Thirty years ago this month, the first issue of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen hit shelves, forever altering the comics landscape with its deconstruction of the superhero genre. Its critical and commercial success ushered in a new era of storytelling, one that took the classic good-vs.-evil model and exposed it to real-world cynicism and sophistication. Today, nearly all superhero stories owe at least a little to the lauded miniseries, while many could be considered direct thematic descendants. Here are 13 that carry the torch.
What's life like in a city filled with daily battles between superheroes and villains? Busiek, Anderson, and Ross offer a glimpse with their long-running series that focuses on the personal lives of its titular city’s super-powered population. Intimate portraits take the place of high-flying fisticuffs, resulting in a more humanistic, lived-in superhero comic. Busiek and Ross originally laid out this formula with 1994’s Marvels, which took a ground level narrative approach to the Marvel Universe. The series and its creators have received numerous accolades including Eisner and Harvey Awards for Best New Series, Best Continuing Series, Best Single Issue or Story, Best Writer and Best Cover Artist.
When members of the Union, a superhero team formed in the mid-20th century, begin to retire, they pass the crime-fighting responsibility to their offspring despite stark differences in attitudes and ideologies. Specifically, the progeny of the team leader Utopian seem to have more interest in living a celebrity lifestyle than playing hero. Differences also arise between the Utopian and his brother, who disagree about the fundamental roles of superheroes in the post-capitalism 21st-century. Jupiter’s Circle, a prequel series centered on the Union in its heyday, began in 2015.
A dozen crime-fighters are captured and cryogenically frozen by Nazis during World War II only to be buried and forgotten until they are discovered and revived in the 21st century. The team, known as the "Twelve," adapt to their new surroundings in myriad ways, from full embrace to psychotic breakdown. Like Watchmen, underlying tension between members and a murder force the Twelve to reckon with their existence both before and after their reawakening.
The world was changing rapidly around the mid-20th century following the conclusion of WWII, with superheroes witnessing the end of one era and the start of another. Cooke depicts the Golden-to-Silver Age transition against the backdrop of America’s rise to international superpower, as well as the advent of the Cold War. Veterans like Batman and Wonder Woman team up with a rising crop of heroes including a new Flash and the Martian Manhunter to face a threat more pressing than any personal angst. Winner of numerous Eisner and Harvey Awards, as well as the Shuster Award.
After an accident, a young man is granted omnipotent powers which subsequently divorce him from reality in Arcudi and Snejbjerg’s 2010 graphic novel. At first, Eric uses his powers for good, but things take a dark turn when he deems himself divine and begins to act out violently and without restraint. His childhood friends, whose lives were also significantly altered by Eric’s powers, follow his path of destruction, hoping to avert further tragedy.
What if Superman suddenly became evil? That’s the premise of Waid, Krause and Barreto’s hypothetical series, where longtime hero the Plutonian turns bad and becomes a global menace, killing millions. His former team, the Paradigm, appear to be the only ones with a chance of stopping him, but even they seem outmatched. A sequel, Incorruptible (2009–2012), follows one of the series' villains as he tries to leave his evil past behind. Waid received the 2012 Eisner Award for Best writer partly for his work on both comics.
A minister begins to have apocalyptic visions as a new wave of superheroes, led by the uber-powerful but amoral Magog, come into conflict the old guard like Superman and Wonder Woman. A number of other heroes, including an aged Batman, attempt to reconcile the situation and prevent a potentially cataclysmic battle. Ross originally developed the idea as an opus for DC’s characters and supposedly took inspiration from Watchmen and an unused Alan Moore script. A two-issue prequel, The Kingdom, which bridges the gap between DC continuity and Kingdom Come, was published in 1999, as well as a number of one-shots featuring the story's characters.
After a government program allows anyone to obtain superpowers, the world is teeming with would-be heroes who are not mentally or morally up to the task. When many of these superheroes inevitably go bad, it’s up to “cape killer” Marshal Law to hunt them down, a task he revels in. Mills and O’Neill delight in skewering the superhero genre, desecrating sacred cows with their S&M-clad antihero and his ultraviolent methods. Since its debut in 1987, the series has jumped from one publisher to another, and the character has appeared in a number of inter-company crossovers.
The Authority follows the eponymous superhero team as they face a variety of threats ranging from political conflicts to inter-dimensional crises. The series takes a decidedly mature, real-world view of superheroes, especially in their limits and personal shortcomings. It is also notable for containing the first same-sex wedding in superhero comics, between members Apollo and Midnighter (who are based on Superman and Batman, respectively). Over the years the series has gone through multiple relaunches and personnel changes, with creators including Grant Morrison, Gene Ha, Keith Giffen, Christos Gage, Darick Robertson, Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning.
What is the purpose of superheroes in a world without crime and villainy? That’s the question the members of U.T.O.P.I.A.N. struggle to answer after they succeed in eradicating all evil on Earth. Most easily adapt to peacetime, but one member, Sabre, is skeptical of the world’s newfound purity. Against the team’s wishes, he attempts to uncover its cause, despite any potential consequences.
Published under the umbrella of Marvel’s more realistic Ultimate line, the Ultimates follows the formation of an Avengers-like team made up of Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Giant Man, and the Wasp. The series offers "widescreen" cinematic action as well as political and even psychological commentary on superheroes. It also served as inspiration for Marvel’s cinematic universe, particularly The Avengers. The Ultimates team has appeared in two numbered sequels, as well as various ongoing series.
Following the conclusion of World War II and amidst shifting views on superheroes, members of the “Golden Age” adjust to their new postwar lives while bearing deep emotional and psychological scars. The book follows a number of heroes including Johnny Quick, Miss America, and Starman, but largely centers on Tex Thompson, who triumphantly returns from overseas to pursue a life in politics, but also harbors a dark, dangerous secret.
In Meltzer and Morales's thriller, the Justice League must avenge one of their own after Sue Dibny, wife of the Elongated Man, is murdered. However, in the course of their investigation, a morally questionable episode in the League’s past is revisited, causing a rift between members, particularly Batman. The limited series has achieved commercial success, but has also been maligned for its depiction of DC characters and its treatment of women as plot devices.
BONUS: Squadron Supreme
Originally created as analogs for DC Comics’ Justice League, Squadron Supreme’s mid-1980s miniseries predates Watchmen, but broaches similar subjects such as justice, liberty and surveillance. In it, the Squadron assumes global control in an attempt to make the world more peaceful, but the power begins to corrupt members of the team, leading it to fracture on ideological lines.