Hugh Jackman in ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’/Still © Alan Markman/Twentieth Century Fox
It may seem hard to believe, but not that long ago (the mid-nineties) films adapted from comic books were pretty nonexistent (blame George Clooney). But since Hollywood discovered that the general movie-going public (and not just comic book fans) will actually pay to see characters and storylines from comics on the big screen, the major studios have been putting out movies about superheroes or based on graphic novels like mad.
This summer, it's more prevalent than ever, with more than half a dozen comic book movies hitting theaters. Already, we've seen a Captain America sequel bust up the box office and the second entry in the new Spider-Man franchise rising to the number one worldwide spot. There's also a new X-Men movie, one that joins the casts of the mutant superhero team's two separate film franchises (the "X-Men" trilogy from the early 2000s and 2011's "X-Men: First Class").
But before you head to the multiplex, you might want to head to the comic book shop and check out the source material. For Ted Alexander, the manager of the downtown location of New York's Midtown Comics - a retailer whose multiple locations and online sales make it the largest seller of comic books in the United States - film-inspired interest in the books is nothing new.
"I get questions like that quite a bit," says Alexander. "Something like 'The Avengers' happens and the type of person you wouldn't expect in a comic book shop will come in and ask me, 'Where do these guys come from? Where do they go from here?'" He adds: "It seems the more movies come out, the busier the store gets." And while it may seem intimidating to neophyte readers of comics to jump into an ongoing series, Alexander is confident that even someone with little to no comic book reading experience can pick up a graphic novel or volume of collected issues.
"With the graphic novels these days," he explains, "they're all pretty much centered around whole storylines, so you're not just picking up a random comic and being stuck in the middle of a [story]. Any paperback [of collected issues] is pretty much a self-contained story."
So with that in mind, here's a rundown of what to read in relation to this summer's comic book movies.
SEE: "Captain America: Winter Soldier"
An originally deliberate pro-American superhero from World War II, Steve Rogers, AKA Captain America, isn't a likely popular film character in this day and age, but he's proven to be one of strongest members in Marvel's movie universe. Capt's second solo film, which pretty much kicked off this year's superhero film season in April, did well with both critics and audiences.
READ: Winter Soldier
According to Ted Alexander, the movie is adapted from a popular (and rather recent) Captain America storyline with the first appearance of the titular former Soviet super assassin. "Oddly enough, it's called the Winter Soldier," Alexander says with a laugh. "There's two volumes, but because of the movie Marvel's been really good about releasing all of the Winter Soldier stuff - so there's a bigger volume that encompasses that whole storyline. It's a little different from the movie, but if you want to know more about the Winter Soldier that's where he's introduced."
SEE: "The Amazing Spider-Man 2"
Probably the only thing noteworthy of Sony's rebooted "Spider-Man" franchise is the series' heavy focus on Peter Parker/Spider-Man's relationship with Gwen Stacy (often cited as his first love, before he dated Mary Jane Watson), who played a pivotal role in some of Spider-Man's most well-known and important character-building story arcs from the 1970s.
READ: Death of the Stacys
"There's a trade out there called Death of the Stacys," Alexander says, who notes it includes the momentous spidey story arcs featuring the demises of key Stacy family members. "The thing about that is that it shows the comics where they're dying but it doesn't show the relationship that he had with Gwen. There are a couple like the Marvel Masterworks [an imprint that publishes collections of issues from close Marvel comic book titles] that have been out and reproduce Spider-Man's first 100 issues and they're a good place to pick up the Gwen storyline."
SEE: "X-men: Days of Future Past"
Undoubtedly a landmark that played a major role in kicking off the last decade and a half of superhero films, Bryan Singer's "X-Men" and "X2" built one of the first comic book film franchises (we're choosing to ignore Brett Ratner's "X-Men: The Last Stand"). The upcoming sequel ties together the original trilogy (which wrapped up back in 2006) with 2011's prequel, "X-Men: First Class," through one of the comic book's most well regarded storylines.
READ: The Uncanny X-Men
"Marvel Comics is smart ... when a movie's coming out, they reprint the collection," Alexander notes. "But Days of Future Past has always been a collection that's been widely available and pretty popular."
The original Days of Future Past storyline was published under The Uncanny X-Men and featured beloved character Kitty Pryde (played by Ellen Page in the films) traveling back from a dystopian future, where mutants are threatened by mass genocide, to her teenage body in the then-present day of the early 1980s. Although, like most film adaptations, things get changed for the big screen - the past time period in the film is the early 1970s and its Hugh Jackman's Wolverine that travels back there.
"I'm not a big fan of that," Alexander admits. "I think they switched it because Wolverine's a more popular character ... and unfortunately Kitty doesn't get her shining moment."
Former pro wrestler-turned-actor Dwayne Johnson has a habit of turning up in big-budget summer action flicks, so much so that he was named the top grossing actor of 2013. So it should come as no surprise that his first big star vehicle is an adaptation of a comic book, although it's one based on a mythical character, Hercules.
READ: Hercules: The Thracian Wars
"Hercules is one of those public domain characters, so there's lots of Hercules books out there," says Alexander. In this case, Johnson's Hercules is based on Hercules: The Thracian Wars, which was published by independent comics publisher Radical Publishers and focuses on the ancient Greek hero after his mythical trials and as he trains the Thracian army for a war. The volume seems to be out of print at the moment, but it should be back in comic book shops soon. "I'm sure closer to the movie, they'll release something," says Alexander.
SEE: "Guardians of the Galaxy"
Probably the most surprising of all Marvel film projects to come along since the comics publisher cum Hollywood studio hit its hot streak of the last few years, the "Guardians of the Galaxy" film appears to be more centered around the relaunch of the comic title from 2008 than the 1969 original.
READ: Guardians of the Galaxy: The Complete Collection Vol. 1
"The Guardians were introduced forty odd years ago and they had a different lineup than they have now," Alexander explains. "But recently with the comics, they put together this team, which is pretty popular and is basically like the space Avengers."
Although a graphic novel trade volume collecting the first twelve issues from the relaunch has circulated in previous years, a reprinting, entitled Guardians of the Galaxy: The Complete Collection Vol. 1 is set to be released in early August.
SEE: "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles"
For pretty much anyone who is familiar with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, their knowledge of franchise (which is getting a live action reboot with Megan Fox and "Transformers" director Michael Bay producing) is due to the insanely popular cartoon show and toy line in the late eighties and early nineties. But the characters actually originated as an independent comic book with a serious tone.
READ: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Ultimate Collection
"It's super dark," Alexander admits. In fact, the turtles started out as a joke between two struggling comic books creators, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, thanks to an already established superhero. "You know Daredevil was blinded by toxic waste, which also gave him his powers? Well, the turtles are supposedly made from that same toxic waste," explains Alexander. "It was kind of like a goof and they start wondering what happened after the ooze hit Daredevil in the eyes. And they had it hit some turtles who turned into super assassins and it just turned into kids toys and cartoons, which is pretty crazy."
The early volumes featuring Eastman and Laird's original anthropomorphic amphibian martial artists are still available, usually titled as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Ultimate Collection. But for those with a preference for the kid-friendly turtles they grew up with, Alexander says there are other TMNT comic book options. "There are titles out with comic art that feels like the cartoon," he explains.
SEE: "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For"
Frank Miller is a legend in the comic book world. A two-talented threat as both a writer and an artist, Miller is pretty much credited with reviving Batman as pop culture icon with his four-issue 1986 miniseries and later graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns. After a disappointing run at screenwriting for the studios, Miller spent most of the nineties writing and drawing his neo-noir comic Sin City, which uses interconnected characters and plots to explore a crime-plagued and corrupt American metropolis. The Sin City "yarns" (as they're called by aficionados) make up seven trade paperback volumes. Director Robert Rodriguez straightforwardly adapted a few into "Sin City" in 2005 (so much so that he gave Miller a co-director credit) and is set to do it again with this year's sequel, along with what are reportedly a couple original stories by Miller for the movie.
READ: Sin City
"The original 'Sin City' borrowed from other volumes in no real order and made them into one single movie," says Alexander. "Dark Horse [Sin City's publisher] has done a great job of reprinting all of them in the nice smaller volumes." And while Alexander admits that readers can pick up one volume and read it on its own, he warns that they won't be able to appreciate bigger picture of the comic without reading all of them. "You have to read the whole thing," he says.
SEE: "The Avengers: Age of Ultron"
There's no debate about it: The Avengers was THE comic book movie of 2012. It was the pinnacle of Marvel's interconnected film universe with the lead characters from several hit superhero movies teaming up together in one big movie. It would go on to earn over a billion dollars and ranks as the third-highest-grossing-film of ALL time. So of course there's going to have to be sequel - and it's coming at us in summer 2015. Although still in production, the already released title of "The Avengers: Age of Ultron" reveals that the superhero team will be taking on the robot villain Ultron from the comics. And while the subtitle is the same as last year's ten-issue mini-series (which was just released as a graphic novel), early reports indicate that the film won't be an adaptation of that storyline.
READ: Marvel Masterworks The Avengers Vol. 6 & 7
For Alexander, an Avengers film dealing with Ultron that's not directly taking the plot from Age of Ultron makes sense. "It's kind of like the end of Ultron's life," he explains. "You don't see any of his beginning or how he was created and Ultron is basically a background character through the whole book until the last couple chapters." If readers are interested in seeing the origin of Ultron, Alexander recommends they check out trades that collect classic Avengers issues, Marvel Masterworks The Avengers Vol. 6 & 7 are probably the best places to start. Also, the 2001 graphic novel Avengers: Ultron Unlimited.