Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing email@example.com.
Geek obsession: Avengers comics
Why it’s daunting: Marvel Comics’ superheroes each have their own confusing, convoluted histories. Now multiply that by about 50. That cumulative continuity makes any superhero team book an overwhelming endeavor. Throw in alternate universes, character reboots, and attempts to make the comic books more like the movies, and it becomes nearly impossible to know where to start. Should new readers begin at Avengers #1? Which Avengers #1? What about New, Dark, Secret, and Young Avengers? And what is this Ultimates book that has what looks like Samuel L. Jackson in it? Just about every superhero comic on the stands comes with a hefty set of story baggage attached, and it can be difficult to find a superhero title that’s accessible to readers delving into comics for the first time because of the films.
Possible gateway: The Ultimates and The Ultimates 2
Why: In 2000, Marvel created the Ultimate line of comics, reimagining its top characters in a new universe stripped of previous continuity. After the success of Ultimate Spider-Man and Ultimate X-Men, Marvel launched The Ultimates, which reworked the classic Avengers team as a group of S.H.I.E.L.D.-sanctioned heroes protecting Earth from threats too great for just one hero. Sound familiar? The Marvel movie universe has taken many cues from Ultimates, from Captain America’s World War II uniform to Black Ops Hawkeye and Black Widow—and, most notably, Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury.
Mark Millar has gotten flak for his shock-and-awe storytelling and generic characterizations, and while his later Ultimate Avengers work goes off the rails, his first two Ultimates series are strong action stories perfect for fans of the Marvel movies. (Just to get a feeling of how confusing superhero comics are, there’s The Ultimates, Ultimate Comics: Avengers, Ultimate Comics: New Ultimates, and Ultimate Comics: Ultimates, and this is within an imprint designed to make the universe more accessible.) With an assist from Bryan Hitch’s photorealistic artwork, Millar created a superhero team that felt like a group of real people, flaws and all. More importantly, he created a superhero team comic that could reasonably be translated from the page to the screen. The Ultimates don’t operate out of a mansion on Fifth Avenue or an orbiting watchtower in space; they’re a military force and are outfitted as such, facing down extraordinary enemies with power and precision.
The military angle is immediately apparent, as The Ultimates starts off with a flashback to Captain America’s final WWII mission, a war comic that plays like a Spielberg film thanks to Hitch’s pencils. Billionaire playboy Tony Stark discovers Cap’s frozen body just in time for the formation of The Ultimates, joining forces with tragic super-couple Ant-Man and Wasp, along with a mentally unstable Thor—just as Bruce Banner hulks out and tries to destroy New York. As the threats to the planet get bigger, the team expands in size, making Ultimates a good introduction to the heroes that appear in the regular-continuity Avengers titles as well. A familiarity with these alternate versions of the characters establishes a basic knowledge that makes the regular titles much more accessible. (Both volumes of The Ultimates have been collected in hardcover and softcover editions.)
Next steps: After The Ultimates, Brian Michael Bendis’ New Avengers Vol. 1 is an appropriate entry point into the regular Marvel universe, picking up after the events of Bendis’ “Avengers Disassembled” storyline, which disbanded the existing team in 2005. The cast includes usual suspects Captain America and Iron Man (Thor was dead at the time, but he got better), along with Marvel A-listers Spider-Man and Wolverine and lesser-known characters like Luke Cage and Spider-Woman. The early issues are extremely new-reader-friendly, and while the book eventually became a launchpad for annual events, that also makes it a good place to get knowledge about the larger Marvel Universe. Bendis also likes to use those crossover tie-in issues to delve into Marvel history, giving readers a primer to major events in Avengers history. The trade paperback Breakout, which collects the early issues of Bendis’ run, is a good place to start.
While Bendis’ book is more focused on the future of the greater Marvel Universe, Kurt Busiek and George Perez’s run on The Avengers Vol. 3 (collected in volumes titled Avengers Assemble) builds on the characters and stories that have been with The Avengers throughout their lengthy history. Busiek is a writer known for cramming a lot of continuity into action-packed stories that don’t sacrifice emotional stakes, and Perez is equally skilled at capturing the full scope of the stories in his artwork. Beginning in 1998 with every Avenger ever being transported to Arthurian times and ending with a team-up with DC’s Justice League of America in the early-’00s JLA/Avengers miniseries, Busiek and Perez’s run offers a master class in Avengers history, exposing readers to every Avenger that will populate the extensive backlog of comics waiting to be read.
Next, it’s time for two Avengers classic: “Under Siege” and “The Kree-Skrull War,” both available as individual collections. Roger Stern and John Buscema’s 1986 story arc “Under Siege” finds Avengers Mansion under attack by a new Masters of Evil, leading to one of the purest superhero-vs.-supervillain team fights ever put on the page. Fans of this story will want to check out more of Stern’s run, which is a straightforward superhero book that absorbs just a tiny bit of the grim-and-gritty comic-book movement of the late ’80s.
The first Avengers epic, “The Kree-Skrull War” falls in the early-’70s transitional period between the Silver and Bronze Ages of comic books, when stories were becoming more personal in the aftermath of the relentlessly imaginative ’60s. With one of the classic Avengers lineups, Roy Thomas tells an intergalactic war epic that puts Earth right in the middle of two feuding alien races. One of the pivotal events in Marvel history, “The Kree-Skrull War” is an ideal gateway for anyone preparing to read the original Stan Lee/Jack Kirby run.
Where not to start: Silver Age comic books have their charms, but the best way to get into a superhero title is by reading contemporary stories first and moving backward. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s early Avengers issues are appropriately bombastic for the time, but probably too exaggerated for any fans being introduced to the characters through the more realistic film. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Avengers Assemble #1, the new Avengers ongoing by Bendis that is specifically designed for fans of the summer blockbuster and features the same cast as the movie. Unfortunately, it’s a really lousy comic.