GU Comics Day: Re-learning to Read!

by Julie Harman, Production Editor
aka, The Scrambler

Let me just come right out and say it: I did not grow up reading comic books. Working on Graphic Universe books, I’ve had the challenge of retraining my brain to read books differently, and to see art differently.

Here are a couple of tips for beginning comic book/graphic novel readers that I’ve found helpful. Even if these are old news for comic book veterans, it’s still fascinating to see the different ways authors and artists use these tools.

1. Pay attention to the way in which your mind assumes motion between panels. Scott McCloud has a great discussion about this in his book Understanding Comics, which I recommend for anyone interested in this genre. It’s amazing what the mind fills in—and the author and artist depend on this when they create their story and art. A simple example is in this series of panels from The Secret Ghost: the mind sees just three still shots of a bucket in a well, but it understands that motion is happening between the panel borders.
three panels from Manga Math #3: The Secret Ghost

2. Here’s a secret for the graphic novel reader: The author, the illustrator, and the letterer (often three different people who have never met!) all go to great lengths to tease your eyes into following the path they want your eyes to follow. Take this page from The Hero Twins.
Graphic Myths and Legends: The Hero Twins

At first glance, the nontraditional arrangement of panels doesn’t appear to lend itself well to reading sequentially. But note how the caption in the upper left corner leads down through the action and into the right side panel, then over to the left side panel and down to the bottom. The hands and limbs popping out over the panel borders, the motion lines of the ball, and even the positions of the bodies guide the eyes to read the panels in this order.

When I started to read graphic novels as an adult, my eyes would frantically search for all the words on the page. I had to train my eyes to read the art with the words—a skill that tends to come more naturally to kids than to adults. Now, when I think back to the hours of my childhood spent cutting out serial Sunday comics and pasting them into a notebook or drawing characters and making up stories for each interesting name in my mother’s baby names book, I wish I had been exposed then to the kinds of graphic novels kids have now. I would have loved them.

2 thoughts on “GU Comics Day: Re-learning to Read!

  1. Laurie S. Sutton

    Also notice how the upper panels are tilted on a “downslope” so that the eye “slides” left to right in the desired direction. Subtle.

  2. Blythe

    I found this very interesting. I find reading my son's mangas SO difficult. I'm going to open myself up to the cues you describe and see if I can teach my old eyes some new tricks.

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