As a lifelong Marvel fan nothing makes me happier than seeing a generation of moviegoers becoming rabid fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Growing up in the Eighties, I felt a little isolated in that comics were essentially underground entertainment. At that time I only had one friend who even read comics so seeing the Marvel Universe successfully cross over into mainstream pop culture has been a blast to behold. A friend of mine (https://twitter.com/Zane_Castillo) suggested to me that a lot of these new Marvel fans might enjoy giving Marvel comics a try if they only had some idea about where to start. For fans of the movies a great point of entry might be in learning about some of the new characters set to debut in upcoming Marvel movies, specifically Ultron, the Vision, Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver and the Mad Titan Thanos. Hardcore Marvel readers will have a wide range of opinions on this topic, some of these characters have been around for 50 years, but for me the following story arcs are the essential tales to get moviegoers ready for the movies coming our way.
You can’t talk about the Vision without discussing Ultron and Henry Pym in the same breath and their shared continuity has served as the jumping off point for many legendary Marvel stories since the 1960s. It all started back in “Avengers” #57 (1968) written by Roy Thomas and illustrated by John Buscema, one of my favorite artists ever to put pencil to paper.
For the uninitiated, in this classic two-issue story the robot Ultron invents a synthetic being, the Vision, from the body of the WWII android Human Torch and the brain patterns of a former villain/future Avenger named Wonder Man. Vision’s mission is to eliminate the Avengers, but to Ultron’s surprise Vision joins the team and becomes one of their most loyal members for decades to come. Over the course of the story we learn that Avenger Henry Pym (aka Ant-Man, Giant-Man, Goliath, Yellowjacket) was responsible for inventing Ultron, a self-aware A.I. that quickly betrayed Pym and began upgrading itself and evolving until becoming one of the most dangerous villains in the Marvel Universe. With Marvel Studios introducing “Ant-Man” after “Avengers: Age of Ultron” we can expect many changes to these characters and their stories but I imagine much of this bizarre family dynamic will remain intact in the movies. (Story is reprinted in “Marvel Visionaries: Roy Thomas” and “Marvel Masterworks: Avengers - Volume 6”)
One of the most interesting melodramas to unfold in the history of the Marvel Universe is the love story between the Vision and the mutant Scarlet Witch. The Scarlet Witch’s twin (and borderline incestuous) brother Quicksilver is disgusted by this relationship and fights it every step of the way. This soap opera has taken many twists and turns from the Sixties to the present day but some of the most interesting moments take place during the Kree-Skrull War (“The Avengers” #89-97, 1971-1972), written by Roy Thomas and illustrated by Sal Buscema, Neal Adams, and John Buscema). The Kree-Skrull War is far too complicated and far too incredible to sum up in just a few sentences but one of the subplots of this saga sees the Vision tracking the Scarlet Witch across the galaxy after she is captured by the Skrulls. As one can see by Neal Adams’s phenomenal cover to “The Avengers” #96, the Vision displays some raw, very human emotion in his efforts to learn the location of his lady love. To what extent the Vision is human is a recurring theme for stories featuring the character but this moment for me ranks amongst the finest.
(The Kree-Skrull War is available at basically every comic shop in the country or can be downloaded at https://www.comixology.com/Avengers-Kree-Skrull-War/digital-comic/20544)
Thanos is hands down one of the best recurring villains in the Marvel Universe. As a complex, multi-faceted character, for me he’s up there with Doctor Doom, Magneto or any other heavy hitter one cares to mention. This is a man who committed genocide against his own people, laid waste across countless planets around the universe and has achieved omnipotence on more than one occasion. The irony is that all Thanos truly seeks is the peace and tranquility of death and has suffered on and off for most of his life from his love for the physical embodiment of Death. In the Marvel Universe Death is a cosmic entity who often appears as a beautiful woman or as a robed skeleton. I’ve already ranted to some extent about Thanos in a previous entry about Jim Starlin’s masterpiece “Warlock” (http://www.comicbookmovie.com/fansites/Colebrax/news/?a=97827) but Thanos has achieved notoriety in many epic tales including Jim Starlin’s “The Death of Captain Marvel” (1982).
One of Thanos’s oldest and most formidable foes was Captain Marvel, the hero who was responsible for stopping Thanos the first time he achieved omnipotence (“Captain Marvel” vol. 1 #25-33, 1973-1974). Captain Marvel also played a crucial role when Adam Warlock managed to “kill” Thanos by burning him alive and turning him into a semi-conscious statue, a hellish limbo without the sweet release of death. Years later, as Captain Marvel lies in a hospital bed, dying of cancer, the cosmic entity Death offers both Thanos and Captain Marvel an opportunity to die like warriors in an epic face-off more appropriate for the dangerous lives they’ve lived. The old foes slug it out in a fantastic brawl but eventually surrender to the inevitable and allow Death to escort them into whatever afterlife awaits them. We would not see Thanos again for many years until the build-up to the popular series “The Infinity Gauntlet” (1991). (Both of the above mentioned Thanos stories can be found in the trade paperback “The Life and Death of Captain Marvel”.)
As I said earlier, with decades of stories to choose from, most Marvel fans will have strong opinions about the essential tales starring these particular characters but hopefully this guide will serve as a jumping off point for interested readers. At this point the Marvel Cinematic Universe has enough continuity of its own that it will be increasingly difficult to create direct adaptations of classic story lines, but the genius of Kevin Feige is finding ways to remain true to the spirit of the original comics without being enslaved to them. I’d love to hear other ideas on the best stories to get movie fans ready for the epics coming our way. I’ve barely scratched the surface and haven’t even started on the characters debuting in “Guardians of the Galaxy” (more to come on that topic in the future). For now I’ll close with some suggestions on some more contemporary work that I’ve loved in recent years. Make mine Marvel.
Jason Aaron’s “Thanos Rising” (2013) - A disturbing sci-fi horror story exploring the early days of Thanos. Not for kids unless they enjoy having nightmares about death and torture.
Jonathan Hickman’s “Infinity” (2013) - The best cosmic Marvel crossover in recent years, Jonathan Hickman’s “Infinity” takes place across three separate titles written by Jonathan Hickman starring the Avengers, Thanos and basically every alien character ever encountered in the Marvel Universe. This massive hardcover contains the entire story: