Comic Sense #1:

Dig Right In

Maybe you overheard a conversation between two strangers on a bus debating the moral and ethical implications of a superhero registration act. Perhaps a favorite writer of yours just announced a new project – in comic book form. Whatever the particulars may be, the fact remains that your curiosity has been piqued, your attention has been commanded and you’re ready to take a step into the world of a burgeoning art form: that of the comic book. Problem is, every time you’ve made the attempt in the past, your efforts have been mired in confusion, frustration, and an overwhelming sense of intimidation.

Well, frustrate no longer. Welcome to Comic Sense, an article that’s designed to help the new reader get comfortable in the comic book store so that he or she can truly start to appreciate the form.

Dig Right In

From my own experience, I know that walking into a comic book store can be a completely overwhelming experience. The desire to immerse oneself in the multiple universes offered up is sometimes completely overshadowed by the apprehension of not knowing where to begin. Stretched out before you are walls covered from floor to ceiling with comic books. Shelves are packed to the brim with displays including trade paperbacks, collected editions, oversized editions, etcetera. The aroma of aged paper and chemical inks permeates your nostrils with vengeance, signaling the immense historical legacy of many of the books that are laid out before you. How does one who has never cracked the pages of a comic book take the first steps into the larger world of sequential art? Even better, without having any foreknowledge of the form, how can one overcome an admittedly steep learning curve to derive a sense of fulfillment from the myriad stories and characters that inhabit these worlds?

Not even a year ago, I stood dumbfounded inside the comic book store. I’d just gone in looking for a copy of Serenity #1, the comic book that promised to bridge Joss Whedon’s prematurely cancelled television series to the big screen film event that was to continue the story. I love just about anything and everything that Joss Whedon has ever produced. For this reason alone, I was willing to forego my usual reservations about comic book stores simply to indulge my love of Whedon’s characters.

What were those reservations, exactly? Simply put, every time I’d entered a comic book store before, I’d felt hopelessly lost. Don’t get me wrong, I’d always wanted to read comic books. I had friends in college that extolled the virtues of Todd McFarlane’s Spawn. I’ve had coworkers that could rattle off the name of every X-Man ever created, and I’m not just talking about a core team or two, I’m talking about every mutant in the Marvel Universe. My problem, it seemed, was that I had simply missed out on the comic books wagon when every one else had gotten on board. This was further impressed upon me every time I ventured into a comic book store. How to find my place amongst all this virtual history? How do I catch up when some characters have been around for more than seventy years? How do I develop relationships with characters and stories and writers and artists that are relevant to me?

Suffice to say, after more than a few false starts, I was able to find my way into the comic book store and stay there. In no way do I consider myself an authority on the subject. The face of comics has changed considerably in just the few short months that I’ve been a fan, and I expect that trend only to continue. However, I can honestly say that some of my initial reservations were unfounded. With just a little bit of dedication and a sufficient amount of sincere interest, I firmly believe that anyone can overcome a bit of initial bewilderment and dig in.

In order to truly feel comfortable in a comic book store, one must first devote a certain amount of time to studying the comic book shop itself. The best way to do this is to spend some quality time there. Give yourself an hour or two just to explore. Familiarize yourself with the layout. Most comic book stores are, more or less, organized in a similar fashion. Usually, there is a wall reserved for the new books that hit the stores every Wednesday. Often, comic retailers will display the newest issue of a particular title in front, and then store a few of the most recent back issues behind it. The particulars for each and every store are different, and the more you get to know the store that you prefer, the more fulfilling your trip will be.

Most comic book stores have a pretty extensive collection of back issues for sale as well. Again, take some time to explore these back issues. Many stores have them organized alphabetically by title, but I have seen a few that are organized by publisher. There are more than a few stores that have a whole subsection of back issues dedicated just to the X-Men family of comics.

Now, I understand that when dealing with an immense volume of back issues, one can become prone to an almost involuntary apathy. After all, back issues contain the history of everything that came before. How can we, as new readers, possibly hope to comprehend the new stories without a working knowledge of the old? Truly? It’s all a matter of perspective: one can look at the multitudes of stories that have already been told and see them only as a hindrance, an obstacle, to their greater enjoyment of comic books. Or, one can look those issues as a gateway to a living, breathing history.

Both DC and Marvel have gone to great lengths to preserve the continuity of their universes. These universes are utterly and completely diverse. Should your interests not tend towards the superhero genre, but more towards, say, unsentimental crime fiction, there is a comic book for you. Check out Brian Azzarello’s 100 Bullets. More into a Western theme? Jonah Hex may be your book. Keep digging, keep researching, and you will find even more to explore. DC and Marvel are not the only publishers in the game. Dark Horse Comics, Oni Press, and Boom! Studios, are only some of the smaller publishers that can further illuminate the vast and diverse fare than comic books have to offer. These universes are yours, completely, to explore.

If there is any one piece of advice I’d like to impart to the new comic book reader, it would be this: the best way to find your way into one of these universes is to take what you already know and expand upon it. For example, I went into the comic book store looking for Serenity. A quick conversation with a friend about Serenity enlightened me to the fact that Joss Whedon was also writing Astonishing X-Men. I’d never read an X-Men comic book, but I knew I liked Joss Whedon. So I picked up an issue, and then another, and then twelve issues. Not only did I enjoy the writing, but the art work was stunning. John Cassaday, an artist I’d never heard of before, was suddenly on the forefront of my mind. The next time I was in the store, I looked for more Cassaday titles and landed on Planetary. Planetary helped me discover Warren Ellis, Ellis helped me discover Ben Templesmith, and so on, and so forth. You get the picture.

And, should you find your way into the comic book store without so much as a clue what you like beyond the fact that you know you like good storytelling, one of the most satisfying and helpful ways to get a foothold into the world of comics is to talk to someone who works in the shop. Ask them what they read. Ask them what they recommend. More often than not, you’ll be met with a deluge of information. Right around the time I started seriously reading comic books, I went into my store and asked the owner what this whole Infinite Crisis thing was all about. I cannot recall a time, either before or since, that I have seen such pure and sincere exuberance demonstrated on any level. He gave me an inspired overview of the whole DC Universe. I walked out of that store with so much more than I’d had going in, and I’d only bought one book.

Talk to other people that read comic books. Part of the enjoyment of the experience is being able to talk to others about the stories you’re reading, the characters you love, the characters you hate. This fosters so much more than just an afternoon of entertainment. Conversation encourages critical thought. Critical thought serves to expand your mind and broaden your horizons.

So dig right in. Get to a comic book store, grab a few issues, and start reading. Quite literally, what you put into the study of comic books is directly proportional to what you’ll get out of it. The more time you spend in the store, the more time you spend reading and studying the books you pick up, the more fulfilling the comic book experience will be for you.

Thanks for reading, and check back soon for the next installment where we’ll take a look at some basic story principals.

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Ted lives in Portland, Oregon.

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