Comic books aren’t as celebrated as they used to be, however the properties have turned into a major boon for the film industry. But how can fans find the right comics like the films they love with up to 70 years of continuity to wade through? Harder still, how can parents find the right comics for their children? Here, we'll tell you.
Understanding the Modern Comic Industry
Comic books and graphic novels are just another medium to tell a story. Some stories are best served as presented in a novel, a short story, a film, a television series or mini-series. At the same time, it can provide fiction, fantasy, history, biography and any other genre under the sun. One of the falsehoods of the comic book industry is that these stories are simply for children, while the market today is built on an audience of primarily 24-35 year-old men. And yet there’s a comic for every generation, men and women, and every person from every walk of life. The hard part for those unfamiliar with the industry is finding the right stories by the right authors and hopefully the most appealing artists.
Today, comics are achieving a new heyday thanks to filmmakers’ abilities to recreate the fantasy of the page in a more realistic way for live-action (and animated) movies. While comic book films of the 1990s generally dumbed-down their subjects, the early 2000s saw the start of screenwriters and directors truly respecting their source material with movies like X-Men and Spider-Man. Fans, including those who have never read a comic book, eagerly await upcoming releases like Amazing Spider-Man, The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises or Man of Steel, but with so many decades of comic book continuity, it’s nearly impossible for your average moviegoer to track down the right comic books to quench their desires to read the source material that reflects the character as seen on screen.
The first thing that people who either haven’t read many comics, or used to collect in the 70s, 80s or 90s need to understand about the modern comic book industry is that today they’re often written specifically to be collected in a hardcover or trade paperback. Fans call this “writing for the trade,” although both Marvel and DC have claimed this isn’t the practice. While individual “floppies” come out in comic book stores every week, picking up a single issue of “The Avengers” will usually only give a small part of a larger story that will eventually be collected in a hardcover, and then a trade paperback. You can usually find those in your local Barnes and Noble or other bookstore.
Comic shops have had a rough couple of decades, but if you study the market, Marvel and DC Comics are usually lucky to break even on most of their monthly comic releases. The hardcovers and trade paperbacks are where their profit tends to come from, so it makes perfect sense to “write for the trade.”
But where does that leave new readers who want to find a good story about Iron Man, or perhaps an age-appropriate issue of X-Men starring Wolverine?
I worked for over five years in a comic book shop and can’t tell you how many times parents came in to tell me how much their child loves a specific superhero and that he or she would like to buy some age-appropriate comics, which isn’t easy unless you know what you’re looking for. Remember that new issues will often give only a small part of a larger story, plus your average superhero comic is barely kid-friendly and would carry a PG-13 (or occasionally R) rating in terms of the MPAA system.
First off, there are still new non-superhero comics like Archie, Disney and Simpson’s titles that are fine for kids. They rarely have hard violence, language or subject matter that your average parent might find objectionable. If you’re interested in starting a subscription service at your local comic shop, which most stores still offer with a regular discount, ask to look through the latest “Previews” order book. That’s the one that stores use to order their books from Diamond Comics. Diamond is the only distributor in the US, so everything coming out for a given month is listed there.
I highly recommend looking through the section after the biggest companies in the front of the book, and it’s easy to find because the page borders will be green.
Marvel Comics has an entire line of kid-friendly books starring just about their entire cast of characters. The subset to look for is MARVEL ADVENTURES. There are monthly comics and a long line of pocket-size collected editions, usually for under $10 each. You don’t need to worry about collecting in numerical order because these tend to have either one self-contained plotline or sometimes several shorter works always involving the characters on the covers such as Spider-Man, The Avengers (together or separate), The X-Men (also sometimes separate) and so on. Just about every major Marvel hero is represented and it’s a great way to introduce both children and adults to the comic book heroes from the movies and TV shows your kids already enjoy.
Another inexpensive option for LOTS of reading material, including many of the older and pricier original stories dating back to the 1960’s is MARVEL ESSENTIALS. Again, it isn’t necessary to collect them in order, but the first volumes for each character or team will often begin with their first appearances, but at up to 500-600 pages per volume for under $20 each. That’s a whole lot for a little money and nearly all of it is fine for kids, but part of the price cut comes from black-and-white printing. It’s a great deal.
DC also has a line for children called JOHNNY DC, but with the many new titles that hit the stands just a few months ago, the only remaining ones are “Batman: Brave and the Bold” and “Young Justice” as well as a Cartoon Network comic, “Looney Tunes,” “Scooby Doo” and “Tiny Titans” But Johnny DC has been running for quite a while and the collected editions are out there for other titles and hopefully there will be a “Green Lantern: Animated Series” comic in the near future.
One thing that DC has over Marvel in this arena is the learning-to-read aged books such as “Tiny Titans” and the recently-cancelled “Superfriends.” If you want to get your children excited about reading, start them off with a comic book complete with their favorite superheroes.
There’s also a line of inexpensive black and white compendiums from DC called “Showcase Presents.” Again, they usually collect over 500 pages worth of kid-friendly material for under $20.
Finally there’s one other way to collect comics for both kids and adults on the cheap. Most comic book stores have a section for older comics or “back issues” and they are often discounted. At the shop where I worked, buying 5 or more issues offered 60% off, so I would tell people that if they found two they liked, they might as well find five because it would be the same price. Some bigger stores don’t discount as much or might only do it certain times of the year, so always ask. If you’re lucky, you may find a bin for 25 cent, 50 cent or $1 comics.
To ensure the titles you look for are kid friendly, the easiest way is to look at the original cover price. With only a few exceptions, $1.50 or less on the original price for a superhero comic means that a child audience was considered when the book itself was released. Contrary to popular expectations, very few comics from the late 70s to the present have become very valuable, but the upside is that there are some great stories. Many with higher original prices are fine too, but to be sure you’ll have to open the book. Most stores will keep these issues in a taped plastic bag and you really should ask someone from the store before you open the tape.
When in doubt, most comic book stores have a knowledgeable staff able to help you find the right material.
Buy Some Comics!
There are plenty of inexpensive ways to find older comic books. There are also a number of websites and auction sites, so keep an ear open. Starting a collection of new material is never cheap, but there are plenty of wonderful older comics that can be found on the cheap if you just keep an eye out for them. Here are some links to get you started:
For good deals on inexpensive back issues, www.milehighcomics.com is one of the biggest in the US. If you look for older materials and don’t mind if something isn’t in perfect condition, they have some amazing values. There are tons of other sites if you use a search engine. So if you don’t have a local comic shop, or they don’t have the kinds of deals you’re looking for, try the internet. A lot of those places offer free shipping.
For discounted collected editions like Marvel Essentials or DC’s Showcase Presents, there are plenty of bookstores, but the best deals still tend to be online. Try http://www.instocktrades.com/ for some huge discounts.
Your local school probably has a selection of collected editions too. Schools have finally recognized that comics can get kids excited about reading and can raise homework scores. When your son or daughter enjoys a movie based on a superhero, you as a parent have an opportunity to open up a new world to your children, and they’re already sold on the topic.
And don’t forget that the 1st Saturday in May is FREE COMIC BOOK DAY!! So find your local comic shop, bring the kids and get some free comics.
Which comic books did YOU love as a kid that you would recommend people track down?