Naming the best comic books of all time is no easy task, with each new decade delivering an instant-classic from Marvel, DC Comics, Image, Dark Horse, and many more. But a handful of famous comic books and graphic novels stand out above all the rest.
The medium has been growing exponentially since its early days in the 20th century. Gradually evolving mainstream culture and artistic approaches changed how comics and their characters are written, with each passing decade seeing more great comic stories published. DC and Marvel have unsurprisingly created some of the most famous comics ever, but the likes of Dark Horse and Image spawned some gems as well. And seeing our ranking slot bonus new member of the most iconic, acclaimed, or important comic books of all time, one publisher dominates the list.
Sin City (1991-2000)
Created by Frank Miller (Dark Horse)
His work with Batman and Daredevil is typically first to come to mind as writer and artist Frank Miller’s best comics, but he’s also written some classic non-superhero stories. One of the genre’s best black-and-white comics, Dark Horse’s Sin City is an acclaimed neo-noir story set in a bleak, authoritarian-run town in the United States. The comic was revered for its approach and heavy inspiration from pulp and crime-noir TV, movie, and magazine stories.
Likewise, it presented an engrossing change of pace by Miller writing Sin City more like a serialized TV/movie crime-drama in a comic book format. Though the second movie adaptation was poorly received, the initial 2005 movie received generally positive reviews.
Created by Garth Ennis & Steve Dillon (Vertigo)
As one of the comic book industry’s “big two” publishers, DC Comics is primarily known for its superheroes. However, their Vertigo imprint of comics spawned some timeless non-superhero classics. Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Preacher was one such cult-hit, with the story centered around a grim supernatural/religious disaster plaguing a small Texas town.
Jesse Custer, the titular preacher, becomes possessed by a supernatural entity comprised of pure goodness and pure evil, possibly becoming the most powerful entity in the universe. The story takes its small scope and eventually branches out across the country, meeting a bizarre cast of characters.
Batman: The Long Halloween (1996-1997)
Created by Jeph Loeb. Tim Sale & Richard Starkings (DC Comics)
The Dark Knight has amassed an impressive catalog of some of the medium’s best comics, and Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s The Long Halloween frequently ranks among the most accomplished and influential (let alone best) comics. It’s one of the best Batman comics to influence The Dark Knight Trilogy, proving to be one of the best examples of the superhero’s best traits.
The story arc is anchored by a detective-thriller premise, highlighting an element of Batman that often goes criminally forgotten in live-action. It does so while still embracing the noir hero’s dark, mythical atmosphere and imposing physical prowess. The Long Halloween is an engrossing crime saga that reminds fans how masterfully grounded, street-level stories can be done.
Kingdom Come (1996)
Created by Mark Waid & Alex Ross (DC Comics)
Expanding to the greater Justice League, Kingdom Come is a landmark comic in DC’s pantheon of stories. This alternate-canon comic was a sort of meta deconstruction of “superheroes” as a concept. Veteran writer Mark Waid and iconic artist Alex Ross put together a miniseries that detailed the fall in prominence of the outdated “traditional” heroes and the rise of dangerous copycats.
The traditional superheroes fall out of touch with the changing times and new threats, with Batman’s team trying to stop Lex Luthor and the impending conflict. It’s a fascinating alternate tale that stands as one of the famous Elseworlds imprint’s best comics.
V For Vendetta (1982-1985)
Created by Alan Moore, David Lloyd & Tony Weare (Vertigo)
Alan Moore is also known for his work with a few of DC’s superheroes, but V for Vendetta was another DC Vertigo comic that went in an excitingly different direction. It’s a dark political-dystopia story, where a fictional political party has successfully converted the United Kingdom into a gruesome neo-fascist police state.
The main character is the titular V, sporting the classic Guy Fawkes mask, leading an anarchistic revolution against the ruling oppressors. Given the intense premise, V for Vendetta tackles a variety of heavy political themes in a dense, elaborate story full of moral grays and extremes.
Batman: The Killing Joke (1988)
Created by Alan Moore, Brian Bolland & John Higgins (DC Comics)
As far as Batman goes, Moore and artist Brian Bolland created another one of the Caped Crusader’s best and most influential comics. Though The Killing Joke was a 46-page one-shot rather than a fleshed-out series, the story told is impressively dense. Like with The Long Halloween, The Killing Joke was instrumental as reference material for The Dark Knight Trilogy, namely in inspiring Heath Ledger’s immortalized take on the Joker.It’s one of the best comics the villain has featured in, and it highlights how the Clown Prince of Crime’s excuse for embracing madness is nothing more than thinly veiling his cowardice that only Batman has called out. Whenever a major live-action adaptation aims to bring in the Joker, The Killing Joke is the best source material for understanding why he’s such a compelling supervillain.
Batman: Year One (1987)
Created by Frank Miller & David Mazzucchelli (DC Comics)
Origin stories can occasionally feel like a dime a dozen and have understandably worn out fans’ patience over the years. However, Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Year One is among the most definitive comic book origins. The late Dennis O’Neil started Batman’s exceptional noir reinvention, and Year One was one of the comics that brought this evolution to a crescendo.
Down to the pulp-inspired artwork, it’s a rich and atmospheric crime drama that shows fans how Bruce Wayne came to be Gotham City’s watchful protector. Likewise, it served as a great parallel origin story for soon-to-be Commissioner Gordon alongside Batman, depicting the two as flawed characters that are ultimately trying to do the best they can to bring justice to Gotham’s systematic corruption.
The Sandman (1989-1996)
Created by Neil Gaiman, Sam Keith, Dave McKean, Mike Dringenberg (Vertigo)
The most iconic Vertigo series that DC published was its flagship The Sandman, written by the great Neil Gaiman and illustrated by numerous artists. The story revolves around Dream, one of the seven Endless, finding himself captured by cultists and forced to acknowledge that even entities that are even stronger than DC’s gods such as them need to accept inevitable change.
The Sandman is celebrated as Gaiman’s magnum opus and praised for its ethereal and surreal personifications of metaphysical concepts. The Endless are these personifications, as they embody some of the most powerful forces that make up the universe.
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986)
Created by Frank Miller, Klaus Janson & Lynn Varley (DC Comics)
Arguably the most popular Elseworlds Batman story is Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. While an unquestionable classic to most, some of its themes have been unfortunately misconstrued and subsequently glorified in the modern day. Despite this, it remains a gripping action and politically dystopian-set Batman arc portraying a more cynical, jaded version of the hero after the fall of most of its heroes.A 50-plus-year-old Bruce Wayne is compelled back into the cape and cowl after Gotham regresses into senseless crime and the U.S. government continually neglects the dying city. Meanwhile, the same governing body has effectively turned the once-great Superman into a political weapon and lapdog.
Created by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons & John Higgins (DC Comics)
Perhaps Moore’s most iconic work in comics came in his Watchmen series. Along with artists Dave Gibbons and John Higgins, the series functioned like a dark satirization of the superhero genre by portraying a group of morally-ambiguous “heroes” that are clearly — and dangerously — unstable in their respective ways.
The comic also incorporated (for its time) more contemporary elements like the Vietnam War and the Cold War. Doctor Manhattan, for instance, can be easily seen as the physical manifestation of paranoia over nuclear war breaking out. Along with the likes of The Sandman and The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen was one of the first few comic books of the time to rank on The New York Times Best Seller list.