I’m making the assumption that almost everybody my own age has at some point in their life read manga or watched anime. If that isn’t you, that’s okay; this article is for everybody that’s interested in reading comics (or not), but mainly for people that started out like me; that is, people whose primary exposure to comics was manga (which are simply Japanese comics). Like me, American comics may have seemed daunting. There are so many, most of them are dominated by two extremely large companies, the way they’re released are different, and it feels like you don’t know where to start or what’s the correct way to start. The short answer is (spoiler alert) there is no correct way, but I’ll explain that.
For the demographic that this article was written for, you already know how manga works, but for everyone else’s sake, I’ll describe it a little bit. Each chapter is serialized in a magazine, usually either bi-weekly or monthly, and eventually the chapters are collected into a single volume. This cycle keeps going until the author decides to end the story--some are more than 20 years old and still haven’t ended yet. Most of the time they are written and illustrated by the same person, usually in black and white, and a lot of the time end up being adapted into an anime (Japanese word for cartoon) which gives people another alternative if they don’t feel like reading. There are certainly similarities with American comics, but in general it isn’t like that. On the surface it seems a lot more confusing, especially on just where to start reading, but worry not.
Most American comics are created by a team of people with specific roles. The writer, obviously, writes the story. Occasionally the writer will also illustrate, but it isn’t very common. Then there are the artists. The artists usually consists of a penciller, who sketches, and an inker, who darkens and cleans up the lineart. Sometimes they are the same person, but they don’t have to be. There’s a colorist who takes the artists’ work and adds color (can sometimes be the same person as the artist, but not often) and a letterer who adds all the text to each page. Most independent comic companies publish comics similarly to how manga is published. Each chapter or “issue” is published once a month (or another timescale) and is eventually collected into a single volume and that continues for however long the creator wants. Superhero franchises, namely Marvel Comics and DC Comics, also follow this but start to stray when they get into things like relaunches and renumbering and various titles with the same characters. It gets difficult to keep track of what’s considered the canon storyline and what’s worth reading or what the “correct” order to read is. For the sake of this article, I’m going to use Marvel Comics as the example because they’re the comics I most actively read.
Any given Marvel title is published the same way as independent comics, that is, a serialized release of issues that are eventually compiled into a single volume. Every so often Marvel will choose to relaunch some series and start the numbering again from 1. Each relaunch is considered a volume, so for instance the original “Nova” comics from 1976 are considered “Nova Volume 1” and the relaunch in 1994 is “Nova Volume 2,” and so forth. This allows new generations of readers to start at any volume they want, whether it's the most current one or not; most of the old storylines are recapped or retold completely, and readers can catch up on the old ones if they’d like, but it isn’t required to understand the story. It starts to get confusing again when you start to notice that many characters have multiple comic series being published about them at once. What’s considered canon at that point? Well, Marvel made it so that everything is canon in some sense.
Marvel introduced the concept of a multiverse within their comics. What that means is basically different parallel universes canonically exist allowing all these stories to take place. A universe could be completely identical except for the fact that a particular storyline takes place. This extends to Marvel’s media that doesn’t include comics as well. Each universe is assigned a name. Marvel’s main universe where most of the stories take place (sometimes referred to as the “Prime Universe”) is Earth-616. I could keep elaborating on how this works, but it isn’t necessary for this article. Having different universes allows for lots of creative freedom with the characters without “ruining” them so to speak. Sometimes the universes even crossover just for fun.
The way DC’s multiverse functioned was similar to Marvel’s, but then they decided to make things unnecessarily more complicated. DC thought that multiple Earths was too difficult to keep track of and decided to merge all the universes together in an event called “Crisis on Infinite Earths” in 1985. This definitely caused some continuity problems and plot holes that needed to be retconned in some titles. The 2015 event “Convergence” retconned some of the story from “Crisis on Infinite Earths” to make it so that multiple timelines can exist now, including multiple multiverses. One of DC’s current publications (at the time of this article’s publishing) called “Doomsday Clock” attempts to explore and explain more about how DC’s multiverse works, already revealing that it’s actually a Metaverse and that each universe reacts to changes in another.
I hope that helped clear some things up. The conclusion to all of this: you can start reading any comic you want at any point that you want. Honestly the hardest part is finding one that you like. For me, I first started reading the 2013 “Nova” comics (I highly recommend them), but what really got me hooked was the current run of “The Amazing Spider-Man,” which started in 2018. I’ve been an active comic reader since then. Don’t feel like you have to stick to Marvel or DC. Support independent creators! There’s so many amazing stories and artwork out there for you to discover, so head to your local comic store and enjoy.