I'm a comic newbie*. Until the last few months, I found comics--and, by extension, graphic novels--a completely foreign entity, something I either wasn't interested in or wasn't capable of understanding. The comics world seemed tight-knit, exclusionary, full of insider baseball, and to an outsider like me, it was impossible to tell where to start. Or why I'd even want to.
That's not to say I'd never read a comic before coming to this conclusion: I read (and adored) Bill Willingham's stunningly imaginative Fables series years ago. Someone along the line had also pressed Watchmen, that much-loved classic of comics, into my hands, and I devoured it in just a few days. I even volunteered at the Titan Books booth at New York Comic Con and got to a) go to NYCC and b) meet Dave Gibbons (and have him sign my copy of Watchmen).
But somehow, those felt like exceptions to a rule rather than the start of something new.
Over the last year, though, comics have started to issue a siren song I've found impossible to ignore. I discovered that my local library carries the Saga series, and I moved from the first three trade volumes of that to Brian K. Vaughan's other two series: Y: The Last Man and Ex Machina. I tried Rat Queens (which I didn't love as much as the rest of the internet) and read all six volumes of Sweet Tooth in one morning (I cried at the end).
What this new-to-me dive into comics has taught me, though, is not just that there are some epically wonderful series in the comics world. It's that my entire concept of comics was wrong:
The Comics Culture
Comics people are not exclusionary. With very few exceptions, I have found that what I once took to be clique-like and full of insider baseball is actually just a series of rare and enviable instances of a community of people finding "their people." And this community is always looking for--and willing to help indoctrinate--new members.
The staff at my local comics, for example: pretty freaking awesome. Awesome and willing to spend 15 minutes walking you (me) through the store to find just the right new series based on the limited experience you've had so far. They know their stuff, but they don't lord their knowledge over you: that knowledge is there for the sharing.
Comics Change the Way You Read
You have to learn to read the pictures. I've gotten better at this, though I admit I still finding myself reading only the dialogue in a desperate attempt to find out what happens, and thereby realize I've missed the incredible artwork on the page. Reading comics has taught me to read more slowly, and to savor the page. I've also found the urge to re-read--something I do occasionally with my most favorite of novels and non-fiction books, but not often--is ten times more prominent in my comics reading: once I know what happens, I want to go back and revel in the beauty of each page.
You have to learn to appreciate a story in small episodes. Whether you read individual issues or trade volumes, comics come in episodes. I'm used to reading multiple books at one time, so the idea of enjoying multiple series--and therefore multiple storylines--in one time period, albeit over the course of several weeks or months, is not foreign to me. It’s still not easy, but learning to appreciate this style of reading is enjoyable in and of itself.
It’s OK to Admit What You Don’t Know
I don’t know all the most famous, most iconic, most important comic series in history.
I don’t know how to set up a pull list. I only vaguely know what a pull list is.
I don’t know if I like reading individual issues, or if I will continue to read all trade editions.
I don’t know what other series I should be reading.
I don’t even know what else I don’t know.
And that’s ok. Because comics (and reading in general, I’d argue), are about more than being an expert in something. They’re about being an expert in trying new things, experimenting with new ideas and formats and approaches and styles and art and beauty and what-have-you, and going into it all with an open mind.
*Newbie as in new-to-something, not to be confused with noob/n00b/noobie, which I've learned has a slightly different meaning (and definitely different connotation).
Fables | Created by Bill Willingham | 2002 - present | Vertigo
Watchmen | Written by Alan Moore, Illustrated by Dave Gibbons | 1986-1987 | DC Comics
Saga | Created by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples | 2012 - present | Image Comics
Y: The Last Man | Written by Brian K. Vaughan | 2002 - 2008 | Vertigo
Ex Machina | Written by Brian K. Vaughan | 2004 - 2010 | DC Comics
Rat Queens | Written by Kurtis J. Wiebe | 2013 - present | Image Comics
Sweet Tooth | Created by Jeff Lemire | 2009 - 2013 | Vertigo