While both major comic book publishers have gone to great lengths to make their stories accessible to new readers, sometimes the very stories they create to fill those needs don't always have as low barrier to entry as they might think. In that spirit, here are a few single story recommendations to introduce an uninitiated fan into the world of superheroes, with this week's edition focused on the characters at the "House of Ideas:" Marvel Comics, specifically as it relates to the characters and situations of Marvel Studios' cinematic universe.
Iron Man — "The Five Nightmares" by Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca
Back in early 2008, few likely could've predicted just how big Iron Man would become after the introduction of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Still, Iron Man is a character with a rich legacy, that sometimes doesn't always resemble the character we get on the screen in the form of Robert Downey, Jr.'s beloved portrayal of Tony Stark.
That's where "The Five Nightmares" comes in. Whle there are a few references to other goings-on in the wider Marvel Universe, this was the first story arc of a new ongoing series that was specifically created to capitalize on the release of the first film. The director of the first two Iron Man films, Jon Favreau, also sees Matt Fraction's work as great examples of where the character has been, and Fraction specifically tailors this new nightmare scenario as if people are walking right out of the theater after seeing the movie.
Beyond that, though, it's also impeccably constructed. Fraction does a great job of showcasing the heroic tendencies of Tony Stark in a familiar context, and Salvador Larroca is one of the best artists working in comics today. This story is also available all over the place, in print, digital, and for subscribers to the Marvel Unlimited service. If someone has an interest in the Armored Avenger, then this would be a great first step for them to take.
Captain America — "Man Out of Time" by Mark Waid and Jorge Molina
First hitting comic book shops in November of 2010, about 9 months before Captain America: The First Avenger hit theaters, Man Out of Time is a modernized retelling of the story found in 1964's Avengers #4. In that story, Captain America was found in a block of ice and reawoken in a world that was wholly unfamiliar to him. He was meeting his cohorts in the superhero team he would soon become a staple of for the very first time, and would awe his fellow heroes by living up to the legend he created during his heyday in World War II.
The thing is, while that story is a classic, you don't fully get the sense when reading it today of how disorienting it would be for Steve Rogers to awake in such a different world, and especially considering the "floating timeline" of the Marvel Comics universe, the Steve Rogers of today's comics wouldn't necessarily have woken up in the 1960's. Enter "Man Out of Time," which slightly modernizes the era in which Steve wakes up in. Also modernized is the storytelling, under the masteful eye of writer Mark Waid. Artist Jorge Molina may not have provided the cover art for this series, but his interiors are so clean — and his characters so emotive — that you can't help but feel for Steve as he slowly realizes the country he fought so hard for has changed: both for better and for worse.
One particularly affecting moment sees Steve, perhaps the greatest of the "Greatest Generation," confronting the realities that come with the triumphs and horrors of modern society. Interestingly enough, it's Tony Stark who paints a particularly rosey picture of the past during a conversation with Steve. When Steve himself seeks out an old superior officer who's still alive, he discovers through the words of the old man's bitterness that humanity's triumphs have come with serious tragedy. Though his optimism is frozen because of this, it's never broken. "Man Out of Time" does a spectacular job of not just telling you, but showing you why Captain America is a moral, heroic and self-assured standard-bearer that all the other heroes of the Marvel Universe would rally behind, before following him to the gates of hell and back again.
If that doesn't make you a Cap fan, then I don't know what would.
Black Widow — "S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Most Wanted" by Mark Waid and Chris Samnee
The Black Widow is a character with a significant amount of legacy in the Marvel Universe, but if you're looking for a classic action/espionage story that demonstrates her skill and resourcefulness, this is the story to hand to someone. The second story on this list by writer Mark Waid, he and artist Chris Samnee hop over from an ongoing gig on Daredevil to being a similar flavor of swashbuckling action that has just the slightest hint of a 1960's spy story. When Natasha Romanoff has some of her darkest secrets exposed, she's pursued by S.H.I.E.L.D. She has to rely on all of her skill to get her past her former allies, while also aiming to find out who has exposed her, and why.
One of the real treats here is Samnee's art. When looked at from the periphery, it may trick you into thinking it lacks a certain complexity, but he's an absolute master of telling truthfully emotional tales that highlight and accentuate the already well-woven words of Mark Waid. While you want the Widow to find the mysterious villain, the "Weeping Lion," so she could knock him into next week, you can't help but be taken along for the ride as Natasha has to maneuver her way into S.H.I.E.L.D. and her former allies in the old Soviet Union in order to get closer to her mysterious new enemy.
As far as thrilling spy comics go, it's hard to go wrong with this effective introduction to the uninitiated in how cool Black Widow really is.
Spider-Man — "Blue" by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale
For some people, it's relatively easy to look at Spider-Man and characterize him as a "wisecracker," especially since Peter Parker himself lets his immense wit and sharp tongue do a lot of trash-talking to his enemies. What many people who may not know Spidey well don't understand, though, is that Spider-Man is actually one of the Marvel Universe's darkest, most complex characters. His humor tends to get a lot of people in the door, but what really turns people into Spider-Man fans from casual observers is his psychological complexity.
Few stories get Peter's dark side across as effectively as "Spider-Man: Blue," and it's not a dark side in a traditional superheroic sense. Few real people wear darkness like a badge of honor as characters like Batman or Wolverine do. Most people, as they live their lives, hide their darkness behind a smile. Peter's darkness doesn't come with a sense of brutality, nor does it manifest itself in an overly physical way: instead, it has always come from overriding guilt, and the sadness that comes with that guilt. "Blue" cuts to the heart of that guilt and sadness by recounting how he fell in love with — and lost — Gwen Stacy. Every single emotional beat in the book is punctuated briliantly through the masterful art of one of Loeb's most frequent collaborators, artist Tim Sale.
One of the most timeless Spider-Man stories ever told was in Amazing Spider-Man #121-122, where Peter fails to stop Gwen Stacy from dying. In "Blue," Peter is forced to re-explore his relationship with Gwen, how he fell in love with her, how he lost her, and how he has to bring himself to move on in his life. It compresses a significant amount of supporting chraracters, villains, and events of Spidey's early history into six issues, and can't be recommended enough.
Thor — "The God Butcher" by Jason Aaron and Esad Ribic
As a character, Thor has a tendency to come with a fair amount of baggage. He's been steeped in the deep lore of the Marvel U for a very long time, and while personal stories focusing on the God of Thunder do exist, sometimes they can tend to get lost in the showcases of overriding power that he has access to. The unique thing about "The God Butcher" is that it's a personal story, that also comes with deeply bombastic visuals and larger-than-lie characters.
By effectively showcasing Thor at three different stages of his life — past, present and future — this story gives a great amount of context to the young man Thor was, the god he is, and the god he still will be. As the first major work on the character of writer Jason Aaron, it serves as an introduction to a wonderful era of Thor stories that comics fans still enjoy, but is also accessible enough as a character showcase that you likely won't have any choice but to get behind the Asgardian Avenger for the long haul. Adding to the almost operatic nature of this story are the jaw-dropping visuals provided by artist Esad Ribic, who was a phenomenal choice in bringing the true scale of this story to life.
While this story doesn't feature Thor's most classic adversary in the form of his brother Loki, the introduction of Gorr, the titular God Butcher, gives a sense of immediacy, urgency, and dread that comes with his very well-deserved title. The threat he presents unites three very different, yet very informative versions of the God of Thunder together, giving an unusual amount of perspective on the kind of character Thor really is. While Gorr's appearances after this first arc are limited, Aaron deftly uses the Butcher's presence as a springboard to a totally new kind of Thor story later on. Still, as far as a deeply informative one-off character study, it's very, very hard to go wrong with "The God Butcher."
The Hulk — "Planet Hulk" by Greg Pak, Carlo Pagulayan and Aaron Lopresti
While this may be seen by some as an easy and/or obvious choice, the very nature of its storytelling is what makes it such an informative piece about the kind of character and hero the Hulk really is. In the films of the MCU thus far, the Hulk is somewhat characterzed as a grenade that gets thrown in the middle of an Avengers fight, and little attention has been paid thus far to the character beyond the identity of Bruce Banner. In a lot of ways, the Hulk himself is a very different guy than his host is, and no modern story captures that essence better than Greg Pak's signature achievement during his run on The Incredible Hulk.
"Planet Hulk" is immediately compelling because it shows you a hero who has been wronged by the very people he's called friends. Marvel's "Illuminati" (which we've discussed here before) decided that after the Hulk attacked a popular tourist destination, he needed to be ejected into space to live out his life on some peaceful planet that was not Earth. They even try to justify their actions to the Hulk directly in a recording, but unfortunately for them, a wrong turn into a wormhole puts the Hulk's craft onto a planet that's most definitely not peaceful: the wartorn planet Sakaar. Forced to become a gladiator and fight against his will, the Hulk's dominance causes him to create a following for himself as a man of the desolate world's inhabitants.
As he makes a life for himself there and confronts all the dangers that come with the territory itself, Hulk leads the oppressed people against their despotic ruler, all while denying he's a prophecized messiah come to save them from subjugation. Love, loss, battle, a new brand of heroics, and the sheer, unstoppable power of Marvel's iconic green behemoth are all here. Because it's a story that relies largely on only one familiar character, t's a great crash course to introduce someone to who the Hulk is, and what he's capable of. And hey, it's not a bad choice to read before the arrival of Thor: Ragnarok if that first trailer is any indication.
Are you a comic book fan? What other stories would you recommend for these characters? How about other MCU movie stars like the Guardians of the Galaxy, Black Panther, Captain Marvel, or Ant-Man? Be sure to leave your own recommendations in the comments below, and come back next week for a look at some recommendations for Marvel's "Distinguished Competition!" (And special thanks to my friend Paul Hermann for his input here!)