Why You Should Be Reading Monthly Comics: New Titles for Those New to Comics! (And What is a “Pull List”?) OR New Comics, Part One (Or How to Read Comics, Part Ten)
When I started reading comics, I was in my 30s and was simply overwhelmed with all that was out there. Where should I start? I would have loved knowing that there were some new titles out there that required no background knowledge because they were about new characters — not all comics are about superheroes you’ve heard about all your life. I would have been even happier to find out some of these series only lasted six issues (similar to a stand-alone novel with only six chapters).
The exciting news I’d like to share today is that there are currently a large number of new comic book titles with brand new characters that have just started in the past few months. Since comic books come out as monthly issues, that means there are only a few issues out so far for many of these new comics, and for under $10, you could be dipping into a brilliant new storyline with mind-blowing art in any and every genre you can name, from SFF to Westerns, from mystery to memoir, from romance to political, and from horror to historical.
Imagine buying the first Batman title ever and imagine that it’s written for an adult audience with sophisticated plot, themes, and art. That’s exactly what is going on right now. EVERY WEEK! Now imagine a place where groups of people stand around in front of a huge display talking about hundreds of books that everybody is in the middle of reading and thinking about simultaneously. Wouldn’t you love reading chapter-by-chapter ten of your all-time favorite novels AND know that at any time, you could go to a place to talk to people who are reading those EXACT same books and who have their bookmarks in the EXACT same places you do in EVERY one of those books? It’s called a comic book store, and honestly, it’s really as cool as it sounds (assuming you think a reading community is cool).
What’s the catch? You must be willing to read at least a few titles on a monthly basis. That way you can join in the conversations. Obviously, trade collections are great. Most of my comics are in trade collections and were written years ago. I used to think frequently, “I just wish I’d been reading comics when SANDMAN came out. I wish I could have been a part of that excitement, walking into a store the day each new issue came out.” But it finally dawned on me this past year after catching up with as many of the much-praised comics of the past as I could that I was missing out on being a part of the CURRENT conversations, the SANDMANs of tomorrow. So, I’ve now entered the world of monthly comics. Not for all or even most of my comic book purchases. Just a few. But I’m glad I’ve joined that community.
I’ve been fascinated and impressed by the comic book community I’ve met in stores: Not only do my best literary conversations outside an academic environment happen most regularly when I’m in a comic book store, but I can’t think of a single place outside schools and colleges where people — mainly adults — gather regularly to discuss fictional narrative. When I’m in a comic book store, I talk not just to adults, but also to kids. Last week I met two intelligent teenagers who were already learning about noir through their interest in comics.
Also of interest concerning the comic book community is that comics attract not only those like me who focus primarily on the verbal, or textual, aspects of the medium. Other readers are drawn into this community because of their interest in and focus on the visual aspects of comic books. As a result, I often learn about the characteristics of visual art of which I know little: For example, I’ll be in the middle of a conversation about a comic, and all of a sudden, somebody I just met will grab last month’s issue of their favorite title and flip to a specific page to explain to me something about art in general or that artist or comic in particular. These conversations, if you want to have them, come naturally and are a normal occurrence in the comic book environment.
Comic book stores bring together devoted readers. Most comic book fans read at least 10-20 comic titles a month (that’s 250-500 pages a month and about $35-70 a month). With new titles coming out every Wednesday, most fans would be purchasing 3-4 comics a week. That means there’s a community of readers coming in every week to get the next “chapter” in a story, and they obviously engage in discussion about the previous issue, recommend other titles, and talk about books and art in general: I’ve noticed that most comic book readers are incredibly well read (Contrary to general assumptions, I’ve noticed that those who don’t read comics are actually more limited in their reading than the other way around, since I’ve never met a comic book fan who didn’t read extensively in other prose-only areas of fiction).
Consider the potential for a fan of literature: You could go into a comic book store, buy the first issues of what might turn out to be a story about a character that’s talked about for years to come. You get to read these stories on a monthly basis, experiencing the pleasure of suspense that comes waiting for the next issue to come out. You COULD just wait until the issues come out in a trade collection, but I’ve found some pleasure in monthly comics and think some of you might, too. Honestly, I still buy most of my comics as trade collections, and I divide my comic spending between digital and store purchases; however, I think anyone who loves to read is missing a wonderful experience by not joining the monthly comic book community by purchasing at least a few titles a month.
How does one join this community? First find a local store you can get to once a month (mine is an hour away from my home: Oxford Comics in Atlanta, GA), and then pick two or three titles to follow (for a monthly commitment of less than $10). How should one go about finding some new titles to start reading? Well, that’s what today’s column and the following few columns will be about: Helping you find a few new titles to start reading.
One recommendation is to find one author, artist, or title you like and buy those monthly issues from your local comic book store by having a “pull list.” The store will pull and set aside all the titles you ask for so that you need come in only once a month to pick up your monthly supply of comics (most serious comic book fans go in once a week, usually Wednesday, the day the comics come out). Depending on the length of your pull list, you often are given a certain discount on any comics AND trade collections you purchase at the store. It varies from store to store. Some stores might have a policy on how many comics you must list for them to even keep a pull list: Just ask. Most stores used to charge to a pull list for you (often $10 a year), but most stores now offer this service for free as far as I can tell. Also, if I understand correctly, you aren’t committing to purchasing all the comics on your pull list, though I would say it’s unethical if you constantly ask them to pull 10 comics a month for you and only buy 2 every time! I doubt they’d let you keep your pull list for long. But I think there’s some understanding that you might not want everything on your pull list. Check with the store.
Personally, I have one author that I always collect: Ed Brubaker. If he writes it, I buy it, particularly if it’s one of his noir titles like CRIMINAL, INCOGNITO, SLEEPER, FATALE, and the upcoming VELVET. Why do I buy his comics as individual monthly copies? Several reasons. First, he’s my favorite writer. Rarely have I read a comic by him that didn’t impress me. Secondly, he always works with great artists, so his comics always look good.
Another reason I like to buy Brubaker’s comics on a monthly basis has to do with the importance of monthly subscriptions to writers and artists. Based on the way the comic book industry is currently structured, buying a monthly title is the best way to show support for the writers and artists you like and to prevent their titles from being cancelled. Comics, like TV shows, are cancelled based on a number of factors. For a comic, longevity is often decided before the book even makes it to its first trade edition. If it’s not selling well enough as a monthly title, the publisher will cancel it. One of my favorite titles — NEAR DEATH by Jay Faerber — got canceled for this reason (get the two collected trades before those go out of print!). Brubaker, in order to encourage monthly purchases and to reward his loyal fans, puts extra material in his monthly comics: Extra art, extra essays on the literature and art that influenced his comics, fan letters, latest news, etc. Brubaker won’t even allow this extra material to show up in the monthly digital comic! That material is excellent: I’ve read great essays on Poe and Lovecraft, for example, in the back of his monthly comics.
I’ve noticed most monthly comics include this extra background material in the digital issues — SAGA, for example. However, very few ever include it once the issues are collected into a trade. Every now and then the bonus material will show up again in an Omnibus edition ten years later, but you certainly can’t count on it. And the monthlies are fun, particularly when the content in the back is of most interest at the time the issue comes out: Many writers give information about the comic and how the writing and artwork are progressing. SAGA is one of the best this way: Brian K. Vaughan writes very personally about the comic and in response to the fan letters that he reprints in the back of the comic (not all of them good!). He also often has competitions.
Other comics have other approaches: Jason Aaron’s Marvel title WOLVERINE AND THE X-MEN has had one of the funniest fan letter sections I’ve ever read. The comic is about Wolverine’s becoming headmaster at the school for mutants. Every month, a different faculty, staff, or student takes over duties in responding to the letters from fans. Because they stay in character and act like they have no idea who this Jason Aaron guy is, the fan letters have slowly evolved: They are now written as letters to the characters instead of as typical letters to the writer and artist. I’m sure this approach has been done before, but it doesn’t matter. This comic does it well, and I always enjoy the fan letters as much as the comic itself.
Now that you know about pull lists and a few things about monthly comics, I would like to make a few specific recommendations. I’ve got too many to cover in today’s column. Some titles have only one issue out, and others have available four or five issues (still very early in an ongoing run). So, in this column, I’ll mention only two new titles and return in future columns to suggest a few more. In the future, this column will still be devoted primarily to entire collections — I’m not trying to compete with great sites out there that try to cover all the new issues coming out each week. However, there are so many new, great titles coming out right now that I think it’s a perfect time to recommend that readers new to comics should try out at least a few titles a month.
I’ll start with one that’s not even out yet, so you can get the FIRST issue! VELVET by Ed Brubaker. I can promise it’ll be good and that the first printing will sell out (the question with Brubaker is always how many times they’ll reprint an issue). So perhaps now is the time you want to set up a pull list at your local comic book store! The pull list guarantees you get a copy of this issue that will surely sell out on the shelves, possibly before you have a chance to get to the store. Once again, that’s the entire reason you have a pull list: So you don’t miss out on a popular title.
VELVET is a spy thriller in the James Bond mode, but I am sure it will be much more sophisticated than the Bond films (and I am a fan of Bond). Based on the four-page “trailer” at the end of Brubaker’s FATALE #16 (and available on-line), the comic is about a secretary who has been accused of murdering Agent X-14, “The World’s Top Secret Agent.” In the preview, a man stands in front of the person who must be the head of the spy agency: He says, “I thought she was supposed to be your SECRETARY?!” After confirming that she had been his secretary and “right hand for fifteen years,” he’s asked what she did before being a secretary: “Before that? I’m sorry to say, Captain. Whatever Velvet Templeton may or may not have done . . . it’s all classified. But let’s just say . . . She WASN’T a secretary.”
During this discussion, three panels showing her past lethal spy activity are shown to us to highlight the understatement of the line, “let’s just say . . . she WASN’T a secretary.” This type of humorous interplay between image and text is the type of communication possible only in arts that combine the verbal and the visual (comics, drama, and film/TV). But perhaps only in comics can an entire history of a character be delivered with the economy displayed here by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting.
Basically, Velvet looks like a young, attractive Moneypenny — a Moneypenny who was a former agent. She is forced to go back into the field by breaking out of an aerial prison using only her past skills and a little stolen technology in order to clear her name of murder. Four pages in, and I’m hooked. The trailer ends this way: “VELVET: His Girl Friday Is The Most Dangerous Woman Alive.” How can you not want to read this one?!
The second title I’d like to recommend falls into the category of the Mini-Series. Most of the comic books you probably think of if you are new to comics — BATMAN, SUPERMAN, X-MEN, AVENGERS — are “ongoing” titles. That means there is no designated end. However, there is usually a main author who often works with a specific artist for a “run” on a series. In the course of their run — which could last ten months or ten years — the writer/artist teams will come up with “story arcs,” very similar to a “season” in television, with each issue acting as a television “episode.” In comics as in TV, a single issue/episode usually has a dual purpose: to tell a story that is completed by the end of that issue/episode AND to add a narrative piece to the larger story told throughout the season.
Once an author/artist team completes a run, the title either ends, reboots as another “volume,” starting again at issue #1, or most frequently, starts a new story arc that focuses on bringing in new readers by repeating all the necessary background information for new readers so that they don’t have to start with issue #1. In fact, that’s the biggest mistake most readers new to comics make: They want to start at the “beginning” like they do with other books they read, perhaps in the genres of crime fiction, science fiction, or fantasy. Many titles are recommended because a new creative team came on board in the middle of a series: Ron Marz started writing WITCHBLADE at issue #80, for example. Going back to issue #1 is not only unnecessary because all the needed background information is given in issue #80 of WITCHBLADE, it is also likely to lead you to waste money and dislike the comic title being recommended to you. Trust friends, reviewers, and the people in comic book stores when they tell you where to start. They won’t steer you wrong.
A mini-series, as opposed to the ongoing title, has a definite end and is usually about 4-8 issues long. But it could be 10 or 12 (though some people start calling these “maxi-series). The best publishers will let these series be just as short or as long as they need to be to tell the story in the best possible way. I’ve found that publishers who are willing to put out a short series like this usually have much faith in the quality of the story and the art because they can’t hope the story builds momentum over a year. It just doesn’t even last that long. I highly recommend trying some of these out. Also, they are a low financial investment: You’ll have the complete story in only a handful of issues.
THE DREAM MERCHANT by Nathan Edmondson and Konstantin Novosadov is a six-issue series, and you should be able to find the first three issues in your local comic book store. If you’ve been following my reviews, you’ll know that Edmondson, a Georgia resident, is one of my favorite writers at the moment. I’ve reviewed and praised highly his WHO IS JAKE ELLIS? and OLYMPUS, both of which were also mini-series. He’s also written an IRON MAN mini-series, a PUNISHER one-shot, and an interesting looking comic that I haven’t had a chance to read yet: THE LIGHT. At the moment, he is also writing a follow-up to WHO IS JAKE ELLIS? called WHERE IS JAKE ELLIS? and he is writing what seems to be very successful espionage-type comic entitled THE ACTIVITY.
In THE DREAM MERCHANT, Edmondson introduces us very quickly to the problem faced by the main character, Winslow: Raised by unloving adoptive parents, he lives in a dark world that is illuminated only by his vivid dreams; however, those dreams take him over so much so that he can no longer stay awake enough to function normally. Once his parents accept that he’s not doing drugs, he’s taken to a series of doctors and ends up in psychiatric hospital where he meets a girl — Anne — about his same age. The story shifts quickly into high action once a new doctor helps Winslow slip into a hypnotic dream state, and a person he sees in the dream looks back at him aware of his presence. Soon after, the hospital is infiltrated by some kind of creatures from the dream state, and he flees with Anne. They run into somebody who goes by the name of The Dream Merchant. He seems prepared to help them. But to do what and in what way exactly? Well, I suppose you’ll have to read it to find out.
Since the book is about dreams, it’s appropriate that the artist captures the feelings of dreams (and nightmares, of course!), and Novosadov more than satisfies on that level. Edmondson impresses me with every artist he works with, and Novosadov is no exception, as you can see in the sample artwork. The scenes with the adoptive parents and in the hospital are incredibly dark and bleak, and as we would expect, the dream world offers a clear contrast, but it’s not an unambiguous light and happy set of colors either.
Edmondson’s writing, of course, is what keeps me reading. Not only am I engaged by the action, I’m moved by his comments on life and his unique manner of conveying character. For example, instead of merely saying how bad Winslow’s parents are, Edmondson has Winslow tell us: “It was from them that I first learned the idea that life could be a burden.” Even more insightful is Winslow’s response to this early lesson about life: “I don’t know of an idea more alien than that.” What a brilliant way to show the main character’s comparatively optimistic view of life that he holds onto in the midst of his very real personal darkness, both in terms of his home life and in terms of his psychological state.
By the end of this first issue, I’m completely hooked: I want to know who the Dream Merchant is and if he can really be trusted; I want to know how our main characters will grow; I am curious about the love interest; and I’m wondering about the scale of this conflict. The Dream Merchant suggests that Winslow is of great significance to these Dream creatures, these “regulators,” because only he has the dream that is the “memory of what the entire world has been made to forget.” I don’t know what that means, but I certainly want to know!
THE DREAM MERCHANT and VELVET — two titles you should check out. So go find a local comic book store and make your first pull list! If you decide to go into a store before my next column, I’ll go ahead and give a list of some other comics that I hope to talk about in some upcoming reviews like today’s column. But with these titles to look for, you can peruse a variety of subject matter and at the very least, see if you like the artwork. Today’s comics are very different from the older comics you may have seen, so if you’re new to comics, forget all your previous assumptions.
Vertigo, the mature, adult line of comics run by DC, is finally coming back strong with some great titles: THE WAKE, ASTRO CITY, TRILLIUM, COLLIDER, and coming soon, a prequel mini-series to SANDMAN. I’ve enjoyed these first issues put out by Image: SIDEKICK, LAZARUS, JUPITER’S LEGACY, and TEN GRAND. And out on the stands by Dynamite: UNCANNY (not to be confused with UNCANNY X-MEN or UNCANNY AVENGERS, though I AM enjoying UNCANNY AVENGERS, still a fairly recent title in the history of Marvel in which a team is formed of both X-Men and Avengers). Finally, there’s a new title out called BATMAN/SUPERMAN. I’ve really enjoyed the first two issues, and you don’t need to know anything more about Batman and Superman than you already know.