Everyone remembers their first.

Mine was Infinity Gauntlet #4. My dad motioned to the book store’s spinner rack and asked, “Want a comic book?” I hesitated for a moment. Did I?

Up until then, I had only collected trading cards featuring comic characters. Backwards, I know, but I was an analytical kid that enjoyed organizing things and the stats, abilities and affiliations of Marvel’s superstars offered such entertainment in a colorful form.

But ultimately the choice wasn’t mine, as the Mad Titan commanded from the cover, and I obeyed.

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Upon slipping the exterior, I was met with a surreal story I didn’t really understand. How could all the biggest characters die? Was this some kind of dream sequence that didn’t “count?” Beyond being confused by what I had read, I was also unsure as to how I was supposed to read it. I had gotten the basic gist, but that was really due to piecing things together in a post hoc sort of way.

The panel sequence plagued me during my initial perusal. Was I supposed to read, from left to right, across BOTH pages before drifting down? And what about when a shot was superimposed on top of all the others?

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Should I read that one first?

What if a particular panel is BIGGER than the others, like when Eternity speaks to Adam Warlock?

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Do I continue to the middle right box before finishing the vertical panel, or do I respect the border until completion?

I’m an old hat now, as we all are, so it’s sometimes hard to remember that reading comics really is a skill, and without that proper procedural intuition, the flow of a narrative can become choppy and disorganized as you read things out of their intended order. But it’s a skill that can be honed, which is only of the insights gleamed by UC San Diego researcher Neil Cohn in his open source paper, “Navigating comics: An empirical and theoretical approach to strategies of reading comic page layouts.”


Getting Serious About Funny Books


Cohn was curious how we know which panel to read next, and if practice made perfect. So he put together some blank pages with common and not-so-common layouts, and asked 140 volunteers from 2004’s San Diego Comic-Con, with varying levels of comic-reading experience, to evaluate the most likely sequence of the content-free blocks. Cohn hypothesized that those raised with Western literature would naturally follow a left-right flowing “invisible Z,” or Z-path, and wondered how people would react when the trajectory was harder to guess. Here’s a basic version of the ideas presented:

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My Adam Warlock dilemma was an example of “blockage,” and a snap of Thanos’s fingers had made me question how to approach an “overlap.” Here are what the study participants actually got, minus the colored notations:

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Notice the mind-numbing Jim Steranko page, shown in full illustration below. Click through to the article to find the supplemental material that further analyzes those and other “blockages.”

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As with my misguided early attempt, the “blockage” seemed to be the thing that most separated the comic pros from the newbies. The normal “grid” was used as a control, and nearly everyone navigated it “properly.” The less experienced stumbled more often on the 3-panel blockage, while the veterans took it in stride.

The “staggering” shown in part E of the first figure and in various examples of the actual test material barely tripped up more people than the control, which leads to the question, how “staggered” do panels have to be before they become a more bewildering blockage? Maybe in the next study. I also wonder if guided-view digital comics will slowly sap future generations of these acquired abilities.

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While not quite as sublime as Steranko, a new reader today might not be able to fully appreciate the novel assembly in David Aja’s Hawkeye.

I won’t spoil anymore of the results, as the whole article should be read to fully appreciate the methodology, so if you’re curious about the other specific situations, or if manga readers were more likely to follow a right-left Z-path, go check it out. Open-source journals like Frontiers are a great, recent innovation that everyone should utilize.

Did anybody else take the wrong paths at first, or was it just me? When did you learn how to read comics with the best of them? Share your experiences in the comments!

  • Crimson Mask

    Your latter two examples are problemed. Steranko’s page is nonlinear; it is a particular anomaly. The page is mostly montage of midway details that can be absorbed in any order, but for the three panels depicting the use of the fortune-teller machine.

    Aja throws floating panels around with almost no underlying structure, and it’s not just that page. At best he is influenced by experimental work like that of Chris Ware. At worst, he simply doesn’t have a clue how to construct a proper layout.

    It’s a cartoonist’s job to make the narrative accessible. If the reader is struggling, old hat or no, it’s the cartoonist’s failing. Don’t let your experience at overcoming bad designs lead you to praise just any page that makes you “work for it.”