A friend of mine was trying to read Captain America when the story of Cap’s search for his long lost friend-turned-enemy, the Winter Soldier, was abruptly hijacked by a superhero Civil War. I told him the truth: in superhero comics, larger stories sometimes put other conflicts on hold. The Captain America comic returns to the Winter Soldier storyline, but not until Captain America and Iron Man have resolved their differences. My friend asked me what else he could expect. What other events has Marvel done, and are any of them worth reading? Something like 8,000 words later, I had an answer for him.
First, for the uninitiated, some vocabulary. The vast majority of comics, particularly superhero comics, are published as monthly issues. After a certain number of issues the comic will be collected in a trade paperback (sometimes just called a TPB or a trade). This guide is going to be dealing mainly with what are called Events. All of these events are currently available in trade, and some quick internet searching will lead you to them (although if saving money is your game, allow me to recommend In Stock Trades).
Events are supposed to be the big stories in the comic universe, kind of like the season finale for most TV shows. Events get published as their own comic series even if they involve characters who already have their own comics. In fact, events are a great way to see characters from vastly different corners of the comic universe interact. You want to know what would happen if Doctor Strange met the Punisher? An event is probably your best bet.
A lot of people will use the word crossover interchangeably with event. One slight technical distinction: an event is, in essence, a miniseries. A crossover is when two or more series tell a story that crosses between. The X-Men are crossing over with Spider-Man? You are going to have to pick up an issue of X-Men, then an issue of Spider-Man, then X-Men again and so on.
Some crossovers are events and some events have crossovers. But not always, and I promise it’s not as confusing as it sounds. What we are going to be looking at here is a history, that is by no means exhaustive, of Marvel events. The events tend to guide the various stories, but a lot of them aren’t very good. This will be a guide to what the events are about, if they are important to your understanding of Marvel comics and whether or not they are any good.
The Event: Contest of Champions (1982), written by Mark Gruenwald, with art by John Romita Jr. and Bob Layton.
What is it? Marvel’s first event ever! The Collector and the Grandmaster hold a tournament where heroes of Earth must compete for the pieces of the Golden Globe of Life.
What is it really? A bunch of superheroes you’ve heard of and a bunch you don’t get into some fisticShould I read it? Does being the first of something impress you? If so, then yes. Otherwise this event is somewhat inconsequential.
No really, should I read it? Eh. Old comics are often challenging for newer readers to get into, and this definitely qualifies. Much talkier than you would expect a book like this to be, and while a significant milestone, this book’s later imitators are far more interesting. It does introduce forgotten Irish superhero Shamrock though. Does that sound appealing? No? Then yeah, you can skip this one.
The Event: Secret Wars (1984) written by Jim Shooter, with art by Mike Zeck and Bob Layton.
What is it? The Beyonder, an all powerful entity, kidnaps the greatest heroes and villains of Marvel and forces them to fight to the death on Battleworld.
What is it really? The Beyonder, an all powerful plot device, kidnaps a pretty interesting lineup of Marvel heroes, and Magneto, to fight a very weird assortment of Marvel villains such as Dr. Doom, Galactus, Ultron and like, the Lizard. Amusingly, this turns out exactly as it would: Doom hacks Ultron, starts bossing around the wimpy Spider-Man villains and Galactus stands off to the side not caring about the fight at all.
Should I read it? It’s got about as much depth as a bunch of action figures getting smooshed together, and also literally was made to promote a line of action figures.
No really, should I read it? If you like superhero fights, you could do worse. The characters are all written pretty much in character, which is more than a lot of later events can claim. It’s a lot of fun watching Marvel heroes have to learn to work together for the first time. The villains are totally ridiculous, but they get a lot of page time, and if you don’t want to read pages of Dr. Doom giving monologues about his splendid superiority – maybe Marvel events aren’t going to be for you.
The Event: Secret Wars II (1986) by Jim Shooter.
What is it? More of a crossover than an event, Jim Shooter took over writing duties on various books to tell stories of the Beyonder guest starring in various books across the Marvel universe.
What is it really? The comic where Spider-Man teaches the Beyonder, now a weird god of disco, to poop.
Should I read it? The Beyonder is an often mentioned character in books across the Marvel universe. This is the first time he appears as more than a disembodied voice, and this is pretty much his definitive story.
No really, should I read it? It’s kind of a mixed bag. Some issues make the adjustment nicely, and some books totally get derailed and don’t work for whatever reason. It’s an amusing curiosity, but not a great read. Interestingly, the story behind how Secret Wars II came to be is far more entertaining.
The Event: Mutant Massacre (1986) written by Chris Claremont, Walt Simonson & Louise Simonson with art by John Romita Jr., Walt Simonson and Sal Buscema.
What is it? A crossover in all the X-Men books that were going on at that time: Uncanny X-Men, New Mutants and X-Factor. There are also some issues of Thor and Power Pack thrown in there.
What is it really? A crazy, brutal story about a savage gang of mutant mercenaries targeting innocent mutants, the Morlocks, who deserve to die for the crime of being mutants. The X-Men intervene and take horrible losses in the ensuing battle.
Should I read it? It’s X-Men written by some of the most classic X-writers ever. It contains a lot of classic moments, and shocking consequences that continue to be referenced in X-books today.
No really, should I read it? I find that 80s X-Men is an acquired taste, but this as good a starting point as any. If X-Men is a book you want to get into, this is considered a classic story. I’m personally a big fan of this story. There’s something nice about reading a 22 page comic issue for forty minutes. Claremont’s writing is particularly dense, and the pages get filled up with delightfully long narrative caption boxes.
The Event: Inferno (1988-1989), written by various classic X-Men writers, with art by various classic X-Men artists.
What is it? Another crossover of the X-Men books, a few years later. These crossovers sold really well back in the 80s, and new ones still do for the most part. Most of the same X-Men books were involved, particularly Uncanny X-Men, New Mutants and X-Factor. Special emphasis goes to X-Factor, which at the time was made up of the original five X-Men (Cyclops, Jean Grey, Beast, Iceman and Angel).
What is it really? New York is besieged by demons who are being led by Cyclops’s jilted ex-wife Madelyne Pryor (and let’s be clear: he was a massive unforgivable dick to her). Colossus’s sister Magik has a connection to these demons and, much to the distress of her team, the New Mutants, she joins the fight to stop them.
Should I read it? It’s those same classic X-Men writers as the Mutant Massacre, but now with Steve Englehart and Anne Nocenti, amongst others. It’s pretty epic in scope, and is X-Men soap opera at its soapiest.
No really, should I read it? We’re still talking X-Men in the 80s. This time, we also have to contend with the art of Marc Silvestri, one of the 80siest artists of the 80s (I recommend searching him up to see if he is to your taste). Another story considered to be a classic. Ask yourself: does the thought of Cyclops and Jean Grey having demonic relationship troubles sound awesome?
The Event: Acts of Vengeance (1989), written by everyone who wrote for Marvel in 1989 with art by pretty everyone who did art for Marvel at that time.
What is it? A supermassive crossover of pretty much every Marvel title.
What is it really? Loki is like, “Hey guys, what if instead of fighting against your regular heroes, who always beat you by the way, we all traded heroes for a day?” And the he organizes a big crossover event, presumably in lieu of organizing a supervillain Fantasy Baseball league. So now Punisher has to fight Dr. Doom and Daredevil has to fight Ultron and so on.
Should I read it? As with any crossover of this size, some issues are going to be gems, some are going to be awful and most are going to be fine.
No really, should I read it? It was pretty cool when Magneto attacked Red Skull, the Nazi scum! Also the first appearance of the most 90s of Marvel superteams, the New Warriors. It’s fine to skim through, but the omnibus is huge and expensive. Get this one from the library, or borrow it from a wealthy, comics-obsessed friend.
The Event: Infinity Gauntlet (1991), by Jim Starlin with art by George Perez and Ron Lim.
What is it? An event series about the most powerful beings in the Marvel universe grappling with the most powerful artifact in the Marvel universe- the Infinity Gauntlet!
What is it really? Thanos, that purple guy who shows up in Marvel movies all the time, in his most famous story. He assembles a magical glove by collecting the six magic gems, to gain ultimate power, and Adam Warlock and Doctor Strange and Silver Surfer and a bunch of other folks grab most of the Marvel superheroes to fight at the edge of the universe.
Should I read it? Well, there is definitely going to be a two-part, multi-million dollar movie being made that will borrow some themes and plot elements but then ultimately have little to do with this book. That do anything for you?
No really, should I read it? Some people really like testing out the edges of comic book universes and seeing the most powerful beings fight the other most powerful beings. It’s operatic comic book drama at its most extreme. It also features characters who seem to have importance to the movies Marvel is putting out. That’s important to some people too. Regarded as a classic Marvel story, I’ve always found it to be pretty harmless fun.
The Event: Maximum Carnage (1993), written by a whole bunch of Spider-Man writers of the 90s, with art by a whole bunch of artists.
What is it? A Spider-Man crossover focused on the most 90s of Spider-Man villains, the alien symbiotes.
What is it really? Carnage, the more murderous, redder offspring of Venom, grabs some other gooey, murderous villains and together they go on a killing spree across New York. Venom and Spider-Man are forced to team up to stop them.
Should I read it? The 90s were not known for being the most elegant periods of Marvel storytelling. Maximum Carnage is true to its name, and manages to be silly yet ugly. It’s very 90s flavored.
No really, should I read it? If the 90s are a style you like, this is sort of the epitome of the decade. Convoluted, not overly concerned with internal logic, violent and very inspired by the films of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sly Stallone. The story is best remembered by fans of obscure symbiote villains (like Shriek and Toxin. Oh, and Spidercide!) and fans of heroic duo Cloak and Dagger, who get a big part in the story.
The Event: Clone Saga (1994-1996), written by various Spider-Man writers including Terry Kavanagh, J.M. DeMatteis and Tom DeFalco, with art by dozens of artists.
What is it? The crossover to end all crossovers, lasting for years and taking over scores of issues of Spider-Man.
What is it really? It started when Marvel wanted to tell a big, twisty Spider-Man tale featuring a lesser known villain, the Jackal. The Jackal is all about making clone duplicates and does so- a lot. But then, Marvel noticed how well these issues were selling, and the story got dragged on and on and on just stapling plot twists onto their original story like M. Night Shyamalan trying coke for the first time. Twist after twist after twist.
Should I read it? No. It’s long, ugly nonsense. You never can shake the cynical feeling that the creators of this story were more interested in seeing how much money they could make from stretching this thing on and on and on. And on. It’s really long, and it drags.
No really, should I read it? Ugh, some important stuff happens here. The events of this story lead to some much more interesting stories down the road. This, along with another story that we’ll look at in a moment, were largely responsible for me quitting comics for many years. Tell you what, if you decide you really want to read the pretty cool Scarlet Spider series from 2012, read up on Clone Saga on Wikipedia.
The Event: Age of Apocalypse (1995-1996), written by some of the greats and some of the not so greats, including Scott Lobdell, Mark Waid, Fabian Nicieza, Terry Kavanagh, Warren Ellis, Howard Mackie and Jeph Loeb. Even more artists contributed, including Steve Epting, Andy Kubert, Salvador Larroca, Terry Dodson, Chris Bachalo and Tony Daniel, to name a few.
What is it? The X-Men crossover that makes Clone Saga look like the original Secret Wars. Seriously, this thing is a beast and every so often Marvel goes back to it and makes it even longer.
What is it really? OK, so Professor X has a son named Legion. Legion goes back in time to kill Magneto and prevent him from doing evil, but Legion is what my mother would call “a schlemazel” and he kills his father instead! The ensuing time paradox allows the rise of god-like X-Men villain Apocalypse. He promptly takes over the world and the story that transpires is about his oppressive rule, and the X-Men’s rebellion against it.
Should I read it? It’s pretty intimidating, and as with other sprawling crossovers, the quality is wildly mixed. It epitomizes 90s X-Men. Wolverine’s hand is a block of metal, Cyclops has a mullet, Magneto and Rogue get married.
No really, should I read it? If you don’t mind suffering through some weaker material, the strong stuff here is great. It’s really an epic tale of oppression and rebellion like Star Wars or the Hunger Games, but set on post-apocalyptic Earth and focusing on a vast range of characters from the X-Men universe, both popular and obscure. Despite taking place in its own alternate universe, certain characters have played big roles in the Marvel universe proper, including an terrifyingly evil version of Beast, a sword-fighting version of Nightcrawler who manages to be a pirate and a ninja, and the villain that wins the award for freakiest design in the history of the X-Men: the Sugar Man. Come for apocalyptic hijinx stay for the mullets.
The Event: Onslaught (1996), written by Scott Lobdell and Mark Waid and others, with art by Andy Kubert and others.
What is it? Sort of the series finale to the Marvel universe. A crossover and event series focusing on a villain so powerful it (temporarily) killed most heroes of the Marvel universe.
What is it really? Professor X gets so stressed out that he… combines? Merges? Fuses like a Crystal Gem? With Magneto. And together they turn into a red and purple psychic/magnetic monstrosity called Onslaught and then sort of stand around while heroes throw themselves at it, only to get murdered.
Should I read it? No, no, 100 times no. I first read the issues of this story as they were coming out when I was a kid. Even then I knew how bad this story was. This is it, the story so awful that I stopped reading comics for years.
No really, should I read it? Marvel filed for bankruptcy in 1996. I’m not saying this heinous storyline was the only reason for that, but read this and tell me you wouldn’t call it quits after putting together a comic like this. Fortunately, they bounced back, and now even stories that reference events of Onslaught do so in a way that assumes the readers haven’t subjected themselves to this sort of garbage.
The Event: Avengers Disassembled (2004), mainly written by Brian Michael Bendis with art by David Finch.
What is it? A crossover story about the end of the Avengers- forever (not really)!
What is it really? Scarlet Witch is having a really rough time of it, and loses her mind (it turns out the kids she was raising may have in fact been magical constructs that her powers plucked from her imagination, or from hell, or from who knows where… comics everyone!). In her moment of madness, she uses her probability powers to make a series of really horrible things happen to all her friends and loved ones.
Should I read it? It’s as dark as its premise makes it sound. There are some moments that do not read well in hindsight for whatever reason, my personal favorite being Dr. Strange, a master of chaos magic, dramatically shrieking “There’s no such thing as chaos magic!”
No really, should I read it? This story is is sort of the prologue to Marvel’s endless obsession with event stories. This one will lead directly into the next event and with a few exceptions, continue in an unbroken chain for the next ten years. Despite a few off-color beats, there’s a lot to like here. It’s very talky, as Bendis books tend to be, and nearly all of the big death scenes were undone within a few years, but there’s some real shocks and drama to be found.
The Event: House of M (2005), written by Brian Michael Bendis with art by Olivier Coipel.
What is it? The true beginning of the age of endless Marvel event stories, many of which are spearheaded by Brian Michael Bendis.
What is it really? Scarlet Witch, just coming off of Avengers Disassembled, rewrites reality so that Magneto is king of the world, mutants are the ruling class and humans are subservient. Wolverine becomes the only hero to remember the previous reality and has to assemble Earth’s mightiest to restore things to how they should be.
Should I read it? The ending shaped the next 10 years of X-Men comics with 3 simple words. The story itself is alright, the big superhero fights a little muddled. If the premise sounded intriguing to you, it definitely delivers.
No really, should I read it? Really, it was the tie-in issues that made the story for me. There was a fascinating arc of Spider-Man stories, interesting shenanigans for some of the less beloved X-kids such as Dust and Jubilee and a perfect issue of Captain America, exploring what would have happened if Magneto had ended WWII early, and Cap had never been frozen. The story shows the decades of a life where Cap aged normally and went up against Senator Joseph McCarthy.
The Event: Civil War (2006-2007), written by Mark Millar with art by Steve McNiven.
What is it? Marvel’s first attempt at an event so widespread, that just about every title they were publishing spends multiple crossover issues dedicated to one huge storyline. When issues of the central series, Civil War, were delayed, it started a chain reactions delaying dozens of comics from across Marvel’s line.
What is it really? After a supervillain kills a lot of people (like they do), Iron Man decides that the only solution is for powered people (including very skilled people, such as Hawkeye), must register their secret identity with the government. Failing to do comply leads to them being locked up with no trial in an extra-dimensional gulag. Captain America thinks that this is stupid, that people who risk their lives for others should not be beholden to any oversight except to those of their superpowered peers. The series oscillates between Bush-administration-era political monologues and some good old fashioned superhero punching.
Should I read it? This is the definitive Marvel event. It defined the structure, had had dozens and dozens of tie-in issues. These range from the excellent (She-Hulk, Black Panther, Captain America) to the exciting (Wolverine, Thunderbolts, Fantastic Four) to the really boring (most of the X-Men stuff). The main series has implications that affect most Marvel series moving forward.
No really, should I read it? Marvel really thinks you should. They’ve made movies and video games banking on Civil War, as if it was a really good idea. And you know what? It is. Seeing families like the Fantastic Four split right down the middle is good drama. It just is. But the original comic series never really gets there. Sure, a lot of the tie-ins use the theme to great effect, but Mark Millar never seems interested in the emotional consequences for these characters. There are things to like in this series, the core idea is excellent, but the comic itself falls just short of being the classic that Marvel insists it must be.
The Event: Annihilation (2006-2007), written mostly by Keith Giffen but with notable issues written by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning (more on them in a minute). Art by Andrea Di Vito and Scott Kollins, as well as others.
What is it? A huge epic story, meant to revitalize Marvel’s Sci-Fi and outer space properties, many of which had laid dormant for many years. This is the series that eventually leads to the formation of the Guardians of the Galaxy, of movie fame.
What is it really? Annihilus, an evil, alien, insectoid tyrant from another dimension, commands an army of bug aliens- a lot of bug aliens- to invade the Marvel Universe. Characters often portrayed as villains, such as Ronan the Accuser and Super Skrull, must work together to save all life. These alliances are tense, uncertain and politically fraught. A small band of heroes, including Nova, Gamora, Star-Lord, Phyla-Vell and Drax the Destroyer, form bonds that will become the Guardians of the Galaxy.
Should I read it? Did you like the Guardians of the Galaxy movie? This comic is nothing like that, but it is a space opera so epic, it makes Star Wars look tiny by comparison. The writers didn’t know if they were going to write a follow-up, so they threw everything they had at this huge story. Thanos has a big part to play, along with Silver Surfer, Galactus and the truly scary space demon, the Fallen One.
No really, should I read it? Giffen’s writing is not to everybody’s taste, but I unabashedly love this series. As huge as the conflict is, the story never loses sight of the main group of heroes, most of whom go from small time space rogue to grizzled, war-veteran badass. This is not only one of my favorite Marvel space war stories, it’s also one of my favorite team ups. If you feel like not enough changes in superhero comics, this is a cool book to check out; nobody ends the story quite where they started it, and despite developments being ignored by the occasional writer (such as Brian Michael Bendis), it made lasting changes to the status quo.
Stay tuned for Part 2, where we’ll see these changes in action and look at some popular favorites.