We here at Paste take the responsibility of recommending comics seriously, whether that means assembling mega-lists of the best-ever [insert genre here] comics, compiling each week’s most interesting new releases or suggesting sequential art for viewers of films like Wonder Woman, Spider-Man: Homecoming and Black Panther. Film-to-comic guides are a staple of websites that cover comics and related media, and they can serve as excellent gateways for moviegoers who walk out of the theater hungry for more stories about their favorite new characters. So it’s with great disappointment that we admit: recommending comics for fans of Avengers: Infinity War sucks.
If you take a look at our peer websites like CBR or Newsarama, you’ll find that most writers tasked with creating an Infinity War reading list stuck to the classics. From Thanos creator Jim Starlin’s early work with the character to proto-event comics like The Infinity Gauntlet and the progressively lesser Wars and Crusades that followed, Infinity War has effectively brought out the academic side of comic book journalists. With no slight intended to Starlin, without whom the shape of the Marvel Cinematic Universe would be all but unrecognizable, much of Marvel’s ‘70s, ‘80s and early-‘90s cosmic comics are dense, dizzying soap operas that are more fascinating for the raw material they introduced to the shared universe than they are engrossing and accessible to the modern reader. Infinity Gauntlet itself, with George Perez kicking off the series at his peak and Ron Lim turning in career-defining work from the fourth issue on, has aged better than many ‘80s Marvel sagas, but the Marvel Universe has always reflected its contemporary settings with much more gusto than DC Comics, which, with the exception of Superman’s mullet, has historically embraced a more timeless feel. Handing Infinity Crusade to someone who just walked out of Infinity War is an unlikely way to convert a new fan to the medium, unless that person has a hearty nostalgia for big hair and questionable ‘90s fashion choices.
It’s futile to ding Marvel Comics for not thinking 30 years into the future when crafting their early Infinity stories, but it’s nonetheless frustrating to look at how little the company seems to have learned over its last decade of cinema success. When Iron Man hit theaters in 2008, the Marvel Comics publicity machine threw its full support behind the Invincible Iron Man series from Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca, which launched on the heels of the film and featured a Tony Stark that mirrored Robert Downey Jr.’s wildly popular live-action portrayal. Invincible Iron Man would go on to win an Eisner award for Best New Series and run for just over 60 issues with the same creative team, all the while maintaining an accessibility to movie fans that’s largely unparalleled in any Marvel comic before or after.
In the decade since Marvel’s excellent synthesis of Iron Man (the film) and Invincible Iron Man (the comic), we’ve seen some truly excellent, unexpected takes on the publisher’s core pantheon of heroes, from the Jane Foster iteration of Thor to a well-intentioned (if often lacking) run of Sam Wilson picking up Captain America’s shield. What we rarely saw, however, was any conscious thought to film timing. In the run-up to Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which earned rave reviews for its grounded, spy-thriller take on Captain America, the corresponding Marvel Comics series saw Captain America fighting mutated monsters in an alternate dimension before returning to Earth with an adult adopted son and villains with names like “Dr. Mindbubble.” As Thor finally found cinematic success as an out-and-out buddy comedy with Thor: Ragnarok, The Mighty Thor comic series continued Jane Foster’s doomed march toward a hero’s death. Marvel followed up Guardians of the Galaxy’s breakout film success by relaunching the comic series under one of its biggest writers—now-DC-exclusive Brian Michael Bendis—but focused the book on previously unrelated characters like Angela, The Thing and Kitty Pryde while stumbling through crossover events that made the book impenetrable to anyone not following the wider publishing line.
It wasn’t until Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 hit theaters that Marvel launched Gerry Duggan and Aaron Kuder’s excellent All-New Guardians of the Galaxy—perhaps the most accessible comic starring MCU characters since Invincible Iron Man—but the title found only moderate traction with readers. While All-New Guardians of the Galaxy has three inviting trade collections on shelves, they funnel readers directly into Infinity Countdown, Marvel’s current sprawling event comic, which itself sets up another crossover event later this year, effectively turning one of Marvel’s most enjoyable gateway comics into a pyramid scheme.
Most puzzlingly, in the four years between the 2014 announcement of the two-part Avengers: Infinity War cinematic juggernaut and the release of the first film in theaters this week, Marvel Comics has skewed Avengers titles in the comics away from its most popular cinematic characters while diluting the Avengers “brand” by flooding the market with books: from All-New, All-Different Avengers to Occupy Avengers, U.S.Avengers, Uncanny Avengers, New Avengers, Captain America and the Mighty Avengers, Secret Avengers and, yes, Avengers, the most recent volume, which shares exactly one character with the MCU’s iteration of the team: The Vision. While some of these were excellent comics, especially writer Al Ewing’s contributions, the lack of cohesion meant that Marvel frequently had three or four moderate-to-low-selling Avengers titles on stands at any given times, rather than a single flagship book recognizable to curious new readers as an entry point into the comic universe. (Jason Aaron and Ed McGuinness’ Avengers #1 launches next week to finally fill that void, but even this bombastic new title spins out of a one-shot released last fall.)
The most recent Avengers run to feature a lineup resembling the MCU team is writer Jonathan Hickman’s 2013-to-2015 magnum opus, which introduced the Black Order, Thanos’ cosmic lieutenants who make their live-action debut in Infinity War. While we’re personally big fans of Hickman’s run here at Paste, it exemplifies one of Marvel’s longtime pitfalls: very little of it stands alone. Even Infinity, the crossover event in the middle of Hickman’s run, which directly inspired portions of Infinity War, concerns not just Thanos, but prominent use of the Inhumans and strange alien forerunners known as The Builders, who are mostly unexplained in Infinity itself. While Infinity has landed on most Infinity War reading lists thanks to the Black Order’s introduction, it’s an unfulfilling, likely confusing read when divorced from the rest of Hickman’s long saga.
By design, Marvel’s comics are structured to pull readers into long-running soap operas, not produce discrete, timeless tales like, say, Batman: Year One. This is clearly an appealing approach for many comic readers, especially those of us who’ve become invested in the characters over years or even decades. Unfortunately, the same sprawling publishing method that keeps already-dedicated comic readers hooked for life is counter-intuitive to hooking new fans who leave the theater looking for the Avengers comic, the Thor comic, the Captain America comic. As with fellow Disney property Star Wars, the prose world picks up some of the slack—particularly young reader titles like Avengers: Infinity War: The Cosmic Quest, which seems to be one of the most direct tie-ins to the film being offered in any medium or age range—but it’s worth considering why even the best Infinity War reading lists, like former Paste contributor Joshua Rivera’s suggestions at GQ, resort to including a Thor comic from seven years ago, Invincible Iron Man’s first trade collection from 2008 and a Hawkeye series that isn’t about the character portrayed by Jeremy Renner. With any luck, Marvel’s upcoming slate of “Fresh Start” relaunches designed to re-center iconic takes on its most iconic characters will finally help mitigate this lack of accessible entry points, and we’ll all have a lot more options to pull from when we slap together our Avengers 4 reading guides next year.