Monday, January 26, 2015

Answering Questions - The Picky Girl asks Where One Should Start When it Comes to Comics

Picky Girl placed the following in the comment box

Ok, I have a question. So I was not a comics girl growing up. I read a ton - and a lot of stuff that was probably way above my head - but the only comics I ever came in contact with were Archie and Veronica at my grandmother's house (in the bathroom...).

In college, a prof handed me Watchmen, and I loved it. I read some graphic novels and did a lot of reading about comics and the superhero, but when it came to comics, I never knew where to begin. There are so many iterations that I don't know where to begin. Any suggestions?

I'll go ahead and ask my fellow comics dorks to weigh in down in the comment section.  I know you've got your opinions, and my suggestions are just that.  They're just some suggestions by me.  So, chime in, buddies.

First of all, I think if you get down to it, a lot of people had their first and often their last exposure to comics through Archie Comics.  There's a reason everyone over a certain age recognizes Archie and Jughead, and enough people are aware of the Archie-Veronica-Betty love triangle so that you can use it as cultural shorthand.

I'm one of those kids, too.  I have a warm spot in my heart for Archie, even if I can't imagine how one remains a lifelong reader, but people do that, and that's kind of cool.

yeah.  every high school guy has two girlfriends who are cool with this situation.

Back in the 90's, you got to ride the wave of 1980's envelope-pushing comics and academics for whom bringing in anything on the edge of culture to teach was kind of a novel thing.  Watchmen has sold a lot of copies to kids taking a blow-off course where they could read comics, but it earned its rep as one of the very, very few comics that reads like a sprawling novel and talks to an audience of people who also read Thomas Wolfe.  I cannot stress how rare this is in capes and tights comics.  Less so in other genres of comic.

The 1970's brought in the first writers that wanted to push beyond kiddie-stuff and you wound up with Green Arrow seeing his ward shooting up smack (no lie!), but it still read as a 22-page adventure with only loose tethers to the past and future.  And, 95% of the time when comics think they're writing for adults or to make a point, it's still basically Speedy doing smack.

First it's comics, then you smoke one rock of pot, and then wham-o!  You've riding the white pony and defending Jethro Tull in public.

Almost nothing in capes and tights before or after Watchmen is Watchmen, and I've written extensively about how comics have learned all the wrong lessons from a superhero comic that wrote up to a literate audience.  We can cover that again some other time, and surely will, but that wasn't really your question.  What I'm doing here is: expectation setting.

BTW - if you want to bypass this post as TL;DR, please feel free to click here and get a list of some readable stuff.

The thing about comics is that they aren't all superhero comics.  Or horror.  Or even necessarily genre.  It'd be weird if all of TV was just HGTV or Law &Order.  And certainly it feels like TV is 90% police procedurals, but it's a mode of delivery, not a genre.  And there are so, so many, and so, so many I haven't read.  And as everyone who reads this is a unique individual, I'd start everyone a little differently.

Example: I give The Admiral Garth Ennis war comics (War Stories, Battlefields, etc...) to read when he's got downtime at my house.  Among Ennis' many different efforts, many of which are, uh...  look, I wouldn't show them to my mom...  he also writes intensively researched, character-driven war comics that aren't super popular.  Because the comics market will learn the entire history of Sailor Moon or Middle-Earth, but, dammit, do not ask them to discuss the Ostfront.

I would not probably start you on a Garth Ennis comic, but I would recommend you them at some point.  Because, oh my GOD is The Night Witches worth reading.

not really wacky kid stuff, but well written and beautifully illustrated

But, to that point:  For people who never got into comics because they didn't like superheroes (which sounds crazy to me, but everyone has their thing), there's a huge world of comics of all genres and stripes.  From political stuff to personal memoir to non-fiction (I actually really like non-fiction comics and keep a shelf of them), to cop stories to cop stories about cops who have magical powers of tasting or cops who find The Perfect Axe and have an Avocado Soldier as a best pal.  Heck, there's a series of comics about a non-magical take on The Trojan War.

Did you like the movie Road to Perdition?  There's more where that came from, because that was a comic.  So were Ghost WorldA History of Violence and 30 Days of Night.

I'd recommend Art Spiegelman to anyone, and Charles Burns to a select audience, particularly people who might have once purchased Morrisey albums or worn lots of black.  Or Marjane Sartapi or Alison Bechdel for amazing memoirs from two opposite sides of the planet.  The stunning March graphic novels penned with no less than US Representative John Lewis.  Or whatever brand of craziness you want served by a cooking-meets-soccer-meets talking rabbits Manga (seriously, Manga is not a genre, it's a catch-all for comics from the Eastern hemisphere or styled to appear that way.  Do not expect any boundaries on Manga).  Or the amazing spy thrilled that is Queen & Country.

Even in the 21st Century, DC and Marvel will, upon occasion, stray from tights-n-fights comics, and the results are sometimes pretty nice.  After all, one of my favorite comics is, was and will be Enemy Ace, a sort of German WWI fighter pilot who is really, really good at killing Frenchmen and the British, and he feels just terrible about it.  They just don't do it much these days.

All of this is great, but it's no guarantee that just because something isn't a superhero comic it's any good.  There's a steady supply of stuff coming out every year that's heartfelt and slaved over and still, unfortunately, pretty shrug-worthy.  There are very, very few comics of any genre I could point to that I feel aren't kind of bad.  But it's the exact same thing walking around Barnes & Noble and seeing what people are reading (Nicholas Sparks.  I'll just say it.), or a scan of movies and TV turns up a similar batting average.

Yet another complication is - if you're talking about getting into superhero comics, where is the access point to the huge, swirling mass that is either the DCU or Marvel U?

I don't know.  I started as a kid and picked up stuff that looked cool, and Batman looked cool.  So did the X-Men.  I didn't decide Superman was cool until high school, and didn't really get into Superman until mid-way through college (and got totally crazy for Superman when my brain cells were used to doing research for school and had nothing new to study, so they decided "learn everything about Superman").  And that's kind of what the comics ask for.

There was a reason comics were the hobby of data-gathering nerds for a long, long time.  The rewards came from the amount of legwork and reading and spending you were able to do to broaden your horizons.  Hell, I recently saw pics online of the index cards Mark Waid made for himself as a kid that tracked characters and their appearances.

But don't worry, comics have made it as easy as picking up a key and putting it in a door.

damn gatekeeper nerds

The bottom line is that these comics have been published and have some sort of continuity going back to before you were born.  So even self-contained stories contain elements of common knowledge among longtime readers.  You want to read Batman?  Great.  Five years ago I would have started you on Year One and worked forward with you.  But now there's at least two series that have interrupted the Year One timeline, so, I guess I'd start with a good Batman comic and pray for the best.*

When we're kids and come to these universes it's no big deal.  We're already playing "what the hell is going on?" in every other aspect of our lives.  When you're 11, doing a little digging to learn a reference meant Hank Pym was Giant Man AND Ant-Man is pretty low hanging fruit compared to "so why is the Middle East pissed at us?"**  As adults, we want to understand the thing a lot more completely and not just get dumped in the middle - and I think it changes our reference to getting into these universes.

And that's why Watchmen is rad.  It's 12 issues of insanely detailed, beautifully delivered story and character.  Not Superman's ever-changing history over 76 years of publication and literally thousands of comics.

That fresh start is also, not coincidentally, why Marvel and DC have nigh-continual relaunches of comics these days.

I don't want to make it sound like an impenetrable wall.  But...

The wall of nerds between you and just getting a straight answer

As someone who has been doing this since I was a kid and who has spent years blogging on it and given it no small amount of headspace, it's hard for me to just say "oh, read this and you'll be happy."  Anymore than I'd say "tell me how I can enjoy books".

But I want to help.

Pal Brandon Z of Austin Books and Comics fame has told me he that when folks walk in the shop, the best thing he can do is ask them what they usually like to read or watch, and then watch for their reaction.  Sometimes they watch Walking Dead, so selling them on the comic and other zombie or horror stuff makes sense.  Or, it may be that they like watching soccer and reading cookbooks, but they came here looking for something different, maybe some of the same excitement they felt watching Spider-Man or Sky High.

So - I guess the question is - what are you looking for in comics?  Action?  Romance?  Mystery?  I know you're enjoying The Flash TV show?

Well, good news!  There are decades of Flash comics we can discuss.  That's not even a sarcastic "good news".  That's a super serious, I am ready to talk about The Flash, "good news".

I'm going to assume you mean superhero comics.  Ok.

So, any heroes pique your interest outside of The Flash?

My recommendation is as follows:  Drive to a comic shop in your local town, preferably on, like, a Thursday afternoon, and say "I've been watching The Flash.  I like that.  It's made me interested in The Flash."  Talk to them.  But after you talk to them, browse like crazy.  And pick up 4 or 5 things.  Spend some dough.  Pick stuff because you like the art, or because you liked the second Thor movie.  Or because you can't believe someone did a vampire killer book about Sasquatch.  Or whatever.

Then, go back to the store in about 4 weeks and if you liked an issue of, say, The Flash, you can get more.  And if you didn't like Thor, don't buy it again.  Try something else.  That's more or less what I've been doing since I was 10.

But, I'll do you a favor I wouldn't do for Gerry and I'll give some more concrete help - yours will be in the form of collected editions to consider.

For The Flash

For Superman

Just good Superman:

For Wonder Woman

Some DCU stuff worth checking out

Kingdom Come
New Frontier

There's a lot more, but no reason to drive you crazy.  If you have anything specific in mind, let me know.

If you'd like your question answered by a grumpy guy about to turn 40, submit your question at the question spot.

*because DC and Marvel are endlessly convinced there's more and more stuff to show about a character's origin than face the prospect of telling a good story taking place in current continuity

**hint - it's not because they hate our freedoms


picky said...

You are freaking amazing..I don't even know what to say about this post, other than I will likely read it several more times.

And what you say TOTALLY makes sense re: Watchmen and continuity and not really being able to recommend other than "hey! just pick some stuff up!" - which has honestly been my inclination. (We have a new place called 2nd and Charles with a really good comic selection. I've browsed half a dozen times and just get overwhelmed and stopped.) In other words, you verified what I thought while still not making it seem as terrifying as I felt it was.

And yes, you're exactly right that it was the disinclination to pick something up "in the middle or" a storyline that made me hesitate.

Plus, I've read Bechtel, Satrapi (even met her and heard her speak!) and actually just read March a couple weeks ago. So I've dipped in here and there. Some bloggers I know recently started a new mega blog called (I think) Panels, which is all about comics, but I just haven't made my way there yet.

Thank you thank you thank you. There's a reason I call you "my comic book guy" and this just confirmed that in every sense of the phrase. I really appreciate such a thoughtful response.

The League said...

I think it's difficult for adults, but it's not impossible. It's a quagmire, but frequency of return visits to your new shop will smooth some of that out pretty fast. And having trades available (they weren't, like, 12 years ago) has changed everything.

Really glad you've already gotten to some of the better stuff. I loved Fun Home and the Sartapi I've read.

And let me know more about the Panels blog. I'm curious.

ncapp said...

Another thing a lot of my friends do is use the library. You can get compendiums and there's no monetary investment. Plus, at least in Portland, they have a ton of variety.

The League said...

That's true. I have heard San Antonio's system has good stuff, and I've heard that from various places. I found Austin a little lacking when I checked a few years ago, but it's been a while and I should probably stop by Austin Public again. That said, I work in a 6 story library, and I rarely check out graphic novels - so that's a personal failing, I guess.

But, yeah, if you want to keep cost down, it's really possible to use your university or public library.

RHPT said...

Just read the Spider-Man clone saga. That's what I point all my friends to when they want to start reading comics.

The League said...

Stop trolling, Randy.

Maxo said...

I agree with what Brandon says - when I worked in a comic shop I'd ask the same thing. A lot of people (naturally) confuse the genre of superheroes with the medium of comics, not always realizing there are as many types of comics as there are movies (if not more).

It sounds as if your reader is already making some great choices - Satrapi, Bechdel and Watchmen are all fantastic. Spiegelman's Maus would be right in line with those.

That said, here are some other recommendations:

Superhero: Totally echo All-Star Superman (probably my favorite Superman story, ever) and the Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow collection. I'd also throw in the Superman trades The Coming of Atlas (in my heart of hearts, a Krypto story) and Up, Up and Away (a depowered Superman/Clark Kent story). I'd still recommend Batman Year One, and also add Batman Year 100 by Paul Pope. Honestly, I'd recommend anything by Paul Pope, as long as you like sorta sci-fi stuff.

Some other stuff I'd mention: Y: The Last Man; anything by Kyle Baker; most mini-series stuff by Grant Morrison (except maybe Sea Guy, which can be frustrating for some); Darwyn Cooke's "Parker" series of graphic adaptations; Bone; The Amazing, Remarkable Monsieur Leotard; and a lot of the stuff put out by First Second Publishing. Joe Sacco does some terrific comics journalism stories, and Harvey Pekar is always interesting in a slice-of-life way. Jason is consistently great. Craig Thompson's "Habibi" is beautiful and heart-breaking.

I think I'm starting to ramble, but these are books I'd recommend to just about anyone.