Disney+ is hard at work on a slew of shows set in the MCU that expand on existing characters (WanadaVision, Hawkeye) and introduce new ones (Moon Knight, She Hulk). With most of these shows years away (or longer. Thanks, COVID) I thought I’d recommend the comic runs that inspired them, and the best stories to read if you want to familiarise yourself with the characters before their streaming debuts.
Every recommendation here is short (no 200-issue runs, I promise), beloved by fans and critics alike, and don’t require you to have read anything else about the characters beforehand. Never read a comic in your life? This might be a good place(s) to start.
Vision (2015-16) 1-12 by Tom King, Gabriel Hernandez Walta
The definitive work on the Avengers’ resident red robot is an Eisner-winner that inspired a New Yorker thinkpiece, and is a tonal touchstone for Disney+’s upcoming WanadaVision. Tom King’s miniseries sees Vision create an android family (wife Virginia, daughter Viv, and son Vic) and settle down in white-picket suburbia to try and become more human.
What unfolds is less a superhero story than an intimately devastating family tragedy that interweaves Vision’s history with themes of free-will and humanity
Issue 5 explains Vision’s reasoning with the P=NP computing principle: When tackling a problem that would require near-endless trial-and-error to solve (NP, in this case becoming human), a computer will instead create a shortcut (P, Vision’s new family) instead.
What unfolds is less a superhero story than an intimately devastating family tragedy that interweaves Vision’s history with themes of free-will and humanity, discrimination and the Other, and self-fulfilling prophecy.
King’s distinctive, blunt dialogue and multiple narrators perfectly match Walta’s stage-play blocking and garish fairytale colours, together conveying the contrast between the book’s cheerful, mundane exterior and the crumbling darkness underneath.
Hawkeye (2012-15) 1-22 by Matt Fraction, David Aja
The inspiration for his Disney+ show (they even have the same logo!), this series explores Clint Barton’s downtime between Avenger-ing, defending his apartment block from the local Tracksuit Mafia and other NYC crime bosses (hi, Kingpin).
This Clint is a far cry from Jeremy Renner’s stoic family man; a barely-functioning smartass held together by stitches and too much coffee: The kind of guy who calls in Iron Man to untangle his chargers, and names the dog he accidentally adopted ‘Pizza Dog’ (PD gets a whole issue written from his perspective – it’s great).
Man, the MCU failed Clint Barton.
Clint’s protégé, Kate Bishop, (also coming to Disney+, possibly played by Hailee Steinfeld) is also basically a secondary lead, with solo adventures and a rapport with Barton sharper than an arrowhead.
Aja’s striking pop-art style and limited, purple-hued colour pallet give the book a distinct look, letting him focus on interesting layouts and easy-to-follow action.
If you want more…
Hawkeye (2016-18) 1-16 by Kelly Thompson, Leonardo Romero
Kate Bishop’s solo series as a Los Angeles P.I. (Jessica Jones team up!) feels like a spiritual successor to the Fraction/Aja run. Light and witty with phenomenal art, it digs into Kate’s past and, in my opinion, characterises her better than her Fraction/Aja solo adventures. Unfortunately, the series was cancelled early, but it still ends well with Clint visiting for the finale.
Moon Knight (2014) 1-6 by Warren Ellis, Declan Shalvey
“Mercenary Marc Spector died in Egypt, under a statue of the ancient deity Khonshu. He returned to life in the shade of the moon god, and wore his aspect to fight crime for his own redemption. He went completely insane, and disappeared.
This is what happened next.”
Marvel’s most unhinged hero, Moon Knight is basically Batman with multiple personalities, and his stories are fascinating explorations of the line between sanity and insanity, reality and fantasy.
Think Marvel does Fight Club: Each of Marc’s identities (Khonshu, Moon Knight, or Mr. Knight) represents a different aspect of his persona – detective, violent crusader, silent watcher- and has a distinct costume (Mr Knight cuts a dashing figure in his white 3-piece).
Ellis’ run is lauded as Moon Knight’s best- six gritty standalone adventures drastically different from each-other (serial killers! Punk-rock ghosts! Shared nightmares!) that deftly interweave character beats and lore. Look out for issue 5, a ‘The Raid’-like action spectacle that sees Mr Knight saving a young girl from an apartment block full of enemies
Shalvey’s art balances horror, psychedelic dream-vistas and Spector himself, drawn completely without colour. Forget disappearing into the shadows; Moon Knight wants you to know he’s coming.
If you want more…
Moon Knight (2016) 1-14 by Jeff Lemire, Greg Smallwood
Marc wakes up in an asylum with no powers and a lifetime’s worth of medical records, throwing his whole identity(ies) into question. Is he really just crazy?
Smallwood’s sparse panels and striking use of blacks creates iconic images lost in white space.
A story of psychosis, self-control and free will, this is a perfect follow-up to Ellis’ work. Lemire introduces you to more of Moon Knight’s supporting cast and delves deeper into his psyche by giving each of Marc’s personas (Steven Grant the millionaire, Jake Lockley the taxi driver) their own stories.
The run climaxes by examining Marc’s childhood traumas via some insane non-sequential storytelling and trippy visuals. Smallwood’s sparse panels and striking use of blacks creates iconic images lost in white space.
She Hulk (2014) 1-12 by Charles Soule, Javier Pulido
Attorney Jennifer Walters was transformed into She Hulk by a life-saving blood transfusion from her cousin, Bruce Banner. Though not as strong as the Hulk, Jen retains her intelligence and playful wit, so she prefers to stay green-skinned 24/7.
Charles Soule’s widely-acclaimed run sees Jen balancing her superhero career with starting her own legal practice. Over its twelve issues she represents Captain America and Doctor Doom’s son, teams up with Patricia Walker (AKA Hellcat) and does legal battle with Matt Murdock (AKA Daredevil).
Soule is a practicing attorney, and his expertise lends the courtroom drama an air of gripping reality, as he explores the many problems with America’s legal system with frustrated honesty. The writing is clever, sharply observed and funny to boot, while Pulido’s art fits Jen’s personality like a glove, eschewing the ‘photoreal’ uncanny valley for bright, pop-art flair.
If you want more…
Dan Slott’s take on Jennifer was so popular it survived cancellation.
Slott embraces the character’s self-aware, fourth-wall breaking history (Jen did it before Deadpool) more than Soule
Unlike Bruce, Jen loves being a Hulk. Unfortunately, her party-animal lifestyle gets her kicked out of Avengers Mansion. Slott uses her new job as a superhuman lawyer, which forces her to spend more time in human form, to examine the dichotomy between the brash, free-wheeling She-Hulk and her buttoned-down lawyer alter ego.
Slott embraces the character’s self-aware, fourth-wall breaking history (Jen did it before Deadpool) more than Soule, acknowledging She-Hulk’s origins in the ‘female spin-off of a male character’ trope (Supergirl, Batgirl, She-Ra). The book gleefully skewers the tropes and convolutions of continuity that often stop new readers jumping into comics.
I’m recommending the first half of Slott’s run, collected here, because the second, while still good, features a love triangle and a recurring storyline about Thanos’ brother Starfox facing sexual misconduct allegations, which feels a little icky. Slott is at his best with wacky, outlandish plots. Wanna see Spider-man sue the Daily Bugle for defamation? A time-travelling cowboy?
Judging by the writers Disney’s hired and hints from Slott himself, this is what Shulkie’s Disney+ show will feel like.
Featured Image courtesy of Miika Laaksonen via Unsplash.
Other Images courtesy of marvelstudios via Instagram.
Video courtesy of Marvel Entertainment via YouTube