Our esteemed editor in chief, Zach, just purchased the Marvel Unlimited subscription, giving him access to (almost) every comic ever published by Marvel. It’s a great deal and a cool way to dig through the historical archives, but… it’s also pretty daunting.
Marvel Comics go back over half a century and unlike other publishers, Marvel has always tried to stress the idea of one unified universe and continuity. Some deranged fans have even gone as far as to attempt to track the entire chronology and reading order of every Marvel comic dating back to Day One.
While I deeply admire and respect this sort of pathologically devotion, that sort of thing almost acts as a barrier to new fans. Where do you jump in? How do I start? Do I really have to know all of this?
The good news is that continuity is rather, flexible, especially when you’re dealing with a story that’s been going on for 50 years. Characters have been reset, rebooted, retconned, reincarnated, and re-anything you can imagine over time. I mean, Reed Richards and the Fantastic Four were originally World War II vets and… well, you can see how that doesn’t work anymore.
So my attempt here is not to present the most “essential” comic stories, but instead the best example of each major hero. I’m also going t try to avoid things so thuddingly obvious, Zach was probably going to read them anyway. Hey, the Dark Phoenix saga is famous. Wow, thanks, Poseur. But my goal is to not only choose great stories, but great stories that show why that character or that book is great. I’m also basically going to ignore the Silver Age because, well, comics were a lot more broad back then and you’re probably not going to like them as much, even if things like the Kree-Skrull War are famous storylines. Let’s start with the obvious.
10 SPIDER-MAN: Kraven’s Last Hunt
Web of Spider-Man #31
Amazing Spider-Man #293
Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man #131
Web of Spider-Man #32
Amazing Spider-Man #294
Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man #132
We start off with a recurring problem: crossovers. I’m going to try to limit myself to stories that are limited to one book, but Kraven’s Last Hunt is too great and too essential to understanding Spider-Man to skip. So you have to bounce between three different Spidey titles. It’s worth it. Kraven hunts and almost kills Spider-Man, burying him alive. And then Kraven takes over the mantle of Spider-Man and goes around the city brutalizing criminals. It’s one of those stories which shows you the essence of the character by showing who he is not, and a Spider-Man that goes around killing people is not the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man we have learned to love.
9 DAREDEVIL: King of Hell’s Kitchen
Daredevil (1998): #56-60
I know I’m supposed to pick something from Frank Miller’s run, but… I just can’t. It’s too dark and too mean-spirited, even for Daredevil, the hero who must suffer. So instead let’s go with the peak of the Bendis/Maleev run, in which Daredevil finally wins. He almost kills Bullseye, he puts Kingpin out of business, and now he is the king of the underworld. Daredevil won. But, being Daredevil, winning is just as bad losing and has its own set of problems.
8 AVENGERS: Korvac Saga
OK, they basically fight God. But that’s not the important part, though Korvac is a more interesting villain (and its hinted he might not actually be a villain) than your standard issue fare. But what truly makes this an Avengers story, particularly in the 70s under Shooter, is all of the detours it takes. The story itself probably could be contained in a few issues, but it sprawls out over ten books because the 1970s Avengers knew how to party, if not be all that organized. And the winking at the audience is great, particularly when the Avengers have to take cabs to get to the suburbs. The Avengers are always larger than life, and they were never larger than in the 1970s.
7 X-MEN: Riot at Xavier’s
New X-Men #135-150
“Magneto was right.” This is a bit of an off the beaten path selection, so let me explain. First, Chris Claremont’s run is the definitive X-Men. I love it, everyone loves it. It’s great. But you don’t need me to tell you it’s great, and I also hesitate to break it down into bits (though I highly recommend the Mutant Massacre). But I think Grant Morrison’s run is the one that truly grapples with the immense legacy of Claremont and finally starts breaking from his shadow. And what makes this story so fascinating to me is that there really isn’t a whole lot of outside villains, it’s really all internal strife at the school, the kids rebelling and experimenting with a mutant drug Kick, and promoting Magneto as the true hero of mutantkind, even though the real Magneto can’t measure up to the standards of the mythos. It also has Cyclops being a jerk. Cyclops totally sucks.
6 FANTASTIC FOUR: Three
Fantastic Four #570-588
Jonathan Hickman simply got the Fantastic Four. They aren’t superheroes, they are explorers and Reed’s superpower isn’t stretching himself, though he is able to do that, but his immense scientific curiosity. There are terrible ramifications, but there’s also an exploration of what makes Reed tick and especially why Sue Richards is the most important member of the team. She holds it all together, this bizarro family. Without love, logic will fail mankind. It’s a beautiful, heartbreaking run.
5 CAPTIAN AMERICA: The Death of Captain America
Captain America #25-42
Look, any story that has Bucky Barnes trying to kill Tony Stark can’t be all bad. Steve Rogers is shot and killed, leaving the mantle of Captain America open, eventually filled by Bucky, who forms a tense alliance with Tony to find Rogers’ murderer (who is, of course, the Red Skull… I’m not giving anything away, really). This is the book which revitalized the character, and it did so by mostly sidelining him as others tried to cope without him. It’s a book that showed what Captain America means and demonstrated that Steve Rogers’ superpower is his decency.
4 THOR: The God Butcher
Thor: God of Thunder #1-12
Gorr had a wretched life, and he knows exactly who to blame: the gods. So Gorr does what any rational mortal would do, he sets about making a Godbomb which will kill every god. He runs into problems when he becomes so powerful that he, too, is a god, meaning that logically, he needs to destroy himself as well, and Thor can only intervene as multiple Thors throughout the timestream including young Thor and old Thor, providing a brilliant contrast of expectation and regret. It is one of the great stories of the modern era and while Gorr is a deeply unsympathetic character, you also can’t help but see his point of view.
3 HULK: Unification
Incredible Hulk #369-377
Before you read these, just whet your appetite with Incredible Hulk #340, the famed fight with Wolverine and perhaps the most famed cover art in the company’s history. Peter David’s run is the definitive take on Hulk, but it also got pretty trippy, as all of the sides of Hulk kept fighting for control of his soul It all pays off in #377 with… well, it is called Unification. You can figure it out. Hulk is essentially all id, but this merges him with the rest of the brain.
2 SILVER SURFER: New Dawn
Silver Surfer (Vol 5) #1-29
One of the best things in recent years is that Marvel has sort of let creators go hog wild on lesser titles. If you are not in the major continuity, they have given a near free hand to play in your sandbox. And if the idea is really good, it will be adopted by the larger titles, or even the MCU. That’s what happened with Hawkeye, The Vision, She-Hulk, Mockingbird, and Moon Knight. All had spectacular limited run series which changed how we view the character. The best example of this is Dan Slott’s Silver Surfer, one of the most perfect comic book runs ever. Completely self-contained but utterly wonderful.
1 THE NEW MUTANTS: Demon Bear Saga
New Mutants #18-21
If I could only get you to read one comic book storyline ever, it would be the Demon Bear Saga. It pushes the limits of the form, as Bill Sienkiewicz’s art is just insane. It also hints at the future storyline of Warlock, a character so weird that it could only sprout from Sienkiewicz, as it was mainly an excuse to draw weird things. Since we skipped Claremont on the X-Men, soak him up here, as he explores the confusion of being both a mutant and teenager or well, an outsider of any kind. It’s hard being a person, really, and Claremont is so great at portraying confusing and dysphoria. On top of that, the story has stakes. These are kids over their heads not heroes trying to save the world, and victory is measured in getting out alive, not saving the world. And then after three issues of paranoid body horror, you get the release of a slumber party, and the normal exclusions and discomfort of being a teenager. It can be just as horrifying.
As a coda, I will say I tried really hard not to make this a “Hey, read everything from the 1980’s!” article, so when I could, I erred against including a Shooter-era comic. That said, the Shooter era, troubled as it was and as much as he is held up as an out of control tyrant… man, it really holds up. That man could spot talent. It’s when Marvel transitioned from the spinner rack to the direct market, and really tried to hold together longer storylines.
You could make a very good argument the definitive creative run on most of the major titles happened under his watch: Claremont on X-Men and New Mutants, Byrne on Fantastic Four, Stern on the Avengers, Simonson on Thor, David on Hulk, Miller on Daredevil, Gruenwald on Captain America, and maybe even Michelinie on Iron Man. Shooter brought in some insanely talented writers and for a time, at least, he largely left them to their own devices.
Now, if you’re a big artist fan, it might be a low ebb. You’ve got Sienkiewicz, Buscema, and Perez doing their thing, but the superstars of the era were largely the writing staff, not the artists. That would change in the 90s which… is why I didn’t include too many books from the 90s. There’s some interesting art (and Rob Liefeld) but… woof. The storytelling really suffered for a while.
But the thing I most recommend for a burgeoning fan is not so much following a character, but following a creator. If there’s an artist you like, find their books. I’m a fan of the writers, and I will follow, among current authors, Ed Brubaker, Chip Zdarsky, Matt Fraction, and Kelly Sue DeConnick into the gates of hell. I may already have with Warren Ellis.
Or heck, do what you like. There’s no wrong way to do it. Have fun and to quote Stan… Excelsior!