If you read comic books, you’re well aware of the notion of a story arc, a multi-issue storyline that tells a finite and often very-important tale that often interrupts the normal flow of the series. Sometimes a story arc is a culmination of sub-plots that have been building for quite some time; sometimes a story arc just comes out of a left field. A story arc is often an important and sometimes game-changing series of events that wrap up major plot-lines, feature guest stars, and/or bring about permanent changes for one or more characters.
Think of it this way: if comic books were TV shows, the story arcs would be the season finales or the movie specials.
There are some very well-loved and famous story arcs out there. And while I may assign myself to the dregs of Geekdom Hell for leaving out such epic story arcs like “The Death of Superman”, “Days of Future Past”, “Kraven’s Last Hunt” and “The Dark Phoenix Saga”, here are five under-the-rader story arcs that I’ve always been extremely fond of…
Revenge of the Sinister Six
(Spider-Man Volume 1, Issues #18-23)
You can always count on ol’ Spidey for something engaging and crazy. The original Sinister Six was an assembly of Spider-Man’s enemies who decided that by working together they could bring down the webcrawler. This later version of the group was far, far worse.
A breakneck story that literally throws everything PLUS the kitchen sink at you, Revenge of the Sinister Six follows Spidey’s effort to stop the newly reformed Sinister Six (this incarnation includes Dr. Octopus, Electro, Gog, Hobgoblin II, Mysterio and Vulture) as they steal a cache of advanced alien weaponry and go on a rampage, destroying much of New York and killing dozens in their attempt to seize a world-devastating arsenal from a hidden HYDRA installation.
Basically, this story-arc was like The Avengers film on crack. In order to stop this incredibly bloodthirsty and seemingly undefeatable group (Dr. Octopus wears adamantium tentacles, and the alien weapons the group acquires are insanely potent), Spidey has to call upon a veritable army of allies: Hulk, the Fantastic Four, Sleepwalker, Deathlok, Nova, Solo, Cyborg X, Ghost Rider, and even Sandman. The result is an awesome battle royale that fully showcases the talents of writer/artist Erik Larsen and that makes the rest of Spider-Man, Volume 1 seem tame by comparison.
Avengers Under Siege
The Masters of Evil is a name given to a number of largely unrelated groups that ultimately have just one thing in common: they are made up of enemies of individual Avengers who decide there is strength in numbers, especially when dealing with “earth’s mightiest heroes”. While the first three incarnations of these groups met with moderate success, the fourth Masters of Evil, led by the second Baron Zemo, actually manages to defeat several of the Avengers, take over the Avengers mansion, and even kill Hercules (though he doesn’t stay dead, due to that whole “he’s a Demi-God” thing). What’s most impressive about the fourth Masters of Evil is the roster: this group is HUGE! Led by Baron Zemo II, the group also consists of Absorbing Man, Blackout, Black Mamba, Fixer, Goliath, Grey Gargoyle, Mister Hyde, Moonstone, Screaming Mimi, Tiger Shark, Titania, Whirlwind, the entire Wrecking Crew (Wrecker, Thunderball, Piledriver and Bulldozer), and Yellowjacket. WOW!
(On a side note, the 6th Masters of Evil, which eventually becomes the super-hero group The Thunderbolts, is also an excellent group, and that entire long and convoluted storyline is well worth the investment.)
(Uncanny X-Men #270-272, New Mutants #95-97, X-Factor #60-62)
Taking place right in the wake of “Days of Future Present”, this hard-edged story follows several members of the scattered X-Men, X-Factor and New Mutants as they attempt to rescue some of their own from the evil clutches of Cameron Hodge and the country of Genosha, which has built its power on the labor of subjugated and brainwashed mutant slaves. While not nearly as complicated or convoluted as some of the other X-book story lines, I’ve always enjoyed the sense of desperation in X-Tinction Agenda: the X-heroes are still somewhat scattered after their recent struggles, several characters (especially Storm) start off with handicaps, and there’s no Professor X in sight.
The story is fairly grim. Genosha is not a nice place, and its parallels to some modern African dictatorships (as well as allusions to Nazi Germany), while not very subtle, are jarring at times. Plus the tale is gritty. Not every character makes it out alive, and some who do are forever changed. (It’s worth noting that X-Tinction Agenda takes place shortly before the New Mutants transformed into X-Force, and this crossover is in a ways an early indication of the darker, more military tone many of the X-books wound up adopting throughout the late 90s.)
Awesome, gripping stuff.
(Wild C.A.T.s #5-7, Cyberforce V.2 #1-3)
Two of the great success stories of the early days of Image Comics were Wild C.A.T.s (a team of heroes who wage a secret war against a race of subversive aliens called the Daemonites) and Cyberforce (a team of cybernetically enhanced mutants who fight against an evil corporation called CyberData). Created and penciled by X-Men alumni Jim Lee and Marc Silvestri, these two teams come together in a big way in Killer Instinct, wherein a criminal mercenary named Misery (who has ties to characters from both comics) spearheads a Daemonite operation using some of CyberData’s advanced technology. Naturally, the teams clash before they can work together (because Cyberforce is mentally dominated by Misery), though unlike most story lines of this type they wind up doing battle right up until almost the very end and never really work together all that much, except to shake hands and say “Later”.
Straightforward to the point of being academic, Killer Instinct nevertheless highlighted some terrific plotting, stunning artwork and larger-than-life battles. It may not go down as one of the greatest series in comicdom, but for sheer over-the-top action and in-your-face storytelling it’s hard to beat this tale of loss and revenge.
Acts of Vengeance
(Way too many issues to count)
Acts of Vengeance was more of a gimmick than a storyline, sort of like Secret Wars II without a God character. The strange thing is, Acts of Vengeance worked, and the resultant story (which spanned dozens of issues across 20+ different titles) wound up being much more entertaining than I think even the writers envisioned.
Disgruntled by their constant failures to destroy their enemies, six mastermind super-villains – the Red Skull, Mandarin, Kingpin, Doctor Doom, Magneto, and the Wizard – band together with the aid of a mysterious stranger (actually Loki in disguise) with the notion of “swapping” enemies. The idea is that their own foes have grown too used to their tactics and henchmen, and by mixing things up they might be able to take the heroes by surprise. The Stranger initiates a major breakout at the Vault (a super prison), and those lesser criminals are manipulated and redirected at foes that in many cases they’ve never faced before.
The gimmick here is that you have characters doing battle who normally never would. Doctor Doom takes on the Punisher. The Avengers battle the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. Magneto and Graviton battle Spider-Man. Mandarin transforms Psylocke. Juggernaut battles Thor. Etc.
Ultimately, of course, the core of the master villains’ egos get in the way, and Loki’s frustration with the failed plan leads to his turning against all of them. But, as they say, “it was fun while it lasted”.