The statement “the book is better” is the standard response to everyone who has sat and watched a movie based off of a book. It is our personal relationship to the words on the page and our own unique imagination that creates our expectation of how a film can (or, in our minds, should) adapt a work. However, comics and graphic novels add additional depth to that complexity as artists portray scenes, not unlike a storyboard, and unveil the story through a static medium. Our eyes move the plot forward, our minds insert the kinetic energy, and we again are immersed in a reality of our own making.
For new fans of superheroes, the silver screen may be all they may know of many characters. I love MCU’s Ant-Man but am not an active nor attentive reader of most of the character’s adventures, Pym or Lang. When I attend conventions, there are oceans of movie accurate cosplayers who have fallen in love with the character and that aesthetic. Plenty of fans have no idea what infinity gems are, about Tony Stark’s roots in the Vietnam War, or that Nick Fury, from time to time, is Caucasian (I love you, Mr. Jackson).
I am not here to ostracize you for being a neophyte fan, but rather welcome you with open arms. Comic culture has many levels and niches people can fall into, and my hope is to sway you into becoming a reader of the works I consider to be essential for building a long lasting love of the characters. If you are a fan longer in the tooth than I, or perhaps more well read, you may consider other works as essential. This article is the starting off point to the examination of the relationship films have to their source material, and how they complement each other, rather than compete.
5 Suggested Reads for Marvel’s Cinematic Universe (MCU)
Most of these suggestions are with the idea that you would likely go back to the original origin stories to get the base of the characters that make up the MCU. However, these are suggestions that you may not have heard of, and can create a better viewing experience, as well as fill your trivia coffers with some nerd cred worthy info bits.
Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch The Ultimates: Superhuman (2002)
The modern day Avengers take a large amount of cues from this book. Millar and Hitch were well known for taking iconic superhero team tropes and spinning them on their head. After their stint on The Authority, Marvel hired them to bring Earth’s Mightiest Heroes into the Ultimate age. While the team is dysfunctional from the start, the book does a solid job of setting the tone of a world that is wary of assembling a team to tackle threats that have yet to appear. Dark in humor, rich in story, it is a great way to see the current MCU and how the characters play out in the modern era. It also reads like a blockbuster film, and most definitely could have been an Avengers movie all on its own. Nerd cred: Ultimate Nick Fury was based on Samuel L. Jackson and the character makes mention of being played by Jackson if an Ultimates movie was ever made. Fiction made reality, folks.
Warren Ellis and Adi GranovIron Man: Extremis (2006)
When talking about Iron Man in the modern era, and the relationship of man and machine, Extremis is one of the most solid books to connect to MCU’s Iron Man. In addition to modernizing his origins, it lays down the idea of the evolving technology, where Tony Stark is chasing the future and finding himself coming up short. The book’s influence can be seen very clearly in Iron Man 1 and 3, even drawing initial designs from this book. The story takes the time to clearly show that he’s an Avenger, but needs to handle things on his own (sound familiar?) Nerd cred: The “Superhero Landing” that has become pervasive and iconic in cinema can be found in this book. The centering of Captain America during one of the conversations is also a central aspect of the MCU’s subtle ties between Cap and Tony, man and machine, discussion.
Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale Hulk: Gray (2003)
When developing the emotional ties between characters this book, and its colored relatives, create that narrative at that core. This book takes Bruce’s early experiences of hulking out, and couples it with the emerging relationships he has with Betty Ross, General Ross and Rick Jones. It is good for those of you who have a special place for the MCU film, and well worth it for future understandings of General Ross’ future role in Captain America: Civil War. It is a beautiful book as well, and a worthwhile read for those who want a better reason to love the Hulk past his smashing green exterior. Nerd cred: The Hulk was gray? Yeah, he used to be. You can see that in the Ultimates too! There are many scenes in the MCU film The Incredible Hulk that mirror this book, even down to Tony Stark showing up.
Jason Aaron and EsadRibic Thor: God of Thunder (2014)
This book is probably best seen as setting the tone for Thor as a film series, as its concurrent structure is most interesting. It examines Thor from his younger days, his days as an Avenger, and his final days. At the core of Thor’s MCU story are matters of his maturity and growing into an eventual role as ruler of the nine realms, so the story definitively aligns the stories to his experiences. It also features familiar villains from the films such as the frost giants and Malekith, so you get some comic connection with them as well. With the current films examining Thor’s growth, and the last film with the ominous title “Ragnarok”, this book can help keep your eyes on the bigger picture and a good story idea in general.
Jim Starlin, George Perez and Ron Lim: The Infinity Gauntlet (1991)
In comparison to most of the books on this list, this one is an oldie. The entire MCU has been connected by powerful “stones” that have led to the advent of science and biotechnology. In fact, all narratives during “Phase One” focused on what most readers believe to be the space gem from Marvel lore. The Infinity Gauntlet series helps to situate people with the grand threat of Thanos, the scope and power of the gems, and the necessity of the heroes outside of the realm of Midgard. While the story is not likely to be adapted heavily, the grand cosmic scale of this story is enough to be considered a guide of understanding for those who are generally confused by “the purple guy at the end of both Avengers”. Nerd cred: Memorize the color and power of each gem, or know that in the source material Thanos is trying to become a destroyer of the cosmos to impress someone he has a crush on.
Ed Brubaker and various artists Captain America: Winter Soldier (2005)
There used to be an understanding: Bucky and Jason Todd stay dead. This book and another on the other side broke that rule, much to my initial chagrin, but, has since, offered plenty of contributions to validate the return of this long dead character. The greater aspect of this story is to consider that Captain America’s newest enemy comes with an all too familiar face. It is the personification of the idea that the ones closest to your heart can cut it the deepest. The book is well written and incorporates a great sense of mystery and espionage. It’s a great compliment and contrast to the film itself.
Mark Millar and Steve McNiven: Civil War (2007)
The basis of the story pits the superhero community divisively against each other after a young inexperienced group causes a national incident. At the core of the story is a very real fear of domestic terrorism, but also placing the heroes squarely in the narrative and asking us to consider their roles and responsibilities, much of which goes ignored by comic readers to suspend disbelief. The book does often encompass a scope larger than the core work can handle, but there are enough ideas to keep the book engaging. The art is stunning and the writing is solid, and would be a recommended read regardless of the upcoming film’s title. The book has created a great iconography and philosophical questions of morality and ethics, which will hopefully be distilled to fit into the upcoming film.
Which have you read or are going to read? Which are you adaptation are you most excited for? Let us know in the comments below!