With the release and overwhelming success of Avengers: Age of Ultron last week, I figured that there is the potential for a lot of people curious to read the comics behind the Marvel films, or at least people wanting to know more about them. The problem is that the Marvel comics multiverse is vast, far greater in complexity than the movies. It can seem impossible to know where to start, and I can see how this would pretty quickly drain any initial curiosity that people have. I personally love the comics, more so than the movies. The comics are where the innovations really happen, where the characters are really developed, and where incredibly complex, detailed stories emerge, and I want other people to be able to enjoy that too. So what I’ve decided to do is write a four-part series where I’ll introduce the Marvel comics world (this one), and then in three subsequent short pieces suggest three different routes you could take into the comics.
I’ll start with a really quick background. Marvel has been around in one form or another since way back in the 20th century, but most of the characters that we see as Marvel icons today weren’t always there. Captain America was one of the earlier characters, emerging with lesser known characters like Namor and the first Human Torch around World War II. This is where crossovers started and Marvel started to interlink their books in a noticeable way, but it the universe that we now know hadn’t really got up and running yet.
Marvel’s first team of superheroes wasn’t the Avengers, it was the Fantastic 4, and in the chronology of the Marvel universe, it was this team that got their powers before most of the other big name Marvel heroes. But the FF didn’t emerge until 1961, around two decades after Captain America et al. So Marvel didn’t pretend that the time difference didn’t happen, they acknowledged the existence of Cap and the others in WWII by slowly bringing them into the new universe in different ways. As you’ll know if you’ve seen the movies, Cap was frozen in ice and then defrosted by the Avengers. From the starting point of the FF, other iconic heroes like Spider-Man (launched just a year after FF), Iron-Man and the X-Men rose to popularity over the following years of the 20th century, forming the backbone of the Marvel universe that exists today.
In 21st century Marvel you can’t escape from the interlinked, over-arching storylines and that is the main reason that it’s so difficult to get into. No matter which comic you pick up from the last 15 years, it’s going to have a place in that story and it’s going to be linked to other stories. In my opinion, this age of Marvel is defined by huge crossover events where loads of heroes come together in limited series. For me, the defining events since 2000 were House of M, Civil War and Secret Invasion.
House of M focuses mostly on the X-Men, but has wider repercussions. When the reality-altering Scarlet Witch (you met her in Avengers 2) uttered the fateful words, ‘no more mutants’ the mutant gene was wiped out from 99% of the world’s mutants, rocking the world of X-Men to the core and rippling out into all the corners of Marvel. Storylines as a result of this early 2000s event are still being played out.
Civil War is, in my opinion, the biggy. There’s a film coming out next year so I won’t give loads of the plot away, but essentially, a superhero registration act divides the superhuman community, with Iron Man supporting the government and Captain America fighting against it, leading to Cap and his followers being declared criminals. This event shook the very definitions of heroes and villains in the Marvel universe, and created conflict that continued for years, with Cap and Iron Man leading separate Avengers teams and Thor refusing to fight alongside Iron Man. So much of the background of comics in the last 10 years was defined by this one event.
Secret Invasion is on a similar scale to Civil War, but works on the premise of there being a shape-changing alien race that has been secretly infiltrating society for decades, with some Skrulls, as they’re called, having replaced high profile Avengers for years without anyone noticing it. This was a bit of a clean slate type thing for Marvel, with them using a liberation of heroes who had been captured by the Skrulls as a mechanism to cancel character development and, in some cases, deaths, that they needed a way to undo. It’s not the most brilliant of events, but a knowledge of it is necessary for understanding the universe.
So those three events give you an idea of the background of the 21st century Marvel comics. As I’ve said, in the next three posts I’m going to give you all three ways to get into Marvel.
The first is background reading, where you basically read all the major events and character profiles before getting into individual character stories; the second is individual character stories through Marvel NOW!; and the third is going straight into the individual comic issues (as opposed to graphic novel collected editions). I’ll lay out each approach in more detail, with ideas for the best things to read in each one to start you off, and an idea of the cost of each method financially. If this helps even just one person get into comics then my work will have been a success! If you’re interested, check my Facebook and Twitter over the next week or so, and I’ll aim to have one of these posts up every day or so.