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How To Start Reading Current DC Comics Titles

"Hey...I thought The Ventriloquist—that Batman villain with the split personality—was an old man.  How come they're calling this hot young woman The Ventriloquist?"

"But wait—I thought Hal Jordan was Green Lantern.  Who the hell is Kyle Rayner and why's he wearing Green Lantern's costume?—What do you MEAN Hal Jordan turned evil, tried to blow up the world, and eventually killed himself by flying into the sun?  When did THAT happen?"

"...WHO in the WORLD is Booster Gold?"

Two years ago these were just a few of the many questions running through my mind as I attempted, for the first time ever, to try reading DC Comics.  With seventy years' worth of comic history staring me in the face, I had no idea where to start, and picked volumes at random under the assumption that I could start anywhere and get an immediate grasp on the characters and situations.  Trouble was, ever since the mid-1980's DC has been revising and retconning and rewriting and contradicting hundreds of elements in their canon, killing off old characters to replace them with hip new versions, inexplicably bringing the old versions back to life years later, changing character origin stories to allow for more angst-driven adventures...essentially, turning their entire universe into a multifaceted soap opera that gets increasingly more difficult to pick up and understand the longer you wait to start reading.  Events may occur in, say, the Justice League comic that will affect events in the Batman comic, but the Justice League event will not be clearly explained in the Batman story as it is being written under the assumption that everyone reading Batman will also be reading every single other comic DC is publishing (such as Justice League).  As well, events may have occurred in one comic issue decades ago, and will be referenced casually in a current issue without any further explanation, again as if the reader has been reading every single issue of that title since the very beginning.  In short, it's a confusing world to jump into headfirst with little or no prior experience, so this guide will attempt to ease even the greenest of new readers gently into the deep end with as few ill effects as possible.

Step 1: Read the Greatest Stories Ever Told volume featuring the hero you wish to begin following.  Just about every major hero in the DC Universe has their own volume of Greatest StoriesThe Greatest Superman Stories Ever Told, The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told, The Greatest Flash Stories Ever Told, etc.—each containing a wide range of comic stories featuring that lead character in various different decades, from the character's initial creation (most of the major characters originate from the 40's) to whenever the volume was published, generally between the early 90's and early 2000's.  This broad sampling of different writing styles, different art styles, and different interpretations of the character is a great way to familiarize yourself with the hero of your choice, and by osmosis, the other characters in their section of the DC Universe, such as their recurring villains and supporting cast.  It's a good way to test the waters to find out if this is a character you're really interested in following in current continuity; although admittedly some better stories may exist that are not represented in the volume, possibly having been created after the volume's publication, generally speaking if you consistently dislike a character's portrayal, the types of stories they wind up in, etc. throughout several decades' worth of different interpretations, chances are you won't enjoy the modern version either.  For example, after reading The Greatest Green Lantern Stories Ever Told, I found out that I really disliked the character's arrogant personality as well as the "adventures in space" bent to the character's usual plotlines.  Thus I was able to come to a decision about the series much more quickly than if I had instead started in on reading through hundreds of issues and hoping that eventually I'd come upon a story that I'd actually enjoy.

Step 2: Watch Batman: The Animated Series or Superman: The Animated Series if you're interested in following either hero.  Of course, these cartoon shows from the early and mid-nineties (which have both been released on DVD) are some of the best shows that have ever been produced for television, with superb writing, beautiful animation and fabulous voice casts.  But more relevant to this guide, they also offer extremely good introductions to the cast of characters in each series.  Not only do they present each hero's origin story in their turn, but almost every villain to appear in either series does so via an origin story episode, so the viewer can get a better feel for the villain's personality by understanding the traumatic events that led him or her to a life of crime.  In some cases the villain's backstory may be distinctly different from the one considered "official" in the comic book universe—for example, the Riddler is introduced as a former video game designer taking revenge on a greedy employer whereas in the comics he's consistently been portrayed as a con man who simply decided to pull his cons on a grander scale—but overall the essence of the character's portrayal and their dynamic with the hero is generally preserved.  Conversely, most of the live action movie adaptations of these comic heroes (The Dark Knight, Superman Returns, etc.) more often dramatically change characters' personalities and sometimes even their powers to either fit the actor playing him or her, or to fit the director's vision for the character, which can be fine for when you're actually watching the movie but would not really help you understand the comic book version of the hero's world, as is the purpose of this guide.  If nothing else, watching the cartoon version will provide familiarity with the characters so that encountering them in comic form won't be unduly surprising or confusing.

Step 3: Read at least a selection of pre-90's comics featuring your chosen hero, and try to read as many post-90's comics featuring that hero as possible.  The first half of this step is similar to the previous, in that (for the purposes of this guide) the pre-1990 comic books are best for introducing yourself to the various characters that make up your chosen hero's universe, since between the year of each hero's debut and 1990 the characters and the world they resided in were essentially unchanging, with things like Clark Kent always being Superman and always having the exact same relationship dynamic with Lois Lane no matter which comic book you picked up between 1940 and 1990.  And, as explained in the previous step, even if the character origins in these eras have been dramatically changed for the modern era, the overall portrayal of personality and style of storyline for both the villains and the supporting cast are fairly similar to the way those characters have behaved in the years since, so reading these older stories is a good way to familiarize yourself with the type of world your chosen hero inhabits.  But of course, not every comic from this era must be read, as not only have the bulk of them not been collected in trade paperback format (and trying to buy the original comic issues themselves can get very expensive very fast), but because not all of them are necessary when the goal is just familiarizing yourself with the hero and his or her supporting cast, although certainly if you find you like the stories of a certain era better than those of other eras, no one is stopping you from following up on that line of reading.  Rather expensive to buy but could potentially be borrowed via a local library are the Showcase and Archive volumes (for example, Showcase Presents: The Flash and The Plastic Man Archives), which collect stories from the hero's earliest days, generally ranging from the 40's to the 60's.  Also acceptable is any trade paperback collection that has at least one pre-1990 publishing date on the inside cover (as the volume may have been published after 1990, but the stories themselves may be from before 1990).

As for the post-1990 comics, many more of these have been collected in trade paperback form, since it was around this time period that the concept of "graphic novels" became popular as well as the industry standard.  As many of these comics featuring your chosen hero should be read as possible, since again, these are the stories in which the dynamics of the character's universe were most dramatically changed and when most of the newest characters were introduced.  For example, it was in the early 90's that Bart Allen (alias Impulse) was introduced in The Flash comics as the original Flash's grandson from the future, and who has since become Kid Flash in the current comics, as well as briefly being The Flash himself for a total of 13 comic issues in the early 2000's.  In short, the comics from 1990 to the present day contain almost every major event that will be referenced in new comics of the series, so the more you can familiarize yourself with these events firsthand, the better you'll be able to better understand characters' seemingly offhand references to them ("You know, guys, back when I spontaneously aged ten years and became The Flash for a while...") in current issues.  It's like preparing yourself for the premiere of the fifth season of a TV drama by watching the previous four seasons on DVD; you might be able to mentally fill in the gaps in your understanding by paying close attention to the characters' dialogue in reference to past events, but it's much easier if you've watched those events unfold firsthand.

After you've read these back issues, you'll be ready to start following the current issues when they come out.  However, there's still (Auxiliary) Step 4: When in doubt, look it up.  Even with all of this preliminary preparation, it's almost inevitable that there will still be references to events that may have concerned your hero but didn't occur in that hero's own title, but rather in a crossover book (like Justice League or Teen Titans) or in a major DC Universe-spanning crossover event with its own miniseries (like Crisis On Infinite Earths or Countdown).  This doesn't mean that you need to suddenly read every single other title DC has ever published (unless of course you want to)—if you've followed all of the previous steps, have familiarized yourself with the hero and their supporting cast and know almost all of the major life-changing events that have occurred in their comic since 1990, that's all of the necessary legwork.  So if a new reference crops up that you don't understand, look it up.  For example, I was reading an issue of the Robin comic where Robin thought he'd come face to face with the villain Blockbuster before realizing that it was just a statue, and made a remark about how for a second, he'd thought that "Nightwing was off the hook".  It wasn't until after I'd actually read the Nightwing comics that I realized that Robin was making a reference to an event wherein the hero Nightwing had played a part in Blockbuster's murder, thereby violating the superhero code of ethics (thus if Blockbuster was still alive as Robin had momentarily believed, Nightwing would be "off the hook" for this infraction).  However, at the time the vague reference was made in the Robin comic, I could have just looked up a character biography of either Nightwing or Blockbuster and gotten an explanation within moments.  For the real hard-core DC Comics enthusiasts with extra spending money, I'd recommend The DC Comics Encyclopedia, which is exactly what it sounds like, an encyclopedia featuring almost every major recurring character from every DC Comics series, complete with images, the entire life story from childhood to the events of the most recent issues (as of volume publication), lists of their first appearances, and affiliations with other characters or teams.  For the more casual reader, though, both Wikipedia.Org and Comicvine.Com are valuable resources for filling in the blanks.  If a character makes a vague reference to something that happened in their past that you're unfamiliar with, search the character's name (or, if they're referring to another character, you search the referenced character's name) into one of the aforementioned sites and skim the character bio until you find something that could explain their remark, like reading about Nightwing's role in Blockbuster's death to explain the "Nightwing was almost off the hook" remark.  In short, although your understanding can be assisted by reading or having read several different comic titles, if you're really only interested in the adventures of one particular hero, it's easy enough to find explanations to fill in the gaps.

It may seem like a long, arduous process for the seemingly small reward of being able to read one comic title once a month, and in some ways, it absolutely is.  In fact, back in the old days, editors required comic writers to write each issue of a series as if each reader was reading this title for the first time, so anyone who hadn't been following the series before could jump in at any point and understand exactly what was going on. Unfortunately, the comics industry isn't like that anymore; but if reading old comics about your chosen hero or watching animated TV versions of the series aren't activities you would enjoy, then chances are you probably wouldn't enjoy reading the current comics either.  But it's certainly best to find out before you find yourself drowning in the deep end of the reading pool.
Just something I wrote for a "How-To Article" assignment in my Composition class last winter, which I keep flashing back to whenever I have to explain anything about DC Comics to non-readers. The looming reboot in September will probably render a lot of this advice moot, but eh, at the very least it'll remain marginally useful in the interim.

I was thinking of accompanying this text with recommendations of good "jumping-on point" books for each major DCU character, but it's been a long time since I've read most of them (and some characters, like Wonder Woman, I still haven't managed to get to yet in my reading ^^; ), so instead I'm including a list of General Reading Recommendations, bearing in mind not only that these are all based on my own opinions, but also that I'm a lover of humor, so just about all of these titles/volumes contain some level of humorous elements.

Series-es and volumes that, to the best of my recollection, seem like they would be easily accessible to new readers will be marked in bold.


CRACKPOT'S GENERAL DCU READING RECOMMENDATIONS:

-Approximately anything by Paul Dini (especially Batman Adventures: Dangerous Dames And Demons [recently reprinted as Batman: Mad Love And Other Stories], and his Detective Comics run [collected in trade form as pretty much any of four books that starts with "Batman:" and has his name on it, but Batman: Private Casebook is a particular favorite]). He's great with characterization and interesting ideas for plots.

-Approximately anything by Gail Simone (especially Birds Of Prey [reprinted in MANY different volumes and continuity-dependent enough that they're best read in order, which I won't type out here but will add if asked to in the comments], though I have to give a content warning for Secret Six, it's INCREDIBLY filthy but in such a way that the content almost never seems gratuitous unless that's what makes it funny). AWESOME characterization, especially with female characters.

-Approximately anything by Chuck Dixon (especially Robin, Batgirl, and The Joker's Last Laugh, which is great and hilarious and engrossing and, for a DC Universe-wide crossover, EXTREMELY accessible for new readers). He just writes so well, period.

-EVERY SINGLE THING TY TEMPLETON HAS EVER WRITTEN, EVER. Not even joking. If his name is on it, pick it up, because it will be the best thing you have ever read until the next time you pick up something with his name on it. He mostly worked on comic adaptations of the Batman cartoon shows (more info on those below).

-Anything based on a DCU cartoon show (most especially the Batman-related ones, even including, surprisingly enough, The Batman, where the comics are better than the show itself). Unfortunately most of these have never been collected, but they're always relatively cheap in back issue bins if you can find them at comic stores or conventions, and well worth the money. They're almost always extremely well-written and well-drawn, often more so than the canon stuff.
Batman adaptations: The Batman Adventures and Batman & Robin Adventures (based on Batman: The Animated Series); Batman: Gotham Adventures (based on The New Adventures Of Batman); The Batman Strikes (based on The Batman); Batman: The Brave And The Bold and The All-New Batman: The Brave And The Bold (self-explanatory); Batman Adventures (a self-contained origianal series taking place approximately during the run of the Justice League cartoon...partially reprinted in Batman Adventures Volume 1: Rogues Gallery and Batman Adventures Volume 2: Shadows And Masks).
Other: Superman Adventures, Teen Titans Go!, the current Young Justice.

-Geoff Johns's run on The Flash (though I'd avoid Flashpoint, personally...) and on Teen Titans. He's great with characterizations, especially with the villains of Flash's Rogues Gallery.

-Tiny Titans, a vaguely parodic series aimed at young readers that's adorable and witty, and although it runs largely on running gags and canon references, you don't have to get either in order to understand and find it funny...you just have to get them if you want to find it twice as funny.

-90's kid-hero comics like the original Young Justice (which inspired the Teen Titans cartoon more than it did the current cartoon show that bears its name), Robin, Batgirl, and Impulse. Given the ages of the characters, they're usually pretty witty and always pull you in with the struggle of the underdog against situations that normal kids shouldn't even be involved with, much less completely taking care of.

-Silver Age Flash (collected in Showcase Presents: The Flash and The Flash Chronicles); though, since it runs mostly on made-up science and ridiculous plots, like the Adam West show you probably won't enjoy it if you can't have a sense of humor about it.

-Plastic Man!, in approximately any of his incarnations, though the best by far are the original 1940's Jack Cole stuff (reprinted in The Plastic Man Archives) and the more recent Kyle Baker stuff (reprinted in volumes like Plastic Man: Rubber Bandits). Always funny and always fascinating, and, in Jack Cole's case, fascinatingly beautifully drawn.

-Justice League International, which has been collected in six volumes so far. Always hilarious, and with surprisingly engrossing plotlines.


I may add more as I think of them, or do a journal entry or something if there's sufficient interest. Which I doubt, but whatever.
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:iconazabachesilver:
AzabacheSilver Featured By Owner Jul 19, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
I think might need to be updated, but it's pretty good!
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:iconblackstormwarrior:
blackstormwarrior Featured By Owner Apr 26, 2014  Student General Artist
Haha!  This is me and DC Comics, and often Marvel as well.  I pick random ones off the shelves and read them.  I have given up understanding the way these people think.
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:iconeveapplefield:
EveApplefield Featured By Owner Apr 26, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
Wow. I just never realised how difficult to understand it could be before my Boyfriend told me that a friend would be dragging to a Marvel Exposition and that he would pick something batman-ish for me. I had to explain to him that Marvel and DC were different things.

I never realised because I had some of those comic books as bedtime stories and was named after a character from the batverse so yeah... but reading it like that ? Damn it sounds pretty hard.
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:iconmyboyrobin:
myboyrobin Featured By Owner Feb 6, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
Back in middle school, I practically picked up a couple of the 90's JLA, Batman, and Young Justice Comics and just read them. I eventually just pieced everything together by going back to older volumes, the internet, and history books on the comic book industry.
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:iconjohnnyslade:
JohnnySlade Featured By Owner Oct 30, 2013  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
if someone ever asks me who booster gold is there getting smacked lol
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:iconladynanako:
LadyNanako Featured By Owner Oct 23, 2013
There Is More Then One Green Lantern. And Hal Tryed To Kill Himself?O_O
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:iconmoonman86:
moonman86 Featured By Owner Feb 25, 2013
im asking this because some people consider batman the animated series to be apart of a differnt universe and because of shows like the new batman adventures and batman beyond which seem to connect the shows together this creates confusion so id like to know what you think same goes for the dark knight returns possible future or elseworlds
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:iconmoonman86:
moonman86 Featured By Owner Feb 25, 2013
you sighted batman the animated series as one of the sources to help new readers get into dc comics does this mean you consider batman the animated series canon to mainstream continuity or canon to the character in some form and not part of a different continuity or elseworlds?
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:iconcrackpotcomics:
CrackpotComics Featured By Owner Feb 26, 2013  Student Artist
Mostly what I meant here was that the B:TAS portrayal of characters tends to be pretty close to how they appear in the comics (whether it's because they used only the most iconic aspects of the character or because the mainstream comics published since then were heavily influenced by the B:TAS portrayal)—it's clearly a separate universe, timeline, continuity, etc. from the mainstream series, but the most essential details remain the same, i.e. in mainstream comics the Riddler wasn't a video game developer who became a villain after being screwed over by his employer, but he IS still a classy smug narcissist obsessed with intellectually challenging Batman in an attempt to prove that he's smarter than Batman is. The point of mentioning the animated series in this essay was just as a way for new mainstream readers to familiarize themselves with the characters before starting to read a mainstream Batman series, since the mainstream comics don't always introduce characters as clearly as the cartoon show did—I wasn't trying to imply that the cartoon series can be taken as literal canon for the mainstream comics.
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:iconmoonman86:
moonman86 Featured By Owner Feb 26, 2013
but can it be cannon if one wanted it to i mean come on some episodes in the cartoon were alot more better written than some comics i read
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