Best DC Comics to Binge Read on DC Universe
With an enormous swath of the world involved in varying degrees of social distancing, many of us suddenly find ourselves with a lot of time on our hands. Never fear! There are more options for streaming comics than ever before, and that means we have access to more of comics history, more hidden gems and epochal runs than ever before. But the variety of options to read can be daunting. That’s why we’ve put together a recommendation list of some of our favorite comics binge reads to help you through quarantine.
DC Universe rolled out in 2017 as the first full-service entertainment streaming platform – old shows, old movies, new shows, new movies, and a huge library of comics. And while a lot of the excitement over the platform has been about that original or new shows (justifiably! Harley Quinn and Doom Patrol are amazing!), it also gave us access to a staggering catalog of old comic books.
If you’re coming to a comic streaming service like DC Universe, chances are you don’t need us to recommend the hits. Nobody who watches the CW shows needs to be told that Crisis on Infinite Earths is worth reading. Likewise Batman: Year One, or All-Star Superman or The Great Darkness Saga. We’re going to skip over some of the obvious ones and point you towards hidden gems, stories you might have otherwise skipped over but for a trusted recommendation. We are also looking for monster runs that will keep you occupied – you can read six issues in one sitting. Some of these might take you an entire round of social distancing to finish.
A quick note about the reading guides: Many of them may have their own separate entry under DC Universe’s reading lists – those are helpful, but these are definitive. We will occasionally link to non-Den sources, but if you like what you hear, you should be encouraged to find your own best path. A lot of these stories wend through crossovers that are of varying degrees of relevance to the main books. It’s your call if you want to read the whole thing.
The Death and Return of Superman
The Death of Superman Reading Order
I know I said we wouldn’t talk about obvious must reads, but I feel like The Death of Superman (and it’s aftermath, World Without a Superman, Reign of the Supermen, and Kal-El’s inevitable return) should be on here. They can’t really be recommended enough.
“The ‘90s” are often maligned as a wave of gimmicks and stunts, and killing the most important comic character in the history of superhero books definitely qualifies as a stunt. But what made The Death of Superman stand out (and several other ‘90s DC events, to be honest) is that it was actually very good. This era of Superman comics is actually a hidden gem – Clark is a joy, and all the weirdness and fun of the Superman universe is in full swing, like Cadmus, Mxyzptlk, and a truly bizarre (but surprisingly good) Justice League roster.
The four writers – Jerry Ordway, Louise Simonson, Roger Stern, and Dan Jurgens – move pretty seamlessly between them on the main Superman books, and the art teams (Jon Bogdanove, Jurgens, Butch Guice, and Tom Grummett especially in the Death story) do amazing jobs of telling the story. Don’t be fooled by how gimmicky this feels, The Death and Return of Superman actually lives up to the hype.
Batman & Robin
Batman & Robin #1-17, Annual #1, Batman #17, Batman & Robin #18-32, Robin Rises: Omega, Batman & Robin #33-37, Robin Rises: Alpha #1, Batman & Robin #38-40, Annual #3
The Pete Tomasi/Patrick Gleason run on Batman and Robin never got the love it should have, because it ran parallel to two of the most high-profile Bat-comics of all time in Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman, and the back half of Grant Morrison’s story in Batman Incorporated. But in ten years, people are going to be looking back at this as a classic.
This is a controversial claim, but if you read this run, I think it holds up: Pete Tomasi writes the best Damian Wayne. He’s the right mix of arrogant little shit and not-actually-as-competent-as-Batman, and he actually learns lessons in this run that feel earned. He also dies during these stories, and Tomasi gets the chance to explore Bruce’s way of grieving, as well as drop in a series of guest stars that includes the best Two Face story I’ve ever read. Gleason and inker Mick Gray are utterly incredible, and do as much with one sixth-page panels with heavy inks and silhouettes as many art teams do with full page splashes. It’s a great, underrated run that I think you’ll love.
Wonder Woman (2006) #14-44, one story in #600
Oh my goodness Gail Simone’s Wonder Woman is exactly, precisely what I want out of a Wonder Woman comic. To me, Diana’s comics are an exception in that they should be as focused on how to avoid fighting as they are on the action. This run does that perfectly: she isn’t a belligerent meathead looking to stab everything in sight (but she does spend a little time with a neat Conan analogue, while we’re on the subject). She’s truly an agent of peace who then periodically has to kick some ass.
The art is really good – Aaron Lopresti and Bernard Chang handle the bulk of it, and the storytelling and pacing are really well handled, but the panel borders stand out as especially interesting and visually entertaining. The guest stars are great – Black Canary brings Diana to Roulette’s fight club for a couple of issues, and there’s a big Power Girl punchup later in the run. This is just excellent, excellent Wonder Woman storytelling.
Suicide Squad on Comic Book Herald (end at issue #66)
John Ostrander, Kim Yale, and (mostly) Luke McDonough’s original Suicide Squad is a revelation. The concept is almost overdone at this point, and is a little bit ruined by putting big names like Harley Quinn on the team, but taking a batch of nobody villains and putting them on suicide missions to earn their freedom actually sets serious stakes, and this book does everything it should with those stakes. This is politics and espionage and force projection all wrapped into a story that makes the DC Universe feel more complete.
Beyond the plotting, though, there are so many great characters that come out of these books. Amanda Waller is one of the single best characters in all of DC Comics, and this is the run that made her the badass who can face down Batman in the shower without flinching. Punch and Jewlee are hilarious running gags. Deadshot gets some incredible work. Hell, even Captain Boomerang gets multiple dimensions added to him (without ever losing his core concept: he’s a giant asshole). I promise you, I’m underselling how good this era of Suicide Squad is.
Legion of Super-Heroes
Legion of Super-Heroes Secret Files & Origins #2; Legion of Super-Heroes (1989) #122-125 alternating issues with Legionnaires (1993) #79-81; Legion Lost (2000) #1-12; Legion Worlds (2001) #1-5, The Legion (2001) #1-26, Legion Secret Files & Origins 3003; The Legion #27-33
If you loved Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning’s Marvel space work, when you read their Legion of Super-Heroes, you’ll be baffled at how Guardians of the Galaxy ended up on the big screen and not this.
The Legion of Super-Heroes is generally regarded as…not the most newbie-friendly superhero team in the world. Fair or not, this run of Legion comics is incredibly accessible and does as good a job integrating them into the larger DC Universe as any I’ve read. It’s also exactly like DnA’s Marvel cosmic work, in that it is wonderful space opera that happens to have superheroes. The first batch of stories deals with a wave of catastrophes hitting the galaxy in quick succession. Legion Lost has a group of Legionnaires get thrown outside of the galaxy as they’re trying to fix one of the first catastrophes. Legion Worlds serves as a series of check-ins with popular Legionnaires left behind in the United Planets and is a really effective way to hook you into the 31st century of the DC Universe.
And finally, The Legion is an outstanding team book following all of those. Legion Lost is an unquestionable highlight; Olivier Coipel’s art is incredible, and the story will make you launch your tablet/phone/computer across the room at a couple of twists. This run is incredible comics.
Justice League International
…you don’t have to read all of this, but if you feel like going for it, do it. You can stop at the red dots, though.
The Bwa-Ha-Ha era is half-superhero comic, half-workplace comedy, the template for greatness to come in Legends of Tomorrow, but a great superhero work in its own right. It’s an era of Justice League that takes itself (and its villains, and its stakes) much less seriously than just about any other era of the last 40 years. If you were raised on the post-Morrison “New Olympus” era of the League, the tone shift might be a little jarring. But that tone shift is part of what makes Keith Giffen, J. M DeMatteis, and Kevin Maguire’s run on Justice League special.
There are so many really good characters in this book, but one of the best parts is how much it does for both the League staples like Martian Manhunter and Batman, alongside the…less substantial…characters. Blue and Gold (Beetle and Booster, respectively) got their start here, and that one panel where Batman knocks out Guy Gardner that gets shared around the internet once a year is from this era.
And besides being great comics, this run is also the favorite Justice League of a disproportionate amount of current comics writers, giving it an outsized influence on not just current books, but the rest of pop culture that superheroes have taken over – Wonder Woman 1984 is probably going to owe a HUGE debt to the Max Lord created by Giffen, DeMatteis, and Maguire.
Deathstroke: Rebirth #1; Deathstroke (2016) #1-18; Titans (2016) #11; Teen Titans (2016) #8, Deathstroke #19-20, Teen Titans Annual #1, Deathstroke #21-42 (and when they go up, read The Lazarus Contract crossover and through issue #50 of the main series)
Priest’s Deathstroke is the best book that came out of DC Rebirth. Under normal circumstances, Slade Wilson sucks. He too often falls into a murder daddy archetype, a super cool anti-hero who goes big on the violence and the dysfunction as background statuses, and not as relevant parts of his story. Priest turned all that on its head and turned in a 50 issue run (plus a couple of specials, annuals and crossovers) that was about a father who loved his kids and didn’t know how to tell them, who also happened to be a top shelf mercenary and supervillain.
That’s not to say there isn’t some super cool ass-whipping in it. Batman and Damian Wayne are recurring characters, as Priest sets up a mystery that might undo Damian as a character and gives more depth to Deathstroke’s issues with the Teen Titans. There’s an entire arc dedicated to him fighting various aspects of his own personality, personified in other villains from the rest of the DCU.
And it’s all so clearly and aggressively Priest – it has all the same style as his iconic Black Panther run, but with different storytelling to fit Slade’s tale. This is one of my favorite comics from recent years.
Starman Reading Order on ComicsBackIssues
For about three quarters of my entire life, DC had an absolute stranglehold on legacy in superhero comics. The entire DC Universe was littered with stories about someone new picking up an old cowl and an old title and having to grow into that role, whether it’s Jason Todd as Robin, Wally West as Flash, Dick Grayson as Batman, Kyle Rayner, Connor Hawke, Tim Drake, Stephanie Brown. The list is nearly endless. The thing is, it’s a really good story archetype and an excellent use of shared universe superhero trappings to give heft and depth to stories that are otherwise not really allowed growth.
No comics did it better than James Robinson and Tony Harris’ Starman. It tells us the story of Jack Knight, the extremely Gen X son of golden age Starman Ted Knight. Ted is retired and passed his cosmic rod onto his son David, who gets murdered at the end of the first issue. It’s a hit on Ted’s whole family by one of his old villains, and Jack has to take up the rod to survive. Then he gets thrown into the mythology of the DC universe explained through the Starman legacy. It’s beautiful, fun, sad, meaningful, and heartfelt, and I bet you $1 that you cry at least once.
The Question (1986) #1-15, Detective Comics Annual 1988 , Green Arrow Annual 1988 , The Question Annual #1, The Question #16-24, Annual #2, #25-36
Everyone jokes about how much of scenic Gotham City is abandoned amusement parks and chemical plants, but Gotham City is a family-friendly resort compared to the Hub City of Dennis O’Neill and Denys Cowan’s The Question. “Atmospheric” doesn’t even begin to describe this run.
It takes The Question, a character created by Steve Ditko, co-opted and pastiched as Rorschach by Alan More and Dave Gibbons in Watchmen, and introduced him to the DC Universe proper by putting Vic Sage through a spiritual ringer. Everything about this book is incredible – Vic is a terrific character; his supporting cast is thoroughly real; the book ties into the greater DC Universe really well (via Richard Dragon, Lady Shiva, and the annual crossover in the middle with Batman and Green Arrow).
But the real star here is Hub City, a love letter that’s also hate mail to mid-80s urban blight as scenery. And Cowan and inker Malcolm Jones III’s art – it’s tremendous.
Orion (2000) #1-25
I’ve been a fan of Walt Simonson’s Thor since I first read it, because it’s obviously incredible. But I didn’t realize until Thor: Ragnarok and DC Universe came out that Simonson might be the best comic creator to follow up on Jack Kirby’s ideas of all time, and it was Orion that really did it for me.
Simonson puts Orion, son of Darkseid raised on New Genesis by Highfather as part of the peace treaty between the two factions of New Gods, on his prophesied track to kill Darkseid, and finishes it pretty early on. The fifth issue is just Simonson drawing a huge blowout fight between the two, and it’s predictably gorgeous. But he sticks with the story past that battle and digs deep into Orion’s character, the mythology of the New Gods, and some of Kirby’s best creations (the Newsboy Legion has a running subplot and it’s awesome). It also has backups from some of the biggest superstars in comics (Frank Miller and Dave Gibbons, among others). This is a hefty run of comics, but you won’t be able to put it down.