"Comics seem cool, but I just don't know where to start..." is the most common expression among my non-comic reading friends. They've been conditioned by either bad TV stereotypes, or maybe just a foul run-in with one of 'those' comic geeks, that our beloved hobby is somehow not worth the effort.
That stops now. Welcome to the start of (what I hope will be) a series of articles for those who are intrigued by comics in general, but have yet to take that step into this larger world. While I hope to cover characters and/or events that are relevant, today I've decided to start just a bit more basic. Welcome to the Platypus Robot Primer: Marvel Universe Edition.
Fancy, right? I try. By the way, you veterans of Marvel out there are welcome to add to the discussion and point out any glaring omissions in the proceeding.
What: The Marvel Universe
The Basic Origin: Back in the Early 60s, the publishing world was a different place. Comics sold okay numbers, but they weren't seen as high art and - ever since the Congressional hearings of the 1950s - were considered just for kids. That was until Stan Lee decided to give comics one last go before heading off to become a real writer and created The Fantastic Four with Jack Kirby.
With a more modern tone and realistic characters, The Fantastic Four became a bona fide hit and soon begat similar books from Stan. Iron Man, The Avengers, Thor, Spider-Man, and more spewed forth from Stan's brain and, together with his amazing array of artists, all became huge hits in and of themselves, each with their own tragic character flaws.
Helping their characters feel more realistic was their setting: New York City. You see, until Stan came along, most superhero books were set in their own fictional cities (Gotham City, Metropolis, Central City, etc). Stan's stories were ones that took place in "our" world, even if it had an overabundance of super heroes, alien invasions, and assorted crazy disasters on a weekly basis.
In essence, its Stan's revolutionary take on superheroes (that they were real people with real problems living in a real city) that gave way to the greatness that is the Marvel Universe today.
The other thing that set Marvel apart from its competitors was the passage of time and the reliance on continuity. Up until Stan in the 60s, most comics didn't have consequences that stretched from issue to issue, let alone year to year or across different books. With Stan writing nearly the entire line, he had the fluidity to allow the characters to interact with each other and for those consequences to matter in the long run.
While it was great at the time, as the years progressed this method became more and more of a curse. The problem was two fold: 1- with the characters tied to real world events, they would have to become older to make their origin work, which lead to 2- that if things continued, within a few decades, their heroes would be too old to adventure. Something had to be done and so Marvel instituted the Sliding Time Line to their books.
The Sliding Time Line: Welcome to your first bit of wonky comic logic. In the most basic terms, this idea states that the Marvel Universe as presented started ten years ago with the formation of The Fantastic Four. It's an idea that some people despise, but is honestly one of the best solutions to an ongoing universe like this.
Essentially, by utilizing this method, time actually passes (I did the math, it's something like every four years for us equals one year of Marvel Time) but not at a rate that ages their major heroes too much. And honestly, as long as it keeps Spider-Man swinging from buildings instead of swigging ensure, I'm all about it.
The annoying part to this is the slight nudging of facts from a characters back story that must take place to make them still relevant (Things like Tony Stark getting hurt in Afghanistan instead of Vietnam). The major details remain the same, but the setting and other ancillary details change.
In the scheme of things, if you know that the Hulk is the Hulk because of Gamma radiation, it doesn't really matter if it was from a bomb or a power generator explosion. So try not to get scared by those tiny details when diving in.
Speaking of, enough of this background nonsense, let's get to the meat of the issue:
Where To Start
There are two ways of thinking about where a new fan should start. Many believe that if you want to reading, say, Spider-Man, you should get a hold of all the old Stan Lee/Steve Ditko stuff.
You shouldn't listen to those people.
Nothing against that Lee/Ditko stuff (it's truly classic stuff), but a having a new reader start with stuff from the 60s is like having a new vampire fan (say, fresh off of Twilight) start with Bram Stoker's Dracula: It's the antithesis to what they want from that kind of story. A modern reader wants something that speaks to their modern sensibilities to excite them, not something from a bygone era that's not relevant.
In this modern era, there are five distinct flavors of books for you to choose from: Superhero Action, Street, Cosmic, Mutant, and Fringe. While distinct, these flavors tend to overlap sometimes, but generally stick to like-minded brethren. The best bet when it comes to diving into the murky Marvel waters is to find what kind of book interests you and expand your range from there. Let's take a look and see which flavor is right for you:
Superhero Action: Basically Marvel Vanilla, as it showcases the biggest heroes fighting the biggest villains in the classic Marvel manner. Don't let that moniker fool you, as there are some utterly fantastic books in this line up. If you're looking for adventure and drama with heaps of big action and explosions, then this is the place for you. Books and heroes in this subset include: Captain America, Iron Man, The Avengers, The Fantastic Four, Hulk, Thor, and Spider-Man (sometimes).
Test The Waters With: Marvels (1994; Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross). A man-on-the-street retelling of the classic events that form the foundation of the Marvel U.
Street: The dark underbelly of the Marvel U, home of anti-heroes, questionable morals, and hard choices. These books tend to be a bit more talky and a bit more harsh than the typical Marvel fare as these heroes are pushed to the brink of their noble intentions. Typically more adult and definitely darker, these are the books that always tend to find critical praise for their frank depictions of heroes in the real world. Books and heroes include: Daredevil, The Punisher, Moon Knight, Ghost Rider, and Spider-Man (Other times)
Test the Waters With: Daredevil: Born Again (1986; Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli ). It's a little older, but Frank Miller really set the tone for all the street books that followed.
Cosmic: The opposite of street books, The Cosmic books take the superheroics of Marvel Vanilla and turn it up to 11. Where the Avengers might be concerned with the fate of the planet, a typical cosmic hero is concerned with the fate of the universe. If you're into big stories, rife with imagination, alien worlds, and extreme examples of power usage, this corner of the Marvel U is the one for you. Books and heroes include: Nova, Guardians of the Galaxy, and The Annihilators.
Test the Waters With: Annihilation Vol 1 (2006; Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning and various artists) The start of the newest wave of Marvel Cosmic books, it defines the word epic.
Mutant: The mutant franchise (X-Men) for Marvel has been both its most epic failure and its greatest success. Ostensibly the story of a persecuted minority, it's really just a mini Marvel universe all on it's own. With its rich history, soap opera story lines, and epic back story, the X-Books serve as one of the toughest, but most rewarding corners of the Marvel U. If you're up for the challenge, you should absolutely check it out. Books and heroes include: Wolverine, Uncanny X-Men, X-Men, X-Factor, and the Uncanny X-Force.
Test the Waters With: Astonishing X-Men Vol 1: Gifted (2004; Joss Whedon and John Cassaday) Whedon brings his trademark banter with him to the X-Men as he helps define them for the modern era. Things have changed a bit since, but no one has a handle on these characters quite like Whedon.
Fringe: Honestly, this is the section reserved just for more intermediate fans. These books service that niche market and rarely survive over ten issues, but always tend to be fan favorites. They typically rely on smaller stories in the larger Marvel Universe narrative that, if you can get into, are really awesome. I'm not ashamed to say that most of my favorite books come from this corner of the universe. Books and Heroes include: Nextwave, Young Allies, Nomad, Deathlok, ect.
Test the Waters With: Nextwave Vol 1 (2006; Warren Ellis and Stuart Immonen) This wacked out, balls to the walls, action comedy is THE essential Fringe book. If you dig it's manic style, you can handle just about anything.
There's just one last thing to remember when jumping into the Marvel Universe: everyone's book is someone's first and Marvel knows it. While it might be intimidating to pick up a random issue of Iron Man or Wolverine, it's really the best way to start. Any questions you have should be answered within the book in your hands, and if it isn't, well, you have the whole internet at your disposal.
Discovering new things about the Marvel Universe is my favorite thing about the comic reading experience, and I'm jealous that you get to start that process now. There's a whole world out there just waiting to entertain you, so get out there and start reading!
In the meantime, I'll be here holding down the fort and answering any questions you might have. Come back next time as I tackle a more specific person (or place, or something).
EDIT TO ADD: I can't tell you how excited I am about the outpouring of positive reactions to this article. Thank you, everyone, who's stopped by and enjoyed my diatribe. I'm already working on another installment, but if you have any ideas for future primers please let me know and I'll do my best to make it happen.