Top 10 most influential comics in history

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In the history of comics (or “graphic novels”, if you want to be all serious about it) there are some titles which have redefined the genre. Some did this by introducing characters which later became archetypes, while others changed the things people thought possible in graphic form. And some were just good, old-fashioned immense fun, of a kind which wasn’t thought possible before.

We’ve picked ten of the individual comics and series which we think have had the biggest influence on the medium. Some were easy picks, others were less obvious - and if you’re a fan, you’ll undoubtedly disagree with at least one of them. Read on to find out more...

Action Comics #1 (1938)
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Action Comics #1 (1938)

Action Comics #1 (1938)

This is where it all really began. Superman wasn’t the first superhero, but when he was introduced in Action Comics #1 in 1938, he pretty much set the archetype for the genre. What’s fascinating about the panels featured is how complete the Superman story which we all know and love is, from his origin as an alien baby sent to Earth from a dying world through to his alter-ego, Clark Kent.
If you’re lucky enough to find one of these lurking in your attic, take very good care of it. Estimates of the number of copies in existence range from 50 to 100, and in 2014 a copy was sold on eBay for $3.2 million. 

Detective Comics #27 (1939)
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Detective Comics #27 (1939)

Detective Comics #27 (1939)

As with Superman, Batman (or “The Bat-man” as he was often known) made his first appearance in Detective Comics with most of the elements we would recognise intact. Bruce Wayne, the “socialite” flipside of Batman, is there complete with Wayne Manor, as is Commissioner Gordon. What’s notable, though, is that Batman is a much darker figure than he would become later: there are several killings in the issue, and no punches are pulled. 

Mad #1 (1952)
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Mad #1 (1952)

Mad #1 (1952)

It’s easy to make a case that without Mad Magazine’s slapstick satire, there would have been no South Park. The great film critic Roger Ebert once credited the movie satires which were a staple of Mad with teaching him to write reviews with a more critical eye. And its culture of cynicism through humorous mockery set the tone for part of the counter-culture of the 1960’s, and influenced virtually every kind of comedy which came after it. Would Saturday Night Live exist without Mad? 

Uncanny X-Men #108 (1977)
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Uncanny X-Men #108 (1977)

Uncanny X-Men #108 (1977)

The X-Men had been around for some time prior to the team-up of Chris Claremont and John Byrne, but the two of them set the new standard for superteam books, saved the character of Wolverine from an ignominious end, and put the team into overdrive. The Claremont/Byrne X-Men were fast, brash and exciting, and brought story arcs like “Dark Phoenix” and “Days of Future Past” to the fore. Without them, there’s virtually no chance the X-Men films would have been made, and the team itself might well have ended up forgotten.

Maus (1986)
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Maus (1986)

Maus (1986)

Part biography and part fiction, Maus tells a personal tale of the Holocaust, but is a very different kind of story. Art Spiegelman depicts Jews as mice and the Nazis as cats, which allows the reader to abandon their preconceptions about human nature and focus on the narrative itself. Completed in 1991, Maus was the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize, as well as becoming a staple part of academic literature courses in the Western world. 

Watchmen (1986)
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Watchmen (1986)

Watchmen (1986)

Winner of many, many awards, Watchmen was designed from the word go to show off the kinds of techniques which only comics are capable of. And that is both Watchmen’s strength and weakness: there is so much technique in it that you often forget about the story. Along with the next entry on our list, Watchmen virtually defined the “dark superhero” genre, and changed the way many people see comics.

The Dark Knight Returns (1986)
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The Dark Knight Returns (1986)

The Dark Knight Returns (1986)

Frank Miller’s four-part series The Dark Knight Returns not only reinvigorated Batman, along with Watchmen it changed a lot of people’s perception of what comics could be and do. At the age of 55, Bruce Wayne has been retired from crime fighting for 10 years, returning to his war on crime with a viciousness which hadn’t been seen from the character for many years. Without Dark Knight, Batman would still be regarded as the jokey character from the 1960’s TV series.

Deadline (1988)
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Deadline (1988)

Deadline (1988)

The second summer of love in 1988 was reflected in Deadline, the British comic which introduced Tank Girl and many other fantastic (and fantastical) characters. Created by Brett Ewins and Steve Dillon, Deadline was a mix of strips and articles which felt incredibly of its time, but which – in hindsight – had a great influence on wider pop culture. Without Deadline, it’s doubtful that the Gorillaz would exist (whether you like them or not!)

The Sandman (1989)
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The Sandman (1989)

The Sandman (1989)

Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series was amazing for many reasons: the wonderful, well constructed narrative; the amazing characters; the reintroduction of the long-forgotten “urban fantasy” genre. With the persona of Death, it even managed to make goths look cool for a while. But most of all, it reminded a lot of people that comics didn't have to be about superheroes, at a time when a reinvigorated Batman was crushing his enemies beneath him, and it just looked so damn cool.

The Invisibles (1994)
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The Invisibles (1994)

The Invisibles (1994)

Featuring a scouse Buddha, a super-cool assassin who was a thinly-disguised version of the author Grant Morrison, and a transgender shaman, The Invisibles redefined weird and lit the fuse on Morrison’s career. Taking six years to complete, The Invisibles was epic in scope and occasionally utterly confusing: entire websites were built devoted to picking apart its plot, characters and meaning. 

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