One thing super hero comics seem to do very well is to depict alternate realities and alternate versions of their characters. Wonder what would happen if the X-Men failed to stop the advancement of Sentinel technology, or if Apocalypse succeeded in taking over the world? There are stories you can read for that. Want to know one of the possible futures for the Hulk, or Superman? There’s stories for that, too. Dating back to X-Men: Days of Future Past (which even predates the Terminator films!), comics have continuously used the possible future outcomes as a way of depicting the stakes for our heroes if they lose, and as a way to show how one change in the timeline, no matter how seemingly small, can cause massive ripples in what we think of as reality.
They are also used as a way to show your favorite characters in new situations and surroundings without messing with the core character and material, a la the Age of Apocalypse.
Here are my picks for the 15 best alternate realities/timelines from Marvel and DC comics:
15. Teen Titans: The Future Is Now
Geoff Johns is the most accomplished, and probably most popular, writer for DC Comics. He is well known for titles like Action Comics, the Flash, Green Lantern, JLA, JSA, 52, Infinite Crisis, Forever Evil, and Flashpoint. But the title that typically slips between the cracks is his awesome run on Teen Titans, and the best arc was “The Future is Now”.
After teaming up with the Legion of Super Heroes, the Titans are trying to get back to their own time, but arrive a few years later than they would have liked. They try to go back to their HQ, but are surprised to find that it is occupied by the Justice League, which is made up of adult versions of themselves!
At first everything is just kind of weird and awkward, as I’m sure meeting your future self would be. But Superboy goes exploring, and finds that the League/adult Titans are torturing a captured Deathstroke, and realizes that in the future they’re “the freaking bad guys!”
Both teams want the young Titans to just go home, but the Titans want to know what happened to make them this way, and the League doesn’t want to tell them anything that might jeopardize their timeline. Fighting ensues, naturally, which doesn’t go so well for the Titans, but maybe not as poorly as you would think. The timely intervention of the future Titans (a different team, led by Cyborg) and the revelation that one of the League is a double agent, helps even the odds. But before our Titans go home they learn some things about how things got so bad, and get a warning about an impending crisis that changes everything (Infinite Crisis).
The real draw here is seeing the young Titans confront everything about themselves that they fear. Superboy is afraid that, because he has Lex Luthor’s DNA (which he had just learned) he will turn out to be a bad guy, and Robin is afraid that living in Batman’s world is changing him and making him darker, which is staring him in the face when he realizes that HE is the Batman of the future. A gun toting, murdering Batman.
Great stuff, especially for fans of the DC sidekicks.
14. Age of X
Mike Carey, who is without a doubt one of the most underrated writers in comics, and the most underrated X-Men writer since… hell, maybe ever, came strong with Age of X, the most ambitious reimagining of the X-Men since the Age of Apocalypse.
In this version of reality, things did not go well for pretty much any of the mutants. Henry McCoy was beaten to death for being a mutant rights advocate. When the Phoenix force manifested in Jean Grey, it took out most of the city of Albany, New York, and killed over 600,000 people. In response, the government created new, nearly indestructible Sentinels, and a mutant decimation began. Mutants were as hated as we’ve ever seen them. When a mutant they were hiding (against Susan Richards wishes) injured Franklin Richards, the Invisible Woman turns her in and in doing so has the rest of the Fantastic Four arrested. With the most powerful and dangerous mutants left all banding together under Magneto, the government puts together a team of Avengers to wipe them out, consisting of Captain America, Iron Man, Hulk, Ghost Rider, the Invisible Woman, and Redback (Spider-Woman).
The remaining mutants have gathered at Fortress X, which is under constant siege from the US Government forces, led by all-around scumfuck Graydon Creed. While the characters you know and love are present, they are drastically different. Rogue, here named Legacy, is the ‘Reaper’ of the group. When someone is critically injured, her job is to absorb what is left of their powers and memories so that they can live on in some form or fashion.
Everything starts to fray at the edges, and the entire reality questioned, when Legacy interrogates a captured Shadowcat and touches a comatose Charles Xavier. Besides the awesome redesigns and reimaginings of your favorite characters and a bunch of action, the real pull of the story begins here, and by the end when everything has been revealed and explained you really appreciate the skill of the writer and the terrifying power levels of one of the X-Men (don’t want to say who, as it will probably spoil the story).
Of particular note to me were the new versions of Rogue (Legacy), Cyclops (Basilisk; and holy balls is he hardcore), and Wolverine (the one guy who can’t join the fight, ironically), the team of telepaths keeping up shields to protect the Fortess was cool, and I also found myself oddly enjoying some of the relationships, like Namor and Storm and Basilisk and Frenzy. Good stuff.
13. Superman: Red Son
Part of DC’s “Elseworlds” line, which is basically a better version of Marvel’s “What If…?” comics, Superman: Red Son poses the question: “What if Superman landed in Soviet Russia instead of Smallville, Kansas?” The answer is that everything would be different. Everything.
Instead of fighting for “truth, justice, and the American way”, Superman is “the champion of the common worker who fights a never-ending battle for Stalin, socialism, and the international expansion of the Warsaw pact”. The revelation that the Soviets have an unstoppable superhuman completely changes the global political scene, and greatly ramps up the Cold War arms race, and changes it from nuclear weapons to superhumans. S.T.A.R. Labs scientist Lex Luthor is hired by CIA agent James Olsen to destroy the man of steel (iron?), and he sends a satellite to crash so that Superman will stop it. When he does, Luthor steals some of his genetic material and uses it to make a clone, which of course is a freaking monster, and is this universe’s version of Bizarro.
Superman meets Wonder Woman at a diplomatic party and she’s all like “Heeeyyyy…”. Meanwhile, Joseph Stalin’s illegitimate son is all pissed at Supes because daddy doesn’t pay attention to him since the flying man came along. This essentially ended his chances of advancing in the Soviet hierarchy. He shoots a couple in front of their young son for printing anti-Superman propaganda (shot in front of their son…hmm…). Stalin dies, and Superman is urged to take over the country, which he reluctantly agrees to do, and makes it a utopia.
Years go by and Luthor tries a number of plans to destroy Superman, each failing (duh). One of his plans involves the mysterious badass known as Batman (I KNEW IT!). There’s also plans involving Brainiac, the Green Lantern Corps, Doomsday, Parasite, and the Atomic Skull, and it’s pretty interesting to see these different versions of recognizable Superman and DC characters.
The ending is pretty cool, and even though it reminds me of the movie 12 Monkeys, feels very original.
12. House of M
The one that started the recent run of ‘event’ books, and flipped the X-Men’s world upside down.
Brian Michael Bendis and Olivier Coipel’s House of M is bananas. The first issue ends with reality as we know it being burned away (by the still crazy from “Avengers: Disassembled” Scarlet Witch) and a completely new world taking its place. In this new world mutants are the majority, humans the minority. Spider-Man never lost his Uncle Ben or Gwen Stacy, and in this reality her married Gwen and had a family, and became a huge star in the world of entertainment. Wolverine never lost his memories and is the head of SHIELD. Magneto pretty much rules the world, and he and his family are the biggest stars on the planet. Everyone’s dreams pretty much came true, in some form or another.
But Wolverine remembers the way the world was supposed to be.
After unsuccessfully tracking down the X-Men (they don’t exist) he finds himself on the run from his own SHIELD team (they’re concerned because he freaked out when the memories hit him and jumped off of the helicarrier. Kind of troubling behavior). During a high speed chase he is snagged by Cloak and Hawkeye (back to life in this reality after being killed in the regular reality by the crazy ass Scarlet Witch) and taken to Luke Cage and a coalition of street level heroes (like Moon Knight, Black Cat, etc). There he tells them about how reality isn’t right, and lucky for him they don’t think he’s completely batshit crazy, because a little girl named Layla Miller showed up the night before saying the exact same thing. It seems this girl remembers everything the way it is supposed to be, and more importantly, has the ability to awaken the memories of the correct reality in the minds of those she comes across.
Wolverine, Cloak, Cage, and a few others take Layla around and reawaken the memories of our heroes, sometimes with heartbreaking results (Spidey doesn’t take it so great). Reunited and ‘reawakened’, the heroes decide the only way to get things right is to find Professor X and take down the Scarlet Witch and Magneto, who they believe to be behind everything. Makes sense, he’s in charge, his daughter changed everything, and the ruling party is called the “House of M”. Led by Cyclops, they stage an assault on the House to put things back they way they were, or to destroy Magneto in retaliation for what he’s done to the world.
Things get set back, but not quite the way they were. The X-Men have not been the same since the end of this story, which saw the decimation of the mutant race and set the stage for stories in all of the X-Men books, New Avengers, and Young Avengers. The fallout would even effect the cosmic corner of the Marvel Universe!
Highly recommended, if for nothing else than for the amazing artwork.
I have to admit, I did not like this story when it came out, but I think a lot of that had to do with the fact that I did not like that DC was cancelling and rebooting their entire line with the ‘New 52’. Hell, I even listed it as one of the top DC moves that I hated! That said, after giving it some time and reading it again, it holds up pretty damn well.
The story opens with the Flash, Barry Allen, waking up in a world he doesn’t recognize. Nobody has heard of the Flash, there’s no Justice League, no Superman, his mom is still alive… everything’s wrong. He hunts down the only guy he knows that he’s sure can help: Batman. Unfortunately for Barry, Batman is not the Bruce Wayne he knows. He has to convince the caped crusader that reality is broken, and that he’s a super hero nobody has ever heard of. Problem is, he doesn’t seem to have his powers. To make matters worse, the longer he is in this reality the more it rewrites his memories of the true reality. To make matters EVEN worse, the forces of Atlantis, led by Aquaman, and Themyscira, led by Wonder Woman, are at war and are ravaging the planet. The United States is about to use its nuclear option, and this world is teetering on the verge of utter destruction.
The Flash has to figure out how to get his powers back, then convince Batman and everyone else that something about reality is broken, then figure out a way to fix it, all while trying to keep the world from killing itself. There are plenty of twists and turns, particularly involving Batman’s identity, Superman’s location and past, and most of all what happened to cause this new reality. By the end lives are lost, the Flash makes a horrifying discovery, and the DC Universe is changed forever.
10. Marvel 2099
Marvel 2099 was created in the early 1990’s, and is a really cool idea that maybe wasn’t executed quite as well as it could have been. The line started with its two best books, Spider-Man 2099 and Doom 2099, as well as Punisher 2099 (blech) and Stan Lee’s Ravage 2099 (meh). It grew to include Hulk 2099, 2099 Unlimited, X-Men 2099, and because it was the 90’s, Ghost Rider 2099.
As I said before, the two best books were Spider-Man and Doom. The Spider-Man of 2099 is Miguel O’Hara, a geneticist for Alchemax (the insanely huge mega corporation that runs damn near the whole world). He pisses of his boss, Tyler Stone, who traps him inside of a machine O’Hara had made that would reconfigure DNA, which obviously results in him being Spider-Man. He makes a totally sweet costume and starts saving lives, kicking ass, and trying like hell to take down Alchemax. He has remained popular for 20+ years, and even currently has his own series and is living in the present day Marvel universe!
Doom 2099 was equally awesome, and I think a lot of that had to do with the fact that, unlike the other 2099 characters, this was actually OUR Dr. Doom. Victor Von Doom time travelled to the future, where he found himself stranded, and over time just took shit over, starting with his kingdom Latveria. By the time the 2099 universe was kind of wrapping up its run Doom was in charge of damn near everything, proving once again that Doom > Lex Luthor.
The other books were so-so, and either had either no real ties, or very tenuous ties, to the regular Marvel Universe, or were just victims of the flooded marketplace of the time. A few years ago Marvel released a series of one-shots, each written by Robert Kirkman (of the Walking Dead, Invincible, Marvel Zombies and Ultimate X-Men). There was Daredevil 2099, who was ironically a descendant of Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin of crime; there was Inhumans 2099, which focused on the remains of the Inhuman Royal Family and what was left of a once proud race; Black Panther 2099 and a different Punisher 2099 were about what you would expect, and Mutant 2099, which featured one of the last mutants on earth, mentored by Reed Richards’ brain in a Thing body.
9. Wolverine: Old Man Logan
In the mid-2000’s you couldn’t find a hotter group of creators than Mark Millar and Steve McNiven. Millar had been killing it with books like the Ultimates, Ultimate X-Men, Kick-Ass, Marvel Knights Spider-Man, and a stellar run on Wolverine with John Romita JR. Not to mention a little thing called Civil War, that he did with Mr. McNiven.
So taking those guys, at the top of their games, familiar with each other as creators, and put them on Wolverine in a samurai/spaghetti western/post apocalypse story full of crazy violence, insane imagination, and no rules? It’s no wonder this story destroyed everyone’s expectations (and brains).
The story premise is pretty simple. In a world where the super villains won and most of the heroes are dead, there are no rules anymore. Wolverine has retired from fighting, vowing to never pop his claws again. He has a wife and kids, and runs a small farm. Unfortunately times are tight, and his landlords are all members of the Hulk gang: inbred trailer trash Hulks that are just as shitty and awful as you might think they would be. Seems ol’ Logan is late on his rent, and if he don’t pay they gon’ kill his whole family. In order to come up with the funds he agrees to accompany Hawkeye across the country to deliver a package.
A blind, old Hawkeye.
In a rebuilt Spider-Mobile.
Along the way they encounter all kinds of crazy shit, like a T-Rex from the Savage Land wearing the Venom symbiote, a town devoured by moloids, the new Kingpin and his velociraptors, and more. You learn what horrible thing happened that was SO bad it caused fucking WOLVERINE to stop fighting, and believe me, it’s bad. Reeeeeeally bad.
As the story goes on it’s clear that Wolverine may have to break his vow of non-violence if he and Hawkeye want to survive.
Towards the end of his journey Logan is pushed as far as he can go, until eventually you get to the point you’ve been waiting for: Snikt! The finale is gruesome, to say the least. Honestly the whole story is very violent, but when the Wolverine lets out decades of pent up rage, hatred, self loathing, and frustration it’s something to see.
8. Kingdom Come
Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ “Kingdom Come” is, in many ways, a love letter to the DC Universe, despite the fact that by story’s end the majority of its characters are dead.
The story takes place years from now, with a new generation of superhumans patrolling the skies. Superman has retired after a horrible tragedy, Batman is an old man (although he still runs Gotham like a boss), Green Lantern sits in a giant watchtower in Earth’s orbit that he has constructed out of willpower… all of those that should be leading this new generation are out of the game, so to speak.
The new kids don’t follow the rules. They’re not worried about good vs evil, or protecting anyone, they just want to fight. So property damage and civilian casualties are through the roof.
Something horrible is coming; it’s in the air. Enter: Norman McCay, a priest who has a horrible vision of the apocalypse. He is visited by the Spectre, who then takes him around the DCU “It’s a Wonderful Life” style, so he can see what is happening that will lead to the end, at which point the Spectre requires that he (Norman) render judgment on the guilty.
Even for a religious man, he takes all of this pretty well. I think I would have fainted as soon as the freaking Spectre just sort of appeared, but I guess I’m just a huge pussy.
Anyway, Superman can’t take this shit anymore, and comes out of retirement, which brings almost all of the other retired heroes back. They start cleaning everything up, but it’s too much to handle, especially with Lex Luthor and his group of collaborators trying to figure out how to screw everything up for the good guys.
Things degenerate into the biggest superhuman brawl ever, forcing the US government into a decision, which forces Superman into a decision (well, more like a world shaking rage), which forces Norman McCay into a decision. The ramifications of those decisions will shape the world to come.
If for nothing else, you owe it to yourself to read this (and Marvels, with Kurt Busiek writing) simply for the amazing painted artwork of Alex Ross. Just mind blowing.
7. Marvel Zombies
While the immensely popular Marvel Zombies was written by the great Robert Kirkman, we really should be thanking Mark Millar for it. It was Millar, while writing Ultimate Fantastic Four, who came up with the idea of a reality full of zombie super heroes. When he pitched the idea as a big event, he was essentially laughed out of the room. Fast forward a bit, and Ultimate Reed Richards seems to be using a machine capable of breaking through dimensional barriers to speak to ‘our’ Reed Richards. When he breaches the dimensional wall, he finds that oops! this FF is all zombies! Hell, the whole world is zombies! Smart zombies that retained their personality, for the most part! The only man left standing is Magneto, who is actually working with human survivors (desperate times…). They help Reed get back to the lab and back to his dimension. The zombie FF would show up again in Millar’s run, and that was expected to be the last of them.
Due to the success of the UFF story, Marvel asked Millar to pitch a Marvel Zombies mini-series. He was rather busy at the time, so they went to Robert Kirkman. A wise move. His Marvel Zombies is straight up disturbing. Don’t believe me? Look at the scene with Spider-Man and Mary Jane. Blech.
In Kirkman’s book, the heroes have eaten everyone they can find and are still so, so hungry. So they expand their view outwards to space and other places to find more people to eat. They would be successful.
One of the great things about this book is how unapologetically gross it is. Like Giant Man’s stomach bursting, Spidey complaining that he still has his wife stuck in his teeth, and Captain America running around without the top of his head. When people are eaten, they get torn the fuck up!
The mini-series would go on to spawn a sequel written by Kirkman, and numerous other sequels and spin-offs.
If you like zombies, or just over the top ridiculousness, this is for you.
6. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns
If you’re reading this list, or anything on this site, for that matter, then chances are you have read this book. I feel like talking about it is only going to be rehashing stuff everyone knows, but what the hell.
Batman’s been retired for years, and Bruce Wayne is a 50-something, bored out of his mind billionaire. In this timeline he retired after the death of Jason Todd, the second Robin (murdered by the Joker). Gotham is still a total shithole, and is being besieged by a gang called the Mutants. Walking down the street isn’t safe once again, which is driven home when Bruce himself is mugged (well, they try). This is the last straw, and is the impetus for the Bat to come back to the streets and rooftops of Gotham.
The story is told in four parts, each with a different enemy for Batman to face. The first part is focused on Harvey Dent, who has had his face repaired by doctors so he no longer resembles Two-Face. Unfortunately, his mind is beyond repair, and while he fakes a full recovery so he can be released from Arkham, inside he is still Two-Face. Taking him down is Batman’s announcement to everyone that he is officially back and not to be fucked with.
The second part focuses on Batman’s war with the Mutants, and the new Robin, a girl named Carrie Kelly. She helps him get away from the battleground after being brutally beaten by the Mutants leader. After healing, he officially makes her Robin, and comes up with a plan (as he usually does) to take the Mutants out once and for all. His beating of the Mutant leader is so severe, so complete and total, that by the end most of the Mutants have decided that they are going to run around with bat symbols on their faces and call themselves the Sons of the Bat.
The third chapter focuses on the return of the Joker, who has been cleared to be released from Arkham. Once Batman disappeared he lost his reason for existing, and has been catatonic since. With Batman back, he plays at his doctor’s ego, and feigns full sanity and horrible remorse for his crimes. The doctor (the same retard that cleared Dent) sees fame and dollar signs as the guy who cured the craziest bastard ever, and wants to take him on national TV to show how cured he is. Of course, the Joker murders the entire audience, his doctor, and the host of the show, then goes on a killing spree that rivals any he’s ever had. This is the last, and maybe best, confrontation between Batman and his worst enemy.
Finally, the last chapter focuses on Batman vs Superman, who has become a tool of the government and is ordered to take down Batman. Frank Miller, who wrote the story, always felt that these two would NOT be friends, as Superman is an agent of the status quo, and at heart Batman is all about upsetting the status quo. Anyway, Superman shows up in Gotham and tells Bruce he has to stop, Bruce responds by arming himself with a badass suit of armor and beating the brakes off of Superman, at least as far as a regular human can possibly hope to pull off.
There is a reason that this story is held up with Watchmen as maybe the best graphic novel ever written, although my personal tastes lean more towards Batman: Year One. The story, the art, the colors… everything meshes together perfectly. If, for some reason, you have yet to read it, then get off your ass and do so right now.
5. Justice League: Rock of Ages
Grant Morrison’s run on JLA is considered one of the high points of the long-running title. He reinvigorated what was essentially a dead franchise, and made JLA one of the must-read titles of the late 90’s and early 00’s. For me, the best story was “Rock of Ages”, which features Lex Luthor’s Injustice Gang, but more importantly, Darkseid and Apokolips.
At one point in the story Green Lantern, Aquaman and Flash are sent across the universe by someone who appears to be Metron of the New Gods, and through some crazy circumstances end up back home, but when they get there Darkseid has taken over the planet! Damn near every super hero is dead, and Earth is being turned into the new Apokolips.
Aquaman and the others have to team up with the remains of the Justice League, which is basically the Atom, Green Arrow (Connor Hawke), Barda, Wonder Woman, and scrubs, and fight their way into Darkseid’s place to get access to a time machine so they can fix things.
Things do not go well for them.
Everything is looking mighty fucking grim until they get some very unexpected help from one of Darkseid’s highest ranking lieutenants (but really, they should have seen it coming. Dude just can’t be stopped). They have to storm the place, fight off people far stronger than them, hordes of Parademons, and finally Darkseid himself, and IF they succeed they will be stepping into another jacked up situation they will have to save us all from.
The biggest highlights of the story are Martian Manhunter having to rearrange his brain so he sees the world the way the Joker does, the totality of Darkseid’s dominance of Earth, the reveal of their mysterious ally, and the fight with Darkseid. Morrison is at his best here, with high stakes, crazy plot twists, and each character has a moment to remind you why they have been chosen to be members of the Justice League. He also seems to take great joy in showing us, repeatedly in his works throughout the DCU, what a nasty bastard Darkseid really is.
4. X-Men: Days of Future Past
Just a few short months after rocking the comics world with ‘The Dark Phoenix Saga”, Chris Claremont and John Byrne struck again, this time with “Days of Future Past”.
The story focuses on two time-lines: the present (well, 1980’s) Marvel Universe, and about 20 years later. The future is a dark, disturbing place. Sentinels have taken over everything, and have killed the vast, VAST majority of all superhumans (not just mutants). Surviving mutants are relegated to camps, where they are branded with identifying numbers and basically wait to die. Of the characters we know, only Kitty Pryde, Magneto, Storm, and Colossus are left, with Wolverine still active and not captured. Rachel Summers, the daughter of Cyclops and Phoenix, is with them, as is Franklin Richards, the son of Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman. They have figured out that everything went to shit after the assassination of Senator Robert Kelly, and have a plan to send Kitty back in time to stop the assassination with the help of the X-Men.
Using Rachel’s telepathy (somehow), they are able to send Kitty back to her present day body, where she explains to the X-Men (Wolverine, Storm, Colossus, Nightcrawler, and Angel) that Mystique and the Brotherhood are going to assassinate the Senator, and it’s going to spell very dark fucking times for mutants. Professor X uses his telepathy to confirm what she is saying, and the X-Men go to stop the assassination and prevent the future from coming true.
The story is only 2 issues, but accomplishes what it set out to do, which is to raise the impossibly high stakes the X-Men were already faced with even further. Now they know what kind of horrors await them with one wrong step, and feel that their mission is more important than ever.
This story is waaaaay ahead of its time, and influenced countless stories to come, even in other mediums (Terminator, anyone?). Hell, they even sort of adapted it into the newest X-Men film! It’s genuinely chilling to see things like Wolverine get incinerated by a Sentinel, or to see row after row of gravestones with names like Scott Summers, Robert Drake, Charles Xavier, Henry McCoy, Reed Richards, Peter Parker, Bruce Banner, Steve Rogers, Hank Pym, and Tony Stark on them. This story made Sentinels scary in a way that I don’t think has been duplicated since.
3. Ultimate Marvel
In the early 2000’s the comic industry was struggling. The boom market of the 1990’s had crashed, and crashed hard, towards the end of the century, and Marvel was staring the possibility of closing their doors in the face. Along came the Ultimate Marvel universe, which, along with a back-to-basics approach on their core titles, helped right the ship and get them to where they are today, which is insanely profitable and as strong as ever.
The idea behind the Ultimate universe was rebooting their major characters and titles as if they started today. So gone are the origins rooted in radioactivity and the space race, and along came origins based in genetics and arms races. They handed the books over to two writers: Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Millar. While those names are huge in the industry today, at the time they were just the guy that wrote all those indie books and just got Daredevil, and the guy who co-wrote the Flash and wrote the Authority.
Bendis launched Ultimate Spider-Man with Mark Bagley (and they stayed on the book for a record 110+ issues straight!), and Mark Millar launched Ultimate X-Men with Adam Kubert and The Ultimates (Ultimate Avengers) with Brian Hitch. The line hit like a bomb. They were designed to grab the audiences generated from the Spider-Man and X-Men movies, and they did the trick. They were later joined by Ultimate Marvel Team-Up, Ultimate Fantastic Four, and a number of mini-series and crossover events.
The Ultimates, in particular, was a high water mark for the company, and heavily influenced the movies Marvel has made in the Avengers family. For instance, Nick Fury was redesigned to look like Samuel L Jackson, an admitted comic book nerd, who used the opportunity to campaign to play Nick Fury in future movies, which he has turned into appearances in Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Captain America: The First Avenger, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and of course the Avengers.
The real appeal of the books, besides the new advances in paper quality and coloring along with the strong writing and art, was that there were no rules. Sure, it was nice to see contemporary redesigns of your favorite characters, but in the Ultimate books you could do crazy shit, like Giant Man beating the hell out of the Wasp, then sending an army of ants to attack her in her shrunken form and spraying her with insect spray. Everything was fair game, and it breathed new life into the company like nothing had in a long time.
Pretty much every adaptation since the advent of the Ultimate line has borrowed elements from it, especially the movies and television projects. In more recent years Marvel shifted their focus back to the regular titles, and the Ultimate books have kind of fallen out of the spotlight, but they will always be remembered for their balls-to-the-wall storytelling and incredibly high production value.
2. Earth X Series
This one is going to be short, simply because to do Earth X (and its sequels, Universe X and Paradise X) justice, I would need a LOT of space.
“Ambitious” is a paltry word compared to what Jim Krueger and Alex Ross went for with this series. It takes place in the future of the Marvel universe, but so much of the stories, and the real appeal, is how they tie everything from Marvel’s past together. And I mean EVERYTHING. They show how every little thing is connected, often in ways where you go “HOLY SHIT, how did I not ever think of that?”
The character redesigns (and designs on new characters) are fantastic, and each collected edition comes chock full of Alex Ross pencil sketches (which are so insanely detailed it’s crazy) and ideas for each character.
The scope and scale of the story is just nuts, and it covers everything from the Eternals and Deviants to Namor and Atlantis to the Celestials and Galactus to the Asgardians to Mephisto to the Cosmic Cube to Thanos and Mistress Death to… you get the idea.
I cannot recommend these enough, particularly Earth X. I feel like it, in particular, is horribly underrated.
1. Age of Apocalypse
Easily the most ambitious X-Men story ever, the Age of Apocalypse was HUGE.
In the mid 1990’s the X-Men books ruled the comics world. The top of the sales charts routinely were filled with X-titles and Wolverine books, so it came as a shock to readers and retailers when Marvel announced they were going to kill Professor X and cancel all of the X-titles. People lost their shit! What they didn’t know at the time was that each title was going to be replaced by a new title for 4 months, and that everything would be drastically different.
Professor X’s son, Legion, decides he has had enough of people violently fighting against his father’s dream of integration, so he goes back in time to kill Magneto. The X-Men send some people back to stop him, including Iceman, Storm, Psylocke, Bishop, and a few others. Unfortunately, they are not able to stop Legion, but Professor X is, and throws himself in front of a blast meant for Magneto, which kills him before he could ever even conceive of the X-Men. Bishop, already being displaced from time, is the only one that remembers the correct timeline, and it drives him crazy.
In the wake of the death of Professor X, Magneto dedicates his life to Charles’ dream of peaceful coexistence. He even gathers mutants together and calls them X-Men, in honor of his friend. Unfortunately, they’re not as successful at stopping Apocalypse as our X-Men were, and he rises to unheard of levels of power. Under Apocalypse’s rule, mutants become the dominant force on Earth, and everyone else is culled to power his death machines, or just killed because they aren’t strong enough to save themselves from being killed. The world is a scary, dark place. Apocalypse and his Horsemen rule all, and Magneto and his X-Men are not quite strong enough to stop him.
Then they meet Bishop, who tells of a much better world, a world with Charles Xavier, and suddenly Magneto’s plans begin to come together. If everything works out the way he wants it to the world will be put right and all they’ve gone through will be a horrible nightmare that never happened.
Each title was replaced with a similar one, yet often drastically different. Uncanny X-Men was replaced by the Astonishing X-Men, which was lead by Magneto’s wife Rogue and featured characters like Sabretooth and Iceman. X-Men was replaced by Amazing X-Men, which was led by Quicksilver and featured characters like Dazzler and Storm. Wolverine was replaced by Weapon X, which starred Logan and his girlfriend Jean Grey. X-Force was replaced by Gambit & the X-Ternals, which were made up of Sunspot, Jubilee, Lila Cheney and others. Generation X was replaced by Generation Next, which featured the same characters but as taught by a very hardened Colossus and Shadowcat. X-Factor was replaced by Factor X, which featured Sinister, Beast, Cyclops, and Havok. Cable was replaced with X-Man, which featured a young man named Nate Grey, who was created by Sinister using the DNA of Cyclops and Jean Grey, and featured characters like Forge, Toad, and Sauron. Finally, Excalibur was replaced by X-Calibre, which was essentially a solo book for Nightcrawler (who was a total badass in the AoA timeline).
When all was said and done the timeline reverted back to normal, however a few characters carried over, like the Sugar man, the Dark Beast, and Apocalypse’s son and heir, Holocaust. The story proved so popular that Marvel has revisited it a number of times, most recently in the phenomenal Uncanny X-Force and some spin-off works. If you are even a casual fan of the X-Men this is must-read. Much like the Days of Future Past story did for Sentinels, the Age of Apocalypse made Apocalypse scary as hell, and showed what he had in mind for the world, so it was a huge deal every time he showed up.
Still one of the most popular stories Marvel comics has ever told.