Tuesday, November 9, 2010

How to Read Comics

Reading comics is often frustrating for beginners. Even the smartest people can walk away from their first try a little confused.

Some people think they're too old or set in their ways to read comics correctly, but that's far from the truth. In fact, most people have years of practice already. Anyone who's ever looked at an instruction booklet or airplane safety brochure has had experience with a rudimentary form of comics.

By keeping the following tips in mind, anyone can transform their relationship with comics from "puzzling" to "pleasant."

Tip #1: Read the pictures.

Many newcomers to the format focus on the dialogue, jumping from word balloon to word balloon and only occasionally glancing at the pictures. While this may work for readers in a hurry, it's far from what the comic's creator intended.

Remember that this is a unique medium, and writers use it for a reason. Comics aren't simply novels with illustrations, just as movies aren't simply audiobooks with a slideshow.

To see how important images are to fully understanding comics, take a look at this panel:


Now compare it to this panel:




Did you catch the difference? The second panel is much creepier, even though it has the same text. Details like these are what make it important to pay attention to what's happening in the illustrations. A good plan is to examine the image first - see what characters are present, what they're doing, their facial expressions, etc. - and then read the words to see what they add to your understanding of the panel.

This is especially important in "silent" panels. If a writer has chosen to create a scene without any dialogue or narration, it means the illustrations are carrying all the information you may need to understand the comic later.

Remember, less text doesn't always mean less information!

Tip #2: Measure the panels.

No, this doesn't mean you need to keep a ruler by your side every time you read a comic. Rather, it means you should pay attention to a cool little trick some artists have figured out: changing the shape and size of their "screen" at will.

Take this simple panel, for example:


Now see what happens when we stretch the borders and chop up the word balloon:


See how the second panel feels different - a little quieter, slower, maybe even sadder? That's one of the ways comic creators set the tone of their stories, and it's worth paying attention to.

Tip #3: Don't give up . . . unless you want to.

Hopefully your comics reading will be full of the absolute best, but the more widely you read, the more likely you are to come across a clunker. Even artists who draw well can be rubbish at putting panels together on a page.

If you come across a comic where the paneling is a nightmare to figure out, ask yourself: "Do I really want to keep reading this?" If the answer is "yes," then by all means, trudge ahead. But if the writing isn't smart enough, the characters aren't engaging enough, and the story isn't interesting enough to bother making sense of, feel free to put that comic down and move on to another.

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for stopping by my blog. This post helped me see how I could be reading better. I have another graphic novel on my shelf and plan on using your tips :) Hopefully it'll improve my experience.

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  2. Of course! Comics can be subtle sometimes, so I want to make sure everyone knows how to pick up on little tricks an artist may come up with. :]

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