Monday, March 21, 2011

A Platypus Robot Primer: The Marvel Universe

"Comics seem cool, but I just don't know where to start..." is the most common expression among my non-comic reading friends. They've been conditioned by either bad TV stereotypes, or maybe just a foul run-in with one of 'those' comic geeks, that our beloved hobby is somehow not worth the effort.

That stops now. Welcome to the start of (what I hope will be) a series of articles for those who are intrigued by comics in general, but have yet to take that step into this larger world. While I hope to cover characters and/or events that are relevant, today I've decided to start just a bit more basic. Welcome to the Platypus Robot Primer: Marvel Universe Edition.

Fancy, right? I try. By the way, you veterans of Marvel out there are welcome to add to the discussion and point out any glaring omissions in the proceeding.

The Basics

What: The Marvel Universe

The Basic Origin: Back in the Early 60s, the publishing world was a different place. Comics sold okay numbers, but they weren't seen as high art and - ever since the Congressional hearings of the 1950s - were considered just for kids. That was until Stan Lee decided to give comics one last go before heading off to become a real writer and created The Fantastic Four with Jack Kirby.

With a more modern tone and realistic characters, The Fantastic Four became a bona fide hit and soon begat similar books from Stan. Iron Man, The Avengers, Thor, Spider-Man, and more spewed forth from Stan's brain and, together with his amazing array of artists, all became huge hits in and of themselves, each with their own tragic character flaws.

Helping their characters feel more realistic was their setting: New York City. You see, until Stan came along, most superhero books were set in their own fictional cities (Gotham City, Metropolis, Central City, etc). Stan's stories were ones that took place in "our" world, even if it had an overabundance of super heroes, alien invasions, and assorted crazy disasters on a weekly basis.

In essence, its Stan's revolutionary take on superheroes (that they were real people with real problems living in a real city) that gave way to the greatness that is the Marvel Universe today.

The other thing that set Marvel apart from its competitors was the passage of time and the reliance on continuity. Up until Stan in the 60s, most comics didn't have consequences that stretched from issue to issue, let alone year to year or across different books. With Stan writing nearly the entire line, he had the fluidity to allow the characters to interact with each other and for those consequences to matter in the long run.

While it was great at the time, as the years progressed this method became more and more of a curse. The problem was two fold: 1- with the characters tied to real world events, they would have to become older to make their origin work, which lead to 2- that if things continued, within a few decades, their heroes would be too old to adventure. Something had to be done and so Marvel instituted the Sliding Time Line to their books.

The Sliding Time Line: Welcome to your first bit of wonky comic logic. In the most basic terms, this idea states that the Marvel Universe as presented started ten years ago with the formation of The Fantastic Four. It's an idea that some people despise, but is honestly one of the best solutions to an ongoing universe like this.

Essentially, by utilizing this method, time actually passes (I did the math, it's something like every four years for us equals one year of Marvel Time) but not at a rate that ages their major heroes too much. And honestly, as long as it keeps Spider-Man swinging from buildings instead of swigging ensure, I'm all about it.

The annoying part to this is the slight nudging of facts from a characters back story that must take place to make them still relevant (Things like Tony Stark getting hurt in Afghanistan instead of Vietnam). The major details remain the same, but the setting and other ancillary details change.

In the scheme of things, if you know that the Hulk is the Hulk because of Gamma radiation, it doesn't really matter if it was from a bomb or a power generator explosion. So try not to get scared by those tiny details when diving in.

Speaking of, enough of this background nonsense, let's get to the meat of the issue:

Where To Start

There are two ways of thinking about where a new fan should start. Many believe that if you want to reading, say, Spider-Man, you should get a hold of all the old Stan Lee/Steve Ditko stuff.

You shouldn't listen to those people.

Nothing against that Lee/Ditko stuff (it's truly classic stuff), but a having a new reader start with stuff from the 60s is like having a new vampire fan (say, fresh off of Twilight) start with Bram Stoker's Dracula: It's the antithesis to what they want from that kind of story. A modern reader wants something that speaks to their modern sensibilities to excite them, not something from a bygone era that's not relevant.

In this modern era, there are five distinct flavors of books for you to choose from: Superhero Action, Street, Cosmic, Mutant, and Fringe. While distinct, these flavors tend to overlap sometimes, but generally stick to like-minded brethren. The best bet when it comes to diving into the murky Marvel waters is to find what kind of book interests you and expand your range from there. Let's take a look and see which flavor is right for you:

Superhero Action: Basically Marvel Vanilla, as it showcases the biggest heroes fighting the biggest villains in the classic Marvel manner. Don't let that moniker fool you, as there are some utterly fantastic books in this line up. If you're looking for adventure and drama with heaps of big action and explosions, then this is the place for you. Books and heroes in this subset include: Captain America, Iron Man, The Avengers, The Fantastic Four, Hulk, Thor, and Spider-Man (sometimes).

Test The Waters With: Marvels (1994; Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross). A man-on-the-street retelling of the classic events that form the foundation of the Marvel U.

Street: The dark underbelly of the Marvel U, home of anti-heroes, questionable morals, and hard choices. These books tend to be a bit more talky and a bit more harsh than the typical Marvel fare as these heroes are pushed to the brink of their noble intentions. Typically more adult and definitely darker, these are the books that always tend to find critical praise for their frank depictions of heroes in the real world. Books and heroes include: Daredevil, The Punisher, Moon Knight, Ghost Rider, and Spider-Man (Other times)

Test the Waters With: Daredevil: Born Again (1986; Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli ). It's a little older, but Frank Miller really set the tone for all the street books that followed.

Cosmic: The opposite of street books, The Cosmic books take the superheroics of Marvel Vanilla and turn it up to 11. Where the Avengers might be concerned with the fate of the planet, a typical cosmic hero is concerned with the fate of the universe. If you're into big stories, rife with imagination, alien worlds, and extreme examples of power usage, this corner of the Marvel U is the one for you. Books and heroes include: Nova, Guardians of the Galaxy, and The Annihilators.

Test the Waters With: Annihilation Vol 1 (2006; Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning and various artists) The start of the newest wave of Marvel Cosmic books, it defines the word epic.

Mutant: The mutant franchise (X-Men) for Marvel has been both its most epic failure and its greatest success. Ostensibly the story of a persecuted minority, it's really just a mini Marvel universe all on it's own. With its rich history, soap opera story lines, and epic back story, the X-Books serve as one of the toughest, but most rewarding corners of the Marvel U. If you're up for the challenge, you should absolutely check it out. Books and heroes include: Wolverine, Uncanny X-Men, X-Men, X-Factor, and the Uncanny X-Force.

Test the Waters With: Astonishing X-Men Vol 1: Gifted (2004; Joss Whedon and John Cassaday) Whedon brings his trademark banter with him to the X-Men as he helps define them for the modern era. Things have changed a bit since, but no one has a handle on these characters quite like Whedon.

Fringe: Honestly, this is the section reserved just for more intermediate fans. These books service that niche market and rarely survive over ten issues, but always tend to be fan favorites. They typically rely on smaller stories in the larger Marvel Universe narrative that, if you can get into, are really awesome. I'm not ashamed to say that most of my favorite books come from this corner of the universe. Books and Heroes include: Nextwave, Young Allies, Nomad, Deathlok, ect.

Test the Waters With: Nextwave Vol 1 (2006; Warren Ellis and Stuart Immonen) This wacked out, balls to the walls, action comedy is THE essential Fringe book. If you dig it's manic style, you can handle just about anything.


There's just one last thing to remember when jumping into the Marvel Universe: everyone's book is someone's first and Marvel knows it. While it might be intimidating to pick up a random issue of Iron Man or Wolverine, it's really the best way to start. Any questions you have should be answered within the book in your hands, and if it isn't, well, you have the whole internet at your disposal.

Discovering new things about the Marvel Universe is my favorite thing about the comic reading experience, and I'm jealous that you get to start that process now. There's a whole world out there just waiting to entertain you, so get out there and start reading!

In the meantime, I'll be here holding down the fort and answering any questions you might have. Come back next time as I tackle a more specific person (or place, or something).

EDIT TO ADD: I can't tell you how excited I am about the outpouring of positive reactions to this article. Thank you, everyone, who's stopped by and enjoyed my diatribe. I'm already working on another installment, but if you have any ideas for future primers please let me know and I'll do my best to make it happen.


  1. You convinced me to dive in. Thanks!

  2. Great primer, love the recommendations!

  3. I loved Nextwave so much. Every issue was a miracle. "How did this ever get made?!" I wish that they'd let more of that kind of wonderful insanity out.

  4. This is great, I was sent here by Wil Wheaton and am excited to start reading!

  5. Pretty funny, I got my girlfriend hooked into comics with Nextwave.

  6. Cian and Laurie, welcome to the addiction. If you need any other recommendations, feel free to ask.

    Aaron and Dezrah, I'll never underestimate the power of Nextwave. I will forever be a fan of stuart Immonen and Warren Ellis because of it.

    Also, I'm totally geeking out over here about the Wil Wheaton link-love. This is probably the finest day for me while keeping this blog. I hope you all enjoy it as much as I enjoy doing it. Stick around, I promise it'll be fun.

    Oh, and, if anyone has any suggestions for future articles like this, lemme know. I'm all ears.

  7. Please dude, do me a favor:

    1)Click this link.

    2) Scroll down to the difference between "its" and "it's".


  8. That's awesome! My first trollish anon post!

    WOOO! I have officially arrived.

    Are you secretly my 9th Grade English teacher? Or just a passing grammar nut? Either way, I'm totally sorry about my uses of one of the 'instant fail' words. In my years since high school, I've severely faltered in my grammatical aptitude to the point where I won't even notice I'm using the wrong 'there/they're/their'. It's a problem that I'm working on, and I'll try to get better at it in the future. But only because you're my first dickish troll.

    Hope you stick around to keep me honest, Anon!

  9. You neglect to mention anything from Marvel's Ultimate line but I guess that could/should be an entirely separate primer. If anyone is looking to get into books that "speak to their modern sensibilities" you can not go wrong with "Ultimate Spider-Man" by Brian Michael Bendis. It's fantastic and the entire run is available in trade paperback format.

    I was also sent here by Wil W. :-)

  10. Welcome TGS, you know, any friend of Wil W. is a friend of mine (even if he doesn't know it!).

    About the Ultimate Universe, that was a calculated omission. While those early volumes are pretty solid, I think the writers tried to jam in too much too fast and as a result have damaged the brand.

    I agree with you 100% that Bendis' Ultimate Spidey is grade-A excellent stuff though. If I meet someone who isn't sure if they might like the character, or are skeptical about coming into this hobby I love so much, I wouldn't hesitate at all to give them USM.

    In fact, I just made the futurewife read issue 13 (the big reveal issue) first to whet her appetite and she loved it. Within a day she had read the first six trades and was ready for more.

    That said, I would tell them to stop reading that drivel by the time Carnage came around. Because even though they brought her back, killing Gwen there was totally unnecessary and completely stupid.

  11. This is awesome!

    Haha that first sentence is my thought exactly. Comics seem like something I would enjoy, but I just had no idea where to start (or even where to start looking for how to find out where to start!)

    I picked up "Serenity: Better Days" to get me used to the format with a universe/characters I already know, but I still needed a place to jump into the rest of comic-dom...

    And then there was this. :) (Also found via Wil Wheaton) And not only with several options for starting points, but one of them written by Joss, so it's kinda perfect.


  12. I'm glad you liked it, Lauren!

    You know, if you're looking to jump into the comic world, and aren't quite sure you want to do superheroes, you should totally check out the following:

    1- Dark Horse's Buffy; you know, seeing that you're a Whedon fan and I assume that translates to the vampire slayer.

    2- Serenity A Shepherd's Tale; A fantastic graphic novel about the true origins of Shepherd Book. Totally worth checking out.

    3- Y The Last Man; Not by Whedon, but still totally awesome. It's written in a fun, digestible, TV-Manner with an incredibly likable cast and a gripping finite story.

    Good luck jumping into this favorite hobby of mine, and let me know if I can help you out in any way.

  13. Like many of the commenters, I was informed of your post because I read Wheaton's blog. I've taken a different path when showing people the world of comics but I like your ideas here. I read the Hercules post as well...damned funny. I look forward to reading more in the future.

  14. Great list. I gotta check out Nextwave.

  15. Yikes! Carnage? If you tune out that early you miss a lot of great stuff including but not limited to Peter dating Kitty Pryde and the Peter - MJ - KP triangle.

    And yes, for Whedon fans Buffy season 8 was pretty darn good.

  16. I also come from Wil Wheaton's recommendation, this is a great post which comes right at the time when I want to dive in.
    I will be waiting for the new posts of this guide, and maybe you could include more suggestions of the categories you mentionned in the future. Like a reader is hooked by the Fringe flavor, wants to keep reading your guide to the complete Marvel Universe but wants more recommendations of Fringe at each article.

    Keep up the great work !

  17. Thanks for this, came over from Wil Wheaton's blog. I'm going to a convention this weekend, I know where I'm spending my money!

  18. Thanks so much! I was an avid X-Men reader in the mid-90s, and would love to get back into them again but have been intimidated by the huge gap in my knowledge of the stories. You've convinced me to dive back in via Joss Whedon. Result!

  19. Hini, I'll make sure to add more recommendations in the future. Thanks for the suggestions and the compliments!

    Rosey.angel, have fun at the convention! I'm glad I could angle you're wallet in the right direction.

    Rachel, You know, if you already kind of know your way around the X-Men you might want to try Grant Morrison's New X-Men run that preceded Whedon's. It's this crazy love letter to all the old Claremont tropes, but relies on continuity a bit much for anyone just starting to crack the books. Highly recommended though, it's by far my favorite X-Men run of all time.

  20. A nice primer for one such as me, who stopped reading Marvel a very long time ago. Thank you; your guidance might be enough to get me to pick it up again.

    I'd just add, because it's key IMO to Marvel's appeal, that what really set Marvel apart from DC and such was the "everyman" aspect of the characters that Stan Lee introduced. DC heroes were larger than life: they didn't do laundry, or worry about paying the rent, or such. They were two-dimensional heroes, because we rarely saw any aspect of their civilian side.

    Then came Spidey: an angst-ridden insecure teenager with girl/college issues who could barely make ends meet. His life was a mess. We kids could relate to that. It was epic.

    But although I left the Marvelverse decades ago, I get the feeling that while I've missed a lot of plot, I haven't missed all that much in terms of character development. Perhaps you could say something about that, at some point.

    ...But Parker dating Pryde? That I would like to read.

  21. Well, it's time to dive in. Thanks to you and to Mr. Wheaton. Lovely post and I now have you bookmarked.