10 Criminally Underrated DC Comics You Must Read –
The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, All-Star Superman and dozens more are oft considered DC’s greatest tales, but for every Batman: Hush, there is always a comic that deserves to be looked at with a similar eye.
Everyone has their own special book that is just as good as Watchmen, but doesn’t have the same recognition for one reason or another. Considering the sheer quantity of books DC have published, this was always going to be the case – however unfortunate it may be.
These books may have been critically adored at one point, or even did the rounds when they first came out, but they are still criminally underrated today. Each and every last one is worth reading though, and with books spanning from the most popular corners of the DC Universe all the way through to its more obscure areas, it’s clear that the publisher has a troff of under-appreciated gems in its library, just waiting to be read.
10. Before Watchmen: Minutemen
Watchmen is one of the sacred texts of the medium, so much so that it’s considered to be one of the finest novels of the 20th century. So, when DC announced in 2012 that they would be doing seven prequel comics for Watchmen, the comic fandom went into the usual uproar about changing the continuity.
The resulting backlash meant that, by the time DC published Before Watchmen, not many actually went out of their way to read it. In regards to Before Watchmen: Minutemen specifically, however, those that did read it had a positive outlook on it, with the book even garnering a bit of critical success.
Did it live up to the original? No, but the sordid details that Darwyn Cooke brought to the page illustrated a clear reverence for Alan Moore and David Gibbons’ text, while at the same time elevating the established canon. He told a fantastic story about Hollis Mason, the original Nite Owl, and how when superheroes aren’t invincible or super-powered it is much harder to be a boy scout than a traditional anti-hero.
Plus, with Hollis Mason as the point of view, the Minutemen as a group comes to life like the reader’s never seen them before – rough edges and all.
9. Simon Dark
Gotham City gets written off as the exclusive territory of the Bat-Family, but in 2007, another hero emerged with absolutely no crossover with the Bat-brand – Simon Dark. A Frankenstein of a character that protects the block of Gotham City known as “the Village”, the Dark’s story grows into something truly great by the end with a struggle for control over the flow of demons into Gotham.
There were only eighteen issues in this series but the patchwork protector had a full range of storylines, with Steve Niles able to pack so much into this book. The plots involved can get pretty dark, such as the reason he looks like Frankenstein, but there’s an odd air of fun about the whole thing. Scott Hampton on art is also a wonder to see as he uses the same grim and gritty art style for the covers in the main book – a frustratingly rare occurrence in the medium today.
Why was this gem overlooked? Well, it was published before digital distribution could make even the most indie comic a hit and it didn’t have a real jumping on point in an established property. Yes, it was set in Gotham, but that barely factors into the plot, especially when you had bigger events happening around that time.
8. The Atlantis Chronicles
The Atlantis Chronicles was a seven-part miniseries that told the history of Atlantis in a journal type of way.
From the skull-shaped meteor that caused the Great Deluge that sank Atlantis beneath the waves – showing how they evolved to live underwater, and bred with other sea creatures – all the way to Aquaman’s mother being the one chronicling events, the biggest events are shown to us without it ever feeling like a lecture or exposition dump.
Well-received by readers and even responsible for plot threads used in later Aquaman books, it gets overlooked primarily because it’s almost 30 years old and out of date with the modern continuity. However, modern audiences would appreciate it much the same way they would George RR Martin’s World of Ice and Fire, with the book acting more as a historical companion piece than an out and out comic.
7. Men Of War
The New 52 was pretty controversial, but that doesn’t mean that the company-wide reboot was wholly bad. There were several underrated titles that came out like Demon Knights, Voodoo, Dial H, Sword of Sorcery, or All Star Western, but the most underrated has to be Men of War.
A modernized throwback to the military comics of old, to the point where we see the grandson of the famous Sgt. Rock rise to the rank of Sergeant himself, Men of War was an interesting book. Filled with superheroes, unbelievable locales and cosmic beings walking the streets, this series held down the daunting task of being both realistic and set in a world that is a melting pot of genres.
Ivan Brandon on the main story, and a couple others writers on the back-up stories throughout, made that work. Tom Derenick’s pencils melded the absurd elements with the realism of the situations expertly too.
For the average reader in 2011, sadly, it had none of the hallmarks of the traditional title. A military book with two stories per issue, starring a character related to a character who hadn’t been prominent in decades, and none of the usual marketing trimmings to get people to hop into it put this book on the chopping block after only eight issues – along with so many other of the reboot’s comics.
6. Superman: American Alien
A controversial inclusion, considering it was a best-selling title, and even had high praise and accolades on launch, but it’s important to remember that buzz surrounding American Alien died down relatively quickly – not due to a drop in quality, but because of the massive turnaround time for comics in the last five years. Having Max Landis as writer generally gave it an already polarized audience as well.
American Alien takes seven issues to showcase the origins of Clark Kent becoming the archetypal hero we all know and mostly love. While each issue is self-contained, meaning it’s more seven one-shots than a proper miniseries, the sheer range of stories within allow for a greater depth and growth for Clark Kent than a single overarching story.
Starting with a touching tale about how he learned to fly with the help of Ma and Pa Kent, before shifting to a midpoint college-aged romp on a yacht where he’s mistaken for Bruce Wayne by a special guest assassin, to the strong finish on the day Superman chooses to be the protector of the human race, it all builds on the foundations that Superman is one of the most grounded characters in the DC Universe – despite his godlike powers.
In the 1980s, a lot of characters were getting revised backstories, like the acclaimed Batman: Year One or The Man of Steel, and Hawkman was no different. However, instead of being a new backstory for Hawkman as it was written, it became a present day story which just muddled his origin, and that led to a lot of confusion for the character in the decades following.
Regardless of its convoluted context, Hawkworld is a brilliant three-part limited series that focuses on Katar Hol, one of the privileged aristocrats living in the skies of Thanagar, as a young police officer dealing with the scourge of the slums below. His morals get the better of him and he tries to buck the corruption in the system, leading to trials and an exile. It also introduced Shayera, Hawkgirl, as a young rookie to be his partner.
This is one of those books that should be as acclaimed as its contemporaries. Timothy Truman really brings his A-game, from the injustices set upon the lower class by an aristocracy, to societal changes too. The miniseries also led to an ongoing series by John Ostrander where Katar and Shayera relocated to Chicago, so double points for also getting a great juxtaposition that really builds on what this limited series does.
4. Batman: Streets Of Gotham
Batman: Reborn was a brilliant time for the Batman series of books. Bruce Wayne was “dead”, Dick Grayson had taken up the mantle as the Dark Knight, and a good number of new titles were launched. With so many titles releasing at the same time, there will always be one at the bottom of the pile, regardless of quality. That is why Streets of Gotham got the short end of the stick.
The basic premise of the book was a “street level” view at the Gotham City superheroes, meaning that even though Batman, Robin and others from the capes and cowls crowd would appear, the perspective would be from those literally from Gotham’s streets. In doing so, we get to see not only the world without Bruce Wayne, but are also able to further plots that would be hindered by more traditional methods of storytelling, which placed Bruce Wayne as the narrator.
As a writer, Paul Dini has been the scribe for many fan-favorite DC projects and this has that same passion without the same fanfare. It would also be a disservice to not at least mention the Manhunter backup story, where we follow the new Gotham City District Attorney, Kate Spencer, as she tries to uncover what really happened to her predecessor.
3. Legion Lost
The Legion of Super-Heroes is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. (Seriously.)
Sadly, the cast of characters within the Legion can be a brick wall for anyone who wants to really get into any of the team’s titles. That size has led to some of the greatest ongoing DC storylines to be overlooked by the mass audience.
That is where Legion Lost comes into play and shines. Set in the 30th century, several members of the Legion are stranded on the other side of the universe with one mission: to return home. While a simple premise, the interpersonal relationships and adventures they face along the way are what truly creates a top-tier book. Past continuity is brought up but it never hinders the story being told as each issue is from a different Legionnaire’s perspective.
Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning are known for their work at Marvel years later with the relaunch of Guardians of the Galaxy, but this is where that partnership really took flight. It is for that reason, more than any other, that the book deserves recognition.
Everyone knows about that cigar-munching, dolphin-loving bastiche, Lobo, but what if there was someone who was equally dripping with raw nineties machismo and a penchant for over-the-top violence?
Hitman was a book that spun out of the Bloodlines event, where a contract killer was given x-ray vision and minor telepathy after being bitten by a parasite. Since he’s already a contract killer, he decides to specialize in taking contracts against metahumans and superheroes.
The best way to clearly explain this book is in the first storyline, called A Rage in Arkham. An alien race hires Tommy Monaghan, the titular hitman, to take out the Joker in Arkham Asylum and Batman is on the trail to try and stop him.
Simple enough, right? Except it isn’t the Joker, but a demon from Hell used as bait for other demons to try and have Tommy join their army because they feel he’s such a bad guy, which complicates things somewhat.
Unlike Lobo, who evolved into being a parody of the whole thing, or much later with Deadpool and his insanity, Hitman was first and foremost trying to be a lighthearted book with some spectacular guest stars from the DC Universe. For fans of Garth Ennis, his style is clearly present here and it is one of the most criminally underrated gems from DC’s archives.
1. The Warlord
Travis Morgan was a Vietnam War pilot until he flew his plane through a hole in the Arctic, finding himself downed in a world of swords and sorcery at the centre of our planet. Armed with his service revolver, his wits and a dynamic, diverse cast of characters, Travis takes on the battle against Deimos, the evil wizard. Akin to John Carter of Mars, or the more obvious inspiration, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ At the Earth’s Core and other Pellucidar books, Skartaris is a world of high fantasy.
Mike Grell truly nailed a concept and a series both in his writing and in his illustrations, having a 133 issue-run from 1976 to 1988, and even being so popular that there was a toyline.
How could this be the most underrated of all DC comics? Even with trying to bring it back a couple times, including one time with Mike Grell returning, the modern mainstream market just doesn’t seem to care for this kind of story. An original, experimental, high fantasy just doesn’t have the reflective weight that it should, making it truly criminal that it isn’t considered a must-read.