In my time frequenting comic book message boards, I’ve seen one topic come up more than just about any other: where to start? It’s not unusual (or unexpected) for new readers who are interested in getting into comics to look for recommendations on how to start. Any newbie to the genre is going to face a lot of questions: trade paperbacks with reprints, or individual issues? Start with a #1, or jump on it the middle of a series? And, of course, what’s good and what isn’t? Sometimes people who are interested in trying comics can feel overwhelmed looking at all of the different series, volumes, and other specifics, so I thought that this week I would give a quick run-down on comics as a format and how they are published.
Most comic book series come out in single issue format once per month. Rather than being self-contained stories, most individual issues only contain portions of an overall storyline. The industry average currently is around five or six issues per storyline. Complete storylines are usually reprinted in trade paperbacks, often referred to as TPBs. Trade collections are sometimes often referred to as graphic novels, a term which can also be used to refer to a comic work that is initially published in paperback (or hardcover), rather than originating in a serialized format.
So, new comic reader question number one: should you read collections or single issues? I personally recommend both, although preferences will vary. If you’re interested in trying a series out, picking up a single issue if a cheap option to test the waters and see how you like it. Reading comics month to month also builds up a special sort of excitement and momentum, like waiting week-to-week for your favorite TV show’s next episode to air. There’s something really cool about a cliffhanger that leaves you wanting more but having to wait. Gaps between issues help build anticipation, and give you more time to speculate what’s going to happen next.
Of course, some people prefer to binge, and I do at times as well. Reading trade paperback collections is a great way to catch up on older material, as tracking down all of the individual issues from a storyline tends to get harder the further back you read. It can also be nice to digest a full plotline in one setting, so you’re more likely to catch little linking details. I personally read currently ongoing series in issue format and do most of my reading of older material using reprint collections. The format one should read comics in really comes down to personal preference.
Another big question for beginning readers is where to start. Some people feel uncomfortable diving into a storyline or series midway-through, and prefer to begin at the beginning. I think that there are pros and cons to this. It is nice to feel like one isn’t missing anything, and following a storyline or a creator’s work from start to finish in order allows one to experience the trip in full. With that said, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with just diving in the deep end sometimes. When I was a kid, I loved to go through boxes of years-old issues, picking out what looked appealing and seeing where that led me. I didn’t always have the full context behind everything I was reading, but I could still recognize what I thought was cool, what had great art, and what characters I found relatable. Jumping in the middle of things with whatever issues happen to be most readily available is a totally valid way to explore comics, and to search for the characters and themes that most resonate with you personally.
Here’s something that I think is important to keep in mind if you’re considering jumping into comics: almost no matter where you start, you will be starting, somewhat, in the middle of things. Even if you began reading with, say, issue number one of the current Batman ongoing series (which launched last year), you’re still jumping into a franchise and character that’s existed since 1939. That may sound daunting, but I really don’t think that age is a bad thing in this case. Really good comics (to include the current Batman series) draw upon their characters’ histories while telling stories that can be understood by readers both new and old. While you may not know characters’ full histories without some research, I don’t think that research is required. While it can be fun to read old stories starring characters you like to get a deeper understanding of their history (and just to read more fun comics), catching up in comics isn’t a prerequisite.
For instance, if you love Batman movies and want to start reading Batman comics, I would not recommend starting way back with his first appearance from before the U.S. entered World War II. I would recommend checking out some more contemporary work that feels less dated. That’s not to say that there’s no fun to be had in reading really old stuff, just that you don’t have to shun the new stuff until you do so. Think of soap operas. There are some that have been airing for decades. You can’t be expected to go back to the beginning and watch decades worth of television. If you catch a recent episode and like it, good for you. If you catch years-old reruns of some old show, good for you also. It doesn’t matter if what you like is current or old, popular or not. What matters, when consuming any sort of art, is that you’re having a good time.
That’s essentially my mission statement for getting started in comics: have a good time. Think about what you personally like. Do you build anticipation through reading in a serialized format? Do you prefer to read a whole story in one sitting? Buy accordingly. Is there a character you’re particularly interested in after seeing their TV show or movie? Flip through recent issues of their series, or whatever trade paperbacks your local bookstore happens to have. You can look online and find lists of recommended reading for just about any character. These lists can be a great way to find high quality material to sate your appetite. The more you read, the more you’ll figure out what you like and what you don’t like.
And so my “how to read comics” column culminates in “read them however you like.” If you’re just starting out, I hope that some of the basic information I listed regarding publication formats has at least been helpful. People ask for recommendations all the time, but the answer really boils down to “check out what you think looks cool. Repeat.” For sake of giving some more specificity, however, I will list a few recommendations for specific characters and genres.
If you’re a Batman fan, then Batman, All-Star Batman, and Detective Comics are all fantastic currently ongoing series about the Caped Crusader. Nightwing, a comic about the original Robin who has grown up and become his own hero, is wonderful as well. Also in the Bat-family of books is Batwoman, which is a great place to start if you’re looking for comics starring lesbian characters. If you desire a read including gay men, the mini-series Midnighter and Apollo just wrapped up but is great as well.
If you like comedic reading, then Marvel’s The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl and Star-Lord are both great series right now. Squirrel Girl is a great all-ages read that many parents like sharing with their young daughters, but its humor is intelligent and delightful in a way that adults can fully enjoy as well. Star-Lord stars Chris Pratt’s character from Guardians of the Galaxy, working in a bar frequented by supervillains and dealing with the ensuing hijinks.
If you’re into horror, Underwinter is a series that just started and is stellar thus far. Glitterbomb wrapped up last year but has since been reprinted in trade paperback form, and is well worth a read as well. Both series are published by Image Comics, which is a great company for comics not starring superheroes. Saga combines a touching story about romance and family with great sci-fi and fantasy settings and tropes, while Descender is a space epic in comic format. Bitch Planet is a must read for any lover of feminist literature.
These are just some recommendations, and they’re all pretty contemporary. There’s lots of great older material as well, but I don’t want to drag on too long. If there’s a specific character or concept you’re into, Google it. There’s plenty of good recommendation lists out there, and it doesn’t matter where you start. The only rule is: have fun. Enjoy yourself, and read what you like to read. Thankfully, there are comics out there for everyone.
Eric Cline is a gay poet, 2016 Best of the Net nominee, and the founding editor-in-chief of Calamus Journal. His debut chapbook, “his strange boy eve”, was published by Yellow Chair Press in September 2016. He tweets @ericclinepoet.