Robot 6

The Middle Ground #126 | Introduction to Recommendations 101

The other day, a friend was visiting and asked in a somewhat halfhearted manner for something to read. I gave her The Nao of Brown, fairly confident it’d be her kind of thing in terms of tone and theme (and entirely confident the art would bowl her over), and then started thinking about gateway comics. What makes a good introduction for newcomers to the entire comic medium?

Nao worked for this friend, who was surprised by the way comics worked, and remarked on it afterward, entranced by the pacing and format of Glyn Dillon’s masterful graphic novel as much as the writing or the art. She said as much, clearly surprised at the way that Dillon could control the experience of reading through the way he told the story. “You can’t do that in regular books,” she said, and I knew that she had gone from comic-agnostic to someone who might go out and find some more on her own as a result of what she’d seen. It wasn’t a surprise to me that Nao did what I hoped, because it’s one of those special books that goes far beyond what you expect from a comic, even if you read them on a regular basis. In terms of subject matter — a young woman with OCD that manifests itself in violent fantasies about those around her trying to have a relationship with a clearly broken man that she idealizes due to his resemblance to a favorite fictional character — and execution, with a funny, sensitive script and art clearly laid out so that anyone can follow it, but so beautifully delineated that it’s impossible not to fall in love with it. But not every book is The Nao of Brown, and as wonderful as I think it is, not everyone would appreciate that kind of thing, anyway. So what do I look for in comics to give to friends who’ve never read a comic before?

Clarity is important. Unless said newcomer is someone who is used to, and enjoys, visual stylization and information, I want the comic to be something that’s easy to navigate; I don’t want to risk losing them because the panel layout is too confusing or overloaded or complicated on first glance. Additionally, I look for art that’s the right side of abstract, as strange and unclear an idea as that may be. Depending on the reader, depending on the topic, I want something that either looks naturalistic enough as to not be distracting, or cartoonish enough to be familiar from childhood. Basically, I want the way the book looks to be inviting, and not an impediment to the person reading it. (Jaime Hernandez’ work is really good for this; it’s attractive to look at and easy to follow, and both cartoony and naturalistic. If only all books could be drawn by Jaime …)

The subject matter, too, is a basic necessity. Generally — unless the friend in question is someone who seeks out the unusual as a matter of course in their entertainment — I prefer to find something that’s familiar to their experiences or their favorite movies/TV shows/books/whatever, so I tend to hew closer to realism in what I suggest; Signal to Noise instead of Mr. Punch, if that makes any sense.

A lot of great material falls by the wayside as a result of this criteria. I doubt that I’d be able to use The Zaucer of Zilk, one of my favorite books of the year, to entice newcomers into comics because of its purposeful psychedelia, for example (similarly, I tend to stay away from Scott Pilgrim, even though I love it to pieces; it’s just too outside of so many of my friends’ comfort zones). But by limiting the books I lend or give to those that seem to be able to have some resonance in the lives of those who’re reading them – by making sure that, even though the medium is new, the stories themselves aren’t entirely alien — I find that friends tend to come back and say the equivalent of “Hey, that wasn’t what I thought it would be at all. What else have you got?” And that’s, really, what it’s all about, right …?



I’ve given up on trying to get my friends to read comics. I’ve learned that just because someone likes the X-Men or Batman movies doesn’t mean they’ll like X-Men or Batman comics.

I’d say the best gateway material is probably newspaper strips or webcomics. I’ve observed people getting confused if there is more than one row of panels, and comics with complicated layouts are probably beyond the uninitiated. Still I think everyone has read a newspaper strip at some point in their life, and most webcomics ape the format of newpaper comic strips with a single row of 3 panels. Webcomics or newpaper strips are also good because they are bite-sized comics that don’t require a big time commitment, and webcomics are free.

I think it goes down to individual taste. Occasionally there IS a big, well-known gateway comic – Persepolis, for example – and they usually merit their widespread readership. Accessibility is key, as you said. But personal interest plays such a huge part in it. Someone who reads George Saunders or likes Wes Anderson movies is probably going to really like Jason’s LOW MOON or THE LEFT BANK GANG. Fans of Cormac McCarthy will like Chris Wright’s BLACK LUNG. WALKING DEAD hit such a high readership because it’s a perfect comic for post-apocalyptic/zombie fans. Fans of Fringe and X-Files would probably go nuts for SIXTH GUN, even though it’s ostensibly a western.
The trick to helping put a comic into someone’s hands that they’ll like isn’t title – I can’t imagine that anyone who liked the Iron Man movies and wanted to try an Iron Man comic (any iron man comic) would be satisfied, though they might like a nice Booster Gold trade (is there one), as the latter’s comic presence seems more in keeping with the former’s film one. A batman movie fan might like Dark Knight Returns or Year one, but it would be a waste of time to try and turn him or her onto the new-reader-incomprehensible monthlies. No, the key is knowing what they like well enough to equate it to something similar.
This means that the comics fan who wants to push ‘em on his or her friends needs to read outside of comics, watch non-geek culture shows an movies. Doing so will allow you a broader scope from which to make more accurate recommendations.

That said, Spiral-Bound by Aaron Renier is a book I habitually give to second-sixth graders regardless of their interests, and they all love it. I buy copies any time I see ‘em at a discount.

I should also note, given that I probably sounded preachy, that I myself am terrible about reading outside my general interests. Comics and nonfiction history are almost all I read given that there’s so much of each that I NEED to read for work, and so this is certainly something that I see better applied by others than myself.


October 23, 2012 at 5:40 pm

I think the key is to find something a person likes to look at…kinds of art or a genre of design (say robots or fantasy wizards and stuff). If they’re open to the idea of comics then they’ll find their way from there.

I look back at a lot of the stuff I’ve found visually entertaining and realize now the stories are pretty hokey compared to what I’m into now.

But ultimately, the key is for the person to be open to the idea…and super heroes won’t cut it. Anyone who likes super heroes already knows about their comics and would be reading them now if they wanted to!

Just the other day, I recommended Nexus by Baron and Rude to a friend and loaned him the first collection. Yesterday, he said he didn’t see much depth in it and now I don’t think I’ll ever be able to speak to him again. Actually, I kind of realize now what a terrible person he has always been and I question why we were ever friends.

I’m sorry, this has only a tangential relation to your column. But I guess the moral of the story is that your choice of recommendations can have an impact on your life as well as your friend’s.

I wrote a piece last week about how the nominations for British Comic Awards all shared that ‘gateway’ appeal and you can be sure that Nao will be among next year’s nominations.

I had an interesting experience about a month back. I’m the president of a Sci-Fi, Fantasy and general geekery society in my university and we had an open day a month back which involved setting out a display to attract new students and members. As part of our display we had a wide range of SF and Fantasy novels, dvds, manga and comics. The one thing that people constantly picked up and flipped through was a copy of Batwoman: Elegy which I had brought along. Lots of people ignored the copies of Claremont’s X-Men, Batman: Year One, Sandman and Fables, all books that I normally find get a good reaction out of people, and yet they were drawn to Elegy. It surprised me that people chose the fairly obscure, self contained work over all the usually more popular sprawling epics.

Since then I’ve loaned that copy of Batwoman Elegy to several people who never read comics beforehand but are now converts.

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