Where do I start reading comics? This is often taken for granted by long time readers. There’s a large barrier to entry, deterring many. Only those who are truly motivated take the plunge. It’s frustrating hearing the same answer repeatedly, ‘Just start reading.’ This guide will explain not only how the industry works, but the all important question, how to start.
Comics 101 – Single Issues, Trades, and Page Counts
Let’s start with the basics. New comics release every Wednesday, whether digitally or in stores, coming in a few flavors. There’s single issues, trade paperbacks (called trades colloquially, or TPB in print), hardcovers, omnibi, and original graphic novels (OGNs, colloquially and in print). Trades are collections of story arcs, typically collecting six issues, though anywhere from 4 to 8 isn’t uncommon. Hardcovers are used for first releases of trades, or to collect more than a standard story arc. Omnibi are large collections, anywhere from 20 upwards to 60 issues, gathering an entire series or a creator’s complete run. OGNs are typically 96 pages, often first releasing in hardcover. No one uses the term graphic novel. All but single issues can be purchased from any book seller (local comic shops, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.).
Single issues are 32 pages in length, with 24 pages of story 8 of ads. The cover price ranges from $2.99, for smaller titles or Image books, with bigger books from Marvel or DC costing upwards of $3.50 or $3.99. It’s not uncommon to see $4.99 for event books. Image books have managed to remove ads, or print them at the end of the issue while still keeping the cost down. Occasionally the price is increased for bigger issues, either 36 or 48 pages. Take note of this when making purchases.
Physical vs Digital
Comics can be purchased physically or digitally. Each have pros and cons which come down to your preferences. First, physical books. The industry is based on preorders. Diamond Comics Distributors, Inc. (colloquially called Diamond) has a monopoly on print distribution. As such, solicits for new comics are released three months in advance by the publishers. Local comic book shop (LCBS, or LCS) owners order books months in advance, guessing what will sell. Specialty or new books are typically ordered in smaller qualities.
LCBSs are one of two ways to get your weekly books. Every store has a pullfile system. Owners will create a profile for you, putting aside selected titles, rather than placing them on the shelf for general consumers. Usually, having a subscription with shops will net you some perks, like 10% off for example. This varies from shop to shop. If there’s a title you’re interested in, let the owner know in advance, typically two months, so they can order it. This will ensure your copy, and helps the industry overall. Fear not, if you missed a title, a retailer worth their salt knows their customers, ordering a few extra. Still, there might not be enough for everyone. If this is the case, Diamond will put the book back into print. Some books have gone into upwards of 5th prints.
The other method for purchasing physical books is online subscription systems, such as Discount Comic Book Service. Books are available for purchase two months in advance (example – Octobers books are listed in August). Buyers can have their books shipped weekly, biweekly, or monthly, with the option to have their books bagged and boarded. Even if you missed a title, they will add the book if you contact them via email, as long as they have copies on hand. Subscription services such as these constantly offer steep discounts, with books averaging 40% off or more.
Digital is the other purchase option. While each publisher has their own app, the most popular service is Comixology. Every publisher’s books are available, except for Dark Horse, whose books can only be purchased via their app. Crossbuying is a built in feature, with books purchased on the Marvel app for example, appearing on your Comixology account, as long as the two are linked, or vice versa. Pricing is still a bit of an issue. Weekly books are full priced compared to their physical counterparts. Most publishers drop the price $0.99 after 6 months. Back issues are a bit hit or miss, but every book today is released day and date digitally. Marvel books come with free redeemable codes for digital copies in the issues, where as DC charges an extra $1 for included digital copies.
As of today, only one publisher, MonkeyBrain Comics, is available digitally. Their page count is shorter, but most issues cost $0.99, with a few priced at $1.99. MonkeyBrain is unique as it is the only publisher to defy current trends.
Lastly, Marvel offers a subscription service entitled Marvel Unlimited. This grants access to nearly their entire back catalog, with more titles added continuously. Newer issues are added 4 – 6 months after they’ve released. Pricing varies from $9.99 monthly to $69.99 annually.
Where to Start Reading Comics
That explains how the industry works, but the question remains, where to start? The best answer really is to jump in, but that can still be overwhelming for many. Let’s start with superhero books, as they’re the most numerous and daunting. Treat these characters as mythology. Though many have decades worth of history, none of it is required knowledge to enjoy the book. By all means, read older stories if you’re interested in the characters, but not because they’re necessary homework. Wiki’s for characters exist, with some fan sites offering summaries and synopses, such as my own Comic Book History and Comic Book Bios.
What books to read? Start with characters you enjoy, branching out from there. Batman and Spider-Man are the most popular characters for DC and Marvel respectively, and are good starting points. If there’s another character your interested in, start with them. If they’re part of a team, such as the Justice League or Avengers, try that book also, as this will introduce you to other characters. Keep in mind though, covers often lie. Many popular characters have multiple monthly titles. Pick any or all that your wallet allows, or word of mouth recommends.
High issue numbers are mostly a thing of the past, as a high number is discouraging to new readers. Any #1 is a good starting point. As for on going series, look at solicits (available on every publishers site) to see when a new arc begins (likely a multiple of 6) or when the creator changes. If a book is a mini-series, indicated by # of # (#3 of 8), it’s best to start with #1 for those. Marvel and Image books offer recap pages. Marvel’s not only give an overview of the status quo, but the events of the last few issues. Image uses recap pages as well. This is a practice DC does not employ.
For a time, Marvel added .1 to their issue numbers in an effort to show new starting points while keeping the same numbering. This effort met with mixed results. Though the .1 number is still used, it no loner signifies a jumping on point.
Readers typically either follow characters or creators. Many follow creators, either the writers or artists. Experience will tell you whose writing or art you enjoy, as well as word of mouth providing good suggestions. Creators often have original work outside of the big two (Marvel or DC), typically published under DC’s Vertigo imprint (Y: The Last Man, Fables, and Preacher) or Image Comics (Spawn, The Walking Dead, and Saga). Books from these two labels fall under many genres. These series are often meant to be complete tales. It’s not recommended to jump into these mid-run. Image typically releases 6 consecutive issues, then breaking, allowing the artist and the readers to catch up. Usually, a trade collecting the previous arc releases when the series begins again, 2 -3 months later, making catching up easy.
Once you find creators you enjoy, follow them. Everything they write might not be for you, but it’s a good way to discover new material. If there’s a character you’re not a fan of (say Venom), written by a creator you enjoy (say, Cullen Bunn), give the title a shot. Creators often use the big two (Marvel and DC) to jumpstart their creator owned work. Robert Kirkman wrote for Marvel for years before creating The Walking Dead and Invincible.
Hopefully this guide answers your questions and lowers the barrier for potential fans. If you have any questions, or think I left something out, please leave a comment. Now start reading!
When did you start reading comics? Do you follow creators or characters? Comment below!