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20 must-grab digital Marvel Comics

Marvel's promoting free first issues of its comics. Please allow our comics steward, Andy Ihnatko, to make some recommendations.

At last, the long-anticipated Marvel 700 Make-Good Promotion has begun, and hundreds of thousands of comics fans--both the newly-minted and long-suffering kinds--can lower their heads into a trough of free comics and snorkel up as many as they wish.

You'll recall that a month ago, Marvel attempted to make 700 different #1 issues--including books as old as Fantastic Four Volume 1 Number 1 and as recent as the "Marvel Now" relaunch of late 2012--available for free for a few days.

I completed my own five-finger discounting by the end of the first day of the original promotion. But as word spread, the strain on Comixology's infrastructure multiplied, and eventually Red Cross vans were dispatched to the scene of the disaster to distribute thick coffee and hot blankets to the company's servers."

The "make good" offer includes the same 700 #1 issues. But this time, users had to sign up in advance and wait to be issued a specific time slot in which to access the service and make their selections. If you missed the window, you are unfortunately out of luck for now... but even at back-catalog prices, some of these first issues make great jumping-on points. Or you can read many of them via Marvel Unlimited if you're a subscriber. And if you did sign up, here are the twenty Must-Grab Marvels from the promotion.

Fantastic Four

If you're a comic book fan, you've probably already seen Fantastic Four Volume 1 #1 a hundred times. I sure have. Every time it's reprinted, I'm just checking the scene where Reed Richards starts stretching, to see if they fixed the coloring error on his hands. That doesn't mean you shouldn't own a digital copy. As with any classic book, you keep pulling it down off the shelf. "Fantastic Four #1" remains an impressive template for getting a whole new and alien world launched and running in as few pages as possible.

But when's the last time you read Fantastic Four Annual #1? This was probably Silver Age Marvel's first epic: The Sub-Mariner takes his revenge on the surface world in full widescreen, summer blockbuster fashion. And there's also a Kirbyized version of Spider-Man's first encounter with the FF, plus loads of bonus material.

Closer to the modern age, I'm glad to see "Fantastic Four: Isla De La Muerte" in the freebie pile. It's a one-shot written by the consistently-strong Tom Beland, writer and artist of "True Story: Swear To God" (a comic eminently worth paying for). As a writer, Beland's strength is in depicting relationships and intimacy; any story of his about Marvel's First Family can't help but win. Here, the team tries to figure out why The Thing keeps his vacation plans secret every year.

It's accurate to say that I'm not pleased with Marvel has done with--see, I almost wrote "to"--the team in the past few years. Reed Richards is a total jerk and borderline evil, Sue Storm is Superman, and their daughter is Stewie from "Family Guy." I've no idea why.

But I can't help but love "FF" (not "Fantastic Four," "FF"). "The art is by Mike Allred" is reason enough and this launching-off issue, as the regular team prepares to set off on a time-and-space-spanning family car trip and hands the Baxter Building over to some temporary replacements, sets the stage nicely and is packed with fun and sad character moments.

Spider-Man

"Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1" wins on page count alone: 73 pages packed with feature after feature. And it's still brilliant stuff, even fifty years later.

And yes, Peter Parker has been through some changes since then. He's now a member of the Avengers. It's another move that I don't really understand. Peter Parker? Experiencing acceptance and acknowledgment? You did say "Peter Parker," yes?.

But the pleasure of "Avenging Spider-Man Annual #1" cracks through my crusty reactions. It helps that I try to think of it as an issue of "Marvel Team-Up" featuring Spidey and The Thing (who also is an Avenger now, somehow). And hey! It's an annual with no connections to any mega-crossover-events, so it's a nice self-contained issue.

Dan Slott, the current master of Spider-Man's fate in Marvel comics, has a lot of guts. He concluded Spidey's original series by having Doctor Octopus swap minds with Pete, leaving our hero to "die" (required emphasis) in the battered, aged body of a internationally-loathed super villain.

Yes, we all know full well that the status quo will be restored before the Spider-Man movie sequel is released next year. But Slott has hit on an intriguing premise: in the new "Superior Spider Man," a baddie is now determined to live out the rest of his adversary's life, with the benefit of the expanded perspective and sense of responsibility that Parker's left-behind memories deliver. Further, he's going to take up Spider-Man's mantle and continue his heroic mandate. But he's going to do it better, (hence "Superior Spider-Man"), and naturally he'll execute his acts of genuine heroism from the mindset of an experienced villain.

I wish Marvel had thrown more of its classic graphic novels into the Free 700 mix. I grabbed up "Spider-Man: Hooky," a self-contained epic that can be neatly summarized as "Spidey fights a giant cockroach." But! It's lavishly illustrated by Bernie Wrightson. It's a triple-win to anybody who reads their comics on a Retina-display iPad or MacBook.

And then there's "Ultimate Spider-Man." Volume 1 Issue 1 represented a successful Marvel experiment: Brian Michael Bendis rebooted a classic character for a new, modern readership...and he did it by putting this new backdated edition in an alternative universe where he couldn't wreck what was going on in mainstream Marvel continuity.

Did Marvel take note of the book's commercial creative success and think "Great. So let's start redoing and undoing things in the 'real' universe a well"? Who knows. But Ultimate Spider-Man remains a high mark in a writing career that's filled with excellent work.

Avengers

Moving on to Marvel's second successful movie franchise: grab Avengers Volume 3 Issue 1. The Marvel page at Wikia.com lists 37 Avengers in this issue. You'd think a comic with so many warm bodies in it would come out looking and sounding like a mess. But it's written by Kurt Busiek and drawn by George Pérez. It's a lush chorus.

(And it's another wonderful book for a Retina display. A framed art print of the cover, featuring every Avenger in a single rush into battle, is hanging on my wall as I write this.)

In "Mythos," Marvel retold the classic origins of their tentpole characters using a painterly style and a novelistic style of storytelling. "Captain America" was the first to receive this treatment and he's a great choice for a retelling. Previously, my only exposure to Cap's origin was a three or four-panel recap.

And unlike so many other modern revisits of classic origin tales, "Mythos: Captain America" adds texture and background rather than irrelevant new detail and "solutions" to problems that never existed.

"Hawkeye" is one of my favorite current comics and the only reason not to get the free #1 is that there's a tremendous risk that you'll go back for the rest of the 8 issues so far. As a member of the movie franchise team, Hawkeye has a prominent spot in one of the main "Avengers" titles. Matt Fraction wisely writes the character from a slightly different perspective: what does an Avenger do when he's off the clock? The overall tone of "Hawkeye" reminds me of "Columbo." The stories are nominally about the work he does, but the work mostly serves as a framework for this man's perspective on his job and the routines with which he fills his days.

Mutants

"Wolverine" volume 1, issue 1. Frank Miller drawing Chris Claremont's script. I re-read this entire limited series recently and I was struck by how fresh Miller's artwork still seems, even thirty years later. Isn't that the culmination of an artist's goal? To develop a recognizable visual style, to find an exciting new way to tell a story, and to have those choices validated decades later. It's truly timeless.

It's also a wonderful reminder of how small and personal some of Marvel's most overexposed and valuable characters once were. In 1982, Logan was largely a one-note character. This limited series opened up his world and granted him the broad shoulders that were necessary to carry deeper stories.

I kind of have to recommend "X-Men" Volume 2, Issue 1, recognized by Guinness as the all-time best-selling single issue of any comic book. I don't find the story particularly engaging. I didn't in 1991, either. But its visual influence on the art of all comics that followed is unmistakeable.

And: it's a free comic drawn by Jim Lee. Done deal! He's the James Cameron of comics. If Lee were a movie director, yes, he would dangle from the skid of a stunt helicopter to get exactly the sort of thrilling shot he imagined. It's slightly unbelievable that in the following twenty years, he only improved, expanded, and built upon the skills he put into every page of this book.

All right: how about an X-Men book with a story that I actually like?

Greg Pak was my gateway drug into X-Men comics. I'd been burned by this section of the Marvel Universe so many times before. I've seen hundred-yard balls of salvaged steel cable at a scrapyard that was more linear than Marvel Mutant storylines.

("I'm a clone of a man you knew in the future, inhabiting the body of your old enemy, sent by your son in an alternate reality to prevent a war that happened thirty years ago!")

But Pak is a name that I trust implicitly. I held my nose, gave "X-Treme X-Men Volume 2 Issue #1" a try, and I haven't been disappointed since.

The story starts out with 100 severed heads of Professor X! Sold.

And The Rest

I was a fan of Frank Miller's classic run on "Daredevil" back in the 80s. Subsequent treatments of the character became too tough for me to follow, and he dropped off my radar (oh, what a shameless pun) completely.

"Daredevil" Volume 3 Issue 1 won me back. Again we see the value of The Right Names. I've never read a book written by Mark Waid that was anything less than Very Good, and artist Paolo Rivera maintains a delightful balance between precision and freedom in his line. The new series avoids the tangled continuity of the character without invalidating anything that's gone before; a perfect jumping-on point that makes the character accessible to new readers while reminded old readers of their favorite past run.

Deadpool is a colossally stupid mercenary who exists almost exclusively to annoy every living thing he comes in contact with, including the readers of his books. In Issue 1 of his current series (Volume 4) every deceased President has risen from the grave to wreak havok upon the world and because no superhero wants to be photographed crushing the skull of even a zombified FDR, it's up to Deadpool. Funny stuff from Brian Posehn and Gerry Duggan.

"Nextwave: Agents Of H.A.T.E." (written by Warren Ellis, drawn by Stuart Immonen) is another funny hero book, but it's less wacky and more grounded. It's as though the characters in "Clerks" were established "C"-list heroes. They're annoyed by their jobs and resentful of the people with which they share a community.

Enough cynicism and post-modern hipsterism. "The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz" is the classic story broken down into an eight-issue comic book series, illustrated by the masterful Scottie Young. His fantastic visuals displace your memories of the MGM movie by page three, which is quite an accomplishment.

I missed "Mystic: The Tenth Apprentice" during its recent run, due solely to prejudice: it's a revival of a handful of characters Marvel acquired when they absorbed a small comics studio years ago. I should have looked at the credits. It's written by G. Willow Wilson, author of "Air," which is one of my favorite series of the past five years. She has a knack for taking what seems on the surface to be a well-worn story conflict and reminding you of the reasons why the classic conflicts work so well. This is the story of two orphan girls who vie to escape a squalid existence through an apprenticeship in the arts of alchemy. Wilson describes this story as "high-fantasy 'Mean Girls' meets 'Les Miserables'" which hits the mark so closely that I don't even dare try to tweak a word or two and then claim that I made that line up myself.

Even if they're not free...

Even if you miss out on the "free" window, you'll find that any of these books are verrry much worth buying. This "Free #1s" promotion, as horribly as it went in its first attempt, is a terrific idea and I wish more publishers would give it a shot.

I'm often asked to recommend comics. I'm not sure I really want to be responsible for the results because I, myself can become frustrated by the current state of Marvel and DC and I've even pared way back on my buying. Many books cost $3.99 and they're impossible to understand. Linear storytelling is "old fashioned." Instead, writers create immense multicolored charts out of posterboard just so that they themselves can figure out what the hell is going on. They post photos of these blueprints as though it's a point of pride or something.

And that's to say nothing about the company-wide crossover events! Imagine a whole summer during which you've no idea what's going on in "Breaking Bad" because you haven't seen last week's "Mad Men," a show that you're not supposed to watch until after Episode 9 of "Game Of Thrones," which has been delayed for three weeks.

All right... Grampa promises to shut up.

(But he knows he's right.)

Fortunately, there are still pockets of sanity at Marvel. This promotion gives old and new readers a chance to find their new Favorite Book at zero risk.

If you missed out on this promotion, fret not: Free Comic Book Day is (a) a real thing and (b) happening on May 4. This is an annual industry-wide holiday during which most comic book stores will be stocked with piles of free comics donated by every major publisher.

Many stores make a big celebration out of it, supplementing the industry freebies with comps of their own. There is also a nonzero chance that you can get your picture taken with someone in Imperial Stormtrooper armor.

Visit The Free Comic Book Day website to find a participating shop near you.


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