Navigating the World of Comics

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Comics are an inviting art form for many reasons, but they're also an overwhelming one. There are just too many comics to know where to start or to easily make sense of the material. At least that's how it can look to a newcomer. This article is a beginner-to-beginner guide to getting started in reading comics. That is, I have a long way to go before I'd call myself an expert, but I'm far enough along that I have things to say.

When I was starting my latest attempt to launch into the world of comics, I asked Google for some getting-started guides. It gave me some, and they were helpful, but they didn't entirely give me what I wanted. So I've done some of my own research and put together a guide that's closer to the map I'm looking for.

In this guide I'll invite you to be an explorer. The world of comics is vast, and so is the world of comics discussion. My goal is to give you a way to think about these discussions and then give you starting points for finding them. It's up to you to chart your own path.

This is a work in progress, so expect some updates!

Mapping the territory

Before we start navigating, it might be good to get an overall picture of the world we'll be traveling. Here's a good starting point:

  • Comics - Comic Spectrum - These articles give brief overviews of different aspects of comics, from which are the major publishers to how to buy comics to what the deal is with manga and webcomics.

The next sites cover large areas of the comics industry in detail. You can use them as references to search for specific information or wander through them aimlessly, clicking any links that catch your eye.

Even in the age of the web, books are still a good source of information. Here are some worthwhile reference books:

  • DC Comics: A Visual History, Updated Edition - This book highlights the major developments in DC Comics for each year the publisher has existed, heavily illustrated with comic covers and other art. It's a good place to find artists to follow, pick up on major characters and storylines, and place it all in the context of other developments in the comic industry and in world history.
  • Marvel Year by Year, Updated and Expanded - The Marvel version of the DC visual history.

Choosing destinations

Whenever you start on a journey, you'll want a destination in mind, or at least a purpose for your travels. For example:

  • Every few months comic-related hype blows up your Twitter feed, and you want to see what all the hubbub is about.
  • You've dabbled in comics and want to explore them more extensively.
  • You like comic fans and want to be able to talk with them.
  • You want to study the work of other comic creators to learn how to tell your own stories with pictures.
  • You just want to read some good visual stories.

Your goals will guide your decisions along the way. Before going into the details, though, let's look more closely at some destinations you might be aiming for.

Keeping up with new comics

One of your goals might be to catch up on some current storylines in comics so you can keep up with them going forward. How will you keep up once you've caught up? Here's some advice on doing that:

Here are some places to find out about new comic releases:

Places to talk about comics

If one of your goals is to discuss comics with other fans, there's no shortage of places to do that. Here are some starting points for finding them:

Planning routes

Once you have an idea of your destination, or at least the kind of travel you want to experience, how will you get there? The approach I'm recommending is to pick one or more specific ways to organize your journey and then pick a strategy for choosing your stops along the way.

Here are some other writers who recommend a similar approach:

In my version of this scheme, the organizing factors you could choose are

  • sources (places to find comics),
  • stories (quality, stand-alone comic collections),
  • creators (writers and artists),
  • events (important stories from a character's life or a publisher's continuity),
  • and themes (topics or story elements).

I'll go into more detail on each of these factors in the rest of this section. But first let's talk about some basic strategies for choosing comics from your chosen route.

Strategies for choosing comics

Any path you choose will probably include a lot of comics. There are a few patterns you could use to decide on which of those to read:

  • Serendipitous selecting - In this strategy you pick up any comics that appeal to you without worrying about the ones you leave on the shelf. Your selection can end up looking kind of random. Serendipity is especially helpful for the times when you're looking for possible new routes. When using this strategy, it helps if you aren't a completist. Otherwise you'll still worry about the comics you've left behind.
  • Exhaustive selecting - In this strategy you read every comic you can get your hands on in the route you've chosen. In some cases the route is short enough that this will be manageable. In other cases it'll be challenging or impossible, and that's a good time to consider the next strategy.
  • Ranked selecting - In this strategy you read only the important comics in your route. It'll take some research, advice, and thought to decide which comics are important to you, but it could save you a lot of extra reading time.

Now let's look at some ways to find routes.

Source-oriented routes

In this method, you base your selection on whatever you can pick up from a particular source. Sources include libraries, brick-and-mortar stores, and online stores. You probably won't be able to read everything your source offers, so I'd say this method works best with a serendipitous strategy. It's a good way to sample comics when you're looking for a route from another category, such as finding a character to follow (that is, a story- or event-oriented route).

Free comics

  • WorldCat - An online catalog of thousands of libraries worldwide. If you're only after good comics from your local library, take a trip there and look around. If you're looking for a specific comic, you can search this catalog and see which libraries near you have it. If none of them do, you can probably borrow it through your local library's interlibrary loan service.
  • Comics - Hoopla - Libraries subscribe to this service to offer you digital comics (along with ebooks, audiobooks, music, and movies). Check your library's website to see if they're signed up with Hoopla.
  • Free Comics - comiXology - Free digital comics from one of the major online retailers.
  • Free Comic Book Day - Wikipedia - An annual event that offers a set of free promotional comics through your local comic stores.
  • List of Webcomic Directories - L-Lists - The sites on this list link to thousands of webcomics, most of them completely free.

Story-oriented routes

With this method you're looking for high quality comics. You don't care if they're important to a larger storyline. It helps if these are stand-alone stories, but they don't have to be.

You can find these by visiting some of the more selective comic sources, such as libraries, and reading whatever they've decided is worth offering. Here's one source of lists that are based on data:

  • Industry Statistics - Diamond Comic Distributors, Inc. - Diamond distributes comics from publishers to retailers. This page links to their monthly lists of top selling comics and graphic novels. These ranks are based on orders from retailers rather than purchases by customers, but they should give you a good idea of the significant titles you might want to read.

You can also look for lists of good comics online through web searches such as these:

You'll find a lot of these lists. Here are a bunch to start with:

Creator-oriented routes

In this method you pick one or more comic writers or artists to follow and read some or all of their works.

Event-oriented routes

Many stories in comics take place in the context of a larger storyline. You could view the life of a character or team as a single storyline, or an entire comic book series, or even a publisher's complete body of work.

One type of route is to read through one or more of these story arcs. If you have the time, you could try to read through every issue of the arc, or you can find ways to narrow down the list to the most interesting or important parts of the story.

The fact that the top two publishers treat so much of their material as one semi-cohesive set of stories is one reason people find comics so hard to start reading. The good news is that both DC and Marvel periodically publish major story arcs in the form of crossover events. These events can serve as a way to organize the overall storyline of the publisher's universe.

Some story arcs can be hard to follow because they're spread out over a long time period and draw from several comic titles. So a lot of people have taken the time to put together reading orders to guide you, either through every issue of the story or through what they consider the most important parts. Here are some sites that cover a lot of storylines, mostly from DC and Marvel:

If you search the web yourself for reading orders, you'll also find some for more obscure storylines, such as this interesting project that explores short-lived publishers from the 1990s:

Theme-oriented routes

This last method is sort of a catch-all category for factors that cut across the other methods. These include story elements, genres, audiences, topics, and any other factor you can think of. Sometimes you'll find websites about comics on your chosen theme, but in a lot of cases, the best way to find relevant comics is a good old fashioned web search. Here are some examples:

Closing thoughts

In this guide I've tried to give you a broad set of starting points for planning your comic reading adventures. The next steps are up to you. Pick a goal, pick a method, do some research, chart a course, and have fun reading. Maybe even share your journey with others. And feel free to leave feedback on this guide in the comments below.

Planned updates

  • Add examples.
  • Cover the different types of comics more evenly (superhero, licensed, literary, webcomics, manga, etc.).
  • Add a site that correlates comic book issues with collected editions.