So… you’ve decided to start reading comics.
Welcome to insanity, my friend. You have over 80 years of material spanning various continuities in universes where science and magic coexist and death is like a common cold.
It’s a wild ride that will have you confused, frustrated, lost, angry, and a million other emotions….
And you’re going to love it.
Seriously, you will never run out of reading material. You’ll see favorite characters grow and evolve. You’ll learn about humanity in a way that could only be exposed in the outlandish plots of super-antics. You’ll develop preferences for certain styles and gain a real appreciation for this perfect marriage between words and art.
Plus, if you don’t like how a story is going, just wait long enough and either: (A) A new writer will take the reins, or (B) The universe will reset.
In short, reading comics is like when Ron tried to read Harry’s tea leaves in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: “You’re gonna suffer, but you’re gonna be happy about it.”
Wise words, Mr. Weasley.
But where to start? Like I said, there’s over 80 years of material. Now, that doesn’t mean you have to read everything. Comics in the ’40s, while good for nostalgia, aren’t exactly riveting.
If you want exciting stories that have equal parts action and character development, then you’re going to want to start with something more recent. Of, course, with comics, that means since about the ’80s (give or take). Personal taste will vary.
But, where to start? Here are some tips:
I’m talking more about graphic novels here, which are several comic issues bound together. I recommend these because you can get an entire story arc in one sitting. Keep in mind, these #1s are not like first books in a series. For example, if you get started with Harry Potter, reading Sorcerer’s Stone is where you start, period. There’s nothing before or after. But, like I said, these characters have been around for decades. #1s represent a good starting point for a new “chapter” in these characters’ lives. Events and relationships that happened in the past will be referenced, but you’ll get some exposition along with it.
(2) Crisis Events
These tie directly into #1s. One of the reasons graphic novels may start over is because a crisis event is taking the universe in a new direction. (Other reasons may be more internal within the comic industry. But I’m sticking with more story-based restarts.) A “crisis event” is exactly what it sounds like. A terrible, universe-shaking something happens and the repercussions of it will shape all stories going forward. Here’s an example: DC’s New 52 started after the Flashpoint story line (during which the Flash royally messes up the timeline and then attempts to fix it). From then on, the next volumes were the result of the changes in the timeline. If you start at a crisis event and then go forward, you’ll have a pretty fluid story. (And these events are nothing new–Crisis on Infinite Earths is one of the most famous and it was published from 1985-1986.)
(3) Iconic/Hallmark Issues
Of course, there are some stories that, regardless of where you are in the continuity, will always be referenced. These issues or story arcs are ones that were historic in the comic community–whether because they tackled a serious, real-world issue, or because the stories deeply impacted how fans viewed the characters and their worlds. A few examples of these include:
Batman: “A Death in the Family”
Green Lantern/Green Arrow: “Snowbirds Don’t Fly”
Iron Man: “Demon in a Bottle”
Batman: “The Killing Joke”
Teen Titans: “The Judas Contract”
X-Men: “Days of Future Past”
Warning: These comics do tend to be heavy reads. If you want a crash course in how comics can be just as intense as a traditional novel, with psychological or societal themes,then these are solid places to start.
Alright… now you know what to look for, and while that criteria certainly narrows your options, you still have a veritable ocean of comics left. So now it’s time to start thinking critically. Ask yourself these questions:
(1) What characters do you want to read?
You can’t read everything. Believe me, I’ve tried. You have to figure out what characters most catch your interest. Start out with a few, and then, as become more comfortable with the format and world of comics, add some more. (Believe me, you’ll end up finding favorites you never thought you would. For me, Green Lantern ended up being a very happy surprise.)
(2) How involved do you want to be in the universe?
So, now you know what characters you want to read… but how involved in their world do you want to be? How tied into the overall universe? One of the many cool things about comics is that everything is connected. You might decide you want to focus on Spider-Man, but I guarantee you he’s going to cross paths with the Fantastic Four. Does that mean you start reading FF, too? Maybe. You might find out you like the team. (Johnny Storm and Spidey actually have a pretty funny friendship.) Or maybe you just stay a Spidey purist and just enjoy the FF when they show up. Either way is totally fine. But it can get a little more complicated than that… what about the rest of the Spiders? Miles Morales Spider-man? Spider-Gwen? Venom? Their stories will often directly affect what’s happening with good ole Peter Parker, or at least add interesting layers to who the Spidey character is. Honestly… there’s not right or wrong way to do it. Like with traveling, there’s nothing wrong with exploring one corner of the world and then adventuring outward as you get more comfortable. Maybe you start with visiting different places in your state, then you start taking road trips, then you try traveling abroad. Similarly, you can start with Spider-man titles (because there are multiple: Amazing Spider-Man, Peter Parker, Spectacular Spider-man, Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man, etc.), and then maybe you decide you’re going to read more of the “Spider Family.” And then maybe you branch out into some of Spidey’s other super-friends. Of course, if you decide to just stick with the original, that’s perfectly fine, too–you’ll certainly never run out of stories and adventures with everyone’s favorite wall-crawler. Above all, just remember: This is supposed to be fun.
(3) Are you more of a DC fan or a Marvel fan? Or do you prefer independent comics?
Now, this third tip is up to personal preference; it might not apply to you at all. It is totally possible to love all comics equally–Marvel, DC, and independent titles. But chances are, the more you read, you’ll start to develop a preference. I’m more of a DC fan. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have my Marvel comics I check out as soon as they hit the shelves. (Doctor Strange, Fantastic Four, and Spidey are all favorites.) If you do find, however, that you prefer the characters, worlds, or writing styles of one company over another, that will actually help. Continuities, parallel universes, clones, etc.–this all all happens within both Marvel and DC. It’s easier to be “dedicated” to one or the other. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to keep it all straight (the more you read, the easier it will be to balance all the many, many stories), but if you’re starting out, it’s helpful to have a focus. It’s kind of like picking a concentration for a major. If you’re majoring in communications, studying both journalism and media production will probably make your brain explode. But if you choose one, you can really dive into it. (Of course that, doesn’t mean you can take an elective or two in the other course–or you know, read certain comics from the other company.)
Remember: All of these tips are just general. I’ve been reading comics “seriously” for about five years now, and these are all things I wish someone would have told me. I didn’t know much going in except: (1) I like the MCU movies, and (2) Batman is cool. Honestly, picking books felt a bit like being plopped down in a foreign city and just having to choose streets at random.
My hope is that, if you’re new to comics, these tips will give you a bit of a map.
After all, you’ve got one fun journey ahead of you–and it’s full of people who love to share it! (Are there trolls? Yes. But most of us just like to “nerd out” over our favorite characters.)
So… dive in, find what you love, and then spread some love in the comic community. We’re excited to welcome you to this wild, crazy world.