule. Morrison kicked things off with JH Williams III on a prelude issue which saw the deaths of the eponymous soldiers, begging the question “who will be the new heroes?” Across months and months, Morrison told each soldier’s story in a separate miniseries, ranging wildly in style, form, and presentation. From Fraser Irving’s gothic Klarion through to the misplaced Kirby retrospective Mister Miracle, the event was a disparate collection of stories which felt like they couldn’t possibly come together in any kind of coherent way. For many, they didn’t.
But that, of course, was the point: the idea of the narrative was that the seven soldiers of victory couldn’t know of each other’s existence if they were going to succeed. Hence the final issue brought all the characters together into an unexpected twist of fate, using them as a simultaneously complicated and crude rube goldberg machine in order to deliver the final blow to a horrifying world-destroying threat only half of them actually knew existed at the time. Incredibly mad, but hugely satisfying in the end, Seven Soldiers of Victory was a staggeringly overcomplicated achievement.
8: Age of Apocalypse
Age of Apocalypse was a bold move from Marvel at the time it published: they cancelled the entire X-Men line as it existed, told a story where reality was completely overwritten and changed forever, and then republished a new line of comics with all the characters living vastly different lives in a post-apocalyptic dystopia. The idea was the Charles Xavier’s son Legion travelled back in time to kill Magneto before he could commit any of the crimes he’d go on to commit. When he accidentally kills his own dad instead, he changes the timeline of the Marvel Universe, Xavier’s school never opens, and instead Magneto forms the leadership of the mutant race in an alternate timeline. Although, at the time, readers weren’t told that this was an alternate timeline – it was the timeline, and things had changed permanently.
And as you might expect, Apocalypse decided to get involved as well. The result was a formative period for the X-Men’s readership, with long-term characters completely changed in some cases, and improved in many others (remember how cool AoA Dazzler is??) Apocalypse and Magneto led the core factions, and the idea of permanent change lasted throughout the various comics which made up the overall event: characters would be killed off; continents were destroyed. It was severe, but amazing to experience, and understandably Marvel have repeatedly revisited the story in years since, remembering it as perhaps one of their bravest editorial decisions they’d made. Big, bold, brash, and brilliant at times.
7: DC One Million
Grant Morrison again, this time joined by artist Val Semeiks for a trip into the deep future. DC One Million is partially set in the far future of the DC Universe, the 853rd Century, with a very very old Superman and an even-older Vandal Savage as the two main opposing forces. The idea was that the 853rd Century would likely be when Action Comics #1,000,000 (at the then-current rate of publication) would have been published, so Morrison and co set the story there. Their event follows both the far future and the present day as we see how Vandal Savage’s journey leads from one era into another, allowing the creative team to not only show us how actions in the present day affect generations into the future – but to create a whole new world a million years into the future, filled with familiar and not-so-familiar characters. The Justice League of America becomes Justice League Alpha, while concepts like the Green Lantern Corps show up in both parts of the timeline.
DC capitalised on the idea with over thirty different tie-in stories to the core event, each of them featuring variants on heroes like Captain Marvel, Booster Gold, and others. There was a freedom in telling a story in the far future, but also a uniquely interesting hook: the characters we all knew well suddenly became either liabilities or secret weapons, as their choices affected the future storyline, and unexpected moments would ripple off into the distant, either helping or hindering the heroes of the future.
6: Infinity Gauntlet
Our final Jim Starlin entry in our list is The Infinity Gauntlet, his masterpiece story which finds Thanos in his grandest hour. Starlin isn’t alone here, though – he has George Perez as penciller here, who brings so much character to the grandstanding antics of the mad titan. George Perez is arguably the most important artist in American superhero comics and he offers superlative work here, giving us the mightiest and most terrifying cosmic carnage whilst retaining rich and deep characterisation and storytelling. And he needs to be on his game, too, because this is a massive one. Before the story even begins, Thanos has already collected all of the infinity gems into the gauntlet, ready to control every aspect of existence in tribute to Death. It escalates from there.
Across the course of the story Thanos manages to banish or capture essentially every being of power within the Marvel Universe, kill exactly half of all living creatures in existence, and destroy several planets in the process. The sheer scale of his devastation is staggering, leaving readers wondering how Marvel could ever expect things to be righted. It turned out that the scale was the point: Thanos grew stronger and stronger until he became so powerful that he took on astral form and floated off into the cosmos – allowing Nebula to grab the Gauntlet and become the new villain of the piece. Teaming up with Thanos, the remaining heroes were able to reverse everything that’d happen, stop Nebula, and restore the Universe – but never forgetting just how close Thanos had come to permanently breaking the universe.
5: Inferno (1989)
Possibly the apex of Chris Claremont’s time with the X-Men, Inferno was the culmination of years of preparation, driven by a desire to cross out some editorial choices of years gone by and a healthy interest in demonic ensnarement. Abandoned by her husband Cyclops after Jean Grey returned back to life, Madelyne Pryor makes a deal with demons to get their son Nathan back. She doesn’t realise that the demons have also been planning an invasion at the same time, and they simultaneously manipulate Magik into opening a portal from Limbo to Earth – which they hold open, corrupting everything and unleashing demons on the citizens of New York. The X-Men become vain, narcissist monsters who start killing their enemies, with only Colossus apparently immune. As New York turns into hell on earth, the brother and sister seem to be our only hope.
Also Havok becomes Madelyne’s sex-slave, which I know is important to a lot of people. Inferno is a sprawling story told superbly across several different titles, each of which tell a satisfying and morally compelling side of the overall narrative without detracting from one another. The New Mutants have a terrific story to follow, while the X-Men – eventually – escape their possession and go off on a hunt for both Madelyne and then Mister Sinister, the deviant behind everything. It all ends with a series of small-scale tragedies, heartfelt and heartbreaking in equal measures. Even Longshot gets something to do, and Longshot’s the worst.
4: House of X/Powers of X
Jonathan Hickman takes one step out in front of Chris Claremont, as HoXPoX lands in fourth place in our list. Using the long-term character Moira MacTaggert as an opportunity to completely rewrite the X-Men’s status quo, Hickman paired with artists Pepe Larraz and R.B. Silva (not to mention colourist Marte Gracia) for two six-part stories which crossed over inside one another, detailing the new vision for Marvel’s merry mutants, and how that would stretch out into the far future. House of X explained how “Moira X” was actually a mutant this whole time, and every time she died, she was born once more and lived a new life – complete with her memories of everything that’d happened to her. That left her looking for a way to protect mutantkind off and into the future, but every time she tried a new approach, something came along to kill everyone. Then the Krakoa experiment came in.
The X-Men moved to the living island, invited every mutant, blocked everyone else, and bribed as many foreign powers as possible with miracle drugs so nobody would stop them. That still led to threats on the far horizon – as detailed in Powers of X (where the X is numerical: the series jumped by the power of ten into the future) and the problems the approach would later lead to. The whole thing was audacious, but I think what’s giving it lasting power right now is that it has such a feeling of confidence about the entire endeavour. We’re brought into the new world so immediately that as readers we get swept along in the majesty of it all; the questions would come later, but this twelve-part crossover event retains the initial magic of the new.
3: Crisis on Infinite Earths
George Perez once again, doing his utmost to create the most gigantic storyline of all time in his collaboration with writer Marv Wolfman. Crisis on Infinite Earths not only provided a lot of the blueprint for comic book events as an ongoing concern in the industry, but unlocked a magical door for comics editorial as a whole: the reset. Suddenly all the problems with continuity across the ever-increasing tapestry of the DC Universe had a solution – rewrite the multiverse, duh! – and Wolfman and Perez raced off merrily to wreck damage on an infinite number of earths. Their trail of devastation was intended to leave them with one magical earth left. Everything else you’d read was a different universe, you see, and now we had a simple timeline remaining where all the fan-favourite characters (ideally) would have easy-to-follow, jump-onabble new stories.
But Crisis is more than just a way of explaining away the million inconsistencies of a universe: it’s a grandstanding epic in tone from the start, with Wolfman attempting valiantly to keep to a high-stakes chase across the twelve-issue run. It is a bit of a mess, and it does struggle to keep up with its own story – but then you always have George Perez working his singular magic whenever things get too dense, or the characters get lost in themselves. It’s Perez who saves the event: at the time, it was intense, and it still has a lot of that pressure now. But where countless other stories of the time are mired in a stilted sense of nostalgia, Crisis has George Perez excitedly fanning flames directly into your face with each new page. The promise of danger is ever-present when you first read it, and you can’t help but speed up as you get closer and closer to the end, desperate to know how this whole thing is going to wrap up.
2: Final Crisis
From the first to the, ahem, ‘last’. Final Crisis lands in second place on our countdown, a meditation on the end of everything, and what heroes do in the face of near-complete societal and universal collapse. The story starts off with the death of the New Gods and quickly escalates into a nightmarish vision of the future, where no decision is ever the right one, and every choice leaves you leaning closer into your own devastation. Nominally – because this is a Grant Morrison one, and thus complicated – it’s a story about Darkseid assuming his rule of Earth, unleashing the Anti-Life Equation across the globe and turning almost the entire population into capitalist drones, living and dying in service to Darkseid. Batman is captured, Wonder Woman is converted, and Superman is missing. Heroes die – or worse, they’re assimilated by Darkseid – and the creative team (mainly J.G. Jones, although several other artists including a revelatory Doug Mahnke have to step in towards the end) depict a horrifying dystopian hellscape no other comic has really ever been able to match.
And it’s within this most cynical and broken world that the surviving heroes get to show their truest colours. Final Crisis gives the most unexpected characters a chance to save the world, slowly, agonisingly, gritting hope between their teeth. Nobody else would hinge their story on the actions of Tawky Tawny, Renee Montoya and The Tattooed Man, but Morrison and team find the humanity and heroism which claws out from the bottom of the sunken earth. DC could never really hope to follow up on everything which is presented here, but Final Crisis is a comic which never wilts on a reread. It’s captivating and mesmerising.
1: Secret Wars (2015)
Which means that Secret Wars has done it! There was never really a second option for this list, with Jonathan Hickman and Esad Ribic’s Secret Wars comfortably in first place from the start of the voting period. Only somewhat recalling the original Secret Wars event from the eighties, this story instead sees the end of reality, as universe after universe collapses in on each other in events called “incursions”. The final two earths left are the Marvel Universe and the Marvel Ultimate Universe, neither of which escape the first issue of this event. After you put down the first part of Secret Wars, the Marvel Universe has been destroyed forever, and the last page is an epitaph for everything you’ve ever read.
Reed Richards has a plan for that, of course, but he’s beaten to it by Doctor Doom, who gathers together the last fragments of existence and curls them together into “Battleworld”, a reality at the end of time which cuts up the world into Doom’s image, leaving him as the God-King and every character you knew reimagined under his feet. Only a few other heroes escape the end of reality with their minds – and they have to navigate Doom’s world and the endless surprises that come with it. The biggest powers in the universe – The Phoenix, Thanos – square up to Doom and find themselves humbled and destroyed, drawn vividly in death by Ribic, on top form throughout the eight issue run.
The concept allowed Marvel to remix and rewrite its other comics in any way it wanted, taking familiar names and ideas but presenting them in new and startling ways. Secret Wars had a vast array of tie-ins, but the concept of the event meant that everything could happen without disrupting the core storyline itself. It of course comes down to Reed Richards and Doctor Doom, but this time with a – delicious – twist, which brought a daring, convulsive electricity to their enmity. Everything turns out fine in the end, yet never quite the same as you remember it having been. The votes are in: it’s the greatest comic book event of all time.