After losing market share and street buzz to Marvel for more than a decade, DC struck back in the late '80s, out-marveling Marvel with new characters even farther from the traditional mold of the hero. Mike Voiles singles out three titles among many that revolutionized the genre and still shape the comics produced today:

• Frank Miller's reinterpretation of Batman as a grim, sometimes vengeful and morally ambiguous character in The Dark Knight series, which set the tone for the hit movies starring Michael Keaton and others.

• Alan Moore's The Watchmen, featuring characters such as Hooded Justice, Rorschach, and the existential antihero Dr. Manhattan. "For [Dr. Manhattan], all time is simultaneous; all things happen at once," according to an Alan Moore fan site. "Therefore, he knows what will happen in the future, but is incapable of doing anything about it." Not exactly the job description of a traditional superhero.

• The real game-changer came with The Sandman, which Voiles calls "the greatest comics work ever." In 75 monthly issues, the British writer Neil Gaiman took the comics genre into moral and psychological territory hitherto unknown.

"The Sandman is more like a novel, a piece of literature, than pop culture," raves Voiles. Gaiman's lead character Morpheus, King of Dreams, looks like a frizz-haired Bob Dylan and possesses the godlike power to make entire worlds vanish like crumbling sand castles, but his post-postmodern sense of justice would leave Green Lantern gasping in disbelief. In one early episode, a homicidal maniac commandeers Morpheus' magic ruby. He then captures a group of citizens in a diner and sadistically humiliates and tortures them for hours. But when Morpheus arrives to regain the ruby, he's so grateful to get it back that he returns the villain, unpunished, to the asylum.