Reading Comics, Part 8

Brad Hawley continues his series on How to Read Comics. If you missed the previous columns, be sure to start with Part 1: Why Read Comics?
(Or find the entire series here.)

Reading Comics, Part 8: Where to buy comics

by Dr. Brad K. Hawley

Now that we’ve discussed the reason why there can be multiple #1 issues for the same comic book title (different volumes, or series) and have seen how valuable Wikipedia is in finding current publication and reissue information on comic books, we need to consider reviews of trade collections and purchasing options.

I use Amazon to look up trade titles to see reviews. This is a quick way to get a sense of whether these issues are well-regarded by the comic reading community. Try to pay attention to the reviews that suggest that the reviewer has some familiarity with this title’s history and not somebody reading this title or comics in general for the first time. Amazon also offers an excellent price for new trade collections, even though, when I can afford it, I buy from my local comic book stores.

As an important side note, I believe it’s unethical to get advice from those who own or work in comic book stores and then not buy at least one trade collection or a handful of individual comic book issues at the store every time you go and get advice. Consider it a service charge. If you can’t pay it, don’t use them as a resource. Certainly don’t go to the store, get advice, and browse with your phone out buying on Amazon at the same time. That, I feel, is incredibly unethical. But with that said, comic book stores are great fun, with knowledgeable staff to whom I turn as my teachers.

If you don’t buy trade collections, you can buy individual copies of issues, but this can be very expensive. I buy the first issue only if I really love the author, artist, and cover art. Collectors buy individual issues, make sure they are from the first run, bag them, and store them. I am not a collector. I purchase trades and digital copies as cheaply as I can so I can read as many as I can. Find out what you want to do and be consistent. One possibility is to pick one or two titles you love and collect issues and then buy trades or digital copies of everything else. I buy issues of all Ed Brubaker’s noir comics because he has letters and essays on noir in the back that he does not want published in trades or digitally (because he wants to encourage the purchase of the single comic, which, for a number reasons, is necessary for the financial success of many comic book publishers. Many titles, particularly the lesser-known ones, might go out of print or be canceled very quickly if titles are not bought on a monthly basis.)

Digital resources are another good option for the new reader of comics. There are a number of sites where digital comics are available. You can go to the Marvel, DC, Darkhorse, and other home sites for individual publishers and purchase individual issues or collections for download. Marvel and DC, I believe, use the excellent guided view technology also used by Comixology (see below). Marvel unlimited costs about $10 a month or $60 a year (a 50% savings if you pay for the year up front instead of on a month to month basis), and you get to read issues that are older (from the 1960s up to a year ago). The cheap price means you won’t have access to recent comics and some of their biggest sellers, but they have so many comics, it’s a great way to read earlier events at a low cost. You have to be online, and last I used it, you couldn’t download comics and the reader isn’t as good as Comixology. However you can’t beat the price for Marvel Unlimited.

Darkhorse Digital Comics
The single best one-stop shop for digital comics is Comixology. I purchase almost all of my comics there now. Most of their old issues are a $1.99 each. Even new DC comics, if you wait a month, drop to this price. And Marvel, DC, and other companies have frequent sales on Comixology, where, for example, 100+ issues of DC’s excellent series Fables was recently on sale for $.99 an issue. Marvel usually puts 30 to 100 issues of a particular title on sale for $.99 every Monday and Friday. This is usually when I pick up my comics. I use the guided view after downloading my comics on my Kindle and have my settings set in the following way: slow animations, black letter boxing, show page as enter, and show page on exit. Some of the comics look even better than reading it on paper (the reverse, of course, is also true, particularly for artists who use the entire page more than using smaller panels.) Finally Comixology gets my business because their customer service has been incredible (thank you Matt and Mandy!). Unfortunately, I recommend that you avoid purchasing digital comics from Amazon’s Kindle store. I love using my Kindle for reading books and for reading digital comics purchased through the Comixology app, but the comic books purchased directly from Amazon do not read well on the Kindle. For some reason, they have very inferior digital guided viewing. I hope they improve it in the future as all the people I have talked to agree that it is disappointing. It’s so bad, in fact, that many people ask Amazon for a refund (as has been posted on various discussion boards I visit).

As I begin making recommendations, I will focus on very recent events in the history of comics. If you want to read earlier comics, I suggest you avoid the large, cheap, black-and-white collections from DC and Marvel. Marvel calls these collections their Essential series and DC calls them Showcase Presents. They look appealing because you get so many issues for such a good price, but these earlier comics are really worth reading more for the color illustrations than for the writing (in my opinion!). Even though they are more expensive, it is worthwhile to pay for the Marvel Masterworks editions, in paperback if it all possible (because they are a little more reasonably priced than the very expensive hardback editions). The Amazing Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, The Uncanny X-Men, and a few other titles are landmark issues and fun to read if you want early comics. However, though I like Batman better than I do The Fantastic Four, the early Fantastic Four comics are much better than early Batman because early Batman is from 1939 and early Fantastic Four is from the early 1960s. Obviously, the writing in the Fantastic Four will be much better. If you can track them down, there are some volumes called Batman in the Forties, Batman in the Fifties, Batman in the Sixties, Batman in the Seventies, and Batman in the Eighties. These are in color and give you a good sampling of what was going on in each decade.

Perhaps even better than these, are the Marvel Firsts decade editions. There are four out so far. One volume includes comics from the 1960s, and three volumes include comics from the 1970s. These are excellent collections because they are in color and they have a mix of well-known characters and little known characters that first appeared in Marvel’s publications. Many characters, if not most, appeared for the first time in publications other than those named after them. Usually a character needed to become popular with fans before the character was given his own title. For example, Batman first appeared in Detective Comics and Spider-Man first showed up in Amazing Fantasy.

Next time, I’ll take a look at The Avengers in more detail. I’ll introduce you to a few of the major writers who have worked on the title and, more importantly, recommend one specific starting point for the new reader who, for whatever reason, might be interested as a grown-up in reading for the first time a fun, intelligent, superhero comic. The Avengers is a perfect title with which to begin. So be ready to learn enough about what is happening in the Marvel Universe to be able to read as little or as much as you want of Cap and his crew: “Avengers Assemble!”

Next time: Part 9: The Avengers!


Author’s Note: This essay wouldn’t be possible without those people who made great recommendations over the past five years. My life-long friend Andy, in particular, has consistently made excellent recommendations and has been willing to answer my questions on a weekly and all-to-often daily basis (the poor guy is probably beginning to see the downside to texts at this point). I also want to thank those who work in comic book stores for their help: Ken, Zach, Rory, Hart, Roxanne, and Amjad. With them around, who needs Wikipedia?

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BRAD HAWLEY earned his PhD in English from the University of Oregon with areas of specialty in the ethics of literature and rhetoric. Since 1993, he has taught courses on The Beat Generation, 20th-Century Poetry, 20th-Century British Novel, Introduction to Literature, Shakespeare, and Public Speaking, as well as various survey courses in British, American, and World Literature. He currently teaches Crime Fiction, Comics, and academic writing at Oxford College of Emory University where his wife, Dr. Adriane Ivey, also teaches English. They live with their two young children outside of Atlanta, Georgia. Read Brad's series on HOW TO READ COMICS.

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One comment

  1. Brad Hawley /

    As an addition to today’s column, I offer the following recommendation available on sale for only the next 3 days (issues can be purchased on other days for $1.99 each):

    Comixology Sale: I highly recommend Catwoman #1-10 & 12-37 written by my favorite writer of comic books, Ed Brubaker (and the first part of Brubaker’s run is illustrated by one of my favorite artists: Darwyn Cooke). These are done in a noir mode, so forget what may first come to mind when you think of “Catwoman.” (Just make sure you buy the correct issues: there are multiple series of Catwoman on sale resulting in multiple issues numbered 1-37. Get the 2002-2008 series.)

    Also worth getting is Loeb and Sale’s Catwoman: When in Rome (2004-2005) #1-6. When in Rome follows the exceptional Batman trade collection Batman: The Long Halloween and overlaps with their Batman: Dark Victory (the two Batman arcs are not on sale today).

    All these Catwoman issues are 99 cents each and are on sale until Sunday on their website (you can’t buy DC comics through the Comixology app on the Kindle, but you can read them on the Kindle once you purchase them through the website.)

    If you want a sample, at least spend $3.96 for the first four issues of Brubaker’s run. After the first four-issue arc, the stories are grouped as #5-10, 12-19, 20-24, etc.

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