A Movie Fan’s Guide to DC Comics
Are you digging the DC Extended Universe on the big screen? These are the comics you'll want to check out to get your fix between movies.
This article contains spoilers for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
So, have you been digging the brand new DC Extended Universe? Did Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice leave you eager for more adventures in this world? You’re in luck, because these films, as well as upcoming installments in the saga like Wonder Woman and the Justice League movie, all have their roots in some very specific comic book adventures, or at least will take some inspiration from them.
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This isn’t a complete reading guide to these characters, as we have some individual articles allowing you to dig deeper into your favorites (and more coming all the time!). But consider this a handy reference for comic book stories that either directly inspired the events you see on screen, are a match in terms of tone, or that we already know will influence future films.
I’ll even update this article as we get more information about upcoming movies! But for now, this can be a helpful DC Universe starter kit if you’re looking to dig into the comics. Click the orange Amazon links to buy ’em!
Superman: The Man of Steel
This one shares more than just a title with the first movie in the DC Extended Universe. John Byrne and Dick Giordano’s 1986 Superman reboot re-tells the legend as effectively and concisely as any movie ever could. Opening on Krypton (and movie fans will spot plenty of ways this influenced the film) the first volume carries us through Superman’s first few years as a hero, including his first encounters with Lex Luthor, Bizarro, and more.
It’s funny, too. Byrne’s Superman (and the pacing of the story) definitely takes some inspiration from the series of films that starred Christopher Reeve, and now the post-Reeve era is looking to this comic for inspiration. Until Man of Steel, John Byrne had primarily been known as a Marvel creator, with career defining runs as artist on Uncanny X-Men and as writer/artist on Fantastic Four. But Man of Steel and his subsequent work with Superman stands as some of the best stuff he ever produced.
If you want to go beyond the origin story, DC Comics has been reprinting the entire run of Superman from here on in a series of helpful volumes. Byrne is joined in future volumes by the likes of Marv Wolfman, Jerry Ordway, Dan Jurgens, and many other comic book luminaries of the era. While these stories aren’t really “in continuity” anymore…well…nobody knows how any of that crap is supposed to work these days anyway. If you’re looking for a series of books that essentially function as “Superman 101” then pick these up.
Buy Superman: Man of Steel Volume 1 on Amazon
And they all lead nicely to another critical piece of DC Extended Universe mythology…
The Death of Superman
There are a few things you should know about this story. First of all, it’s far better than the shock value of killing off Superman would have you believe. Second of all, it was a really big deal when it happened. While Superman “dies” in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, we all know he’ll be back up and around in Justice League Part One.
But when Superman croaked at Doomsday’s hands in 1992, it took nearly a full year for his true resurrection to come around, and that was after dozens of issues of hints, allegations, and deliberate misdirections that included four other Supermen who rose to take his place. There was no internet to spoil things ahead of time, and readers were left to figure things out on their own.
Buy The Death of Superman on Amazon
I promise you, whatever Warner Bros. has in store for Superman’s return in the Justice League movie, it won’t be as cool as the massive saga contained in this volume.
The Dark Knight Returns
Seriously…do I even need to get into this with you? Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice takes a tremendous amount of visual inspiration from Frank Miller, Klaus Janson, and Lynn Varley’s The Dark Knight Returns. That’s not why you should read it, though. You should read it because The Dark Knight Returns is one of those rare works of art where you absolutely should believe the hype.
In 1986 when this thing was published, nobody particularly gave a damn about comic book continuity. The reason that DKR was so earth-shattering on its release is not only because it’s a smart, surprisingly nuanced take on the larger implications of vigilante superheroes, but because the prevailing pop culture image of Batman at the time was still the Adam West TV series, which is miles away from what you get here.
So the beauty of DKR is that it can be picked up and read by someone who has never read a single Batman comic, all you need is general fluency in “Batman as pop culture icon.” It doesn’t matter which version of Batman you grew up on; Adam West, the Burton/Schumacher era, the Nolan films, Batman: The Animated Series…any one of these can function as the backstory for DKR if that’s what you want. It’s the story of why Bruce Wayne comes out of retirement at the age of 50, his greatest battle against his most notorious enemy…and one against the guy who should be his friend. But you already knew that last part.
Buy The Dark Knight Returns on Amazon
And if you want to dig deeper into other Batman recommendations, we’ve got just the article for you. Check out our complete Batman reader’s guide right here.
Wonder Woman: Blood
There are so many awesome Wonder Woman comics that you can read, and we’ve catalogued them in detail in another article, which you can read here.
But if all you’re looking for is an introduction to the character pretty much as you saw her on screen, then allow me to introduce you to this book. Wonder Woman has had a rather complicated comic book history (see the article I linked before to get an idea of how complicated). But her journey from the page to the screen has involved a transformation of her general aesthetic to one of badass mythological warrior, and Blood is the story that cements it once and for all.
If you’re looking for a Wonder Woman story that leans heavily on the Greek mythology that inspired the character in the first place, then this is for you. If you want to see some absolutely stunning Cliff Chiang artwork, then this is also for you. DC’s New 52 relaunch had a lot of misfires, but Wonder Woman was certainly not one of ’em. This is where you start.
Basically, whenever they get around to telling Wonder Woman’s origin story in the Patty Jenkins directed flick (the one that’s coming on June 23rd, 2017), this is almost certainly the book that they’re looking to for inspiration. Just her origin story, mind you, not the story of the film itself!
Buy Wonder Woman: Blood on Amazon
Alright, maybe Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was a little too much of a tease for you. After a solid year of being shown pictures of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman together on screen, they didn’t really spend a whole hell of a lot of time working together, right?
Well, then allow me to suggest Trinity for you. Matt Wagner’s superhero opus is virtually forgotten these days, and it really shouldn’t be. All you need to really know about this one is that it takes place early in the careers of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, and it’s a perfectly self contained story that hits all of the classic character beats that you would want from a story like this.
Oh, and it is packed to the bursting with absurdly cool Matt Wagner art. If you’re looking for a more traditional take on DC’s big three (even if you really dug BvS), you really can’t go wrong with this one.
Buy Trinity on Amazon
Suicide Squad Vol. 1: Trial By Fire
The late ’80s were a great time for DC Comics (see the above inclusions of Man of Steel and Dark Knight Returns, for starters). I can’t say that this is the story that influences the upcoming Suicide Squad movie. I can’t even say there’s all that much crossover between the rosters of the team (then again, the Suicide Squad has a ridiculously high turnover rate, as you might expect). But Trial By Fire does feature Deadshot, Rick Flagg, Enchantress, and Captain Boomerang, which is close enough (keep in mind, these stories were published long before Harley Quinn had been created).
But what’s far more important than things like how many of the same characters it features, this volume serves as Suicide Squad 101. If you need to know what this team is all about (and the high body count associated with their ranks) then this is where it all begins. While there have been lots of Suicide Squad stories published in the DC Universe, the ones written by John Ostrander are unquestionably the definitive ones. Suicide Squad movie director David Ayer admitted to using this era of the comics as inspiration while the film was in production.
What’s great is that if you enjoy this one, DC has been reprinting Ostrander’s entire tenure as writer in a series of affordable volumes. So you can dig deeper into some of the best Suicide Squad stories ever told with little effort.
Buy Suicide Squad Vol. 1: Trial By Fire on Amazon
Justice League: Origin
I’m going to confess something to you: I’m not the biggest fan of this book. But here’s why it’s included…
The villain of this story is Darkseid, who is, for reasons I have outlined about a hundred times on this site by now, but most notably in this article right here, is going to be the bad guy in at least one of the upcoming Justice League movies.
Remember the weird winged thingies that were giving poor Bruce Wayne bad dreams in Batman v Superman? Well, they’re the actual invading army in this story, so it gives you some context for them.
It tells the origin of Cyborg, the guy who looked worse off than Alex Murphy at the end of the first act of RoboCop during the “Batman looks at superhero Easter egg videos on YouTube” scene in Batman v Superman. Remember the mysterious box that seems to make the experiment a success in that scene? That’s a piece of alien technology known as Mother Box, and there are lots of them in this story, and you’ll learn all about them.
Oh, and it also has that whole “everyone is an enormous penis” thing going for it that Batman v Superman did so well. When the heroes aren’t busy actually fighting each other (Green Lantern v Batman, Batman v Superman, etc), they’re usually busy insulting each other. It’s charming (and by “charming” I mean nothing of the sort!), and completely on message with the DC Extended Universe right now.
But it does have some really nice Jim Lee artwork. And since this was the first story published in DC’s (supposedly) movie-ready “New 52” continuity, it is a total, blank slate entryway for new readers. And also, with the exception of Green Lantern, this is the lineup that will feature in the first Justice League movie in 2017. GL will join the team in Justice League Part Two later on.
Buy Justice League: Origin on Amazon
Aquaman: The Trench
Fine, I admit it. We don’t know a damn thing about the Aquaman of the DC Extended Universe. And Jason Momoa sure doesn’t look like the “traditional” orange and gold, fair-haired King Arthur of the seas that you see in this volume.
But if I were a gambling man (and I’m not…you will all clean me out if we ever play poker together…which we will not), I would bet some serious seashells that lots of Aquaman’s general backstory as its portrayed in this book will form the basis of what we see on the screen.
Why? I’ll tell you why. Because Geoff Johns wrote this, and you’re going to see Mr. Johns’ name popping up as executive producer in lots of DC Extended Universe movies. This book was one of DC’s first key steps towards rehabilitating Aquaman and getting him big screen ready.
Also, and this part is the purest of speculation so please don’t put that much stock in it, the story itself seems pretty suited to James Wan’s directing sensibilities. That’s right, the Aquaman movie is directed by James Wan, primarily known for his horror work. The villains of this story are a race of zombie-like flesh eaters called the Trench. You want to establish Aquaman as a warrior king badass? Give him a seemingly undead undersea enemy to tear through, and let James Wan work his creepy magic on screen.
Buy Aquaman: The Trench on Amazon
Bonus note: If you’re going to pick this up, you may as well also go for Aquaman: Throne of Atlantis, which is actually the third volume of the New 52 series, as this also establishes some more of Aquaman’s history and introduces a potential big baddie for his own movie. Plus, it has the Justice League. Come to think of it this would be a cooler “starter” Justice League story than whatever they likely have cooking for those first two movies. It would serve the dual purpose of making Aquaman more important to the overall DC Extended Universe and give the team another Earth-based threat to deal with before taking on the cosmic horror of Darkseid.
Then again, this is a movie universe that thought it would be a great idea to kill Superman in his second movie, so clearly pacing isn’t too big a concern over there.
Buy Aquaman: Throne of Atlantis on Amazon
okay, don’t get any ideas here. As far as I know, The Flash movie starring Ezra Miller (not to be confused with the brilliant Flash TV series starring Grant Gustin) isn’t going to be based on Flashpoint. But quotes from Mr. Miller and others involved with the movie all seem to indicate that there will be some reality-bending weirdness attached to Flash’s powers in this movie, and reality bending weirdness is what Flashpoint is all about.
The other thing that Flashpoint has in its favor is that it’s 100% in line with the “everything is terrible” aesthetic of the DC movie universe. I don’t mean in a subjective “I don’t like this” way, I mean in that the story is relentlessly downbeat.
Barry Allen decides that he can stop the murder of his mother way the hell back in the past, and he does exactly that. Yay! But in doing so, the world becomes a ridiculous place where Barry never became the Flash, Atlantis is at war with Themyscira, Thomas Wayne is Batman, and the Joker is…ummmm…I’m not revealing that here.
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The Flash TV series has hinted at the events of Flashpoint during its run several times but the overall tone of this one seems better suited to the movies. Hell, maybe if we’re lucky it will be revealed that Batman v Superman actually took place in this corrupted timeline and there’s still a chance that superheroes can behave like superheroes are supposed to in these movies! Nah…
Mike Cecchini reads too many DC Comics, and if these aren’t to your liking, he’ll recommend more on Twitter.