Today's comic books trace their history to the newspaper comic strips (the funnies) and pulp magazines that began in 1898. The former provided the structural form while the latter became the medium for the action-adventure content that's still dominant today. This list is based on these two forms and entries chosen for the historical, artistic, and literary significance of each comic rather than on monetary worth.
Famous Funnies (1933) The first modern comic book produced by Eastman Color Press as a giveaway for Procter and Gamble. The 7x10 inch-sized comic book featured reprints of newspaper funnies.
New Fun Comics No. 1 (1935) The first comic book produced with original content, it featured genres like Western adventure ("Jack Woods'), teen ("Jigger and Ginger'), and funny animal ("Pelion and Ossa). The comic was produced by the company that would eventually publish Detective Comics, which would later become DC Comics.
Action Comics No. 1 (1938) In this issue, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster introduced the first superhero, Superman. Patterned after mythical heroes such as Hercules and dressed in a science fiction-inspired costume, Superman would serve as the template for the dominant genre in American comics. The issue is also the most valuable single issue in history, valued today at USD 2.1 million.
The Spirit (1940) Not a comic book in the traditional sense, The Spirit by Will Eisner was initially a seven-page Sunday supplement for newspapers. Comic books featuring The Spirit would be published from the 1960s onwards. A detective series with a masked hero, The Spirit demonstrated Eisner's storytelling techniques that would influence comics creators for decades to come.
Four Color Comics No. 178 (1947) In this Donald Duck comic book published by Dell, Carl Barks introduced Scrooge McDuck in "Christmas on Bear Mountain." Scrooge received his own comic series in 1952 and in 1960 Uncle Scrooge comics sold more than one million copies. The comics featuring Donald's uncle would prove to be greatly influential to many creators of funny animal and adventure comics.
Watchmen No. 1 (1986) With Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons not only deconstruct the very concept of the superhero but also tell a science fiction story, a murder mystery, and political thriller. The creators also demonstrate how comics can tell a story that no other medium can.
Cerebus the Aardvark No. 1 (1977) Influenced by both funny animal and barbarian adventure stories, Dave Sim's Cerebus was one of the pioneers of self-published comics. A series that spanned 300 issues, the book reached artistic heights as it moved from presenting satirical stories to demonstrating the creator's views on society, politics, and religion.
The Dark Knight Returns No. 1 (1986) The Frank Miller-created book demonstrated that even established heroes such as Batman can be used to tell a story of political and social commentary while still retaining the mythical aspect that gave birth to superheroes.
Raw Vol. 1 No. 2 (1980) The comic anthology is notable for including the first segment of Art Spiegelman's Maus: A Survivor's Tale. Subverting the funny animal tradition, Spiegelman uses animals as symbolic representations of people. The series is at once a biography, an autobiography, and a historical account of the Holocaust. Collected as a graphic novel, Maus would later win the Pulitzer Prize.
Sandman No. 19 (1991) Using a superhero as inspiration, writer Neil Gaiman returned to where superheroes came from: dreams and myths. In issue number 19, Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream is retold in a high fantasy manner, which earned the issue a Best Short Story award in the World Fantasy Awards. It was the first time a comic book story won over prose pieces. As a series, Sandman helped create a whole line of fantasy and horror comics and expanded the comic book-reading audience in the process.
This article originally appeared in Vault Issue 007, 2017