comics in the classroom

November 8th, 2007 | Other Projects

I’m in DC. Tomorrow night is the graphic novel panel I’m doing with Chris Ware and Lynda Barry. Tonight PEN/Faulkner, the organization that brought us here, is having a dinner for us where some local comics experts are going to discuss “teaching graphic texts in the classroom.” Coincidentally, a professor at SUNY Oneonta has asked me to participate in the discussion her online class, “Academic Success Strategies,” is having about Fun Home. It’s always gratifying to hear that my graphic memoir is being taught in a class. But at the same time, it’s weird knowing that people are being forced to read it.

Indeed, several people in this class commented on how they were dreading the assignment to read half the book before class this week. But when they opened it up and saw that it was a comic book, they were awash with relief. One person wrote, “The reading went very quickly and painlessly.”

I have to say, that’s about the highest praise a writer can ask for. And part of why I tell stories in pictures, I think, is for just that reason—to create a quick and painless reading experience. Not that regular books are necessarily painful, by any means. But I have a terrible fear of boring people, and I find that telling a story visually is kind of like chewing up the food a little bit for the reader so they don’t have as much work to do.

I’ve never really thought this out clearly…so maybe it doesn’t hold water. And why do I think people want me to chew their food for them? That’s a little condescending…not to mention disgusting. Let me retract the metaphor.

I guess the question is, Are graphic narratives necessarily easier to read? I suppose they make their own kinds of demands on the reader. Like, for example, a couple of the students in this class also said they had trouble figuring out “how to read” my book at first. I think they meant, like, whether to go across both pages or first do the left page then the right. I thought reading comics was practically an autonomic reflex, something we do without thinking about it. But I guess there’s a slight learning curve.

Maybe I’ve just answered the question. Don’t you find this long passage of text, with no drawings or photographs to leaven it, kind of BORING?

73 Responses to “comics in the classroom”

  1. Reader in Ohio says:

    Well, reading half a book of 5,000 words v. half a book of 50,000 words, which seems easier on the surface of things? Students don’t know how to “read” pictures, I’m afraid. They don’t know that reading and analyzing a drawing can take just as long as reading and analyzing written words.

    My university students often have trouble when I assign graphic novels; they don’t know how to critique the visual with the written. So, regarding the “how to read,” I doubt the difficulty lies along the lines of left to right v. right to left or something else. At least I hope that these university students think more deeply than that!

  2. Kelli says:

    I was so very tempted to just leave a post that said “tl;dr”…

    But a good writer and a competent reader can combine for an excellent experience even if it’s simply limited to text.

  3. Blushing Girl says:

    For what it’s worth, I’m a VERY fast reader, and when I sat down to read Fun Home, I was surprised at how long it took me. I was really absorbed in the drawings and found that my eyes, which tend to “sweep” while reading, were drawn into the page so that I lingered longer than usual.


  4. meg says:

    I’d love to hear about any gems y’all come up with on teaching graphic texts. (I teach *Fun Home* myself, alongside *La Perdida*.)

  5. Erika says:

    I think it does depend on experience… as someone new to the appreciation of book-length graphic narratives, I find them somewhat challenging at times, just because I’m used reading in a different way. (And let’s face it, they’re not all as beautifully written as “Fun Home.”) But my partner, a long-time fan of all sorts of comics and graphic narratives, has no such qualms. Too many of us are used to thinking of anything “cartoony” as kid stuff, and for some of us, it’s a big jump to get beyond that. It’s so worthwhile, of course, and so eye-opening. I recently gave a copy of “Fun Home” to my 85-year-old grandmother, and while I think she found the format foreign and distracting at first, she really enjoyed it.

  6. Nina says:

    I know I’m completely in the extreme minority, but I’m fairly dyslexic and it took me a VERY long time and not a little effort to learn how to read graphic novels and comic books. It was only because my friends were so insistent that there was something valuable within the medium that I continued to try and eventually learned how. Having to interpret both the pictorial and textual information is really a very different process from understanding ‘just text’ or ‘just image’. I believe there must be a reasonable diversity among people in “how easy” it is to understand the message in visual forms of communication; in any case, I definitely don’t think that graphic additions are necessarily “predigestions”.

  7. mobathome says:

    I’m sorry. I couldn’t fully read what you wrote. (Really!) So I just jumped to the end.

  8. Jsmithbo says:

    I was just talking about this with a friend this morning–I gave her Persepolis to read, and she said it was her first graphic novel. I started reading comics trades and graphic novels a couple of years ago, when I was really busy running a freelance editing business and teaching writing at a university. I found I could get my “story fix” much faster and more efficiently with comics; I could read a 150 page trade or graphic novel in an hour and a half or so, and feel like I’ve read as deep a story (if it’s a good book!) and learned as much about the characters as I would in 4 or 5 hours of novel reading. Ironically, as I’ve become a more sophisticated comics reader, I’m getting slower, because I spend more time noticing and thinking about the way panels or pages are put together. I don’t know if I’d say it’s *easier* for me to read comics, but it is definitely more efficient!

  9. Ellen Orleans says:

    I wonder if graphic novels are particularly satisfying because they engage different parts of the brain at the same time. Fun Home added to this complexity with different drawing styles, “drawn text,” narrative, labeling, and, of course, dialogue.

    Fun Home, like DTWOF, exists as a balance of (or maybe combination of) story and play, with the drawings serving as scenery, with gestures and facial expressions replacing the need for as much narration and dialogue.

    Nicely intriguing.

  10. QKelly says:

    I just finished teaching FH in a college-level class. The students loved it, although, as good little lit-crits-in-training, they offered critical comments, too (constructive, of course! One person felt that allusions / metaphors were sometimes over-explained, saying [rather wittily, I thought] “Once you grasp the relevance of the Icarus/Daedalus comparison, is it really necessary to enumerate every last point of correspondence?”) We talked at length about how the visual dimension affected the reading experience. One person, a major graphic novel fan, said that he can’t read “serious” graphic novels quickly — “the pictures take me twice as long to ‘read’ as the text.” When asked what he meant by “serious graphic novel,” he said, “you know, not a comic book,” which brought down the wrath of two other students. (well, probably “wrath” is too strong — “firm disagreement,” I guess — they wanted no disparagement of comic books. One was unwilling to accept that there is any difference between Fun Home, say, and a Marvel superhero monthly.) Another person said, “I’m so trained as a literary reader — I tend to see the text as the ‘real’ story and the pictures as just a sort of extra that you can just glance at. I had to really force myself to pay careful attention to the drawings.” She says she still doesn’t feel that she knows how to “read” visuals. Yet another person felt that we were over-analyzing the whole business. The students found photos of Bruce on line, which led to an interesting discussion of mimesis and representation. In the end, they all agreed that the visual dimension added a complexity that they missed when we returned to “just” texts.

  11. Robbie says:

    Reading a graphic novel (for me) is kind of like reading a kids picture book written for grownups (meant completely as a wonderful thing). When I read to my kids they get to hear the words while they look at a visual representation. It helps them understand the true nature of the story. With a graphic novel, I get to read the words & look at a visual representation. It can expound on thoughts, enhance subtlety, and all kinds of things that the author could possibly never put into words. “A picture is worth a thousand words”…

  12. Suzanonymous says:

    It was a revelation to hear Alison read the text. She sounded earnest. For a few seconds, I was disoriented, as if maybe I hadn’t read the book before (well, it had been a year since I’d read it). To me, the text often had read like a mothballed bookish tour guide, someone who couldn’t let a panel go by without making some arid comment or another. Surely other people feel the same way, or maybe my right-brained brain was way more attracted to the pictures than most.

  13. Anonymous says:

    I’ve just finished reading Fun Home, and the the trouble I had with “how to read” it had to do with when I should read the panels left to right, and when I should read them top to bottom. When there’s a stack of two panels on the left beside a longer panel on the right, for example, I was initially reading the top right panel, then the long panel, and then the bottom left panel. In other words reading left to right when it was meant to be read top to bottom.

    I’m not sure if that’s what the students meant, I may be the only one with this problem.

    Once I figured out the proper order it was a quick, and very enjoyable, read.

  14. Sully says:

    Well, I guess it’s appropriate to this question that you’re on the panel with Chris Ware– because while Fun Home (or even more so, DTWOF) are intuitive reads, some of his stuff is deliberately counterintuitive (like several strips Quimby the Mouse). It’s just a difference in focus, in the same way that there are terrific prose writers who are easy (Dreiser) and hard (Faulkner) to read. The language is simply meeting different ends.

  15. Jaibe says:

    I’m torn about this — graphic novels give you sort of embody their own cliff notes — it’s very quick if you just read the captions or look for the action, but it’s easy to overlook the detail an ordinary novel would have brought to your attention with paragraphs or pages. I reread graphic novels way more than ordinary ones, and I don’t think I ever have the same experience twice (but then, as gertrude stein points out, you wouldn’t with text either if you could get around to it.)

    The first graphic novel I read was “The Dark Knight Returns”, and I kept being confused reminded of scenes from it the next day (I read it evenings), not being able to remember if I’d read them or seen them on TV or in a movie. Phenomenologically, it was like both. But that book has a lot more cinematic qualities since it was very inspired by Japanese comics, with wordless slow shift frames of highly salient moments, like when Robin almost loses her grip and falls.

    Then I read Maus and thought I was really onto something amazing. Then I had to wait 20 years until I found another graphic novel worth reading… (I’m sure there were others, I just picked badly!)

  16. Nickel Joey says:

    I’m kind of loath to admit it, but I can identify with those couple of students. When I started Fun Home, I struggled with figuring out how to read it, too — and not with regard to panel order. (Thanks to my roommate, I have enough comic books and graphic novels under my belt for that.)

    For me, there was an interesting tension between different ways of absorbing the content. I found that part of me wanted to jump from panel to panel, carefully reading only the text — which made some sense since the writing felt literary (for lack of a better word), more like a traditional memoir.

    But my comic book instincts also tried to kick in, which for me means reading the text quickly and scanning the panels as I go. I’m much more verbal than visual (as is probably obvious from a post like this), so I tend to get through a “superhero monthly” pretty quickly.

    Neither way worked very well — especially because the drawings were so wonderfully detailed and often contained information which you couldn’t get from just the words. So I kind of made my through the volume in a hybrid way which, like Blushing Girl mentioned above, took me longer than I’d expected. It was an interesting and ultimately satisfying experience, but in some ways it felt like learning to drive or figuring out how to use a PlayStation controller.

    But hey, it’s not often that my synapses get such a workout. So I’m not complaining. Plus, I wonder how it will be when I pick the book up for a second read-through.

  17. Dana in CA says:

    graphic novels make more of an emotional impact on me than novels with only words. more of the senses are involved or something. I am obsessed with them since reading fun home. I look for them all the time now. I find it a richer reading experience.

  18. bean says:

    i used to work in a small public library branch, that, for it’s size had a really impressive children’s picture book collection, which i loved. one of my favorite hobbies was looking for adult books masquerading as children’s books in the picture book section. (e.g. anything maurice sendak, a book called “Hoover’s Bride” about a man who married a vaccuum cleaner, a book called “Pish, posh, said Hieronymus Bosch” and you can probably think of others. Captain Underpants, maybe?)

    one day i discovered in the adult section an illustrated edition of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. I loved it, and wondered why it’s only children that get to read illustrated books. Why shouldn’t all books be illustrated?!?!?!!

    i would never presume to enter the comics vs. graphic novel/memoir etc discussion. i will say, however that i’ve encountered many graphic works where the illustrations were of much higher quality than the writing, in my humble opinion. I’ve also read many amazing books that would have been even more amazing if they were illustrated.

    Fun Home was such a joy because, in addition to fabulous artwork, the narrative was equally fabulous in an intelligent, literary, interesting, makes-you-better-for-having-read-it way. I savored every word and evey image.

    (and anyone who managed to miss American Born Chinese should go find it right now!)

  19. Nels P. Highberg says:

    I’m teaching Fun Home the week after Thanksgiving in my Gay and Lesbian Literature class at the University of Hartford. They are a great group of students, and I think they are going to respond well.

    Next year, I’m thinking of teaching a course in the graphic memoir. Haven’t decided yet.

  20. Danyell says:

    I think “easier” isn’t the best way to say it, since easier sounds like it’s dumber or something. It definitely goes faster and if one doesn’t care for reading very much, the platform allows one to skip past longer text passages and just gain context from the images (I did this as a kid with some of the more monologue heavy superhero comics). But I think for someone who really appreciates the media, a good comic can be just as challenging. I found Fun Home to be challenging because of the actual, often heavy content and emotion and some of the more academic references that admittedly went right past me. But, the format makes it more ENGAGING. I think that’s the difference. Pictures are fun and entertaining, so they’d make even the most intimidating piece of literature more inviting. Personally, I think one could take just as long to read a comic as any other text of equal length or longer. I usually read once for content and then again to appreciate the artwork. 😀

    But if people enjoy your work more because they find it easier, that’s still a good thing. I think anything that gets people to read is a good thing. Which is why I wasn’t bothered much by the Harry Potter fad (until they made the books into movies, that is).

  21. Danyell says:

    I agree with what Blushing Girl said too. There are a few panels where I just stared and stared long after I read the whole page. Maybe this is partly because I’m an artist, so I have more of a basis for critique and appreciation. But I think it’s more that some of the images were so well-crafted and details and hit some very universal nerves that I knew exactly what it meant.

    One of my favorites is when you are very young being rinses off the the bath tub with the cup. The profile is brilliant.

  22. Irish Fan says:

    Long-time reader, first-time poster
    Like Blushing Girl and Nickel Joey, I found myself engrossed in the detail, but only after I had read through to the end and started again. Much like DTWOF, I notice little things every time I re-read, things I had missed the first time around, which add to my appreciation of the work as a whole. To make use of a much-abused metaphor, every time I look through it, a little more flesh gets added to the skeleton.

    For that reason alone, I don’t think that the graphic form is necessarily easier to digest (that being said, this is coming from a reader who fruitlessly spent ages trying to decode every single instance of animal imagery in art spiegelman’s ‘Maus’).

    P.S. Being an Irish literature student, I really appreciated the sequences concerning the works of James Joyce!

  23. Duncan says:

    bean wrote: “Why shouldn’t all books be illustrated?!?!?!!” My answer to that would be that many — maybe most — illustrators aren’t up to the job. I’ve been disappointed by most illustrated books I’ve read, ever since I was a child. Too often the illustrations don’t match the text (someone with curly blond hair in the text is drawn with dark straight hair in the illustrations, for instance). Or, and this is more serious for me, the illustrations don’t fit with the images the book conjured up in my own mind.

    I started reading comics very young; I don’t remember whether I started with the funny papers and moved to comic books, or vice versa, or both at once. I loved Uncle Scrooge, Little Lulu, and Archie comics as well as Superman DC; I never got into Marvel, it was after my time. I started reading text at 4, taught by my mother at my insistence. (Over 50 years ago now — goddess, I’m old!) So both styles of reading are deeply engrained in my mind.

    Like Blushing Girl, I’m a fast reader; but for me that just means that it’s easy for me to take in the text and the pictures at the same time. I went through Fun Home fairly quickly the first time I read it, and I’ve read it a few times since. I don’t feel I missed too much. One hears a lot about right brain / left brain, a distinction that doesn’t work well for me. I love linear text, and I’m very visual as well. (Reading text is, after all, visual.) I seem to experience the so-called mind-body or intellect/emotion splits less than most people. A lot of graphic novels and memoirs just aren’t very rich, to my taste; and oddly, the graphics are just as much the problem as the text. The only other graphic novels that have stayed with me as Fun Home has are Maus and V for Vendetta. And like them, Fun Home feeds my head intellectually as well as visually.

  24. Suz says:

    I think a graphic novel is much more dependent on the reader (than a text novel is). When you’re dealing with text there’s only one way to do it– start at the beginning and read all the words, more carefully or less carefully, until the end. Whereas when images come into play sitting and analyzing the images is for the most part optional.

  25. Biggi says:

    Please Alison, FEED US! Chew up the food for us!

  26. Pam I says:

    Illustrated adult books – I said a few posts back, I just read the new version of The Life of Pi, which has a dozen oil (?) painted illustrations, all showing the point of view of the narrator, from his hands outwards. It really added to how I read, and I’d love to see more like it. It will increase production costs, if in colour, so I can’t see a great surge in such reissues. OTOH, I listen to the radio all day, not watch TV – so maybe pics for me have more meaning than endless dross passing by.

  27. Rachel says:

    One of the reasons why Fun Home, and some DTWOF sequences, are such rewarding reading is that the images do not simply illustrate or act out the text. In a lot of places in Fun Home, the overall narrative text is contemplating larger emotional questions while the images are illustrating particular events – and it is up to us to work out the relevance. I’m sure that in some places – though I can’t think of an example – images and text read ironically against each other rather than backing each other up. So, a stretching read rather than an easy one, and all the better for it.

  28. hardbackwriter says:

    I guess someone could have a lot of fun experimenting with rewriting episodes of DTWOF or chapters of Fun Home as text with no pictures; how many words would it take to express AB’s many subtle visual touches and move the story on in a purely textual medium? Would these stories be boring as ‘pure’ text? I can’t imagine so, but I can’t imagine them being so perfect as they already are either …

  29. Ruth says:

    Am I the only person here who finds it much more difficult to read graphic novels than purely textual ones, because absorbing words and pictures at the same time is basically multi-tasking? I never know which to do first — look at the picture or read the words — and moving back and forth between the two makes it much harder for me to simply get caught up in the narrative, the way I do when there’s nothing between me and the words except the pictures in my head. Certainly, it’s a rewarding experience — especially when the word/image interplay is as clever and rich as it is in FH. But from my experience, at least, I would never consider an AB text as “predigested.”

  30. tg says:

    Thanks, everyone, for the interesting conversation. As a devourer of literature, I find I must discipline myself to take in all that a graphic novel offers without plowing forward with the written story, but it eventually becomes a process analogous to finding the deeper meaning in the written word alone: a search for metaphor and symbol and plays on language (or form).

    But mostly I just wanted to say, Yay DC! I’ll see you tonight, AB.

  31. Rose says:

    Depending on your facilities in various types of literacy, it might be easy or quite hard to read a graphic novel or memoir. I read Fun Home very quickly, but when I lent the book to a friend she had a really hard time with it. She can read well, and reads high level works in english and other languages. But she really had trouble moving between/among the words and the images. She was very interested, but especially because of the intense detail AB has in there, my friend was taking a really long time to get through even just a few pages. She couldn’t figure out how to properly divide her focus to get the richness out of the reading experience she sensed the book was offering.

    Some people have said they read the words and see the pictures as additional info. Some people might look at the pictures and then see the words as narratation. I’m in an MLS program right now and doing a project on the definition of graphic novels, and really, what defines a graphic novel is that the words and images must work together to present a story that is beyond what either element presents alone. So really, reading a graphic novel or memoir requires synthesizing those elements to get at the meaning of the whole. Which is a complex thing to do, and what my friend was having trouble with, specifically, understanding the images at the same level and at the same time as she understood the words.

    Even in my own reading of graphic novels and comic books, which has increased considerably in recent years, I’ve found that as my familiarity with the image/word combination increases, and my visual vocabulary expands, I am able to read these books faster and much BETTER, revealing a depth to the works that I wouldn’t have grasped a few years ago.

    Its a different kind of literacy, or a combination of several literacies, and some people might be good at it right away, but reading graphic materials is not at all necessarily easier by default.

  32. --MC says:

    Been reading comics and illustrated stories all my life, so it surprised me that people had such a hard time parsing graphic novels .. half the story is told in the art, and most text-fixated readers initially look at it as mere illustration. There are levels of information and emotion that are built into graphic stories that you can’t attain in flat text. (And some boffo laffs, I should add.) Would “Palestine” be as gripping if you couldn’t see the angry and sad faces of the people Sacco talks to? Or would a text version of “Persepolis” ever be able to convey the love Satrapi feels for her family? (Every time I see the merry, wicked smile on her grandma’s face I light up.)
    I heard from a guy who took a graphic novel class at Seattle University — the instructor was a poet who had her class compare and contrast a poem, an opera, and a graphic novel. Same person later took a poetry class from same instructor, in which she had them compare a poem, an opera, and a graphic novel. No word on whether she teaches a class on opera appreciation.

  33. ksbel6 says:

    I love graphic novels. I started out reading Batman graphic novels back in the 90s when the Animated Series was on and I was collecting those comics. Then I latched onto Neil Gaiman…anyway, Fun Home is wonderful. Maybe it is the right brained types who have an easier time letting the image of the entire page be absorbed, and therefore quickly determine the order the panels should be read in…but I’m very left brained and I seem to have always been able to do that. The detail in ABs pictures makes her stuff great to read over and over again. I’m reading Fun Home for the 2nd time and I noticed last night that in the panel that lists the possible classes for her to take over the January interum there is a Pascal class. My, did it make anyone else laugh to think about learning Pascal in college? That seems like soooo long ago!!

  34. Nickel Joey says:

    Rachel, Ruth, and Rose: Well said, all! Thanks for helping me further think about my FH reading experience.

    Maybe if my name started with an R, I’d have had it all figured out from the start. 😉

  35. Rosa says:

    Yeah, I don’t think it’s easier at all. It might seem easier to someone who’s really comics-literate.

    I’m really text-oriented, so I have to really push myself to take the time to really look at the pictures. And my wider awareness of visual arts is a lot lower, so I miss a lot of allusions and nuances, probably even on a close re-read. I really liked Persepolis, and then we went to a museum show with a lot of Persian miniatures and fabric arts, and then I went back to Persepolis with a whole new set of connections made visible to me.

  36. bean says:

    Wow, fascinating to see how different are people’s experiences and interpretations of Fun Home, even as I know that people interpret everything differently, from Tolstoy, to When Harry Met Sally, to the comments on this blog!

    Rose, that was a really interesting and helpful way to describe/define graphic novels/memoirs etc. And I didn’t mean to imply that I think that illustrated novels are exactly the same as graphic novels, but there are some blurring of lines, too. Like, how exactly are Lynda Barry’s cruddy or The Good Times Are Killing Me different from Maus and Palestine and Fun Home? And they are all different from than The!Greatest!Of!Marlys! or The Freddie Stories, or any of the DTWO4 books. These are all comics, and yet, Barry’s “comics” are often deadly serious, not funny at all. (I love them, and her, and the marriage proposal still stands…why doesn’t she have a blog???)

    comics, illustrated novels, graphic novels, wow. there is something undeniably appealing about them all.

    and, yeah, i’ve seen some crappy illustrations, often in children’s books, but i’ve seen a ton of amazing ones too.

    Back when i worked in a children’s library, I started to collect children’s books for the art. As mentioned previously, some of my favorite children’s book artists include Leo and Diane Dillon (check out The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, with a long red-haired hottie of female protagonist named Sylvia, if you can!), David Wiesner (Tuesday, Sector Seven, etc) Maurice Sendak (Outside Over There, We are All In the Dumps With Jack and Guy, etc.) Amazing, and only $15 a pop, and i can read them to my nephew, and he can appreciate them on different levels the older he gets.

    I’ll be interested to check out The Life of Pi that Pam I mentions. I haven’t read it yet.

  37. DeLandDeLakes says:

    In my mind, comics aren’t easier to read, but definitely quicker. I don’t necessarily think that the two are the same thing. I think that one’s brain is still working very hard in processing the comic, in “suturing” the action in the panels together, and synthesizing the text and images together to get a sense of timing and delivery within the fiction, stuff like that. I remember blasting through a bunch of old single issues of _Hepcats_ (which I’d had to be coaxed into reading by my S.O., since I was REALLY reluctant to read what looked to me to be a “furry” comic.) It has a pretty intense story arch involving abuse and incest, and by the time I was finished (no more than half an hour or so for the entire story,) I was really CHANGED. I mean, I couldn’t sleep that night, and when I did I had nightmares. That made a big impression on me, since by reading the comics, I had changed my way of thinking in less time than it would take me to watch a movie.

  38. Eva says:

    This is wonderful!

    I think, if one doesn’t learn from an early age, that “reading” visual information can be a challenge. It’s like any other unfamiliar language…one has to practice and with due dilligence (sp?) one will learn and understand, until the reading of visual information is as fluid as reading the written word.

    The fact that Fun Home and lots of other graphic narratives are being taught means that people are FINALLY, possibly, learning a bit about reading visual information. Most people in school don’t get this type of education unless they are taking art-related classes (art histroy, art appreciation, etc). So I think it’s fantastic that, at the very least, some students are realizing there’s a lot they don’t know about reading visual information. Maybe it means that the next time they go to a gallery, or see art anyplace at all besides inside a graphic narrative, they will think about it a bit more and get more out of it!


  39. Alex the Bold says:

    I think a graphic work is a lot harder to read than a written-only work.

    For instance, in “Maus” there’s a scene where the author’s father is recounting how one man was on “the right side” of the fence and some of his family were on the side leading to the camps. Spiegelman draws the man in question climbing over the fence … and it brings it home in a very concrete way: the guy climbed out of safety and into peril, and it’s all in one panel you could hide with a business card.

    Could the same sort of heartbreak be presented solely in written form with that degree of compactness and immediacy?

    I doubt it.

  40. Aunt Soozie says:

    Wow…interesting to see inside your brains like this. I have the precise same problem that someone described up above…with those square panels that have three divisions…two on the left and a long rectangle on the right. I always wonder with those if I should read across first or up, down and then over?
    I didn’t find this particular post boring but my initial reaction upon opening it was…”where are the pictures?”

    I’m a right brain dominant, left brain dyslexic-y, ADDish person and I found it easier to read Fun Home than a text only memior because, as Ellen said, there is cross stimuli. It’s harder to get distracted by things outside of the story when the story is coming at me on multiple levels. Sometimes when I read text my mind wanders and I’ll have to re-read the same page over and over. That doesn’t happen as much with comics.

    I do find that I tend to read quickly when I see, for example, a new dtwof…because I’m anxious to know what’s going to happen…then I go back and read more slowly and look more closely.

  41. notpeanut says:

    I didn’t read all the comments others posted, but I did read all the way through your post. Do I get partial credit?

    I’m still laughing about “The reading went very quickly and painlessly.” being about the highest praise a writer can ask for.

  42. Sara says:

    I haven’t read all the comments here either – I think the experience is just different. Reading graphic novels adds a layer of analyzing the visual part – looking for nuances and clues and supporting info that is not in the text. Re. reading text-based books?? Some are easier reads than others – just depends on what register they are written in, and how that register meshes with my own background knowledge as well as preferences 😉

  43. Roz Warren says:

    If you grew up loving cartoons there is something uniquely satisfying about a grown up story told in cartoons. I’m not sure that means “easier to read.” Maybe easier to love?

  44. Roz Warren says:

    So Alison, what was Lynda Barry like?

  45. Mac Guy says:

    uh… does it count if I refuse to read anything without equations in it? (except DTWOF, of course)? …damn physics major….

  46. van says:

    I suppose it’s about pacing? In graphic novels, you can “choose” which elements/details you want to process without it interrupting the overall appreciation for the storyline– unlike reading regular novels, where you’d have to trudge through 6 paragraphs describing the vase at the corner of the room that eventually leads to the meat of the story. Graphic novels, when you’re ready for a more in-depth viewing, you re-read and can let your eyes wander and select study the details more, and then appreciate its relevance to the storyline.

    I love L Barry! Hope the talk went great!

  47. Duncan says:

    Eva, “I think, if one doesn’t learn from an early age, that “reading” visual information can be a challenge.” This makes sense, but who DOESN’T start learning to ‘read’ visual information from an early age? Children are usually exposed to picture books, TV (which involves a lot of text and visuals together), movies, video, photographs, and the real world before they are taught to read text. ‘Reading’ visual information is something we start learning from birth. If anything — I should read more on the process of learning to read — I’d think that learning to read text alone is the hard thing, learning to find meanings encoded in all those little squiggly marks on the page.

    I don’t know why so many adults evidently find it difficult to read comic books (I may stop using the “pc” marketing term graphic novels). How do they cope with print advertisements, movie posters, billboards, and so many other day-to-day combinations of image with text that are all over our society? I suspect that in some cases they were shamed out of reading comix as children; maybe in some cases they’re starting with the assumption that it *must* be difficult and postmodern, like reading and breathing at the same time. Who knows? I sure don’t.

  48. Silvio Soprani says:

    Well, I never read comic books as a child. Neither did my older brother. I would not have minded reading them; they were just never put in my way, and by the time I was old enough to find them for myself, I just had not developed the habit.

    I did read the comics in the newspaper, but I do remember making the conscious decision early on that many of them (MARY WORTH comes to mind) had text fonts that were very hard to read. The serial romantic ones seemed to have illegible cursive text in the frames. It was very off-putting.

    I never had trouble reading PEANUTS, ANDY CAPP, DENIS THE MENACE, or some others with minimal text. I suppose it was the text-heavy strips that I was disclined to get involved with.

    Strangely enough I grew up to be a person who reads all the time. So it wasn’t reading itself, it was seeing and decoding some typefaces that was the problem.

    I also had this problem trying to read Neil Gaiman’s THE SHADOW. (And I will confess that some months back when we were all treated to that cool video of him kissing what’s his name at that awards ceremony that I went to the library to read something by him for the first time. None of the Shadow books was available, so I checked out some of his novels and was SHOCKED to discover that they were text-only and that the dude does not even draw! Such is the power of association of a successful comic that all co-authors bask in the magical aura of the drawn line.)

  49. Deena in OR says:

    Off-topic, but of interest to comics geeks-

    Here’s a link to one of the most tastefully erotic depictions of a wedding night I’ve ever seen on a comics page…

    Understatement. It’s a gift.

  50. Wax Lion says:

    This post was interesting; I’m a museum exhibit developer, and we’re presently working on an exhibit about comics and visual storytelling. My co-worker, who’s the lead on this exhibit, isn’t a comic book reader; I gave her Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics to give her an overview, and within 15 minutes she brought it back to my desk. “I can’t read stuff like this, it’s too confusing. Can you just tell me what it says?” By “stuff like this,” she meant the mixture of art and text.

    So for some types of learners, I think it’s actually harder to mesh a visual story with a textual one than it is to read either seperately (my co-worker is an artist herself, and generally I’d call her a very visual person.) To her credit, now that another big project has wound up and she’s got some time, she’s borrowed UC again; and for my part, I’m giving more thought to making the exhibit accessible to those for whom this type of story format is confusing or off-putting. We’ll see where that gets us…

  51. Eva says:

    Graphic narrative demands more from us as readers. Although this may be difficult, it’s also rewarding.

    Duncan, I meant, I think, to say “visual art” instead of “visual information”. Illustration is frequently utilitarian, whereas art does not necessarily have a function beyond it’s own existence.

    Maybe it’s slower going to read graphic narratives because the illustation is serving more than a utilitarian function?

    To be fair, though, the layout of many graphic narratives seems to be purposely non-linear. For me this makes it more fun, but apparently this isn’t true for a lot of people!

    However, if I had to offer an opinion or write an essay on a graphic narrative for a class I just might not enjoy the struggle with quite the same relish. Go figure!

  52. Eva says:

    P.S. I just started a blog.

    Please check it out!

  53. Nickel Joey says:

    Duncan: Interesting point . . . but isn’t comparing the experience of reading Fun Home to that of a print ad or a movie poster kind of like comparing apples and oranges? (Or comparing a seven-course meal to a handful of M&Ms?)

    Things like billboards and posters are meant to communicate pretty much instantaneously, you know? If they’re done well, the text and images are pretty simple and work together to help the viewer get the gist of the message — all in a matter of seconds.

    A graphic novel like Maus or Fun Home has a very different set of aims: perhaps it’s to tell a story and to get at some truth in the process. Neither the text or the images are necessarily simple (especially if you consider the book as a whole) and the “gist” may not be clear until the reader reaches the end of the volume.

    You’re right, of course, that some of the skills our brains use are certainly the same whenever we encounter visual and verbal information simultaneously. But, for me at least, those encounters can vary remarkably.

  54. BrooklynPhil says:

    Hmmm. So many thoughtful responses– I admit I didn’t read them all, but I’d like to throw in my two cents. Maybe only AB will read this (maybe not even her?).
    Reading a graphic novel requires different strategies than a non-illustrated text. Yes, you’re using different parts of your brain to create and to read a graphic novel– and I agree, not all graphic novelists are as equally talented as AB in terms matching the writing with the drawing.
    At the same time, I always have a feeling that I’m WATCHING a graphic novel, as a third person spectator. In some non-illustrated novels, I feel I’m included as a human being, that I connect more with the protoganist, because the extended prose allows me to understand her/him more. This doesn’t make non-illustrated texts superior, just different in some capacities.
    I see that I’m basically re-stating the comments of the previous poster. Apologies for wasting your time!

  55. Ginjoint says:

    BrooklynPhil, no comments here are a waste of time; I found what you said about watching a graphic novel intriguing.

    And no, Alison, I didn’t find your passage of text without pictures boring either. Sorry, but mosttimes what comes out of your “mouth” is interesting and thought-provoking. I wonder if that can be scary for you, ’cause then everyone turns toward you, with their scary attention and all.

    Are graphic novels an easier read? For me, it depends upon the artist. The more nuanced the drawing, the slower the read. Which is obvious – more lingering and gazing. But also? Text as multilayered as that in Fun Home makes for a more complex read…a richer one too. Visually speaking, though, I don’t have any problems with graphic novels, except when I find the aesthetics of an artist’s style off-putting. Then I get a headache, unfortunately. I still finish the book, though.

    When I look at the books I’ve bought in the last year or two, I’m surprised how many of them are graphic novels – the latest is Juicy Mother 2.

  56. Aaron says:

    Actually, I’d say coordinating word balloons, sound effects and pictures is an acquired and practiced cognitive skill, not a natural skill, dependent upon the artist’s sensibility. (At least I’m finding it so, reading translated Manga that hasn’t been “flipped”.) Also, by definition, picture stories can give more visual detail without the sequential processing that prose would necessitate. So perhaps you lose this to gain that. I think Scott McCloud investigates this very well in “Understanding Comics”.

  57. Alex K says:

    @DeenainOR — That is lovely, isn’t it? And it needs thought to unfold it all.

    MOComment (Maoist, orange): Some while ago I confessed that Doris Lessing’s work was not easy for me to like or even to admire. I have not yet returned to it. However, this commentary on her as a stylist

    is so enthusiastic, so illuminatory, that I shall visit Lessing again as soon as possible.

    “Reading at the highest possible level”, Philip Hensher calls the pleasure to be had from Lessing. Well, I want some of that.

  58. Silvio Soprani says:

    Alex K, thanks for pointing out that commentary upon Lessing.
    I must say, while recently reading THE GRASS IS SINGING, I felt an awe for her writing that is in line with Philip Hensher’s article.

    Another early work of a well-known writer that astonished me recently was THE FRIENDLY YOUNG LADIES by Mary Renault. I had read her later-period THE PERSIAN BOY, which is an epic historical fiction about Alexander the Great.

    The FRIENDLY YOUNG LADIES is set not in ancient Persia, but in early 20th century London and follows a lesbian couple who live on a houseboat and have a startlingly independent and original lifestyle. Either 1920s London was a much more liberal time than our current 20th century, or else Renault had that ability to not care if she shocked people. There is no graphic sex (or any sex) in it; but the conversations and the attitudes of these women would fit right in here on the Blog.

    Just another example of my always thinking that the centuries get progressively more progressive, and then realizing that it is more of a ocean-wave kind of dynamic. (Hills and valleys, not continuously “Excelcior!”) (I know I spelled it wrong…)

  59. Jen says:

    I wouldn’t agree with the poster at the top (bean was it?) that suggested all novels would benefit from a graphic component. Some of the connections would be lost for me. Some novels require a personal connection and, as brooklynPhil suggested (originally–good insight Phil) graphic novels can put you at a distance looking in.

    I just finished a great novel (Set this house in order, by Matt Ruff about in inner world of 2 people with multiple personality disorder) which to my mind, wouldn’t have benefitted from illustration. The novel is very visually descriptive but the geographies occur in the main characters’ heads and house their multiple personalities. A depiction of these geographies and characters would make less of a connection between my imagination and psyche and the inner working s of the main characters.

    I also find that some books give me such an imagination explosion that I can’t let the visual pictures in my mind go. Like the person above (who’s name I can’t find now) some of the images created have given me nightmares and I would think that the distance created with graphic novels would take that immediacy/element of my own creation and relationship to the work away. For example, in “Maximum City” (nonfiction) the author, S Mehra describes Bombay and racial tensions there in the 90’s. One passage (past which I still have yet to read) describes Hindu and Muslim neighbours interrelating in their community normally by day, and rioting against each other by night. The description of a man buying bread from another and then burning him alive that night affected me to the point where I have yet to finish the book (started months ago). I can’t fathom how an artist could depict something like that more vividly than I can create it for myself. It would lack my personal connection to the passage. Even photojournalism or video would remove me from the situation and create distance even though that would depict the actual event.

  60. Stephen Frug says:

    Probably too late, but since it’s on topic: I wrote up a lengthy blog post about my experiences teaching a graphic novel (Howard Cruse’s Stuck Rubber Baby) in a seminar otherwise devoted to (prose) fiction. You can read it here if you’re interested:


  61. Pam I says:

    The best pictures are on the radio.

  62. Lizzie from London says:

    I have been really interested in this thread going so far as to print it out to read on the Tube (where most of my reading is done). Alice said “What is the use of a book without pictures or conversation”. Lewis Carroll would have loved graphic novels I reckon.

    Apart from Asterix and Rupert Bear in my childhood (though I don’t think that used speech balloons – or did it – I remember there were couplets at the bottom of each frame and it was strictly linear) Fun Home is the first graphic novel I have read from cover to cover. (Thanks Pam, who consistently drags me into the future or tries to) I loved it for its literary allusions and found the pictures added mutiple dimensions to an already layered text. Compulsive reading. I didn’t find it hard but am pretty literate visually as well as verbally. Incidentally the non linear comic strip is found in Renaissance paintings that show different scenes from the life of a saint, or episodes from a legend in one panel…I will find some examples if no-one gets there before me. One is Piero di Cosimo’s Lapiths and Centaurs in the National Gallery, London. But usually there is no text with these. you have to know the legend already. Botticelli’s Primavera reads from right to left as an account of a piece of poetry (De Rerum Natura by Lucretius)arguably.

    My point being that interpreting pictures as narrative albeit without extensive text is an older skill than we think.

  63. Pam I says:

    And Oscar Rejlander’s Two Ways of Life, 1857
    a composite photo.
    Doesn’t most church stained glass contain narratives too?

  64. Pam I says:

    Bayeaux Tapestry ! I’m on a roll…

  65. Aunt Soozie says:

    Right Lizzie…how about the Ghent altar piece?
    that could be considered a cartoon…no?

  66. Aunt Soozie says:

    Brooklyn Phil…I read your post and it was not a waste of time.

  67. Dr. Empirical says:

    Pam I: I wrote an article on comics from the rennaissance era here:

    Lizzie: Rupert Bear never made it to America, but the few examples I’ve seen are a virtual primer on how to do comics. The strip can be appreciated on so many levels! A three-year-old can just look at the pictures and follow the story, a beginning reader can read the rhymed couplets under each panel for additional insight, and an older child can read the text under that for even more detail. Rupert is Sequential Art in its purest form.

  68. Lizzie from London says:

    In case any of you r still reading this:

    Aunt Soozie – The ghent altarpiece is a single episode of adoration as far as I can see. Figures along the top are saints, and there are probably donors to the left and right so it’s not really a story though correct me if I’m wrong.

    Pam: yes Bayeux tapestry of course but that’s sequential. I had in mind the Renaissance panels that tell a seqhential story in the same frame. See

    For sequential “strips” see Arena Chapel by Giotto, as one of the best examples.

  69. Dr. Empirical says:

    The Catholic ritual of Stations of the Cross can be considered comics. Participants move from panel to panel, viewing an icon at each step illustrating sequentially the Crucifixion narrative.

  70. mlk says:

    Stations of the Cross show a story visually, but don’t include the written word. When groups view them and a leader introduces the different stations, it’s a bit like AB’s powerpoint shows where Alison reads the narrative.

  71. Dr. Empirical says:

    Fair enough, mlk. I was using the Will Eisner definition of comics as sequential art, but that clearly diverges from th topin at hand.

  72. mysticriver says:

    Totally digging this post! Not much to add to the general discussion except: Don’t forget hieroglyphics! Also thanks to the person who mentioned Hepcats, I was thinking of it recently but forgot the name. It’s great seeing all of the titles and artists other people enjoy.

    Re: are graphic novels easier? They’re quicker to pass through in an afternoon certainly, but they often demand re-reading, I’ve found, because there is so much to take in. Or maybe re-reading them is just so enjoyable?

  73. Jen says:

    My 2 sites worth:

    Blood first nations story robe — click on part of the robe picture to read the story of that picture

    writing on stone provincial park