Why It’s Hard to Read Graphic Novels

batman comic book

batman comic book
Frequent readers of My Life as a Teacup will know that I had never picked up a comic book or graphic novel before last year, thanks to my personal Batman supplier. It’s not that I was never interested – believe me, I was – but there seemed to be so many barriers for a new reader to overcome. With backstories so extensive, reboots that rewrite the laws of the universe, and a plethora of characters and iterations of the same mantle, I was drowning in information. But information isn’t the only thing newcomers to graphic novels are drowning in.

Reading a book is simple: you read the words, neatly printed on the page. In English, this means starting at the top and working your way left to right, line by line, until you reach the bottom. Aside from a few experimental texts, most prose (i.e. what you normally think of when you think of a book versus, say, a poem) does not vary much in layout or textual elements; the font is uniform throughout (usually of a boring, standard design), and aside from the arrangement of chapter titles, displayed rather basically on the page.

Enter the comic panel.

All of a sudden there are boxes. Sometimes not the most symmetrical and easy to follow, order-wise. And if that wasn’t hard enough, some boxes bleed into the next. Some “panels” take up a whole page. There are speech bubbles and thought bubbles, boxes with narration, some with backgrounds that are meant to designate a character. Bubbles that are vaguely pointing to a person’s mouth (but which person? They’re standing so close to one another, I can’t tell!)

And fonts – oh, the fonts! Some are squiggly, some italic. Onomatopoeia galore!

It’s easy to get lost amidst everything that is going on in a graphic novel. Not only are you, the reader, juggling a myriad of textual elements, most of which aren’t something encountered in a regular ol’ prose book, but readers not used to looking at illustrations and words in tandem might find the multitasking difficult. Or just forget about elements altogether. I know I’ve been guilty of this.

So how exactly does one read a graphic novel?

  • Basic organization remains the same. Graphic novels aren’t organized at random. Just as a prose book is read top to bottom, left to right, so are graphic novels (as a general rule of thumb).
  • Bubbles, bubbles, everywhere! Text bubbles, surely, give us a clue, just as much as who they’re physically coming from do, but other types of bubbles exist too. Thought bubbles let a character internally monologue, and more rigid, structured boxes are usually narration. A background or color combination might provide the key to who is speaking, and the design of the box may emit emotion just as much as its accompanying picture does (starburst-like bubbles may indicate shock, and a speech bubble with words that barely fit its constraints may indicate yelling).
  • Fonts provide a clue to character emotions. Just as you can use caps lock in a text to express anger or yelling, so can the font size in a graphic novel. The font style an author chooses for each character may reflect their personalities, or, at the least, might vary to eliminate confusion when more than one person enters a conversation.
  • Actions speak louder than words. Unless the character is literally yelling across the page. Graphic novels are illustrated for a reason. What a prose writer has to paint with words, a graphic novel can illustrate with actual pictures. Don’t neglect the details of a picture, or what is happening in the background. A narrator may not be able to tell us how Barbara Gordon is feeling, but I’m willing to bet that the look on her face says a lot.

I experienced these struggles myself, and even now, still am working to master the multitasking behind reading a graphic novel. My brain needs to adapt; it’s a different way of processing a story. And now I have an outside perspective to witness some of the challenges at work.

As some of my students work on an exploratory graphic novel unit, many struggle with following the format of pictures plus text. It’s easy to get lost in the childishness of a “picture book” and not considered all of the complicated layers at work.

So the next time you crack open Zero Year, take a moment, slow your pace, put your Keen Observer/Literature Nerd glasses on, and appreciate all that goes in to reading a graphic novel.

If you’re primarily a reader of prose, do you find it hard to transition to reading graphic novels?