Classic Runs: Comic Books

Many comic books produce classic runs. Stories that help define certain characters and whose reputations last for many years.

Classic runs are the product of a particular creator or team of creators working at their peak. Classic runs also often produce controversy, as they take familiar characters into uncomfortable territory. But they also often introduce new characters and concepts that become important parts of the iconography of a franchise.

Here are thoughts on several classic runs. Note that dates and issue numbers discussed below are for the purposes of defining the timeframes of the particular classic runs discussed. Creators also may have worked on these series before or after these periods and the classic runs are understood to include any related annuals or specials not specifically enumerated.

Classic Runs: Claremont and Byrne — The Uncanny X-Men

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Many fans make a good argument for the partnership of writer Chris Claremont and artist/co-plotter John Byrne on The Uncanny X-Men [volume 1, #108–143, 1977–1981] as the most successful collaboration in comic book history. The duo took the already successful X-Men re-launch and turned the book into something legendary.

The highlight is the classic “Dark Phoenix Saga,” a daring storyline that turned beloved heroine Marvel Girl/Jean Grey into a genocidal cosmic entity. Beloved heroes just didn’t do that in the early ‘80s. The “Dark Phoenix Saga” rocked Uncanny X-Men and set up recurring elements that have remained crucial for decades (most recently getting the spotlight in the Avengers vs. X-Men event series of a couple years ago).

But that one story isn’t all that’s notable about this classic run. The Claremont/Byrne team zeroed in on potent interpersonal drama among their cast. The violent Wolverine was a particular source of conflict and the Cyclops/Jean/Wolverine triangle played out in subtle and surprising ways. Claremont and Byrne told memorable stories featuring classic X-villains Magneto, the Sentinels, Juggernaut and Black Tom and sent the heroes into deep space, where they encountered the alien Shi’ar and the Imperial Guard. The duo spun off an almost continuous stream of new characters and concepts that became part of the Marvel Universe bedrock: Alpha Flight, Kitty Pryde, the White Queen and the rest of the Hellfire Club, Dazzler and the new Brotherhood of Evil Mutants all debuted during this time. The duo really amped up the concept of anti-mutant prejudice and introduced the concept of the Mutant Registration Act. Their final story, “Days of Future Past,” presented a shockingly bleak concept of the future that’s driven stories for years and recently served as the basis of a blockbuster movie. As classic runs go, Claremont and Byrne’s Uncanny X-Men stint tops just about any list.

Classic Runs: Wolfman and Pérez — New Teen Titans

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Almost matching the Claremont/Byrne X-Men run was its DC contemporary and sales rival, The New Teen Titans [volume 1, #1–50 and volume 2 #1–5, 1980–1985] by writer Marv Wolfman and artist/co-plotter George Pérez. The Teen Titans had rarely sustained more than a mid-tier book for DC. The most recent attempt to revive the group had failed only a couple years earlier.

Wolfman and Pérez took a different approach. They created exciting new characters and placed them into daring, volatile situations. The New Teen Titans was ground zero for the comic book youth movement of the early ‘80s. Wolfman and Pérez focused on intense character drama, bigscreen superhero action and long-term plotting. Their most memorable stories included the saga with Trigon (the demonical father of new member Raven) and “The Judas Contract,” a stunning story that saw would-be heroine Terra infiltrate the team in order to betray them. The creators did some powerful work with the emotional lives of the cast, especially the complex Raven, and nudged them into young adulthood with appropriate issues and problems (superheroics or college?). Just acknowledging that the young heroes were sexually active was almost revolutionary.

Enduring character introduced during this run included Cyborg, Starfire, Deathstroke, The Fatal Five, the new Brotherhood of Evil, Brother Blood, The Hive and Jericho. This series was also the crucible that transformed Robin from Batman’s sidekick into his own hero, the enduring Nightwing. The Titans collaboration only ended when Pérez needed to turn his attention to the duo’s landmark Crisis on Infinite Earths series.

Classic Runs: The Ultimates — Millar and Hitch

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Some fans remember The Ultimates [volume 1, #1–13, volume 2, #1–13, 2002–2007] more for the lengthy delays involved in Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch finishing their reimagining of the Avengers for Marvel’s Ultimate imprint. Indeed, sometimes fans almost despaired they’d ever see the run’s conclusion. But when the smoke cleared, Millar and Hitch had produced a strong, creative spin on a classic Marvel franchise that would have outsized influence on Marvel’s multimedia expansion.

In many ways, The Ultimates became the roadmap to Marvel’s movie universe. This streamlined and simplified approach to a long-running comic book series suggested how Marvel Studios could craft its movies to attract an audience not steeped in decades of continuity. The looks of many characters in The Ultimates influenced the movie versions and eventually the presentation of the characters in the main Marvel comic book line. Would Samuel L. Jackson have been cast as Nick Fury in the movies if Hitch hadn’t used him as the model for Fury in The Ultimates? Other crucial developments included making Hawkeye a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and giving him a look more appropriate to an elite athlete; figuring out how to make the Hulk an enduring part of the team; and recasting the return of Captain America as a deliberate military operation and not just serendipity. They also really embraced the concept of Tony Stark (a/k/a Iron Man) as a hedonistic celebrity businessman. The duo’s run is well in the rearview at this point, but its influence will linger for many years to come.

Classic Runs: Batman — Loeb and Lee

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Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee boarded Batman for one memorable year [volume 1, #608–619, 2002–2003]. Batman is a perennial favorite character, usually anchoring a large number of titles. But at that point, the Dark Knight wasn’t generating any particular excitement. The character’s film franchise was in limbo. And while he continued to appear in various animated offerings, there wasn’t a lot of buzz around him. What Loeb and Lee did was to make fans pay attention again. The team dug into Bruce Wayne’s childhood to introduce an old friend who would turn into a major new enemy: Hush. Along the way, the duo did some heavy emotional lifting on Batman’s relationship with Catwoman, explored Batman’s relationships with his “family” (Alfred, Nightwing, Robin) and refurbished a number of classic Bat-villains who’d become passé due to over-familiarity. The result was a vital, exciting saga that had Batman back at the top. It also demonstrated how well things can work out when publishers and editors trust proven creators to craft a compelling story and don’t focus group every aspect of it to death.

Classic Runs: Avengers — Bendis

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Brian Michael Bendis may be the most controversial writer ever to tackle Avengers [volume 3, #500–503, volume 4, #1–34; New Avengers, volume 1, #1–64, volume 2, #1–34; Mighty Avengers, volume 1, #1–20; Dark Avengers, volume 1, #1–12, 2004–2013]. Coming aboard the title at one of its lowest points ever, he basically burned it down and started over. Flushing out classic Avengers and replacing them with Wolverine, Spider-Man, Spider-Woman, Luke Cage, Sentry and Echo was almost guaranteed to anger a big chunk of the existing fanbase. But it also engaged a much larger audience that helped turn New Avengers into the world’s most popular comic book.

Bendis initially took a grittier, darker approach to writing Avengers. His earthier style, including coarser language and humor, didn’t suit every taste. But he injected a lot of ideas and vitality into a team that badly needed a jolt. After establishing his unique approach to the series, Bendis then expanded and did his own take on a “classic” Avengers style.

During Bendis’s tenure, the Avengers franchise became the center of the Marvel Universe, crucial to events like Civil War, Secret Invasion, Siege and Avengers vs. X-Men. He didn’t introduce a lot of new characters. S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Maria Hill and Victoria Hand may be his most memorable additions. Rather, he dug into Marvel history and found smart ways to renovate a host of characters that had fallen by the wayside. His resurrection of the Jessica Drew version of Spider-Woman may be his most successful character reclamation. And his idea for the Illuminati, a secret group of major heroes from across the Marvel spectrum who secretly guided events from behind the scenes, was his most brilliant innovation. He also expanded the tent of who could be an Avenger. While he’d eventually bring back most of the classic characters that fans loved, he found room for Jessica Jones, Doctor Strange, Iron Fist, Daredevil, Red Hulk, Storm and The Thing. He even made fans love Squirrel Girl.

The enduring legacy of the Bendis run is a reminder never to say that Avengers “can’t” be something, just because the book hadn’t done it before.

Classic Runs: Legion of Super-Heroes — Levitz and Giffen

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Legion of Super-Heroes can be an unwieldy concept. May creators haven’t quite known how to handle it. But the partnership of writer Paul Levitz and artist/co-plotter Keith Giffen [volume 1, #285–313; volume 2, #1–5, 1982–1985] for a time made Legion one of DC’s top sellers. For one, they didn’t treat the 30th century characters as “teen heroes” anymore. Most of them had been around long enough to clearly be in young adulthood by that point, so the Levitz/Giffen team had them act and look their ages. Recasting the title as a young adult soap opera set against a widescreen action backdrop was the perfect direction. Characters like Element Lad, Dream Girl, Blok and White Witch took on expanded roles, while the duo found interesting things to do with old favorites Lightning Lad, Saturn Girl, Cosmic Boy, Chameleon Boy, Mon-El, et al.

The crowning achievement of the Levitz/Giffen partnership was “The Great Darkness Saga.” After months of teases, the Legion plunged into a desperate, universe-threatening fight that saw the iconic Darkseid reborn into the 30th Century. It was a bold, unexpected move that reverberated through the series for years to come. The duo ended their partnership with a Legion of Super-Villains story that launched the first Legion #1 issue ever. That story made the LSV into a big, brutal threat and saw the death of long-time member Karate Kid (at a time when character deaths weren’t an everyday occurrence sure to be undone in a few months). Allowing Princess Projectra to execute her husband’s killer was a shocking climax.

The Legion franchise has had significant ups and downs since the glory days of the Levitz/Giffen partnership. But really, everything DC needs to launch a successful Legion series can be found in this three-year stint.

Originally published at on January 28, 2015.

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