How to get new readers addicted to comic books... People who have never read a comic book often ask me where to start. Sometimes the question is only half serious, more of a sort of bewildered curiosity about what I could possibly get out of it. Maybe because of this column or because my house is filled with comic book ephemera, but people come to me when they want to start and I'm starting to see some patterns about where they like to start, and it isn't with superheroes.
Across the board, people who've never read comic books before are (at least initially) completely turned off by superheroes. From what I can gather, the way they're reading comic books is already challenging enough, asking them to also buy into the idea of spending time reading about people in tight costumes asking too much. Even the comic books that I've come to think of as crowd pleasers because they appeal to such a huge variety of readers, like Batwoman or All-Star Superman are just met with a casual brush off.
Despite the plethora of superhero movies, I've found that there is still a certain amount of surprise that a grown woman like myself would actually read about them. The stigma of reading superhero comic books is alive, albeit in a slightly less aggressive form.
It is one thing to ask a new reader to buy into taking reading words and imagery, it is another to ask them to also get into a (supposedly) juvenile area like superheroes. It doesn't matter if they like so-called escapist movies with action and science fiction elements, they're still going to have some hang ups about the superhero genre. That's fine, they're be plenty of time to feed them the greats. Initially we just want to take their interest past the amused curiosity and into genuine personal involvement. At most, they might read a crime, fairy tale or horror book, but initially at least, the fastest way to get them to take comic books seriously is to show them books which are as close to real life as possible.
Here is a short list of books which have been my entry point for a number of new readers. These are books which have been happily bought by the people I recommended them to, although I would also recommend these as gifts too, as they are so well made.
Adrian Tomine's slice of relationship moratorium is a great place for people to start. First of all, they literally always can follow the rule of reading from left to right and top to bottom. He doesn't break this rule and so new readers actually have a chance to get comfortable reading a comic book for the first time. For men or women, at best they recognize the path not taken or at worst, they feel a kinship with these misguided but lovingly depicted people. Most importantly the book is stylish and understated, never asking the reader to make any weird steps out of their own perception of reality. This is relatable and funny and pretty enough to draw people to it. Tomine really ought to design more covers; books, fashion magazines, whatever. Overall, he has a lovely way of creating very normal looking characters and making their lives seem special. It is a feeling which he managed to impart to the mundane life of the reader, allowing us to see the rhythms and beats of the art in our everyday lives.
Paying For It
Chester Brown's diary of being a "john", wherein he writes of his own experiences with prostitutes, not in a lascivious way, but in a rather detached way, as a complete alternative from the messy and challenging business of romantic relationships. A controversial book, in many ways I think that this book was written by Chester Brown simply so that he'd have an excuse to disseminate his long essay in the back (documenting his own feelings about the legality of prostitution.) That aside, I still think it is fascinating. A bit dismal and bizarre, but still fascinating. I would hate to be this man or have his life, or even have to interact with him for any sustained amount of time, but still... there is no other way I can imagine getting this much information revealed to me. He is totally vulnerable and open about his depressing life and it makes for great reading.
Parker the Outfit
Darwyn Cooke's stunning book is not only a fantastically gritty crime noir straight from a very fashionable 1960's, but it is also a very nicely published object. Perfect for the crime genre fan and also an extremely clever use of the medium. I often recommend this before the book which precedes it, simply because I'm so interested in the little vignettes presented, where the narrator describes how various cons work. While I'm a huge fan of Cooke's storytelling, the fact that he is also able to do these almost diagramatic drawings of actions, (which have a strange similarity with modern user-interface diagrams) and still have them feel totally faithful to the era they're meant to be from is blindingly skillful.
I love this book. Who doesn't, really? Okay, maybe some people don't, but I haven't met them. Non comic book readers do seem to gravitate towards this book. Perhaps it is the unconventionally sparse, raw, gray, kraft, card cover. Or maybe it is the way the drawings so immediately echo the moods and changes of the story. Even the most unaware reader can see how quickly the style and colors change as the character progresses. It is a clever combination of obvious subtlety and Mazzuchelli does it with great style.
There are so many more, I can't list them all. Don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting that we use our superior knowledge of the medium to manipulate novices, but... Well you get the idea. There are so many non-superhero comic books out there and so many people don't know how to get access to them. Take a look at the person you're talking to, ask them what movies they like, what books they read, even what music they listen to. See if you can get some ideas of their personality which would make it easier to recommend a comic book they might love. Because the secret is that there are comic books for everyone, for every occasion and every taste, but to begin with at least, you aren't going to be able to feed them superheroes.