novels

The Ugly Truth About Comics: They’re Not Books

Batman reads a book, not expecting it to be a comic (art by Gene Ha, click for his website)

Kelly Thompson of the Comic Book Resources blog Comics Should Be Good is doing a study. She has reached out to 32 women to learn “specifically why women do and don’t read comics and what they do and don’t respond to as readers when they do read”.

You see, comics kind of have this reputation for not being all that welcoming to female readers. Maybe you’ve noticed it yourself. For a significant segment of the industry and its history, there’s good reason for that reputation. Superhero comics, often considered the mainstream of comics, are predominantly made by and for males. But for several decades there have been a growing number of comics designed to reach beyond the standard superhero demographic. And these days, the art form has never had a greater level of diversity, both in stories that could appeal to virtually anyone, and the people that make them.

Last year, Kelly did this experiment for the first time with 19 women trying out comic books: part 1, part 2, part 3. This time, she’s having 32 women try graphic novels: part 1, part 2. (Part 3 and 4 will post on the next 2 Mondays.) She gets feedback from each reader to see why they picked their comic book or graphic novel, what they thought of it, and also gets background info on their age, occupation and past experiences with comics. They’re long reads, but they’re worth it. Maybe you’ll relate to some of their responses.

It’s not a perfectly scientific study. Most of the women are progressive young women in their 20s or 30s. And they all come from Kelly’s network of friends, colleagues, and family. But I think it’s still very representative of people’s responses to comics, and some people’s resistance to comics, often regardless of gender.

One comment that came up several times was that some said they prefer to imagine visuals in prose novels than have an artist provide the visuals. I’ve heard this comment plenty of times to know that it’s not unusual. I think part of this comes from unfamiliarity with comics and the belief that reading a comic book or graphic novel should feel like reading a book, and that one should walk away from both with the same kind of feeling. But they are not the same art form or medium. This is not a 1:1 ratio.

Reading comics is not the same experience as reading novels. Even though it visually looks like you’re doing the same thing (holding a book in your hand or staring at a screen), your brain has to do different things for each medium. (And it’s important to note that “different” doesn’t mean one is better than the other.)

Despite the old myth that comics are for dummies, there’s actually a great deal of processing going on. Each panel on a page is presenting the reader with what first seems like two channels of information: words and pictures. But the two channels are permanently linked and are actually sending additional information based on how they interact with each other. The pictures aren’t simply just giving visual form to the words. The image is an artist’s vision of that chosen moment in time and each panel is rich with what I would compare with non-verbal cues when you’re talking with someone one-on-one. A character’s posture, facial expression, and clothes all provide information to the reader on a level that may never be explicitly stated. In addition, the environment that surrounds the character, the colors or lack of colors, the line weight and art style the artist is using, these all give information about the character and their world. Objects in the background or foreground that may not be essential to the story (and might not merit getting mentioned in prose) adds context to the character and his world. With prose, all of this information could be given in words, but being told about something by a writer’s carefully chosen words and seeing it through the filter of an artist’s carefully illustrated artwork are two different things. And the timing and duration of that absorption works differently. In prose, it can only be absorbed by the reader as they are reading it. In comics, all of this information can be presented simultaneously and consistently throughout an entire scene, as each panel reinforces an aesthetic or silent cue.

Another channel of information comes from the true magic of comics – sequential storytelling. Each panel creates a new dynamic between the one before and the one after it. While processing the information within each panel described above, your brain is also creating action, movement and/or the passage of time in the spaces between each panel. The brain is solving the problem of how the characters’ world changes so that everything matches up from panel to panel, moment to moment.

So all of that (and more!) is going on while you read what appears to be a simple comic book. That’s a lot of information to absorb on each panel, but fortunately the brain processes images 60,000 times faster than text. So it’s up to the task, but it might take some adjustment. Give yourself a chance to get comfortable with the language of comics before you write them off as “not books”.