Monday, March 4, 2013

How To Read Graphic Novels

For some people how to read graphic novels actually seems quite simple, but for many, it's not.

I did not grow up with graphic novels, nor would I allow them in my house.  It was my son and daughter who finally swayed me to read them.  They gently showed me that graphic novels were not just like the Archie comics I grew up with.  And because I didn't really grow up with graphic novels, it took me some time to comfortably read them.

Simply put, reading a graphic novel is a different experience from reading a prose text.

In this post I want to help the uninitiated...hopefully soon to be the art of HOW to Read Graphic Novels and navigate sequential art stories. 

The story and plot are broken down and presented sequentially in individual frames called "panels." Each panel has a visual or implied boundary that contains a piece of the story. 

Here is a panel from Laika by Nick Abadzis (FirstSecond Books, 2007):

In this example,  the borders around the panels are thin black lines with white spaces (gutters) separating them.

Here is our original panel as it appears on page 143:

Often, panels are separated by space called 'gutters.'  These gutters allow the reader to briefly pause and integrate the sequentially presented information before continuing on while inferring what will happen next.
In graphic novels, the border shapes, lines and their respective gutters can be manipulated to help tell the story.

In another example from Laika, we see very different borders, used to depict a dream scene. [Note that the color scheme and panel borders are used to  help created the 'dream' image.] 

As you can see from the examples above color, font, text (found in balloons), images, and panel borders are all used and manipulated to tell the story.

Even text balloons differ to help tell the story.  Often thoughts are encased in wavy-lined balloons (with little bubbles arising from the subject thinking them), while the actual dialogue is contained in the traditional text balloons. Sometimes, the text balloons themselves will vary in shape to depict real versus imagined characters or to distinguish the present from the past.

In the example below taken from Joe Kelly and JM Ken Niimura's I Kill Giants  (2008), Barbara (the protagonist's) dialogue is in traditional text balloons, while the imp's dialogue is in a scalloped balloon.

IN SHORT:  Each panel element (color, text fonts, text balloons, panel shapes, panel borders, panel arrangement, and gutters) supplements the others and as such each element must be integrated panel by panel to tell the story.  

Typically, panels are read and arranged in rows moving across the page from left to right from the top of the page to the bottom of the page - much like you see in the sample pages above. There are times, however, when the authors/artists want to emphasize certain points and hint at others.  In such cases they may deviate from the traditional page lay-out.  In this sample page below from Tribes: The Dog Years (written by Michael Geszel & Peter Spinetta, art by Inaki Miranda, and Color by Eva De La Cruz; Soulcraft Comics, 2011) the author/illustrators decided to embed one panel in another.  In this way they show want is going on throughout the tribe (as the sun sets and hunters return) while at the same time emphasizing individual conversations.

While this slightly different panel arrangement clearly leads the reader where and on what they want the reader to focus upon, there is a risk that they misdirect the reader which will slow him or her down as they try to find their bearings again (in such cases the reader loses track of which panel to read next).  As a result graphic novel designers work very hard to make sure ALL the elements of the page work together to direct the reader in the appropriate directional sequence.

These are just the basics.  The best way to learn to read graphic novels is by reading them. For suggestions on great graphic novel reads for all ages, librarians are excellent resources as are some of the links below:

Year's Best 2012 Non-Fiction or Historical Fiction Graphic Novels
Graphic Novels and Critical Thinking: A Piagetian Application for the Classroom
Graphic Novels Meet Common Core Standards with a List of "Favorite" Suggestions
Young Adult Summer Reading: Lots of Choices and Places to Look
Laika...Space Dog
Heroes for All
The Very Best of 2011 Kids' Graphic Novels with Links and Excerpts
Visual Literacy and Reluctant Readers with a list of Graphic Texts and Graphic Novels
Reading, Graphic Novels, and Memory

 Let me know what your graphic novel experiences and favorites are, and feel free to leave your own 'how to read graphic novel' tips in the comments as well as any related questions.  
Thank you for your visit and comments. 


  1. An interesting take on this subject indeed.

  2. The idea that one has to LEARN to read comic books or graphic novels was so foreign to me until I read some book...what was it again?
    ROG, ABC Wednesday team

  3. For me it is easier to read books without too many illustrations. Only if the illustrations are really beautiful I really enjoy seeing them.
    Wil, ABCW Team.

  4. I didn't grow up with graphic novels and have never read them but your posts about them are interesting.

  5. I never read a graphic novel until my 9 year old asked me to read one to her. They can actually be really good :)

  6. My favorite graphic novel artist is Dave McKean. I simply love his work!

  7. Meryl ~ another great post and lots of wonderful educational info ~ Great job! ^_^

  8. I love picture books, but graphic novels irritate me. I don't think I could tell you why, but it has something to do with the content of the speech bubble often being so banal. Wish I didn't feel that way.

    Here's my post: No Word for It.

  9. Great tips! I remember opening up my first manga and being fascinated that it read from right to left. That took some getting used to.

    ♥ aquariann
    Featured Photo: Pink Gerbera Daisy

  10. I enjoy text only, manga, and graphic novels; but illustrated works are definitely different from text only books. Thanks for putting this together!

  11. I wish people would write more about this as you have done. This is something that is very important and has been largely overlooked by the internet community

  12. These graphics are a godsend for students, esp. visual learners and those with learning disabilities. I always appreciate them when a graph accompanies difficult material. Kate, ABC Team