There’s only one surefire way to be prepared for Marvel’s The Avengers come May 4th – and that’s by reading as many top-notch Avengers comic books as is physically possible in less than two weeks’ time.

But where, pray tell, does one start? After all, The Avengers (created by Stan Lee and Jack “The King of Comics” Kirby) is one of the oldest Marvel team books in existence, having been published for nearly half a century. Furthermore, the book has gone through several title changes, hundreds of different creative teams, and even more fictional members. It has been, on occasion, both brilliant and horrifically bad. So where does an interested reader begin his/her journey with five decades’ worth of comics to sift through?

Lucky for you, dear readers, we’re here to narrow down just some of the greatest Avengers stories that have ever been printed. Indeed, we’ve crafted a list of five books that A) have heavily influenced Marvel’s movie universe and, in particular, the forthcoming Avengers film, and B) are just plain excellent.

Before Mark Millar started churning out works of unfettered shock value more akin to movie pitches than actual, full-fledged comic book stories – e.g. Kick-Ass 2, Nemesis, Superior, et cetera – he made The Ultimates, otherwise known as The Avengers of the Ultimate universe.

The characters therein resembled the ones we knew from the 616 universe, only they were a bit darker and more complicated – more “modern,” if you will. Iron Man was a wealthy, drunken bachelor terminally ill with cancer; Thor was an environmentally-minded hippie – an actual god (?) or a just crazy guy with super-advanced technology (?); Hulk was a man-eating monster that could barely be contained, let alone harnessed for good; and Captain America was an old-fashioned John Wayne-type with ultra-patriotic sensibilities.

All-in-all, it was pretty awesome, not to mention gorgeous, thanks to Bryan Hitch’s picturesque, semi-realistic artwork. Much of the Ultimate Universe – and The Ultimates in particular – has greatly influenced Marvel’s filmography, from Sam Jackson’s portrayal of Nick Fury to Captain America’s more streamlined and militaristic costume to Hawkeye’s role as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. Which is why The Ultimates is the closest thing to required reading for Joss Whedon’s The Avengers that exists in Marvel’s massive catalog.

These days, stories in comic books are so darn decompressed that you’re lucky if you get a single significant development over the course of twelve meandering issues. However, back in the 1960s, major events occurred at a much more frequent – and arguably more satisfying – pace.

In the first issue of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s The Avengers, Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Ant-Man, and Wasp banded together to defeat Thor’s mischievous brother, Loki (sound familiar?). By issue four, Hulk had left the team and the Avengers had discovered Captain America’s long lost body, buried deep beneath the arctic ice. Then, by issue sixteen, Iron Man, Thor, Wasp, and Ant-Man (now known as Giant-Man) had left the team to be replaced by former villains Hawkeye, Quicksilver, and the Scarlet Witch.

The original Avengers stories would probably come off as a bit “unrefined” to readers with more modern sensibilities, but they did depict a number of the iconic Avengers moments that will likely feature prominently in the forthcoming feature film of the same name – and thus they’re invaluable for understanding what makes The Avengers in its many forms so very special.

Few comic book crossovers have been more immensely enjoyable than JLA/Avengers, a book nearly twenty-five years in the making. Written by Kurt Busiek – Astro City – and drawn by the great George Perez – Crisis on Infinite Earths – the book basically functioned as a “Secret Crisis” (i.e. DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths meets Marvel’s Secret Wars), where DC’s Krona and the Marvel’s Grandmaster pit the Justice League against The Avengers because … well, why not?

Have you ever wanted to see Batman fight Captain America? Or Superman fight Thor? Or Superman strapped with Captain America’s shield in one hand and Thor’s hammer in the other? JLA/Avengers makes all this happen and more. Best of all, Perez draws page after page of countless superheroes – both Marvel and DC – beating the ever-loving crap out of each other, culminating in one of the few comic book crossovers that fails to disappoint. An impressive feat for a project in development for nearly a quarter of a century.

While Brian Bendis is oft-criticized for writing every single member of the Avengers the exact way he would Ultimate Spider-Man – hey, it’s a semi-valid criticism – there’s no denying the mark he left on the Marvel universe with Avengers: Disassembled and its follow-up, New Avengers.

Disassembled depicted Earth’s Mightiest Heroes amid catastrophe — the Scarlet Witch turned out to be a crazy person with uncontrollable reality-shaping powers; She-Hulk became savage, a la her cousin, and she ripped The Vision in two; Iron Man returned to his drunken ways (sort of); Avengers members were killed, including Hawkeye (at least temporarily); and, ultimately, the Avengers were disbanded, leading to the creation of the New Avengers with, among other characters, Wolverine and Spider-Man.

The quality of Bendis’ Avengers stories has certainly diminished in recent years, but his initial work with the team was monumental in rebranding The Avengers as “must-read” material in a way it hadn’t been for years.

The “Kree/Skrull War” is considered to be a highlight of Avengers comics from the 1970s and one of the great cosmic tales of the Marvel universe. As its name suggests, it dealt with the massive intergalactic war between two alien species – the Kree and the Skrulls – as it encroached upon Earth territory and threatened to engulf all of humanity. Just another day in the Marvel universe, am I right?

For a story that had the word “war” in the title, there was very little in the way of actual militaristic combat going on. Still, the tale more than made up for that with copious amounts of cosmic weirdness thanks to appearances by Captain Marvel – not to be confused with DC’s Captain Marvel or Marvel’s Marvelman – Ronan the Accuser, the Super-Skrull, Annihilus, the Inhumans, and those Skrulls that the Fantastic Four had hypnotized into thinking they were cows, A.K.A. the Cow-Skrulls.

Alas, the “war” was effectively ended with the help of a good, old deus ex machina – Avengers sidekick Rick Jones was magically given the power to just stop both warring sides from fighting with the snap of his fingers – but the events of the storyline are worth reading up on, as it’s quite possible they’ll influence the subject matter of future Avengers films. Maybe in Avengers 4?

There are obviously hundreds of other great Avengers comic book stories to choose from, so don’t get offended if your favorite story was left out. Keep in mind, this wasn’t a list of “the 5 best Avengers stories ever” so much as a list of great Avengers stories that’ll help prepare the unfamiliar for Joss Whedon’s take on the property. But if you think there are better examples than the ones we’ve chosen, don’t be shy — let us know in the comments.

Follow me on Twitter @benandrewmoore.