Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Owning Comics (Part 2): Begin with the Best

I had originally planned to include a full post in this series called "How to Read Comics," but I quickly realized—depending on which angle I chose to attack the issue from—there would be either very little to say or way too much. I decided to take the shortcut with a few quick tips and a book to read if you really feel like going extracurricular with this.

(ultra brief edition)

Tip #1: Realize it's not that hard to figure out how to read a comic book page. Believe that, and you'll figure things out in no time. Sometimes, comic book pages can be intimidating. The format is unfamiliar, there are lots of balloons and captions and panels and god it seems like a lot to puzzle out. Don't give into the temptation to get frustrated or feel like somehow the page looks different to other people; it doesn't. As with anything else, practice makes perfect—or in this case, practice makes effortless. Left to right, top to bottom. That applies to balloons (dialogue), panels (individual pictures), captions (boxes with text in them, like narration), and everything else. If the comic artist has done his job (most will if you stick to the best and the brightest), there will be a discernible flow to the page. Just do your best. This is for fun, and I promise nobody is going to shove a quiz under your nose.

Basically, you just look at it.

Tip #2: Start at the beginning of the story. Whenever possible, this is a good idea. This doesn't mean you have to go back to 1938 if you want to read Superman. There are reboots and self-contained arcs all over the place that anyone can pick up and enjoy. These self-contained arcs are often collected into hardcovers or trade paperbacks, typically about 4-6 issues long (an issues is around 22 pages). Not only does this make enjoying comics cheaper, it means you can read the whole story without hunting around like mad for individual issues. (We'll get into acquiring comics later in this series.) If you want to give Batman a shot, for example, often it's as easy as googling "Top 25 Batman Stories" and looking them up on amazon. I've discovered tons of great stuff this way.

Tip #3: Remember, it's okay that you don't know everything. Trust me on this; the people who know everything get paid good money by DC and Marvel to serve as consultants and continuity experts. So don't be discouraged if you run into a character you don't know or a reference that leaves you drawing a blank. This. Happens. Just do what the average reader does and keep reading. If you try to push through and find you still can't puzzle out (or enjoy) the story, chances are that either the comic book writer forgot his obligation to keep readers up to speed (every comic book could be somebody's first comic book, and it's the writers' job to remember that), or you've ended up the middle of a larger story without the benefit of going through the beginning. If the latter is true, again google can save your life. Wikipedia too. They often have extensive lists of comic book issues and stories, what came first, etc; sometimes there are even synopses so you can catch up quick and get back to reading.

To summarize further, just remember: You're smart enough for this! It can look like a big confusing world out there, but most of what you need to know is a click away. It's a treasure hunt, and discovering new things is part of the fun. I promise you'll stumble onto something amazing that will make it all worth it. And there's nothing like sharing something new with your friends and watching them get excited about what you dug up. There's great stuff out there; go find it.

Stand back.
Bad ass at work.
If you want to learn more about comics as a medium, there is no better resource that Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics. It's a comic book about comic books. Read it. It will blow the lid off your brain. By the end of it, you'll know more about comics as a medium than 99% of the human beings on Planet Earth.

But what if you're thinking, Slow down, Steve.Your tips are all well and dandy, but I know literally nothing about comics. I've seen the Incredibles, and that's it. (Great movie by the way.) I can't google a character I want to read, because I don't know any of them well enough to know if I want to read them or not. I'm greener than Green Lantern on his first day. (Okay, you probably wouldn't say that last thing.)

Here's what I'm going to do for you:

I'm going to assign you some homework. That's right, I'm takin' yo ass to school. Eventually, we'll get into things like DC's New 52 titles, indie comics, movie and novel tie-ins, manga, current mainstream comics, animated movies, even individual superheros. We'll get into how and where to acquire comics, how to store them, the benefits of trades vs individual issues, but not yet. Right now, we're going to start with the classics. And trust me, in the world of comics, that's a good thing. A very good thing. Because these babies won't bore you. On the contrary, they will grab you by the face, entertain the ever-loving shit out of you, and overhaul your brain in the process. That's right. Some of the comics I'm about to suggest won't just entertain you; they'll change you.

Big talk, right? I confidently stand behind every word. These books are the reason why:

(alternate title: "Read These and You Can Instantly Talk About Comics Like You Know Your Shit")

1. Sandman by Neil Gaiman

^It's in here. All of it.
 This is my favorite comic in the world. It spans 10 volumes, every mythology and religion known to man, and seemingly every facet of the human (and inhuman) condition. Sometimes I wonder if there's anything that isn't in this comic book. My brother, Paul, put it best when he finished Sandman. He said, "I just want to go up to Neil Gaiman and say, 'I finished Sandman. Now what do you want me to do?'" This comic changes you. It stirs your brain with a stick. It makes you fall in love. It makes you cringe. It makes you cry. It breaks the way you see the world and rebuilds it better. (It might make you get a kick-ass tattoo or two.) One of the stories in this series won the World Fantasy Award for Best Short Story. That isn't even allowed, and it happened. In short, best comic ever. If you're a little scared, you should be.

2. Watchmen by Alan Moore

...but for reals this time.

This recommendation has lost some of its zing since the movie came out (and wasn't nearly as well-received as it should have been), but this is still probably the best comics story ever collected in a single volume. If I could only put one book in the hands of a comic book skeptic, this would be it. This is the story of superheroes in the real world. This is the story of their personal struggles, their human quirks, and the massive threat they must pull together to face. The sheer amount of colorful characters and truly gripping scenarios in this book is staggering. It's an epic in every sense of the word, and the literary brilliance and complexity of the story is second to none. I mean, come on, how can you argue with a comic that made Time's 100 Best Novels of All Time? (Not graphic novels. Freaking NOVELS.)

3. Batman: Year One and/or Batman: Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller

The Sin City/300 guy does Batman.
If you liked Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, you owe those movies in large part to Frank Miller's work on Batman. The two titles above are credited with being the most important, influential, and well-crafted Batman stories ever told. Like the rest of the titles on this list, they are older and stylistically off the beaten path, but there is a reason they have stood the test of time. If you'd like your Batman served complex, dystopian, and brutally epic with a dash of frenetic punk-rock crazy, The Dark Knight Returns is probably your book. If, on the other hand, you'd like something simpler, more down to earth, and noir as black coffee (and if you'd like to be with Bruce Wayne at the very beginning), then Batman: Year One is where it's at. Personally, I prefer Year One, but Dark Knight Returns has some glorious moments, specifically the stuff involving Superman. (Shh. You didn't hear that from me.) Which ever sounds coolest, you should read them both.

That's all for now. I'm super stoked for the next post, "Owning Comics (Part 3): Superheroes and the New 52" because we'll be getting into the New 52, DC Comics' reboot of all their titles. If you know nothing about DC, go watch this documentary. (I know, I know. So much homework. But seriously, it's a great documentary even if you don't give a shit about comics.) The New 52 is what's happening now in the comics world, so it's relevant and fun and chock full of great stories (not to mention some of the slickest art I have ever seen). I can't wait. :)

Also, if you're following my series Chasing the First Sale, look for "Part 2: What a Pro Story Is" on Monday.

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