Read Alert - Youth Literature

Comics 101: reading graphic narratives

September 26, 2016


Previously: Comics 101: a brief history

Diagram: Key: A (pink) - panel, B (lilac) - borderless panel, purple - gutters, green -tier

Comics are a series of panels that work together on the page. Sometimes they have frames or borders separating them but that’s not always true, it pays to look carefully at the pictures to get a sense of the style – artists may have unique ways of grouping and separating their images. Borders can be suggestive of what’s happening in the text – dream sequences might have wavy borders, while powerful scenes might break through the borders to demonstrate the force of the action.

The space between panels is known as a gutter. Comic experts know the significance of the gutters – those spaces are where the story’s time passes by. That little white space between pictures could be standing for seconds, years, even decades. As a reader you will need to look for clues in the image to be sure.

25to10 Most graphic novels have some words in them. Speech balloons or speech bubbles show who’s saying what – the tail points to the character who’s talking. Thought bubbles show what characters are thinking; they look more like clouds floating over a character’s head and might have a tail of small bubbles. There are other styles of bubbles too – working out why the artist/writer is using them is part of the fun and challenge of reading graphic novels.

Sometimes comics have a narrator’s voice too. You’ll find it in the squarish text captions or text boxes. These fill in gaps or keep the plot moving forward as in traditional novels.

Understanding what order to read the panels in is the key to reading a comic book. Panels are read in the same direction as the reading order of the language from the comic’s country of origin. So most comics are read left to right, but manga comics are read from right to left because Japanese reading and writing happens from right to left.

If you are interested in understanding more about graphic novels and comics, check out Reading Lessons: Graphic Novels 101 from Horn Book, was written especially for educators and professionals.

Next: Comics 101: building a collection