Throughout the 80-year history of American comic books, most superheroes have fought their battles in New York (Marvel Comics) or fictional facsimiles of New York like Gotham and Metropolis (DC Comics). But almost every household name in a cape—from the Avengers to the Justice League—has visited Chicago at some point, and comic book artists love to show off the city’s architecture.
So in honor of the eighth annual Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo (C2E2), which descends upon McCormick Place this weekend, we tracked down the 10 best comic books set in Chicago, with a little help from Blake Donaldson at Graham Cracker Comics in Lake View.
In 1982, Dr. Shawna Lynde invites famous surgeon Donald Blake—Thor’s human alter ego—to speak at a medical seminar in River North (Thor #319). “’Tis indeed windy here,” Thor says, soaring over Michigan Avenue, “but the wind doth add a certain freshness to the city.” Impressed with our wider, brighter, and cleaner streets, he “cannot see why it should place second to New York.”
After a hot date, Shawna takes Donald/Thor on a stroll through the University of Chicago campus, where a film crew is shooting a horror movie. An actor mutates into a deranged monster, so Donald Blake transforms into Thor and chases it all the way up to the Loop for a climactic battle atop the L tracks. Despite the incident, Thor is so smitten with Chicago (and Shawna) that he sticks around for 18 issues—visiting the Field Museum (twice), the Shedd, Grant Park, and the Wrigley Building.
2. The Avengers
Other than Hawkeye, you might not recognize the Avengers lineup featured in this 1989 issue (The Avengers #302). While the brand-name East Coast Avengers like Iron Man and Thor are dealing with a threat in outer space, the West Coast Avengers assemble in Chicago to stop a giant alien soldier from destroying the Sears Tower. The best part is when the West Coast Avengers can’t decide whose jurisdiction Chicago falls under. “Chicago’s midway between us,” Hawkeye says, “so maybe they’re handling it.”
In 2009, a mopier-than-usual Man of Steel decides to walk across the United States after living on an alien planet for a year, in order to reconnect with his human side. In Superman #705, his route takes him right through Millennium Park, where Chicagoans aren’t too happy to see him. “If a man walked into this park with a gun, everybody’d be nervous,” a woman tells him in front of Pritzker Pavilion. “What you need to understand, the way we see it is—you are a gun.” The writer of the issue, J. Michael Straczynski of Babylon 5 fame, spent some of his childhood in nearby Kankakee.
4. Batman, circa 2002
Before becoming the top cop in Gotham, Commissioner Gordon spent 15 years with the Chicago Police. In 2002, when an old enemy kidnaps Gordon and brings him back to Chicago for “enhanced interrogation,” Batman arrives to track him down (Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #160). If you only read one Chicago-set comic book, make it this one. The cover features Batman perched atop Water Tower, Bruce Wayne lands his private jet at old Meigs Field, stays at a suite of rooms he owns in the Hancock Center, and threatens a corrupt alderman at City Hall. The issue ends with a standoff between Batman and the police on the LaSalle Street Bridge, and there’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from Old St. Patrick’s Church in the West Loop.
5. Batman, circa 1929
Some of the best Batman stories are Elseworlds graphic novels, a DC Comics imprint that imagines alternate versions of superheroes in different time periods. In Batman: Scar of the Bat (1996), the Dark Knight helps Elliot Ness and the Untouchables capture Al Capone in Prohibition-era Chicago. This version of Batman wears a trenchcoat and, rather uncharacteristically, carries a “Chicago typewriter” … also known as a tommy gun.
6. The Authority
Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch’s post-modern superhero team makes the Avengers look like the Care Bears. During the “Reality Incorporated” storyline in 2003 (The Authority, Vol. 2, #2), the Authority battles a group of interdimensional suicide bombers in downtown Chicago. The series is also notable for the brief appearance of a Chicagoland artist, Gene Ha, who drew two issues in 2006 before the book’s writer abandoned the project.
In 1985, Robin got tired of being Batman’s sidekick and rebranded himself Nightwing, protector of Gotham’s even-grittier sister city, Blüdhaven. In 2013 (Nightwing, Vol. 4: “Second City”), he moves to Chicago to track down the man who murdered his parents. After subletting an apartment in Bucktown (right next to Challengers Comics, no less), Nightwing uncovers a criminal conspiracy that goes all the way up to the mayor and visits several Chicago landmarks along the way—the roof of the Congress Hotel, the Museum of Science and Industry, City Hall, the Crown Fountain at Millennium Park, and Hancock Center. Nightwing stays in Chicago through Kyle Higgins’s next arc, too (Vol. 5: “Setting Son”).
8. Moon Knight
Unless you actually read comic books, you’ve probably never heard of Moon Knight. He’s not an Avenger, and he’s not on Netflix. A Batman-esque vigilante with multiple personality disorder, these days you can usually find Moon Knight in New York, but in the ’70s and ’80s he lived in Chicago, where he was born. In 1985 (Moon Knight: Fist of Khonshu #5), he tracks a group of assassins to an office building on Michigan Avenue (the Water Tower makes a cameo) only to discover an interesting twist. This issue is the only Big Two comic book (i.e. Marvel and DC) I’ve ever found with an unmistakable Chicago skyline on the cover.
9. The Incredible Hulk
In the comics, gamma radiation isn’t the only thing wrong with Bruce Banner—he also suffers from dissociative identity disorder from time to time, which leads to several different incarnations of the Hulk. In 2001, the “Gray Hulk,” a Vegas enforcer nicknamed Joe Fixit who wears perfectly tailored suits, heads to Chicago to collect a debt from the Delfini family and winds up in the middle of a turf war between mobs (The Incredible Hulk, Vol. 1, #22-23). It’s the only instance I know of where a superhero sings Frank Sinatra’s “My Kind of Town (Chicago Is).”
Okay, so you won’t find any Avengers or Justice Leaguers in C.O.W.L., a recent eleven-issue series from Image Comics. But it’s about a union of superheroes in 1960s Chicago (because if superheroes ever unionized, this is where they’d do it, right?), and features gorgeous, period-accurate art of over a dozen neighborhoods. Written by Kyle Higgins (the same guy who brought Nightwing to Chicago in 2013), it’s Mad Men meets The Wire meets The Avengers and would be perfect for a cable TV series. Bonus points for including former mayor Richard J. Daley as a character.