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So you've just seen one of the latest comic book movie blockbusters, and you're interested enough to take a peek at what these characters are like on the page. Good for you, literate fan! However, once you enter your local comic-book store, you might find yourself overwhelmed by the fact that there are many versions of your new favorite heroes and villains on the shelf. Picking one up may result in you finding something that is nothing like what you had hoped for.
In the spirit of new discoveries, we decided to provide a brief primer for those of you excited by the latest and upcoming superhero releases, including Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, X-Men: Days Of Future Past, Guardians Of The Galaxy, Avengers: Age Of Ultron and Batman V. Superman: Dawn Of Justice. This might get a little complicated, but if read the right stuff you can become the most knowledgeable comic book movie fan on the block. Which may or may not be a blessing!
Quick Note: this isn't a list of the best comics from each character, but rather suggestions as to the best way to keep up with current continuity, which differs from movie continuity.
If You Liked X-Men: Days Of Future PastThe Movie: Based on the iconic comic book storyline by Chris Claremont, John Byrne and Terry Austin, this adventure joins the characters introduced in X-Men: First Class with those from the earlier X-Men trilogy. X-Men: Days Of Future Past is a time travel adventure where the heroes must prevent a cataclysmic incident in the seventies that leads to the mutants nearing extinction in the near future.
The Movie's Inspiration: First of all, it might be fun to look up the original Days Of Future Past storyline, which was only a two issue arc and is slightly less-advanced reading compared to some other massive multi-issue crossovers. The story focuses not on Wolverine, but on the character of Kitty Pryde, and the target of the assassination attempt at the core of the story is not on Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), but rather Senator Kelly. Other than that, it's a fun, brisk read, if predictably dark.
If you're looking to jump onto the modern continuity, however, good luck. X-Men comics have always prided themselves on knotty, complex storytelling, and the current run is no exception. The biggest point of confusion is that Professor X is not alive in current continuity. His death at the hands of Cyclops (at the time possessed by the Phoenix Force seen onscreen in X-Men: The Last Stand) splintered the X-Men for good.
On one side, Wolverine now serves as the unlikely headmaster for the Jean Grey School For Higher Education, where he and fellow senior X-Men team members educate the future X-Men. None of these characters are very familiar to casual fans, though some will spot Genesis, who bears a resemblance to his father, the eponymous villain in the upcoming X-Men: Apocalypse.
On another side, Cyclops leads a rebel faction of mutants at a Weapon X base in Canada, which even casual fans will remember as the place where Wolverine received his Adamantium skeleton. Aligning himself with Magneto, Cyclops is militarizing his followers and no longer shares Xavier's ideals for peace between mutants and humans. There is also the matter of the five original X-Men (Cyclops, Jean Grey, Beast, Angel, Iceman) who have somehow traveled in time from the beginning of the X-Men's existence and are now a part of our timeline. And yes, it's often hard to keep up with which Cyclops is which.
Current Comics: The X-Men crowd pop up in several ongoing series. Wolverine And The X-Men and Amazing X-Men focus specifically on the students at Jean Grey's School For Higher Education. If you like Quicksilver from the current film, you can catch him as one of the members of All-New X-Factor run. Uncanny X-Men places the spotlight on Cyclops' squad, while X-Men actually has a current focus on an all-female team led by Storm, Jubilee, Kitty Pryde and others. All New X-Men spotlights that team of the original five trapped in time, while titles like X-Force and Savage Wolverine present a diverse look at the rest of the mutant world.
If You Liked The Amazing Spider-Man 2The Movie: Spider-Man faces his greatest challenge when he comes face-to-face with the villainous Electro as well as best friend Harry Osborn, now the Green Goblin. All the while, he tries to make it work with girlfriend Gwen Stacy and form some sort of normal life as Peter Parker.
The Movie's Inspiration: Hopefully you've seen The Amazing Spider-Man 2 already, and if so you'll note that it takes a big chunk of inspiration from the two-part story The Death of Gwen Stacy written by Gerry Conway. In that legendary story, Spidey faces self-doubt when he tries to rescue Gwen Stacy from her death at the hands of Green Goblin. The comic doesn't feature Electro, and there's a lot more depth and pathos than what was seen onscreen.
As for current continuity, the good news is, Peter Parker is no longer dead! Marvel "killed" the wall-crawler in 2012 when the dying Doctor Octopus placed Peter Parker's mind inside his own body and took over Peter's body in the process. For a year and a half, the Spider-Man running around the Marvel universe was secretly Doc Ock, branding himself The Superior Spider-Man in an effort to outdo Parker's past accomplishments. Ultimately he succeeded in some ways, failed in others, and somehow Parker was able to regain control of his identity and come back to the uniform. Currently, Spidey is all out of sorts, and the realization of what happened to him has not fully sunk in just yet. And for the record, Electro is still at large in the comics, though Harry Osborn seems to have settled down for now in post-supervillain retirement. Rhino, however, is apparently dead. For now.
Current Comics: The Peter Parker version of Spider-Man can be found in The Amazing Spider-Man comics series while also serving as a supporting player in The Superior Foes Of Spider-Man. He's also currently a member of the Mighty Avengers as well as the regular Avengers, should you seek that comic out. If you're looking for something different, Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man is not part of normal continuity and instead following young Spider-Man Miles Morales. While it's certainly fun and worth reading, it currently has no real connection to the latest run of films.
If You Liked Captain America: The Winter SoldierThe Movie: Captain America must deal with being a man frozen in time while unraveling a far-reaching conspiracy. Things are made only worse when the mysterious Winter Soldier inadvertently reveals his ties to Cap's past.
The Movie's Inspiration: The Winter Soldier arc from writer Eric Brubaker was considered iconic, though it differs greatly from the film. If you're looking for it, the book centers around a chase for the Cosmic Cube, known in the films as the Tesseract. The corruption of S.H.I.E.L.D. isn't a major plot point.
Aside from that, Cap's had a busy few years since actually returning from the dead. He's recently spent a 10-year period inside an alternate dimension created by Arnim Zola, which has only further exemplified his status as a man out of time, given that in our dimension the decade passed within seconds. Marvel's done a good job streamlining Cap's solo stories as well, as he also leads the Avengers Unity Squad, a group in charge of policing the relationships between mutants and humans, with his main target being the militancy of Cyclops.
Current Comics: The Captain America solo series currently finds Cap and the Falcon taking down threats with the help of S.H.I.E.L.D. Meanwhile, you can catch his adventures with the Avengers Unity Squad in Uncanny Avengers. There's also a current series going on called Winter Soldier: The Bitter March that delves into the early years of the titular character's history, with an emphasis away from superheroics and more on 60's-era espionage. If you liked the title villain in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, you'll enjoy this peek at his earlier days.
If You're Looking Forward To Guardians Of The GalaxyThe Movie: Peter Quill of Earth leads a group of intergalactic criminals into an adventure working to protect the universe from some seriously bad dudes.
The Movie's Inspiration: Guardians Of The Galaxy has been a title that's infamously been in and out of circulation for years, never exactly amassing much of a following. Their origins are from a team sharing the same title that debuted in 1969, though they were much different than the current iteration. Among this group, you'll find Ant-Man, then called Yellowjacket, as well as Yondu, a character played by Michael Rooker in the current film. This team also primarily functioned in an alternate-reality 31st century, so you're not going to find many traces of them in the current film.
In 2008, Marvel relaunched the team with the character of Star-Lord, aka Peter Quill, in the wake of the massive interstellar crossover Annihilation. That squad featured Quill, Gamora, Drax, Groot, Adam Warlock and Quasar, the last two of whom will not appear in the film and do not have roles in the current books.
Current Comics: They've made an effort to bring in newer fans with the most recent Guardians Of The Galaxy series, which has the same movie lineup that includes Quill, Gamora, Drax, Rocket Raccoon and Groot. Earlier issues focused on the origins of Peter Quill, particularly his relationship with estranged father Jason Of Spartax. It's a lot similar to Cyclops' interactions with his space pirate father Corsair, which have been a large part of the current X-Men run.
The series is still pretty young, but newer back issues feature brief period where the gang interacts with a very Robert Downey Jr.-ish Iron Man, while also crossing over with the X-Men. Similarly, a late addition to their team has been the omnipotent Angela, a character borrowed from competitor Image Comics. The books pack a lot of humor into their narratives, but they remain deep space adventures with a light-hearted approach, the better to slide into both current Marvel continuity as well as the mostly serious vibe of the films.
If You're Looking Forward To Avengers: Age Of UltronThe Movie: Plot details have not been confirmed, but the film is said to involve an artificial intelligence called Ultron going wild, with new heroes like Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch joining the titular superhero team to help the psychotic robot from achieving his goals to destroy the human race.
The Movie's Inspiration: The title of Age Of Ultron was actually a massively popular crossover story from last year, and was set in a world where the titular villain had finally conquered the world and eliminated the superheroes. This causes the survivors to try and find a way to travel back in time a la Days Of Future Past to stop Ultron from ever being built. Joss Whedon's film doesn't seem like the film is borrowing from the actual storyline for inspiration, and it's pretty terrible anyway so you can probably skip it.
The earlier stories introducing Ultron, however (Avengers #54-54, 1968), are a doozy. Ultron led a team of villains called the Masters Of Evil in his first appearance, though his origins were clouded in mystery. The massive reveal is that Ultron has created the Vision and sent him into the Avengers team as something of a sleeper agent to defeat the team from within. It's only later when we learn that Ultron is a wayward creation of scientist Hank Pym, aka Ant-Man. Avengers: Age Of Ultron may preserve this origin but turn Ultron into a rogue version of Iron Man, though Vision is also reportedly a part of the new movie.
If you're looking to keep track of the most recent incarnations of The Avengers in comics, good luck. Right now the group's story has been splintered into many different series, several of which have apparently world-altering events that somehow don't affect the rest of the Marvel universe. Tracking the continuity of these titles is fruitless, though each one does have it's own reason for reading.
The biggest shift in recent years is featured in the Avengers World storyline, which followed the events of a massive intergalactic crossover ending with the team exerting their might over the universe's creators (!), before planting a flag on other worlds to declare that they are under Avengers protection. Kind of creepy, really, though the recent comics are dealing with the fallout of such hubris. Be prepared for lots of space stuff.
Current Comics: The current Avengers run features a bloated roster that includes Captain America, Captain Marvel, the Hulk, Iron Man, Black Widow, Hawkeye, Spider-Man, Wolverine, the Falcon... basically everyone. New Avengers, meanwhile, follows the Illuminati, the Marvel universe braintrust comprised of Captain America, Mr. Fantastic, Dr. Strange, Iron Man, Black Bolt, Namor and Black Panther -- heroes who had clandestinely planned out a number of events within the shadows of the Marvel world.
Mighty Avengers, however, is a more ground-level comic dedicated to the defense of Earth while the main heroes are away. This team is comprised almost entirely of minorities, with the exception of Spider-Man (Marvel's most famous heroes have a penchant for being everywhere at once). This team consists of players like Luke Cage, White Tiger and Spectrum. Another team is the Secret Avengers, which to the black ops missions being run by S.H.I.E.L.D.. That roster consists of Nick Fury Jr., Hawkeye, Black Widow and Phil Coulson. In addition to the aforementioned Uncanny Avengers, there's also Avengers Undercover, which spotlights a very young group of heroes attempting to infiltrate the Masters of Evil, a follow-up to a previous storyline told in Avengers Arena, a more self-contained story. If you're just looking for brawls, the continuity-less Avengers Vs. X-Men series should whet your appetite for crossover mayhem.
If You're Looking Forward To Batman v Superman: Dawn of JusticeThe Movie: Not much is known, though the title certainly suggests a clash between the Man of Tomorrow and the Dark Knight. As established in the last movie, Superman is still finding his footing as a superhero, but Batman will be portrayed as a disillusioned crimefighter with years of experience. Wonder Woman also shows up.
The Movie's Inspiration: You'll be tempted to find some of the hundreds of comics that teamed Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman over their illustrious histories. Go crazy, as there's plenty to choose from. Of course, you might be upset that none of it has anything to do with current canon. The one Zack Snyder wants you to consider is The Dark Knight Returns, a Frank Miller graphic novel from the 80's where an embittered older Batman returns from retirement, and eventually matches wits with a completely compromised Superman employed by the government. It doesn't speak kindly to Superman's role in Batman V. Superman: Dawn Of Justice, though it's only said to be a very loose inspiration.
In 2011, DC Comics completely scrapped their various mythologies, timelines and alternate universes, beginning their entire superhero universe from scratch. Plausibly, this was to streamline the stories for easier consumption by casual fans, though some details suggested the company had a hard time letting go: apparently, a Batman that's only been fighting crime for five years has already gone through the same number of Robins as the classic version.
With this change - dubbed The New 52 - came more modified, even bold character choices, some of which the movies have yet to reconcile. Superman is a rambunctious younger fellow who has a first instinct to fight and impose his strict worldview on humans. Batman's a typically-intense, uptight veteran with a penchant for rudeness. At the very least, Wonder Woman has maintained much of her dignity. But the editorial mandate for these comics suggest that the stories needed an infusion of 'tude, and they definitely got it (catch the direct-to-DVD animated Justice League: War for another look at how these new characters are decidedly less cuddly).
The major changes to these characters include a relationship between Superman and Wonder Woman, eliminating the famous Clark Kent-Lois Lane union. The heroes are also not-at-all cooperative with fellow law enforcement agencies and are effectively outlaws, an antagonistic relationship that sometimes goes both ways. Recently, however, the characters were involved in a massive crossover event called Forever Evil that did a lot to bring the heroes up to speed with their original incarnations, if only in superficial ways. These are all epic multi-story arcs that could conceivably be visited in future Justice League movies as opposed to Batman V. Superman: Dawn Of Justice.
Current Comics: There are no shortage of Batman comics available at your local retailer. They include Batman, Batman: The Dark Knight, Batman And Robin and Detective Comics. Superman can be found in Action Comics, Superman, Superman Unchained, as well as Batman/Superman (exploring their early days together) and Superman/Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman also has her own title, and joins the three of them in the current Justice League run. In case you hadn't realized, these guys hang out a lot.