Learning to Read Comics by Ada Wofford

In Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, Scott McCloud explores the history of comics; how they came to be and how they function. Part of this graphic novel (though, I am tempted to call it a graphic essay) is to promote the idea that graphic novels should be taken as seriously as other forms of art such as painting, film, and literature. I’m a huge music nerd and so, I found many parallels between comics and pop music. In many ways, comics are to fine art what pop music is to classical music. But we’ve already run into an issue with these terms.

While the comparison is correct, the terms classical music and fine art are too ambiguous when you actually study the history of music and art. In his book, McCloud references the cliché of someone pointing at a piece of modern art and claiming their child could reproduce it. This claim is born out of a lack of understanding of what the piece is trying to accomplish. You hear the same argument about modern composition. Show someone Meredith Monk’s Turtle Dreams and watch their expression. Better yet, show someone John Cage’s 4’33” and attempt to convince them that it is music.

The problem people have with pieces such as 4’33” and Rothko’s Orange and Yellow is that they are unable to appreciate what the piece is not doing and viewing what the piece is doing as either a sham or a joke. So much of music is about the silences in between the notes. Not only does John Cage perverse this concept to startling effect but he also forces the listener to recognize the sound that exists around them and to recognize that as music too (it’s important to remember that 4’33” premiered outside in the woods). To bring this back to our original analogy, the very people who think Cage’s music is not music, enjoy the type of music often looked down upon by the more serious composers and consumers of music; Adorno even referred to classical music as “serious music” in his essay, “On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening.” Yet, at no point is one unsure if a pop song is or is not music. They may be quite sure that it is a poor attempt at music, but they know it is in fact music.

Comics have had a similar issue; there’s no denying that a comic is a work of art. Really, it’s a work of many little pieces of art—each frame being its own composition. But, like pop music, comics have struggled to be seen as serious art; as art that means something; as art that possesses high and profound aesthetic value. The problem could be that the artists see the illustrations as a lesser form of visual art and that the writers see the writing in comics as a lesser form of writing. But to look as comics as two art forms coming together is an incorrect way of consuming the medium. Yes, comics contain both words and images, but they are neither literature nor art, they are comics. Comics are their own thing and must only be judged as comics. It’s the same reason why you should never compare a movie based on a book with the book it’s based off of; To Kill a Mockingbird is an excellent example of this.

Both the novel and film version of To Kill a Mockingbird are great works of art beloved by millions, but the film leaves out a considerable amount of the original novel. The reason for this is because of the 3-act structure of feature films and the time limitations. The film carves out a cohesive and linear 3-act story from the novel and does so to great effect. Both the film and the novel succeed in their respective mediums. Although I have not had the pleasure of reading it, Fred Fordhan has created a To Kill a Mockingbird graphic novel and if I were to read it I would abstain from comparing it to the film and novel because of it being expressed through an entirely different medium; a medium that engages the audience in a way films and novels cannot accomplish.

Like the silence between notes, the magic of comics exists in the space between frames. Each frame in a comic is a brief window into the world of the story; we the reader are forced to conjure what happens when the window briefly shuts. In his book, McCloud explains that this space between frames is known as “the gutter” and that each frame “transitions” through this gutter. McCloud demonstrates that there are six different transitions, each one possessing their own unique function: action-to-action, subject-to-subject, scene-to-scene, aspect-to-aspect, and non-sequitur. McCloud breaks down how these each work and what type of comics employ which transitions the most.

The way a certain transition functions within the gutter is what makes comics so fascinating and so versatile. On page 74, McCloud illustrates an action-to-action transition in two panels. In panel one, we see a baseball player at bat with the ball approaching him. In panel two, we see that the batter has swung the bat and the word “WHAM!” appears in large, bold text above his head. We are to assume, given the “WHAM!,” that the batter has successfully hit the ball with great force. But if we were to change the word “WHAM!” to “WIFF!” the exact same picture would tell a completely different story. If the second panel had no text at all, we’d be left to draw our own conclusions. This is why one cannot judge a comic on writing or illustration alone because comics are experienced in a way that’s unique from all other mediums.

My favorite transition is aspect-to-aspect because this allows the audience to be the most creative in the gutter. Aspect-to-aspect is often used to set mood in a comic, with textless panels shifting from an aspect of the overall scene to another aspect of the scene. This is a transition that can break the rule about comics moving through time; instead, showing multiple aspects of one moment across many frames. McCloud explains that this type of transition is very popular in Japanese comics, which makes sense if you’ve ever watched anime. Animes very often open with what they would call establishing shots in film, but they’re presented as aspect-to-aspect comic panels. The images are often completely static, and many of these images are shown in succession. This differs from an establishing shot in film because often times it’s only one image—For instance, the quick shot of Jerry’s apartment at the beginning of so many scenes in Seinfeld. This scene isn’t setting a mood like the aspect-to-aspect transitions in comics and anime; instead, it is merely conveying to the viewer that the scene is taking place at Jerry’s apartment.

Another important aspect of comics is “closure.” McCloud defines closure as, “The phenomenon of observing the parts but perceiving the whole” (63). McCloud uses a great illustration to present this phenomenon. The image is of several Pepsi bottles on a grocery store shelf with none of their labels fully facing the audience. Despite the obscured labels, the audience recognizes the brand as Pepsi, using context to close the gap between what we see and what’s actually there. In this way, comics literally pull the audience into the world, forcing them to use their imagination and insight to make sense of what’s available to them. While film and literature may attempt to pull in the audience in a similar fashion, leaving gaps for us to fill or obscuring certain objects, the experience can never be as intimate and unique as the experience found in comics. In this sense, comics are quite literally a form of play.

Comics engage with the audience like no other medium. They invite us in to explore the world at our own pace and with our own ideas. In the gutter, we are asked to contribute to this world by filling in the gaps with our own imaginations. This is what makes comics so special; the audience is also part creator. As the audience, we get to collaborate with the writers and artists by adding in our own ideas in between each frame. The more you put into a comic, the more you get out. It’s a medium that lets you both experience and create the art at the same time.

McCloud’s book has changed the way I think about comics and will change how I experience comics going forward. As someone who primarily reads novels, I have often found myself skipping over many of the pictures in graphic novels. It’s not that I failed to appreciate the talent and work that goes into creating each panel, but I’m so used to focusing only on text that I would fly right by the images. McCloud’s book made me realize that I have essentially failed to experience the graphic novels I have read. By skipping so many of the images, I failed to participate in the magic of the gutter. I’m excited to experience graphic novels in a whole new way and I am inspired to revisit the graphic novels I have read in the past—To see them in a new light and experience them as they should be experienced.

Ada Wofford, graphic novels, ways of reading

Ada Wofford is currently avoiding their inevitable 9-5 enslavement by being a Contributing Editor for The Blue Nib and studying library science at UW-Madison. They hold a BA in English literature and have been published in a handful of journals.

About the contributor

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2 COMMENTS

  1. That’s all very well, but I learned to red from left to right and then down a line and so on. I am not enabled to read comics.

    • My understanding is that the author of the comic enables you to read it by directing your eye through the page using the connections and arrangements of the visuals. So, yes, not so much like reading a book but more like ‘reading’ a painting or photograph – where the artist is directing your eye.

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