How To: Read Comics for the First Time.

Comic books are not for kids anymore.

No. No. Don’t groan. I know that’s how every mainstream publication has started any article about comics ever since Superman started wearing his underpants on the inside, but I just wanted to start with something familiar. Something you might have experienced before.

See, this is not for people who already talk about trades and floppies and use terms like HC and OOP and Omnis.

This is for the curious, the ones thinking “Hey, I like <Insert animal or adjective here>Man. The movies were cool. I wonder if I should pick up a few comics and see if I enjoy them as well.”

This is also for those thinking “Ugh, comics. People in tights beating each other up. Sure some of the art is nice, but is there anything else other than superheroes?”

But mostly, this is for you. Yes you, in the fringes, looking in. Feeling somewhere that you’d really like comics, but not knowing where to start or how to go about it.This is to help you dive into this wonderfully crazy and creative dimension of art that I am sure you will enjoy very much.

Reading Comics is Different

If you read a lot (the non-comics kind of reading, that is), you are used to the story being laid out a certain way. Text follows text, sequentially.

Not so in comics. Unlike in books with illustrations, the art is not adornment here, it’s an essential part of the storytelling process. For example, the speech bubbles may lay out the conversation between two guards, while the art may show the spy in a corner, creeping past them. The next panel may show the room the spy has entered, with the guards still visible through the door.

If you miss the spy in the first panel, you may be confused as to how he shows up in the room already. While good comic book writers and artists often showcase the action from various angles to cover everything, that’s not always possible if the story has to maintain its pace.

So here’s the first bit of advise. Look at the panel. See everything. Each panel tells a small bit of the story, so forget your left-to-right eyeball movement and take each panel in completely. Remember, the best comics never tell you something if they can show it.

The Dance of the Panels

Now that you have taken the whole panel in, where next? Again, your years of reading will tell you to move to the right, unless you are at the right edge, in which case you move to the left, just a little bit lower.

Not so with comics. See, artists can set up a variety of panel structures, and it’s this kind of experimentation that can make comics fun and different. For example, the entire page (or even two pages) may be a single panel. These are simple, and you just move on. But sometimes, the panels can be laid out in a spiral formation, where your eyes are meant to follow the whole thing to the centre. Or maybe it’s a zigzag. Or maybe the panels are completely unstructured, with a character moving BETWEEN the panels!

See, that’s the beauty of comics, and good artists and writers will always find innovative ways to guide your vision through the page, helping you look where you should be looking. Forget about how you were taught to read, and follow the flow.

Continuity – Confusing but not Critical

For many newbies, and this was certainly true for me, comics meant two companies – DC and Marvel. There are many, many others out there with fantastic variety and stories, but we’ll get to that. In the meantime, if you are new to comics, their characters are the ones you know.

However, comics from these guys (the Big Two, as they are called), maintain a loose sort of continuity, even after many, many reboots, relaunches and re-what-have-yous. Many characters have multiple versions, and even multiple universes to accommodate them! This is very different from the movies, which usually follow a very consistent continuity and even series’ which have clear beginnings and ends. So Tim Burton’s Batman happened before Christopher Nolan’s and they were clearly re-imaginings of the same character. But in comics, they may be two Batmen running around in two continuities, at the same time!

I know, this is probably where you want to put the book down and back away slowly, but don’t. Hear me out. What you need to find is a “jumping-on” point. A book or series which perhaps deals with the origin of a character. There are tons of such stories, and will help you ease into their world before you can get into the whole mindbending, reality-clashing stuff. And you WILL want to go into that stuff, because that stuffs FUN. Trust me.

Recently both DC and Marvel rebooted their lines for the umpteenth time as DC Rebirth and Marvel All New All Different, so the trade paperbacks with the first issues of characters you may like or have heard of are a good idea. Some other stories you can read with minimal knowledge of the characters are:

  1. Batman: Year One – Batman
  2. All-Star Superman – Superman
  3. Brand New Day / Ultimate Spider-Man – Spider-Man

Speaking of trade paperbacks, I will discuss formats, writers and comics beyond the big two in my next edition of this blog (because its late and I’m at close to a thousand words already). Hope this helps you fall in love with comics as much as I have.




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