Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Pages to Panels: A Bookish Guide to Getting Into Comics. SUPERHEROES (2)

Heyyyyyyy, it's time for round two of Pages to Panels!

I was going to make this instalment another "if you like this/read this" post but I know that one of the issues I first had to overcome as a comic reader was where the hell do you start? Series like Fables or Rat Queens are easy because even if they're 20 volumes in  there's a clear linear progression. It does get a little messy when they start working on side series and prequels, for instance Fables has Jack of Fables and Fairest - two series which occasionally dip back into the Fables narrative,  but for the most part these newer series are still not nearly as difficult to work out a reading order for.

But if you're interested in a traditional superhero series? Hell to the no. It's like wading into quicksand, just a quick scan at the hundreds of titles for a single hero will make you feel like you're well out of your depth. The first thing to keep in mind is that it is incredibly unlikely you'll ever be able to read an entire hero's back-catalogue. Not only are you potentially looking at 60 years of stories, but there are cross-over editions and specials and singular runs which add tonnes and tonnes of titles to an already heavy load. Not to mention, honestly, you probably don't want to read them all anyway. Characters evolve and the Batman you love from the Nolan trilogy is very different to the Batman of the 1950s. If you're attracted to the dark and brooding Dark Knight then you probably don't want to read any Batman pre-1980s. By all means get a taster for early Batman, but if you decide it isn't your jam then just mooove on. And that's okay. Life long comic book readers will occasionally try and shame you for not knowing what happened in issue 47 when Batman faced off against Freeze* but your time is precious. So screw those guys.

Batman is actually a fantastic starting point. He may have continuous runs dating back to the stone ages but his stand-alone arcs are brilliant and super easy to read in any order. One thing to keep in mind is that comics love to reboot and redux and re-imagine. What was the Joker's origin story in the 1970s is unlikely to be the same  in 2000. So while you may decide to start on an arc written in the 1990s, don't assume that what you know from the films or cartoons is any basis for what you're heading in to. My best advice is to just ignore anything that isn't in the comic in front of you. Don't worry about the Joker or Freeze or Robin. And if you come across a mention of a fight or a villain that doesn't seem to be mentioned previously in the comic, it was probably in a cross-over issue and just jump onto Google.

But back to Batman arcs.

If you come to me for recs I'm going to suggest Alan Moore's The Killing Joke, Jeff Loeb's The Long Halloween, and the epic Knightfall. They were the first three arcs I read (in that order as well) and I never felt like I was out of my depth. The beauty of Batman is that while some details might change (namely who is Robin and various villain's origins) the general gist of it remains the same. You have your wealthy man about town who is also their protector. And he dresses like a bat. A man-sized bat. And since he is stinking rich he always has excellent toys. The rest of the details come from the arc you read -how brooding he is, his relationships, age and mental state - that all depends on which storyline you decide to read.

The internet is a beautiful thing. While I am fairly well versed in the comics I've chosen to focus on, I'm still far from the person you necessarily want to go to for a thorough breakdown of superheroes. That's where that pretty, pretty internet comes in. The DC wiki is obviously a pretty decent starting point, especially if you want to jump in at a later arc and just read up on the general story progression up until that point. The same goes for Wikipedia. If you have a couple of titles that jump out at you but you want to know a little more about them, wikipedia is pretty thorough in this regard. But if you want a more in-depth suggestion on the critical arcs and where to then move on from there are some other sites that will serve you well.

A Comic Book Blog has a really fantastic run down of seminal Batman arcs. They introduce you to the narratives, why they're important and also offer the next read based on which choice you make.

The AV Club also has a decent run down which is especially helpful because it's aimed at film fans who may have no comic experience with the Dark Knight at all.

Comic Vine is a bit more a time line (and a little bit spoiler-y) than a really helpful guide, but they've steered me in the right direction for other heroes and are therefore a pretty handy reference to keep bookmarked.

But on the off chance you're not interested in Batman you can basically take all of that advice and change Batman for Superman or Captain America. Comic Vine and A Comic Book Blog look at a wide array of heroes, and Wikipedia will be your friend regardless of which side of the DC/Marvel battle you pick.

I know buddy, they're crazy
That said, I've found other superheroes harder to get into than our dear Dark Knight, mostly because a lot of them don't have the detective serial aspect of Batman arcs and some of them are just insanely convoluted. There are two main ways I've attempted to traverse new (to me) heroes. The first is the simplest and maybe best for newcomers, the current runs of DC and Marvel comics. If you're looking at DC that would be the New 52 (which kicked off in late 2011) or Marvel Now! for Marvel (2012- current). These are both made as easy entry points for new readers. There's been a mixed-response from older comics readers but I've found this to be a pretty great way to get into a few series that otherwise would have been too tricky. It's how I discovered Aquaman, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Captain Marvel. Once you've read up on this particular run, you can make the decision to travel back to earlier incarnations or to simply stay on the road they're paving. And either option is absolutely acceptable.

The other option is the movie route. After seeing X-Men: Days of Future Past I was interested in reading how the comic differed from the film. I had never actually read X-Men before and of all the superhero series this is probably the most mind-boggling one to try and get into. It's full of paradoxes and twins and Days of Our Lives level soapy drama. DoFP is a short run, about 5 issues, and by itself isn't too bad. It mostly involves characters you know from the films and unless you read up on it first you aren't likely to know how loopy the wider plot around it is. Similarly my first Captain America comic was the Winter Soldier double volume which I decided to pick up partly because I enjoyed the film and partly on the strength of writer Ed Brubaker. So this is definitely an entryway into the comics, but it's likely that most other films have taken a mid-point comic or even parts of several arcs to produce their films, so it's probably best as a taster. Ultimately you'll probably need to hunt around the web to work out where is best to start, which is where the websites above will come in handy. Or just Google "superhero" + where to start and work your way through the blogosphere.

Finally, if you mostly want to read some comics as a companion to the Marvel and DC films then there are some volumes that would be more helpful than others. Now that we have a basic idea of the story lines for the future Marvel films (and the rumoured DC arcs) there are some comics that will better help round out your understanding than others. Let's go!

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (written by Ed Brubaker, illustrated by Steve Epting) - While it's a bit darker than the film version, this comic is a really solid starting point if you're interested in starting either the modern Captain America and Winter Soldier arcs. It reflects back on his more idealistic early days as Cap, as well as reflecting on the difficulties that a man from the 1940s faces in the modern world. It's also a good primer for the Civil War story arc, which we now know is going to play a pretty major role in Marvel's phase 3. It's more a backgrounding that an explicit lead-in, but I think it does a good job of explaining the mentality of Cap as that storyline begins.

Aquaman: New 52 (written by Geoff Johns, illustrated by Ivan Reis and Joe Prado) - As I said in my mini-review, I never thought I'd read Aquaman but I found the New 52 not only gave me an introduction to the character while hinting at old storylines I'd eventually want to discover, but it made me feel awful for ever laughing and suggesting he was a "useless" hero. Aquaman has been announced in the next Batman V Superman movie as well as his own standalone (Hello Jason Mamoa!) and DC is rumoured to be mining heavily from the new 52 so if you start here you'll be sure to get the most accurate origin for the films.

Captain Marvel: In Pursuit of Flight (Written by Kelly Sue DeConnick, illustrated by Deter Soy, Emma Rios) - There have been seven Captain Marvels and Carol Danvers (former Ms Marvel) is the latest to take on the mantle. The main reason I recommend starting here is firstly because the movies will be taking on this particular character and (likely) story thread, but also because I found it a really helpful starting point for a bunch of other series. Danvers gained her particular powers from the original Captain Marvel (a Kree alien named Mar-Vell) so in this volume you actually get the best of both worlds, a look at both Earth bound and cosmic heroes. Even though some things may only be alluded to or mentioned in passing, I found the brief mentions of the inhumans,  Kree technology and Danver's past to be indelible when I went on to read Guardians of the Galaxy and Ms Marvel and Annihilation. 

Suicide Squad: New 52 (written by Adam Glass, illustrated by  Frederico Dallocchio) - While personally I'd recommend starting this series at the John Ostrander, since all of the news of the film has been centred around Harley Quinn if you're mostly interested in it to contextualise the film then this is the place to start. Unlike my other recs, these aren't heroes. They're well known DC villains who are forced into undertaking black ops missions for the US government. It has massive potential to be completely different from the superhero films currently on our screens and it's perhaps the announced film I'm most excited about (aside from Wonder Woman OBVS). Read here for a little bit more info on exactly what the series is about, and why it'd be a great film.

This is basically the way I've thrown myself into comics. Is it necessarily the smartest or simplest way? Eh, maybe not. But it's worked for me. The Mary Sue just published a really interesting piece about "what to know now that you know you want to read comics". It's got a bit more of a breakdown of exactly what comics are - single issues, trades etc and the best way to navigate that area. So I highly recommend giving that a read too.

*To any angry fanboys strolling through - that is a hypothetical issue 47, I know it isn't real. 


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