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Sunday, February 25, 2024

Start A New Addiction Today!: The Five Best Comic Book Starting Points

Well. Comics, eh? What are they all about? If you’re one of the millions of geeks out there whose only encounters with comic books have involved Hugh Jackman or HBO, then you may have considered dabbling with a trade paperback or graphic novel only to be put off by decades of meandering plotline, deaths, resurrections, reboots and retcons. Picking up a random issue from your local friendly comic merchant will often give you no idea what’s going on. References to stories from twenty, thirty years ago fly like a bird or a plane over your clueless noggin and asking someone to explain it to you can often result in an impromptu six-month course on symbiotes/Kryptonian regeneration matrices/the Shi’ar Empire.

DC and Marvel are the main offenders here, having been around for so long that most of their heroes have more loose plot ends than Twin Peaks, Lost and The Killing rolled into one (and then unravelled a bit). So, if you are looking to bolster your geek credentials with a bit of four-colour goodness, read on and I’ll give you my recommendations on where to start with the Big Two’s major franchises.

The X-Men

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Prior Knowledge Required: The 1990’s X-Men cartoon or even the movie trilogy should be fine.

Starting Point: New X-Men Volume 1: E is for Extinction.

By the end of the 90s Marvel’s X-Men comics were in a sorry state. A decade of new characters, new timelines and new dimensions had spun the head of even the most faithful X-Fans and anyone trying to jump onboard had to first decide which of the many teams/ solo series they wanted to follow in an effort to try and grasp the scattered plotlines.

Then, in 2001, Grant Morrison grabbed the flagship title by the throat, changed the name to New X-Men and killed off sixteen million mutants. So yeah, you know all those crazy X-characters you were having trouble remembering? It’s OK now because most of them are dead now. Morrison pared the team down to six characters and brought them back to doing what they do best- teaching  mutants by day at the Charles Xavier School for the Gifted and by night protecting them from a world that feared and hated them.

This was the birthplace of the X-Men as they are now; the best modern issues are those that directly reference Morrison’s time on the comic (Fantomex, The World, Sublime) and his game changer in killing off Jean Grey (I would put a spoiler alert in here but, come on, it’s Jean Grey, when is she not dead?) is one of the few character deaths which has not been overturned to this day (strictly speaking). Morrison brought reality into the lives of Xavier’s students and in doing so only made their tales more fantastic.


Batman

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Prior Knowledge Required: Who doesn’t know Batman? Come on, that’s like not knowing any Beatles songs…

Starting Point: Batman: Bruce Wayne, Murderer

This was a difficult call. Batman must be one of the heroes with the most difficult ongoing stories to break into. This is mostly down to the fact that the greatest Batman stories are those that have been told outside of regular continuity. See Batman: Year One for the only bat-comic you’ll ever need. See The Dark Knight Returns for another one.

Up until B:BW, M, Batman had been having a tough  job of it. The Joker had beat the living shit out of then-Robin, Jason Todd, the criminal Bane had cracked Batman’s spine like a glo-stick in a way which will be familiar to anyone who sat through The Dark Knight Rises, and Gotham City got royally reamed by the double-whammy of plague followed by massive earthquake (I guess there was no bat-seismograph in that tight little belt of his). The point is that, by the beginning of my recommended starting point, everything has chilled the fuck out and we’re starting a new era. Gone are the high drama tensions of a city on the edge of disaster, gone are the legions of sidekicks, allies and complex web of villains. Batman is returned to what he does best; solving crimes and protecting his city.


Spider-Man

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Prior Knowledge Required: None.

Starting Point: Amazing Fantasy #15 (or, more likely, Marvel Masterworks: Amazing Spider-Man 1962-63).

Wait, what? Isn’t that the very first Spider-Man story by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko? Yes it is, shut up, I’m talking. This is the only place to start reading Spider-Man comics from (not including Brian Michael Bendis’ Ultimate Spider-Man which pretty much just re-told the story for a modern audience. Fine, go and check it out, what are you, like twelve?) and contains the best versions of Peter Parker, Mary-Jane, Aunt May, etc. that you’re going to find.  Cards on the table, in my opinion they totally dropped the ball with this character in recent years. I mean, here you have a teen who swings on webs while cracking wise. He pretty much writes himself. But try picking up a Spider-Man comic now from anywhere outside Lee & Ditko’s original run. What’s that? Spider-Man had his memory erased and cannot remember any of his previous life? Spider-Man isn’t Spider-Man at all but a clone created for a Reason just to mess with the readers? Spider-Man’s enemy Doctor Octopus has  taken over his body with Science and this is a thing which is still ongoing and happening and why isn’t anybody stopping this?

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Don’t get me wrong, Spider-Man is still a brilliant character. Just not so much in his own books. Go back to the start, to the real Spider-Man stories, the works of art that made him every lonely young man and woman’s role model.


The Avengers

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Prior Knowledge Required: The movie, plus whatever I’ve slapped out below.

Starting Point: Avengers: Disassembled

Like the X-Men in the 90s, the Avengers were having a pretty tough time of it up until my recommended starting point. Again the characters were scattered across the place with West Coast, East Coast and even a Great Lakes versions of the team and a roster that boasted almost sixty members, including such memorable stars as the playing-card themed Jack of Hearts and Triathlon aka 3-D Man. There needed to be some changes in this here town so Marvel offered superstar writer Brian Michael Bendis the chance to slip on a sheriff’s badge and have a crack at cleaning house. And clean it he did. Step One: Kill off a bunch of Avengers. Not the crappy “hero-of-the-week” ones either, I’m talking proper well-loved, featured-in-the-movie Avengers. And he didn’t stop there. Step Two: Destroy their home, their lives and their reputations. Before this issue the Avengers lived in a mansion. Together. With, like a butler and shit. Who wants to read a comic about a bunch of rich white people living in a fucking palace? Boom! No longer a problem. Before this issue Tony Stark was the teetotal United States Secretary of Defence. Like a bit of dry politics with your action-adventure? The fans sure didn’t! Boom! Gone! Step Three: Disband the goddamn team. This comic is the equivalent of scrunching up that novel you’ve been writing and starting again but doing it fucking right this time. If you start reading at this point you are laying the groundwork for all the amazing that comes next. It all starts here.


Superman

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Prior Knowledge Required: Lex Luthor hates Superman for Reasons.

Starting Point:  All Star Superman, Vol. 1

This one is a bit of a cheat. All Star Superman is not part of an ongoing series and neither is it technically canon. You will not have a clue what’s currently occurring in Superman’s life if you read this and it will not help you understand what has come before. So why, you might ask, do I recommend you read this book to get into Superman? Well let me tell you, you cheeky shit. My honest recommendation is that you DON’T READ THE ONGOING SUPERMAN SERIES. There’s really no point. Superman is Superman and will always be Superman. There will never be any character development there, never any real life-threatening danger. In the hands of most writers he is at best boring, at worst an irrelevance. Which is why I cannot recommend to you strongly enough that you go out and buy All Star Superman right now. Even if you ignore all the other recommendations I have made here, do this for me.

Or for this lovely kitten...
Or for this lovely kitten…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All Star Superman gets Superman right. A lot of people don’t understand the Man of Steel’s popularity for many of the reasons I mentioned above about the ongoing series. He doesn’t have the vulnerability of Spider-Man, the conflict of the X-Men, or even the inherent coolness of Batman – he’s just a big invincible boy-scout. Which is exactly what we need. Superman is not there to tell us stories about human frailty and the struggle against overwhelming darkness. He’s here to show us that he is in all of us, to show us that, if only we tried a bit harder, if only we pooled our efforts and worked together more than we fought against one another, the world, nay the universe, could be a place of infinite wonder. He is the Man of Tomorrow and brings us hope that it will be brighter than our today. And if that’s not a reason to buy a comic, then I sure as heck don’t know what is.

Ben Fee
Ben Fee
Trapped in the past, Ben Fee finds himself leaping from life to life, putting things right that once went wrong, and hoping each time that his next leap will be the leap home..........

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