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A Beginner's Guide to Comics

Home > Everywhere > Comics | Literary
by Ren (subscribe)
I'm a London-based freelancer who writes about costume design, performance art, pop culture deconstructions, literary evaluations, reviews and bucket lists on my blog Diary of a Self-Confessed Nerd
Published June 19th 2013
A quick guide and glance at comics and where to start
comic books


I decided to write this guide with my younger sister in mind as she is just getting into comics. I want her to have some positive role models and know a good story with (at least) a plausible representation of women, ethnic groups, sexualities, physical abilities, and to learn to appreciate even the comics that don't have these. This guide is about being able to see the representations of characters and pick out the good from the bad in otherwise great stories, even when just starting out as a reader. It's not just about plot. It is about stopping new readers from further internalising the medias portrayal of the world; not everyone is skinny, heavy chested, white, and straight with Olympic level fitness. Comics are seen as something "innocent" and "free" from all of these stereotypes, when in reality they are quite the opposite. I want sister and others who are thinking about getting into comics to enjoy and be a part of this fantastic world, not driven away.

Knowledge is Power

If you know someone who already reads comics then your first step should be to go and talk to them. Ask them what they like, what they read, why they read it, even ask you check out their collection and begin reading some of those. It will at least give you some idea of what you like with regards to style of art, content and writers.

Also, it's free.

Another great thing would be to get them to take you to their local store or the website they buy their comics from in whatever format they prefer. Having someone familiar with these places can make buying your own comics a much more relaxing and friendly experience.

On top of this you can start learning the language; you'll quickly learn the difference between a collected edition, a graphic novel, a trade paperback and what exactly are back issues and what are the advantages of a hardcover verses softcover.

If you don't know where to start...

then just pick up a comic that appeals to you. You know Superman, right? Pick up a Superman. You know Wonder Woman, right? Pick up a Wonder Woman. It doesn't have to be the first issue or collection, just pick it up and give it a try. Maybe you won't like it but if there is even one character you do like say Wonder Girl or Superboy or you see a team that you didn't know existed maybe the Star Sapphires, Suicide Squad, or Young Justice then go off and research them, find out more and buy some of the comics they come from, follow their story arc.

This is particularly handy if you are looking for a particular type of character. For the purpose of this article I'll use the example of a strong female character; pick up a big issue of a well-known female character, so Power Girl or Wonder Woman as in the previous example, but you'll more likely have better luck at finding more heroines by picking up a big issue of a well-known male character, and you'll find female counterparts, love interests, even some awesome villainesses in them.

It's a well-known fact that there is a gender divide in comics that is no longer accurate to the world we live in, but don't let that stop you from supporting awesome strong ladies and the writers that actually do a good job of crafting them.

Comic jumping is a vital part of leaning what you like in the narratives but also the characters. Don't be afraid to do it.

There are a lot of Universes with the same characters in them; but don't panic!

You'll never know the details of every single Universe, but don't be afraid of delving into these different "Earths" and reading about how characters have changed and developed. Earth-1610 (Ultimate Universe) isn't the same as Marvel Universe (Earth-616), but that is what makes it fun!

Like the point above, comic jumping is a great way to learn what you like about story and characters, but Universe jumping also does something else; it allows a reader to explore how a character can change depending on their Universe as well as who is writing. Jumping comics and Universe means you get a rich overview of how different writers use the same character, my favourite being how the Russian Piotr Rasputin, better known as Colossus, both for his definitely masculine presence and mutant ability to turn into living metal, came out of the closet in Marvel's Ultimate Universe, though he remains heterosexual in other Marvel media. It was nice to see how this affected the team as well as Piotr, as he had previously been a set and defined character in the Marvel franchise.

Having a different writer and a different Universe allows for more exploration, more diversity and sometimes great changes for better and sometimes for the worse.

Don't stick to one writer or artist and pay attention to them outside of the comic too.

Explore as many writers as you can, check out the female writers, check out the male writers, and look to those who self-publish their work and draw it as well as write it. Don't limit yourself to one name and one perspective of these fantasy worlds.

That goes for artists too.

If you don't like something a writer has done or can't stand the way someone is drawn then know it is okay to stop reading that storyline. Don't force yourself to keep going through misguided loyalty either. Pay attention to what these writers and artists are saying and doing outside of their work as well, check out Twitterfeeds and interviews. You might find that some people in the industry are not all they seem when limited to a collection of pages and colours.

Check out the "Classics" as well as the most recent releases:

Check out older stuff; it isn't hard to find what is generally considered "classic" comics as a majority are in re-print. It just takes a quick Google search to find stuff like Watchmen (Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons and John Higgins) and Batman: The Killing Joke (Alan Moore and Brian Bolland) for instance.

On the same coin, check out the most controversial of stories but be ready to rage if you like female characters with independence, autonomy and life. Collections like The Amazing Spider-Man 2004's Sins Past features the rape of Gwen Stacey, while Sue Dibny (Elongated Man's wife) also raped and then murdered in Identity Crisis, older still is Green Lantern #54 (1994) where Kyle Rayner comes home one day from being his Green Lantern-self to find his girlfriend, Alex DeWitt, has been murdered and stuffed in a refrigerator.

Yeah, these are plot-devices. Apparently. Educate yourself about which comics have what in them, find out why a classic is a classic and why other comics are controversial. Avoid what you don't want to read about, though avoiding death in comics is somewhat, well, unavoidable.

Check out the non-DC Comics and Marvel franchises.

Be ready to go to different publishers. Dark Horse is a great one, IDW too. Check out comics like Hellboy by Mike Mignola, then check out and read more of that particular writer or publisher. Don't be afraid to try out something different.

Likewise don't be worried if you find yourself drifting off to other genres entirely; manga is a great source too. If you like it, read it. There are hundreds of great manga books coming into the UK from all over, not just Japan. For instance the Bride of the Water God by Mi-Kyung Yun is a very popular manga from Korea. Check it out for not only stunning art but a lovely plot too. There are also the hugely popular lines of Japanese manga like Bleach by Tite Kubo and Naruto by Masashi Kishimoto, which have their own anime (cartoons) as well.

Always remember to explore other media such as film, TV, and non-canon fandom adaptations.

Sometimes it isn't the villain who is the enemy but other fans.

I hate this point and I really didn't want to mention it but sometimes it is the fans that cause the problems, not the comics themselves, nor the writers and the decisions they make. Sometimes being female and liking comics can be really tough and I know a lot of people will roll their eyes and say "it's not sexist", but having been buying my own comics for over seven years now and having been a women, well, all my life, I know from experience that sometimes people other fans will treat you like a idiot for not knowing every obscure little fact about one character, or even just for walking into a comic bookshop to pick something up. I have been in several stores only to be approached by another shopper and asked if I am looking for my boyfriend or being told that "that comic sucks, you should really read more Batman, not Wonder Woman".

Learn to ignore these people and get on with your reading. They are the minority but unfortunately they have the loudest voices and no amount of arguing back will change their minds that "girls can't like comic books".

If you really want you can just tell them to bugger off, but don't let it stop you from enjoying your reading and getting that thrill when you pick up the latest publication in-person.

Finally, if ever in doubt, Wikipedia it.

There is nothing wrong with checking out Wikipedia to fill yourself in on previous events within whatever comic you are reading. Not just because the information is quick and free to access but because you might find out that you don't actually want to get involved in that event.

No one is going to judge you for educating yourself.

Most of all, remember reading in any form is a hobby and one that you should be able to enjoy; comics are exactly the same. There is so much out there that you can guarantee that you will eventually find something that you like and will want to continue reading.
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Why? Just for fun
When: Anytime
Where: Start in your closest comic book store, or online
Cost: Prices vary
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