"Hulk: Gray" (2003-2004)
For awhile there, writer Jeph Loeb and artist Tim Sale made a cottage industry out of reimagining superhero origin stories with a mixture of retro thrills and bitter melancholy. Their Long Halloween is an all-time Batman story, but I’ve always had a special fondness for their rendition of Bruce Banner’s very early days as a rampaging rage monster. It’s one of the best portraits of the Hulk legend as a twisted love story. Also, Gray Hulk rocks.
"Lucky," "Hawkeye" #1 (2012)
The best superhero comic book of the modern age gets off to a running star, as writer Matt Fraction and artist David Aja tell an energizing street-level tale about the least powerful (and most charming) Avenger.
"The Hero That Was!," "Captain America" #109 (1969)
In which Stan Lee and Jack Kirby retell the origin of Captain America. “Hero That Was” only arrived a mere quarter-century after World War II, but it ever-so-subtly establishes the tone that defines Captain America: A man out of time, looking back with just a little anger at the life he left behind.
"Doomquest," "Iron Man" #149-150 (1981)
An unusual hero-villain pairing, but Fantastic Four baddie Doctor Doom is actually an ideal antagonist for Iron Man: Two trauma-victim genius egotists, wrapped in nifty metallic armor. What could be better? How about time traveling back to King Arthur and the knights of Camelot? It’s a radical departure that actually brings out the best in Iron Man, proving that the military-industrial superhero still works even in the pre-industrial age.
"The Ballad of Beta Ray Bill," "The Mighty Thor" #337-340 (1983)
Nobody’s ever written Thor like Walt Simonson. And nobody’s ever drawn Thor like Walt Simonson. Experience the birth of a legend in this four-part story arc, which is one of the all-time great examples of Thor’s unique genre crisscross—it’s a romantic fantasy, a cosmos-spanning science-fiction tale, and a horrific creature feature.
"The Name of the Rose," "Black Widow" (2010)
The longtime supporting character gets her own solo tale, a globe-hopping espionage excursion with frequent A-list guest-stars.
"Armageddon," "Strange Tales" #167 (1968)
You should just pick up the entire Jim Steranko run on Nick Fury, but “Armageddon” is the stuff Pop Art dreams are made of—complete with a Lichtenstein-worthy four-page spread.
"All-Star Superman" (2005-2008)
At a cultural moment of near-total Batman dominance, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely released the defining Superman work of the new millennium: A 12-issue saga that weaves together the character’s strange history into a mythic saga that deconstructs the Superman legend while hyperbolizing it into new, colorful directions.
"Nothing Can Stop the Juggernaut," "The Amazing Spider-Man" #229-230 (1982)
Spider-Man never stops trying. Money problems? Girlfriend problems? Supervillain problems? Aunt May problems? He won’t let the bastards get him down. Not even when he’s facing off against the absolutely unstoppable Juggernaut. Writer Roger Stern and artist John Romita Jr. turn the faceoff into a vaguely Chaplinesque showdown, as a frustrated Spider-Man tries to weaponize the city itself against his indomitable foe.
"Batman: Black and White" (1996)
Everyone’s a Batman expert now. So skip straight to the advanced class with this anthology series, which lets an assortment of brilliant writers and artists have their way with the Dark Knight. Features some of the best and most mindbending takes on Batman.
"Vision & the Scarlet Witch: A Year in the Life" (1985)
A fascinating curio from a simpler, weirder time, when Scarlet Witch married the Vision, moved to the Jersey suburbs, had a couple sons, and occasionally fought supervillains. A low-key delight that lingers in Marvel history, given the generally tragic nature of everything that happened to Vision and Scarlet Witch later.
"Get Mystique," "Wolverine" #62-65 (2008)
There are better-known Wolverine tales—origin story Weapon X is a freaky delight, while the Claremont/Miller miniseries pretty much established everything iconic about the character—but I have a special fondness for this pulpy mid-’00s tale by Jason Aaron and Ron Garney. Cyclops sends Logan on a mission: Get Mystique, by any means necessary. The chase leads him to Afghanistan – and down the rabbit hole of his own strange history.
"Atlantis Chronicles" (1990)
A missing classic from the very early ’90s, in which writer Peter David and artist Esteban Maroto dive deep into the prehistory of everyone’s favorite punchline superhero. Atlantis Chronicles is basically Aquaman’s Silmarillion, a feast of High Nerd detail.
"The Wonder Woman Chronicles: Volume One," (1941)
Start at the beginning with the Amazonian superhero: This collection of the earliest Wonder Woman tales demonstrates the smart, strange, and fascinating mind of William Moulton Marston, the creator of Wonder Woman, who laced the character’s mythology with equal parts forward-looking feminism and proto-kink.
"X-Men: The Dark Phoenix Saga" (1980)
The stuff dreams are made of. Jean Grey. Absolute power. Absolutely corrupted. As superhero movies get more cosmic later this decade, they’ll be in direct competition with The Dark Phoenix Saga.