For the life of Comic Book Herald, I’ve concentrated most heavily on what I consider the modern Marvel era, 1998 to present day. This is all well and good for catching up with the Marvel comics scene, and there are plenty of great comics from this time period, but obviously it overlooks the fantastically varied and full library of Marvel comics from 1961 (the publication of Fantastic Four #1) to the new millennium.
Now, narrowing 40 years of stories down to 25 essential collections is like trying to find an Ant-Man in a haystack (hint: he’s the nut talking to insects). I had a hard enough time picking 25 trades from 2000 to 2012, and even then I left out some instant classics like Uncanny X-Force and Venom.
Nonetheless… I kinda think I nailed it. These are the graphic novels and trade collections for the new Marvel fan. Without further ado, the 25 essential trades any new or old Marvel Comics fan has gotsta read before they die at Thanos’ hand (like there’s any other way to go).
Amazing Spider-Man #1 – #38 + Amazing Fantasy #15
We’re only going to go all the way back to the start for a couple series, and you’re darn well right that Amazing Spider-Man is among them. Web-slinging out of the pages of Amazing Fantasy #15, Amazing Spider-Man is the comic book all other comics aspire to be. Steve Ditko and Stan Lee created an icon, and these first 38 issues (the issues Ditko plotted and drew before John Romita took over artistic duties) are shockingly fun and captivating all these years later.
These are the comics that reminded me I love comics, and there’s never a bad time, age, or era to enjoy the original Amazing Spider-Man. For the record, the John Romita years are just as impressive (with iconic Green Goblin stories really taking off with Romita on the pen), and I’d encourage you to keep going strong with AMS for as long as it feels right.
As part of the My Marvelous Year 1960’s reading club, I put together an issue by issue Spidey reading order for the era. Check it out if you really want to dive in to Spider-Man!
Fantastic Four #31 – #60 + Annual #1
While you certainly wouldn’t be blamed for beginning with the first thirty issues of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s Fantastic Four, I’m diving straight for the meat. Kirby and Lee were never stronger than this period of Fantastic Four with the introduction of the Inhumans, Frightful Four, Silver Surfer, The Watcher, and of course, Galactus!
Silver Surfer #1 – #18
One of two late 60’s Marvel books that ingratiated Marvel Comics with the collegiate and counter-cultural communities.
Following his creation in the pages of Fantastic Four by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, the Silver Surfer would go on to really showcase what Marvel Comics might be capable of. In the hands of Stan Lee and John Buscema, Norrin Radd became Marvel’s greatest cosmic icon.
Strange Tales #143 – #168
The psychedelic comic voted most likely to be likened to 60’s critical darlings like The Beatle’s “Revolver.” Also the Dr. Strange stories by which all Dr. Strange comics are measured, and in many ways the reason we were able to have Jim Starlin cosmic mind-bombs later in Marvel’s history (and on this list).
For the most part, you’re going to want to read Strange Tales #115 through #142 as well, as this is where the Dr. Strange stories actually begin, and feature some epic early Steve Ditko art and plotting. Nonetheless, you’ll find plenty of cosmic exploration in both sections.
The Kree / Skrull War – Avengers #89 – #97
One of the single biggest Avengers stories of all time, and an event so epic it’s echoes can be seen reaching as far as 2007’s Secret Invasion.
The Death of Gwen Stacy
Kind of a bummer of a story title? Otherwise, the culmination of everything you’ve grown to love about Amazing Spider-Man, and one of the most memorable (and saddest) moments in Marvel history. Gwen is one of the few defining deaths in the Marvel Universe that have remained relatively unscathed (meaning, like Uncle Ben, she hasn’t just up and come back to life) granting additional heft to her impact.
Howard the Duck – #1 – #33
You could make an entirely reasonable case that Howard the Duck has no place on any essential Marvel list. You’d be wrong, but it would be an entirely reasonable case.
Howard the Duck does not impact greater Marvel continuity, but holy quack does Steve Gerber’s cranky, antagonized duck impact style and substance of Marvel comics. You know all those off-the-cuff solo series that are easily the best Marvel comics is offering as part of Marvel NOW? She-Hulk, Superior Foes of Spider-Man, Hawkeye… none of those exist without Howard the Duck. He’s an American Hero.
Uncanny X-Men – #94 – #131
This might be the easiest selection on the list. Chris Claremont, John Byrne, and Dave Cockrum’s work on Uncanny X-Men turned the mutant also-rans into the biggest success in Marvel Comics. It’s astonishing how many all-time classic stories are included in this run, and fans of X-Men the Animated Series will be pleased to see the origins of many of their favorite episodes.
Iron Man: Demon in a Bottle
Armor Wars is equally revered, but it’s Demon in a Bottle that had the farthest reaching ramifications for Tony Stark’s life and comics in general. While it’s far from the first time superhero comics took on real issues (Denny O’Neil and Neal Adam’s ‘Hard Travelin’ Heroes’), Tony Stark coming to the realization that he’s an alcoholic is strikingly bold and has become an essential part of the comic book character.
Daredevil – #158 – #191
Frank Miller is best known for his incredible work on Batman (The Dark Knight Returns and Year One), but his Daredevil is just as good over an increased period of time. Every Daredevil story you know – Elektra, Kingpin, Bullseye – comes out of Miller’s run and it’s one of the strongest runs on this list.
The Life and Death of Captain Marvel
Jim Starlin is the architect and mastermind of nearly all things Marvel Cosmic, and I could just as soon select his work on Warlock as highly recommended reading. Nonetheless, it’s Captain Marvel that grabs the headlines, with the oft-referenced Marvel original graphic novel “The Death of Captain Marvel” showing one of the Marvel U’s best heroes in the unshakeable grip of cancer.
Uncanny X-Men #132 – #141
Continuing the Claremont and Byrne era to include the Phoenix Saga and Days of Future Past. The lesson here, as always, is you really should read the Claremont era X-Men.
Wolverine #1 – #4
The Wolverine background story from Chris Claremont and Frank Miller. These four issues give Wolverine so much of his essential character: the flawed Samurai, the cigars, the “I’m the best there is at what I do. And what I do isn’t very nice.”
Thor #337 – #382
One of the lengthier runs included on this essential guide, and a fairly tough decision given similarly excellent and long runs like John Byrne’s Fantastic Four and Peter David’s Hulk. Nonetheless, it’s Walt Simonson’s Thor that truly defines the Norse Avenger, in a way that not many writers have been able to do before or since.
Secret Wars #1 – #12
The Contest of Champions came first, but it was Secret Wars that really blasted off the Marvel Universe event series. Hero vs. Villain brought against their will to Battleworld by the Beyonder. It’s a simple, child-like concept (created to sell toys), and go figure, it’s one of the most entertaining and fun comics in Marvel’s history. My personal favorite Doctor Doom story, and also the origin of Spider-Man’s symbiote black suit.
On top of all that, Secret Wars is Marvel’s enormous mega event of 2015. Naturally, I have for you a Secret Wars reading order all the way from this original run to present day.
Outside Earth-616 continuity, and arguably the best limited series Marvel has ever published. Squadron Supreme takes DC’s Justice League, warps them through a “we don’t want to get sued” new character transformer, and then asks the question: “What if the Justice League took control of the world? Wouldn’t things be better?”
While it’s not on Watchmen’s level in terms of execution (nothing is), the ambition is similar, and it’s an all-time great reimagining of the superhero genre.
God Loves, Man Kills
Another of Marvel’s original graphic novels from the 80’s, with themes that define the X-Men and are sadly still relevant today. Iconic story that set the stage for much of the X-Men comics to come, as well as the foundation for X2 the movie.
Daredevil: Born Again + Man Without Fear Miniseries
Collects: #226 – #223, MWF 5 issue mini
Frank Miller back at it, making Matt Murdock’s life even more of a living hell. Born Again would reverberate strongly across the Daredevil landscape, driving much of Kevin Smith’s “Guardian Devil” and Brian Michael Bendis & Alex Maleev’s “Out” storylines.
Probably the most avant-garde book on this list, and undoubtedly the one least tied to Marvel Earth-616 continuity. It’s also the most interesting Marvel comic I’ve ever read, with Frank Miller and Bill Sienciwiecz pouring The Dark Knight Returns through a newspaper shredder and haze of pyschedelia.
Not on Marvel Unlimited!
Silver Surfer: Rebirth of Thanos + Thanos Quest
Infinity Gauntlet gets all the hype, but it’s actually the preceding Silver Surfer that is the stronger story. This is both Norrin Radd and Thanos at their absolute best, with Jim Starlin flexing his cosmic muscles at his peak.
Spider-Man: Kraven’s Last Hunt
One of the best Spider-Man stories of all time, and possibly the best. You never would have guessed it would be Kraven who gave us the greatest of Spider-Man, but he does it and then some. There were a lot of 80’s attempts to give the world a “dark” Spider-Man, and while many of them were absolute bombs, Kraven’s Last Hunt is one of the most strenuous gauntlets the webslinger’s ever seen.
You can also check out my Kraven’s Last Hunt reading order, since this series crosses over between three Spidey titles.
Hey, just because I said the Silver Surfer build-up is a better read doesn’t mean I don’t get the Infinity Gauntlet’s significance. This is the one cosmic story to rule them all, with Thanos finally gaining possession of the Infinity Gauntlet and doing more damage to the Marvel Universe than anyone ever had before. It’s a rare Marvel story where all the heroes working together are truly unable to defeat the threat at hand, and yet that’s exactly what we see with Thanos in his god-like form. It’s no surprise that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been building to an Infinity War – this story is nothing but the biggest Marvel has offered.
Wolverine: Weapon X
Mind-bending look at Wolverine’s time in the Weapon X program, when he was being experimented on in order to create the ultimate killer.
It’s a shockingly thoughtful look at the crimes against humanity perpetrated against Wolverine, and is easily the comic most readily adaptable for an M. Night Shamalyan screenplay.
Kurt Busiek teamed with legendary comic painter Alex Ross for a 4 issue miniseries looking back at the history of the Marvel Universe. The end result was one of the most humanizing and beautiful looks inside the Marvel U of all time.
Age of Apocalypse
One of my first favorite loves, and an idea so epic in scope even the bad comics are good.
What if Professor Charles Xavier was killed? What if his dream of peaceful coexistence between mutants and humans died with him?
Enter the Age of Apocalypse. Here’s the Age of Apocalypse reading order with Marvel Unlimited links.