Brad Hawley continues his series on How to Read Comics. If you missed the previous columns, be sure to start with Part 1: Why Read Comics?
(Or find the entire series here.)

Reading Comics, Part 3: Look at the pictures

by Dr. Brad K. Hawley

Now you know some of the factors involved in the production of this type of art. But how should you go about reading a comic book? How hard can it be if you read novels on a regular basis? Well, if you’re like me, you’ll need this important bit of advice: Look at the pictures. Seriously. I assume many of you are passionate readers and will get hooked on the story in a comic if it’s well-written. Oddly enough, the better the story, the more likely you are as a novice to flip the pages faster and faster, feeling as I often do: “These pictures are getting in the way and slowing me down too much.” I’ve spent years training my brain to be very text-based. I know how to read and interpret the language of fiction, but I’m not used to interpreting the subtlety of images.

Sandman Vol. 1Therefore, I still have to remind myself to slow down and really look at the images, the most obvious feature of a comic book. Unlike in children’s picture books, the images in comics are not mere illustrations. In addition to representing in visual form what is written on the page, artists creating modern adult comics generally approach images as complex rhetorical devices capable of communicating anything from feelings to action to irony in such a way that were one prevented from looking at the pictures, he would be incapable of understanding not only the story, but also the themes, many of which may be conveyed solely through images.

The relationship between images and words vary within the space of a comic, and the relationship can be presented in a number of ways: Some of those relationships involve the narrator: Words can allow the narrator to comment on the action happening, add sound effects, or repeat verbally what’s happening visually.

Words are often presented in word balloons — drawn bubbles enclosing words — to set the text apart from the rest of the image, particularly when showing character dialogue or a character’s thoughts. There are more ways in which words can relate to images, and those relationships, too, are neither obvious nor “natural,” even if they give the illusion of being natural: The word balloon can take a variety of shapes and sizes to signal identity of a specific character or narrator, to convey emotions, or even to alert the reader to irony.

The shapes can also mark a shift in scene or thought. Other than sound effects and giving date, time and/or location (country, state, etc.), contemporary comics have as little extra commentary as possible. For the most part, the narrator is absent, and self-explanatory thought bubbles have been replaced by blocks of internal monologue similar to voice-over narration in a film. These easily overlooked complexities of image-to-text relationships and of word balloons and blocks often require readers to go back and forth from image to text to image again multiple times. As a result, our brains — trained by texts consisting solely of words — get confused when pushed out of the repetitive, left-to-right, linear eye-movement of a novel, for example.

Sandman Vol. 1


This challenge to repetitive, predictable eye-movement is complicated even more by the fact that most comics are not like the comic strips we are familiar with from newspapers: Comic strips are made up of a few panels of the same height and roughly the same length and fit into our notion that “reading” a story — in words or pictures — is told from left-to-right. Most comic books challenge this simplistic form at certain points. Pictures can break out of the frame of the panel, or there may not be any frames around the multiple images on the page at all.

How do we figure out where our eyes should travel? For the most part, Western comics follow the general left-to-right pattern, but moving from the first image to the second could require our eyes to go right, up, down, or diagonal. Basically, the reader’s eyes can be forced to travel in very unpredictable ways around the page to follow the story correctly. A single page of a comic could require multiple reads to figure out the correct order to follow if one wants to even begin to properly interpret the story. Literary critics who praise a Faulkner or a Woolf for challenging traditional story-telling techniques often find this difficulty in comics — when done with intention and not by accident — part of their literary sophistication and merit.

To emphasize the subtle visual cues used in a comic book, we might consider Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, a collection of four issues I teach to students as a graphic novel. [Click the image below to open a large version in a new window.]

Batman Year One


Just looking at the word blocks and balloon on this first page tells us something about how color, lettering, and shapes are used to convey quite a lot of information very quickly in a way that seems so “natural” that most students I’ve taught don’t even notice the visual cues they are being given until asked about them directly.

Ignoring for a moment all the pictures, the word blocks / balloons themselves come in three different types on this single page. One type of block is colored yellow with letters in print using normal upper- and lower-case letters. The words in these balloons are the thoughts of James Gordon, who, by the way, we don’t even see until the third panel. But our eyes see the blocks in the first panel, and jump naturally down to the third panel in which the as-yet-unnamed Jim Gordon is clearly put next to the yellow word block.

Prepared as readers in this way, we naturally assume that the white-colored blocks with cursive handwriting in them belong to another character, someone else we won’t be able to identify until a later picture, in this case the one at the bottom of the page of Bruce Wayne. However, we don’t even find out character names until the second page, which is open to us with page one in most editions of Batman: Year One. Finally, there is a third, purple-colored word balloon with print in all-caps which we quickly, and unthinkingly, identify with personnel on the plane since the plane is next to the balloon and because the words are familiar: “PLEASE RETURN SEATS AND TRAYS TO THEIR UPRIGHT POSITIONS.” This paragraph shows how closely collaborators Frank Miller (writer), David Mazzucchelli (illustrator), Richmond Lewis (colorist), and Todd Klein (letterer) must work together, and they must do so without the reader even noticing.

Next week, we’ll talk about how the “gutter” impacts the fluidity of the narrative. The gutter is the place where nothing — and yet everything — happens…

Next week: Part 4, Mind the Gutter!

Author’s note: I want to thank the readers of early drafts of this essay, all of whom made useful comments reflected in the final version of this essay: Ellen Attorri, Chelsea Cariker, Abby Weisberger, and Chris Ziegler (four excellent students in my Crime Fiction course at Oxford College of Emory University); Sean Lind and Ellen Neufeld (two Oxford College librarians who allow me to work with them as they develop a substantial comic book and graphic novel collection for the college); Andy Tegethoff (my long-time friend and comic-book expert who has helped me not only with this essay, but who also has taught me much of what I know about comics); and finally Dr. Adriane Ivey (my wife and colleague, who has not only read this essay several times, but has made room in our house for yet one more obsessive collection).

Images from Batman Year One and Sandman Vol 1. Preludes and Nocturnes.


  • Brad Hawley

    BRAD HAWLEY, who's been with us since April 2012, earned his PhD in English from the University of Oregon with areas of specialty in the ethics of literature and rhetoric. Since 1993, he has taught courses on The Beat Generation, 20th-Century Poetry, 20th-Century British Novel, Introduction to Literature, Shakespeare, and Public Speaking, as well as various survey courses in British, American, and World Literature. He currently teaches Crime Fiction, Comics, and academic writing at Oxford College of Emory University where his wife, Dr. Adriane Ivey, also teaches English. They live with their two young children outside of Atlanta, Georgia.