Comics 101: Diving into the comic book multiverse

by Matthew Escosia
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By: AC Recio

Comic book movies have dominated the box office for the past decade, however, the actual comics they are based on remain elusive to the general public. The thing that makes characters like Superman, Batman and Robin, and the X-men famous is also the main barrier to people actually enjoying comic books themselves – with decades of publication history behind the most famous characters, people get easily (and understandably) overwhelmed and just don’t know where to start.

In this article, we’ll share High Five tips on how to read comic books so you too can enjoy these marvelous (and DC-ous) works of art. Hope you survive the experience!

The basics

The first thing you need to learn about comic books is how to actually read them. Comic book pages are divided into sections called panels, each of which contain specific moments and are arranged in a sequence to tell a story. This sequence of panels is more often than not read from left to right and top to bottom, unless of course you’re reading manga or Japanese comic books, which start from right to left. It is within the boundaries of these panels that characters interact with each other through speech, thoughts and actions.

how to read comic books

An easy guide to reading comics. Photo courtesy of Dorkly

There are different ways that comic writers and artists convey a character’s thoughts and speech. Thought bubbles, speech bubbles and narration boxes all show what a character is thinking, feeling or saying at any given time, and often times are even used as tools for exposition. Of course, the comic book art itself is full of information – from the characters’ expressions themselves to the tiniest background details. Things like blocking, framing, shading and even coloring are all symbolic and intentional, so be careful not to miss them! Take time reading and taking in all the details, and you’ll have a richer reading experience.

The first issue doesn’t have to be YOUR first issue

Comics are considered one of the longest forms of collaborative storytelling in the world. Characters from the 1930s are still around today and have their own ongoing comic books. One of the longest running comic books, Detective Comics, has been in publication since 1937 and is currently in its 1,017th issue. So do you have to start with the first issue? Purists and masochists might say yes, but almost everyone who reads comic books will tell you not to, especially since some of the older issues are a trudge to read.

The operative word here is “collaborative storytelling.” An ongoing comic book is a series of issues that are consistently published indefinitely – until the publisher deems the story finished, or until low sales or other factors cause it to be cancelled. Ongoing comic books are divided into different “runs,” a consecutive series of issues where a specific writer-artist team take the helm of the comic to tell their own stories. A new run is usually a fresh start, with the new creative team bringing with them a new vision that they want to bring to life. The beginning of a new run is the best time to get into a comic book, and with the help of the internet, older, more classic and well regarded runs are easily searchable online.

And if you just want to come in blind, it’s not advisable but it’s certainly doable. An old adage in comics is “every issue is someone’s first,” so writers and editors always include basic exposition and introductions in every comic book for potential new readers.

Different strokes for different folks

Aside from ongoing series, there are other comic book formats to explore. One-shots are one-off comic books which are self-contained and do not need further context – perfectly bite-sized and digestible for a new reader. Graphic novels are much like one-shots except they have more pages and are usually hardbound. These are written by critical darlings and drawn by artists with distinct styles, as graphic novels are considered a prestige format that draw more sales and gain more traction with the general public. Limited series are shorter than ongoing comics, going on for a predetermined number of issues, and, depending on the number of issues, are either called miniseries or maxiseries. Lastly are trade paperbacks, which are collections of comic books from ongoing series or limited series – these usually form a story arc with a common theme and can be read separately from the main series. These comic book formats come in different shapes, sizes, styles and genres, and a lot of them are beginner-friendly, so pick whatever you fancy and start there.

Genres? What do you mean genres?

how to read comic books

Comics come in all forms to accommodate a diverse set of readers.

You read that right! Contrary to popular belief, comic books aren’t just all about superheroes. Superhero comics might be one of the most popular genres out there, but historical, autobiographical, horror, science fiction, fantasy, humor, romance, and many other types of comics also exist! So if superheroes aren’t your thing, you can always check out other genres to start off your comic book journey.

Ok! But where can I buy comics?

Lucky for you comic books are more accessible now than they have ever been before. Bookshops like National Book Store, Fully Booked and even Booksale all sell comic books, mostly in trade paperback format. Specialty stores like Comic Odyssey, Comic Quest and Filbar’s are have comics in every format you could ask for, with the added bonus of having helpful salespeople around to ask those burning comics questions like “who would win in a fight, Batman or Superman?” (the answer is Superman), “who’s faster, Superman or The Flash?” (The Flash, obviously), and “who’s the best Robin?” (trick question, they’re all the best).

And if you don’t really need a physical comic book, online comics are something that you could look into. Publishers like DC, Marvel, Image and Dark Horse all have their online digital comics services, and Comixology is an online platform that houses comics from multiple publishers across different genres.

Comic books might seem overwhelming at first – there’s a lot of history behind them, a lot of choices to be made whether which format or genres to start with, and a lot of things that could go wrong – but as long as you keep these tips in mind, reading comics can be as easy as biff, bam, pow.

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