So, you’ve seen a few superhero movies, you liked them, and now you’re interested in reading the source material. Why not? The book’s always better than the movie, right?
But then you start looking around for what to read, and you quickly realize that this is way more complicated than you thought. There are thousands of comic books, and whenever you open one up, it always feels like they’re starting right in the middle of something, talking about fifty people you don’t understand, only about half of whom seem human, and none of whom look familiar from the movies.
Well, don’t throw in the towel yet! Comic books are a unique genre, and it takes a little bit of time and direction to get up to speed on everything. There’s no perfect way to do it, unless you go back to the very first issue which, for some superheroes, might mean reading something that’s been published once a month or so since 1944. But if that sounds a little daunting, we’ve compiled a helpful jumping-off point for some of Marvel and DC’s premiere superheroes. There still might be a bit of a learning curve but, for the most part, this is your best bet.
Iron Man: Extremis – Warren Ellis
The Extremis story was borrowed from pretty heavily for Iron Man 3, which wasn’t the most beloved entry in the Iron Man franchise, but this book gives a great picture of who modern day Tony Stark is and how he views his role in the world as Iron Man.
Captain America: Winter Soldier – Ed Brubaker
Brubaker’s Captain America: Winter Soldier isn’t just the best Captain America story of all time — it’s one of the best spy novels of any medium from the past few decades, period.
Avengers: Avengers World – Jonathan Hickman
Few writers are as adept at conveying real emotion and humanity in superheroes like Jonathan Hickman, and in Avengers World, he takes their galactic scope to a truly mind-bending stratosphere.
Spider-Man – Ultimate Spider-Man: Brian Michael Bendis
Spider-Man is never better than when he’s 15-year-old Peter Parker, and Brian Michael Bendis returned him to those roots in his very long run on Ultimate Spider-Man, which started the saga of Peter Parker all over from the beginning, capturing the true spirit of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s creation again for the first time in decades.
Daredevil: Here Comes Daredevil! – Mark Waid
Frank Miller’s run on Daredevil is largely considered the unofficial start of “grim and gritty” comics, so it’s saying something that Mark Waid’s run, which recast Daredevil as a more cheerful, optimistic hero is maybe the best look this character has had in ages.
Most comics are difficult to get into, but few are as brain-numbingly convoluted as the X-Men, which is almost its own mini-universe within Marvel’s greater universe. Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men run put Whedon’s characteristic wit and charm to great use, making some head-turning plots go down easily.
Thor is the subject of some of Marvel’s grandest sagas, a terrific place for fans of Tolkien-esque fantasy literature to get into superhero comics. The God Butcher captures all of Marvel’s Nordic myth-aspirations at their most sweeping and eye-popping.
While frequently muted to brute force in the movies, the comic book Hulk has spent his existence as a complex emotional wreck. Planet Hulk and its follow-up, World War Hulk, capture his deep-seated rage at its most provocative.
Guardians of the Galaxy: Annihilation – Keith Giffen
Believe it or not, the Guardians of the Galaxy were Marvel’s c-listers until the movie made them a household name. Giffen’s Annihilation is focused on dozens of Marvel’s intergalactic heroes, including plenty of faces you’ll be familiar with from the Guardians movie (and will see in its upcoming sequel), and is one of the most epic narratives the company has ever produced.
Doctor Strange: The Oath – Brian K. Vaughan
Doctor Strange, Marvel’s spooky sorcerer supreme, is one of Marvel’s oldest heroes but has often been saddled near its fringes. That will all change this November when Benedict Cumberbatch brings his mystical tales to the main stage. Vaughan’s The Oath is almost certainly the best way to prepare.
Black Panther: Who is the Black Panther? – Reginald Hudlin
Ta Nehisi Coates’ new series may have gotten all the attention, but for newcomers, your best bet is Reginald Hudlin’s older Black Panther series, which is more focused on introducing those who may not be familiar with Wakanda’s state in Marvel’s earth.
Jessica Jones: ALIAS – Brian Michael Bendis
There isn’t exactly a lot to pick from with Jessica Jones, as Bendis’ Alias is very nearly this character’s only run in the spotlight. But what a run it is, featuring some of Marvel’s most adult themes. Alias landed at a time when Marvel was desperately trying to court older readers, and the book succeeded in a big way. If you read it, you’ll see why, but proceed with caution. It’s dark stuff.
Fantastic Four: Fantastic Four – Jonathan Hickman
Well, three awful movies haven’t exactly served Marvel’s first family well, so you could be forgiven for having no interest in reading any Fantastic Four. But to do so would be to miss out on some of Marvel’s warmest, most human writing. None of the movies really seemed to understand the nuclear family that makes the Fantastic Four such a beloved team to millions of comic readers, and their existence has suffered for it. If you read Hickman’s run, you won’t make the same mistake.
Batman: The Court of Owls – Scott Snyder
DC’s most popular superhero actually just wrapped up one of the best comic series he’s ever had. Scott Snyder’s long, spectacular run found a fresh spin on the Dark Knight, largely by taking him back to his roots, rarely pulling the focus outside of Gotham City’s grim fortunes, or the impossible hope that Bruce Wayne has that his city may someday be safe from crime. It’s thrilling, funny, frightening, hopeful, chilling and excellent in every way. Read. This. Series.
Supergirl: Power – Jeph Loeb
Supergirl is generally in her big cousin’s spotlight, and even her comics struggle to make her stand out (she wears his exact same costume except for a skirt, for crying out loud). But Power succeeded where other stories haven’t by giving her a conflict that Superman has never had, finally allowing her to come into her own as the Woman of Steel.
Superman: All Star Superman – Grant Morrison
Whenever someone says Superman is a boring character, you need respond with only three words: All. Star. Superman. There are other stories — some of them excellent — but Morrison’s brief series captured everything that makes Superman an indelible icon in one fantastically told story that justifies everything about Superman’s iconic status.
Wonder Woman: Wonder Woman – George Perez
Wonder Woman stories are unfortunately difficult to find, as DC has done a poor job of re-releasing them in recent years. Perez’s series is your best bet, and you couldn’t do much better anyway.
Justice League: Identity Crisis – Brad Meltzer
Identity Crisis has been under some well-deserved fire in recent years for an off-putting plot structure and a poor understanding of domestic abuse and female characters in general. Those qualifiers are important, but for a team as convoluted as the JLA, Identity Crisis remains the easiest jumping on point. For better or worse, most modern JLA comics are based off of the tone set here.
The Flash: The Flash – Geoff Johns
The Flash has a lot of great stories, but fans of the CW show will want Geoff Johns’ immaculately illustrated, sci-fi-indebted take on the character. There is an argument to be made that the Flash is quietly the most pivotal character in the entire DC universe, and that argument begins and ends with John’s writing.
Aquaman: The Trench – Geoff Johns
Aquaman is the butt of a thousand jokes, but you won’t be cracking them after you read The Trench, which shows just how cool of a character Aquaman can be when he’s written by someone who understands him. Far from the grinning fish-translator of yore, this Aquaman is a badass king of an underworld empire who has time for your stupid jokes. Here’s hoping the upcoming movie takes note.
Green Lantern: Blackest Night – Geoff Johns
Another character that’s been poorly served by a bad movie, Green Lantern is nevertheless the star of Blackest Night, one of DC’s greatest stories of the past few years. In this story, you get an understanding of just how massive the Lantern Corps is, and how amazing the concept can be when written by someone with genuine affection for the character.
Green Arrow: Quiver – Kevin Smith
While the CW show pits Oliver Queen as its sort of brooding Batman surrogate, the Green Arrow of the comics is a treat — a hyper-liberal, politically charged vigilante who’s at least as concerned with fighting crime as he is being a social justice warrior, in the most literal sense of the word. The way Kevin Smith wrote Quiver gives you the sense that this Oliver Queen would be annoying as hell at parties, but he’s an awful lot of fun to read.
[This was taken from our superhero comics podcast It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s a Podcast! You can listen to the whole thing below, and subscribe on iTunes here.]