I’ve worked in a comic shop for two years now, and the single most frequent question I have people ask me (apart from “do you sell movies or just books”) is none other than “How do I start reading comics?”
It’s not a surprising question. Comics are pretty and utterly notorious for complicated continuity and confusing classifications, and more often than not, people who would otherwise absolutely love the material shy away from it out of fear and intimidation. Coupled with the age-old stereotype of the Comic Book Guy scoffing at newbie questions and serving as gatekeepers to the books, it really is no wonder that more people feel like they need a PhD before being allowed to buy a few issues of Batman.
Usually, when people come into the store and ask, I’ll tell them this. Go to the wall, where all the new comics are lined up, and find something that looks interesting to you. Grab it, read it, see if you like it –
And congratulations! You’re now reading comics!
Once you pick up a comic and enjoy it, you’re into comics. Easy as pie.
“No, it’s not,” you want to protest. “There’s like 700 issues of the Avengers, and what’s that? New Avengers, Secret Avengers – Mighty Avengers and Mighty Defenders and Uncanny and All New and All Different – how on earth am I supposed to make sense of any of that by just picking up some random book off a wall?!”
“And I can’t go into the local comic shop!” you say. “The staff laughs at people and caters to men and it’s full of people who laugh and leer at me and tell me ‘Oh, is this for your boyfriend?’ I don’t want to go back there.”
Sadly, these are also worries that a lot of people have when they start thinking about reading comics, especially women, for whom comics as a community have been so historically hostile. So here, I will tell you how I got ‘into’ comics, to show where you can start.
In 2012, the first Avengers movie had just come out. I had seen only a handful of the lead-up films beforehand and thought okay, I’ll go see this with some family. I enjoyed the movie quite a lot, but it wasn’t revolutionary – I didn’t leave the theater deciding that Marvel comics was going to define my life from here on out. Some people did and immediately went on Amazon to find absolutely everything with Iron Man’s name on it, buy it, absorb it, and started spreading out into characters like Iron Patriot and War Machine from there.
At the same time Avengers was making billions of dollars, I was spending the summer scrolling through Tumblr. Someone I followed had started posting panels from what I recognized as an American comic. It showed a girl in a burqa talking with a boy with red wings, and I thought the dialogue was sweet. At the bottom of the post, it had New Mutants listed as the source.
I had a title. Something definite I could go look up. So when I happened to be in my mall and saw there was a video game store that also sold comics, I went inside and tried to find issues of New Mutants.
Chances are, if you’re interested in comics, there’s probably a character or two that caught your eye. There are probably characters whose designs have attracted you, or that you saw in a movie or cartoon as a kid and only half remember. That’s a brilliant place to start. It helps to narrow down your search before you’re staring down shelves of books and getting dizzy. With a character or team in mind, your search is much easier.
Even though I had found some New Mutants issues, when I sat down to read them, they made zero sense. Instead of the girl in the burqa, there was, like, a robot? And some annoying blonde guy in yellow spandex? Wait, am I supposed to know who the pink teleporting girl is, because everyone else knows who she is? I had encountered what many people fear – to have grabbed comics and gotten completely, utterly lost. A quick look back at the covers told me why. I had bought issues 47 and 48. No wonder I couldn’t understand a thing that was happening!
Unfortunately, going back to that comic shop, they were sold out of the first forty-six issues. What was up on the wall instead were a whole bunch of books with a big red #1 plastered on the cover. Series like Captain America, X-Men, Captain Marvel, Hawkeye, Gambit – all these names that I knew from cartoons and movies and hey, some with awesome ladies on the cover. I grabbed as many of them as my wallet could handle and sat down that very night to read them all.
A good first issue of a comic does exactly what it did for me. It sketches a portrait of the character, the cast, and a new story, explaining all the relevant history while propelling you forward into its new mystery. Sometimes, you get bad first issues that cater exclusively to the continuity hounds, or are just bad stories in general, but there’s no way to avoid those. You just have to try what looks cool and go from there. But if it’s got a #1 on front, it’s your chance to give it a try.
In Captain America, they had a woman in a white jumpsuit talking to Cap like they were old friends, and I had no idea who she even was. But he called her ‘Sharon Carter’, so I plugged that name into Google, and the first result was for a Marvel Wikia entry on her. The glorious thing about the age of the Internet is that fans have created Wikis for just about everything – and for comic newbies, they’re perfect at explaining who and what went on. DC has one too. I could sit down and read the entire Sharon Carter entry, and start jotting down the names of stories and authors that cropped up. Stories like “The Winter Soldier” and “Death of Captain America” that were one Amazon checkout away from being in my hands.
As with anything, the more you involve yourself in something, the more familiar with its nuances you become. There’s absolutely no book or website I can recommend that will give you all the knowledge to be ‘into’ comics. It’s about finding what interests you the most, and finding friends and communities – online and in person – who introduce you to new things. Tumblr has an amazing comics community that has written extensive masterposts detailing character appearances, and Twitter is one message away from connecting you to creators who are happy to promote their stories.
But really, it is as easy as having something catch your eye and seeing if it resonates with you.
Jess Bawgus writes a little too much about comics for Girls in Capes. She fell in love with superheroes while earning her BA in History and German from Bryn Mawr College, and currently spends her days between a public library and local comic shop Level Up Entertainment.