So You Want to Read Comic Books

It seems that characters inspired by comic books are everywhere now.  Many people are getting their first exposure to Iron Man, the X-men, Batman, S.H.I.E.L.D., and even Superman via blockbuster movies or ground breaking television shows.  However, someone who wants to experience these characters in their original medium can be easily daunted by the confusing variety of products with interweaving story lines and decades of backstory.  This is a shame, because comic books offer a unique storytelling medium that has matured over the years, developing gripping story lines accompanied by fantastic art that stimulates the imagination.  This post seeks to demystify reading comic books by explaining how comic book stories are structured, what physical (or digital) forms these stories come in, and how to acquire these stories and begin reading them.

Bias disclaimer:  I usually read Marvel comic books, so a lot of my examples will come from there, especially since the recent Avengers movies have been so popular that many people have at least heard of the characters.  There are many other great writers and characters; see “A Word on Publishers” below.

The Story Structure of Comic Books

Modern comic books usually tell the story of one or more superheroes or other characters in an episodic fashion.  Each comic book is like one chapter in the continuing stories of the characters, and could either be a self-contained adventure or the continuation of a story started several “chapters” ago (and continued in the next issue).  Sequential comic books are often given the same title and numbered, such as Iron Man #1 through Iron Man #44 (or whatever).  When confronted with a plethora of titles, it helps to understand the three major categories that most comic books fall into:  the solo book, the team-up book, and the event book.

The Solo Book

A solo book is in many ways the most easily understandable form of comic book:  it features one character, whose name is usually the title.  The Amazing Spider-Man, Batman, and Spawn are all example of solo comic books.  Other characters or heroes may show up from time to time, but most of the stories focus on the activities of the title character.  There is usually a supporting cast of characters, such as Lois Lane or Robin, and if they’re popular enough the supporting characters may even get their own comic books (either individual issues or an entirely separate title) focusing on their activities separately from those of the original main character.

The Team-Up Book

A team-up book features a group of characters working together, each of whom may or may not have their own solo book.  The Avengers, Justice League, and X-Men are all examples of Team-Up books.  Team-Up books allow for stories that involve multiple “main” characters and can play with the interactions between those characters as well as their adversaries.

More popular heroes will often have their own solo book in addition to being part of one or more team-up books–so Iron Man might have a solo book that tells stories about what he does on his own, as well as appearing in the Avengers comic book to meet threats that require the whole team.  How much events happening in the solo book affect events in the team-up book varies, but is usually minimal so that people who like reading the Avengers but aren’t super interested in Iron Man can follow the Avengers story without reading the Iron Man solo book.

Some or all of the main characters in a team-up book might not have a solo book or appear anywhere else.  This lets writers tell stories about characters that aren’t popular enough to sustain their own solo book, as well as trying new characters or new versions of existing characters in a limited fashion.

The “roster” of characters in a team-up book can change over time, as new members join the team and older members retire or move on to other pursuits.  A character can be part of multiple team-up books at the same time, and might appear only occasionally in certain stories.

The Event Book

Since 1984, comic book publishers have begun writing stories about large “crossover events” that feature multiple characters who usually don’t interact all being involved in some sort of major event.  These events often involve large changes to existing characters, upsets to the status quo, and the introduction of new characters.

Typically, the major happenings of the event will be presented in their own book, with a set number of issues covering the duration of the event, like a television miniseries.  For example, Secret Wars #1-8.  Meanwhile, the solo and team-up books of anyone involved in the event will usually detail how those specific characters are affected and what their reaction is.  Depending on your level of interest, there are three different levels of involvement you can have with the event:

  1. Ignore it.  This option is most useful when the event doesn’t heavily involve characters you care about or the story being told doesn’t interest you.  If you’re curious, you can always read a summary of what happened after the event is over on the appropriate Wikipedia page.
  2. Read the Event mini-series.  If the story sounds interesting to you or features characters you like, you can read the specific comic books for the event.  This option lets you know what’s going on and involves only a limited investment in terms of budget and reading time over what you may have already been reading, and is a great way to get introduced to characters you might not have heard of before.
  3. Read everything connected with the Event.  If you’re really interested in the event and how it affects every character involved, you can read the event mini-series and all the comic books detailing how different characters are affected.  This typically includes a few issues each from a variety of solo and team-up books.  Some events will indicate all issues that deal with them by an icon or note on the cover, while for others it’s best to look up a reading list for the event online.  Collections of these related comics are often published later (see “Omnibuses and Other Collections” below).

How Comics Are Sold

Now that we have a better idea of how to follow a comic book story, let’s look at how to actually get our hands on one.

Individual Issues

photo credit: IMG_0320 via photopin (license)

photo credit: IMG_0320 via photopin (license)

The stereotypical way to buy comic books is in individual issues, usually purchased from a comic book shop.  New comic books arrive on shelves on Wednesday in the United States.  Each one showcases the latest doings of its featured character(s), and in many shops the events will be discussed among employees and patrons.  Buying individual issues is sort of like watching the latest episode of a TV show when it first airs:  you’ll see it right away and can discuss it with your friends, but you’ll have to wait a while (typically a month for comic books) to find out how the story goes from there.

Comic book shops often get stuck keeping anything they don’t sell, so they don’t order a lot of extra issues and sometimes run out.  If you want to make sure to get the issues you’re interested in, it helps to create a “pull list”.  A pull list is a list of all the comic books you definitely want to buy.  When the new comic book comes in, store employees will “pull” a copy of any title on your list and reserve it for you.  When you come in, you’ll have a stack or box of comic books that have been pulled for you  and are ready for you to buy.  Ask store employees about how to set up a pull list at their store (they may require you to come in once a month or so to actually buy your comics so they don’t have too much unsold stock sitting around).

Hardcovers and Trade Paperbacks

Many publishers group their comic books into sets of about 5-10 issues and republish them as hardcover or paperback books.  These books will say, usually in small print on the back or inside the front cover, which comic book issues are reprinted in the book.  For example, New Avengers Volume 1 contains what was originally New Avengers #1-6.  The story is continued in New Avengers Volume 2, which has issues #7 through #12.

Buying hardcover or paperback collections is sort of like waiting until an entire season of a show comes out on DVD or Netflix:  you can read through a longer connected story arc all at once, but you’re seeing it after a lot of other people and have to wait even longer for the next season to come out.  These collected books are also more durable than individual issues, and often include extras like full page images showing different covers the original issue might have come with, essays by the writers, or sketches showing the formation of characters or story lines.  They’re often easier to buy, as you can often get them at traditional brick-and-mortar bookstores or online at Amazon or other retailers.

Digital Comic Books

It’s a brand new age, and many comic books are now available to buy and read digitally on your computer, tablet, smartphone, or cybernetic eye implant (what do you mean you don’t have one of those yet?).  Comics can be bought in either individual issues or collections.  By far the biggest online retailer is comiXology, which offers both DC and Marvel comics along with a slew of other publishers (see “A Word on Publishers” below).  Several publishers also have their own platforms for buying and reading digital comics, either instead of or in addition to being part of comiXology.  Digital comics usually come out at the same time as their print counterparts, and often cost about the same, too (sometimes slightly cheaper, but publishers don’t want to undercut themselves and have to pay people to digitize the comic book into different formats).  Digital stores don’t give you physical products, but they’re right in your home and never run out of stock.

One noteworthy option for digital comics is Marvel Unlimited, a subscription service that gives instant access to over 15,000 older Marvel comic books for $10/month (or $100/year).  It doesn’t feature anything newer than 6 months and there are still a number of holes in the back catalog, but the focus has been on digitizing cohesive story lines and events so there are a lot of great stories you can read.  This is also a great way to check out a bunch of different characters and comics to see what interests you before committing to a particular story.

Omnibuses and Other Collections

Sometimes, after a big event has finished, publishers will make a book that reprints all of the comics from the event miniseries, as well as all of the comics that they determine to be related to the event, in a massive collection.  For example, the Infinity Gauntlet Omnibus contains all of the comics dealing with Marvel’s Infinity Gauntlet event from 1991.  Some events will be instead be collected in several volumes, or a main book and a “companion” book that have the event mini-series and related comics, respectively.  These collections are a good way to see how the event impacted characters across the universe without hunting down a bunch of different individual issues, but their price is commensurate with their size.

A Word on Publishers

Comic books are often organize by publisher.  A publishing company typically employs a bunch of different writers and artists, who might work on different characters at different times or even move to a different publishing company.  Publishers are important to the average reader because a publisher usually owns the rights to the characters in their comic books (with a few notable exceptions, such as Image Comics).  Regardless of who they hire to write and draw their stories, they retain ultimate control of the character and can do what they want with it, including having it interact with other characters.  This is why you frequently see comics with both Iron Man and Captain America in them (both are owned by Marvel), but you’ll almost never see a comic with both Iron Man and Batman (Batman is owned by DC).

Marvel and DC are the two major publishers.  They’ve been around the longest and account for about 80% of the market.  Marvel owns all of the Avengers, Spider Man, the X-men, and the Fantastic Four, among others (the movie rights are spread out among different studios and are a bit more complicated).  DC owns Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and the Justice League.  There are also a number of smaller publishers who often publish less standard fare that can create some amazing stories.  Because their “stable” of characters isn’t as big, smaller publishers tend to focus more on their solo books and have fewer (if any) large crossover events.

Where to Jump In

So should you start with the first comic books ever written about a character?  Unless it’s a new character, probably not!  Some of these heroes have been around since before World War II, and have an incredible back catalog of stories of varying quality.

The first thing to do is to identify what character(s) you’re interested in.  If you really liked a recent movie with a comic book character, you can start there.  If you have an idea of what type of story you like to read, internet searches or the staff at a local comic book shop can help point you toward characters that are likely to interest you.  You can also browse through comic books at a shop, through the Marvel Unlimited subscription mentioned above, or at your local library (many of them include comic book collections accessible for free) and see what grabs your attention.

Once you know what story you want to read, figure out where to start reading.  If it’s a new character or a self-contained story (like Fables or Sandman), by all means start at the beginning!  If the numbering of the issues has restarted recently with a new #1, start there–publishers sometimes do this as a way of designating a good “jumping-on” point for a new portion of an ongoing story (DC is starting a bunch of new #1’s in the middle of 2015, and Marvel will be starting a slew of #1’s in the fall/winter of 2015).  Immediately before or after a major event is often a good place to start, since events frequently redefine a character’s place or role in the world.  You can find an excellent list of suggested reading by character at the r/comicbooks subreddit.  Failing all of that, try asking comic shop employees or other enthusiasts on internet forums where you should dive in.

Occasionally, a comic book will reference something that happened to the characters in the past.  If it’s important, there will usually be a brief summary given of the relevant events (possibly as simple as “You defeated me last time, but I’ve been plotting revenge!”).  If you feel lost or your interest is piqued, you can look up a summary of what happened online or find those particular issues to go back and read.

If you run into something you don’t understand that wasn’t covered here, please ask in the comments, and I’ll try to answer your question and possibly do a future post about it.  Enjoy your reading!

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