I’ve always been a fan of genre. In junior high, after reading the Lord of the Rings, I systematically worked through my school library’s entire fantasy and sci-fi section. My favorite TV shows included ST:TNG, the X-Files, and Babylon 5, and by high school I was slowly developing an appreciation for low budget sci-fi and horror movies. But comics? They just seemed… complicated. My small town didn’t have a comics shop, so my early exposure was limited to convenience store Archies, Richie Rich at the dentist’s office, and once, an X-Men comic at the lake-front cabin of some friends of my parents. That last one seemed cool, but I didn’t know who any of the characters were, or where to begin finding out.
Fast forward a decade or two. Becoming comics-literate was somewhere on my to-do list, if not urgently, in part because I enjoyed the X-Men movies and had the strong impression that the original source stories were even more interesting. It was around this time that Starbucks and Marvel ran a scarily effective cross-promotion: if you were on a Starbucks wi-fi network, then you had free access (up to a daily cap) to Marvel Digital Comics, Marvel’s digital comics subscription service (later called Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited, now just called Marvel Unlimited). I was often in Starbucks for a couple hours at a time doing work on my laptop back then, especially while traveling, so I decided the time had come to learn about the X-Men.
I went to marvel.com and (after my soul wept), I found appearance lists by character. I made a spreadsheet, including all the X-Men characters I knew from the movies, and recorded their appearance lists from the 60’s to the mid-80’s. I then embarked on reading, by publication date, all the issues that were available digitally and had at least one X-Men character, about three issues per Starbucks trip (I could download them and read them later), which was really only about a few dozen issues in a year. Did I mention that I do things systematically?
Under this system, I got as far as the early 70s. It turned out a lot of those early X-Men comics weren’t that great, but I started to meet some of the other folks in their universe – the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, Dr. Strange, and others. I wanted more – I wanted to get to know everybody, to learn every story, to get every reference. And if I was going to do that, I needed guidance, which clearly would not be found at marvel.com. After some googling, I found precisely what I needed on a site called the Complete Marvel Reading Order (CMRO).
To my relief, CMRO undertakes the copious labor of putting all Marvel comics (or at least all those intersecting with the main Marvel universe, also known as Earth-616) in the most “readable” order. For the most part, it sticks fairly closely to the actual date of publication, but keeps contiguous story arcs together and tries, to the extent possible, to
avoid direct continuity problems (if comic B references an event in comic A, then A appears first in the order, and if Hulk is in New Mexico in his own title and in New York in a Defenders story line being published at the same time, the order tries to avoid going back and forth between them). In addition to listing the issues, it cross-references them with character and group appearances as well as with the creative team, so you can find all comics featuring an appearance by Batroc ze Leaper, or with the New Mutants, or lettered by Artie Simek. It also has, where available, a direct back-end link to the Marvel Unlimited digital comic page for the issue. This last feature is extremely valuable for those who, like me, who are interested in reading their digital comics through the provided subscription service, but don’t want to waste vast amounts of time and risk their very sanity by wading through the horrifically disorganized marvel.com interface.
CMRO gets a lot of its strength from crowd sourcing. The precise ordering and many of the finer technical points of the endeavor get debated in the forums, and I can absolutely attest to the readability of the result. The main 616 order now covers the time period from Fantastic Four #1, in 1961, up through (at the time of this writing) roughly 2010, incorporating around 21,000 comics so far, with more added all the time. They also are working on related orders for Golden Age Marvel, Star Wars comics, and many others.
If you create an account on the site, there are more features that make reading Marvel comics seem merely like an inadvisably ambitious idea, rather than like a totally
impossible one. You can (of course) keep track of which comics you’ve read, and which comics you own, and you can rate each comic from one to five stars. There are also some standard PBL gamification tricks: badges, such as for having read enough issues containing a given character, leaderboards, and personal stats: i.e. tracking your reading rate over time, adding up how many total pages you’ve read, and a category called “Est. Order Catch Up” to let you know how many months and years of reading you still have left (can you beat the relevant actuarial tables and finish under your life expectancy?). And if a social component is something that you’re looking for, you can leave comments on individual issues or participate in the active community in the forums.
For myself, I’m just very grateful that there are people (with the same sort of
completionist tendencies as me) who have paved a clear road through decades of Marvel comics. I love these characters and these stories and I probably would not have successfully cleared the obstacles to getting to know them without the help of this
website. So far I’ve read everything available through my Marvel Unlimited subscription up through about 1985 (which is only about 55% of the comics listed in that span, but
includes most of the important ones), and I’m still having a great time. As a benefit of my
increased comfort level with comics, I’m also now reading several current Marvel titles as
well as some current independent comics too. If my experiences (and issues) sound familiar, and you’re also looking to break down the barriers to becoming a reader of Marvel, I strongly recommend that you check out CMRO.
The website is free to join and use, though they do also have a paid membership program to help defray the costs of running it. (I’ve since become a paying member out of gratitude for all their fine work myself.) Happy reading!
All opinions in this piece are Dr. Ungooglable’s own, and have not been solicited or paid for by any other entities. We’ll always let you know if we’re endorsing something that was provided at no cost for review, because we we aim not to be sketchy like that.