The Watchtower is our new column by George Elkind, teaching those looking to get into comic books where to start and what to look for.
For decades, it seems, comics have been reserved for the fringes of society. With the movies based on them (The Dark Knight, Iron Man, and 300, to name a few) ranking as some of the highest-grossing films out there, and with loads more on the way, comics are picking up steam and rapidly becoming absorbed into the American cultural consciousness, and rightly so. You can read them easily — you just have to go about it the right way. If you just follow any one of the three rules listed below, you should be fine. Unless, of course, you really want to play it safe.
- Avoid continuity: What is continuity? If you don’t understand the concept of continuity, just stay away from it for now. You’ll thank me.
- Start at the beginning: Nothing familiarizes you with a character quite like a (good) origin story, and, obviously, nothing comes before it for you to keep track of. If you’re a new reader, shoot for books with “Origin” or “Year One” in the title.
- Choose wisely: Avoid characters with tons of backstory (Batman, Flash, X-Men) unless you want to spend hours on Wikipedia playing catch-up. Just pick a manageable, perhaps even lesser-known character and you’ll be fine.
Even with the rules I just mentioned, there’s a huge supply of things you can read, but I’ll clue you in on a few good things to start with based on your taste in genre.
Central is a story set in Batman’s hometown that avoids Batman, instead centering around the efforts of the GCPD in Gotham’s corrupt streets. Identity Crisis may require a little background research, but it’s nothing Wikipedia can’t handle and besides, it’s an excellent murder mystery with a realistic, modern take on what it means to be a superhero in the modern world and one of my favorite volumes as well.
The Walking Dead, basically “the zombie comic,” is a black-and-white, ongoing series following the survivors of a zombie apocalypse. The second two graphic novels are what they sound like and are really just good fun. Also worth noting are 30 Days of Night and Venom: Shiver, both of which take place in the Arctic, one with vampires and the other with the eponymous Spider-Man villain terrorizing a military outpost. Batman: Vampire and Run, the follow-up to Shiver, are also highly recommended.
The Bottom enters the mind of a pill-popping, alcoholic, multiple-personality-afflicted (but, of course, badass) psychopath while Joke depicts Batman contending with Alan Moore’s Joker at his most eerie and disturbing. The third kicks off 100 Bullets, a now-finished series about people’s fixation on revenge.
Xanadu centers around the eponymous, immortal fortune-teller who’s called the DC Universe (or DCU) home for years. Fables, also the start of an ongoing series, focuses on fantasy creatures who secretly inhabit the modern world, and is rife with Bill Willingham’s tongue-in-cheek humor. Neil Gaiman (of Coraline fame) scripts now-finished Sandman, which stars Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams, and remains one of the most popular and best-received series in comics history.
For the Superhero Lover: Superman/Batman Vol. 1: Public Enemies, Kingdom Come; any first volume of Marvel’s Ultimate X-Men, Vol. 1: The Tomorrow People; Ultimate Spider-Man, Vol. 1: Power and Responsibility; The Ultimates Vol. 1: Super-Human; a variety of DC’s origin stories (listed below)
Public Enemies features the “world’s finest,” as they’re called, deftly playing off one another while Kingdom Come depicts a potential future where most heroes have lost their way. The various Ultimate series are revised, self-contained takes on the Marvel universe and are blessed with a team of gifted, energetic writers (Wanted’s Mark Millar, for instance), with Ultimates being analogous to Marvel’s Avengers.
Also, there are a plethora of great origin stories and first arcs, listed below, which, naturally, are excellent jumping-on points. Just choose wisely, and feel free to pick little- or lesser-known characters; they can all be very rewarding.