Comics/Graphic Novels

You Will Never Understand Comics (and That’s Okay)

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Jessica Plummer

Contributing Editor

Jessica Plummer has lived her whole life in New York City, but she prefers to think of it as Metropolis. Her day job is in books, her side hustle is in books, and she writes books on the side (including a short story in Sword Stone Table from Vintage). She loves running, knitting, and thinking about superheroes, and knows an unnecessary amount of things about Donald Duck. Follow her on Twitter at @jess_plummer.

The internet abounds with lists about where to start reading to get into superhero comics, whether in general or from a particular company or with a particular character. I’ve written plenty of them myself, and had even more conversations with friends about where to start with Supergirl, or Daredevil, or Ms. Marvel, etc., etc.

And those lists are great! Typically they consist of origin stories or one-and-done storylines that don’t intersect with their larger superhero universes very much. They don’t require prior reading or checking some wiki somewhere to understand what’s going on. They’re a great way to dip your toe into the infinitely weird superhero waters.

But when you finish everything on that list…Then what?

This is the reason that so many people have read one or two graphic novels featuring a superhero they enjoyed on a TV show or in a movie, and then stopped: there are beginner comics, and then there is Everything Else. And Everything Else is complicated.

Most popular superheroes have a very long history behind them — over eight decades in some cases! That could easily mean hundreds of back issues; it might even mean thousands. Plus, they’re constantly crossing over with each other, which means that if you’re reading Spider-Man and he decides to go hang out with the Hulk, you have to figure out what the heck is going on with the Hulk! And that’s not even taking into account reboots, rebirths, resets, and renumberings. What’s the intermediate step between picking up your very first Miles Morales book and Um Actuallying your way into becoming Comic Book Guy?

I’m sorry to tell you this, my friends, but: there isn’t one.

There is no intermediate class in comics. There is nothing that’s kinda sorta in continuity but relatively easy to follow if you’ve got a few graphic novels under your belt. Oh sure, there are series that are more or less mired in continuity, crossovers, and general nonsense, but even the most new reader–friendly books are subject to editorial and market whims.

So what does that mean? Well, it means that if you want to move past Batman: Year One and The Long Halloween — and you don’t have to! — you will have to change your expectations. Years ago, I had a conversation with a friend who was frustrated by superhero comics, because they expected that if they picked up a book, all the information they needed to read that book would be contained within it, so why couldn’t comics be the same?

Well, because they aren’t. A book, even one in a series, is a one-and-done kind of thing. Comics are a serialized form of storytelling. To expect a comic to give you all the information you need in one fell swoop isn’t like expecting a book to do that; it’s like expecting a chapter in a book to do that.

The expectation that all media be self-contained and instantly marathon-able is a relatively new one. Not to be all Old Man Yells at Cloud here, but it wasn’t that long ago that if you wanted to, say, start watching a TV show, you’d just…turn on the TV when it was airing, and figure out what you’d missed from context clues, conversations with friends, or occasional reruns. I grew up on book series that I never even attempted to read in order, jumping around instead to the characters and plot lines that looked interesting to me as I graduated from The Baby-Sitters Club to Redwall to Xanth (don’t judge me). “I don’t understand this reference, it must be from an installment I haven’t consumed” used to be a familiar feeling that didn’t particularly bother me.

But now when we start a TV show, we find the appropriate streaming service and start from the beginning no matter how many seasons there are. When we start a book series, we can go online and have Book 1 delivered to our doorstep in a matter of days, or our ereader in a matter of seconds.

Not comics, though. Sure, the backlist is more accessible than ever before, but it’s simply not possible to read every Batman appearance before reading the latest one. It’s also not possible for every 20-page story to spend however long it takes to get new readers up to snuff. At a certain point, if you want to read superhero comics, you need to get reacquainted with “I don’t understand this reference, it must be from an installment I haven’t consumed.”

After all, imagine if comics, with their rapid monthly schedule, did try to keep every book completely accessible to brand-new readers. Characters would be stuck in stasis even more than they already are, unable to grow or change, because a story that allowed forward progression would then have to be explained in every subsequent issue. It’s just not feasible.

And honestly, even when you’ve read a lot of comics, the confusion doesn’t ever quite go away. Sometimes it’s because you still haven’t read the specific comic being referenced, or you don’t remember the details. Sometimes it’s because the writer is actively retconning a past detail so that it no longer matches what you recall, or simply making an error. Sometimes it’s because comics often take absolute glee in giddy nonsense, and the end result is something that’s cheerfully confusing on purpose. And sometimes, it must be said, the comic is just badly constructed and it’s confusing not because you haven’t done the assigned reading, but because the creative team didn’t do their job well.

I’m not saying “read a lot of bad comics and deal with it,” unless you, like me, find a sort of perverse joy in bad comics. And if you really, truly hate the feeling of not knowing every detail of what’s going, by all means, don’t torture yourself. Batman has plenty of movies and TV shows, you don’t need the comics too.

What I am saying is this: if you want to try enjoying superhero comics beyond the very basics, try letting go of the idea that you’ll understand absolutely every reference you run across and that every crossover character will be explained the instant they show up. Stop seeing the confusing bits as an obstacle, and start seeing them as potential: new characters to fall in love with, new storylines to explore, new weird little quirks of continuity to unravel. A shared universe of decades of superhero comics isn’t meant to be read back to front, like a book. It’s meant to be read backwards and sideways and scattershot, as you follow whatever catches your interest instead of a linear path.

There is something very freeing in knowing it’s okay to be occasionally baffled by your reading. There’s something very exciting in knowing that a shared universe has hundreds of new characters and teams and stories for you to fall in love with, if you let yourself read like a highly distractible magpie, picking up anything shiny that you see. Maybe that kind of reading experience isn’t for you, and that’s totally okay! There’s a reason this is a niche market, after all.

But if you’ve only tried a few starter superhero comics and you liked them, maybe try diving in and seeing how it feels? The water’s fine! Weird as heck, sure. But some of us like our water that way.