The Ultimate Beginner's Guide to Comic Books Part 1: The Basics

Benjamin Piñeros Benjamin Piñeros comic books guide

If you ever wanted to get into comic books but didn’t know where to start, or came across the need for a comprehensive beginner's guide to pass on to friends to allure them into the medium, look no further, this five-part guide right here, is all you need.

Just like it happened in the 50s with monster films, or in the 60s with westerns, right now we’re going through a brand new craze; the age of the “comic book” movie. At the time of writing, Avengers: Endgame is close to becoming the most successful movie in the history of cinema, the highest point of a decade-long journey in which the lingo of comic books has become part of mainstream culture.

The current flood of entertainment based on comic books is enticing millions of people to get interested in a medium once considered exclusive to “geeks” and outsiders, but the inherent particularities of the art form can prove to be an entry barrier too high to climb.

First off, it’s a medium with multiple, — maybe too many — publishing formats, ways to be consumed and means of distribution. Secondly, it’s an affair deeply rooted in decades of continuity.

On top of that, comic book publishers have been notoriously bad at making their product accessible to the uninitiated. Sure, they’ve licensed their properties to other media to exhaustion, and characters like Superman or Spider-Man are omnipresent brands in popular culture. But if someone were to actually start reading their stories, they would face a very confusing scenario.

The lack of an official guideline from publishers has practically left the responsibility of spreading the comic book gospel in the hands of patient store clerks and willing hardcore fans.

There are dozens of issues labeled as #1. Where to start? Batman has a gray costume in some stories, then a black one in others. He’s even dressed as a rainbow in some. And what’s up with that zebra suit?

zebra batman

And then there are some pretty silly misconceptions about the medium.

The general public thinks that comics are these infantile, colorful things exclusively made for children. NOT!! That’s as ludicrous as staying with a straight face that music is only for teenagers.

Comics have won multiple literary awards. Lauded authors have written comics, and comic book authors have written best selling novels. Comic book art has been exposed in museums throughout the world, and there are comics so smart, not even the smuggest of your college teachers would understand. So that’s a big, bold NO, comics are not just for kids. Just like with every other art form, there’s a comic book for every age and intelligence level.

Another popular misconception is to think that comic books are just about superheroes. WRONG! Comic books are as varied in genres as literature or film. And because of the inherent possibilities of the medium, they can even go further, merging genres that would be almost impossible to put together in any other art form.

There’s every type of comedy you can possibly imagine of, there’s action, crime, fantasy, science fiction in every flavor conceivable, historical fiction, alternative history, war, erotica, pornography, biographies, auto-biographies, horror, LGBT dramas, romance, slice of life stories and practically everything in between.

Ironically, while films and TV series based on comic book properties are making billions of dollars, the comic book industry itself is going through continuous shake-ups and crisis, and right now is in dire need for new readers.

The demand is there, as the success of the movies has shown. That’s why we thought it was the perfect time to make a guide like this.

So, what’s a comic book anyway? And why are they called “comics”? The Punisher isn’t funny...

In grossly general terms, comic books are stories told throughout images and text. It’s an art form we can trace back all the way to prehistoric times, with the famous paintings in the caves of Altamira as one of the first documents we have of humans attempting to communicate through images and symbols.

Many would think comics are an art form born in the United States, but sequential storytelling actually originated in Japan in the form of manga. In its most primitive form, manga appeared in the 12th and 13th centuries as simple folk tales painted on scrolls.

Chōjū-giga, also referred to as “The Scrolls of Frolicking Animals” is believed to be the first example. Actually, that work, which is more than 800 years old still exists and is currently exhibited at the Kyoto national museum.

In Europe, the earliest known example of sequential art is the Swiss comic from 1927, Histoire de M. Vieux Bois, translated to English in the 1840s as The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck. “Oldbuck” is considered to be the first comic book ever printed in the U.S. and America's first newspaper strip.

From that point on, newspapers would progressively adopt the habit of including a “strips” section where they’d feature very short stories, — mostly comedic — meant as light entertainment to break from the news.

The popularity of these strips enticed publishers to release them in separate hardbound collections. It’s at that moment, when these comical strips started to be available outside newspapers, that the modern comic book was born.

The term “comic book”, is thought to have appeared for the first time on the back cover of The Yellow Kid in 1897, a collected story from a popular humor news strip of the time, Hogan’s Alley.

It turns out these collections were a success. Publishers continued to put them out and even started to include original content in these reprints, inadvertently opening the medium to new genres and audiences.

These collections originally aimed to cater to the adults who read newspapers, shifted gradually to younger demographics with Disney entering the game with their popular Mickey Mouse strips and with other companies producing all-ages adventure stories like Little Orphan Annie, Smitty, and Dick Tracy.

Later on, Superman appeared in 1938, and well, the rest is history.

Ok, but, how do comics work? Where do I start? What the hell is this?

The business model of Comic book publishing is a bit different from other printed media. Comic books are mainly serialized, sustained by advertisements and delivered one episode at a time during long periods, similar to how TV series work.

Each of these “episodes” consists of a little stapled booklet called a single issue, or “floppy”.

A standard modern comic book issue has about 22 pages of story, plus 10 more pages devoted to ads. Its dimensions are 6.6 x 10.2 inches (25.7 cm x 16.8 cm) and it costs somewhere between $1.50 and $5 dollars depending on the publisher.

Typically you get one issue per month, although there are some cases in which that window varies. 52 from DC comics, for example, was released in 2006 on a weekly schedule, while Planetary is infamous for taking 10 years (from 1999 to 2009) to put out 27 issues.

Mainstay characters that appeared in the Golden and Silver age of comics (more of that in parts 3 and 4 of our guide) like Wonder Woman and Spider-Man have been progressing continuously in one gigantic, decade-long story that started way before some of us were even born. Yet, during that massive timeframe, there exist various incarnations of the character, each version with their own origin, looks, and distinct traits. Allow me to explain:

A comic book “run” is a long story told throughout anywhere between 12 issues and 100+, in which a team of creators works uninterrupted on a character. And a comic book “run” is comprised of a series of narrative arcs, meaning, smaller sub-stories with a beginning and an end.

“Runs” end either at their natural conclusion or, in the worst-case scenario, when they’re canceled prematurely due to not selling enough single issues month after month.

Usually, comic book “runs” have a unique take and tone over a given character, — sometimes including a new origin and costume revamp —  so generally speaking, each run represents the ideal starting point for a new reader.

Let’s say you liked the Netflix show and are curious about getting into Daredevil comics. You don’t go all the way back to his first appearance in 1964. Oh no, that’ll be insane and you won’t last a week.

What you do is go to a specific era of comics (each one has a different tone and art style, which we will talk about in part 3 and 4) and pick a run from a particular creative team and start there.

 You don’t start at Daredevil #1. Depending on your taste and interests, you start at Frank Miller’s martial arts-influenced Daredevil run of the late 70s, Brian Michael Bendis’ gritty, crime-noir take of the 2000s or Mark Waid’s swashbuckling, adventurous depiction of 2014.

Don’t worry, we’ll start recommending individual runs in upcoming articles after we tackle the basics. For the time being, there’s still much to cover!

So, let’s get back to the formats. Aside from floppies and full long runs, there are also limited series and graphic novels.

A limited series is a story intended to have a predetermined number of issues,— rarely told in more than 12 issues — structured with a clear beginning, middle and end, that might, or might not fit into the general continuity of a long run. Limited series are mostly reserved to explore alternative versions of popular characters, tell unique, self-contained short stories, or depict well-known characters in narratives with more explicit sexual or violent content.

Other times, limited series are devised specifically as entry points for new readers.

Case in point, The Dark Knight Returns, and Watchmen, probably the most popular comics of all time, are, in fact, limited series.

Then we have the graphic novel, a term that is usually thrown around erroneously. Most of the time, I see the word used to refer to comics with “adult” content or with some sort of “literary” legitimacy. Well, that’s just bollocks.

The term "graphic novel" is just meant to describe a comic book that was neither written as nor published in single issues. Graphic novels are self-contained stories that are released entirely in one book just like a novel. 

Fun fact: Watchmen is NOT a graphic novel. It was written and published as 12 single issues between 1986 and 1987.

Ok nerds, enough information for now. Take a deep breath, take a bathroom break, and come back for part 2 of our guide, where we will explore the different publishing formats in comics.

Part 2 - The Ultimate Beginner's Guide to Comic Books: Publishing formats

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