Trade Perspectives: What Makes a Marvel Epic?


[Guest post by Doug Glassman]

With my Infinity Gauntlet review marking the last of my personal Marvel Epics and my review of The Dark Phoenix Saga coming up, I thought it might be a good idea to go back and identify the stories which define the spine of the Marvel Universe to me. My criteria are that the story redefines a character, team or universe; that it is limited to one story, even in a long run; that it is critically successful; and that it was published between 1979 and 1993. The following list is in roughly chronological order.

X-Men: The Dark Phoenix Saga. This story introduced Shadowcat, set up the still-continuing plot thread of humans as the most powerful threat in the universe, and is arguably the most important story in comic book history.

Thor: "Thor vs. Beta Ray Bill" (collected in Thor Visionaries: Walt Simonson Vol. 1). This was one of Thor’s most powerful defeats and one of the first times that the “if he be worthy” clause of Mjolnir was used.

Full Marvel Universe: Secret Wars. This was Marvel’s first mega-crossover, and it led to major changes in team rosters and characters. It also brought the disparate “superhero” and “mutant” sides of the Marvel Universe together.

Captain America: The Captain. This story features Cap resigning and a new, crazy replacement taking over. It explores Cap’s role in the Marvel Universe and a hero’s responsibilities.

Daredevil: Born Again. This story tears down its hero even further than The Captain and barely restores him to glory. It marks Daredevil’s final slide into being one of Marvel’s darkest heroes.

Avengers: Under Siege. This story features the villains uniting and achieving the Masters of Evil’s greatest victory. It also directly led to the Thunderbolts, perhaps the last of the great Marvel teams.

Iron Man: Armor Wars. This has Tony Stark’s greatest fear—mass misuse of his technology—come true. He wages a war against both friend and foe, cementing his paranoia for decades to come.

Spider-Man: Birth of Venom. This is the story of Spider-Man’s dark shadow coming back as perhaps his greatest villain. Venom would later become one of the key anti-heroes of the '90s.

Cosmic Marvel: Infinity Gauntlet. This story sees the forces of the Marvel Universe gather in a complex strategy against an omnipotent foe. Few stories can match the escalation seen here.

The only major characters to not have such an epic are the Fantastic Four. While John Byrne’s run is the closest, there is no overall story, and the Four have had few major sticking changes since the 1960s. Of course, there are some other choices. Kraven’s Last Hunt might be considered an alternate for Spider-Man, while Daredevil also has the Death of Elektra. Feel free to discuss your own Marvel Epic choices in the comments.

So that’s my Marvel Epic Theory. Many have been reviewed for this site, both by me and by Chris Marshall. Along with The Dark Phoenix Saga, I also plan on reviewing Thor Visionaries: Walt Simonson Vol. 1 in the near future. The rest are definitely options for the future for me or another reviewer. All of these stories deserve examination, as they are the core of Marvel’s publishing history.

Comments ( 10 )

  1. Just curious, as I'm not a Marvel reader, but why does your epic timeline end in 1993? Has nothing worthwhile happened in the last...20 years?

  2. And why does it start in 1979 and leave out the Kree-Skull War and the original FF Galactus Saga?

  3. I don't see what in this definition of the "Marvel Epic" separates an "Epic" from a particularly good creative run or story arc. For example, why do X-Men crossovers like Mutant Massacre, Fall of the Mutants, or Inferno not count? Why not The Trial of Galactus, or Weapon X, or the origin of the Hobgoblin (or the Clone Saga, for that matter)? I'm not saying necessarily that these stories [i]should[/i] be considered "Epics," just that the definition requires more clarification.

  4. Yeah, it's never explained why you chose that utterly random time period of 79-93...

    In my opinion the biggest storyline of the "recent times" has to be Civil War (2006-2007), which pitted Iron Man and Captain America against each other and ended with Cap getting shot to death.

    And "Secret Invasion" (2008) was a big storyline too, with many superheroes being revealed to be cunning Skrulls. And of course in 2005 the "House of M" storyline wiped out majority of mutants and affected the X-Men permanently.

  5. Demon in a Bottle was in '79. The Elektra Saga Daredevil #168-182 from the '80s

  6. The Death of Captain Marvel '82

  7. Storylines like the Dark Phoenix Saga and Born Again clearly belong on this list, but the suggestions related to Iron Man and The Avengers both struck me as questionable in comparison to others that had far greater impact.

    For my money, the Armor Wars "epic" pales in comparison to the Obidiah Stane saga that ran in Iron Man from 1982-1985. While the former story may have laid some of the groundwork for Tony Stark's contentious relationships with his friends and allies in the future, the main effect was that he went from the “silver centurion” armor back to a more traditional red and gold design. In contrast, the effects of the long-running struggle with Obidiah Stane on both Stark himself but the overall history of the character were far greater both within the comics and in the character’s jump to movies.

    As far as The Avengers, the Under Siege storyline is very good (with the final issue being terrific), but its overall impact on the team and the broader Marvel universe is nominal. The recently reprinted run of issues dealing with the fall and redemption of Hank Pym seems to fit the criteria identified far more readily.

  8. I think Byrne's Trial of Galactus/Reed Richards storyline should qualify as one of the quintessential Marvel Epics. Not only it features the definitive "everyone versus Galactus" battle, but it also cemented the concept of the cosmic entity that trancends the idea of good and evil.

  9. Thanks for the shout out, Doug!
    Based on the comments, we all have our own idea as to what "epic" means to us. There's nothing wrong with the list - God knows it could go on forever. I'm pretty sure you just wanted to get the ball rolling and start the discussion.
    It's all subjective. Much like a Mount Rushmore of Comic Creators or Baseball or Football players. But there should be a discussion.
    As to the point of no "epic" from the past 20 years - yeah, there's been several. Some have been big like Dissassembled and Civil War and smaller series ones like Punisher: Born or even a single issue like Captain America #25.

  10. Yeah, that's about as epic as it gets.
    Nice list!


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