Friday, 20 July 2012

On Reading Comic Books Pt. 2

So the absolute biggest problem anybody approaching comics for the first time ever is comprehending the vastness of the genre. It's not like walking into a bookshop and heading for the military history section because you know that's what you're looking for. It's like walking into a bookshop all by itself. There are genres within comic books. There are genres within genres. Spin-offs, mash-ups, alternate worlds, infinite universes, histories dating from decades back as well as new evolutions. 

I'm lucky that I had a starting point. I had just twigged the Iron Man and Captain America connection and had begun to understand the bigness of the Marvel universe. I wanted more of the Marvel Universe. It's very popular right now, what with all the films going on, so I was in. But which character to start with? I decided on the X-Men. This was because I used to watch the nineties cartoons, had seen the films, and generally loved the idea of regular people getting awesome powers. So I went to my friendly line manager at work (perks of working in a bookshop) who just so happens to be a comic book/robot-dinosaur geek. He recommended I started with Astonishing X-Men, the series penned by Joss Whedon, as I was also a Buffy fan and respected Whedon as a writer. As both of us saw it, I really couldn't go wrong. 

And yeah. I didn't go wrong. I swallowed it up like a giant chocolate cake sprinkled with edible gold dust. It left my heart beating, my inspiration peaked. But why? Why was reading a comic book such an incredible experience? Surely it's just a story told in pictures, nothing complicated about that, or is there? Well here we go folks. Here's my analysis of the comic book reading experience. This is where I tell you that it's not for kids, and it's not stupid (why do you think so many geeks love it? and geeks are generally very clever people) and it's really quite amazing. 

The first thing I noticed was my brain working in a different way. I've experienced this feeling twice lately, and I guess it's the feeling that babies go through every single day as their little baby synapses connect up into a googolplex of configurations. I went to do Go Ape a few months ago as part of a hen party, and the experience of being suspended 20ft in the air and walking a tightrope does something to a brain. I also recently went on a bike riding refresher course (I can ride a bike, just haven't done so since I was a kid and have never ridden on roads). On both those occasions, I felt the proverbial cogs turning. And it happened again as I started reading Astonishing X-Men. It's like I could feel my brain adapting to this new reading process. The first few pages I read incredibly slowly, because taking it all in was hard, and then I started speeding through it as my brain adjusted, like I was developing new powers, learning to swim, learning to roller skate. Reading comic books for the first time ever is a bit like that, although much easier, and much, much less dangerous. 

Then we get to the storytelling itself. I like reading novels, and I like writing novels. Well comics aren't novels. They're pictures with words. In fact, far fewer words than you can possibly imagine. AND YET. I got just as much story as I could have possibly done with a full novel. That's kind of amazing, right? You see, the art of great comic book writing is letting the pictures do a lot of the storytelling for you, and then being able to see between the picture squares (if they have a proper name, I don't know it yet - are they panels?). The words cement what you're already figuring out from just looking at the pictures. Plus they add a great deal of humour, character understanding and the odd bit of necessary narration. 

A particularly thrilling aspect of comic book creation (which had me guffawing on the tube - yes, I didn't just chuckle or laugh, I guffawed!) is that they bring a whole new meaning to the word 'page-turner'. The comic is actually constructed page by page, so that the actual physical action of turning the page is part of the experience in itself. This doesn't happen in novels. It just can't happen. The comic book isn't just something you hold in your hands and read, you have to become physically immersed in it in order to enjoy it fully. You reach a cliff-hanger, a lynch-pin, a life or death moment, and a well constructed comic book will make you TURN THE PAGE for the big reveal. This is mindblowing. 

And then there are the characters. You can do stuff in comic books that the movie industry is only just beginning to get around to. You can design space ships that TV budgets don't have the capacity to cope with. Characters can do thrilling, incredible things. And then they can also be normal people. Like Kitty Pryde, my current Ladynerd crush and lovely X-Man. She can walk through walls and stuff, and she's in love with a big heap of metal man, and she has real-life, identifiable emotions. I want to be her friend SO BAD.  

I can see all you long-standing comic book geeks tutting and shaking their heads saying TOLD YOU SO right now, but you see, this isn't for you. I'm writing this for the millions of people like me just discovering this Narniarific world, immense and contagious and full of colour (even if it's in black and white, somehow it's still in colour, like when you watch an old telly). 

So you've read this article, you've never touched a comic book in your life because you think they're for kids or strange people who collect tiny plastic figurines and spend their weekends dressing up and sword-fighting in the park? Well I say you get yourself into your nearest bookstore, or better yet, your nearest actual comic book store. Go and talk to the staff. They're not scary. They are often passionate and excited and really want you to enjoy yourself (just like your average bookseller). You can't buy your first comic book on the internet. You need to feel it in your hands. You need to see if you can get on with the characters, and you'll probably need a little bit of advice. You might want to hang around and read a few issues first before committing to a big-old bind-up collection. You may also want to find a friend who can lend you stuff because the only downside of comics, as far as I can tell, is that they're expensive. So make friends people! Explore and share and have fun!

Anyway. All my comics so far have been loans or borrows, so I'm about to head out now and actually BUY my very first comic book. And this is going to be Watchmen by Alan Moore. I've heard good stuff. Let's see what happens. 

Hugs and high fives and as ever, your comments thoroughly encouraged,



  1. Yay for a lovely post! Welcome to the club!! Comics rule. So glad you had a good starting point. Do you do Buffy? If so go and have a look at Fray. Cos it's gorgeous. Also my other rec for you is Brian K Vaughan. His 'Pride' is superb and also I have a world of love for Runaways. :)

  2. Yes, welcome to comics! :D I loved newspaper strip comics as a kid, but went off them for a long time because I thought they were all about men in lycra suits and women with big boobs and guns. I got back into them through 'Gemma Bovary' by Posy Simmonds, 'Blankets' by Craig Thompson, and a lot of indie stuff I was seeing pop up on LiveJournal at the time, by the likes of Kate Beaton, James Turner, Lucy Knisley, Raina Telgemeier, Eleanor Davis, Drew Weing and Hope Larson. And I started spotting picture book artists who quietly made comics-that-were-not-called-comics, such as Shaun Tan, Mo Willems, Maurice Sendak, Posy Simmonds, Satoshi Kitamura, Viviane Schwarz and Raymond Briggs.

    I hope people don't look at one or two comics and decide if they like them based on those books; you're right, it's like walking into a bookshop, and the first two books you see might not be perfect for you, but there's bound to be something in there you'll love. A few more names to look out for, stuff that's really accessible: Gary Northfield, Jamie Smart, Simone Lia, Marjane Satrapi, Luke Pearson, Guy Delisle, Cyril Pedrosa, Tom Gauld and Darryl Cunningham.

  3. Excellent and fascinating reading!