Starting out with comic books: Digital or physical?

Note: My updated Batman reading list can be found at the very bottom of this blog.

After seeing Batman vs. Superman, and despite not enjoying it all that much, I had the itch to take a proper dive into comic books. This is a format I'm largely unfamiliar with, but I've had desires to explore it many times since I started college. Starting relatively from scratch with comic books is a difficult proposition, though, for many reasons -- and chief among those reasons, in 2016, is whether to read digital or physical. 

There were other things to consider, too. I received a couple boxes of well-maintained comics from my uncle when I was young, so I was familiar with at least the origin stories of DC's most famous characters. (Included among those was the graphic novel A Death In The Family, which I remember reading and actively disliking; most likely, though, I was just confused about why Robin was getting killed. It seemed a little permanent to my teenage self, and I didn't have the attention span to learn about comic book death, or anything else for that matter.)

In the present, though, I had no idea what those characters had been up to in the time between the origin stories and random issues I read, and today. The New 52 from DC didn't seem like the best way to start this process, and the prospect of starting with seminal crossover events like Flashpoint or Crisis on Infinite Earths was straight-up overwhelming.

Truthfully, it's difficult enough just deciding where to begin with one title. Luckily, I knew for sure which character I wanted to read first. 

Batman: Where to Start?

One of the best panels from batman: year one.

One of the best panels from batman: year one.

Duh, Batman is gonna be first. I did a bunch of research and found quite a few different recommended reading lists, but learned pretty quickly that I wasn't going to start by dipping back into the very beginnings of Batman (who debuted in 1939). Most of the modern storytelling of Batman and other famous DC characters comes after the events of Crisis on Infinite Earths, which came out in 1985/1986. 

After Crisis, a lot of DC superheroes had their origin stories retooled, and the outcome of that is the modern-day origin stories that most people know. The definitive modern-day telling of Batman's origin story is collected in Batman: Year One, so that was the first book I bought. The next decision was whether to read the "greatest hits" of Batman's publication history, or to read chronologically (either by publication date or in Batman years). I decided to attempt the latter, which isn't always super clear when you're working mainly with graphic novels, but you can get by decently enough. 

I'm using the recommend reading list from Comic Vine as a starting point, translated into what's regularly available at Amazon / local shops. The first stretch of books is Year One; The Man Who Laughs; The Long Halloween; and Dark Victory. Then you go off on a bit of a tangent and meet Robin and Batgirl in their collected Year One volume, and meet Ra's al Ghul and Talia in the Birth of the Demon collection. The next stretch is Nightwing's Bludhaven; A Death In the Family; and The Killing Joke. Following that, the only books I'm absolutely sure I'll read are the Knightfall saga (three parts), Hush, and The Dark Knight Returns -- everything after that is up in the air.

Note: My reading list has changed a lot since this was published...it can now be found at the very bottom of this blog.

That's about 15 books right there, which is a lot. I've purchased the first five so far, so I'm pretty sure that I'll see this list through over the next few months, but I'm trying to pace myself a bit so I can make it last. It's easy to read these books super quickly, but taking your time definitely allows you to appreciate the intricacies of the art and writing a bit more.

One final note on the reading list -- if you're planning on reading physical and buying in bulk (maybe five or more of those titles at once), the website InStockTrades.com was recommended to me, and their prices are even cheaper than Amazon's. 

One cool thing about researching these titles is getting to know the names of the writers and artists you enjoy most. I'm planning on reading some Daredevil stories after Batman, but moving on from there I think I'll follow the trails of the writers and artists I'm enjoying most. 

So, Physical or Digital?

Haven't made much headway with this question yet, despite it being the main point of this blog. I had a real hard time choosing how to start here. As a person who owns a few hundred LPs and runs a record label, I appreciate physical goods; but as a person who lives in Brooklyn, where apartments aren't exactly known for their spacious layouts, I was hesitant to start buying all these books right away. 

So I looked into the digital options a decent amount. The most popular option, and likely the most convenient for many people, is Comixology, a company that's now owned by Amazon. It works similar to the way Kindle or Audible works; you can buy a comic online, then download it to the Comixology app on whatever device you're using. (Unfortunately, that means the Comixology app has the same multi-step process that Kindle and Audible use...and not the buyflow they used to have. If you can deal with this, which is pretty easy to deal with all things considered, you shouldn't run into many other UX/UI difficulties.)

The technology behind the Comixology apps for iPhone and iPad is impressive. The apps identify the panels of a comic book, and basically guide you through a page -- showing you one panel at a time, zooming in and out when necessary to show more detail or get a broader scope (they call this "Guided View"). I took a few screenshots of one page from Daredevil: Dark Nights Issue #1, which was a free download from the iPad app, to illustrate how the feature works.

Ultimately, I decided digital was not the way for me to go. I really like how the Comixology app works on my iPad Pro, which is the main device I use at home (it's the device I'm blogging on right now), and all the comics I've downloaded to it look gorgeous on this screen -- but the same isn't as true about my iPhone, which is what I have on me at all times. The smaller screen is underwhelming compared to the size of a tablet or physical trade paperback, so I chose to start buying physical. 

By no means have I written off the prospect of reading comics digitally in the future; in fact, I've got a few single-issue titles on my Comixology app right now that I'm checking out. I may make all of my Star Wars comic reading digital-only, because the benefits are pretty tough to ignore. I think if you have an iPad Mini or other similar device, you may be in a sweet spot for reading digitally; at the moment, my Pro is just an enormous thing to be pulling out on the train every day. In the long run, digital is also more affordable, so I'm betting I'll wind up having a healthy mix in the future. It's encouraging to know that there's a convenient and quickly growing app with good tech behind it for reading in this format.

So far I've been reading some Batman books and I'm going to start writing about them soon. I'm enjoying this greatly so far and I hope this post is useful for a few people who have been hesitant to dive into comic books!

Post-publishing insertion: I'm going to keep track here of a semi-frequently updated list of Batman comics that I plan on reading or have read. The list is in order of when the stories occur within the Batman universe; not every portion of the order is explicitly correct, and there are some discrepancies that occur in the timeline here and there, but it's ultimately an accurate enough path. I am updating the order as I actually read these things, so in a way it's my own interpretation of the Batman trade paperback reading order. Bold means it's been read; italicized means it's sitting on my shelf ready to go. Last updated: May 11, 2017.
  1. Batman: Year One [blog]
  2. Catwoman: Her Sister's Keeper
  3. Batman: Shaman [collected by way of finding individual issues of Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight Nos. 1-5]
  4. Batman: Gothic [collected by way of finding individual issues of Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight Nos. 6-10]
  5. Batman: Prey [collected by way of finding individual issues of Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight Nos. 11-15]
  6. Batman: The Man Who Laughs [blog]
  7. Batman: Venom [collected by way of finding individual issues of Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight Nos. 16-20; also, a note that this might be moved quite drastically in the reading order, down around the Knightfall saga, based on some notes I've read regarding the plot.]
  8. Batman: Haunted Knight [blog]
  9. Batman: The Long Halloween [blog]
  10. Batman: Dark Victory [blog]
  11. Catwoman: When In Rome [blog]
  12. Batman Chronicles: The Gauntlet [blog]
  13. Robin: Year One [blog]
  14. Batgirl: Year One [blog]
  15. Teen Titans: Year One [blog]
  16. Teen Titans: Judas Contract [blog]
  17. Nightwing: Year One [blog]
  18. Nightwing: Blüdhaven [blog]
  19. Batman: The Killing Joke [blog]
  20. Batman: A Death In The Family [blog
  21. Batman: Blind Justice [blog[quick note -- that Amazon link appears to be a newer printing, and I'm not familiar with that specific run. The run I read was the original 1992 printing, which I bought on eBay. Also, this one is a bit of a side-step in the Batman chronology ... in terms of reading order.]
  22. Batman: Arkham Asylum
  23. Batman: A Lonely Place of Dying [collected in the same trade paperback as the above-linked "A Death In The Family"]
  24. Robin: A Hero Reborn
  25. Batman: Birth of the Demon [blog]
  26. Nightwing: Rough Justice [these Nightwing collections aren't in any real order, here ... I'm completely unsure of where they'll ultimately wind up in my order]
  27. Nightwing: False Starts
  28. Nightwing: Love and Bullets
  29. Batman: Sword of Azrael
  30. Prelude to Knightfall (Batman #484-489, Detective Comics #654-656) [these are not collected in any trade paperback, but appear to be essential to the Knightfall saga; I'll collect these via finding hard copies or using Comixology]
  31. Batman: Knightfall [new pressing includes the "Vengeance of Bane" arc, which would otherwise be its own line item]
  32. Batman: Knightfall: Knightquest
  33. Batman: Knightfall: KnightsEnd
  34. Batman: Prodigal [this arc is, for the most part, collected in the above trade paperback for KnightsEnd]
  35. Batman: Anarky 
  36. Batman: Troika
  37. JLA: The Deluxe Edition, Vol. 1 [this is not necessarily in the correct place, chronology-wise, on the list, although I did read a recommendation to include this volume around this spot. I just know that I want to look into Justice League at some point, and this is the best intro spot; Vols. 2, 3, and 4 will be added to the list if I like this one, and you can keep going from there if you choose.]
  38. Batman: Contagion
  39. Batman: Legacy
  40. Batman: Bane
  41. Batman: Cataclysm
  42. Batman: Road to No Man's Land Vol. 1
  43. Batman: Road to No Man's Land Vol. 2
  44. Batman: No Man's Land Vol. I
  45. Batman: No Man's Land Vol. II
  46. Batman: No Man's Land Vol. III
  47. Batman: No Man's Land Vol. IV
  48. Bruce Wayne: Murderer?
  49. Bruce Wayne: Fugitive
  50. Batman: HUSH
  51. Under The Red Hood
  52. Batman: The Black Mirror
  53. The Dark Knight Returns
  54. The Dark Knight Strikes Again
  55. Gotham by Gaslight: a Tale of the Batman
  56. Superman: Red Son
  57. Batman: Noel [blog]
  58. Batman: Master of the Future
  59. Batman: Holy Terror
  60. Batman: Dark Dynasty