Comics criticism: Basic questions to ask when reading a comic.

This is intended as a resource for students or for academics who are new to reading comics critically. It is a list of basic questions one might want to ask when reading a comic book or graphic novel. Most of these questions have to do with the visual or artistic aspect of a comic — what it looks like — rather than the literary or narrative side (storyline, themes, characterization, etc.). I focus on this because teachers and students tend to have a basic understanding of how to analyze the story of a graphic novel; in doing so, you can apply the techniques you learn in high school English classes. But no one really tells you how to analyze a comic book from a visual perspective, and that’s why a guide like this one might be useful.

1. Art style (draftspersonship). In general, what does the artwork look like? What sort of linework does the artist use? How much detail does the artist employ in drawing people and objects — where does the artwork fall on the continuum between minimalist (John Porcellino) and hyperdetailed (Geof Darrow)? How does the artist depict characters, including their faces and figures? How does the artist draw backgrounds? If the penciller and inker are not the same person, how does the inking affect the appearance of the pencils? (This aspect of comics is similar to mise-en-scène in cinema.)

2. Visual storytelling – within the panel. In general, how is each panel composed? From what viewpoint are the panels drawn — are there more close-ups, more long shots, etc.? What “camera angles” does the artist use (bird’s eye view, worm’s eye view, etc.)? How are the panels framed — what does the artist choose to include in each panel, and what does s/he choose to leave out? Does the artist use motion lines to indicate that something is moving? Does the artist use emanata to represent abstract concepts, such as by using a light bulb over a character’s head to represent an idea? (This aspect of comics is similar to cinematography in cinema.)

3. Visual storytelling – between panels. How are adjacent panels related to each other? Which of McCloud’s six types of panel transitions (action-to-action, aspect-to-aspect, etc.) is most prevalent? How many action sequences are there, and how good is the artist at depicting action? How much closure does the reader have to do — that is, how much work does the reader need to do in order to understand what happens in the gaps between panels? (This aspect of comics is similar to editing in cinema, with an exception. In cinema, editing is responsible for the temporal pace of the film; the editor determines the rhythm of the shots and the amount of time that takes place in each shot. In comics, the pace of reading is determined by page layout and composition.)

4. Page layout and composition. How is each page structured? How many panels are there on each page? What size and shape are the panels? How are the panels arranged relative to each other — for example, does the artist use a 2×2 grid, a 4×2 grid, or what? Does each page have the same page layout (as is often the case in American or European comics) or does each page have a different layout (as is often the case in manga)? What do the panel borders look like — are they solid borders or just single lines?  In what order is the page supposed to be read, and how does the panel structure help guide the reader through the page?

5. Lettering. What does the text in the comic look like? What is the style of the letters? Does the comic use hand-lettering or a font? Is the text in ALL UPPER CASE or in mixed case? How does the lettering contribute to the overall visual appearance of the comic — does it try to be as unobtrusive as possible, or is it a major element of the overall “look” of each page? (For an example of the latter, see Ellen Forney.) Are there sound effects, and if so, what do they look like? Are there caption boxes, thought balloons, neither, or both?

6. Color. Is the comic in black and white or in color? If in black and white, how many shades of gray are there? If in color, how many colors? What general mood is created by the colors or shades of grey — is the comic bright and cheery, dark and gloomy, or what? How does the artist use color as a compositional element or as a way of directing the reader’s gaze? If the comic is in color, what coloring technique was used — the traditional four-color process, computer coloring, watercolor, painting, or what?

7. Materiality and paratext. Are you reading the comic in print or digital form? If in digital form, what sort of device are you reading it on, and what application (e.g. ComiXology) are you using? Are you able to view the entire page at once or only parts of it? If you are reading the comic in print form, is it a comic book, a paperback book, a hardcover, or what? In either case, are you reading the comic in the form in which it was originally published? If not, what changes were made in order to adapt the comic to the form in which you are reading it? Does the comic include any paratextual materials, i.e. materials that are not part of the comic itself but are ancillary to it? (Examples: advertisements, letters pages, introductions, afterwords.)

You will notice that these are all basic questions — they’re all things you should ask yourself when you start reading a comic, as opposed to when you return to it in order to interpret or criticize it. Most of these questions only ask you to notice things or make factual judgments. After you figure out the answers to these questions, the next step is to explain these answers — to try to justify why the artist made certain choices rather than others. For example, after you understand how each page of the comic is laid out, you can take the next step and try to understand why the artist chose to use that particular type of page layout, and how the page layout helps to shape the meaning of the comic.

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One thought on “Comics criticism: Basic questions to ask when reading a comic.

  1. I would have thought mise-en-scène was more similar to visual storytelling within the panel. Then again, there seem to be several different definitions of mise-en-scène around.

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