Who's on third?1 of 12
Marvel and DC are the biggest names in the superhero game - but they're far from the only ones. Comic books existed for nearly 60 years before Marvel made its big splash, and in the years before and since, countless upstarts have made a name as the "other guys" of the superhero comic book industry.
And that's not to say many of these publishers haven't made an impact - who could argue that Image's characters, the Valiant Universe, or Milestone's "Dakota" heroes aren't iconic and important in their own right?
Over the years there have been many challengers to the throne, so we decided to look back at the superhero worlds that have come and gone - and stuck around - as the biggest and brightest alternatives to Marvel and DC's mainstay superheroes.
WildStorm2 of 12
Jim Lee’s WildStorm is one of several universes that was acquired and integrated into the DC Universe on our list, though considering it’s currently undergoing a mostly separate relaunch on its own Earth in DC’s Multiverse, we’re still viewing it as a separate entity. And for many years, it was its own company and universe - tangentially tied to Image, but well on its own for the most part.
And the thing that really separates WildStorm from DC – and other superhero universes – is the imprint’s commitment to challenging the perceptions of modern superheroes while also embracing classic tropes. From WildC.A.T.S., to Planetary and the Authority, to Stormwatch, the WildStorm universe has always come across as a bleeding edge, cyberpunk vision of superhero comic books that always has something new to say, or a way to say it that it’s never been said before.
WildStorm also introduced the world to a host of top talents and creators who are still making a mark today, employing everyone from founder Jim Lee, to Warren Ellis, J. Scott Campbell, Dustin Nguyen, and many more in its history.
Valiant3 of 12
Consistently marketed as the “third largest superhero universe after Marvel & DC,” Valiant has had a somewhat strange history, having been shuttered and relaunched a few times since its founding in 1989 by former Marvel E-I-C Jim Shooter and his former business partner Steven Massarsky.
Since its relaunch in 2012, however, the publisher has staked out a claim as one of the most integrated and consistent meta-narratives in modern comic books. Anchored by characters such as Harbinger, Bloodshot, Eternal Warrior, X-O Manowar, Faith, and more, Valiant even had the biggest selling independent superhero crossover in the last decade with 2015’s Book of Death.
Millarworld4 of 12
Mark Millar’s eponymous Millarworld is less a cohesive superhero universe and more a banner for the writer’s various projects, which aren’t limited to superhero stories.
But to discount Millarworld’s importance to the superhero genre would be a mistake. Between stories like Wanted, Kick-Ass, Superior, and Nemesis, Millar’s superhero fare has become something of a modern zeitgeist for the deconstruction of superhero comic books.
With a Netflix now having purchased Millarworld, it’s not a stretch to imagine a more connected version of the imprint making its way digitally to you in the near future.
Milestone5 of 12
Milestone was founded by Dwayne McDuffie, Denys Cowan, Michael Davis, and Derek Dingle in 1993 as a publisher focused on creating superhero comic books that better reflected their experience as African Americans.
Quickly finding its footing as a go-to for superheroes and stories readers couldn’t find anywhere else, Milestone was distributed through DC Comics and its “Dakota” universe was wholly independent from the publisher’s other superhero comic books.
Milestone initially lasted four years, giving rise to a successful animated series in Static Shock and earning a place for itself in comic book history. In 2010, DC relaunched the Milestone characters as part of its fully integrated superhero universe, where they stayed for several years with Static in particular playing a big role in the DC Universe even through the company’s “New 52” relaunch.
However, Milestone’s characters were dropped from DC’s line after a few years. DC recently announced plans to revive the imprint as an entirely separate superhero universe called “Earth M,” populated solely by the Milestone characters.
Archie's Red Circle6 of 12
Archie’s 19 heroes – sometimes called the 'Red Circle,' or currently 'Dark Circle' heroes – are as weird as they are memorable. Based on simple, elemental concepts, characters like the Shield, the Fly, the Fox, the Web, the Comet, and more aren’t what you’d call household names, but for their fans and devotees, they’re as iconic as any Marvel or DC hero - and inspired a few of the Big Two's even.
Many modern fans remember the characters from Remco’s Mighty Crusaders toyline in the 80s, which brought the heroes and their equally odd villains to plastic, three-dimensional life under the name of Archie’s answer to the Avengers or JLA, or from the subsequent 90s relaunch as Impact Comics, a subsidiary of DC aimed at younger readers.
After the collapse of Impact, DC re-licensed the characters from Archie in 2008, though in 2012 Archie relaunched the heroes - then under the “Red Circle” banner – under their own line. Archie has announced plans for a new relaunch of Mighty Crusaders as a title, once again bringing its heroes back together as a unified team.
King Features7 of 12
Though the characters of King Features’ comic strips and serials ride the line between superheroes and pulp, it’s impossible to deny the impact that characters like the Phantom, Flash Gordon, and Mandrake the Magician have had on modern superhero comic books.
Though they weren’t exactly part of a “shared universe” in King’s heyday, modern interpretations – including current series from Dynamite – have treated King’s mystery men, pulp heroes, and sci-fi adventurers like parts of a whole, uniting them both in print and on the screen. Who can forget the 80s Defenders of the Universe cartoon that brought them together from individual stories into a kind of pulp Avengers?
Fawcett8 of 12
Fawcett’s most lasting contribution to the world of superheroes is, of course, Shazam!/Captain Marvel – and quite frankly, that’s enough to earn the defunct publisher a place on this list.
When Captain Marvel (who, thanks to trademark weirdness, now goes by simply Shazam!, the magic word that turns the young Billy Batson into an adult hero) was at his heyday, his comic book was outselling even Superman, prompting a lawsuit that is the stuff of comic book legend in which DC (then National Comics) proved Captain Marvel was infringing on the intellectual property of Superman.
But more than the landmark legal case, Shazam!’s ability to survive subsequently being bought by National/DC – and even become an integral part of its universe – proved that this kind of integration of characters could occur.
Fawcett’s other top characters outside the Marvel Family - Bulletman, Bulletgirl and Spy Smasher - also found their way into DC lore, though it’s hard to put them on the same level as the Marvels.
Hellboy9 of 12
Mike Mignola’s ever-blossoming B.P.R.D. Universe isn’t quite the traditional superhero fare, but it might as well be. Anchored by the supernatural monster fighter/mystery solver Hellboy and his equally weird and well-appointed compatriots such as Abe Sapien and Lobster Johnson, the Dark Horse-published but self-contained world has its own mythology, mindset, and presence in today’s comic book landscape.
The B.P.R.D. Universe started in 1993, focusing entirely on Hellboy and his supporting cast. In the 24 years since, the Hellboy mythos has spawned countless spin-offs and tie-ins, movies, and even survived the death of its flagship character.
A new Hellboy film is currently in production and will reboot the Hellboy film universe.
Charlton10 of 12
Most modern fans know Charlton Comics as a defunct company whose heroes were acquired and integrated into the DC Universe – some of whom served as the inspiration for the characters of Watchmen.
But in its golden years, Charlton was a powerhouse in the comic book publishing world known both for its sometimes less than savory business practices toward creators, and for publishing, printing, and distributing its own comic books rather than relying on a third party for any of these functions.
Charlton is best known for heroes like Steve Ditko’s version of the Blue Beetle (himself originally from Fox Publications), Nightshade, Captain Atom, the Question, and others – most of whom are still active as part of the DC Universe after being integrated in the mid-80s, some of whom have evolved even further as part of DC’s line.
Image11 of 12
To understand how important and electric the formation of Image Comics was in the early 90s, its important to understand the sheer audacity it took for Marvel’s top artists to leave not just that publisher, but all major publishers behind and start their own company. That it not only worked, but has become the indelible top of the non-Big Two heap is a testament to the acumen and talent of the creators involved.
But Image started with a big idea – that all of its creators’ individual series could cross over and share connections despite being wholly, independently owned by their creators. Spawn, Youngblood, Savage Dragon, Shadowhawk, Witchblade and more shared important connections among their stories that built a rich world that felt totally unique compared to Marvel and DC, and which spoke to fans in a way that other comic books at the time could not.
Now, though most of those classic Image titles still exist in some capacity, they aren’t as connected as they once were. But that original ethos has given rise to Image’s current superhero top dog, Invincible, which has spawned (pardon the pun) a corner of that universe all its own.
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