How To Start Reading Current DC Comics Titles
"Hey...I thought The Ventriloquistthat Batman villain with the split personalitywas an old man. How come they're calling this hot young woman The Ventriloquist?"
"But waitI 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 universefor 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 scalebut 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.