Before all the craziness that is now the MCU, there were comics. Colorful panels, onomatopeic action, word balloons, and mesmerizing storytelling captivated the imagination of fans long before the MCU was even an idea. Kevin Feige has often discussed his reverence for the medium and how it shaped his career. Today, we take a look at the most important figures in comics who helped turn the first 10 years of the MCU into what it is.
You can’t have a discussion about the impact of the comic medium into the modern zeitgeist without talking about Stan Lee. The comic industry’s poster boy and #1 salesman is undoubtedly the biggest influence of the MCU. As co-creator of Spider-Man, Avengers, Fantastic Four, X-Men, Doctor Strange, and the like, we wouldn’t have the MCU if it weren’t for him.
Stan dedicated his life to championing his creations and the medium in an effort to get the non-comic reading public to appreciate and respect the art form. Stan wanted his creations to be on the big screen, where everyone could see his creations for what they were, art. Even when no one wanted anything to do with comics, Stan lived his life for them.
But Stan’s influence extends beyond the mere fact that he conjured these characters in his head. He wrote these stories to illuminate the problems of the world. He created Spider-Man to give the youths of the 60s someone who wasn’t a sidekick to look up to. He created Iron Man to illustrate the perils of war profiteering. The X-Men came to be because Stan couldn’t stand bigotry against the different. The MCU has never failed to echo these themes.
Jack Kirby is the other half of Stan Lee’s success. Responsible for bringing Stan Lee‘s ideas to life on the page, Jack Kirby is considered a god among comic creators. Captain America, the Hulk, Thor, the Inhumans, Ant-Man, Nick Fury, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch are but a few of the characters Kirby helped create, all of whom feature prominently within the MCU. He pioneered plotting techniques never before seen and drew with a style unlike any comic book artist before. It was his artistic direction, along with Stan Lee‘s editorial brilliance, that defined an entire era of comics.
Unsurprisingly, Jack Kirby’s influence in the MCU can be seen through its visuals and design. Thor: Ragnarok prominently featured Kirby-esque production design, from the backdrop to the actual props. Kirby always had a penchant for grandiosity and excess and it’s none more evident in the Sakaar set. The production designers of Black Panther had Kirby’s classic designs to base their Oscar-winning afro-futurist designs on. Kirby also inspired the creation of Thanos when he created Darkseid for DC.
Steve Ditko may not have a legacy as expansive as Jack Kirby but his two of his most famous comic creations, Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, speak to how this recluse of a man changed pop culture.
The origins of how Spider-Man was conceptualized is often contested but the common tale told is that Stan Lee came up with the name and concept but it was Ditko who breathed the iconic visuals associated with Spidey. A lot of comic historians also attribute much of Spidey’s depth and characterization to Ditko. What began as an artist’s stint in a comic soon turned into a diary for Ditko’s own personal angst. Ditko took the reigns of storytelling and elevated Spider-Man into a book that young adults could appreciate. The rest is history, and the character has become an inspiration worldwide.
In addition to his work on Spider-Man, Ditko also broke ground with his trippy visuals for Doctor Strange. The book came at a – pun intended – strange time in the 60s when the counterculture was beginning to experiment with recreational drugs. As the kids started tripping out on LSD, so did Stephen Strange and his bizarre adventures into the mystical realm. Doctor Strange became a smash hit among college kids. And without Ditko’s out-of-this-world take on the visuals, we probably wouldn’t have gotten the same smash movie.
Only a handful of writers have lived up to the legacy and impact of Stan Lee and Roy Thomas is easily one of them. As the figurative heir to Stan Lee’s kingdom, Thomas was given the keys to the Marvel Universe as soon as Stan’s tenure as editor-in-chief ended. He created a new generation of icons with Wolverine, Carol Danvers, Vision, Ultron, Adam Warlock, Ghost Rider, Black Knight, among many, many others. It goes without saying how many of his creations have made its way onto the big screen. In addition to his characters, Thomas also penned such events like the Kree-Skrull War, the early Ragnarok stories for Thor, and the monumental debut of the Vision, all of which have informed the direction of the MCU.
BRIAN MICHAEL BENDIS
Even if you’ve been remotely aware of the happenings of the comic industry of the past decade, you’ve probably heard or seen the name, Brian Michael Bendis. He’s arguably one of the medium’s most popular writers and a lot of his work is evident in the first 10 years of the MCU. Heck, he also helped shape the MCU as he was part of the original Marvel Creative Committee.
Alongside Mark Millar, Bendis helped launch the Ultimate Marvel imprint with Marvel’s undisputed bestseller of the time, Ultimate Spider-Man. He took Stan Lee’s evergreen blueprint of the character and took it to the next level, reimagining Peter’s life as a modern-day kid living in Queens, having to deal with the ever-changing superhero landscape. The comic ran for more than 10 years and capped off at a whopping 240 issues.
Parallel to his work with Ultimate Spider-Man, Bendis also had a run of Daredevil that by all means, followed and lived up to Frank Miller’s legendary run in the 80s. Bendis revitalized the bleak tone of Miller’s classic run and dove deep into crime fiction trappings. Bendis’ Daredevil was one of the primary inspirations of the Daredevil Netflix show.
In addition to these mammoth achievements, Bendis upended the Marvel status quo on a yearly basis. He had Scarlet Witch kill and disband the Avengers, had 98% of mutants eradicated in House of M, made Spider-Man, Spider-Woman, Wolverine and Luke Cage into full-fledged Avengers, turned Norman Osborn into a major Marvel big bad with Dark Reign, and orchestrated a secret Skrull Invasion among the countless stories he wrote. Bendis also created day modern-day Marvel staples with Maria Hill, Jessica Jones, and Miles Morales.
If Stan Lee built the thematic foundation of the MCU, Mark Millar is the guy the MCU owes for its conceptual foundation. In the early 2000s, Marvel needed a fresh modern start so they published a new canon of comics under their Ultimate Marvel imprint. Their mantra was to envision the Marvel universe with post-modern and grounded lenses. Mark Millar’s Ultimates and the rest of the Ultimate Marvel line gave us a glimpse at a world if it really had superheroes in it.
The Avengers were no longer mere superheroes in tights living in a mansion. They were a superpowered paramilitary response team mandated by the government to face-off against world-ending threats on a whim. They lived in a facility called the Triskelion and their leader was a black Nick Fury who resembled Sam Jackson. Sound familiar?
Millar questioned the notion of having powered individuals and politicized their place in the world. Themes of anti-American superhero sentiment and unaccounted collateral damage were prominently featured in the Ultimates and his biggest work, Civil War, the basis of the eponymous third Cap film.
Jim Starlin is the GOAT when it comes to cosmic Marvel stories. He originally began as an artist for the company but soon transitioned into scripting when he was asked to co-plot an issue of Iron Man. In this issue, he created what would be become one of pop culture’s greatest villains, Thanos.
But back then, Thanos wasn’t the big villain we know him to be now. It wasn’t until Jim Starlin got a foothold in developing the cosmic Marvel universe that Thanos became the big bad. Slowly throughout the years, Starlin plotted out the origin of the Mad Titan, developed the character’s ethos, and branched him out to all corners of the galaxy. Starlin created characters like Gamora and Nebula to round off Thanos’ arc.
=”font-weight: 400;”>And then came this little story called Thanos Quest, a story about the Mad Titan’s search for the Infinity Stones. It was during this period where Starlin cemented Thanos as the biggest Marvel villain of the time. Infinity Gauntlet, Infinity War, and Infinity Crusade all came out shortly after Thanos Quest and pop culture was never the same.
Christopher Priest is to Black Panther what Walt Simonson is to Thor. They’re the guys who completely changed the game for the characters by ushering them into an era of uncharted stories. For Priest, it was about modernizing the King of Wakanda for the 21st century.
For once, you had a writer that wrote T’Challa as an actual king and not just some superhero in tights. T’Challa had a kingdom and it was his kingdom to protect. The very first arc is about T’Challa investigating the death of a young girl connected to a Wakandan foundation. A huge defining moment in Priest’s run is when T’Challa admits to joining the Avengers for the sole reason of studying their weaknesses should they be deemed threats to Wakanda. Moments like these are aplenty in Priest’s run, where T’Challa stays true to his role as a head of state who lived and would die for his motherland.
But Priest’s run isn’t all about the badassery that comes with protecting a kingdom. Amidst the regality of it all, Priest managed to get to the core of what makes T’Challa work: his humanity. The book is filled with heartfelt moments of vulnerability. T’Challa may be a king but he’s also a man who feels loneliness, loss, and the occasional helplessness. Priest managed to find a way to marry the human and regal aspects of T’Challa which paved the way for the comics’ massive acclaim.
Priest set the stage for successors like Reginald Hudlin, Jonathan Hickman, and eventually, Ryan Coogler. Without Priest, we may have ended up with a completely different Black Panther movie. Heck, we might not even have a Black Panther movie at all.
KELLY SUE DECONNICK
It ain’t always about the sheer volume of work that makes a writer great. Sometimes, all you need is that one groundbreaking piece of art and that’s what Kelly Sue DeConnick has. She doesn’t a huge array of Captain Marvel books to her name but she did happen to make the one that changed the character forever. She deserves the credit for turning Carol Danvers into the icon she is as she had the character, who up until that point was referred to as Ms. Marvel, assume the legendary mantle of Captain Marvel in 2012.
The change was immense, sparking a resurgence for the character. Fans of Carol flocked together and branded themselves Carol Corps. The character suddenly became more of an A-list character than she ever was that in 2014, Kevin Feige announced plans to make a film based on DeConnick’s vision for the character.
The rest is history. 2019’s Captain Marvel was a smash-hit, becoming a household name the highest-grossing female-led comic book film with over a billion in earnings worldwide. In Avengers: Endgame, Carol swoops in and turns the tide of the battle in the epic finale against Thanos, basically making her the MVP of that sequence.
DAN ABNETT AND ANDY LANNING
t’s not an easy task to take a pre-existing superhero team, completely change the lineup, and make it actually work. The Avengers, no matter how much they switch rosters, always revert to the classic Big Three line up one way or another. So what Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning did to the Guardians of the Galaxy back in 2008 was a masterful feat.
Out was the old team of Vance Astrovik and in was Star-Lord’s band of misfits. The comic propelled forgotten cosmic characters like Rocket Racoon, Drax, Groot, Phyla-Vell, and Adam Warlock back to the forefront of Marvel. From there, Abnett and Lanning cooked up the biggest cosmic stories of the era, which saw the Kree, Shiar, and Inhumans go against each other, and the resurgence of the Mad Titan, Thanos.
It’s hard to imagine the MCU without the influence of this writing duo.
Comic book deaths are a weird thing. Most of them feel pointless as they get eventually reversed at one point, rendering dramatic stakes practically nonexistent. Some deaths, however, remain unreserved to preserve the weight of the narrative like Uncle Ben. One of the characters who remained dead for decades was Bucky Barnes. That is until Ed Brubaker thought to bring him back to life as a brainwashed assassin nearly 40 years later.
In the Winter Soldier storyline, Ed Brubaker pretty much broke the mold of the Captain America story and gave the MCU a treasure trove of tonal inspiration. Brubaker treated stories about a guy dressed in a flag as a study in Cold War espionage and political thrillers. The Russos and Markus and McFeeley took notice of this and followed suit with their cinematic spin on the character.
Thanks to a foundation written by Ed Brubaker, Captain America is now one of the few ‘elevated’ comic book movie franchises out there now.
Joss Whedon is on this list because of a technicality. Even though he hasn’t written a comic to directly inspire the MCU, he was foremost a comic writer before he got his hands on the Avengers. Whedon wrote the seminal Astonishing X-Men run in 2004 before moving on to the Runaways a couple of years later.
It’s hard to argue with how crucial Whedon was to the MCU when it was starting out. He had the damn near impossible task of bringing together six distinctly different character tones and personalities and he knocked it out of the park. The film cemented Kevin Feige’s notion of a shared cinematic universe as a reality and gave birth to a new generation of beloved blockbusters.