The Comic Dilemma: Where to begin

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I began reading comics as an adult. I am probably in the minority. Most people who are avid comic fans develop and nurture their love for the genre through adolescence. For years I toyed with the idea of stepping into this world. For me, the intrigue was built on a foundation of a love of cartoons. I could watch old superhero cartoons all day and feel no shame, and certainly not an ounce of boredom. For others like me who have crossed over late in the game, inspiration could come from a variety of sources. Perhaps you saw Robert Downey Jr. rocking some Iron Man on the big screen and had a realization … dang, that’s freaking cool! Maybe a significant other keeps strategically leaving comic books where you might happen to stumble across and pick them up in curiosity – on your pillow, in the refrigerator, wedged in the toilet paper holder, perchance.  Whatever your reasons for beginning comics, you will probably quickly realize that it’s not as easy as looking up issue one of whatever title it is that has caught your eye. Why not?

At this particular moment there are roughly fifteen different titles within X-men. Batman (who is just one dude!) has about ten. DC alone produced 1685 comics in 2010. Interested in the Avengers with the new movies coming out? Sure, what would you like to read? You have the Avengers, the Secret Avengers, Avengers the Children’s Crusade, the New Avengers, Avengers and the Infinity Gauntlet, Avengers Academy, Avengers Prime, and for the kids there is the Superhero Squad. Then of course all the big name Avengers have their own titles (or several of their own titles) – Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Black Widow, Hawkeye, Hulk, etc. And these are just the current titles. Superman first appeared in Action Comics #1 in 1938. That’s 73 years of backstory! 

For brave souls who finally get up the gumption to walk into a comic shop and look wide-eyed through the racks at the thousands of different choices, one positively, overwhelmingly, daunting question immediately arises … Where the $*@# do I start?

Like most things in life, the answer is at the beginning. Perhaps not the beginning as in back at Action Comics #1, but the beginning of a story arch. Many comics are produced in the format of plot-contained story segments that fit nicely within – yet can be read separate of – the bulk serialization of a comic that has been in existence for twice as long as you have. The easiest way to find these story arcs is to look for the graphic novels. 

 For newcomers, it’s easier to read contained stand alone tales, whether they are about superheroes or not. Most stand alone stories today are published as Graphic Novels, which can either be a collection or previously published comic books, or an entirely new tale. (Inverso, Start Reading Comic Books)

Story arcs can work in two ways. These story arcs might be nicely contained from the very beginning. Comics often have separate books within the main series. The list of various Avengers comics above is a great example. Another example can be derived from my personal favorite: the X-men. I am a big New Mutants fan. New Mutants is one of the various titles within the X-men line. I can read that series without really knowing or caring what is going on in the main X-men books. On the other hand, sometimes as a reader you are following a plot throughout several books. This can be both really cool and rather annoying. The cool part is that you get to see how all these characters are linked. Just like in real life, their decisions affect one another and the effects reverberate throughout the various comic books and series. The annoying part is that those of us reading the story arc as it is released tend to be frantically trying to figure out what book we are suppose to read next in order to pick up the subsequent chunk of the plot (or even the same chunk of the plot from an entirely different point of view). This is time consuming, confusing and, need I say, expensive! In order to save a beginner this agony, I recommend the graphic novel route.

So now that you realize that you don’t have to go in and buy 500 books worth of back-story and several $40.00 encyclopedias of various series information, it’s time to actually roll up your sleeves and begin. Let’s do this in steps:

Step 1: Before you can pick a novel you need to decide what attracts you

Ask yourself some questions as you begin. Do you like team books about multiple superheroes like the Avengers or the Justice League or would you prefer to focus on just one main character? Do you like the idea of the long running classics like Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, or perhaps you’re more a modern Buffy-type fan. Maybe you’re not even looking for superheroes at all. There are plenty of great comics with not a cape to be found, like The Walking Dead.

One recommendation I would make is that when you begin, pick a favorite company that initially attracts you the most. Typically you would decide between the two big guns: Marvel and DC. My reasoning here is that once you begin you will realize that aside from your characters of interest, there will be hundreds other characters running about. First off, don’t worry about these people too terribly much from the beginning. You’ll begin to recognize names and faces more and more as you read. But by involving yourself in both the Marvel and the DC Universes right from the get-go, you’ll subconsciously be trying to keep track of twice the supporting characters, and inevitably begin mixing up who belongs where. This being said, once you feel more comfortable with the whole layout of your universe and the stories that you have become involved with, begin to explore! Both Marvel and DC have lots to offer, but so do the little guys – Image, Dark Horse, IDW and others.

Step 2: Get to know your friendly neighborhood comic vendor

There are several sites that will help you locate your local comic shop. Marvel.com is one of those sites that has such a handy-dandy device. Just pop in your zip code and POW – you are on your way.

There are two different times you should go to the comic book stores – Wednesdays and Not Wednesdays. Wednesdays are the day of chaos. This is when the entire shipment of new comics arrives and is placed on the shelf (if the poor vendor can even get them there before he is mobbed). Wednesdays are the day to pick up that new release as well as see what else looks interesting that perhaps you hadn’t considered before. It is a great day to meet other comic nuts who are trolling the store happily with their weekly buys under their arms. It’s a great experience. But you should also make a point to go on a non-Wednesday. The clerk at the store will be far less busy. This is when you should go up to him with those previously determined preferences and ask what books he thinks would meet your criteria and where a good starting place would be for you.

 My personal recommendations of where to begin form a long, long list. You will be seeing this list slowly appear as recommendation articles here on Lytherus. But let me give you an abridged version:

Watchmen – Remember the movie? The book’s even better. This is an award winning graphic novel from DC. You can pick it up and in one book get the entire story. This book isn’t Saturday morning cartoon worthy. Watchman is dark, gritty, and full of intelligent commentary.

Batman: Year One – This book was published in the late 1980s, but takes place during Batman’s earlier days of crime fighting. It is an independent story for you to begin to sink your teeth into the Batman frontier. This book also has several sequels that are nice stepping stones: Batman: The Last Halloween and Batman: Dark Victory. You will notice that there was a lot of inspiration from this book going into the popular Batman Begins movie.

X-men: God Loves, Man Kills – No one can ever claim superheroes are only for children after reading this insightful social commentary. You might not know who all these characters are when you first start reading, but you’ll be so sucked into the story that you’ll want to learn more.

Green Lantern: Secret Origin – Be ahead of the movie for once! This book is a great read to get the background of Green Lantern in order to play quick catch-up.

Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes – Finding this book can be confusing as this title has been used several times. To be specific I am talking about the story of the Avengers as it is told from the beginning by Joe Casey, beginning in 2005. I stumbled upon this series by accident and found it a charming rendition of the origins of the Avengers, without the 1960s time warp. This series really peaked my interest for the Avengers and no prior knowledge is required.

 Step 3: Do some research.

Now that you’ve begun reading there are inevitable holes in your knowledge that need filled. Going back to find the specific issues to answer specific questions is practically impossible. You need to look at this on a larger scale. There are several resources and strategies that I recommend:

Check out the Publisher Website: A lot of character and universe information is in the alcoves of information that these websites provide. Do some digging.

Wikipedia – Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it (meaning for comics – you should probably stay away from it for your school reports). Want to know about a specific story arc? – Wiki’s got it. A character? – Wiki’s got it. The history of a series?  – Yup, Wiki’s got it. This is a great, quick reference tool for instant answers to the questions that come up while you read.

Digital Comics – Want to read all those backstory issues without having to buy out the entire comic book store? Both Marvel and DC offer digital comics that you can sift through to fill in your reading gaps. Marvel, in particular, is a great deal. When I began exploring X-men, I read the new stuff, but I also went through and read a giant chunk of older issues (right from the early 60s) to get a good feel of where this book had originated. While Marvel offers a one year subscription price followed by unlimited reading, DC has a pay as you go set-up. I prefer the Marvel set-up. I feel like I get more bang for my buck.  The down side is that you will often find gaps between issues and story arcs that will force you into the comic store to finish what you started.

Origin Stories – These are being published by the truckload, but they are helpful. You can find an origin story on almost anything and anyone. There are origins published on almost every main character. There are also origins on the teams and series themselves. These stories take you back to the beginning to pick up the big pieces using modern artwork and premise.  

Essential Marvel and DC Showcase Presents:  These are series of black and white comic collections that pull together essential issues of particular comic book series. I personally find them hard to read and confusing in their information gaps. But they are popular for people trying to catch up or jump into a comic series.

Pick a character and follow his/her career: Ok, this isn’t a place you can go to look up information, but it is a strategy. I got to know a lot of my random X-men knowledge through a rather obsessive hunt for information on my favorite character of all time: Kitty Pryde. By getting to know her better, I got to know the characters that she’s close to better. I got to know the series that she’s involved in better. I got to know villains and teams and all sorts of different parts of the X-men just through my interest in one character. If someone particularly catches your eye, this is an easy and interesting way to learn.  

Step 4: Relax and enjoy. This stuff is supposed to be fun!

My biggest problem with making the leap into comics is that I have always been a big reader of fantasy fiction. Fantasy novels often span across several books in a series, and I was always way too anal to ever read the series out of order. The thought was simply unheard of!

To truly get into comics you need to develop a different mindset. You need to think in 3D. You need to be able to backtrack and research and imbed information into your mental timeline of events. It’s like a giant puzzle of a universe in your head, and the more you read the more pieces you plug into the puzzle. It’s actually a rather fun little game.

I’ve made some reading suggestions here, but I’ve kept my list small (mostly due to the fact that once I started writing, this article grew faster than Hank Pym – you’ll get that joke after you begin reading. You probably still won’t think it’s funny, though) . But I’m always looking for good break-in points to comics. There is always more to learn. I’d love to hear what books our readers on Lytherus would like to recommend as good introductory books/issues to various comics.  So what do you think?

Thanks for sticking with me to the end of this! Happy Reading!

Jackie K.

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