From childhood to adulthood, my favorite characters in comics have always belonged to DC. Batman and Superman have always resonated with me more than others, but the other members of the Justice League have always been the ones I’ve gravitated toward the most. When I was hired to work in a comic book store in 2007, I found myself getting a little…uncomfortable just because I’d always get asked about the other big superhero publisher, a company name that I cursed and spat at the end of my tongue whenever I’d have to say its name: Marvel. Blech!
Well, as time went on, I knew that I couldn’t hold it off any longer. I couldn’t work in a comic book store and remain clueless about almost half of the product I was peddling. When I started to read Marvel books with the help of other staff members, most of my preconceptions started to go out the window, but I wasn’t completely sold yet…until I read the five following stories/runs with some of the best that the Marvel library of characters has to offer. The following five stories are the ones that convinced me that liking Marvel was far from a bad thing.
We all have our preferences, and DC tends to remain mine, but the following stories did more than connect me with another universe of characters. They gave me a great “in” to the house that reinvented comics with some of the best characters on the stands, and made me proud to become a fan of Marvel.
5) J. Michael Straczynski’s The Amazing Spider-Man (2001-2007)
Like most people seem to, I enjoyed the Spider-Man films directed by Sam Raimi (well, except for number 3). As a young kid, the 1990s animated series was always a lot of fun to watch, but I hadn’t ever really read many Spider-Man comics before. The same year I started working at the comic shop, the big controversy surrounding Marvel at the end of 2007 surrounded the exit of writer J. Michael Straczynski (creator of sci-fi series Babylon 5) from the ongoing comic series The Amazing Spider-Man. Under editorial pressure from the higher-ups that wanted to make Spidey more “modern,” it was decided that the marriage between Peter Parker and Mary-Jane Watson had to be dissolved. How would you do that? You can’t divorce him, that’d just age him further! This naturally pissed a bunch of fans off.
Hearing little other than good things about Straczynski’s run on Spidey up to that point, I decided to give it a try, and one lucky eBay auction later I was reading the run in issue form from the beginning. And I have to say, there’s a lot to love. Straczynski maintained a great character focus on Peter while simultaneously creating new villains, giving us a deeper look at his relationships, and letting the balls-to-the-wall action go in really interesting ways.
There wasn’t ever a fight just for the sake of one, most of the time the conflicts built up over time and erupted in really satisfying conclusions, and Straczynski still continues to be my first thought for writers that really help embody the vicious wit of Spidey. I have every issue of Amazing from the beginning of JMS’ run until today, and every once in a while I break a few favorites out because, by and large, his run was terrific. I didn’t agree with everything he did, but I liked most of it, and it was this run with some great artists that gave my “in” to Spider-Man.
4) Joss Whedon and John Cassaday’s Astonishing X-Men (2004-2008)
Before Joss Whedon was the director of The Avengers, he made his splash on television in beloved franchises of his creation, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly. While I haven’t watched much of Buffy, I loved the adventures of Mal Reynolds and his crew aboard Serenity, and it was on that confidence alone that I decided to give Whedon’s run on Astonishing X-Men a try. And boy, am I glad that I did. This is easily some of the finest modern comics storytelling you’re likely to find, and that same attention to character and environment that you’ll find in the best of Whedon’s TV work was easily on display in Astonishing.
Like Spider-Man, as a kid I’d immensely enjoyed the early 90’s X-Men animated show, but hadn’t read many of the comics again. As a DC kid looking into the Marvel U, it always kind of baffled me that their world was shared between the likes of the Avengers and X-Men, but in practice those worlds were very disparate. Big, thrashing events happen that the X-Men deal with, but it never really seems to attract the attention of the Avengers, and vice versa. Whedon approached that pretty upfront with the appearance of S.H.I.E.L.D. in early issues, but it was easy to look past that conceptual problem I had with the X-Men in general and just enjoy the hell out of what Whedon did.
It was from this book that I was also introduced to artist John Cassaday, who is now one of my all-time favorite comics artists. At first glance, there’s an inherent simplicity to his style, but looking closer, the exacting specificity in dimension, anatomy, emotion, and action becomes increasingly apparent. He’s not the fastest artist in the world, but quality like this takes time that I’m only all too glad to give him.
It wasn’t until later that I found out Whedon was actually following up another celebrated X-Men run of the early 2000s, which I did get around to reading. I’ll mention it in a little while…
3) J. Michael Straczynski’s Thor (2007-2009)
Thor was a character I just didn’t get. He had origins in real-world mythology, but was recycled as a superhero for Marvel? AND he was one of the most important Avengers? It just seemed like a rather odd fit. So, when I saw that JMS was gearing up to do a run on the Norse God of Thunder, I was intrigued and hoped that he would give me the same sort of “in” for Thor that he gave me for Spider-Man. It quickly became apparent to me, though, that this wasn’t exactly Straczynski’s aim. He was reintroducing Thor to a new generation of Marvel readers that hadn’t really known him, which made this run perfect for someone like me.
You see, a few years prior, Thor and Asgard were killed off in a big event called Ragnarok (being of course a reference to the real Norse prediction ending with the death of several gods). Thor and his kin were dead, Asgard seemed no more, and the Marvel U had apparently moved on. When Thor’s hammer Mjölnir was found by the villainous Doctor Doom, who attempted to wield it, both he and the Fantastic Four are unable and it finds its way into the clutches of Donald Blake, Thor’s human host.
Blake uses the power of Mjölnir to revive Thor, who goes on an earthly quest to restore Asgard. The higher realm is eventually restored, but on Earth outside a small town in Oklahoma. In a bit of a humorous twist, you see gods alongside simple country folk, while the story also goes on to make pretty profound statements about spirituality while giving great character moments with Thor himself.
Straczynski succeeded in giving me a great grounding for Thor, but in a different way than he did for Spider-Man. Instead of jumping onto the moving train that was his Amazing run, his Thor run felt more like pulling out of an old station on an entirely new train: the history is always there if you need it, but you can jump in from this new beginning with no problem.
2) Grant Morrison’s New X-Men (2001-2004)
After reading a sizable amount of his Batman material, his incredible All Star Superman, as well as portions of Animal Man, The Invisibles, The Filth, and Doom Patrol, I found the name of my favorite comic book writer: Grant Morrison. While I was developing my Marvel “legs,” I quickly discovered that Morrison had crafted an entire run on the X-Men, and I knew I had to read it. When I found out that this was the run that Joss Whedon followed up on in his Astonishing run, I knew it had to be pretty interesting if Whedon had the desire to continue the story (at least to a degree).
Morrison’s tendency toward high-concept extrapolations about society and his unmatched penchant for allegory were on full display in his run on New X-Men. It was in this run that I really started to understand the full validity of the constant comparisons with the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s, as well as the movement for gay rights in the modern era. Mutants have to deal with all of that hatred in the Marvel Universe, and the X-Men protect a world that hates and fears them.
One of the single most satisfying elements of New X-Men was the revelations surrounding the endlessly interesting new character Xorn. Freed by the X-Men after being held captive in China, Xorn becomes a member of the team, and his importance increases as the chapters roll on until they reveal something very important to the entire framework of Morrison’s run on the book. If you plan on reading this at all in the future and don’t know what I’m talking about, DO NOT SEEK OUT INFORMATION ABOUT THE RUN OR OF XORN. It will spoil the story and if you can actually experience it as you read it, I’m pretty sure your mind will be blown.
Like all of his superhero work, Morrison’s run on New X-Men is endlessly reverent and inclusive of the material that came before, but charts a whole new direction that few people will likely see coming. I highly recommend it, especially if you’ve never really read the X-Men in any great detail before, like I hadn’t.
1) Captain America (vol. 5) #1-25 by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting (2004-2007)
I owe writer Ed Brubaker quite a lot, because when I started reading his critically lauded run on Captain America, it was then that I’d finally found a Marvel character that I could call my favorite. Conceptually, Cap was the exception to a lot of Marvel characters that would follow him: he was invented in the early 1940’s by Jack Kirby (not a 1960’s Stan Lee creation), his origin was science gone right (as opposed to so many other Marvel origins showing science gone wrong), and in a way he was almost kind of a hybrid between Batman and Superman: he’s a bad ass with unmatched tactical skill, but he also manages to be a symbol of hope for anyone serving with him.
I was always a little wary of Cap before, just because it seemed like he might’ve been an obnoxiously patriotic war-hawk when, in the early 2000’s, that seemed like a personality type in great abundance. Brubaker’s run showed that this was not the case; Captain America loved the United States greatly for what it represents in the best cases to the rest of the world, and always attempts to embody the spirit of freedom and justice that we all hold dear. What he doesn’t do is blindly worship whatever the prevailing ideology of the time is. For Cap, the American flag is an absolute representation of liberty and justice for all people, everywhere. It’s not a convenient propaganda tool to be used by people in power that is contorted for the issues of the time.
That’s why those first 25 issues of Brubaker’s extraordinary run with Steve Rogers was a revelation to me. Unlike some people today, I did’t have the luxury of seeing a film about him (I skipped the 1990 version) to get an idea of who he was, so I let Brubaker and artist Steve Epting show me. Who they showed me was a man of principle, who didn’t let things get to his head, and who is the unquestioning leader of every hero in the Marvel Universe. Brubaker and Epting also introduced me to the most evil villain in Marvel’s stable, the Red Skull. The exact inverse of everything that makes up Steve Rogers, Cap versus the Skull to me is the single best Marvel conflict around.
If you’ve never really read a Captain America story, I’d definitely encourage you to find a paperback collection of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which was so good that Marvel Studios decided to make it the basis for their next Cap movie! Let Brubaker and Epting introduce you to a fantastic hero, I’m fairly certain that you’ll enjoy the ride.
So that’s it! These are the five Marvel stories that really helped to make me enjoy what that company has to offer. If you’re holding onto that loyalty to other companies like I did, let me just say this: there’s a difference between reading it all and only reading stuff that’s good.
No comic book publisher is immune to putting out bad comics (or “wastes of paper”), but no one company has exclusive rights to good ones, either. If you’re inclined, maybe give one of these a try. You might find that you can enjoy yourself along the way.
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