Ka-Pow 101: Intro to Comic Books (for Adults) Pt. 1

I was recently talking to my girlfriend about comic books and realized that I’ve never seen a rule book to introducing comic books to an adult. I have a history with comic books. I got a box full at a young age and have been hooked ever since. Many of the stories that I’ve heard from other comic book fans start the same way: a relative bestows upon them the first treasured comics at a young age. I am not claiming this is the only way it happens, but in my own experience, it is the most common. But what about those who never experienced that magic moment in youth? How do they stumble into the dense and wonderful world of Kryptonians and super-soldiers? Here are a few helpful hints.

Let’s start with the vocabulary of comic books.

Comic books are generally published as single issues on a schedule (generally monthly) and generally known as “floppies” or pamphlets. Think of these as episodes of a TV series. You get one and wait for the next to continue the story. These are the most common formats for comic books. You’ll find them in your local comic shop, news stands, and some bookstores. In major bookstores, such as Barnes & Noble, these will be stocked in the magazine section.

After some time, a group of issues are collected into a single book called a trade paperback (sometimes shortened to simply “trade”). Maintaining the TV comparison, this would be a season collected into a box set. When you stumble into the wasteland of a book store, these are categorized in a section labeled “Graphic Novels” (More on that later).

Now this is where it can get a little confusing. There are also other ways issues can be collected. Certain series can gain credibility and fame over time. If a publisher recognizes this, they may release special editions in various formats including paperback and hardcover. Some terms included in these special editions: Omnibus, Showcase, Absolute, and Premiere.

Let me go back for a second. There was a term I used not too long ago: Graphic Novel. This is a very vague term in the world of comic books. Graphic novels are defined by the dictionary as: a fictional story that is presented in comic-strip format and published as a book. It can be agreed that books like The Watchmen and Maus are graphic novels. However, there’s a certain qualifier lacking in the definition. As it is, all collected comics are considered graphic novels. But, this is where my own opinion comes in. I think graphic novels are a form of comic books, but not all comic books can be graphic novels. I think there should be a certain story structure to graphic novels that does not allow for the loose-threads of serialized comics. A book like The Watchmen is self-contained and does not require outside reading to understand the basic story. On the other hand, a book like The Death of Superman requires an understanding of many aspects outside the individual story including the Matrix Supergirl’s relationship to the fully-follicled Lex Luthor. But here’s the twist, a graphic novel can be serialized. I define The Sandman series as a graphic novel series because it is a fairly finite and self-contained. Again, I reiterate: this is my opinion. If in doubt, call it a graphic novel. I won’t hate you… much.

All right, that’s out of the way. Let’s continue with a look at story structure in comics. In the early days of comics, single issues would tell a full story. As two-part stories grew into sagas, a practice called decompression allowed for the prevalence of story arcs. Story arcs followed the story structure (beginning, middle, end) over multiple issues. The common practice is to run a story arc over six issues to ease the transition to trade.

Crossovers are common stories in comics. These refer to stories in which a character from one title appears in a book of another title (i.e. Superman appearing in a Batman book). This is not to be confused with a Team book, which groups multiple heroes together (i.e. Avengers). Crossovers can occur in single issues, or they can occur in multiple issues. They can also take place between two titles.

As crossovers became more popular and the stakes raised with multiple heroes, events became a staple in comics. Event comics mainly are either mini-series or crossover. These stories raise the stakes to global and even universal levels. They commonly feature multiple characters from various titles uniting against a common foe. In the case of Civil War and Avenger vs X-Men, they can also feature multiple heroes battling it out due to differing opinions of a certain catalyst.

With the evolution of events, tie-ins became necessary to explore characters and moments that can only be glimpsed in an event series. These tie-ins can be a mini-series created specifically for the event, or they can take place in titles featuring a specific character involved in the event.

And finally, let’s talk a little about titles, characters, and publishers. This is gonna be a little more free form, because it’s just clarifying a few confusing areas. First up, titles are very simply the title of the comic book. In super-hero comics, the common practice is to name the title after the protagonist. However, certain titles began as anthologies, which told various stories throughout the series. One major example of this would be Journey Into Mystery which began as a horror/mystery anthology series, but would later introduce and feature Thor and more recently, Loki.

I’m going to revisit the TV comparisons now as I talk about publishers. Each publisher is like a channel with different programming. There are two major publishers (commonly referred to as the Big Two) which dominate the market: DC Comics and Marvel Comics. Each contains its own stable of characters created throughout the years. DC’s stable of characters contains iconic heroes such as Superman and Batman, while Marvel consists of some of the more “modern” characters like Spider-man and Iron Man. They have titles (think shows) which they produce on a monthly schedule. There are other channels to watch besides NBC and CBS, so we also have other publishers. A few examples in no particular order:

  • Image Comics – Walking Dead, Spawn
  • Dynamite Entertainment – Robocop, Green Hornet
  • IDW Publishing – GI Joe, 30 Days of Night
  • Dark Horse – Hellboy, The Umbrella Academy
  • Oni Press – Scott Pilgrim, Queen & Country

Now, I know what a lot of you are thinking: how does a vocabulary lesson get somebody started reading comics? It doesn’t. It’s a foot in the door. And this is only part one. In part two, I’m going to talk about how to introduce someone into the world of comic books and suggestions for books to start reading.

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