With comic convention season well underway and superhero franchises lighting up screens big and small, there’s never been a better time to dive into the world of reading comics. Unsure of where to start? Here’s our advice for diving into the wild, wonderful world of comic books.
Physical or Digital?
The first, most important decision you’ll have to make as a newcomer to comics, maybe even before deciding what books you’d actually like to try, is what format you’d like to actually read it in. The best advice for a newcomer is probably to start digitally—if you’re in for the long haul, a collection of non-existent paper flying around in the digital cloud is a lot easier to look after than a rapidly expanding pile (then several piles, then shelves, and then boxes in storage, and so on and so forth) of physical comic issues.
These days, digital comics are easier than ever to access; comic publishers big and small offer all of their series digitally, and even have digital-exclusive or digital-first series, and you can read them on your phone, tablet, or PC wherever you go. Issues can be purchased individually—they cost the same as physical, so around $2-4—or gathered in digital collections containing a whole run of comics, or select storyarcs, just as you would find physical collections and trade paperbacks. You can also subscribe to series so you get new issues added to your library when they release for convenient collecting. Not every comic ever is available digitally (this is usually just a problem with older comics—everything from the last five years or so is pretty much available), but digital stores for basically every publisher around will have more than enough on offer.
At the moment, most digital comic sellers don’t offer “Netflix-style” subscription services where you can pay a flat fee and access everything, but that’s actually changing. As far as the big two publishers are concerned, Marvel has Marvel Unlimited, a $69-a-year service that grants you access to their vast collection, but DC is sadly lacking a similar offering. You’ll also have to bear in mind services like Marvel Unlimited don’t instantly add brand new comics when they release, so if you’re fine with waiting a while before the latest issues are included, it’s a worthwhile option.
Looking for comics outside of those two, or looking to build a digital collection from multiple publishers? Comixology will be your best bet. The Amazon-owned retailer sells digital comics from over 70 publishers, and although they don’t offer an “all-you-can-read” subscription service, rumors are swirling surrounding the announcement of such a subscription being unveiled later this year.
If you have your heart set on physical comics though, here’s some basic advice on where to get started:
If you have a local store, use it. In fact, I’d almost say don’t collect your comics physically if you don’t have a local comic store you can take advantage of. Comic book stores can have a bad rep for newcomers, but if you’ve got a local store staffed by helpful people, it’s a valuable boon for the newbie comic reader. Not only can you arrange a “pull list” of comics you want to subscribe to, but you can also ask people who are more experienced with comics than you are for advice or what series they’d recommend. Part of the joy of comics is the social aspect beyond reading them—discussing stories with fellow fans, debating about characters and whatnot. A comic store is a great place to meet people who share an interest in comics, support a local business, and get a bunch of cool comics to read. Unsure if there’s a store near you? If you’re in the U.S., Comic Shop Locator will help you find the nearest stores in your area.
Start small. Seriously, don’t go and get yourself a subscription to a dozen different comics straight away—you’ll find yourself with more comics than you know what to do with within a few months. Don’t hesitate to start with one or two series, or if you want to get a taste for something, a few single issues first (you don’t have to subscribe to a series, either!). Slow and steady, and then dive in a little deeper when you’ve got a hang of things.
Sort out your storage. If you’re going to collect physical comics, you’re going to want something to put them in to keep them undamaged as your collection grows. You can buy most comics in plastic sleeves (or if you order a physical subscription online, they’ll most likely come in one), but if you’re into keeping your comics well preserved after you’d read them, you’ll want to make sure you have plenty on hand—places like Amazon sell huge packs of sleeves for relatively cheaply, or if you want to spend a little more, sleeves with cardboard inserts to keep your books straight. And when the time comes to pack them away in boxes, you can even get specifically designed boxes to hold them!
Consider collections. If you like the idea of physical comics but don’t want piles and piles of single issues, collections, graphic novels and trade paperbacks are for you. You won’t get new comics straight away, but if you’re looking to read individual story arcs, or a certain creative team’s run on a character, or especially if you’re looking to delve into a series’ backstory, these printed collections are perfect for you, and offer an extended reading experience compared to an issue of a book.
Have it both ways! It’s not a permanent choice to go physical or digital—you can do both! You might want to buy most of your comics digitally, but if there’s a series or character close to your heart, opt to buy it physically (personally, I read all my comics digitally save for Marvel’s current Star Wars ongoing, because I’m a big Star Wars fan and like having the individual issues as a collection). Even better though, is that if you buy physical comics, most of them come with a free digital copy of the issue.
Where to Start
Now that you’ve decided on how you’re going to collect your comics, the time has come for you actually decide what comics to read. With so many options out there it can seem a little daunting to get into, but here’s some good first steps to consider taking:
Start with a character you know from somewhere else. Part of the recent boom in comics readership is thanks to an increased familiarity with comic book characters in the mainstream through live-action adaptations: Movies like Marvel’s vast cinematic universe, TV shows like Arrow, The Flash and The Walking Dead, and so on. There are millions of people out there now familiar with characters like Thor, Barry Allen or Rick Grimes that have never touched a comic book before thanks to these adaptations, so if you’re already a fan of those properties, a natural starting place would be the series of one of these blockbuster heroes. Marvel in particular is good for this—they’ve openly discussed how, 18 months before one of their movies is due out, they’ll start pushing the starring heroes in their comics, with either more appearances or even their own new series to entice movie-watchers. DC have also started miniseries set in between seasons of The Flash and Arrow for fans of the show to try too!
Try licensed comics. Don’t necessarily want to get into superhero comics? The process is still quite similar for a newcomer—find a franchise you love and are familiar with already, and see if there’s a comic. I mentioned Star Wars earlier, but everything from shows like Doctor Who, Sleepy Hollow or Orphan Black, video games like Mass Effect and The Witcher, even cartoons like Samurai Jack have their own comic books. Hell, some series, like X-Files, Firefly or Buffy have even had official continuations in form of comics, long after they ended their TV runs. Not every licensed comic is going to be good, but it’s a simple way to get into the habit of reading comics.
Issue numbers don’t matter—storyarcs do. Part of what can be so intimidating for a new reader is not knowing where to jump in on a series, especially if you want to get into a long-running character. Seeing issue numbers in the hundreds can put you off altogether, but they don’t really matter. Firstly, numbers are pretty meaningless after a point: companies will often rebrand a series with a new #1 even if there isn’t a reboot, just because it stands a better chance of hooking new readers into an ongoing series. Secondly, what really matters is the beginning of new storylines rather than the beginning of a whole new series. Case in point: This month, DC comics shook up their current publishing schedule, introducing a number of new series, but also placing their ongoing ones into new scenarios and stories, perfect places for new readers to join along—but most of those new storylines aren’t beginning in #1’s, but issues numbered as #41, continuations of the former series. So don’t just look at the number of an issue—look to see if it’s the first part of a new story!
Your First Step into a Wider World
So, you’ve taken your first tentative step into comics, tried a few series, and want even more. Great! Now that you’ve dipped your toes into the comic book waters, it’s only natural to want to branch out. You’re familiar with the basics, here’s a few tips on where to go next:
Branch out from one big character to their spinoff series. If you start following really big characters, your Batman and Superman sort of scale, more often than not they have multiple series under their umbrella that you can branch out to. Batman might be the main series for the Dark Knight, for example, but there’s also Detective Comics, Batgirl, Gotham Academy, Robin, Son of Batman, and so on. They’re not necessary reading if you just want the main book, but they represent stepping stones to take you beyond it.
Don’t just follow characters—follow creators. As you start experimenting with your comics consumption a little more, it’s important to remember not just to stick with the characters you know, but also the people behind those characters. Creative teams change all the time, but if say, you enjoyed a writer’s particular run on a character, you might want to try reading whatever series they’re currently writing. The same can go for an artist whose style you love. Likes Matt Fraction’s take on Hawkeye? Try his creator-owned series Sex Criminals! Following comics this way lets you inevitably experience a wider variety of comics, and it’s easier to try something you wouldn’t consider otherwise if you’re already familiar with the creative team behind it.
Don’t be afraid to experiment. Comic books are far, far more than the big two publishers—and far more than just superheroes. What makes comic books such an exciting medium is that they can be used to tell all kinds of different stories across so many different genres, so if you want to move beyond just reading comics from the big publishers, you’ll find a wealth of interesting new series and stories and one-offs that can push the medium to its maximum potential. You don’t have to commit—like I said earlier, don’t be afraid to buy a few single issues of a series and then drop it if you’re not feeling it—if you don’t want to, but there’s no harm in at least trying some of what’s out there. If you’re unsure of what new series are available, every Tuesday io9 runs Comics We Crave, gathering every new comic series across publishers big and small beginning that week in one convenient list. Check out the descriptions, see if there’s anything you fancy, and pick it up the following day when new releases hit!
Comic Books can be a wonderful hobby to get into—hopefully these tips will help you on your way from being a newcomer to an avid reader in no time!