If you’ve found yourself with a lot time on your hands because you’re staying inside because you’re a responsible person – good job! However, self-quarantining can come at a major cost – namely boredom. Thankfully, there are decades of back issues to check out. But if you’re really looking to scratch a certain itch, it might be time to invest in a comic universe that aren’t Marvel or DC. While there are many to choose from, only 10 could make the cut here (it is a top 10 list, after all).
10. The Image Comics Universe
While it’s current focus is largely on independent series across a breadth of genres, Image Comics began by pumping out superhero comics. Spawn. Youngblood. Savage Dragon. Cyber Force. Wetworks. Shadowhawk. WildC.A.T.s. The list goes on and on. Though almost every Image partner had their own studio, there have been several crossover projects over the years which have established that the Image Comics superheroes do exist in a shared universe. While not as prevalent as some other entries on this list, it is always a treat to see a reminder of its existence in contemporary comics, such as Invincible #60 or Savage Dragon #140. While the failure of Image United still stings, it does serve as a reminder that this universe’s existence is tenuous at best, but worth celebrating when it does come together.
9. IDW’s Hasbro Universe
Given their penchant for crossovers, it would be easy to smash together all of this publisher’s licensed titles into one “universe.” However, there is a subset of IDW’s catalog that brings together several properties in a way that not only makes sense, but touches on childhood wonderment. The Hasbro Universe consists of Transformers, G.I. Joe, ROM the Space Knight, Micronauts, M.A.S.K., and Action Man, making it the realization of every 1980s boy. While the quality of the titles – especially the crossover series – have been mixed, there is something undeniably joyful about a comic universe that is essentially the manifestation of children smashing plastic toys together 30 years ago.
8. Dynamite’s Pulp Heroes
While they, like IDW, have built up an impressive catalog with licensed comics, Dynamite Entertainment has also developed an impressive shared comic universe through the use of public domain pulp characters. You like Batman? Well here’s an entire world inhabited by characters that influenced him. There’s The Shadow, The Green Hornet, Black Bat, The Spider, and a host of others. They even build out this world’s history through The Lone Ranger. Many of these characters were brought together through the Masks miniseries, as well as it’s (inferior) sequel, Masks 2. If there is a complaint, it’s that the publisher didn’t take full advantage of the period when they held The Spirit license, as seeing Denny Colt alongside Britt Reid and Lamont Cranston is a truly lost opportunity.
7. Archie Comics
That’s right. Comic universes don’t have to be about costumed heroes or robots in disguise. They can also be about teenage drama. The long-running series of books about red-headed Archie Andrews and his wholesome buddies in the wholesome town of Riverdale make for a nice diversion from cape and cowled crowd, giving readers a completely different set of stakes and character drama to invest in. And if you’re worried about there being nothing other than slice-of-life teenage bliss in these books, titles like Sabrina the Teenage Witch spice things up with a healthy dose of magic. Or if you really want to get freaky, check out the myriad of crossovers these characters have had over the decades, such as the surprisingly intense Archie vs. Predator.
6. Wildstorm Universe
Two of the Image studios were successful at building and maintaining their own universe – Top Cow and Wildstorm. The only reason that this doesn’t rank higher is that much of Wildstorm’s success came after being acquired by DC. However, there’s still a great backlog of pre-acquisition titles that made Wildstorm a compelling and exciting alternative to the Big Two. WildC.A.T.s, Stormwatch, and DV8 are just a few examples of books that Jim Lee’s studio created from 1992 to 1999. Ditto for Gen13, which is arguably the studio’s biggest mainstream success. Though one could argue that Wildstorm only grew stronger in quality after becoming a part of DC, it still struggles to find a place was a part of a much larger entity.
5. Top Cow Universe
Marc Silvestri’s Image partner studio is the only one to march full-steam ahead in creating its own universe of characters with a mythology that can rival the Big Two. While often overlooked due to the *ahem* titillating nature of the early comics’ art, Top Cow’s universe features rather tight continuity, quality writing, and interesting characters. Anchored by Witchblade (a cop) and The Darkness (a mobster), the Top Cow Universe maintains a grounded approach to storytelling, no matter how high concept the stories may become. This is especially true during the era where Ron Marz and Phil Hester served as the universe’s chief architects, building a complex and engaging world that surpassed what readers would find in Marvel and DC’s core titles.
4. Sunstone Universe
Probably the most difficult thing about this entry was coming up with a title, as there really isn’t a name for this collection of books. There’s the Sejic-Verse, but Stjepan or Linda Sejic haven’t written or illustrated every installment. I’ve even seen it referred to as the “Kinky-Verse,” which doesn’t make sense considering the subject matter of Blood Stain. Regardless of what it’s called, this shared universe of the books Sunstone, Blood Stain, Swing, and arguably Sugar is one of the most rewarding reads in recent memory. The fact that most of the titles dive into alternative lifestyles while featuring strong, empowered women and positive portrayals of sexuality is an unbelievable achievement. Even Blood Stain, which is much tamer in subject manner, is unafraid to shine a light on its protagonist’s deep, personal fears and ambitions.
3. Valiant Universe
While there are some hardcore fans that think anything after the publisher’s “VH1” era isn’t worth reading, I’m absolutely referring to the relaunched universe that began in 2012. Beginning with X-O Manowar, the upstart publisher slowly rolled out new iterations of its characters. Each one saw a fresh update that was engaging while also adhering to their mission to reflect “the world outside your window.” While Valiant’s universe isn’t quite like our own (unless you know of any laser-eyed goats or immortal beings), it continues to offer one thing that truly distinguishes it from the competition – lasting consequences. If someone dies, they stay dead. If someone has a leg blown off, it isn’t growing back. Moreover, the quality of the storytelling is across the board fantastic, with only a handful of misses against nearly a decade of great books.
2. The World of Black Hammer
I’m truly grateful that Dark Horse comics saw fit to spin off a couple of titles from Jeff Lemire’s incredible deconstructionist superhero saga. The core story follows six former heroes trapped in the timeless small town of Rockwood. Residing on Black Hammer farm (named for their fallen leader), the six spend years trying to figure out how they came to be trapped in Rockwood and how to escape. As good as that story is, it has found new life in the form of an expanding list of titles, including World of Black Hammer, Black Hammer: The Quantum Age, Sherlock Frankenstein, and Colonel Weird. Brilliantly written and unlike anything else being published today, few comic universes reward their readers like Black Hammer does.
This should really come as no surprise. Since the release of Seed of Destruction way back in 1994, writer and artist Mike Mignola has crafted a sprawling world around Hellboy and his supporting cast of characters. There is so much material to check out and it is all fantastic. Beyond Hellboy and The B.P.R.D. , there are fascinating character studies like Abe Sapien and gritty noirs like Lobster Johnson (an all-time great character name). Regardless of your tastes, the world created by Mike Mignola and his talented collaborators has something for everyone. Despite its surface-level weirdness, the universe maintains a healthy balance of action, horror, and humor that makes it the cream of the crop for comic book universes.