One of my favorite things to see since starting Comic Book Herald has been how many new fans are getting into Marvel Comics due to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The success of Marvel’s movies means a lot of new interest in the comics that inspired them, although it’s often difficult to navigate that central question: Where the heck do I start?
Now, I’ve got all sorts of answers to that question across CBH, including the best 100 Marvel stories of the millennium, the best comics to start with in 2015, and the best comics available digitally on Marvel Unlimited. I don’t yet have a guide straight for the movie lover, though, which can only mean it’s time for…
The Marvel Cinematic Universe Watching & Reading Order
Before you get rolling, I have to make one note: This is not the same thing as my chronological Marvel reading order. It’s a guide of suggested reads based on the plots of each movie, and the order the movies and tvs shows should be watched. Consider it a “Read if you liked,” as well as a Marvel Movie watching order, and then when you want to put every read in order, check out the Complete Marvel Reading Order!
Marvel Phase 1
1) Iron Man
I remember where I was when I first saw the trailer for Iron Man, and let me tell you, I was not excited. Hot on the heels of Spider-Man 3, X-Men 3: The Last Stand, and Fantastic Four 2, comic book movies were truly not in a good place.
And now here was Iron Man, flying around to – I kid you not – Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man.”
What I didn’t realize at the time was that Iron Man represented the first offering from Marvel Studios, and would go on to set up the Marvel Cinematic Universe we know and love today. There’s an alternate reality where Iron Man was a dud, and the MCU was never allowed to expand. Fortunately, that is not our reality, and we got an excellent Iron Man origin.
Best Comics to Read With Iron Man
Extremis – While many of you will associate Warren Ellis and Adi Granov’s “Extremis” story arc (Iron Man #1 to #6 beginning in 2004) with Iron Man 3, and rightly so, I prefer this story alongside Iron Man’s origin. Ellis reimagined Tony Stark for the 2000’s, suavely updating his origins in an organic way the film would adopt.
Iron Man’s Original Origins – Now, if you really want to start at the beginning, you can go all the way back to Iron Man’s Stan Lee and Jack Kirby origins. This was one of the first Marvel Essentials collections that black hole warped me back into reading comics, and as tribute, I recommend every issue from that first Essential collection.
Own Essential Iron Man: Volume 1
Invincible Iron Man: The Five Nightmares – Matt Fraction and Salvador Larocca had a good long run on The Invincible Iron Man, starting here with a story involving the son of Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges character in the film).
2) The Incredible Hulk
It’s strangely easy to forget that The Incredible Hulk is a film within the MCU (and even stranger to consider this was the second attempt at the character inside of a decade). Hulk is easily Marvel Studio’s biggest misfire, which is a shame because it likely deprived us of a proper Planet Hulk movie (come on Phase IV!).
Hulk isn’t really offensive in any particular way, which is part of the problem. This is a real vanilla retelling of the Hulk’s origins (unlike the wackadoo Ang Lee directed 2003 Hulk movie) that just fails to grab any compelling storyline. It also continues the unfortunate trend of villains that are literally the same as the hero (but eeeeeevil!!!), although in this case Eli Roth’s Abomination is quietly one of the better Marvel villains of the entire MCU (not a good sign for the villains of the MCU, but hey!).
Bonus: One of my favorite fan-fiction ideas with the MCU is to imagine that Ed Norton’s Bruce Banner actually still exists within the universe and is either A) Working as a bouncer in Las Vegas or B) was captured by Tony Stark and General Ross following their clandestine bar meeting and shot into space. All I’m saying is you can’t rule it out.
Best Comics to Read With The Incredible Hulk
Hulk Origins – The first Incredible Hulk issues from 1962 (created by Stanly the Manly & Jack Kirby) are pretty fascinating, jumping from Hulk origins, to the army shooting Hulk into space (really), to Hulk fighting underground terrorists in completely baller hats.
Incredible Hulk vs. Abomination – There have plenty of earth-shaking brouhaha’s between the Hulk and Abomination throughout the years, but one of my personal favorites is in Incredible Hulk #137 from 1971. If you like unbridled cosmic imagination (the 70’s were a different time), then you’ll have a lot of fun with the Hulk encountering the Abomination… in space!
Planet Hulk – Ok… Planet Hulk has nothing to do with Marvel’s the Incredible Hulk. That said, this movie is super vanilla and it’s our only chance at suggesting Hulk comics, which means we need a Hulk story that convinces us Hulk is strongest there is. Peter David’s issues above are a great start, but Planet Hulk is my all-time favorite pick for new comic readers. If you don’t dig Planet Hulk, well, you probably don’t like Hulk. Just don’t let him hear you say it.
Own Planet Hulk
3) Iron Man 2
While Hulk is likely at the bottom of the most ranked MCU lists, Iron Man 2 is the movie that disappointed me the most. Heading into the movie: We were coming off a great origin movie, Mickey Rourke was coming off a career resurgence in The Wrestler, and Robert Downey Jr. had showed up after the Hulk credits to talk Avengers with General Thunderbolt Ross.
Oh, and the Iron Man 2 soundtrack was, like, 85% AC/DC.
What could go wrong?
Turns out a lot, and while I won’t out and out call Iron Man 2 bad, it’s definitely my least favorite MCU movie. Rourke’s Whiplash was entirely forgettable, Downey Jr and Gwenyth Paltrow were given way too many “Oh just improvise” scenes, and the always awesome Sam Rockwell was wasted as Justin Hammer (and sadly was not forced to do a push-up to verify the Marvel Universe strength Wiki).
I can say with more confidence than usual that the comic book inspiration for Iron Man 2 is much stronger than the film.
Best Comics to Read With The Iron Man 2
Armor Wars – From Iron Man #225 to #232. Undoubtedly one of the most famous Iron Man stories (right up there with Demon in a Bottle or Doomquest), and some very loose inspiration for the tepid Iron Man 2. While Iron Man 2 only parked across the street from what would happen if Tony Stark’s weaponized armor fell into the wrong hands, Armor Wars kicks in the door, runs upstairs, and rearranges your furniture.
Own Armor Wars
Thor is a tight film, delivering Asgard, Mjolnir, Loki and a whole host of mythology with an impressive economy. The film doesn’t shatter any artistic boundaries, but it does get credit for the first fully established MCU hero after Iron Man. Chris Hemsworth’s Thor is a spot-on cinematic representation of the God of Thunder, pulling off a character that could easily have become a laughing stock.
Best Comics to Read With Thor
Thor’s Origins – Thor’s origins in Journey into Mystery might be the first time I realized just how much fun Stanly the Manly and Jack Kirby could have with these iconic creations. Removed from the shackles of Earth-bound life, Lee and Kirby deliver an Asgard full of god-sized myth and joyous imagination. It’s far from their best work, but Lee & Kirby never quite tackled medieval fantasy like this again. So be it!
Walt Simonson Thor – In truth, Walt Simonson’s Thor is the greatest take on the character, Asgard, and Norse mythology. It’s also one of my all-time favorite sustained creative runs in Marvel history. That said, it isn’t necessarily an easy entry point, as it’s semi-mired in mid-80’s continuity, and assumes a fair amount of Thor knowledge. But since I have faith in your capacity to dive in and go with the flow (swim, dear reader! Kick your legs!), I recommend the run in its entirety. Give Thor #337 to #344 a shot.
5) Captain America: The First Avenger
The first Captain America is actually a bit underrated as time goes on. I thought the film was just fine initially, but was surprised how much I enjoyed rewatching it. As is the case with many of our Marvel movies so far, I could have gone for a much more villainous Red Skull (Hugo Weaving’s generic Nazi doesn’t represent the true face of pure evil for me). Nonetheless, Cap gives us a solid wartime movie, solidifies Chris Evans as Steve Rogers personified, and keeps the Avengers train rolling.
You could also get fancy here and suggest that Captain America 1 should be watched first, since it’s chronologically before the rest of these movies. Personally, I prefer the release order as the post-credits Cap scene is all about setting up the Avengers.
Best Comics to Read With Captain America: The First Avenger
Captain America & Bucky: The Life Story of Bucky Barnes – Criminally overlooked Captain America story (I’m just now realizing I forgot it on my best 100 Marvel stories list) that explores the war effort contributions of Bucky Barnes, Cap’s best friend.
Red Skull’s Cosmic Cube Origins – The Cosmic Cube is my favorite Marvel artifact, and its origins with the Red Skull and Captain America are filled with wide-eyed possibility. Let’s be real: the Red Skull choosing to reshape reality so that he’s wearing ornate Spanish conquistador armor is way more fun than making laser canons in World War Two.
6) Agent Carter Season One + Agent Carter Season Two
ABC’s Agent Carter miniseries begins as a functional epilogue to Captain America: The First Avenger, and fortunately creates its own identity for Peggy Carter as the eight episodes progress.
Best Comics to Read With Agent Carter
Operation S.I.N. – It’s a strangely well kept secret that there’s actually an ongoing Peggy Carter comic in Marvel’s stable in 2015.
Maybe even more unexpectedly, Operation S.I.N. is an Original Sin epilogue tie-in. Nonetheless, if you want some more Peggy Carter and Howard Stark in your life, this is the way to do it.
7) The Avengers
10.0 on the landing, and aside from the bitter Russian judge, it’s a unanimous score. This was the movie that guaranteed we’d have Marvel movies through the 3000’s, and I still can’t believe just how well Joss Whedon and co. pulled off the assembling. The build from 2007 to 2012 finally paid off, and man is it a beautiful payoff.
Best Comics to Read With The Avengers
Deconnick’s Avengers Assemble – No comic has more accurately captured the spirit of Whedon’s on screen Avengers than Kelly Sue Deconnick’s first run on Avengers Assemble.
The Ultimates – While Deconnick’s Avengers Assemble draws inspiration from the movie, Whedon’s Avengers drew a wealth of inspiration from The Ultimates. There are plenty of arguments against Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s Ultimate Universe linchpin, but there’s no denying the cinematic scope gave us everything from super-snarky Stark to Samuel L. Jackson Nick Fury to leather-largely-no-fun Hawkeye.
Own The Ultimates
Avengers Origins – I maintain that the original formation of the Avengers would have worked reasonably well as a film, although by 2012 it was undeniably predictable. I’m happy with the movie we got, but this is still a fun way to see how the comics brought the Avengers together in the first place.
Marvel Phase 2
8) Iron Man 3
I love Iron Man 3. It’s hilarious and takes bold chances with the Iron Man universe. The War Machine and Iron Man buddy team-up was a questionable proposition until Iron Man 3. On the other side of the coin, any movie with the guts to go from “Huh that’s a really interesting interpretation of the Mandarin” to “Wait, where’s the Mandarin?” in half a movie is worthy of my eternal respect.
Note that Extremis could also be listed as a relevant read here, but we already covered it with Iron Man 1.
Best Comics to Read With Iron Man 3
Origin of the Mandarin – The Mandarin’s first appearance came eleven issues into Iron Man’s debut run, back when the comic was still called Tales of Suspense. From there the Mandarin quickly became an Iron Man regular rogue, even getting his own origin issue in Tales of Suspense #62.
There have been plenty of origin twists since then, but Matt Fraction’s Invincible Iron Man Annual #1 is the most recent. The story focuses on the sinister Mandarin developing the movie version of his own life, and just like the actual comic book history, a lot of the details are simply what you choose them to be.
Own Mandarin Origins
Iron Man: Haunted – The modern return of the Mandarin, following the events of Iron Man: Extremis. Note that this is a post-Civil War comic in Marvel continuity.
9) Agents of SHIELD (ABC) Season One – Episodes 1 to 7
Ugh. Just… ugh. I had such high hopes, and the show had such potential, and then… ugh.
I’ve spent plenty of time lamenting what could be, but the important lesson from Agents of SHIELD is there are a lot of really great comics that do this sort of SHIELD story much better.
Best Comics to Read With Agents of SHIELD S1
Secret Warriors – Perpetually the grand standard in superhero spy stories until proven otherwise. Jonathan Hickman – at the time a relative newcomer to Marvel Comics – crafts Nick Fury’s underground secret spy organization during Secret Invasion and Dark Reign. It’s a brilliant use of lesser known powered agents, and immersed so thick in Marvel Universe espionage, you might never come up for air. Wheels within wheels my friends.
Own Secret Warriors
Secret Avengers – Before SHIELD, Marvel inserted Coulson into their comic book continuity within the pages of Secret Avengers.
Own Secret Avengers
10) Thor 2: The Dark World
I haven’t decided if The Dark World is underrated or just sort of properly ignored. I’ve said it before, but this is my favorite Loki movie since it’s the first movie his ambition and cunning result in his ultimate desire. Loki should always have a trick up his sleeve, and then a trick up that’s trick sleeve. He’s the god of tricks! In that way, The Dark World delivers.
Otherwise, well, I didn’t need Star Wars Dark Elves (they have laser guns and can’t beat bearded guys with swords?) and Malekith falls victim to the MCU’s tragic uninteresting villain curse. Also it’s a Thor movie and I can’t remember a single Thor moment I enjoyed outside of his adventures with Loki. Ok fine, probably no reason to worry this movie is underrated.
Best Comics to Read With Thor 2: The Dark World
Thor: God of Thunder – The Accursed – Since Thor 2 gave us little to no reason to think anything of Malekith the Accursed, I offer you this excellent take on the Dark Elf Lord from Jason Aaron and Ron Garney. Take note, that you’d be well served to read the first 11 issues of God of Thunder as well.
Loki Triumphant – I’m a huge fan of a Loki that desires nothing more than ruling Asgard, and this 4 issue miniseries is a great example of his greed made real.
10a) Agents of SHIELD (ABC) Season One – Episodes 8 to 15
11) Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier
One of the smartest entries in the MCU, and exactly what the post-Avengers cinematic universe needed. To date, Captain America 2 is the only sequel that surpasses the origin, and it does so with flying, paranoid colors.
Intriguingly, Cap 2 is also the most faithfully adapted straight from a 2000’s era comic book story, although both the comic and film go in pleasantly different directions. My money’s on the comic, but that’s like picking between apples and other, similarly tasty apples.
Best Comics to Read With Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier
Winter Soldier – Easiest choice on the menu, as Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting’s Captain America is not only the source material for the film, but also the best Captain America run of my lifetime. Note here that if you keep reading this series, you’ll be crossing into the likely inspiration for Captain America 3.
Captain America: Man out of Time – Surprisingly great look back at the life of Steve Rogers and what it would have been like for him as a man pulled out of time. We see strong glimpses of that in ‘The Winter Soldier’ with Cap saying goodbye to old loves and catching up on Marvin Gaye.
11a) Agents of SHIELD (ABC) Season One – Episodes 16 to 22
12) Guardians of the Galaxy
I suspect time will make it easier and easier to call Guardians of the Galaxy the best movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Avengers will always be the most impressive and most important (unless Infinity War somehow manages to stick the two part landing in a way that doesn’t feel cash-grabby). But Guardians of the Galaxy is so much fun, so funny, and so easy to like for people who wouldn’t be caught dead with a flarkin’ comic book.
Plus, Guardians is the film that proved Marvel stories outside of the core Avengers unit could succeed in theaters. This doesn’t get enough attention.
Best Comics to Read With Guardians of the Galaxy
Abnett & Lanning GoTG – I’ve written more about where you should start with Guardians of the Galaxy, but the short and sweet answer is Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning’s series spiraling out of Annihilation: Conquest. If you really want to enjoy a sweet ride, I’d recommend you actually ride the Marvel Cosmic shuttle all the way back to Annihilation. Just be prepared for a significantly different Peter Quill in the early going.
Howard the Duck – You certainly don’t need to read Howard the Duck to enjoy Guardians of the Galaxy, but that post-credits tease ain’t worth a darn without some Howard in your life.
13) Daredevil (Netflix)
It would be near impossible for Daredevil to have been more perfect. The Netflix-only release surpassed all my expectations, shattered the 2003 Ben Affleck Daredevil memory, and nailed every aspect of the Man without Fear!
Yes, Daredevil is off-the-charts violent, but it’s also funny, charming, sad, and hopeful. I can’t wait for more Matt Murdock on screen. In the meantime, Daredevil has some of Marvel’s best comics.
Best Comics to Read With Netflix Daredevil
Frank Miller & Klaus Janson Daredevil #168 to #182 – Before he was creating one of the 3 greatest graphic novels in comic book history in “The Dark Knight Returns,” Frank Miller was doing amazing work in Daredevil’s ongoing series. So much of the Daredevil mythos we know and love today was established in the Miller and Janson comics.
Daredevil: Battlin’ Jack Murdock– The Netflix series did an impressively selective origin for Daredevil, most notably utilizing touching father/ son scenes to offer glimpses into Matt Murdock’s early life.
13a) Jessica Jones (Netflix)
While Jessica Jones was released in November of 2015 (after Avengers 2: Age of Ultron and Ant-Man), the second original Netflix series can be slotted right behind Daredevil. It’s a post-Avengers world we find for Jessica Jones, private eye, but there’s nothing in this series that indicates it’s a post-Ultron world.
This largely works in Jesssica Jones’ benefit, as the story of Jessica’s hunt for David Tennant’s Purple Man (not to mention a hunt for redemption and peace) is one of the most self-contained entries in the entire MCU. Simply put, it’s one of the best entries in Marvel’s catalog, and certainly the most thematically resonant, as Jessica deals with PTSD from her abduction, mind-control, and rape at the mercy of the evil Kilgrave.
In addition to the smart and empathetic handling of serious real world horror, Jessica Jones gives us the finest Marvel villain performance in the entire stable, and cements Netflix as Marvel’s premier villains cabal. First Kingpin and now Kilgrave, if you want a dynamic, complex Marvel Villain, you turn to Netflix.
Best Comics to Read With Jessica Jones
Alias – Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos created Jessica Jones in the early 2000’s, and it’s one of the best Marvel comics in this modern era. The build to Kilgrave here – in his true Marvel Comics form – is fantastic, and there are a lot more cases for Jessica to solve than we see on the TV series.
If you want more than just Jessica’s peak, I’d recommend my Jessica Jones reading order.
13b) Daredevil Season Two
Much like Jessica Jones, I think Marvel’s Netflix presence makes sense as a post-Avengers MCU whole. These stories are pretty self-contained within Hell’s Kitchen, and for the time being that’s playing to Daredevil’s advantage.
You can see my full review of Daredevil Season Two, but the short version is basically Marvel is CRUSHING their Netflix game.
Best Comics to Read With Daredevil Season Two
Well since we already covered the excellent Frank Miller run that is inspiring this take on ol’ hornhead, let’s go with the supporting characters who make season two a standout:
13c) Luke Cage
Even though Luke Cage was released after Marvel’s Captain America 3: Civil War, it makes the most sense to watch Cage in sequence with the other Marvel Netflix properties to date.
You can read my full review of Luke Cage here.
Best Comics to Read With Luke Cage
14) Agents of SHIELD (ABC) Season Two – Episodes 1 to 19
I can’t write again about Agents of SHIELD for too long without biting a hole through my tongue, but I will acknowledge that season two made improvements.
Most importantly, season two gave us our first strong look at the Inhumans, giving Agents of SHIELD a potentially enormous role in the MCU as a whole.
Best Comics to Read With Agents of SHIELD S2
Young Inhumans – So far, Agents of SHIELD hasn’t dealt with the royal Inhumans Marvel fans know and love. As such, I recommend reading the lesser known Young Inhumans miniseries, which features, well, young… Inhumans. Not Skye… but like Skye!
Own Young Inhumans
15) Avengers 2: Age of Ultron
Although Avengers 2 liked the name of 2013’s comic book event “Age of Ultron,” Marvel Studios quite understandably was not prepared to commit to the dystopian, Ultron-triumphant universe. Personally, I think this would have made a fascinating movie, but it also would have been a remarkably odd direction for the MCU.
Instead we got the MCU’s version of an Ultron origin story, meaning those reads are a lot more applicable than “Age of Ultron” itself.
Best Comics to Read With Avengers 2: Age of Ultron
Avengers Ultron / Vision Origins – The first appearance of Ultron and the debut of the Vision in the Avengers! In Avengers #51 to #58.
Ultron Unlimited – One of the best stories from Kurt Busiek and George Perez’s 60+ issue run on Avengers at the turn of the millennium, not to mention one of my favorite Ultron stories. In Avengers (1998 series) #19 to #22.
Rage of Ultron – I’m throwing an oddball, modern Ultron graphic novel into the mix for two reasons. 1) Rage of Ultron is a gorgeous Marvel OGN that explores some of writer Rick Remender’s favorite concepts and 2) Sometimes diving headfirst into modern Marvel continuity is the best way to get acquainted. And if you believe that, I’ve got a bridge in Sokovia for sale.
15a) Agents of SHIELD (ABC) Season Two – Episodes 20 to 22
Ant-Man is a soft, relatively light-hearted comedown from a run of dark, serious threats in the Marvel Universe. Sure they play up the power of the Pym Particles, but let’s be real, a bunch of people turning really small isn’t quite as threatening as an artificial mass murderer dropping a city from heaven to earth.
Nonetheless, Ant-Man is mostly fun, if a mid-tier Marvel movie. Ant-Man does a nice job introducing the Pyms, Janet Van Dyne, and Scott Lang to the Marvel U, and features an excellent Ant-Man vs. Falcon fight scene!
Best Comics To Read With Ant-Man
Ant-Man by Nick Spencer – Marvel’s latest relaunch of an Ant-Man solo title starring Scott Lang is exactly what the tiny doctor ordered. This is a clever, funny, and heart-warming addition to the Paul Rudd Lang we see onscreen in Ant-Man.
If you want more Ant-Man you can also, try my Ant-Man reading order.
17) Agents of SHIELD (ABC) Season Three
Rather than say something mean, I’ll just direct you to this Czarface track from my favorite rap album of 2015. Note the casual Agents of SHIELD diss!
Marvel Phase 3
18) Captain America 3: Civil War – Release May 6, 2016
Captain America 3: Civil War is a small miracle, coordinating more moving parts per minute than Olympic synchronized swimming (hint: not an engineer).
I’ve written in detail why I think so highly of the MCU’s Civil War. Suffice it to say, the Russo Brothers and all associated creators crafted one of the MCU’s best films, and effortlessly introduced Black Panther and Spider-Man to the universe.
Best Comics To Read With Captain America 3: Civil War
Civil War – Shock of shockers… Marvel’s 2006-2007 mega event is about as close as you can get to the movie. Sure there are all sorts of differences, but rather than tell you them, you can explore for yourself using Comic Book Herald’s Civil War reading order.
Black Panther by Christopher Priest – Our introduction to Black Panther in the MCU means this is a great time to get to know one of the best Black Panther comic runs.
Ultimate Spider-Man – So much of the MCU is based on Marvel’s Ultimate Universe, and the introduction of Spider-Man here is no exception. There are few long runs I enjoy more than Bendis and Bagley on Ultimate Spider-Man.
19) Agents of SHIELD (ABC) Season Four: Ghost Rider
Agents of SHIELD season four picks up in the aftermath of Cap 3’s Sokovia Accords, and introduces Ghost Rider to the MCU!
Best Comics To Read With Agents of SHIELD Season Four
All-New Ghost Rider – While my go-to Ghost Rider recommendation has been Jason Aaron’s Ghost Rider run for a good long time, the choice to feature Robbie Reyes in AoS makes All-New Ghost Rider your best bet.
Agents of SHIELD Vol. 1 – Sure it took approximately three full seasons, but Agents of SHIELD are fully integrated into the Marvel Comics world at large. You can read all about the team from TV as they ramp up for a tie-in role in Marvel’s 2016 event, Civil War II.
21) Dr. Strange
You can get strange with the Comic Book Herald Dr. Strange reading order!
Check out the full Doctor Strange movie review!
Note that all the below entries are yet to be released (or updated on this list)! Here’s what’s to come:
22) Guardians of the Galaxy 2 – Release May 5, 2017
23) Spider-Man – July 18, 2017
24) Thor: Ragnarok – November 3, 2017