A Beginner’s Guide to Reading Comics

A Beginner’s Guide to Reading Comics

Disclaimer: I put off publishing this post for years because I am by no means an expert in anything to do with comics. In this post I am sharing the information I wish I knew when I first discovered comics as an adult and personal recommendations I can share.

Getting into reading comics without having any knowledge can be pretty intimidating. The only experience I had with comics until my reintroduction as an adult was when my mom let me get an Aladdin comic at the grocery store, probably around age 8 or 9. I was disappointed after finishing it in what felt like a few minutes and didn’t think anything more about them for a long time.

Then 2014 rolled around and I picked up the first volume of Saga after a friend suggested it. It had everything wonderful a story possibly could have plus beautiful artwork. I had no idea at the time but comics would end up changing my life in a lot of ways. Not to be dramatic or anything.

So I loved Saga but I had a few questions:

What’s an issue?
What’s a trade?
What’s the difference between a graphic novel and a comic?
How do I find more comics like this one? 

What is an issue?

An issue is a small “magazine” and is usually released monthly. It’s a piece of the story of the comic, and a story arc is usually spread over 5 or 6 issues. If you’re interested in reading a series that’s, say, 3 issues in, but you can’t find issues 1 and 2, what do you do? Thankfully, you have a few options:

  1. Check out local comic shops in your area to see if they are available. Some shops carry more back issues than others.
  2. Buy the issues online digitally at Comixology.
  3. Wait for the trade to come out. After it’s out, you could start buying the issues where the trade left off or continue buying the comic in trades only.

What is a trade?

A trade (aka trade paperback or TP) is a collection of usually 5 or 6 issues of a comic story arc. Most, but not all, comics that have issues will be released as a trade once the arc is completed. Some choose to only read comics in trades; I read some comics only in trade and some in monthly issues. Trades are also available from the library and most bookstores, unlike issues.

What’s the difference between a graphic novel and a comic?

While a comic trade and a graphic novel may look similar on the outside, there are differences between the two. As mentioned above, a trade is comprised of a story arc that first came out in issues. Graphic novels generally go a little deeper into a story than a comic might and it will probably be only one or two books (though each book is probably longer than trades). They typically do not have numbered issues. Books that have been turned into “comics” are considered graphic novels (examples here, here, and here).
You can also think of comics as t.v. shows with many issues, or episodes, and graphic novels as movies- a more condensed version of a story.

How do I discover new (to me) comics?

  1. One of the best ways to get recommendations is at your local comic shop. They know a lot about a lot of different comics and everyone in shops I’ve gone into has been eager to help with recommendations.
  2. After I read Saga and wanted more things to read, I went on Amazon. On each book page, about midway down, they have a section of similar titles or books that other people bought in addition to the one you’re looking at. That’s how I found out about Rat Queens, The Wicked and the Divine, and Shutter.
  3. Another way to discover comics and one of my most favorite things to do is to attend a comic convention, whether one of the large ones around the country or a local con that may be in your area. I am lucky enough to live in Seattle where the fourth largest comic con in North America takes place and have so much fun each year browsing tables to find new comics and visiting comic friends I’ve made over the years. In my experience, comics creators are some of the friendliest people to meet so don’t be shy about talking to them or telling them how much you appreciate their work. Due to the lack of comic panel compared to others, I suspect that many people who go to comic cons aren’t there for the comics which, frankly, is a bummer.

A few quick notes…

  • If you decide you like a comic and want to keep reading, your local comic shop can start a pull box for you. This means as each issue is released (or trade, whichever you choose), they will set it aside for you to pick up. Some shops offer a mailing option if you are not able to pick them up in person. New releases come out on Wednesdays.
  • If you go the issue route, those unruly beasts can get out of hand quickly. A common way to store them is in a “bag and board” (a plastic sleeve with a sheet of cardboard) inside of a box specially sized for comics. Your local comic shop can get you sorted out with all of these items.

Where should I start?

If you like…
Sci-fi, try Saga, Paper Girls, or Southern Cross.
Fantasy, try The Autumnlands, Shutter, Rat Queens, Sleepless, or Sandman.
Superheroes, try Glory, Spider-Gwen, or Ms. Marvel.
Horror, try Harrow County, Wytches, or Through the Woods.
Dystopian, try Sheltered, Y:The Last Man, Cannibal, Revival, or Outcast.
YA, try Wires and Nerve or Lumberjanes.
And if you want to specifically try a graphic novel, try I Was the Cat, Rice Boy, Exquisite Corpse, Soulless, or Cemetery Girl.

I hope this basic introduction to comics will make you feel comfortable enough to start if you haven’t already. I have an entire shelf on Goodreads dedicated to the comics I read- here’s the link in case you’d like to follow along.

If you read comics, feel free to leave any tips or recommendations in the comments.