If you are a fan of movies or television in 2015, then the cultural dominance of the superhero will not come as a surprise to you — water is wet, skies are azure, and two “Avengers” movies have made a billion dollars each.
With the hundreds of millions of dollars being pumped into comic book-inspired movies, television, and toy commercials (sometimes they are one and the same), its easy to feel either exasperated or fascinated by it all. In the midst of all this noise, one name stands taller than the rest in the current pop culture climate: Marvel.
Marvel, as many have noted, has found much success building its multimedia empire by mimicking the model it’s established in its comic books: an interconnected, shared universe populated by characters who function both on their own and as a member of any number of teams.
Perhaps you’ve never read a Marvel comic, but you’d like to start. Lucky for you, Marvel has made it very easy to get into its comics — if you have a smartphone, tablet, or access to a web browser, you can subscribe to Marvel Unlimited: A Netflix-style streaming service with the vast majority of Marvel comics 75-plus year library ready for you to read. That’s wonderful, but daunting — 75 years of continuous storytelling? Where do you start?
We’ve put together this simple guide to answer exactly that question >
The amazing upside of 75 years of storytelling is the sheer variety of stories that have been told — from thrilling espionage to generational epics to teen angst, biting satire, and cultural criticism, there’s a lot comics have to offer.
In both of these cases, you’ll likely need a guide, and that’s where we come in. Here are 12 of the very best comic book series to dive into with Marvel Unlimited. Be advised, this post favours more recent work from the last fifteen years, but often recommends classic stories to follow up with should you choose.
Why it's great: Did you like 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier'? Here's where that story was first told. Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting reinvent Captain America as an espionage thriller, a propulsive and smart story that's engrossing and hard to put down. While it does get a bit mired in a few crossovers, one of those crossovers is 'Civil War' -- which is the source material for the next Captain America movie.
How to read it: The issue numbers make big leaps and that can make things a bit confusing, but in Marvel Unlimited the entire Brubaker/Epting run is collected under 'Captain America' (2004-2011). Start reading it here.
What to read next: Check out two other great recent runs featuring Avengers from the Marvel movies: Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca's 'Invincible Iron Man' and Greg Pak's epic 'Planet Hulk' arc in 'Incredible Hulk' with various artists, listed under 'Incredible Hulk' (1999-2011) #92-112.
Why it's great: In the early 2000s, superhero comics had taken on a certain hard-edged cynicism, a grim 'edginess' that wasn't always entirely effective. Created by Warren Ellis and Stuart Immonen, 'Nextwave' takes everything about that zeitgeist (which you can still see in comics and comic-book movies today) and strips away all pretense.
It's about (take a deep breath) a group of heroes who rebel against the government agency they used to work for when they find out said agency is controlled by a corporation that's actually a front for a terrorist organisation looking to test ridiculous weapons like broccoli-powered robots and man-eating teddy bears on unsuspecting civilians around the world.
But none of that really matters -- it's all just an excuse for outlandish fight scenes and laugh-out-loud comedy. Ellis and Immonen lampoon their contemporaries by exaggerating the ridiculousness of the era -- and by being really, really good at making comics.
How to read it: It's all there under 'Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E.' #1-12.
What to read next: For the same blend of sharp comedy and biting social critique (with a touch of Jorge Luis Borges and H.P. Lovecraft), consider Ales Kot and Michael Walsh's 'Secret Avengers' (2014). For pure, laugh-out-loud funny, you can't get much better than Nick Spencer and Steve Lieber's 'The Superior Foes of Spider-Man.'
Why it's great: One of the most critically-acclaimed comics of the past three years, 'Hawkeye' was a game-changer. Created by the critically-acclaimed team of Matt Fraction and David Aja (with some help from fantastic artists like Annie Wu, Francesco Francavilla, and always-great colorist Matt Hollingsworth), 'Hawkeye' follows the Avenger who's just a normal guy, and tells the stories of what he does when he's not out avenging.
What Fraction and Aja ended up creating felt (and still feels) like nothing else in superhero comics, with a design-minded indie comics feel that led to phenomenal experiments like an issue that featured heavy use of sign language, or the one told entirely from the perspective of a dog who solves a murder. If you haven't read it yet, now's the time.
How to read it: Start with 2012's 'Hawkeye' #1 and read until the end. At the time this post is being written, the 'end' is issue #20 -- the actual final two issues have suffered interminable delays. While #21 is available for purchase, it's not currently on Marvel Unlimited. #22 is currently scheduled for July 2015. Whether or not it comes out then remains to be seen. Don't be afraid to dive in, though -- #20 is a pretty good place to pause the narrative before the big two-part finale. Start reading 'Hawkeye' here.
What to read next: Fraction and Aja first collaborated on another excellent book, 'The Immortal Iron Fist' (which was co-written by Ed Brubaker and showcased a number of other artists). The first 16 issues are fantastic, and a good preview of what you could expect from Netflix's forthcoming 'Iron Fist' series.
Why it's great: Ms. Marvel, or Kamala Khan, is the future of superhero comics. She achieved near-instant success as the publisher's most celebrated new hero, and claimed a little bit of history by being the publisher's first Muslim hero to get their own series.
A Pakistani-American teen from Jersey City, the superhero-loving Khan discovers she's a shape shifter and models herself after her favourite hero, Captain Marvel. While her monthly adventures by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona are fun in and of themselves, they also use the familiar coming-of-age superhero narrative to provide a window into another culture barely well-represented in the mainstream.
How to read it: Just head on over to 2014's Ms. Marvel #1 and enjoy.
What to read next: Go ahead and read 2012's 'Captain Marvel' by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Dexter Soy and see the fantastic adventures of the hero that inspired Kamala.
Why it's great: A scathing satire of superhero comics, 'X-Statix' recasts the team formerly known as X-Force as corporate-owned reality TV stars in the hero business only for the fame and money. Enormously entertaining and often downright astonishing in the frankness of its criticism, writer Peter Milligan and artist Michael Allred ripped superhero comics a new one while creating a cast of memorable, deplorable, characters you couldn't help but care about. Mainstream superhero comics have rarely had such an edge.
What to read next: 'X-Statix' is a great introduction to the work of Michael Allred, whose retro-pop sensibilities and delightfully twisted sense of humour makes his art alone worth the price of admission on any given comic. He often collaborates with fantastic writers, which is a bonus. He's done two other Marvel series you can read, 2012's 'FF' written by Matt Fraction, and the currently in-progress 2014 edition of 'Silver Surfer' with writer Dan Slott.
Why it's great: Let's not bury the lead: Joss Whedon wrote this. Before taking The Avengers to the big screen, the 'Buffy' creator and beloved auteur first dabbled in the Marvel Universe in print. Tasked with returning the X-Men to their super heroic roots after a more subversive (but fantastic) boots-on-the-ground approach, Whedon is joined by artist John Cassaday for a classic story that's perfect for new readers. It starts with a hell of a hook, too: What if there was a cure for the mutant gene?
How to read it: Just follow Whedon and Cassaday's tenure on the book; 'Astonishing X-Men' #1-24.
What to read next: There are two routes to go here:. The first is with Chris Claremont's seminal run beginning with 'Uncanny X-Men' #94. Claremont, along with artists like Dave Cockrum and John Byrne, is responsible for one of the best long-form narratives ever told in a Marvel comic series, an era full of favourites like 'The Dark Phoenix Saga' and 'Days of Future Past.' There are literally hundreds of X-Men comics by Claremont, many of which are excellent. You could also go with the Grant Morrison-penned 'New X-Men,' an edgier, alterna-punk X-Men revamp, and another fantastic long arc to dive into. Find it in 2001's 'New X-Men' #114-154.
Why it's great: Spider-Man is one of the most popular superheroes in the entire world, but he's also one of the most impenetrable when it comes to figuring out where to start. Part of this is how his stories are usually structured: like a soap opera, with multiple plot threads running on for years and years. This is one of the character's biggest strengths and biggest weaknesses -- the highs are pretty high, but the lows (the '90s) are pretty awful and interminable.
Fortunately, 'Ultimate Spider-Man' is a consistent winner. Created at the turn of the century by Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley, 'Ultimate' is a 21st Century reboot of the character, a back-to-basics approach that makes for one of the best versions of the Spider-Man mythos. What's more, it performed the improbable task of reinventing Spidey a second time with Miles Morales, a 12-year-old mixed-race African American and Latino who, after the death of Peter Parker, finds himself imbued with similar powers and decides to take up his hero's mantle.
How to read it: Start with 'Ultimate Spider-Man' #1 and go as far as you like. You'll want to go pretty far. If 170-plus issues are a bit too much for you, then consider just reading the stories about Miles Morales in the 2011 run of 'Ultimate Comics Spider-Man' #1-26 and 'Miles Morales: Ultimate Spider-Man' #1-12.
What to read next: From here, you could go on to read the classic Spidey stories by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, another timeless, high-calibre run (Start with 'Amazing Fantasy' #15 and then move on to 'Amazing Spider-Man' #1). Also, check out some classic Spidey stories from other eras: 'Kraven's Last Hunt,' (One of the absolute best, found in 'Web of Spider-Man' #31-32, 'Amazing Spider-Man' #293-294', and 'Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man' #131-132. Read one issue from each series in that order, then read the second). Also, 'The Kid Who Collects Spider-Man' is a heartwarming must-read from 'Amazing Spider-Man' #248 and 'Spider-Man: Blue' is a lovely bit of melancholy about Peter Parker's first love.
Why it's great: With the wild success of 'Daredevil' on Netflix, more and more people are discovering that it is one of the most consistently good Marvel comics of the past 30 years. (We all pretend that 'Shadowland' never happened. Don't read 'Shadowland.') Just like in the Netflix series, the character's appeal lies in his humanity: He makes a lot of mistakes. He gets beaten within an inch of his life. He's often in danger of succumbing to the darkness he fights against. But that's the beautiful part of Daredevil stories -- at the center of all that despair is a man who never fails to get back up whenever he falls.
How to read it: There are a vast amount of Daredevil comics to get lost in, but there are three good places for new readers to start. The first is Frank Miller's run in the '80s, the watershed moment that changed Daredevil forever. You can read that starting in 'Daredevil' (1963-1998) #168-191 and #227-233. In many ways, Miller's Daredevil was the birth of the modern era of dark and gritty superheroes, a story full of ninja assassins and the machinations of Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin of Crime.
The second point of entry is Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev's run on the second volume of 'Daredevil' (1998-2011), #26-50 and #56-81. Bendis' run is a pulpier noir, one that doubles down on the notion of Daredevil as a crime comic. It starts with the beginnings of a gang war, and very quickly escalates to having Daredevil's identity outed to the press. Bendis and Maleev exit the book with a bold mic drop, one that's picked up flawlessly by successors Ed Brubaker and Michael Lark. You'll probably want to stick around.
The final option is Mark Waid and Chris Samnee's 2011 revamp. It's unique in that it's a great entry point, but an even better third act to the two eras listed above. Waid and Samnee's take is a complete pivot from the dark crime fiction of the decades before, and brings him more in line with his original characterization from the 60s and 70s -- a charmingly roguish hero with a (pardon the pun) devil-may-care attitude. This is fun in and of itself, but what makes it even better is that it doesn't wipe away what came before -- instead, it shows how you move past all that darkness.
What to read next: There isn't a whole lot like Daredevil in the Marvel canon, but you might like Warren Ellis, Declan Shalvey, and Jordie Belliare's six-issue run on 2014's 'Moon Knight' for some of the finest single-issue superhero stories of the last year.
Why it's great: A bunch of teenagers discover that their parents are secretly supervillians and decide to, well, run away. This beloved story by Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona is a fantastic tale about growing up and becoming your own person during a point in your life where it seems the entire world already seems to have your life planned for you. Also, what teenager hasn't thought their parents are evil at some point?
How to read it: The 'Runaways' most people talk about is the series' first volume, issues #1-18, which tells a great self-contained story. You can go on from there, but the creative team changes and it loses a little momentum.
What to read next: A number of the Runaways find their way to Marvel's 'Battle Royale'/'Hunger Games' homage comic 'Avengers Arena' by Dennis Hopeless and Kev Walker, in which a number of teen heroes are trapped on an island and forced to fight to the death. Hopeless and Walker continue the story they start in 'Arena' with 'Avengers Undercover,' and both are worth reading. For more teen heroics, 2005's Young Avengers, by Allan Heinberg and Jim Cheung is great -- and is then picked up by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie in 2013's wonderfully inventive 'Young Avengers' revival.
Why it's great: When Marvel revamped a number of its books in 2012, one of the biggest standouts was Jason Aaron and Esad Ribic's 'Thor: God of Thunder.' The story begins with a sweeping, mythic thriller about an unstoppable creature known as the God Butcher hunting gods across time and space. Aaron and Ribic then slowly construct a grand narrative that spins interconnected vignettes featuring its hero over three distinct eras: young Thor, before he got his hammer; Modern Thor, the Avenger; and future Thor -- who is missing an arm and ruling over a barren Asgard with his three granddaughters.
How to read it: Another recent series that concluded not too long ago, you can find it under 'Thor: God of Thunder' #1-25.
What to read next: Aaron goes on to continue his story with a mysterious woman assuming the mantle of Thor in the excellent 2015 series simply titled 'Thor.' And few creative runs are as celebrated in comic books as the Walter Simonson era of 'The Mighty Thor.' It begins in 'Thor' (1966-1996) #337-355 and concludes in #357-382.
Why it's great: Simon Spurrier and Tan Eng Huat's 'X-Men: Legacy' isn't really about the X-Men. Instead, it's about David Haller, the troubled son of their mentor, Charles Xavier. Haller's an interesting character in X history -- he would be one of the most powerful beings in the world, if only he had control of his own mind.
See, he's got an extreme form of dissociative identity disorder, and each of his limitless powers is tied to one of the hundreds of identities in his head. 'Legacy' starts with Haller finally finding some semblance of control over his mind -- only to have it shattered when his father dies.
What follows is one of the rarest things you can find in a mainstream superhero comic: A strange and personal work about the damage parents' legacies can wreak upon their children, the violent and reactive philosophy of superhero comics, and refusing to let disability rule your life.
How to read it: 'Legacy' is meant to be read as one big story, and super easy to read on Marvel Unlimited. Find it under 'X-Men: Legacy' (2012) #1-24, along with the special #300.
What to read next: If you like 'Legacy,' chances are you'll really enjoy the Marvel book Spurrier wrote directly after: 'X-Force' (2014) with Rock-He Kim, a deceptively complex story about messed-up people doing ugly things to keep mutantkind safe from the world.
Why it's great: In the decades since its creation by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, 'The Fantastic Four' has been home to both the grandest and most personal storytelling in superhero comics. One of the very best stories, however, was writer Jonathan Hickman's three-year tenure on the title from 2009 to 2012.
What makes Hickman's run a must-read is the way it ties simple, universal ideas about family to the cosmic bigness of the Fantastic Four's vast history. Timeless, powerful ideas about nature vs. nurture and the dizzying worry parents feel when they let their children go and watch them take their place as adults in the world are set against wars between forgotten cities, lost empires, and other dimensions. It's a celebration of the Fantastic Four's history and everything that makes them great characters. There's nothing quite like it.
Hickman is known for his intricately crafted plots. His work fully embraces the serial nature of comic books, and tends to treat his tenure on any given title as one big story, meant to be read from beginning to end. His approach has its quirks -- while Hickman is very good at writing a satisfying single issue, there can be times when the machinery of his plot can briefly lose his readers. 'Fantastic Four' probably suffers from this problem the least among his other work, but if you do find yourself lost, stick it out -- you're in for one of the very best payoffs worthy of your favourite Netflix binge, a rousing climax with moments that will make you cheer and warm your heart -- things that it's nice to know superhero comics can make you feel.
How to read it: Comics like this are why you sign up for Marvel Unlimited, since it's a bit of a logistical nightmare to assemble the story. It starts in one series ('Fantastic Four'), which then changes its title (to 'FF') before bringing back the first series to tell interlocking stories between the two. You'll be bouncing back and forth between 'Fantastic Four' (1998-2011) and 'FF' (2010-2012). Begin with 'Fantastic Four' #570-588, then read 'FF' #1-11, and then return to 'Fantastic Four' for #600 (you won't find #589-599 under 'Fantastic Four,' because 'FF' replaced the book for those issues). From then on, read one issue of each until you reach the end (about a dozen more issues). Consult this comment thread to make sure you're on track (but don't worry about reading 'Dark Reign').
What to read next: Do you like the Fantastic Four? Then read the first, game-changing run by Kirby and Lee in 'Fantastic Four' (1966-1998) #1-102. For something more modern, Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo's early-2000s run is a must-read, found in 'Fantastic Four' (1998-2012), issues #60-524 (don't worry, there aren't 500 comics to read, they just change the numbering midway through).
If however, you enjoy Hickman's intricate, long-form storytelling, then follow his run on the 2012 iteration of 'Avengers' and 'New Avengers,' which recently concluded and leads to Marvel's huge 'Secret Wars' event.
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