Prior to 2012, I had only read a handful of comics. I mean besides the ones in the newspaper on Sundays, which my siblings and I used to fight over, (and I have a video recording of one of my sisters bidding me farewell when I left for college saying she was glad I wouldn’t be around to “hog the comics” anymore.) No, I’m talking about actual comic books. And trade paperbacks, (a term that I learned to distinguish from “graphic novel” this year, in my evolution of becoming a comic book nerd. A graphic novel is a book-like comic that was published as one whole. A trade paperback is a book-like collection of weekly or monthly issues of comics from a particular storyline. The term “graphic novel” is a little more general and is sometimes used to refer to trades, but my new-found comic-world sources say there’s a distinction and this is it.)
Before I got into comics for myself, I had really only read Watchmen and V for Vendetta, reluctantly and at the insistence of my husband. I enjoyed both stories, but I found it difficult to read the comic format. My brain was so accustomed to becoming fully engrossed in worlds built exclusively from text that it couldn’t quite make sense of this hybrid word-and-image realm. My eyes jumped from word bubble to word bubble automatically without taking time to process the pictures that went with them, and then I’d have to go back and see what I’d missed. Instead of processing the images and words together as a storytelling whole, I was tackling them separately, a distracting and disjointed method that left me frustrated and unenthusiastic about the comic format.
I felt less dumb admitting the format was challenging after realizing that it does demand substantial mental energy:
“Comic books make the brain work in a very interesting way,” says [Seattle Public Library librarian Blythe] Summers. “You are reading, but you are also filling in the ‘gaps’ in the story that occur between pictures.” -(source)
“Comics…stimulate both sides of the brain simultaneously: the right side processes pictures and the left side processes words. These operations reinforce each other, and readers get a double whammy of images and phrases that convey important information.” -Glenn Herdling, (source)
That last quote is an overly simplification of how the brain works, because virtually any processing task lights up multiple locations of the brain and very little is handled exclusively by either the left or right hemisphere, but it’s still true that reading comics requires an ability to decode meaning from written words AND from non-linguistic images at the same time. Recent research by Neil Cohn actually indicates that images in comics are processed very similarly to sentences, and “we depend on a visual grammar in comics in order to make sense of them.” (You can download Cohn’s paper, “Linguistics, Comics, and Visual Language: the past and future of a field” here, or any of his other papers here. It’s all very interesting, especially to me with my background in linguistics, and I’m glad I chose to blog about this topic because I might not have found his work otherwise!)
Anyway, I eventually got over my inability to read comics smoothly. And I can’t really point to one epiphany moment when I suddenly “got it,” I just adjusted as I read more comics. My brain became more skillful at the simultaneous processing of linguistic and non-linguistic visual input, and I discovered that comic books are just like the traditional books that I’ve always loved; worlds of rich imagination and complex characters, relate-able villains, idealistic heroes, metaphors to process reality, alternate realities to escape to, adventures to experience, lessons to learn, lives to live; magic enchanted on a page. The main difference between comic books and text books is in the format used to transmit the story from the mind of the creator to the mind of the reader. (You could also argue that there is greater homogeneity in the fictional worlds derived from the story that live in readers’ imaginations, since comics provide visual representations instead of just occasional physical descriptions. Do comic book readers argue about which actors could best resemble beloved characters as much as fans of something like The Hunger Games or Harry Potter do?)
One of the first comics that I read and enjoyed fully the first time through, (I don’t want you to think I didn’t fully enjoy Watchmen or V for Vendetta when I eventually re-read them!), was Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Tales. I burned through all seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on DVD a few summers ago, and it was a lot of fun to revisit that universe and add depth to the story even though there were no new episodes. Of course, you can really revisit Buffy and the whole gang by reading the continuation of her storyline in seasons 8 and now 9, released exclusively in comic format. And I did read all the season 8 comics for Buffy the Vampire Slayer this year–I didn’t totally love them, but that’s not the important thing. The important thing is that I was able to read them because I discovered that my local library has a collection of comic books!!
This was truly a thrilling revelation. Like, not quite as good as discovering that libraries exist and that you can borrow virtually anything from them to read, but pretty close. I don’t have to be able to afford to buy everything in order to read it! (Which is fantastic, because comics are expensive, and also, as someone new to the genre I’m still getting caught up and sampling storylines, authors, and artists to find what I like).
Thanks in part to the library’s collection, (but also in part my wallet,
I added these treasures to my personal collection in 2012.
my birthday giftcards, recommendations from comic-savy friends, and the Alan Moore/Batman obsessions of my husband), these are the comics I read in 2012:
Volumes 1-6 of Mind MGMT.
Mind MGMT is a brand new comic, by Matt Kindt. The first issue was published in May 2012, but I didn’t read it until July. (Still, I feel like that is pretty dang close to getting in at the beginning!) There are six issues so far, but then there’s also a #0 and some digital comics that tell little side-stories, too. I picked up the first issue because by that time I had started following @DarkHorseComics on twitter, (step 2 in my evolution towards comic book nerd), and I was browsing in the comics section at Hastings, (step 3), and I saw Mind MGMT and remembered all the tweets praising its creativity and depth that I had flicked through in my twitter feed and decided to check it out. (Good job with your social media marketing, guys!) It’s about mind control and a secret organization and a novelist hunting down leads on a mysterious case of mass amnesia, and it is worth reading in the monthly format rather than waiting for the trade collection because 1.) it’s an experience that is another step in my evolution towards comic book nerd, and 2.) the story is so dense you get more out of it each time you read it. The more that is revealed in later episodes, the more significant little things in the first pages are. And each page has Mind MGMT “field guide” notes in the margin, that add another dimension to the story like tantalizing breadcrumb clues (!).
Becoming hooked on a monthly comic (and resigning myself to happily parting with a few dollars every time a new issue comes out) was a pretty significant step in my comic book reader evolution. Additional steps I experienced this year included: one time I went to pick up the latest Mind MGMT and they were sold out of the issue I needed! I had a minor panic attack and rushed home to order it online. Afterwards I felt like I could legitimately say I had leveled up in the comic-reading world.
Somewhere along the way this year I created accounts to be able to read Marvel, DC, and Dark Horse comics online, and get e-mail updates about new releases. Another step occurred on a recent trip to Chicago, when I visited not one but two comic book stores, and added some more treasures to my collection. (I most excited about picking up a trade of Captain America: The Death of Captain America.) And finally, now I have an entire shelf devoted to my collection, complete with plastic protective covers and everything! (Just one shelf, though, for now. I’m still evolving.)
I solve the DC vs. Marvel quandary by maintaining Dark Horse Comics as my favorite publisher. They do a lot of television and movie tie-ins, which is how I really started getting into comics in the first place, (Felicia Day’s The Guild comics were some of the first I purchased,) and besides that they publish Mind MGMT. So, yeah, I’m a Dark Horse girl.
And now it’s time for the next step in my comic-book nerd evolution: what recommendations do you have for me? What are the classics that you would assign if you were teaching a college literature class devoted to comics? Or, what is something you’ve read that has an excellent story arc or beautiful illustrations or both? I know I can get recommendations from goodreads.com or wikipedia or something like that, but I like hearing suggestions from real people on stuff they’ve actually read.
Also, can someone explain to me how canon works with these long-running comic characters? Like, I know there have been other people besides Bruce Wayne who acted as Batman at different times. So are they all Batman, like is there a continuous lineage that you can trace and say at different times who Batman’s alter ego is, or do they overlap? And if there are multiple origin stories, then which one is definitive? Or are they all canon and you just have to specify whether you’re talking about, for example, Spider-Man in the Marvel Universe or the Marvel Ultimate Universe, etc.?
*update* Okay, so this totally has to count as leveling up again, right? Legit twitter recognition from my favorite comic publisher? SQUEE!