Comic books have been around since the early 1930’s, with Marvel, DC, and more publishers creating 1,000’s of stories revolving around colorful characters in all manner of adventures. From iconic superheroes to gripping crime stories to intimate autobiographies, comic book authors and artists have crafted every type of story you can imagine. However, many find comic books to be an impenetrable and strange art form to break into as a potential reader.
The truth is, there is nothing exclusive about the medium of comic books. Like film, television, radio, and novels, comic books are a medium that have a unique storytelling structure and flow. The only difference is that not everyone has grown up on them like other forms of art. As such, many potential fans have simply never had the chance to familiarize themselves with the medium and understand its storytelling language. Jumping into any old comic may be a hazardous pursuit, as decades of continuing storylines, varying styles of authorship, and a wide variety of tones and content may bounce out a reader who has not found the right introductory story. As such, countless great experiences may be missed out on due to a bad first encounter.
Whether it is because of the countless blockbuster superhero films flooding the box office these days or simple curiosity in a new art form, you may be interested in starting your comic book readership. Are you interested in big action packed narratives? Have you loved a specific character on film or television and want to see them in their home narrative? Is there a genre you love in its many forms? Browse through the following categories and see what comic book can help you dip your toes in the water successfully. Then see what to read next!
Crime and Detective Stories – Blacksad
Love stories about crime and hardboiled detectives that break the rules to crack the case? Blacksad by author Juan Diaz Canales and artist Juanjo Guarnido may be just right for you. Originally published in French, the Blacksadstories follow Detective John Blacksad as he solves mysteries and encounters all manner of underworld types in several standalone narratives. But this world is made up of anthropomorphic animals, with the animals chosen reflecting some aspect of the characters’ natures. It’s a stunningly gorgeous comic that blends Disney-like animation with adult themes, language, and violence. It’s breathtaking and simple enough to suck in any first time reader with its familiar ideas but still thrilling twists and turns.
Next Steps: Gotham Central, Moon Knight, Sin City
Classic Literature – Watchmen
What can be said about author Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen that hasn’t already been expounded upon in countless theses? Following the story of very broken and realistic superheroes in the 1980s, Watchmen is a dark, deep, and heavy take on the colorful men and women in spandex. While there is a murder mystery at the center of the narrative, Moore’s story is much more a meditation on the characters involved and the morals (or lack thereof) that play into the story. But no prior knowledge of superheroes is needed, as these characters were created for this miniseries alone. The layered symbolism, mature themes, and complex narrative is just as deep and rewarding as any classic novel. If you are looking to be challenged and compelled by a story, this is the comic book for you. Just be warned, few others will match up to the strength of Watchmen.
Next Steps: League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The Sandman, Flex Mentallo
Young Readers – Bone
Looking for something for the kids? Or maybe just a lighter and more fun comic book adventure? Author and artist Jeff Smith’s Boneis exactly what you should read. The series reads like The Lord of the Rings meets Ducktales, and it works even better than that sounds. The story centers on the Bone cousins, three funny looking little guys who wander into a world filled with swords, sorcery, and all manner of scary creatures. Smith’s adventure spans 55 issues and is incredibly thrilling, with a narrative that will suck you in and not let go until the end. But it’s also funny and has enough lighthearted moments to counterbalance the scary stuff, which grows more and more dangerous as the series goes on. It’s simple enough for young readers to read on their own once they understand how to read comics, but has enough depth of character and story to entice readers of any age.
Next Steps: The Adventure of Tin Tin, Uncle Scrooge, Adventure Time, Batman: Li’l Gotham
Science Fiction – Y – The Last Man
It may be the most lauded science fiction comic book ever created up until author Brian K. Vaughan’s latest series – Saga. But Y – The Last Man is incredibly powerful. Plus, it’s finished, so you don’t have to worry about following something that could go on forever. The series follows Yorick Brown and his pet monkey Ampersand – the last two remaining male mammals alive on Earth after every single one simultaneously died. The series follows the two and several major female characters as they try to unravel the mystery of what killed every man and work to survive in a world thrown into chaos and a new rising order. Like much of Vaughan’s work, the true power of the story lies in the strength of the characters, with the science fiction concepts allowing for a unique and powerful story that explores the concept to its full and often heartbreaking depths. If you love mature and challenging sci fi, this one’s for you.
Next Steps: Trillium, Saga, Guardians of the Galaxy
Horror – The Walking Dead
Chances are, you’re already fairly familiar with the story of The Walking Dead due to the hit television show. If you love the show, you’ll love the comic series. If you hate the show, you might still love the comic series. It’s far stronger than the adaptation in many ways. Plus, the comic narrative and the direction of the show have many difference, so your experience with the HBO series won’t spoil too many of the developments here. Writer Robert Kirkman really knows how to create a vibrant world and dynamic characters, only to pull out the rug underneath you and twist the knife with every unexpected death, with every gruesome detail brought to stunning life by artist Charlie Adlard. It’s a brutal and dark series, but if that’s what you are looking for with your love of horror, then The Walking Dead is perfect for you. The story of what happens in a zombie apocalypse unburdened by the finite narrative of a movie is powerful and frequently frightening.
Next Steps: Hellboy, 30 Days of Night, Hellblazer, Afterlife with Archie
Autobiography – Persepolis
The comic book medium is for far more than just stories of colorful heroes and intergalactic quests. Countless authors have used comics to tell their life stories or some aspect of a real life narrative to powerful effect. Author and artist Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolisdocuments her life growing up in Iran during and after the Islamic Revolution. This is a story that is equal parts about her own personal journey into womanhood and the toll that the Revolution took on people in Iran. Whether you are looking to better understand this tumultuous period in the country’s history or for a powerful personal story told in a unique fashion, Persepolis will entertain and inspire you as the narrative goes from funny to heartbreaking to insightful and all the way back again and again. This is a story that will show you the true power of the medium and will leave you thinking about its ideas and real life story long after you have finished.
Next Steps: Maus, American Splendor, Blankets
Fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – The Infinity Gauntlet
The films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have familiarized audiences with numerous aspects of the Marvel world. Recent movies like The Avengers and especially Guardians of the Galaxy have shown that the MCU includes the wide and colorful science fiction outer space world. And now that Marvel Studios has announced that it will all culminate in a war with Thanos in The Infinity War Part 1 and Part 2, it’s clear that this aspect of the universe will become more important than ever. That’s why writer Jim Starlin’s Infinity Gauntlet miniseries from the early ‘90s can be so appealing and exciting for new readers that have loved what they have seen. This epic miniseries follows intergalactic warlord Thanos as he gains control of The Infinity Gauntlet, giving him power over all of reality. In return, a team of heroes bands together to fight him, only to be met with disaster and defeat, with the story taking huge twists and turns in each issue. Best of all, the villain at the center is an incredibly complex character whose possibly more interesting than any of the heroes. While there are some aspects that tie into preexisting stories, Infinity Gauntlet can be read and loved on its own. For more on the weapon at the center of it all, read “Greatest Fictional Weapons: The Infinity Gauntlet.”
Next Steps: Civil War, Iron Man: Extremis, Thor by J. Michael Straczynski, Planet Hulk
Batman – Batman: Year One
Batman is such a worldwide icon, jumping into one of his comic book stories isn’t as challenging as other characters detailed here. However, any first time reader still needs to be introduced to the best of the best. Writer Frank Miller and artist David Mazzuchelli’s Batman: Year One is one of The Dark Knight’s most defining stories of all time. Published in the late ‘80s, this is a retelling of Bruce Wayne’s beginnings as Batman, updated for a modern sensibility and injecting the character with a more grounded and darker take than what had been typically been seen. The narrative really gets into the heads of Batman and then-detective Jim Gordon as they both come to Gotham and find they need each other in the war on crime more than they could have ever imagined. This is easily one of the strongest single Batman stories ever created and it is just as rewarding to new readers as it is to old. Plus, the ideas here informed much of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, so the narrative can give a pleasant surprise to movie fans.
Next Steps: Batman: The Long Halloween, Batman: The Court of Owls, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns
DC Comics – DC: The New Frontier
If you’re looking to get into DC Comics as a whole, you have your work cut out for you. Picking good introductory DC Comics stories is difficult due to the publication rebooting its entire universe every few years. While it makes it easier to not have to know decades of history like Marvel Comics, it also means that many stories end up being completely unrelated to one another, even though they star the same characters. But writer/artist Darwin Cooke’s DC: The New Frontier is the best way to get a great overall look at this superhero world because it exists solely on its own. This story imagines a DC world that takes place during the 1950’s. A new era of superheroes is emerging, with Green Lantern, The Flash, Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman all playing an integral part in a battle to save the world. You also get glimpses of many other great characters. Whether you already know them or not is unimportant. The strength of the narrative is enough on its own and will make you crave more of these timeless heroes.
Next Steps: Justice League: Origin, Infinite Crisis, Green Lantern: Rebirth
Superman – All Star Superman
In all honesty, Superman is a really hit or miss character in comic books. He’s incredibly powerful and his altruistic personality can make for a bland character in the wrong hands. Unfortunately, most Superman comics are on the weaker side. However, the best Superman stories are some of the best comic books ever. Author Grant Morrison created a perfect holistic take on Superman with All Star Superman. This 12-issue miniseries is a standalone story unrelated to anything else and with no need for other reading to enjoy. In it, Superman has received a massive dose of radiation from the sun, which has greatly amplified his powers, but will kill him in one year. So the Man of Steel tries to make the most of his remaining time, going on all sorts of adventures and changing the world in wonderful ways. It’s a loving tribute to everything that makes the character great and includes his greatest supporting characters and villains. This is an exquisite Superman story.
Next Steps: Superman For All Seasons, Superman: Earth One, Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?
Captain America – Captain America: The Winter Soldier
There are two great reasons to start off with writer Ed Brubaker’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier. One – it was the story that the film was based on, which will give any new fan enough knowledge to jump into while still being different enough to surprise. Two – it’s the comic that helped modernize Captain America to a large degree and give the character a fresh and exciting new direction. Steve Rogers really gets to shine here, showing off why he’s been loved by Marvel fans for decades while taking part in kinetic and thrilling fights with all manner of villains. Plus, The Winter Soldier, Black Widow, and The Falcon all play integral parts in the story, which deftly blends superheroics with modern espionage. For more on why you should read this story, check out my entry “Comics You Should Read – Captain America: The Winter Soldier.”
Next Steps: Captain America: Operation Rebirth, Captain America: Man Out of Time, Captain America: Red Menace
Spider-Man – Spider-Man: Blue
Spider-Man is one of the most enduring, relatable, and popular heroes in any comic ever created. Everyone knows Spider-Man due to movies and television. But the character is burdened with an enormous supporting cast, countless villains, and decades of history that inform much of his actions. As such, many of his modern comics are difficult for new readers to jump into without prior knowledge. Author Jeph Loeb and artist Tim Sale’s Spider-Man: Blue is an emotionally effective and fast read that retells how Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy fell in love in comic books from decades ago. Their tragedy-tinged but heartfelt take offers equal parts heroics and character for a well-balanced and lovely tale that really encapsulates everything great about Spider-Man. This is a great way to understand the core of the character and have an understanding that will help make other Spider-Man stories better.
Next Steps: Nothing Can Stop the Juggernaut!, Kraven’s Last Hunt, Superior Spider-Man
Daredevil – Daredevil by Mark Waid
Daredevil is one of the most complex characters in Marvel Comics and will soon be thrust into the spotlight with his upcoming Netflix series. Matt Murdock was blinded at a young age by radioactive material, only to gain increased senses and a radar sense that gives him greater abilities than a normal man. He’s a lawyer, a lapsed catholic, a ninja, a superhero, and possibly the most tortured hero in comics. But author Mark Waid takes these many aspects and distills them into a coherent protagonist in a much lighter and more fun swashbuckling adventure than he had been given in years. Waid’s run on the character, which is still going, will make you quickly fall in love with The Man Without Fear and have a blast along the way. No need for prior stories, all you need is right here. You’ll be dying for more by the end. If you love this, you can go anywhere with the character, from the classic ’80s to the daring ’90s, and anywhere else.
Next Steps: Daredevil: Born Again, Daredevil: Yellow, The Man Without Fear
X-Men – Astonishing X-Men
If there’s any group of superheroes that is almost impossible for an average reader to start, it’s the X-Men. This superhero group of mutants is composed of literally hundreds of characters, each with their own convoluted past, intricate interrelationships, and strange adventures. Most of the X-Men have traveled through time and space, died and been reborn, been married and divorced, and switched from hero to villain and back. Thankfully, writer Joss Whedon (director of The Avengers) created a classic and rather self-contained narrative for the heroes in Astonishing X-Men. Here, you get a solid and small core team on an exciting intergalactic adventure that requires little knowledge of the past. Every character is given his or her time in the spotlight and the dynamics that make the team so enjoyable are really put on display. Best of all, it’s fun and full of crazy twists.
Next Steps: Old Man Logan, The Dark Phoenix Saga, Days of Future Past