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Adventures of a Comic Book Newbie: Where Do I Start with Superheroes?

Caroline Pruett

Staff Writer

Caroline Pruett writes about comic books at Fantastic Fangirls, where she tries to use her powers for good. Follow her on Twitter: @CarolinePruett.

Adventures of a Comic Book Newbie is the place where you’ll find a discussion of the fundamental elements of comics and comic culture. If you’re new to comics (or perhaps a seasoned vet eager to get back to the basics), this column will serve as a guide on where to start and what you need to know to get the most out of your comics experience.

Panelteer Swapna: So, as a comics newbie, I’m interested in superheroes. But with all these different runs and the sheer history of all these characters, I have absolutely no idea where to start. If I find a superhero I want to read about, do I dive right in? Or is it best to read some back story first? HALP!

Panelteer Caroline: I’ll lead off here with what I believe should be the Prime Directive of Fandom: If you’re having fun, you’re not doing it wrong. Other than that rule, there are no rules.

Ahh, but, you ask, how do you make sure you’re having fun?  You may set out to have fun, but wind up getting confused and frustrated. My guess is that it’s going to depend on how you, personally, like to consume stories. Are you the kind of person who will pick up a random book in the middle of a mystery series and, if you like the setting and characters, go back to see how the gang got together? In that case, dive into a series with the latest issue, or pick up a trade paperback from your library. If it seems promising, go back looking for more.

When Swapna and I started this conversation, I promised to tell her the story of Cyclops and the shrimp boat. So here goes.

There was a very specific moment when Scott Summers (aka, Cyclops of the X-Men) started being my favorite Marvel character. (Surprisingly enough to people who know me, this has nothing to do with James Marsden playing him in the movies. Though I guess those cheekbones didn’t hurt.)

Cyclops on a motorcyle

James Marsden as Cyclops in his not-living-on-a-shrimp-boat phase

My devotion to comic book Cyclops started when someone told me a story about the time he left the X-Men and went to work on a shrimp boat. I don’t know why this particular detail struck me as more appealing and ridiculous than anything else I knew about the X-Men.  But it happened.  I went diving in a back issue bin and ended up with a stack of “Cyclops on the shrimp boat” issues. (Uncanny X-Men; Volume 1, 143-150, if you’re interested in partaking of this goodness.) And I still love them!

Some people think the way I read is ridiculous. Maybe you wouldn’t imagine starting in the middle of an ongoing story. In that case, you may want to look for a particular classic or definitive “run” for the character you’re interested in. When people talk about a “run,” they mean a series of issues by the same writer (and, traditionally, by the same artist, though it’s getting harder to find writer/artist teams who stick together for very long). The Internet or the clerk at your comics shop can suggest some runs that are notable for particular characters. Once you’ve done this for a while, you might find that you’re more interested in following the work by a favorite creator or creative team (that is, the writers and artists who work on a book) than stories about a specific character. That’s okay too!

And if you just want to know what a character’s “deal” is, don’t be afraid to ask. The Internet is a great source; wikis are out there for almost anybody, and they can fill in the events and significant issues in a character’s life.

Even better, ask a friend to tell you the story of their favorite superhero. Fans talk about comics “canon” like it’s some kind of scripture. In reality, it’s been patched together over a lot of years by writers and editors who are trying to make deadline and might not even have read each other’s work. There’s a lot of wonderful work out there, but in practice a single character’s canon rarely adds up to a coherent story. (How could it when Batman’s been around since 1939 and still looks about 35?) You’re much more likely to make sense of the heart and soul of a character by listening to a devoted reader talk about them. This is how you learn about the weird, fun, idiosyncratic stuff.

Like that time Cyclops lived on a shrimp boat.

Image from Uncanny X-Men 144; Chris Claremont (Writer); Brent Anderson (Penciller); Joseph Rubinstein (Inker); Glynis Wein (Colorist): Tom Orzechowski (Letterer)

Image from Uncanny X-Men 144; Chris Claremont (Writer); Brent Anderson (Penciller); Joseph Rubinstein (Inker); Glynis Wein (Colorist): Tom Orzechowski (Letterer) Also, this is clearly a fishing boat, but it’s the way I heard it first that matters.