Superhero comics are said to be cyclical, stagnant, unchanging, and all manner of things meant to imply that they love their status quos. But the 2010s gave us a bunch of new ideas and shake-ups that ended up becoming some of the landmark moments for the superhero genre. Sure, the superhero genre loves its status quos, because that’s a part of the brands, but sometimes people shake things up in ways that open the door for great storytelling, adding to the gargantuan mythos of the genre.
I’ve decided I’m going to draw attention to these status quo shifts. This is very broad, obviously, but I think it’s a good way to look back at what the 2010s did to shake things up a bit and innovate. Later, I’ll probably look at best moments, single issues story arcs and maybe even runs. But for now, here are the best comic book shake-ups of the 2010s.
10. Memento Mori: The Illuminati Returns
Remember the Illuminati? They were a Brian Michael Bendis retcon that did some stuff here and there, but largely just served to take part in event comics. they were in the background of Civil War, failed to stop Secret Invasion and were humiliated in World War Hulk. And that’s about it. Bendis never really did anything with them, despite coming up with an interesting concept.
Jonathan Hickman had Black Panther re-form the Illuminati — after having initially rejected membership — to face a threat only they thought they could face: the end of all things. The result is a cosmic chess game between the Illuminati and universal entropy, wrapped in personal drama between Namor and Black Panther, Doctor Strange succumbing to his inner — and literal — demons and an overall reason for the group to exist. While few other writers took advantage of this, it’s a testament to Hickman’s writing that the reformed Illuminati felt important.
9. Deathstroke: The World’s Worst Family Man
Deathstroke has had a weird history. First a Teen Titans villain then begrudging ally, then an anti-hero then a villain again, DC has had some weird attempts at making Deathstroke a thing. Yet, they don’t seem to care about any consistency in this regard, best exemplified by the tangled web that is the Wilson family’s New 52 history, where characters may or may not be related to each other and it’s unclear if something’s canon or not or… anything. And, again, they were still pushing Slade as an anti-hero despite his very obvious villainy. They also, strangely enough, eliminated his history with the Teen Titans because that team didn’t really exist in the New 52 at first. Eventually, DC got their act together and that was best exemplified with what happened to Deathstroke: he’s a bad guy again, like he used to be.
In my eyes, the most successful version of Deathstroke is the villain, and that’s what Christopher Priest did — he made Deathstroke an unrepentant villain again. However, Priest added a new wrinkle — the Wilson family is alive and well, and Slade is a manipulative, toxic influence on his family. The result is the Wilson family becoming fleshed out characters in their own right, all of whom orbit Slade Wilson’s sphere of influence. Priest homes in on the idea of Slade Wilson as a family man, but one who is a thoroughly despicable villain. It’s refreshing to see Priest acknowledge all the terrible things Slade has done and not pull any punches about what an awful human being he is, while giving him a twisted sense of love for his family that only serves to make their lives worse the more he tries to express it. After two thoroughly botched attempts at updating Slade Wilson and his family for the New 52, Priest takes the character back to his roots while embracing his supporting cast, modernising everything for a new generation of readers.
8. The Future Foundation
The Fantastic Four isn’t so much a superhero team as a superhero family. It’s even in their title of being Marvel’s First Family. While there’s not really four members anymore — Franklin and Valeria Richards are basically part of the team — what I think the team really needed was some kind of shake-up. The Fantastic Four are a staple of Marvel, but they’re kind of… well, boring. At least as they used to be, just four people on adventures. Enter the Future Foundation.
In the wake of Johnny Storm’s death in Fantastic Four, and after promising to look to the future and leave pessimism behind, Reed Richards founded the Future Foundation. A think tank of gifted children and thinkers, the FF brought a new dimension to the Fantastic Four — the superhero side wasn’t what was emphasised anymore, nor was the family; it was all about the science and exploration. FF served as a replacement series for a bit, but after the return of the regular Fantastic Four ongoing, FF became focused on the FF themselves without the Fantastic Four present. This let it stretch its wings, with more fun stories and a focus on the humorous and weirder parts of the mythos. The Future Foundation is the best attempt yet at growing the Fantastic Four beyond its titular foursome.
7. Kamala Khan
Marvel Comics has never really had a thing for teenage superheroes. Stan Lee famously dislikes the concept and Marvel tend to avoid them if at all possible, with teen heroes operating on their own. However, there haven’t been much new teen heroes who’ve gotten any degree of focus, likely due in part to Marvel’s fear of aging their heroes. This also means that Marvel generally lacks diversity in their big-name characters, as opposed to the pre-Flashpoint DC Universe. However, the new age of teen superheroes, legacy characters and diversity arrived with a bang with the introduction of our new Ms. Marvel: Kamala Khan.
While Miles Morales predates her by a few years, Kamala was introduced into the main Marvel Universe. Filling the Ms. Marvel role that was left vacant after Carol Danvers became Captain Marvel, Kamala brought a new energy to Marvel. She was young, but rather than experience generic teen issues, many of her issues revolved around her cultural background. However, as an Asian-Australian male, I still found her relateable because there’s just so much applicability in how G. Willow Wilson writes the character’s stories. And, as opposed to many other legacy heroes, Kamala had a respect and admiration for her predecessor that felt like a natural inclusion. Kamala’s success coincided with Marvel introducing a ton of new teen heroes, both legacy and not, such as Robbie Reyes, Nadia Pym and Viv Vision. While Marvel’s big push for diversity and legacy in the 2010s alienated many readers, I think Kamala is one of the true winners of the era.
6. The Rise of Lady Thor
Oh, Hel yes. In 2014, I wasn’t a Thor fan. I’d never really read any Thor stories. But the announcement of a new, female Thor with a cool design made me want to start. And so, I started reading Jason Aaron’s Thor: God of Thunder series and then worked my way back through J. Michael Straczynski’s Thor run. It’s quality stuff, but I Thor as a character wasn’t a sales giant or particularly relevant — the last time would be with the Fear Itself and Siege crossovers — despite his status as one of Marvel’s Trinity (we need a different name for them, I swear).
But the idea of a female Thor sparked a lot of interest in Thor. With me in particular, it was a good shake-up that showed that Jason Aaron was willing to experiment and modernise things a bit, and I think — while at times insulting — he presented a good examination of Thor Odinson as a character too, about what kind of person he becomes when what he tied his identity to is lost. Plus, the focus on environmentalism, while at times carrying all the subtlety of a Mjolnir tot he face, was an excellent choice in terms of both modernising the franchise while also tying Lady Thor to Aaron’s destroyed Earth in Thor: God of Thunder. Now, Jane Foster taking the Thor name is a bit… weird, as is some of the execution of her stories, but I don’t think Thor would be as important or relevant as it is now without a female Thor.
5. Flash Thompson: Agent Venom
Venom is a character I used to barely care about. He just seemed to work better as a villain and attempts to paint him as an anti-hero just smelled of the worst of the 90s. Flash Thompson was a character I’d like to read about, but not so much read, since there wasn’t much to read him in. Both characters, while staples of the Spider-Man mythos, needed a shot in the arm to make them relevant again. Then Dan Slott made Flash Thompson the new Venom, and he became my favourite Spider-Man character.
Making the self-proclaimed biggest Spider-Man ever into a Spider-Man-esque superhero is a great move in and of itself, but Flash’s friendship with Peter Parker, his military background, the loss of his legs and alcoholism all combined into one of the most fully realised depictions of Venom ever. Here was a Venom who truly did care about protecting innocent people, who hearkened back to the early Spider-Man days as his life as Venom began taking its toll on his personal life and whose connection with the symbiote was tied to his sense of self-worth, but also was presented as an addiction akin to his own alcoholism. Rick Remender’s Venom run modernised the basic Spider-Man setup, but with some modern and dark twists. And through all of this, Flash Thompson just kept growing as a character, becoming a teacher then a Guardian of the Galaxy, then a Guardian of the Cosmos. While Flash’s time as Venom wasn’t that long, in that time he cemented himself as the best one.
4. Grayson. Richard Grayson.
The New 52 was a hard time for Dick Grayson. After returning to his Nightwing role for no real reason, the character did little but bum around and his series existed to pretty much orbit Scott Snyder’s Batman. Then he was unmasked and “killed” in Forever Evil just as his series was findings its feet. But then, as Samwise Gamgee once said, the sun shone out all the brighter, and this was in the form of Grayson by Tom King and Tim Seeley.
Grayson was a fun spy comic that had a fundamental understanding of Dick Grayson as a character and used its premise to look at what makes him Dick Grayson. While Batman was doing yet another replacement Batman story, Grayson was truly doing something different, getting to the core of its character and his relationships in a clever, fun and sexy way. Taking Dick out of his comfort zone and placing him with dark reflections of his Bat-family, King and Seeley put Dick through the ringer while never losing sight of what makes him Dick Grayson. While Dick Grayson has been Robin, Nightwing and Batman, I think Agent 37 can be held up in a similar way, because it’s that important.
3. The Ma and Pa of Steel
Superman as a character doesn’t get a lot to do sometimes. A lot of writers seem to not know what to do with him, at least to develop him. He usually just punches things, and development is pretty non-existent. That all changed with the introduction of Jonathan Samuel Kent, son of Clark Kent and Lois Lane.
Introduced during the Convergence event, Jonathan and his parents — the pre-Flashpoint versions of Clark Kent and Lois Lane — would be transported to the main post-Flashpoint DC Earth. Superman as a father proved to be a very interesting idea, because, as with the best Superman stories, it’s something he can’t punch away. Lois and Clark need to first try and keep the nature of their existence a secret from Jon, then they need to determine what to do about his powers once he finds out. Brian Michael Bendis screwed things up by accelerating Jon’s aging off-panel for… reasons, but even that angst about missing seeing Jon grow up is something new for Superman. Being a father humanises Superman in the best way while also giving us an interesting character in his own right with Jonathan himself. While its handling as of late has me miffed, Jonathan Kent’s introduction has done wonders for the Superman mythos.
2. DC Rebirth
Yes, I’m counting it as a moment. With the advent of the New 52 in 2011, DC seemed to truly misunderstand what made the DC Universe special. I’ve gone over this before, but I think the New 52 was a fundamental failure. Years of poorly thought out stories that ignored legacy, heart and diversity, which is what the DC Universe is built on. However, after almost five years, DC realised their mistake and the DC Rebirth initiative began.
DC Rebirth is a hard thing to define. While it brought back Wally West and revealed that Doctor Manhattan had created the New 52, its more important role was the change in philosophy at DC. Rather than streamlining everything, ignoring legacy and making their characters needlessly dark, Rebirth encouraged writers to do the exactly opposite, embracing what makes the DC Universe special. Legacy characters returned, sentimental stories were told again and there was a general feeling that DC accepted the criticism of the New 52 and was working to do better. Sure, not everything turned out right and not everything and went away, but they were trying… then the Rebirth branding ended and almost immediately, things took a turn for the worse. While the DC Rebirth branding has come and gone, for when it happened, Rebirth was a breath of fresh air for the comics landscape.
1. Krakoa: The Mutant Nation
Despite the importance of the X-Men as a franchise, they’ve done very little to move things forward in the 2010s. Instead, a lot of the 2010s was spent rehashing old status quos. While Brian Michael Bendis’ underground take on Cyclops’ team was fine when it knew what it was doing, very little else was that different. Mutants waffled between endangered and not and the franchise felt like it had no direction. Even the All-New X-Men title failed to really reinvigorate the title at all, despite promising to do just that. After the disastrous Uncanny X-Men (2018) series, it seemed like nobody knew how to move the franchise forward. Enter: Jonathan Hickman.
Jonathan Hickman’s X-Men run began with a bang by introducing the mutant nation of Krakoa. Now, the idea of mutants having their own land has been done before, but Hickman does something different: he thinks it through. Hickman, in the span of one issue, completely fleshes out Krakoa, how it’s traversed, its language and even its exports. That is to say, Hickman planned this out. Mutants weren’t humans with superpowers, they were humans with their own culture like most groups of people. Mutants weren’t hiding in the corner now, they were a global superpower. The X-Menw ere now looking to the future, towards a future where they know they will become the dominant species on Earth, and were preparing for just that. This is the kind of status quo shake-up that the X-Men have needed for years, and the issue where it debuted, House of X #1, was one of the most refreshing things I’ve ever read. Kudos, Hickman. Mutatis mutandis.