If you’re even a passing fan of the Marvel Universe, you know Avengers: Endgame opens April 26.
Word on the web is that someone’s not going to survive the epic battle with Thanos, the badass who used the Infinity Gauntlet to ice half the living creatures in the universe, including a hefty number of our Marvel heroes.
Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man are said to be the top contenders for biting the dust, chiefly because the actors playing them have expiring contracts and/or want out of the franchise.
Don’t fret, dear reader. However that all plays out, there’s a way for you to keep the stories – or at least some version of them – alive on your bookshelf.
Here’s a look at a (relatively) inexpensive way you can keep the stories alive in print, how I discovered them, and what differences you can expect between the films and the books.
Comic Book Nostalgia Sells
As anyone who grew up reading Marvel books in the Bronze Age of Comics (1970-85) can tell you, an interest in superhero stories isn’t something you outgrow so much as it is something that assumes a different form as you grow older.
The need for story – heroes and heroines to root for, villains and evil plots to be foiled, gut-wrenching decisions to be made and epic battles to be fought – that need sticks with you for life. You just consume it in different forms, such as music, sports, online games, other types of books, movies, and, of course, home-renovation shows on cable.
I’m betting that people in positions of power in the film industry had more than a passing interest in comics some 40 years ago. The Bronze Age was arguably the last great era of commercial comic book publishing.
The Avengers, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, and most of the other blockbusters of the 40-plus film and television series Marvel Universe (your Captain Americas, Dr. Stranges, Iron Mans, Ms. Marvels, Thors, and Ant-Mans), you could argue, are based largely on the Avengers books or the characters and storylines that appeared in them from the late 1970s.
Yes, Marvel’s print rendition of the collected Infinity Gauntlet saga first surfaced in 1991, and it drew in virtually all Marvel characters. And, yes, the last two Avengers films draw heavily from it. But the thread running through all the blockbuster Marvel films predates that series.
In fact, the central issue of Captain America: Civil War first plays out in the pages of Avengers No. 168, “First Blood,” as part of “The Korvac Saga” storyline.
Government agent Henry Peter Gyrich gives the team an option: tighten up its roster and improve the security of Avengers Mansion or lose its favored status with the government. Sound familiar, Captain America: Civil War fans?
To be clear, not all Marvel Universe films trace their storylines to the Bronze Age Avengers.
The exceptions, of course, are the Sony-owned X-Men films, the early ‘00s Spider-Man reboots, the Deadpool films, Ghost Rider, Punisher, and the various Fantastic Four films (those released and still in the can) have separate origins.
The Bronze Age roots of some of those flicks is a topic for another time.
Why Marvel Films Appeal to Fans of a Certain Age
Maybe your kids, like mine, have no real interest in the Marvel Universe films. Around here, watching the films are ways to spend a little time with the old man, now that we’ve hung up year-round soccer and reclaimed our weekends.
They don’t really get how I’m drawn to these stories. Maybe it’s the interwebs, or bad parenting, or both.
A more literary explanation of the stories’ appeal might be that I was drawn to the flawed characters, their otherness, and sometimes-intricate storylines. Or that the books offered an escape from the shouts of your parents, the taunts of your siblings, or the silence that only the truly lonely can hear.
It was just plain fun to go up to your room and get lost in a fight that you knew that your hero was going to win, somehow, some way.
Truth is, I was attracted to the art. By the time I discovered the Fantastic Four books, the artists George Perez and John Buscema were on the job. I found their work far more interesting than the work of say, Jack Kirby or Rich Buckler. (No blasphemy intended.) The action, the emotion, the use of color got a hold on me.
Every month, I’d find my way to the corner store and crouch for what seemed like hours, thumbing through the huge stacks of books for sale, looking for Perez or Buscema’s work.
In the process, I discovered other books and artists. Soon enough I was a sucker for the work of Sal Buscema, John’s brother who drew Conan the Barbarian and Captain America. Then came John Romita (Spider-Man), John Romita Jr. (Iron Man, the Uncanny X-Men), and John Byrne (the Uncanny X-Men, the Fantastic Four).
How hooked was I? I subscribed to three titles, arriving by U.S. Mail on Tuesdays. I even saved up my paper route money to buy a hardcopy edition of How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way (1978), by Stan Lee and John Buscema. That book was simply a must-have for any respectable 12-year-old who aspired to be a comic artist.
The presence of the How to Draw book terrified my parents. Mom was a nurse and dad a cop. Both tolerated the drawings I shared, but they silently brooded over how to tell me there was no way in hell their kid was going to run off to New York to become a comic book artist. We never needed to have that conversation, of course. But it is a bit of a wonder to me how that battered old book made its way back into my hands.
The book is back in print, and you can find it on Amazon and elsewhere. The web being the web, you can find clips on YouTube from a 1986 video cassette demonstrating the lessons of the book. Buscema does his magic and Stan Lee lays on the cheese, as you might expect.
Thanks to advances in film technology, along with exercise, nutrition, and costuming gains for actors, images on the screen resemble the art of the original books. Those really are your heroes up on the screen. They may not be exactly as you remember them. But they certainly are close enough.
Stan Lee Selling Marvel Nostalgia in Real Time
I lost track of my piles of comics sometime after high school. Ever since, on the odd chance that I came across a collector selling their wares, I got a firm reminder of why I’m not in the hobby. Last spring, I came across Marvel Two-in-One issue No. 42, featuring the Thing and Captain America, which I bought for 30 or 35 cents back in the day. In 2018, it was selling for $40.
That sort of market pricing can make you content to still have on your shelf original paperback editions of perhaps Marvel’s first stab at marketing nostalgia. Stan Lee always was a salesman, and he saw a market for readers who weren’t around for the earliest Marvel books.
So he cranked out Origins of Marvel Comics (1974), Son of Origins (1975), Bring on the Bad Guys (1976), The Superhero Women (1977), and Marvel’s Greatest Superhero Battles (1978).
These books pulled together the origin stories of Marvel’s most popular characters. In most cases, they reprinted the birth story of the hero, accompanied by a more recent story from the title. So Origins, for example, reprints the pages of Journey Into Mystery (1962) wherein Dr. Donald Blake discovers Thor’s hammer in a cave in Norway. That’s paired with a more recent story from The Mighty Thor title itself, published in 1967.
Lee sets up each story with a bit of background on how and why the character came to be. Oddly enough, Lee’s prose is as interesting as the comics, in a wonderfully dated sort of way. For example, in The Superhero Women, the Ms. Marvel character (rebranded as Captain Marvel for 2019), was created to dovetail with the equal rights for women movement in our culture at the time.
Culturally sensitivity? Crass commercialism? You decide.
Keeping the Stories Alive through Marvel Masterworks
With a little research, you can track back to the stories you read as a kid. Marvel Masterworks is a line of hard-cover and trade paperback books that reprint the original stories on glossy paper that won’t disintegrate as easily as the old newsprint used to create the original books.
The Marvel Masterworks line, which has an interesting history of its own, presents titles in 10-book batches. The series has a database page, but it might not be as meaty or up-to-date as you might like. You can find Masterworks titles on Amazon and eBay, in chain bookstores, Newbury Comics and other comics shops, and even in some second-hand stores, like Bull Moose Music and Books in Maine.
I first discovered the books in 2014, when I wandered into Midtown Comics Times Square, at 200 West 40th Street in New York. That, as you might imagine, was a little like a problem gambler sober 30 years wandering onto the Strip in Vegas. I spent a few bucks, sure. But it could have been a lot worse!
A Lot of Similarities, But a Lot of Differences Too
One-time and once-again Marvel Comics fans will notice a lot of differences between the heroes they see on the screen and the ones you find in the books. All for the better, I’d say.
The most obvious of these is that SHIELD honcho Nick Fury is played by Samuel L. Jackson.
Which, Marvel True Believers will agree, explains Fury’s absence in Captain America: The First Avenger. In that film, Dum Dum Dugan – not Sgt. Fury – led the Howlin’ Commandos in World War II. A fair tradeoff in the effort to present more ethnically diverse characters.
You’ll also find far more, far better developed female characters in the films than you will in the books. Perhaps the biggest change on that front is the presentation of Captain Marvel as a woman.
And then there is the what-the-hell-is-this level of change. As a Bronze Age fan, I had no knowledge of the changes from the 1990s. And so I dismissed the Guardians of the Galaxy film franchise out of hand. Yondu as a trash-talking gangster? No Vance Astro? No Nikki? No Charlie-27?
But that changed in Avengers: Infinity War. That’s when the unabashed fun of these wise-cracking, oddball characters caught my eye, and the blend of humor and pathos in the Guardian films made for a fun time. The appearance of Charlie-27 and Martinex in Volume II didn’t hurt, either.
At the risk of heresy, I’d say the Marvel Universe films are better than the books in three essential ways.
The movies are a lot more fun. One big part of the charm of the movies are the well-timed winks to the audience that they’re experiencing a superhero movie. From a writer’s perspective, it’s nothing short of amazing to follow how the movie storylines intertwine and build off each other — much like they did in the books from the 70s.
The characters have far more depth. The very fact that we know and use the characters’ given names is a nod to the Marvel tradition of humanizing its super-beings.
- Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark is far more compelling than the earnest, righteous (and alcoholic) Stark of the 1970s comics. Downey’s interpretation embodies a nice balance of a smartest-guy-in-the-room, rich-boy douche and an earnest, self-aware guy who knows he’s been given a second chance at life.
- Chris Helmsworth’s Thor is human – and very funny – on a level that Stan Lee or Larry Lieber never really achieved with all their thou arts/I say thee nays. Helmsworth’s Thor, especially early on, seems closer to the petulant, fight-first-think-later Thunder God from the Norse myths. He eventually matures, but it’s fun to watch his transformation.
- And Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff? Thank the stars that producers didn’t stick to the Marvel superheroine template here. (Highly emotional, relatively easy to defeat, and usually held hostage to lure heroes into the villain’s lair.) And their dialogue? Pretty cringy. Johansson’s interpretation fleshes out Romanoff’s dark side, her strength of will, and her sense of humor. Plus, her history with Jeremy Renner’s Clint Barton, closeness to Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers, and connection with Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner leaves you guessing.
Avengers Fans Assemble
Story is a central tenant of the content marketing and copywriting world. People are building lucrative careers on teaching others how to understand our species’ primal need to communicate – and how to use it to sell stuff. I work daily on improving my own ability to use story in a business setting – even as I wrestle with it.
Sure, these Avengers flicks are gargantuan moneymakers, and they generate in you a need to order your limited-edition 55-gallon plastic cup of soda, or to follow Rocket Racoon in Instagram.
But for all the special effects, wisecracks, and how’d-they-do-that moments, they also offer you a chance to enjoy entertainment in its purest form, ideally with a roomful of others who want the same thing. For the next few hours, you can stop thinking in terms of audience avatars, headlines, stages of awareness, customer pain points, and benefits of your clients’ solutions.
The comic books, hardbound and printed on glossy paper notwithstanding, do the same thing. They can take you back to a time when stories were just stories, adventures were just adventures, and entertainment simply entertained.
I’ve got a full week of commercial storytelling ahead of me, and I’m thankful for that. But come April 26, I’ll be lining up for my movie ticket. And there’s an outside chance that the Infinity Gauntlet saga will be on its way to my door, in one form or another.
And you can, too.