Take a Closer Look at Comics

Magnifying Glass
Magnifying Glass by Auntie P. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

This fall I have had an opportunity to delve into comic books and graphic novels in the course of writing my Women in Comics posts here, while taking a Coursera MOOC entitled “Comic Books and Graphic Novels,” and as an attendee at a symposium entitled Comics and the Classroom. Though I have long been a fan of comics and graphic novels, these activities have given me a new appreciation for the depth of comics and the artistry that is on view in some of the best examples of the genre. I have also learned some great strategies for analyzing comics similar to the way that one would analyze other types of literature or art. While some might feel that this takes the fun out of reading them and makes the process too academic, for me, it has opened up meanings that I might have missed, and subtleties that demonstrate the way that comics allow authors and artists to come together to create a complete work that is greater than the sum of its parts.

If this sounds interesting, here are some thoughts and suggestions on getting started doing close readings of comics.

Layout & Design: When analyzing comic books it is important to take the time to consider all of the elements both separately and together. This means looking at the overall layout of the page, whether it is broken into separate “panels” (the term for each box of a comic), the size and shape of each panel, the color and shading choices of the images, the layout and type of text, and the text, to name just a few potential elements. Ask yourself why each decision was made: What does each panel’s size convey? If the style of the lettering changes, what is this meant to say about the tone? All comics exist in the historical framework of those that have come before in the genre, so also consider what the style of art evokes in terms of genre, tone, and period? 

Time: The passage of time is important to any storytelling medium and can be conveyed in comic books in a number of ways. In some books, different time periods are illustrated in different styles or color schemes. Sometimes a frame will include the date either as part of the text or hidden in the art. Alternatively, the style of architecture, clothing, or other well-known elements can give hints about the time period without it ever being mentioned explicitly. Within the story, the passage of time can be seen in changing light patterns, recurring images of a clock, or other background elements in the artwork. When reading a comic book or graphic novel, ask yourself what you can tell about the point in history that is being represented. How you can tell when time has passed?

Motion: Movement and motion are key parts of many comics, particularly those involving fights and superpowers, but also in stories set in the real world. These elements can be conveyed in a variety of different ways. Characters can be in different places in adjacent panels suggesting that movement occurred between panels or lines can be used to suggest motion within a single panel. As you see these different suggestions of motion in comics, ask yourself whether you can tell the speed at which objects or people move or why one style of motion was chosen over another. Does one style create a more realistic world? Does another suggest the presence of the supernatural or the suspension of the laws of physics?

Mood & Emotion: By their nature, comic books have the flexibility to convey mood and emotion through both textual and visual elements. This can be done through shading, colors, shifting perspective, and symbolic elements in the background of scenes. In addition, comic books can include conflicting information with characters saying one thing and the images showing another. As you read, watch for all of these elements and ask yourself, what mood is the author trying to evoke? How does the mood and emotion change throughout the story?

Understanding Comics by Scott McCloudHas this piqued your interest to learn more about analyzing and understanding comic books and graphic novels? If so, I recommend reading more about it. I have barely scratched the surface of this vast topic. There are many options for learning more about analyzing comics, but one popular and impressive choice is Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud. This book, itself a comic, gives a strong introduction to the study of comics and places comic books in a larger historical and artistic context while also helping readers to pull more meaning from these stories. Once you finish this book, there are plenty of other options, including Will Eisner’s books, which are on my own to-be-read list.

Want to try the process out for yourself? Give it a try with your favorite comic books or one of these:Jane, The Fox, and Me

  • Jane, The Fox, and Me by Fanny Britt with illustrations by Isabelle Arsenault – This book offers plenty to consider. To begin, focus on the way that color changes through the book, the differences in shading, and the use of plants in the background throughout.
  • Sumo by Thien Pham – A great book that uses color in very interesting ways and warrants deeper contemplation.
  • Through the Woods by Emily CarrollBoxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang (2014 Top 10 GGNT) – Though each of the books in this set is worthy of analysis alone, together they offer a whole new layer of complexity.
  • Through The Woods by Emily Carroll – This collection of short stories combines elements of folk tales and horror with beautiful, rich artwork to create engaging and terrifying stories.

Do you have any favorite comic books or graphic novels that you think are perfect for close reading? Have you analyzed a comic this way for fun or for a class? Do you have thoughts or questions on this process? Let us know in the comments!

Carli Spina, currently reading Starling by Sage Stossel

5 thoughts on “Take a Closer Look at Comics”

  1. Thanks for the heads-up on a terrific-sounding MOOC, Carli! I hope they will offer this one again.

  2. Understanding Comics completely blew my mind back when I first read it in college. I think everyone should read it! :) Although it’s much simpler, Picture This by Molly Bang covers a lot of similar concepts. I’d love to take a class like the one you did. Great post!

    1. Ooh, I will add that to my to-be-read list!
      If they offer the MOOC again, I recommend taking it. I also just finished another MOOC called Understanding Video Games about how to analyze and critique video games and found that one very interesting as well.

      1. I just looked up Molly Bang’s book and realized it is one I read for a class. It was such a fascinating look at design. When I read it, I was more focused on how it applied to picture books, but it is also very applicable to comics.

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