Collecting Marvel and DC Comics for Teens
The surge of adaptations has opened up the world of superhero comics to a whole new audience, as have recent reboots aiming to make these comics more accessible to new readers. (Note that I use the word “comics” as it is my preferred term, but calling them “graphic novels” is also appropriate.) Reboots make collection development easier for librarians who are understandably confused by the intricate histories, unclear chronologies, and intertwining universes of Marvel and DC. Librarian review sources tend to shy away from these publishers, making it even harder for us to know what to collect. Yet Diamond Comics Distributors’s industry statistics show that DC and Marvel together make up about 2/3 of the market. (Diamond is the largest comic book distributor in the U.S.)
I collect comics for teens in two public libraries, and I have found that building a solid set of Marvel and DC titles has not only provided patrons with reading materials they want, but has also drawn in some teens who might otherwise not be reading for fun at all. It takes a little time and research to become familiar enough with these comics to build a strong collection, but it’s well worth the investment. Here’s some info to get you started.
What’s the difference between Marvel and DC?
Fans have lots of answers to this question, but for collection development purposes, you really only need to have some idea of which heroes belong to which publisher.
DC owns Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Justice League, the Teen Titans, Aquaman, the Green Lantern, the Flash, and Green Arrow.
Marvel owns the Avengers, the X-Men, Spider-man, Thor, Iron Man, the Hulk, Captain America, Captain Marvel, and the Guardians of the Galaxy.
These are just a few of many, many characters.
How Marvel and DC Publish Their Comics
The basic unit of a comic is the issue. Collecting issues for a library is generally not a good idea, as they are flimsy and expensive. When you buy a comic for your library, you are probably going to buy a trade paperback or trade hardcover (or simply trade). These are sometimes referred to as volumes, collected editions, or graphic novels. (People use the term “graphic novel” in many different ways, but we won’t go down that rabbit hole right now.)
Note that it usually takes several months between the release of an issue and that issue’s publication in a trade. So you might be hearing a lot of buzz about, say, the new female Thor, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to bring her to your library just yet. The average wait time is about 6 months.
Most issues are part of an arc, a set of issues that tell one continuous story. These typically need to be read in order. To make this easier, arcs are usually collected together in the same volume when they’re released as trades.
When the stories in multiple comic series intersect or when a character from one series appears in another, this is called a crossover. Crossovers range from cameos to huge events that bring together a large number of heroes. Often a single trade will be published containing all the most important issues of a crossover event. (For example, this trade of DC’s Trinity War crossover event includes issues from several different series.)
On a different note, fans will often talk about comics in terms of the “run” of their creators. For example, if someone says “Alan Moore’s run on Saga of the Swamp Thing,” she’s referring to all the content Moore wrote for that title.
What Universe is This?
Here’s where things get a little weird. Both Marvel and DC have several titles that take place on alternate universes. For example, you may have heard about Peter Parker dying and the new Spider-man being a mixed-race teen named Miles Morales in the series Ultimate Comics Spider-man. Meanwhile, in the series The Superior Spider-man, Peter’s body is still around but is inhabited by Doctor Octopus. These two mutually exclusive storylines are possible because they take place in different universes. (To be specific, The Superior Spider-man takes place on Earth-616, the main Marvel Universe, while Ultimate Comics Spider-man takes place in the Ultimate universe.)
If you want to learn about the multiverses in detail, check out the Wikipedia overviews of the DC Multiverse and Marvel Multiverse. All you really need to know as a librarian, though, is that there may be multiple series about the same character running simultaneously. Do some searching and you should be able to determine which series are most popular or best reviewed. Most importantly, if you want to tell a continuous story, make sure you are buying titles from the same series, not picking out volumes from multiple series.
Multiverses can be confusing for new readers (and sometimes seasoned readers too) who can’t always tell what universe they are in or remember what events occurred in which universe. That was one reason DC initiated a reboot in 2011. Marvel soon followed suit.
Reboots and Relaunches
Reboots and relaunches are attempts to simplify a comic universe and make it easier for new readers to jump on. There are a few reasons for reboots. One is to start new storylines that have enough exposition and independence from previous titles that they appeal to new readers. Another is to collapse all those confusing multiple universes into something more manageable.
DC did both these things when it launched the New 52 in 2011. In a huge crossover event called Flashpoint, DC combined several universes into one and made major changes to many heroes’ storylines, in some cases erasing or rewriting their histories. DC then ended all its running series and launched fifty-two new series all beginning at issue #1. (Since then, some have been cancelled and others have been added. There’s an overview here.)
Marvel made a similar move with Marvel NOW!, a relaunch begun in 2012. Marvel NOW! doesn’t change the universe or backstories of its characters on the level that the New 52 does, but it does restart several series from issue #1 with new creative teams and new storylines designed to attract new readers.
To help determine reading order, DC has been putting helpful volume numbers on its New 52 titles. Marvel doesn’t put this information on the books themselves, but you can sometimes find it in metadata. However, both publishers do number their issues. Look at the publication information of a trade, and chances are you will see something along the lines of “collecting issues #1-6.” So if Captain Marvel: Pursuit of Flight says “collecting issues #1-6” and Captain Marvel: Down says “collecting issues #7-12,” readers will get a continuous story if they read the volumes in that order. You might find this information on the publication page, the title page, the back cover, the inside flap, or in the book’s synopsis in a catalog or an online retailer’s site.
Keep an eye on publication dates, too, since series are sometimes ended and then restarted under the same title. Captain Marvel Vol. 1: Pursuit of Flight, published January 1, 2013, is from a former Captain Marvel series; Captain Marvel Vol. 1: Higher, Further, Faster, More, published October 21, 2014, is from the current series.
This might sound confusing, but most series are straightforward, so don’t worry if you’re unsure once in a while–the worst that could happen is you miss a bit of the story, and that’s not such a big deal. The New 52 and Marvel NOW! make it a lot easier to collect the current series, so this is a great time to get your DC and Marvel collections going.
If you’re collecting historical comics or trying to sort through an existing collection you have inherited, look at issue numbers for continuity. Also, volumes of historical comics often collect famous arcs, so you might try Googling the title to see where the arc falls, or looking it up on the wonderful resource Comic Vine, which provides information about many arcs.
In my opinion, almost all comics in the main Marvel and DC lines (that excludes spin-off lines such as Marvel Knights, Marvel MAX, and Vertigo) are age-appropriate for high schoolers and many are appropriate for middle schoolers–but of course, this is up to you to judge for your community. Some comics have recommended ages or a rating system to help you out. In my experience, the most prevalent content that might be considered objectionable is skimpy clothing, violence, and disturbing themes. Nudity, blatant sex, and heavy swearing are not usually present. If you have a physical copy of a comic, you can get a good feel for it just by quickly flipping through. If your library has an adult comic collection, you could buy the comic, look through it, and put it in the adult collection if you think that’s a more appropriate place for it.
What should I collect?
If you’re looking to build your collection of historical comics, do some research and you’ll find plenty of opinions on the best, most popular, and most influential comics of all time. (For example: The 25 Best DC Comics of All Time; 75 Years of Marvel; The Core Lists; 25 Best Comic Runs of the Decade.) Probably the best thing you can do, though, is try to meet some comic fans in your community and find out what they like. Also, keep an eye on circulation stats. What time period of comics go out most? What heroes go out?
Currently-running DC and Marvel comics have New 52 and Marvel NOW! labels in the front, which make them easy to identify. When I’m looking for DC and Marvel titles, I like to use Diamond Comics’ Industry Statistics page, particularly the Top 100 Graphic Novels page for the past month. Also check out the New York Times Bestsellers for graphic books and Amazon’s Comics and Graphic Novels Best Sellers (if you want superheroes specifically, use the sub-categories listed on the left to navigate).
Movie, TV, and video game adaptations cause a surge of interest in their comic source material, so pay attention to those. You can see a full list of upcoming DC and Marvel movies here. Another great resource is your local comic shop. I have gotten some great suggestions for my collection from comic shop employees, and the ones I have met are happy to help the local library. True, some comic shops can be intimidating, but many are very friendly; read some reviews on Yelp or other review sources to find a friendly shop near you. While you’re there, pick up some $1 first issues of popular series to try out. You can also often get freebies on Comixology.
Most importantly, pay attention to what your patrons want. Talk to them about what they are reading. Look at circulation stats. By looking at stats I discovered, to my immense surprise, that Spider-man comics didn’t circulate well at one of my libraries. Since I had a small budget, I decided to prioritize other heroes. The longer you collect, the better you’ll get to know your community’s wants, and the easier it will be.
A Note on Reader Demographics
The largest demographic of comic readers is people in their 20s, but teens aren’t far behind. Brett Schenker found in his facebook study that the “under 17″ and “18-21″ demographics combined made up 35-45% of comics readers in 2013. (On a side note, almost as many females read comics as males.) Anecdotally, I can tell you that I see plenty of teens reading and checking out the DC and Marvel titles in my comics collections.
Got questions? Let me know in the comments!
*Thanks to comic guru David Fairbanks for the feedback on this article.