Today is Free Comic Book Day--a day, like Sweetest Day and other faux-holidays, dedicated to propping up an entire industry. People around the United States will venture into comic book stores on a whim, their faces betraying their anxiety and hope. They'll leave with at least a few free teaser comics and maybe a starter kit for HeroClix and various other sundries. Some of them may go back in a couple of weeks.
Today is also Day Two of the Avengers Movie Era (AME), and day two of life for my revised edition of Comic Book Character. So to celebrate, I offer this gift: a teaser from the book and a user-friendly guide to getting started on shopping for, and reading, a comic book.
Comic book selection might seem to be a relatively private affair. You can, in fact, go a long way toward picking a book in private. Comic book producers are well-represented on the Internet, and at their sites you can survey character profiles, find out the current status of particular heroes and, in some cases, see samples of the characters in action, in the form of “dotcomics.” Online booksellers sell graphic novels (an extensive but self-contained comic book) and in some cases provide editorial summaries and reader reviews. Fans maintain their own sites and can tell you what you want to know about a particular character, team, title, writer or artist.
That’s all well and good, but to pick a comic thus is to prefilter a wide range of alternate selections. In contrast, some comic books can be found in libraries or in retail outlets ranging from grocery stores (where staff can offer little more than an aisle number in response to your questions) to shops devoted to comics and ancillary products. Here you can enter multiple universes and see the full cultural impact of the superhero genre. Between current issues and backlist titles, a comic book store offers near-total access to a character’s history.
In addition, comic book stores bring you into direct contact with the genre’s fiercely devoted fan base. Comic book shop regulars can offer overviews and synopses of many aspects of comic book history and culture. Storeowners can guide you to the type of art or storytelling you’re looking for or help you find a good entry point into the medium. They will often also try to convert you to their way of life: late-night role-playing games, passionate discourse over the confusing details of current plots or heated debates over the limits of a particular hero’s abilities. A trip into such a store can take much longer than you would expect, and on occasion it can overwhelm you to the point of despair.
In any event, whether in private or under the eager eyes of the comic fanboy, you’ll eventually settle on a comic to read. Now all you have to do is figure out how to read it. . . .
Comic books are not generally organized in a way that is friendly to newcomers. Most issues begin by continuing a story that was left unconcluded in the issue previous. Issues are numbered sequentially, but series often relaunch to signify an editorial shift. Long-term characters have often had their origins retold to modernize their circumstances or provide a convenient starting point for new audiences. The industry in general presumes the reader’s familiarity with the form, assuming that young readers, with more recent experiences of pictures and words working in tandem, will quickly assimilate. Nevertheless, with a little patience you can find your way through. Comic books are two art forms—sequential pictures and popular literature—working in concert. The words are a part of the pictures, and the pictures help to tell the story. The reader must be aware of both in order to fully appreciate the direction of the book.
There. That should get you started. For a fuller introduction to the genre, download the book here.