blog, comics

How to Read Comics

This one is a little tough for me. I’ve been reading comics for so long, and have read so many, that I often take it for granted that reading comics isn’t an inherent ability. But I get asked a lot “how do you read comics?” This question always takes me by surprise, even though you think I’d be used to it. So here’s the answer: with your eyes.

OK, that’s just a joke, sorry. You know I can’t resist. For many people, it is a challenge when they start reading. Do they look at the words, then the pictures? The pictures then the words? Unlike novels, which most people are used to, there are multiple moving parts in a comic, and each has to be understood to get the story. So, yeah, I can see how this might be hard for someone who doesn’t know the language of comics. That is, panels, word balloons, sound effects, all the stuff you pick up as you keep reading. So, here’s my best advice. The first thing I always tell people is to read the words first. Read what’s in the bubbles, or the captions, and then scan the picture. That’s how I do it anyway. When lettering something, you want the bubbles to guide a reader’s eyes, so it’s natural to start there. Once you’ve got the words, you look at the picture to see what’s happening, and this will give you the rest of the image.

That might sound overly simplified, but if you keep doing that, you’ll have the basics. I’m sure some people start with the pictures and then read the words, but I find this often times spoils what’s happening, or puts things out of order. And, of course, there are some panels that don’t have any words, so you just have to decipher what’s going on with your noodle. And, more rarely, there’s panels with only words. But that’s easy. Now, the more you read, the faster and more efficient you will become at this. As I said, I’ve read a lot of comics, so by now, I’m often times aware of both parts of the story. Words and art. At least peripherally. It almost becomes a sort of balancing act. I don’t know if that’s just me…it might be. But, as I mentioned the “language of comics” above (a blog for another time?), that’s something I can speak. But don’t worry, you pick that up by reading.

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Any chance to use Comic Book Guy, I use.

But you know, this is only my experience. I’m sure there are a lot of ways to acclimate to reading comics. My advice always boils down to: just read. And I may be unqualified to give that advice, because I’ve been reading comics since I was a kid. It’s easier to learn something when you’re young, right? Reading nothing but thick novels your whole life, I can see how it would be tough. But luckily, kids are reading comics more these days, so if there’s no hope for you, at least there’s some for the future.

Now, let me switch gears to another question I get a lot about how to readcomics: where do you start? Reading comics is about understanding how they work, sure. But where do you jump in to get that knowledge. The hard part is that there are just so many comics out there. And with super hero comics being the main genre of the medium, people are rightfully intimidated. If you like Spider-Man, or Batman, or the X-Men, it can be hard to find a place to start reading. And, when people are starting to read comics, they don’t know much about what’s out there. The non-super hero stuff, I mean. Although, I do think that people are becoming more and more aware of the alternative, so that makes it easier.

If you want to get into the super hero stuff, I would say do a little research. I don’t think it’s necessary to read all 50 plus years of X-Men stuff. Especially because a lot of the old stuff is no longer canon (that’s the name of the game for super heroes). So I’d say get online, and do some reading. Plenty of places will give you a run down of what’s current continuity, and the characters. However, I would suggest finding the most important story lines and trying to read them. For example, sticking with X-Men, finding “the Dark Phoenix Saga,” “Age of Apocalypse,” God Loves, Man Kills,” etc.

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The good news is that comics don’t tend to go too high when being numbered these days. In the past, comics would be in the hundreds (i.e. X-Men #347), and people didn’t want to read it because, hey, I never read the other 346. But now I think publishers know that, and frequently renumber their runs. Marvel does this a ton. It can be convenient, but also they label their stuff in volumes, so which Iron Man is volume 7, 8, and 9? Sorry, I think that’s a personal gripe.

However, with these new runs, you can easily find the previous issues collected (called a trade paper back in comic stores), and catch up. Then you get the whole story. You may not know just who everyone on the page is, but it’s a lot easier than tracking down hundreds of back issues.  So, if you’re looking to get into super heroes, find someone you like, do a little research, and find their current stuff. I promise you it will be OK, and if you don’t know who/what something is, you can Google it. Don’t worry.

Now, if you’re not into the capes, it gets easier. Most independent stories are pretty self contained. Chew, one of my favorites of all time, was, I’m pretty sure, always going to be 60 issues. That might sound like a lot, but it had a definitive ending. And many books outside of Marvel and DC are mini series, meaning they run for under 12 issues. So it’s a lot easier to find the beginning, middle, and end of a story. And it’s great. The other thing about comics I think people are still learning is that you can pretty much find any genre you want out there. So, everyone can find a story to suit them. It can be overwhelming, but just ask someone you know who likes comics what you might like. That’s a good resource. Anyway, you can find lots of amazing stories that have manageable runs. This is not to even mention the graphic novel. These are stories that are completely contained within a single book, as opposed to something like Chew that ran monthly for several years. You can get these (often from a library wink wink) and have the whole story before you. And there’s plenty of lists out there about just what the best graphic novels are, too!

OK, I think I’ve gone on long enough here. This probably should have been a two parter, but I just had to get it all out there, you know? It can be difficult to learn how something works, but my final advice is this: read. The more you read, it will all make sense. Now, go make me proud and pick up a comic.

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