Sunday, November 1, 2009

Quick Hit: Reading Text vs. Reading Images

It's been a pleasure to learn from all the insightful responses to my last post; you're all right that, despite my concerns about the potential for graphic novels to be marginalized if we focus on their differences from traditional books, there are many good reasons to consider what sets them apart. I particularly like the point made by wordweaver06:

I think that graphic novels would actually benefit from being in their own category. It would allow them to be judged not only on the effectiveness of the writing, but also on the effectiveness of the art. And how well the two elements work together to tell the story. If they're simply being thrust into the same category as conventional novels, the recognition of how those elements interact runs the risk of going unnoticed.
Kristy Valenti recently covered a panel on graphic novels held at the Seattle Bookfest on October 24th. Gary Groth, Megan Kelso, Ellen Forney and Leigh Walton took questions on a myriad of topics at the event, but they kick-started the whole shebang with some information that was fascinating and completely relevent:

Forney kicked things off by explaining that she had taught a studio graphic novel class, which was composed of art and design students; however, she recently began teaching a graphic-novel lit class, which focuses on reading and discussing comics with students from different majors. She said it was a different experience: that the students weren't as versed in the language of comics. Groth said that they weren't acculturated to comics, and since they weren't habituated, they didn't have the skill to know how to read them.

...Kelso, who did not grow up reading comics, commented that she used to read the words and forget to read the pictures. She noted that comics are like a foreign language: when one sees words that are familiar, one tends to neglect the rest. Absorbing pictures is a skill, she explicated: and, again like a foreign language, children learn it more easily, and it becomes natural.... [Kelso also said] that research suggested that reading comics taps into more parts of the brain that [sic] simply reading text alone.
Perhaps what's most important, if we are going to wrap graphic novels up into their own separate category, is that we consider the change an opportunity to educate readers. I hope the fans of graphic novels (and it seems there are many!) will make themselves heard over those who might undermine the form. I hope that they keep talking about what makes the marriage of images with words so rich and meaningful. And I hope that, as the popularity of graphic novels spreads, they teach readers to read images as well as words, and in doing so offer us a new way to experience the wonderful, imaginative act of reading.


  1. I'm one of those people who finds it nearly impossible to really read graphic novels - I focus entirely on the words and forget about the pictures. What I usually end up doing is reading all the text on the page, and then going back to look at the illustration - graphic-novel!fail on my part.

    One excellent use for graphic novels however, and I think this probably ties in with that last point of comics tapping into different parts of the brain than text alone does: graphic novels are the only literature my brother can fully read. He's autistic with a second grade reading level at the age of 23, yet he seems able to keep up with even the most complex graphic novels. The combination of images with text helps him follow the story, and helps him develop his own creative skills as he's been working on his own original graphic novel series for the last several years. When he first started writing/drawing on his own, the stories were incomprehensible to the rest of us. And now while he sometimes takes great leaps in the stories and things get a little jumbled, they are on the whole much more coherent. I am sure part of this is because graphic novels just work in his brain in a way that text doesn't.

  2. To Angela who left the above quote; I do the same thing when reading graphic novels and often miss the subtler artistic details because I've never been a very visually oriented person. But I still thoroughly enjoy graphic novels and I don't really think there is a wrong way to read them. I will never be a viable critic of graphic novels, but I can still appreciate them and can recommend my favorites even if my enjoyment stems more from plot or characterization than from stunning artwork. (But it's nice to know I'm not the only one out there who does that!)

  3. Angela - That's fascinating! I wonder if there have been studies to explain why visual aids might provide a better map to a storyline in certain brain types. I'm sure there's been research into visual aids as learning tools. I'm intrigued.

    And to both of you - I think I still do the same thing, but these days I am making a conscious effort to force my brain to absorb both text and images as close to simultaneously as possible. I finally got a copy of Stitches today (I'm 100 pages in already) and reading both text and images at once is showing me some beautiful, thematic choices Small made in his art. Even the way his art is laid out on the page and the movement the dark and light shapes make in different panels is often meaningful across entire two-page spreads. Same thing for Shaun Tan's The Arrival, which is just an utterly drool-worthy book.