As comics have moved into the mainstream cool, publishing companies have done their best to help new readers. Unfortunately, their idea of rebooting a universe and resetting comics back to issue #1 doesn't really help. If anything, this industry norm has made it a lot harder to collect comics and to know where series begin and end. Based on my own experiences as a reader and a collector I've complied my best advice for beginners.
Types of Comics
Single Issue comics are released as periodicals. They come in a staple-bound form and cost between $3-$5 for an ongoing series. Any issues that are older than a month are called back issues. You will generally spend more money on back issues and variant covers. Variants are when guest artists draw the cover art for a single issue. Skottie Young is an artist who does a lot of variant cover art for Marvel Comics.
Original cover art vs. Variant cover art
As comics get published, they are classified by which print they belong to. Having a first print as a collector is a lot better than having a fourth or fifth print. If you're keeping up-to-date with an ongoing series you wont have a hard time collecting first prints. If you miss an issue or start a series late you might only have access to a later print for certain issues. For an ongoing series, first prints aren't going to cost you extra money. If it's a back issue there's a possibility you will have to spend more for a first print.
You're local comic book store will generally let you know what printing a comic is if it is not already printed directly on the comic
One-shots are a type of single issue where the complete story is told in that one comic. A mini or limited series refers to a series with a predetermined number of issues. Ongoing series will not have a determined number of issues before production. Mini and limited series generally range between 4 to 15 issues
One-shots will always be marked on the front cover (left). Mini-series that have been bound into trade hardcovers (right)
Trade paperbacks (TPB) or trade hardcovers (THC) are when publishers take a series of issues and bind them together in either a paperback or hardcover book. They will do this for ongoing, mini, and limited series. The difficult part about trades is that there can exist multiple TPB or THC versions of the same comic. Publishers will begin releasing trades as smaller volumes. Then they will combine those volumes into large volumes. Then they will release an omnibus with every issue ever written in a series. Trades will always list what issue numbers that are included within them to help you. For example:
You'll notice in my horribly tacky collection of Ultimate Spider-Man that i have two volumes that claim to be number 5. The smaller volume 5 would be considered a TPB and lists on the back that it contains issues #28-#32. The larger volume 5 would be considered a THC, but is also an ultimate collection. It's literally the Ultimate Spider-Man Ultimate Collection. On the inside of Ultimate Vol. 5 it lets me know that it's the equivalent of having the TPB of Vol. 9 and 10 (issues #43-#65). Write down what issues or what series of volumes you're collecting before questing out to buy more comics. Taking photos will also help!
As the comic medium grew, writers and artists took the opportunity to create works that went directly to book form. These books are considered graphic novels. These are works that were never released in single issues. You'll find that most people will consider trades to be graphic novels. Technically they're not, but the terms are (in my opinion) completely interchangeable. When you visit stores that sell comics the graphic novel section will incorporate both.
Which Type is for You?
- With the rise in comic popularity came the realization that they can be worth money over time. However, collecting single issues with the idea that they might have appreciated in value over time isn't a good reason to collect them. Too many people will have this mentality and it will take a long time for a return on your investment to happen. If you're looking to collect something that will have monetary value later, you need to find a less popular series that has fewer prints available and hope it becomes super popular during later issues. The Walking Dead did horrible when it came out, but after the success of the TV show a first print of the first issue sold for $10,000 dollars in 2012.
- If you're keeping up with an ongoing series, you'll of course need the single issues. Comic book stores give discounts to readers who buy comics on a weekly basis. Ongoing series will eventually be put into TPB form, but you'll have to wait between six months to a year.
- Trades will often eliminate the cover art when they bind issues together to let the story flow without interruption. I originally found Cowboy Ninja Viking in TPB form and loved it so much I went back and collected all the single issues. To be fair the trade did include all the cover art, it was mostly cause they're beautiful.
- Single issues are quick reads. If you don't have the time to curl up with a book for two hours, you can enjoy a single issue while doing your bathroom business no problem.
- Single issues are hard to store. You have to make sure that they've got a bag and board so they stay in good condition. Bags make it impossible to stack comics and they are generally stored in archival boxes. Other collectors will appreciate how cleanly you've stored your comics, but there are limitations on how to display your collection.
I don't have a super fancy archival boxes, but this cube shelf system works very well for me!
- If you don't like cliffhangers, TPB are for you. Single issues generally end at a moment that makes readers go, "But what happens next?" - which can be both exciting and infuriating. If you like to grind through books a TPB will give you more material to read through.
- It's generally cheaper to buy trades if you're collecting an older series. Finding the first ten issues of a series written between 2000-2010 might mean spending $15 per issue. While that isn't too expensive, you could find a TPB volume with six issues for the same amount of money.
- The prices for used trades varies depending on series popularity, but you're going to have a lot of options available. Going back to my horribly tacky Ultimate Spider-Man collection - I collected it as cheaply as possible. I purchased new and used volumes depending on what was available locally. With the glorious internet at your disposal it's very easy to collect trades for less than cover price, which can range anywhere from $12-$50.
- Trades are super bookshelf-friendly and look awesome. Sometimes with omnibus or ultimate editions you'll have to store them on their side.
- Major story arcs from longer series are often put into TPB form. You don't have to read all 700 issues of The Amazing Spider-Man. As long as you're somewhat familiar with your friendly neighborhood web-slinger, you can purchase The Amazing Spider-Man: Death of Gwen Stacy and read the issues included in that story arc. These trades will often pull from multiple sources, so where they list the issues it will have something like "including Comic Title #1-4, #8-9.5, and Some Ambiguous Other Title You've Never Heard Of #345". All of the major Marvel and DC characters will have trades like this available.
- Limited and Mini-series are often bound in single volume trades. Deadpool Kills the Marvel Universe and The Long Halloween are examples of limited series that now appear widely in TPB and THC.
The downside to collecting trades is that they're expensive. The upside is that when you need money they hold their value.
- If you are 100% done with superheroes, graphic novels are for you. IDW, Dark Horse, Image, and Vertigo are comic book publishers that are widely popular in the graphic novel medium. They do have instances of superheroes and super humans, but they offer a lot more besides that. The Misadventures of Paige Turner is designed to explore this side of the graphic novel medium.
- If you do like super heroes, stand-alone graphic novels featuring familiar superheroes do exist. These are titles that fit the exact definition of graphic novel, therefore were never periodicals. Arkham Asylum and The Killing Joke are examples of stand-alone graphic novels. You can guess which superhero (or villain) these are about.
Other Useful Things
What are all them there Universes?
As I mentioned before, comic companies like to reboot a series to help new readers. When they reboot a universe they will either retell a character's origin story or they will reinvent the character. This is how Miles Morales became Spider-Man, Thor is a Lady, and Ms. Marvel went from Carol Danvers to Pakistani-American teenager Kamala Khan.
Marvel is currently publishing for the Marvel NOW! and ALL NEW Marvel NOW! universe(s).
DC Comics was publishing for the New 52 universe, but just released Convergence and is in the process of rebooting everything.
Are comic book store employees judgmental of n00bs?
With any hobby you're going to run into a die-hard fan that totally snubs you for being a filthy casual. Don't let this deter you. Being lost in a comic book store is natural, so don't be afraid to ask for help. If you encounter a rude employee, hopefully you have another local shop you can lurk at. There's plenty of places to buy comics in real life and online so never feel obligated to return to a place that alienates you for being new.
So you spoiled a lot of deaths in this guide...
You should come to terms with the fact that almost every character dies and is reborn more times than you will ever care to read. It's an incredibly overused plot device. Since no comic book publisher wants to lose readers it will inevitably bring a character back. Take Gwen Stacy for example. She's been killed countless times in all of the universes she exists in. If you don't want a series spoiled for you, collect an ongoing series from the very beginning. When I began Ultimate Spider-Man they had already announced that Miles Morales was the All New Ultimate Spider-Man. This was a super big hint that Peter Parker was going to die. This was also before I collected the TPB that is literally called Ultimate Spider-Man: Death of Peter Parker.
Where can I buy comic books?
For the purposes of this list, "graphic novel" will include trades and not be an elitist term.
- Comic book stores will carry single issues and graphic novels. They tend to also have collectibles (action figures), posters, and t-shirts available for purchase.
- Used book stores can have graphic novel sections. They will generally not have single issues available.
- Barnes & Noble has a graphic novel section. They carry new releases for the most part. If you're looking for anything pre-2010 you will often have a hard time finding it available in their stores. The exception to this will be anything super famous like Watchmen.
- Amazon is the holy mecca of new and used graphic novels. Personally I wouldn't buy single issues through here, but they are available. I've bought and sold graphic novels on Amazon and have had a great experience.
- The flea market! This really depends on where you live and if it's something available to you. My local flea market has a guy that sells ongoing and back issues. Since it's a flea market, you might run into sellers who like to flex their comic knowledge or need you to prove your own. I would definitely suggest waiting until you have a better idea of what you're looking for before going, just so it doesn't ruin the experience for you.
Why you so difficult, Comics?
Getting into comics will take a little research. If you already know someone who reads comics and can be your comic book buddy, use them! My friend Alison helped me tackle my first comic book store and my subsequent Spider-Man obsession. If you don't have an IRL comic book buddy at your disposal, the nerds of the internet will be there for you. Wikipedia has a tremendous amount of information about characters, series, universes, and available publications.
This guide is just the beginning of your comic book adventure. Tread carefully, because you will realize how deep this rabbit hole goes soon.
Content Creator: Paige Turner | @dinopillow | firstname.lastname@example.org
Content Editor: Andrew "Anton" Beardall | @antonymity | email@example.com