We are receiving the start of a new Superman origin tale from the all-star team of Frank Miller and John Romita Jr. in Superman: Year One this week. Both creators have been a massive part of the superhero tradition, including the regular reinvention of origin stories. Ever since Action Comics #1 and Amazing Fantasy #15, DC and Marvel Comics have sought to retell and reinvent the initial myths that launched these legends of pop culture.
Throughout the past decade there have been too many retellings and reimaginings to count. However, it’s much easier to narrow these innumerable origins down to an elite tier. We’ve selected the ten (well, really eleven) best reimagined superhero origin comics ever. These are the stories that capture the best of their selected heroes and stand as a testament to the power of comics. So whether you’re looking for the best version of Batman’s beginning or just some excellent summer reading, all of these choices offer a great place to start.
Batman (vol. 1) #404-407
Written by Frank Miller
Art by David Mazzucchelli
This is the sort of classic that’s not worth burying in a list because we all know it’s coming. For as much attention as The Dark Knight Returns receives, this is the story that redefined Batman in comics for decades to come. The grittier take on the character helped influence a generation of detective tales and a more human version of Bruce Wayne. To top it all off, Mazzucchelli’s pages are still the gold standard for superhero art.
Daredevil: The Man Without Fear #1-5
Written by Frank Miller
Art by John Romita Jr.
It would be an understatement to say that Miller is influential in superhero comics. After his definitive run on Daredevil, he returned with collaborator John Romita Jr. to provide an updated origin for ol’ hornhead. This story, much like “Year One,” brings the fantastic elements of the superhero genre back to Earth while weaving many disparate threads into a coherent and compelling origin. Both the drama and action remain incredibly compelling today.
Shazam!: The Monster Society of Evil #1-4
Created by Jeff Smith
With movie audiences learning who Shazam is, there’s no better place for them to learn about his comic origins than this reimagining by consummate cartoonist Jeff Smith. In this origin Smith utilizes almost all of Shazam’s greatest allies and enemies, while telling a story that’s consistently delightful, even if it does go to some spooky places. It’s a tale perfect for children and adults, as only Smith can do it.
Hulk: Gray #1-6
Written by Jeph Loeb
Art by Tim Sale
Loeb and Sale are two of the most creatively successful collaborators in comics and all of their color-based Marvel origins are excellent. “Gray” stands above the rest though. It captures the unique pathos of this potentially gentle giant, his loneliness, fear, and ability to love, everything that makes him more heroic than monstrous. It’s often a desolate book, one willing to indulge landscapes as well as fights, and something worth returning to often.
Green Arrow: Year One #1-6
Written by Andy Diggle
Art by Jock
Before Arrow was even announced, this take on the “Year One” story was providing Green Arrow with a new origin and style that would soon be made massively popular. Everything from the deadly island adventure to the more rugged costume captured something in the zeitgeist, without losing the character turns and grit that make Green Arrow beloved. It’s a perfect example of how to update an old superhero for a new generation.
Ultimate Spider-Man #1-7
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Art by Mark Bagley
The Ultimate line succeeded as much because of the quality of its stories as its concept. There’s no better example of this than the kick-off of Ultimate Spider-Man. This introduction took a portion of Amazing Fantasy #15 and expanded on it using modern dialogue and storytelling. It keeps everything that is essential from Ditko and Lee’s creation, while making those same ideas much more accessible. A perfect starting point for any new superhero reader.
Fantastic Four: Unstable Molecules #1-4
Written by James Sturm
Art by Guy Davis
This non-traditional take on the Fantastic Four captures the themes that made the rebirth of Marvel Comics so appealing. It’s a fictional history of four people who inspired the team in comics. Their dysfunctional relationships call back to the earliest issues of the Kirby and Lee run, shocking modern readers in a way that Fantastic Four #1 might. It is both an accomplished experiment in storytelling and true to the spirit of Marvel’s first family.
Superman: Birthright #1-12
Written by Mark Waid
Art by Leinil Francis Yu
There’s a lot to this updated Superman origin and it’s all good. The story refocuses Superman’s origin on the nature of his alienness as Lex Luthor stirs up xenophobic fears. It’s a concept that’s as relevant as ever, focusing on the battle between humanity’s best angels and worst demons as represented by these two iconic rivals. The final issue remains an all-timer with at least one moment guaranteed to jerk tears.
X-Men: Grand Design #1-2
Created by Ed Piskor
The first segment of Ed Piskor’s X-Men trilogy perfectly sets up the franchise as most fans know it today. It features many adventures of characters like Magneto and Professor Xavier prior to the X-Men and the first class period that is often skipped to reach the Claremont era. This beautifully designed history imparts a lot of knowledge in an entertaining manner, preparing readers to jump into modern X-Men stories.
Batman (vol. 1) #21-27, 29-33
Written by Scott Snyder
Art by Greg Capullo
When “Zero Year” began it was under the shadow of “Year One.” This series managed to strike its own course and not draw any unfortunate comparisons. Where “Year One” went small, this story goes gigantic, expanding on the villains, stakes, and even the color palette of Batman. It’s a very different take, but one that’s every bit as worthy of being on this list, as it set Batman up for another generation with a new style and new fears to confront.
All-Star Superman #1 (page 1)
Written by Grant Morrison
Art by Frank Quitely
Eight words. Four panels. One perfect encapsulation of Superman’s origin. The very first page of All-Star Superman is pure comics poetry, reminding us all how much the medium can accomplish in very limited space. In spite of, or perhaps because of, its simplicity, this one-page origin must be included in any “best of” list.