Comics for Beginners

Ben Tseng made an excellent list of comics for people just looking to start out.

As I’ve made [no] secret of my love for comic books, a friend of mine who has been enjoying the latest string of comic book movies asked if I had any recommendations for comics/trade paperbacks that a “comic newbie” (i.e. someone who doesn’t know the billion years of backstory that have accumulated over time in the comic worlds) might read.

Of course I do—who do you think you’re talking to? Here’s a quick list of things I’d recommend to a new reader who’d like to see what is out there in the comic world

I have some additions to make to his list, however, especially for comics newbies (and compared to him, we are all beginners).

Not-Strictly-Superhero Fantasy/Genre Comics

  • Bone (not the TV series): A really good and fast read that’s epic and personal at the same time. If the story and drawing style feel a little precious and juvenile at first, stick with it. It gets much deeper and mature later, and the characters are fantastic.
  • Fables: A superb fantasy series written by a star writer, Bill Willingham. It’s quite long, so it’s not for the feint of heart, but the premise (all fairy tale creatures live here in the real world under fake identities) is wonderful.
  • Scott Pilgrim: The books are far, far better than the movie. Sure, the main character is an ass (and not all that sympathetic, in my opinion), but the rich set of side characters really makes up for it.
  • Zot: The author and artist of this book, Scott McCloud, is probably most famous for Understanding Comics, an amazing analysis of comic book storytelling for the general audience, but this is an earlier work from him, and worth checking out. It takes him a bit to hit his stride, but especially in the later stories, the explorations of adolescence is truly remarkable. He was one of the early Western comics pioneers to incorporate Japanese anime/manga drawing techniques in his comics.

DC Comics

  • All-Star Superman (Volume 1, Volume 2): A wonderful intro to Superman comics. It’s hard to write good stories about a nearly god-like superhero (and thus a lot of Superman comics are pretty boring), but this one is actually very good, and its self-contained nature makes it a really good way to ease into comics in general.
  • The Dark Knight Returns: This, along with Batman: Year One, are considered some of Frank Miller’s greatest works in traditional superhero comics, and for good reason. The art is fantastic, and the writing is top-notch. This one is a bit more advanced; I suggest reading Year One before trying this book, but it’s totally worth it.

Marvel Comics

  • Astonishing X-Men #1-25: I’m a Marvel-comics newbie (all I knew about the X-men before I read this was what I’d seen in the movie theaters), so in my opinion, this story is great as an introduction to the X-men and the Marvel universe in general; it has a self-contained story arc, but at the same time the references to other characters and past events help to place the X-men in a larger scope in a way that fleshes out the world rather than making the Marvel universe feel obscure and intractable.

    The writing is really good, which perhaps isn’t surprising since it’s written by Joss Whedon of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Doctor Horrible fame. Still, this is a “mainstream” comic book, in that it starts almost in media res, so a little bit of knowledge of backstory can help a lot. Hence:

    Prerequisites: Either watch X-men (the first movie), X-men: First Class, and maybe one or two other Marvel movies like Iron Man or Thor, or read New X-men, which is one of Ben’s recommendations (I followed the first path).

Tips for prospective beginners

More so than in TV and movies, there are a lot of really terrible comic books. Even from star writers, output can be uneven in quality, and plot holes and weird, forced character development are fairly common. The forced pace of comic book publishing, and the whole insider-only, boys-only nature of how comics are produced, is often the culprit, leading to bad or crippled stories and shallow characters, especially with female characters. Superhero comics especially bring out the worst in the comic book industry.

One thing that’s often hard for beginners to grasp is that usually there is one ongoing “canonical” universe in comic books, but many stories (and most of the best ones) over the years have accumulated in “alternative” universes, where some details can vary. Don’t get hung up on the variations or contradictions. Continuity (comic-book-nerd speak for preserving and referencing years and years of backstory baggage) is severely overvalued in the comic book industry, and the best stories are often timeless and stand on their own two legs. There’s a reason why many of the books Ben and I both picked are often origin stories or stories set in “alternative” universes outside of the mainstream “canon” of comic books.

It’s worth your time to look around, cherry pick the best stories (which are often not the most marketed), and ignore the impulse to “read the whole story”. Quieter, smaller stories are almost always worth more time than the huge, universe-wide, pack-every-reference-you-can-think-of comic book stories that seem to be the trend these days in superhero comics.

In summary, seek out the gems as best as you can, and skip the oceans of bad stuff.