A few years ago, I had a surprising revelation: I was a huge fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Not just a casual enjoyer of a few of the films, but a real lover of what Kevin Feige had created with them. While the first phase of films were hit or miss, the quality significantly improved in phase two. The release of Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014 began a chain of near-perfect action movies, fun and wild and funny.
There are only so many movies, though, and I'm not that into rewatching them. I'm a fan, but maybe not a superfan. The obvious next thing to do was to go back to the source material. Who were these characters, originally? What were they like? I was really curious about the artists and writers who invented these stories, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee and their peers. The comics didn't just spring up out of nowhere. They existed in the real world. How did they fit into the early 1960s culture they were created in?
I was a comic reader for a few years at the start of the 90s, starting when I was 10. Unfortunately, the 90s were an infamously bad decade for the medium. That helps explain why I eventually gave up on them. New issues were lame. Back issues where hard to get hold of — or at least I didn't know how, or even that I should. I moved on to other things, leaving comics behind.
Now I've come back!
Comics aren't the easiest things to get into. Kinda what keeps them such a nerdy form of art. You gotta work at finding your way in. But I did it. And I want to help others who might want to try it, too. Here's my guide.
- Download the Marvel Unlimited iOS app. $10 a month is absolutely worth it, if you're gonna do the reading.
- Add these issues to your library:
- Start reading chronologically, adding each next issue to your library as you go.
- Read all of these titles through to the end of 1965, at least.
- Absolutely continue on with Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, X-Men, and Strange Tales. The others you can stop reading after 1965 if you want. They eventually get a little repetitive.
- Read The Fantastic Four all the way up to #102. It is undeniably the best comic of the decade. Sheer perfection of the medium. Incredibly, it continues to get better through to the end of Jack Kirby's involvement, which is issue #102. In fact, I'd say you could forget all the other comics and read only the first 102 Fantastic Four stories and nothing else. That would be perfectly OK. You'll be getting the best of the best.
- Doctor Strange stories are for a long time paired with another. Feel free to ignore the other half of those issues, and read only the Doctor Strange half.
- The X-Men jumps from #66 to #94, because #67-#93 were reprints. Issue #94 was the beginning of the long Claremont run, which is a big new start to the title. It's when Wolverine is permanently added to the mix, along with Storm and the other great next generation of characters. Colossus. Nightcrawler. You probably know them.
- After a while, you'll get the hang of Marvel Unlimited's terrible app UX, and learn how to browse it. You can start reading anything else that catches your attention. The Silver Surfer, Eternals, Young Avengers, Moon Knight. Black Panther. Tons more. If you've read this far, you'll have a good idea of what you like.
I'm still a newbie to comics. Is this the best way to read them? No idea. It worked for me!
One great reason to read all of these old comics is to play along in the MCU guessing game. Which heroes are going to get their own films/shows, and which will be make supporting appearances? How are the X-Men and the Fantastic Four going to be introduced? Which villains and story archs are they going to appropriate? It's a massive pool of options, and Feige has attempted to reach back to the origins as often as he can. The way he's fitted them all together in the MCU is a huge achievement. Over the next few years, the roster is going to double, then quadruple. A near infinite variety of possibilities.
The next phase of the MCU is going to be so much fun. Especially since Feige has embraced the camp that's integral to the characters. He is leaning into the weirdness and the zaniness, and running in the exact opposite direction of Fincher's Batman trilogy. "Dark" comics was a fad. I much prefer the playfulness and brightness inherit to the original 1960s art. There is an outstanding richness there that actually translates well to TV and film in the 21st century. It's absolutely worth digging in and finding that out for yourself.