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The guide to the DC Comic Universe is a starting point for a never-ending journey. A journey that starts as far back as 1934, making it the oldest of the prominent publications in comicdom.
I began my journey, like most people, with Batman and Superman. My Uncle gave me a box that had nearly all of the Superman comics following his death, knowing I had been a huge Batman fan.
I did grow to like the hero Steel. While I read about the Supermen who stepped up in place of Clark Kent, I found myself wanting to give DC comics more of a chance.
Soon, I was picking up old comics of Green Arrow, and it was like nothing I had read before. I grabbed up weekly issues of the New Green Lantern, Kyle Raynar, throughout the 90s. A hero who was once trapped with no ring in a world with violent aliens. He had to survive by using a bone as a blade.
I picked up weekly comics of Nightwing, enamored with the idea a sidekick had become his own hero. To this day, Nightwing is probably in my top 5 of all-time heroes, yes, above Batman. I’m a sinner.
I feel a confident guide when it comes to leading you through the Halls of Justice. So, join me as I go over the best and most obscure of a Universe that can quickly suck you in as it can push heroes out.
Welcome to DC comics.
Bottom Line Up Front
This guide aims to give you a good scope of knowledge about a lot of what has shaped DC between 1934 and 2022, and while that is a lot to cover, it is by no means a slow trot. Unforgettable characters come and go, and terrible ideas thankfully get retconned for much of what survives.
You’ll notice when one unpopular idea is in circulation. Instead of randomly dropping it, DC will make a big event to properly write it off. This can sometimes bring more love to a hated character or turn into an unpopular arc. We’ll tread through all this ground, good and not so good, as we break into the DC Universe.
DC very gallantly, if not sometimes confusingly, allows every comic they have in circulation the possibility of shifting into one another. This includes two parallel Superman tales. Such as a version of Superman, who was fathered by Zod instead of Jor-El. One day, this character could interact with the version of Superman more full of worry and self-pity in the brilliantly written Kingdom Come storyline.
With DC, this is always on the table. They treat each comic story as taking place in one of the many parallel Universes to Earth Prime. This is why you will hear about certain characters being referred to by their story arc. Injustice Batman or Batman Prime, for instance.
Age Old Company
This was the first North American published comic book with entirely original material not borrowed from the funny comic strips or a collage of shorter material. It mainly was time-heavy stories about cowboys and secret agents with a few nods to cartoon-like characters here and there.
As we know them today, superheroes didn’t come immediately with comics. It wasn’t until the arrival of Superman in 1938 that the “Golden Age” of comics would begin. Batman appeared in Detective comics just a year later.
The Comic Pillars of DC
Superman is one of the most well-known superheroes in the world. His red cape, the S on his chest, and the fact he somehow hides his identity because a pair of glasses are recognized globally. His biggest weakness is Kryptonite and Magic, and his most significant strength is arguably his heart.
Lex Luthor provides the longest-running enemy to Superman. With a high intellect and billions of dollars behind him. He is only human, but one could call him an evil Tony Stark(though Luthor came first). He never liked the idea someone existed with more power than him.
Superman has been in a few relationships as well. Wonder Woman, of course, is one. Yet nearly every comic lover and those who don’t read comics likely know his one true love.
Lois Lane. She became such a powerful fixture and well-liked character she even occasionally got her own short-lived comic series now and then.
Almost no great story arc in DC does not involve Superman. The characters that were birthed from the Kryptonian’s creation across the pages of Superman comics are many.
- Superboy: The original Superboy was made in a lab, as is the current version. The original possessed telekinetic powers and the current is half Luthor and half Kent. This Superboy has much of Superman’s strength but not all of his powers. However, he does have the combined smarts of both his fathers and a fear of becoming another Luthor.
- Brainiac: One of the greatest villains in DC, Brainiac is a Space traveling being that keeps itself alive when destroyed by often uploading into an advanced form.
- Supergirl: Superman’s cousin took a bit to find her footing and has since become a fixture of DC comics alongside her cousin. She has all his powers but can be a bit more stubborn and has been shown to be slightly stronger than her younger cousin, if controversially.
- Doomsday: The monstrous beast made for world-destroying came to life to beat the DC Universe to its knees. In his first fateful rampage, he and Superman beat each other to death. This was the Death of Superman arc that shook DC.
- Steel: An everyday man stepped up in a steel suit and matching hammer forged in his garage when Superman died. One of my personal favorite heroes to emerge during the fallout of Superman’s fight with Doomsday.
- Mr. Mxyzptlk: Mr. Mxyzptlk is an inter-dimensional being of unworldly power. He has a unique infatuation with the Man of Steel and pops into Superman’s dimension now and then to toy and make games that sometimes cause great havoc for the hero.
- General Zod: The first truly equal in power enemy Clark ever faced. You may say it is Zod that lets Clark realize how important it is to allow Kryptonite to remain in someone’s hands.
There is also Mogul, Parasite, Jimmy Olsen(longest friend of Clark and one of the oldest sidekick characters in all of comicdom), Metallo, Power Girl, Lobo, the infamous dog Krypto, and many others.
The superhero with no super powers. While defying the laws of physics, Bruce Wayne has also become known worldwide. A detective with a gadget in every pocket and a plan for every enemy. They say with enough time to prepare, Batman can take down anyone. So far, they’ve been right.
Along the way, he has taught and brought on sidekicks and partners, the likes of which have become comic book legends themselves. Let alone the best menagerie of bad guys ever assembled.
- Barbara Gordon: the most well-known Batgirl and daughter of Jim Gordon. Barbra suffers a paralyzing injury in most worlds, leaving her unable to walk. Eventually, she becomes the Oracle and often the leader of The Birds of Prey(a team of female vigilantes).
- Many Robins: Tim Drake. Jason Todd. Damian Wayne (his actual son). Most notably, Dick Grayson, the first Robin, and future Nightwing. Nightwing would lead the Teen Titans, the Young Justice, and have multiple runs in his own series as a hero of Bludhaven. He eventually even dawns the cowl as Batman on more than one occasion.
- Cat Woman: One of the most beloved female villains of all time. Her popularity sky-rocketed so high at one point that she was running her own series as an anti-hero. She and Bruce have a romance that is forever a “will they-won’t they.” And they won’t…but also they will.
- The Joker: Defying the norm, this maniac has become the most protected villain in all comicdom. Able to somehow outwit and survive encounters with almost everyone. This madman gets many iterations in film and literature. He manages to gain fan love without becoming anything less than the psychopath he is.
- Harley Quin: This pop icon of a female anti-hero with a few screws loose came to life in an animated series. She has since had her own runs throughout all Batman, Nightwing, and Justice League comics.
The Riddler, The Penguin, Bane, Ra’s Al Ghul, and Poison Ivy. The list of characters from the Batman comics is extensive. Yet, each one brings a new challenge and forces good life into one of the longest ongoing comics in the world.
Wonder Woman used to fly an invisible jet into the world from Themyscira, home of Amazons. Possibly the most popular female superhero of all time. Having the blood of a literal Greek God, Wonder Woman’s comics add layers to the DC Universe. Specifically dangerous ones. Those Greek Gods seldom get up to anything good in DC.
Some of the most iconic characters to come out of her comics are villains more so than heroes.
- Cheetah: A villain who plays a hand at the table of many villain team-ups, including The Legion of Doom. With an enhanced body that far over-accentuates the powers of a cheetah and a great mind and combat skills to match, she is a force to be reckoned with. Not to mention ruthless as hell.
- Ares: The God of War and Wonder Woman’s most constant BIG threat. Ares often teams up with larger forces or manipulates others to try and bolster war. Becoming even a problem for the Justice League. In some ways, he is DC’s version of Loki. Only he is a powerhouse with a sword instead of a trickster.
- Circe: One of the most powerful sorceresses in all of DC, and to the extent sometimes her plans can lead her to need more than Wonder Woman alone to take her down.
Hal Jordan is the first incarnation of the Green Lantern. A former air force pilot found a dying Green Lantern member and had the ring passed on to him. The Green Lantern ring gives the bearer the power to manifest energy in non-organic forms limited by their imagination and willpower.
There are many Green Lanterns, and they are all part of the Green Lantern Core. All Green Lanterns play significant roles in the overall story of the DC Universe.
The Yellow Ring wielders who harness the power of fear are the usual bad guys. Many great heroes and even villains have wielded that ring. Once, however, the villain was Hal himself as he became Parallax.
- John Stewart: Originally, in the 1970s, John Stewart did something even mainstream media was afraid to do. He argued with popular characters, including Hal Jordan, and made them look at their own racial bias. It was one of the bravest and most successful choices DC ever made. He has since become one of the most well-known and iconic Green Lanterns.
- Kyle Rayner: This is the comic book I would pick up weekly. The Green Lantern of my childhood years. Kyle Rayner had to defeat Hal Jordan and eventually became the only one who has mastered all of the 7 color spectrums(the different rings).
- Guy Gardner: One of the few Lanterns who was still a hero when he became a Yellow Lantern. While not the best at social interactions, he still puts his life on the line for The Justice League and the Universe time and time again.
- Sinestro: This is the prime bad guy, but you can’t mention Green Lantern without mentioning him. Everyone should have known he was a villain as soon as his parents named him. I mean, come on. A Yellow Lantern to his very core, Sinestro was once a Green Lantern himself.
The list of Lanterns is incredibly long. I’ll throw just a few more important ones on.
- Simon Baz: One of the first Muslim characters ever represented in DC comics. Baz became a Lantern during the New 52 storyline and had real trust issues based on what was happening in the US at the time.
- Jessica Cruz: A Mexican-American who earned the ring on pages, not off. She became worthy of the ring after sacrificing herself to save Barry Allen.
- Kilowog: He is a favorite member of the Lantern Corps and a good friend of Hal Jordan. He often helps defend the Earth’s sector of space.
There are literally a hundred or so listed in comics and thousands in canon.
Barry Allen is the most widely known Flash in comicdom. Lighting strikes him in his lab one day, turning him into The Flash. It turns out this wasn’t happenstance but willed by The Speed Force, of which he becomes connected to gaining insane speed. Eventually, even being able to run fast enough to transcend time. Eventually, his romance with Iris West would become a standard for good relationship goals.
Many characters from The Flash’s comics have spread into the greater DC Universe in positive and not-so-positive ways over the years.
- Reverse-Flash: Eobard Thawne, a speedster, went back in time and killed Barry’s mother. He is also a reminder that if The Flash went full speed, he might be the strongest hero on Earth. Because Reverse-Flash gives every hero a run for their money when Barry isn’t there to stop him.
- Wally West: Also known as Kid Flash. Wally doesn’t “fill” the Flashes shoes. He crafts his own. Wally West is one of the best members of The Young Justice/Teen Titan team and really steps up in some fantastic heart-felt arcs. Becoming a father and a rock as just a decent dude to many of his fellow heroes.
Flashes from other worlds often step in and join each other in heroics. It can be a confusing spin of comic reading now and then. Still, I find The Flash one of the easier to pick up and get carried away by.
An excellent villain cast includes Captain Cold, Captain Boomerang, Heat Wave, Zoom, Trickster, and Mirror Master, among others.
Gorilla Grodd is often a problem for many heroes with his exceptional mental powers and strength. He is often one of the leading members of The Legion of Doom. The Legion of Doom is a cabal that consists of the best of the best in Earthern Villainy.
I’ve been a Green Arrow fan for a very long time. My Uncle had these two old, super large comics of Green Lantern. In these, he was a wisecracking, fell in with any girl that batted eyes at him or shot a crook in the foot, and a killer in the heart kind of vigilante. I thought he was the coolest. Yeah, he uses crazy trick arrows and a bow. I still like him.
The “Arrow” on TV came into light and created the Arrowverse version of Green Arrow. That Oliver Queen brought new fans and love to the character. It kept some of his characters, but it took away his great wisecracking and classic goatee for some reason. I love that goatee.
The Green Arrow comics have brought out some great heroes and villains. Including Deathstroke, Black Canary(who he falls in love with), Speedy, Malcolm Merlyn, The Huntress, and Roy Harper. There’s also Artemis, who is a low-key favorite of mine.
My favorite part about Green Arrow is how much he is always at odds with Superman. No two heroes have faced off more times and been wholly outmatched as Superman and Arrow. Superman almost always wins and has even killed the poor guy more than once. Still, I hope Oliver always gives him hell. Nothing is black and white, no one should have that much power, and Oliver is right to put The Justice League in check whenever he opens his mouth.
The Justice League
The Justice League stories have become the center for all major content of DC. You can find great animated films under the Justice League name and an incredible cartoon series. The series takes the best of the big hitters in DC and uses the platform in a way that makes it believable in the DC version of Earth. It also allows the company to shine a light on its lesser-known heroes.
They have used the Justice League comics to introduce more casual fans of the above heavy hitters to many of the writer’s and artists’ personal, lesser-known favorites.
I’ll list a few of the other big names in the Justice League hierarchy that you may recognize.
- Aquaman: He is one of the oldest and currently most well-known heroes in the DC Universe. Being King of Atlantis, a prime Justice League member, and a fierce defender of the Earth, the original Aquaman lost an arm and an eye in the name of heroism.
- The Martian Manhunter: Johns John is the green-skinned, multi-powered superhero from Mars. While it is not specifically the only thing that can kill him, he has severe PTSD with fire. Having, horribly so, witnessed his family burn to death when the White Martians eradicated the Green Martians on Mars.
- Hawkman and Hawkgirl: The latter of which is my favorite character in the Justice League 2001 series(her and Solomon Grundy’s arc is the best). These two have been fixtures of the Justice League for decades. Whether aliens or reincarnated Egyptian Gods, they wield Nth Metal and have gone toe-to-toe with the mightiest.
- Shazam: The kid who was granted the powers of the 7 most powerful beings in Olympus. All he has to do is call out the word Shazam, and Billy becomes one of DC’s most powerful heroes. His movie was a success, and I’m a big fan of this character. The conflict of a kid having to bear the weight of a hero and live a double life is an incredible feat to tackle.
- Static Shock: While not connected to the Justice League in his prime comic runs, he is set to be one of its leading members when he is an adult. He is a popular and well-liked character, and it is a fact he will blossom into such an essential member of the Justice League “one day” that drives him to be the best. To live up to the vision of himself from the future.
- Black Lightning: He is one of the powerhouse members of the team. He often spends time helping to teach and coach the next generation because he carries his tough upbringing heavy on his heart. Not wanting others to go through the same trials, his care for the youth is charming.
There are just as many villains the Justice League fans have been introduced to over the years worth noting. Vandal Savage is the immortal who has existed since the time of cavemen. Black Adam, the powerhouse who holds the powers of Shazam and more through dark magic and has given not just Shazam but the whole world trouble time and time again.
The Teen Titans/Young Justice
Thanks to the popular cartoon series and comics, I split the Teen Titans and Young Justice titles into one because they are essentially the same teams. Also, in my opinion, the best series DC puts out. To see a live-action version of this series, you can watch the show Titans, which I am enjoying far more than I expected.
Led initially by Dick Grayson, first as Robin and then as Nightwing, it introduced a lot of new and beloved heroes into the DC world. Many of them would become staples of the Justice League and their own comics.
- Starfire: The green-eyed princess from space who would become a teacher to younger students. Her complicated family history has brought many strong plot points and villains like her sister, Black Fire, into Teen Titan comics. She and Dick Grayson fall in love, as it happens.
- Cyborg: One of the most infamous members of the Teen Titans, now a constant Justice League affiliate. His struggles with body issues and acceptance of his own self-worth are some of the most relatable tales DC ever told.
- Beast Boy: A fun-loving, cheer-up anyone character that keeps spirits high is Garth. He can shapeshift into any animal, including those on other planets. Beast Boy falls in love with Raven, but it’s not the most promising romance.
- Raven: She is the most powerful hero to come off of the Teen Titans. Raven is the daughter of the demon god Trigon, a powerful villain who has handed the entire Justice League defeat. She keeps her dad imprisoned in a crystal within her forehead and struggles to control her own darkness and keep his constant whispers at bay.
There are many more. Superboy and Wally West are big staples of this series. Artemis and Red Arrow. Blue Beetle and Miss Martian. It forces the often considered ‘weaker’ versions of the big heroes to find clever ways to overcome great villainy. The original cartoon series, Teen Titans, and the series entitled Young Justice to prove how great the writing is with these younger stars of the DC Universe. Telling strong stories in comics and television, the Titans shine bright in the DC Universe.
The New Gods
There is a whole race of New Gods in DC. They kind of rule over things but also not really. They have on and off again run-ins with the Justice League. Often as allies, but sometimes conflicting interests/morals lead to fights. The New Gods are some of the biggest powerhouses in the Universe of DC, and Orion, the son of Darkseid, is their most well-known hero.
You can see him pop up in Superman comics and other areas throughout DC, especially if Apokilips is involved.
It’s also through the New Gods that we first come to see the most consistent and biggest bad guy in DC, Darkseid. Darkseid constantly puts all of DC at risk with his planet Apokilips and his invasions of Earth or search for the Anti-Life equation.
If anything, the New Gods are worth checking out for being different from most DC comics. Still, their most significant contribution to the larger voice is the villain himself.
The Suicide Squad
Originally Task Force X, this team evolved over the years to come under the helm of ARGUS director Amanda Waller‘s iron thumb.
The modern iteration uses characters picked up through the years like Peacemaker and is constantly led by Deadshot with the mainstay of Harley Quinn.
Its first live-action movie pulled back on some of the raw grit even its animated film steered more towards(I freaking love that animated one). Leaving fans a bit wanting.
Because of this, Deadshot was replaced in the next live-action adaption as perhaps Will Smith didn’t want to go as dark as they intended, or they just couldn’t afford him. I’m not sure.
While the comics are fun, the second live-action movie is one of my favorite DC films.
It makes me laugh in the wrong ways, and they even manage to do Harley Quinn right, among other things. Go out of your way to see it.
Also, ARGUS is the leading government organization that plays protagonist or antagonist when needed throughout the DC Universe. That counts as very crucial information.
DC Universe Defining Moments
There have been many great arcs such as the Identity Crisis or Zero Hour. The Blackest Night, where Hal Jordan has to step up and lead the Lanterns against a threat so significant all of DC is falling under its Shadow, is one of the biggest that comes to mind. I’ll try to sum up some of the most pivotal moments.
In the DC comic joining arc, all characters were sucked in from every known Universe into the near end of existence. The Anti-Monitor was, at the time, the most powerful being in all of DC, and he would destroy everything.
It was Barry Allen and Supergirl that stepped up. The heroes were all beaten down and out of the fight. Kara fought on alone despite the damage that would lead to her death. Her relentlessness in the face of clear defeat became a decisive moment. Barry Allen proved he was the fastest being in all of comicdom, racing at speed so intense he dismantled the antimatter cannon and sent his own body into the Speed Force.
A staple of DC had died in the Flash. Yet it was Supergirl’s words as she faded in Superman’s arms that I never forget.
Barry Allen going back in time to save his mother is the most understandable mistake a hero has ever made. The fallout of this led to him never being a hero in the future, and the entire world went to hell because of it.
There was more at play than just Barry’s hope to save his mom at play. While Wally West worked behind the curtain to fix Flashpoint, the result of its ending created a reset to all DC’s storylines. Beginning the New 52.
The New 52
The New 52 era spawned over 100 original characters and had arcs that laid permanent residence on the Earth Prime Universe. While some will remark that Rebirth ‘undid’ what happened with the New 52, the things that happened to Prime characters remain.
The fans were pretty split, and the overall reception for the New 52 wasn’t great, so the stories were dropped with the coming of the Rebirth storyline.
Prime Earth was returned.
This is the story where Darkseid essentially won. His army of Apokilips and plans came to fruition almost perfectly. Female Furies, led by a mind-controlled Wonder Woman, made Darkseid’s rule seem unstoppable.
Villains and heroes teamed up by this end to win, and it was Batman firing a God-killing bullet, Wally West and Barry Allen, and a Black Racer that finally killed Darkseid and freed the planet. Sadly, this entire endeavor also led to Batman’s death. The fallout was felt in every DC comic for some time after.
It is vital DC Universe reading for any fan.
Some of the Darker DC Characters
- John Constantine: Many people grew to know this magician as an enemy of the Supernatural. Battling literally with Devil and demons while trying to find a way to save his own condemned soul. John has proven he will use anyone to accomplish his goal more than once. Especially if it is protecting someone he loves.
- Swamp Thing: This character has always been a statement about the importance of the environment. As the poor soul who lost his life in the Swamp became connected with “The Green,” he became a near-omnipotent being of the Earth and its protector. Not of the people, but of the planet itself, humanity be damned.
- Jonah Hex: The scarred-faced, western era, creature fighting trash talker is a staple of cult comic fans. While not the most popular character, you can find him popping up on film and in series here and there. Because, like myself, plenty of writers still love the “shoot it before it turns” rough style of Hex.
- Doctor Fate: The bearer of the all-powerful helm becomes Doctor Fate, a guardian against evils far beyond man’s comprehension. The bearer of the helm is still themselves in addition to Doctor Fate, and often they have no choice but to give up their body when The Doctor needs it. I always struggle with how this is a good character but damn if he isn’t one of the most intriguing.
- The Doom Patrol: It’s been a comic for a long time and spawned many well-known characters. But, personally, it is one of my favorite television shows of all time. It’s just all the things. Intense, scary, funny, dramatic, and wild. It is very much not for children. Full of very Rated R things. The comics about it are all over the place and keeping up with Negative Man, Robotman, and Crazy Jane is a lot. But check them out if you like harder-hitting stories that traverse the gray area and deal with emotional trauma and psychological damage.
The Most Underrated Character
I’m not kidding. It’s a chimpanzee with super intellect that works as a begrudging detective. I absolutely love this character, and you know what? So does Batman. So, look him up. He’s done his work over the years and helped on some of those big storylines mentioned above.
- Kingdom Come
- Injustice: Gods Among Us (all five years)
- Green Lantern: Rebirth
- Darkseid War
- Suicide Squad: Kicked in the Teeth
- The Technis Imperative
- The Judas Contract (maybe the best here)
- Batman: The Dark Knight Returns
- Watchmen (Yep, they fall under the DC umbrella)
All of the other comics are linked throughout.
The DC Universe is vast and full of more things I could ever list in one guide. Veer off from the path and read the stories about the side characters. Pick up estranged comics and grab some graphic novels of the older compiled stories. There is almost, quite literally, an endless amount of reading in the DC library.
Not to mention a superhero for everyone and a villain to match. Like Nightwing or Harley Quinn, any character can rise to the heights of Batman and The Joker if the fans show enough love. Get out there, find your favorites and show them some love.
Question: Who is the strongest character in DC?
Answer: Heavily debated to be Superman. It is likely a villain such as Trigon or Darkseid at full power. Or one of the New Gods, such as Orion. The Anti-Monitor was stated as being it at one point, and Supergirl was the hero that lasted the longest against him. So, Supergirl could arguably be the strongest hero.
Question: What’s the best DC comic?
Answer: I am a big fan of the Injustice series. The Judas Contract may take the case among comic lovers. Or better yet, The Killing Joke. Oh my goodness, read it.
Question: Who is the oldest DC character?
Answer: Superman is the oldest character to still be an active superhero today.