In our last post, we discussed why Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen may not be the best choice for a reader new to the format of comics. In this piece, the staff at No Flying No Tights discuss best practices for encouraging new comics fans and what to recommend instead of Watchmen.
Introducing new readers to comics
Nic: When it comes to recommending graphic novels to someone who’s never read the format before, a few things I consider are:
- What kinds of books do they usually read? My aunt is a big James Patterson fan, and especially likes the ones about “those kids with wings,” so I gave her the first volume of the Maximum Ride manga as a present. She’s new to graphic novels, but she’s enjoying it.
- I would tend to avoid giving them non-linear, confusing, or very meta books as their first exposure to graphic novels. I think part of the reason that Smile and El Deafo work so well as introductory titles is that they demonstrate that graphic novels can tell a straightforward story that is just as easy to read as a traditional novel or memoir. (Plus, cool art!)
Adriana: Nonlinear comics can be the right first comics for some folks, so I don’t completely discount them when giving suggestions. I’ll second Nic’s point that getting a feel of the other media people already enjoy and using that as a jumping off point is the way to go. Even something as straightforward as “You like this movie? Well here’s the comic it’s based on,” can get the ball rolling. Though I try not to be so 1-to-1 about it for the sake of showing the variety available in comics. The Goon is a great suggestion for folks who enjoy a mix of horror and humor, “old-timey” aesthetics with anachronistic elements, or who spent a lot of time watching Elvira introduce B-movies. Long story short, a few decent reference questions will always steer you in the right direction.
Renata: There’s not any ONE comic/graphic novel I’d hand to a reader who’s never gotten into comics; Like Adriana suggests, I’d definitely do some kind of reference interview and tailor their first graphic novel to their own interests.
I’d also try to suss out why they never read comics before. Are they a young reader whose parent doesn’t think comics count as “real books”? (That was me!) Are they a grown adult who has some lingering snobbery on the subject of comics counting as “real books”? Are they a woman who got some rude treatment from comic store boys and got turned off the medium? Do they struggle with understanding what order to read panels in? Did they just never have access, since their small town library didn’t have any graphic novels and they didn’t want to spend money buying comics?
It also depends if I’m making a suggestion as a librarian to a patron, or as a friend to a friend, because with friends (or extreme library regulars), I know enough to say “If this is confusing, just ask” or to guess what they might struggle with or might not appreciate seeing.
Megan: I think asking a reader new to graphic novels about the books they enjoy is really important, and their tastes would dictate what I recommended. I also agree that you should recommend works that are fairly linear and straightforward and don’t require a lot of special comics knowledge to read them. I think offering works that are colorful and have good artistic flow (i.e. no overly complex panels that show action well—although I acknowledge that’s probably subjective) will help engage new readers. I think personal narratives can be a good start because they tend to be pretty accessible because they are grounded in situations and worlds people are already familiar with and don’t necessarily require a huge investment for the reader (i.e. they don’t necessarily have to be familiar with a whole new world and will not usually start a long series). Basically, I think any story with a good set of relatable characters and awesome art are great starting points; there are lots of comics in most genres that fit those general parameters.
Robin: A few other aspects I consider are what makes them like a story (a novel, a movie, a TV show, a game). Is it the dialog? The world-building? The sense of place or setting? Do they want a fast moving plot or a lingering pace? Movies and television can also give you a good sense of what kind of visuals they like.
On getting started with superheroes
Roy: As for good choices: it depends on what the reader was interested in, specifically. If someone was interested in superheroes, I think I’d look to standalone stories of characters that don’t need much explanation. Batman, Spider-Man, Wonder Woman, Superman… all of them have great stand alone stories, and all of them are big enough parts of the cultural consciousness that you don’t really need to provide a lot of background context. I think something like the Trinity by Matt Wagner is a good introduction to superhero comics; it’s not grimdark, it’s stand-alone, it provides an introduction to how the characters see each other, the visuals are interesting without containing bizarre/hard to follow panel layouts, and it tells a fun story. All Star Superman might be another good selection (although Quitely’s art makes this one hard for me to really recommend). For Marvel, Ms. Marvel, maybe?
Thomas: All children should undergo mandatory Batman: The Animated Series viewings before experiencing any deconstructions of superheroes.
Renata: I agree Ms. Marvel is a great one for starting off in superhero comics. Sadly out of print but I also think a lot of Marvel’s “Season One” books are good choices, especially if someone is interested in a particular hero/team and doesn’t know where to start. The convoluted backstories of superheroes are something that intimidates a lot of would-be readers, so it’s great to be able to bypass as much of that as possible.
Robin: If they’re fans of Homicide: Life on the Street or The Wire, you might easily get them hooked on Gotham Central (written by Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker and drawn by various artists) as a way into superheroes. If they got turned on to superheroes by the snarky banter of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye should match what they’re hoping to find.
On starter comics outside of superheroes
Adriana: I find The Goon series by Eric Powell, Tomboy by Liz Prince, the Lumberjanes series, and Fun Home by Alison Bechdel tend to be well received by folks new to comics. They each can appeal to a relatively wide demographic depending on which element you focus on (horror, humor, memoir, queer representation, etc.) I used to recommend Craig Thompson’s Blankets off the bat, but have found it intimidating for new comic readers on size alone.
Renata: I agree that Smile and El Deafo are great picks for younger readers. I’ve been giving Chip Zdarsky and Erica Henderson’s Jughead comic to a lot of Riverdale fans, but I know it’s funny and weird enough that it stands on its own as a pretty delightful book. (And also is different enough from the show that it could actually be disappointing to readers looking for something exactly like the show. But I think it’s enjoyable enough to recommend separate from the show.)
For an adult reader, I’ll make a case for Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home as well—the story is engaging and the mixed media-ish art is intriguing. It demonstrates ably why some stories are, in fact, better told in graphic form than plain prose.
Dani: I go with Smile, March, and Y: The Last Man. Fables for English majors. (Mostly because it’s fun to see their faces when I tell them that the Big Bad Wolf’s real name is Bigby and he’s married to Snow White. Oh and that the Prince (spoiler) that she married is the same one in all of the other stories.)
Thomas: Sometimes the issue comes down to comfort with navigating the comics page, and I like to recommend Shaun Tan’s The Arrival for new comics readers. The story is wordless but universal, playing on relatable themes of arriving in a new location and feeling alien. Raina Telgemeier’s Smile, Drama, and Sisters, Cece Bell’s El Deafo, Liz Prince’s Tomboy, Jeff Smith’s Bone, Kazu Kibuishi’s Amulet, Jeremy Whitley’s Princeless (drawn by various artists), and Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese, The Shadow Hero (drawn by Sonny Liew), and Boxers & Saints have done plenty for creating new comics readers, though “agreeable Middle Grade/Young Adult” is a hard comics genre to resist. (I recommend the series Three Thieves by Scott Chantler and Hereville by Barry Deutsch join this pantheon in readers advisory lists.)
Megan: I second March, Lumberjanes, El Deafo, Tomboy, Gene Luen Yang’s work, and Raina Telgemeier’s work as good starting points. I would put forth Faith Erin Hick’s work (her stories tend to be full of humor and offers a variety of genres). For personal narratives, I would suggest Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.
Thomas: Megan just reminded me—Faith Erin Hicks’s The Adventures of Superhero Girl is an ultimate recommendation (among her other great comics). Superhero fans get a humorous, Canadian spin on tropes, and non-super-fans get a humane new-adult tale. Everybody wins!
Robin: For new readers who may be skeptical about superheroes, I think it’s even more important to check with the person about what genres and other titles they enjoy. If they really dig 1999’s The Mummy, they may well love Tony Cliff’s Delilah Dirk series.
Thanks to Nic Willcox, Adriana Marroquin, Renata Sancken, Megan Rupe, Roy MacKenzie, and Thomas Maluck, and Dani Shuping for chiming in on this discussion.
What are your tried and true first titles for new readers? Why do you feel they work best? Let us know in the comments and together we can help create new readers of comics every day.