Superhero Comic Books: Where to Begin?

For quite a while now, Superheroes have become big summer staples at the local movie theater. Many of my long time readers may have also read my two series from last year, “Countdown to Avengers” and Road to Rises” focusing on some of the biggest and  most important characters in the DC and Marvel Universe respectively.

JLA_Avengers

Sometime ago I was talking to my best friend on the phone and he was telling me his younger brother was getting interested in some of these superheroes and wasn’t sure where to begin. Chances are after seeing the films, or reading my blog series, you’ve been wondering the same but have found it a daunting task. Just browsing on Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, or a local library can leave you exhausted as there are so many graphic novels to choose from. Superman for example just celebrated his 75th anniversary leaving you with a plethora of stories from which to choose. But those just getting into these heroes don’t want lots of stories, they just want to start with one. So where to begin?

That is why I’ve complied this handy little list that is sure to help get you started.

DC:

Superman-

Superman For All Seasons-Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale.SupermanForAllSeasons

One problem people have with Superman is he seems to perfect. However if you try to make him to angst ridden or to angry you turn off your long-time fans, and at the same time if you make him to nice you turn off the younger generation that wants heroes to be tough and gritty. So how do you approach Superman in a way that makes him relatable, human, and yet maintains the essence of Superman’s character?

Superman For All Seasons does just that. It explores Superman’s early days by looking at him through four different perspectives. Jonathan Kent opens the tale, telling the story of when Clark Kent, his son, trying to find his place in the world. From there we move to Metropolis where intrepid and cynical reporter Lois Lane has finally met her Prince Charming.  Lex continues the tale, allowing us to see the Superman story from the view of his arch nemesis, who sees himself as a man who lost his lover, the city of Metropolis to another man and will do anything to get her back .Lastly Lana Lang, Clark’s high school sweetheart tells the tale of lost love, who had to step aside for Superman to become the man he was meant to be.

Batman-

Batman: Year One– Frank Miller and David MazzucchelliBatmanYO

Considers a landmark tale in the Batman mythos, this story examines Batman in the context of a hard-boiled detective story. Running concurrently with Batman’s beginning is the story of the one good, but flawed,  cop in Gotham City, Jim Gordon.  Not only does this story explore how they became the cities protectors, but how they forged their uneasy alliance. We get to see them as troubled men, baring the burden of this great city on their shoulders coming together to save it and themselves.

Along the way Miller and Mazucchelli also flesh out the character of Gotham City. Through Batman Year One we see why Gordon, and Gotham, needs Batman. It’s not because Gordon and the Police Department are bumbling an inept, it’s because Gotham is so corrupt and broken that it created a void that only Batman can fill. This story went on to help influence the films Batman ( 1989), Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, and Batman Begins.

Wonder Woman-

Wonder Woman: Who is Wonder Woman?-Allan Heinberg, Rachel Dodson, and Terry Dodson.Wonder Woman Who is Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman has had some identity issues. Unlike her allies Superman and Batman with their alter egos of Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne, her alias of Diana Prince has never really been properly defined. Her personality, her interests, and her private life have been in constant flux. Like a Barbie Doll, she has changed careers countless times,  much of this having to do with the changing shifts on views of women in twentieth century America.

However the writers of this story seek to define who Wonder Woman is behind the star spangled bathing suit. During the events of one of DC’s “epic events” Wonder Woman murdered a man on life television. The whole world saw this and now fears and hates her. While the events of the “crisis” are touched upon, the story focuses more on Diana and her struggles to learn what it means to be human. We see her struggle with her guilt, grapple with her waning popularity, and learn how to cope with a secret identity.

Robin-

Batman: Dark Victory-Jeph Loeb and Tim SaleBatman Dark Victory

Following the tragic accident that disfigured District Attorney Harvey Dent and led him to becoming the criminal Two Face, Batman feels more alone in his war on crime than ever. A new killer, The Hangman is on the loose, going after every important figure in Gotham, from mobsters, to police to even Batman. During these events a young circus acrobat named Dick Grayson is orphaned by a racketeering act.

Feeling sorry for the boy Batman takes him under his roof and he slowly begins to see what the boy can add to his quest. The boy becomes his friend, and sidekick, Robin: The Boy Wonder. In this story we see how Robin compliments Batman. Not contradicts him, and how in more ways than one, he saved the Dark Knight from himself.

Green Lantern-

Green Lantern: Secret Origin-Geoff Johns and Ivan Reis  Green Lantern Secret Origin

The 90’s were not kind to Hal Jordan. He went evil following the destruction of his city, and threatened to destroy the whole world .Then he died, became God’s Angel of Vengeance, was returned to life, and had the whole “going evil “ thing explained as it being him possessed by an alien entity called Parallax. With Hal returned back to basics, it was time to reexamine what it was that made him the best Green Lantern.

Hal Jordan was a cocky, brash, and reckless test pilot who strove to be a man without fear, something that drove his family and co-workers crazy. After watching his father die in a plane crash, he strove to have the same resolve that he felt his father had. Then one day his life was changed when a dying alien bequeathed to him a powerful ring. Hal Jordan became the Green Lantern of Earth. Teaming up with veteran Sinestro, Hal was inducted into the Green Lantern Corps and battled against threats he never imagined. He also grapples with his tenuous relationship with the beautiful Carol Ferris. Meanwhile the stage is set for future events in the Green Lantern mythos.

The Flash-

DC Classics Library Collection: The Flash of Two Worlds– Gardner Fox, Carmine Infantino, and John BroomeFlash of Two Worlds

While it’s cool that The Flash can run fast one of the most fun aspects of this character and his power is the time travel aspects. Because he can run at the speed of light it allows him to not only go forward and backward in time, but he can travel to parallel worlds. In this collection, readers get to read the classic stories of the Silver Age, starting with “The Flash of two Worlds’ in which Barry Allen, the Silver Age Flash, travels to a parallel Earth and meets the Golden Age Flash, Jay Garrick.

For Barry, this is a dream come true. He had grown up reading about Jay’s adventures in comic books and now had the chance to not only meet, but fight alongside his child hood hero, and help save Jay’s city from a triad of dastardly villains who had been trapped behind a force field. Also included in this volume are five other stories featuring both Flashes, including one staring The Justice Society of America, and a team up story featuring Jay, Barry and Kid Flash, better known as Barry’s nephew Wally West.

Green Arrow-

Green Arrow: Year One-Andy Diggle and Jock. Green Arrow YO

Too often Green Arrow is dismissed as a “poor Man’s Batman”. Like the Dark Knight he is a rich boy with fancy gadgets and incredible skills. In fact his superficial similarities to Batman are why the TV show Smallville substituted Batman with Green Arrow when they couldn’t get cleared to use Batman. Combined with his gimmick arrows  ( such a boozing glove, handcuff, and other goofy toys) he has been placed at a low end of the totem pole of heroes. However he escaped obscurity and cancellation by being featured in back up stories, holding a spot on the Justice League of America, and later guest-starring in Green Lantern during the 70s, an era that transformed him into a social crusader.

However when he is stripped away of his superficiality with Batman he is an urban crusader, and a swashbuckling adventure. In this origin story we see just how he became the Emerald Archer. Oliver Queen had been spoiled all his life, squandering very gift he had been given. When he winds up stranded on a deserted island due to an act of sabotage he must learn to survive by using his training as an archer .When he discovers a drug cartel is using the island as a base, he becomes The Green Arrow: a modern day Robin Hood.

Aquaman-

Aquaman: The Trench-Geofff Johns and Ivan Reis.Aquaman_The_Trench

Let’s face it who hasn’t heard the jokes about what a stupid character Aquaman is. We all know why, he lives under the sea, and he talks to fish. This story even opens with someone in a diner hassling Aquaman about his joke reputation. The Police joke about him behind his back, and criminals are humiliated to be captured by hum. In a world filled with such incredible heroes as Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, Flash and Wonder Woman, he is seen as a joke as much in universe as out of it.

While most heroes have to protect a world that fears and hates them, Aquaman has to protect a world that laughs at him. It’s amidst this laugher that he proves his nobility and honor. Defending his city from threats both above and below the sea, he is out to show the world that he is not a joke.  Along the way, Aquaman, also known as Arthur Curry, and his wife Mera work to mantain balance between their lives on the surface world and their deep sea heritage, and prepare for a strange threat from beneath the depths of the sea that seeks to destroy their home.

Supergirl-

Superman/Batman: Supergirl-Jeph Loeb and Michael Turner Supergirl

In the mid-1980s Superman’s cousin, Supergirl was killed off. There were attempt to revitalize the character with a new and different version but none of them caught on. Each new character changed her moniker, or went evil, or was revealed to be a hoax. Then came the Superman/Batman: Supergirl, story arc that brought the original Supergirl back for a modern day audience.

Following the impact of a Kryptonite meteor, batman and Superman discover Superman’s cousin Kara Zor-El in a rocket. Originally sent to keep an eye on the baby Kal-El, she comes to Earth as a teenager and comes under the wing of Superman. Along the way he teaches her about Earth culture. Batman is not as trusting and investigates all he can about her and enlists Wonder Woman’s help in seeing to it that she’s given proper instruction.  However, unknown to them Darkseid, the despotic leader of the world of Apokolips has set his eyes on Supergirl with one objective in mind: Destroy Superman. Features breathtaking art by the late, great Michael Turner.

Justice League of America:

Justice-Alex Ross, Kin Krueger, and Doug Braithwaite.Justice

For years the Justice League has been the seminal team of the DC Universe. Whoever some roster consist of nothing more then Q-squad heroes when what fans really want is to see Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern and the rest of these heroes face off against incredible foes. This stand-alone series exactly that, and functions as a more mature version of the classic Superfriends cartoons of the 1960’s

Featuring all the classic heroes, Earth is under a great threat. The Legion of Doom, a team consisting of the deadliest foes of the JLA have received visions of the world being destroyed and the heroes of Earth powerless to stop it. In order to actually save the world, the villains come up with a plan: eliminate the heroes and usher humanity into their world of peace and prosperity. As the Justice League investigates they find that their is something much more sinister in place. This culminates in epic battle between the Justice League and their allies against the Legion of Doom to save the world.

 

Marvel

Captain America-

Captain America: Man out of Time-Mark Waid or Jorge Molina.CapAManoutoftime

Not so much Captain America’s Origin story, as much as a retelling of his return to the modern era. Mark Waid’s story retells the classic tale from The Avengers #4, but sets it in the late 20th century. The story opens during the end of World War II and after showing us how he got in the ice, picks up in the present day when he is found by the Avengers. We watch as Captain America grapples with how much has changed in the years since World War II and seek to find a place in a brave new world. We also see him try and rediscover the American dream and forge new allegiances with the Avengers.

This story is really a tribute to everything Captain America represents. The cover features him in the foreground with portraits of every president from Roosevelt to Obama behind him, showing how much of an enduring symbol Captain America is for this country. This story also sets things up for the more recent Captain America stories, allowing readers to have an excellent jumping off point into Marvel’s central hero. This book also includes a reprint of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s The Avengers #4.

Iron Man-

Iron Man: Demon in a Bottle-David Michelinie and Bob Layton.Demoninabottle

They say that a hero is only as good as his villain, and one of the problems Iron Man faced is that a number of his villains were very much rooted in 60’s paranoia. With the Cold War over, Russians spies as villains didn’t fully work, so the focus turned to acts of corporate sabotage and the villains became even sillier. So, how do you keep a really cool hero from becoming a joke? Well, as writing professors will remind you that amidst the conflict narratives in fiction, one is the conflict of man vs. self. While Demon in a Bottle certainly sees Tony against his corporate rivals and costumed enemies, the main crux of the story is his struggle against himself as he comes face to face with one of his greatest foes: Alcoholism.

In this story, Iron man’s armor is high-jacked by corporate rival Justin Hammer and is used to kill an ambassador. Falling under fire for these actions Tony watches as his life begins to crumble. Iron Man is expelled from the Avengers, and SHIELD threatens to take away Stark Industries in response to these events. Tony falls headlong into a battle with alcoholism and it’s only through the intervention of his friends that he is able to come out of it. It’s through this process, and defeating that “Demon  in a Bottle” that he is able to take down this foe.

Thor-

Thor : Son of Asgard: Worthy-Akira Yoshidi and Greg Tochini.Thor Worthy

When Jack Kirby and Stan Lee dusted off the character of Thor from Norse mythology, they did what any good myth makers do. They injected it not only with new life, but in cooperated aspects of other myths and stories including those of Shakespeare and the story of the Sword in the Stone. By now, thanks to the movie, we know that in order to wield his hammer Thor had to be worthy. We know how he regained his honor, but how did he gain it in the first place.

While most Thor stories are epic fantasies, this is more of a Harry Potter-type story, starring a teenaged Thor.  All his life Thor has been told that one day he will be able to wield the mighty hammer Mjolnir. Day and night he goes to Odin’s treasure chamber to try and lift it, to no avail. However when tragedy strikes and Sif is kidnapped Thor finally discovers a far greater strength that makes him worthy of his birthright. It is an excellent adaptation of an earlier short story from Journey into Mystery by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.

Spider-Man-

Spider-Man: Parallel Lives-Gerry Conway, Alex Saviuk, Andy Mushnysky, and Bob Sharen.Spider-Man Parallel Lives

A lot of people wonder just how and why it is Peter Parker and Mary Jane work so well together .They come from completely different worlds, he is an awkward and nerdy science student who moon lights as a superhero, while she is a free-spirited party girl who dreams of life in the spot light. However the one thing that unites them is tragedy , pain and loss.

In this classic story we see how the threads of their lives run parallel from the day  Peter first moved in with Uncle Ben and Aunt May, to the day he became Spider-man, and the night his uncle died.  We watch as this threads slowly twist and turn to the point where the two meet on a blind date, and eventually fall in love. We see that it is not their lives that make them so perfect for each other, but their love and commitment to one another.

Black Widow-

Black Widow:Deadly Origin-Paul Cornell,Tom Raney and John Paul LeonBlack Widow

While she was introduced to movie audiences through the film Iron Man 2, they fell in love with the character of Black Widow through Joss Whedon’s Avengers movie. A woman mystery Black Widow is the operative S.H.I.E.L.D. sends in because they know she can get results. A mistress of disguise, and a highly trained assassin she is the best they have to offer. But how did she become that amazing operative?

Black Widow: Deadly Origin goes back to her Cold War era roots as a spy for the Soviet union. Once, she was the Soviet Unions best operative, until her desires for love and freedom won over and she defeated to the United States and joined up with S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Avengers.  Years later, while on assignment, Agent Natasha Romanov stumbles across old protocols from the Red Guard known as “Icepick” protocols that will take down everyone she has come to care about since her defection. Retracing her steps, Black Widow seeks to take them out, before they get her.

The Hulk-

The Incredible Hulk Visionaries-Peter David, volume 1. Peter David and Todd McFarlane.Hulk_Visionaries_Peter_David_Vol_1_1

The Hulk is a difficult character to right as he is after all, a giant rage monster. His book has been canceled more times then any other because he is so basic to write about. At one point he became the familiar mono-syllabic brute we know and love, but that does little to sustain a title , let alone a film.

What really helped the character was Peter David’s run on the character. Combined with the art of the low legendary artist Todd McFarlane ( Spawn) the character achieved popularity that he hadn’t seen since the Stan Lee and Jack Kirby days. David grounded Hulk more in psychology and dove deeper into the science aspects of the Hulk. Readers finally got a Hulk with pathos, tragedy and emotion.

War Machine-

The Invincible Iron Man:War Machine: Len Kaminski, Kevin Hopgood, Tom Morgan, and Scott Benson. War Machine

Fans were geeked out during the first Iron Man movie when Tony Stark’s best friend Lt. Col. James Rhodes, took a look at one of Tony’s extra suits and remarked, “next time baby”. They knew that Rhodey was going to become the armored hero War Machine. While it would be easy to dismiss War Machine as just a  sidekick he is the farthest thing from it.

In this story, Tony Stark is attacked by assassins and left in a critical state. Faking his own death he leaves his company to Rhodey and gives him his own suit of armor, the War Machine proto-type. When Rhodey learns of Stark’s actions he is initially reluctant to accept Stark’s offer to become War Machine, but accepts, but only on his terms. He is not going to be any one’s sidekick. If he is going to be a hero he’ll do it his way.

Wolverine-

Wolverine: Chris Claremont and Frank MillerWolverine-Cover

One of the problems with Wolverine is that he can easily become a one note hero, slashing and smashing stuff and running around with a bad attitude. That might be cool for a bit, but the only way for a hero to maintain any longevity  or popularity is for them to evolve and transcend their original conception. X_Men writer Chris Claremont teams up with comics legend Frank Miller to tell this seminal tale of everyone’s’ favorite Beserker.

As much fun as it is to watch Wolverine fight his way through a story, this story tells of Wolverine’s inner struggle to find peace with himself .Traveling to Japan he encounters an old foe, rekindles and old love, and learns the art of the samurai. Wolverine learns that it takes more than rage to become a great fighter, it takes a clear mind and a noble heart.

X-Men-

X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills:Chris Claremont and Brent AndersonXMen

The X-Men are the soap opera of superheroes .There’s twisted love triangles, fractured friendships and characters died and come back so many times it becomes confusing. However at the core of this strange myriad universe is the struggle that Xavier’s students undergo to protect those who fear and hate them because they are different. This story focuses on that core

William Stryker preaches that mutants are to be eliminated as they are a perversion before God. His followers even go so far as to kill children and even abduct Xavier and two of his students to achieve his goals. The rest of the X-Men grapple with tough questions about being mutants and the cause they uphold. As they saying goes, adversity breed strange bed fellows, and in this case Xavier’s students end up teaming up with their old enemy, Magneto, to not only save Xavier, but to prove to the world that they are not the monsters they appear to be.

Daredevil:

Daredevil: Born Again-Frank Miller and David Mazuchellidaredevil_bornagain

To most casual fans Daredevil seems like a Batman rip-off with some elements of Spider-Man thrown in for extra measure. However the one thing that makes him unique his he is blind. Writers of the character have come to realize what a great story telling opportunity this provides as this is a hero who truly has to overcome obstacles. Leave it to Frank Miller and David Mazuchilli to show the limitless potential of Daredevil’s strength.

With stars in her eyes, Karen Page, the former girlfriend of Matt Murdock, better known as Daredevil, left New York City for Los Angeles, in hopes of making it into movies. Her path led on a dark road and in her desperation she turned  to drugs. In order to get a fix she sold Matt’s secret identity to underworld mobsters with connections to Daredevil’s archenemy, The Kingpin. With this information at his disposal, the kingpin launches an all-out war against Matt. Using every connection he has, the Kingpin sees to it that Matt’s law license is suspended, his apartment is destroyed and wedges are driven between him and his friends as he seems to spiral into insanity. Gone are his costume, and the other trimmings and trappings of his life. However it is only when Daredevil reaches rock bottom that he goes back to basics in terms of his training and rediscovers his faith. Through this emotional crucial, Daredevil: the Man Without Fear is born again.

The Avengers-

The Avengers: The Origin:Joe Casey and Phil NotoAvengers Origin

The Avengers have undergone countless permutations and launched multiple sub-groups, so where does one begin? The best place is to begin is with the characters that started it all. Iron man. The Incredible Hulk. Thor. Ant Man .Wasp. These heroes assemble to take on the threats that no single hero can face alone. In this story we see the original Avengers story from Avengers #1, expanded and retold for a whole new audience. It has all the fun an excitement of a classic silver age story, with the sophistication and art work that modern readers come to love.

Loki, the half-brother Thor has vowed vengeance against his brother Thor. In order to achieve his goals he tricks Hulk into attacking a train. Hulk’s friend Rick jones sends a message to the Fantastic Four, hoping they can help Hulk as public fear of him grows. However Loki intercepts the message and deflects it, sending it to Thor, Iron Man, Ant-Man and Wasp. The four of them team up to stop Loki and form the team known as The Avengers.

Collections

DC Comics Presents: Secret Origins of the World’s Greatest Super-Heroes-various250px-Secret_Origins_TPB

Have you ever gone out to buy a cake and cant’ decided what to get? Normally you settle for a “sampler platter” that has two slices of each flavor to choose from. This little gem of a collection is such a work .It includes the origin stories for Batman, Superman, Flash, Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter and the Justice League. Several great characters told by some of the industry titans including Denny O’Neil, John Byrn and others.

It is a collector’s item so it is harder to find, but it is well worth it if you do. The only things missing are the origin stories for Wonder Woman, Robin, Green Arrow and Aquaman. Those four omissions prevent this good collection from being “great.”

Marvel 70th Anniversary Collection-various. Marvel70

Put out a few years ago to celebrate Marvel’s 70th anniversary, this volume collects some of the best stories from every decade of Marvel from the World War II era till the 2000s. This also features all of their iconic characters in some capacity or another, including Captain America, Wolverine, Spider-Man, Iron Man, and The Hulk. Landmark stories such as Spider-Man No More, Demon in a Bottle, and the Death of Captain America are all presented in this reasonably priced collection.

Marvel Firsts: The 1960’s.Marvel1960

The 1960s were the decade for Marvel Comics. It was at this time that they introduced to the world the likes of the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, The Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, the X-Men, Daredevil, The Avengers, and even brought back Captain America. This collection not only features the first appearances of each these characters it also features plenty of other none super hero stories that Marvel published at the time, giving fans a peak into comic book history.

If you are looking for the earliest stories of these characters from the Golden and Silver Age, I recommend the DC Chronicles Collection, and The Marvel Essentials Library.  These collections feature the original stories in sequential order and in black and white. At a convenient low price this is the best place to start.

However there is also the DC Archives Collection and the Marvel Masterworks Collection. This preserves those same stories in a prestige full color format, with beautifully restored illustrations. They do tend to be a bit pricey, but they also include retrospective essays by many of the writers and artists who worked on these titles.

So there you have it? Did I forget something? Is there a title you think fans should read? Sound off in my comment section!

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About jonathondsvendsen

Hi! Thanks for stopping by my blog! Somehow you stumbled upon it. Whatever brought you around, I'm glad you're here. I am a free-lance writer and independent scholar of pop-cultural mythology, living and working in Minnesota. An aspiring mythmaker, I dream of voyages through space, fantastic worlds, and even my own superhero or two. I am also an established public speaker and have guest-lectured for college classes on the topic of comic book superheroes. I graduated from Bethel University in 2007 with a degree in Literature and Creative writing. I also write for the website NarniaFans.com. Head on over and you can check out my book reviews , a few fun interviews and even my April Fools Day jokes.
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