Superhero comics, especially ones that have been around for decades, inevitably have stories more complex than the casual fan realizes. Writers take great pains to create a ripple effect in their work–sometimes a villain will scuffle with Batman in one issue then return punch-drunk to fight Batgirl several issues later. Continuity, when it comes down to it, is often the force that drives us to keep reading comics, and it’s the engagement with the larger story that often makes comics fun.
That being said, there’s something unmistakeably enjoyable about the non-canonical story. By non-canonical, I mean stories that take place apart from the ongoing narrative. Sometimes these are meant to fill in the gaps from stories taking place years ago, and other times they are simply thought experiments, existing in part to prove a point. With such stories, all the reader generally needs to know is the basic backstories of the characters–i.e., that Bruce Wayne saw his parents killed and became Batman. You don’t need to know that Bruce was trained by Wildcat or that he had a long lost brother who joined a cult.
Some of the very best superhero graphic novels out there are non-canonical. Here are just a few of my faves.
All Star Superman Over the span of just 12 issues, Grant Morrison reimagines both the life and “death” of Superman. Along the way, many characters make appearances, such as Lex Luthor, Bizarro, Lois Lane, and a cross-dressing Jimmy Olsen. One big reason to check out All Star Superman is the fantastic penciling by Frank Quitely.
The Dark Knight Returns This is one of the most popular graphic novels of all time, and for good reason. It’s the story that restored the darkness and grit to the Batman franchise, thereby erasing the memory of Silver-Age silliness like the Bat-Mite. Readers are also bound to notice the similarities between The Dark Knight Returns and Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy.
Superman: Red Son Superman Red Son is a graphic novel that answers a what if question that surprisingly few people have asked, and that is, what if young Kal-el’s rocket didn’t crashland in America’s heartland, where he could be raised by Ma and Pa Kent, but instead crashed in Russia, where he could be indoctrinated by Lenin? Red Son illuminates just how important Superman’s upbringing was in the original series, but at the same time shows the reader that, even without the guidance of Ma and Pa, Superman has it in him to be a hero.
Marvels For Marvels, writer Kurt Busiek employs a technique he would use many times throughout his popular series Astro City: he shows us superheroes as seen from a civilian’s point of view. In this case, the civilian is a reporter, and the subject he’s reporting on is the rise of superheroes, specifically the heroes who provided the foundation for the Marvel universe. While light on action, Marvels is a surprisingly affectionate and moving story, with lush artwork by Alex Ross.
Batman: The Long Halloween Whether or not this counts as being outside the timeline is up to debate. It takes place in year one, a story arc created to explain away some of the gaps and plot-holes from the Golden Age of comics. Writer Jeph Loeb is chiefly concerned with whatever happened to all of the mobsters Batman faced in the early years, before they were replaced by costumed villains. The story follows Batman as he faces the Falcones, a crime family in Gotham. It also features the rise of Catwoman and the downfall of Harvey Dent (this was also a source for Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy).
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Do you have any other recommendations for the casual fan?