Reading Comics, Part 9

Brad Hawley continues his series on How to Read Comics. If you missed the previous columns, be sure to start with Part 1: Why Read Comics?
(Or find the entire series here.)

Reading Comics, Part 9: The Avengers

by Dr. Brad K. Hawley

The Avengers movieThe latest superhero movie, The Avengers, is perhaps the best big-budget comic-book based film Hollywood has produced so far (however, there are certainly quieter, lower-budget films that offer solid competition for best adaptation of comic to screen: Ghost World by Daniel Clowes, for example). As always, there are more people who know about certain comic book superheroes shown on television and in movies than the number of people who actually read comics. Up until The Avengers, Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Green Lantern, and various members of the X-Men, perhaps, have been the best-known characters. The true comic-book fan always hopes that the next movie hitting the theaters will do his favorite character the justice he deserves AND will lead the moviegoer to the comic book store. I hope The Avengers movie was the one that sparked that interest in some of my readers who have never read a superhero comic book. Today’s column is for you.

First, let’s get some background on this comic book: The Avengers is a team superhero comic created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby for Marvel in 1963. They have an Avengers’ Mansion, and they have a rotating roster as a team so there is no single set that makes up The Avengers group. However, fans always have characters they consider core members. Captain America is generally considered the leader, even though he wasn’t actually in the first official line-up. The first team roster included Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Ant-Man and Wasp. Other members have included Storm from the X-Men, Hawkeye (who is in The Avengers movie), Spider-Woman, Vision, and Dr. Strange, one of my all-time favorite Marvel characters. The Avengers have a rallying cry: “Avengers Assemble,” and the team is considered necessary whenever a crisis arises that is bigger than any single superhero can handle alone. Since they come together because a significant need arises — and not necessarily because they want to be on a team — tension is always in the air and bickering banter is used between teammates. At times, they seem to despise their teammates as much as the foes they fight! Disagreements and personality clashes have been central to Marvel teams from The Fantastic Four on, and The Avengers are no exception!

Therefore, while it’s not necessarily a surprise, it is a big deal when they become Disassembled, and this is exactly what happens in fairly recent Marvel history (2006-2007): There has been a Civil War between superheroes because some believe superheroes should reveal their names and register with the government (and, therefore, comply with the Federal Superhuman Registration Act in the United States) and others do not. The first group, called The Mighty Avengers (with a comic series published with that name from 2007 until 2010), is led by Tony Stark, aka Iron Man. The second group is known as The New Avengers and is led by Captain America. The members of the second group are now considered criminals — they are wanted and on the run from both the police and their former allies: The Mighty (and legal) Avengers. The New Avengers include, in addition to Captain America: Spiderman, Spider-Woman, Luke Cage, Wolverine (from X-Men, another often dysfunctional Marvel team), Bucky Barnes, Ms. Marvel, Ronin, and Mocking Bird.

I’ve given just a short summary of the team and a quick overview of only a single recent Avengers’ event in the massive Marvel history. Given that this is the tip of a very large iceberg and knowing that this awareness might do more to overwhelm you than to bring you into the world of comics, let me encourage you by saying this: Before Wikipedia, the internet, and essays like this were readily available, comic books were designed to be picked up at any given point.

There are plenty of possible entry points into the exciting world of The Avengers. For example, you might get a kick out of the first few issues of the original 1963 series, but really, a contemporary audience would probably enjoy starting with The Avengers, Volume 3 (1998): Avengers Assemble, Volume 1 by Busiek and Perez. But I’m going to jump even those titles for now and suggest starting with the New Avengers, the renegade group with Captain America and Dr. Strange. You can always go back to Avengers Assemble later if you like the New Avengers. I often find I prefer the older comics more, and get a lot more out of them, if I’ve already read recent ones. If you don’t like the New Avengers, you’re probably not going to like the earlier Avengers stories (unless you grew up reading them — in that case, you might like the earlier ones more than the recent titles). But there is the possibility that if you start with older Avengers titles, you won’t like them when you would have otherwise enjoyed the newer ones.

Brian Michael Bendis has been writing most of the various Avengers titles in recent years and coming up with great major cross-over events that impact other titles coming out at the same time. There is only one major event title that you want to (must?) read before you start reading the New Avengers: Avengers Disassembled. After this event, there are thirteen trade editions of the New Avengers (look these up on Wikipedia), and these thirteen trade editions include a total of 64 issues, 3 annual issues, and a finale issue. During this run, there are three major events to read as well: Civil War (by Mark Millar), Secret Invasion (Bendis) and Siege (Bendis). Siege ends when this run of New Avengers does (and also marks the end of the Mighty Avengers title). This cataloguing of events may sound daunting, but you don’t have to read all of them. I would suggest just picking up Avengers Disassembled and the first trade of the New Avengers: New Avengers: Breakout (New Avengers, Volume 1, Issues #1-6). See if you like them. They are fine just by themselves, and you don’t have to read the other trade paperbacks to enjoy the stories. Once again, remember that comic books are made for people to be able to pick up single issues and understand what’s going on. They are always written in the hopes of pulling in new readers; therefore, much like books that come late in a mystery series that include information for new readers who haven’t read any other books in the series, comic books include information to get new readers up to speed.

I covered just briefly one single run of one small part of a very recent event in the Marvel Universe ; however, it a brilliant run, and almost single handedly orchestrated by one of the living greats in the history of comics. But I doubt you want to run out and buy all the trades based on this article — and you shouldn’t. You need to find out what you like. I recommend getting the following collections on Comixology: Avengers: Disassembled costs $6.99 and New Avengers Volume 1: Breakout cost $10.99. On Amazon, The Avengers: Disassembled trade paperback costs $10.87 and the trade collection of New Avengers, Volume 1: Breakout costs $10.19.

If you are like me, you’ll need to fight this particular urge: you will want to back up and start earlier in a run of a particular title. You won’t want to start reading in the middle of a comic book series. If somebody tells you about a TV show, you’ll make sure you get season one on DVD first. However, you can back up endlessly if you try this with comics. In fact, and this is a promise, if you are new to comics, you will probably back up so far you will find something you don’t like and give up on comics. Trust me as I trusted others — start where we who read comics suggest you start. We have reasons often too complex to explain (because they rely on your knowing in advance about the very comic you are asking advice on). Once again, each comic is written so that a single issue should satisfy on some level. At the very least, a short arc of 2 to 4 or 5 comics will satisfy as a complete story arc. What makes Brian Michael Bendis such a genius in writing New Avengers is that if you read the entire 64+ issues and main events, you will discover that there is a larger plot that makes the entire series satisfy on a deeper level than you first realized while reading the individual story arcs. So do yourself a favor and buy a couple of Bendis’s New Avengers trade collections.

My hope is that if you read this essay and the two collections I recommend, you’ll realize that it’s possible to jump into comics and enjoy yourself, even if you can’t see the entire map yet. As long as you find a reasonable place to start — from someone in a comic book store, from a friend whose comic book reading you’ve never taken seriously, or from Fantasy Literature’s Fanboy Friday essays and reviews — you should be able to find yourself enjoying comics you never imagined reading. And don’t steer away from superhero comics as many people do who have avoided comics. There are plenty of non-superhero comics, but don’t write them off as just mindless stories for kids. Give the superhero a chance. Give The Avengers a chance!

In these first nine columns, I’ve tried to make it clear why comics are worth reading, to give you the vocabulary to understand and participate in conversations about comics, and to inspire you to start reading and enjoying comics. I hope I have been successful! In future columns for Fanboy Friday, I will provide reviews of both new and older comics. Most of these will be five-star reviews, because, for the most part, I won’t be writing about them if I don’t think they’re worth reading. However, I won’t stick to writing only reviews and recommendations: Be on the lookout for interpretations and critical pieces. In one essay, for example, I might look closely at the subject of fathers and sons in Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One. Or I might consider why villains (instead of heroes) often voice environmental concerns, from Poison Ivy to Ra’s al Ghul to even Thanos (who gave us that haunting smile after the credits in The Avengers movie). I’d also like to write about the problem forward-thinking writers and artists deal with when they inherit the sexist imagery of comic books. Can you have a feminist Vampirella or Witchblade comic book, for example? Finally, I’d like to hear from you. Is there a topic you’d like me to address? A question I can answer? A comment about any of the books you read based on my recommendations? Send me an e-mail or, better yet, post it as a comment below so that we have a public conversation. I look forward to your response.


Author’s Note: This essay wouldn’t be possible without those people who made great recommendations over the past five years. My life-long friend Andy, in particular, has consistently made excellent recommendations and has been willing to answer my questions on a weekly and all-to-often daily basis (the poor guy is probably beginning to see the downside to texts at this point). I also want to thank those who work in comic book stores for their help: Ken, Zach, Rory, Hart, Roxanne, and Amjad. With them around, who needs Wikipedia?

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BRAD HAWLEY earned his PhD in English from the University of Oregon with areas of specialty in the ethics of literature and rhetoric. Since 1993, he has taught courses on The Beat Generation, 20th-Century Poetry, 20th-Century British Novel, Introduction to Literature, Shakespeare, and Public Speaking, as well as various survey courses in British, American, and World Literature. He currently teaches Crime Fiction, Comics, and academic writing at Oxford College of Emory University where his wife, Dr. Adriane Ivey, also teaches English. They live with their two young children outside of Atlanta, Georgia. Read Brad's series on HOW TO READ COMICS.

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5 comments

  1. Andy /

    Good article, Brad. And nice tour through recent Avengers history. I think Bendis had done a remarkable job driving this franchise for the past decade. His singular brilliance has been how he bridges all the history and mythos of the team’s past to a modern plot framework and dialog style that eliminates the kitsch, but keeps the heroicism and high adventure. Not to mention making the standard Stan Lee soap opera content feel like actual people talking… :)

    • Brad /

      Thank you, Andy! It’s amazing that Bendis has time for his excellent crime comics such as Powers. I’ve learnedly that once I find an author I like, I should keep an eye out for his new titles. Bendis, Brubaker, Morrison, Cooke, Moore, etc. So many great authors. Now is a wonderful time to be reading comics!

  2. Hmmm I wasn’t offended at all. But then I’m an old lady, so it might be a goteranienal thing. Comics have evolved a bit and there are more women comic creators than ever before. As a result, I think this has helped young girls and women become more interested in comics. What brought me to the comics table were graphic novels, zines, and Lynda Barry all things that were unavailable to me growing up in the early ’60s. Even though I watched the Batman TV series with Adam West, I NEVER read Batman comic books, and I doubt my mother would have let me buy them because of the way most popular comics objectified women. (The Archie comics were the WORST in that regard, IMHO, yet most parents thought that comic was silly and harmless.) While it’s never fair to generalize people, the fact remains that ONE women laughed at your interest in comics and perhaps unfairly characterized you because of said interest. That is your reality. And frankly, when I was a teenager I thought boys who read comics were SO NOT COOL unless of course, they were checking out the R. Crumb comic on the cover of the Cheap Thrills album, because, well that was different. Unfortunately, we teach our children what we know and all these stereotypes get handed down to the next generation. Sorry about that Anyway, perhaps a little re-wording of this comic might have been all you needed to avoid raising someone’s feminist sensibilities. Communication with people is tricky and filled with landmines. And women are full of all sorts of surprises. It’s best not to underestimate ANYONE these days, young man. (she says with a grin )

  3. Brad Hawley /

    I am a bit confused. Are you talking about the title of this column? If so, new names for the column are certainly welcome! I had no say in the matter. I was merely asked to write a guest essay since I teach comics. Before I knew it I was a staff writer and semi-in-charge of the column. Any input is welcome.

    As for being mocked for reading comics, I’m afraid I was the one doing the mocking. Up until I finished my Phd in English literature, I looked down on most forms of popular art, including genre fiction such as fantasy literature! I have since fallen in love with genre fiction — particularly crime fiction. And I started reading comics only in the last few years as I entered my forties.

    At the age of 42, I appreciate anyone who considers me young!

  4. I happen to come into the Avengers with Civil War, Disassembled, House of M, and the New Avengers, so looks like I hit all the right notes at the right times! Was never into the Avengers before those big story arcs. All of which were great, by the way — I tend to like the non-status quo stories, the ones that shatter the predictable circle back to right where we left off just in time for the villains to break out of prison yet again. If potential readers think that all comics are just that, then do check out these titles.

    (And I could go on a semi-related rant about how Marvel apparently thinks a book won’t sell unless Wolverine appears in it, including the Avengers… I mean, i always liked the character but there is such a thing as too much of a good thing!)

    Great run of articles, Brad. I’ve now stay up well past my bedtime catching up on them all. Thanks for helping to bring comics more to the forefront of the reading world!

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