I’m guilty. I am definitely guilty of calling comic books graphic novels when I was younger. If you were like me, it’s ok. Just know that most graphic novels ARE comic books, just in a shiny collected format. But I grew up in very small town about an hour from any bookstore and had no kind family member to introduce me to the wonder of comics. What I was obsessed with was the funny pages, She-Ra, then later X-men Evolution and Teen Titans. The first “graphic novel” I tried was Neil Gaiman’s Sandman in college, which HOOKED me. Especially the 3rd one with the short story about Shakespeare that won him a World Fantasy award. (Fun fact: This was the first, and only, time a comic book won the award for Short Fiction. People were so pissed they changed the rules after.) I thought being obsessed with all things Shakespeare made me cooler. It kind of does, except nobody gets your jokes or pet’s name (Othello).
What I’m trying to explain is that I had little to no exposure to comics until pretty late in life. All I had seen were Archie comics at the grocery store and they didn’t really appeal to me. Archie and Jughead looked like jerks. *shrug* Graphic novels felt accessible to me as an English major and fledgling fantasy writer. Until I learned about Gail Simone at the first Geek GirlCon, and then started scouring comic book stores for back issues of all her books. When I started working at Half Price Books, Gail and Neil were really my only points of reference for comics. I knew I loved those, but was intimidated because I hadn’t grown up reading comics the way a lot of fans had. It made me a little nervous to try helping with the huge back stock of comics sitting in longbox after longbox waiting to be bagged and priced. It also didn’t help that I had very recently been sexually harassed by the science fiction club on campus and was feeling the sting of geek gatekeeping pretty hard. (That’s a story for a different day.)
Enter Rik, one of the floor managers who was trying very hard to turn around the comics section of the store. Not only did Rik let me help him with this project, he also took the time to teach me everything he knew about buying comics. How to grade them, look them up online, what to keep an eye for, why things from before 1950 were so rare and expensive, his favorite artists and writers, suggestions for things other than Gail I might like. With absolutely no condescension that I hadn’t been reading comics as long as most comics fans or that I was a girl. It was refreshing to be able to ask questions of someone without fear of revealing that I wasn’t FAN enough. Now studying comics is one of my primary areas of research! I owe a lot of it to his patience and kind acceptance of a small town girl who had never been able to geek out over the things she loved. (And had just been burned by the people she was supposed to be able to do that with.)
Here are my 5 ways inspired by Rik for how to not be a jerk to new nerds (because this really applies to ALL forms of nerd not just comics):
- Ask what they like before you talk about the stuff you like. It’s gives you common ground instead of naming off a ton of stuff they’ve never heard of which makes you sound like a douche and makes them nervous. Getting into any new nerd genre can be overwhelming (comics, especially so with all it’s alternate universes and continuities).
- Let them come to you. Indicate your initial excitement and then back off. New nerds are like small woodland creatures and easily scared. (At least I know I was.) This is one I’m especially bad about when recommending things at work. I try to feel people out when they’re looking at something I also like by commenting on it. “Oh that one’s really good.” If they respond with curiosity back I can dive in, if they look at me like a creeper I let it go.
- Start with just 2 recommendations and then let them chose. Yes I agree everyone should read Bitch Planet, but giving people choices lets the, have agency over their own reading experience. This is also how I get my toddler to decide what shirt to wear in the morning or how I used to get my graphic design clients to choose colors. 3 options is one too many. An either/or situation is much less stressful to decide between. That third option invites open an infinity of other possibilities that may lead to overwhelm. (Or another 5 edits to get the color MORE yellow.)
- Don’t correct people. Just let them pick up the terminology by example. Again, correcting people makes you sound like a jerk and then you’ve possibly just shut the door on them altogether. Comics has a lot of jargon that can make people feel excluded. I picked up a lot of things from Rik and eventually felt comfortable enough to just straight up ask questions about things. Which brings me to my last point…
- Don’t stop people from asking questions. Especially if it makes you think differently about a comic you loved, or an artist you admired. Asking questions is the only way any person or industry will grow. It IS possible to be critical of a thing and a fan at the same time. New people will have new ideas that could help pump lifeblood that is desperately needed in all our American industries. If you don’t know the answer to a question your new friend asked, find out together. It’s also ok to not have all the answers. Pretty quickly my comics chats with Rik grew into lengthy literary discussions, which was a huge part of me now studying comics. Because he was open to my questions, I kept asking them and kept learning.
Hopefully that advice helps you be a better geek guide to the next interested newb that picks up a copy of Sandman or Saga and is looking for their next read. What’s your best advice for how to get other people into comics? Share below! I’m thinking about creating a more complete guide to comics for newbs and would love suggestions.
Shameless promotion for Rik, the dude who inspired this whole post:
Rik is now making his own major debut into the world of comics and I hope you’ll join me in supporting his Kickstarter. He’s built a great diverse creative team and I can’t wait to read the story he wrote! It’s a supernatural noir, need I say more? The unique colors really bring to life that spooky element. It’s already fully funded in just the first 21 days, but more backers mean they’ll be able to continue the book after this first issue. Go check it out for yourself! They’ve put together an awesome FREE preview you can get here. I really liked this interview he did, it shows how dedicated Rik is to world building, character development, and detailed story arcs. Help make it happen! I’m very excited about that sweet t-shirt.