You’re Reading Graphic Novels the Wrong Way!

I bet you thought you knew how to read a graphic novel, didn’t you? It’s easy – you open a page, read the contents and turn over the page when you’re done. It’s not as hard as trying to find out the square root of 597868 (773.21). Ah, if only life were that simple. An interesting article over at the Boston Globe argues that we might all be carrying out the simple task of reading a comic book the wrong way.

On the face of it this seems like one of those issues where you have to think “Is this really something a university should be bothered about?” It does seem quite pointless at first. But Kevin Hartnett, author of the Boston article, brings up a good point about the so-far limited use of graphic novels in schools – are teachers shunning comics in English Lit classes because they just don’t know how to read them properly?

According to a lecturer at the Boston University School of Education, the “expert” way to read a graphic novel is as follows:

1) Skim the comic to absorb the general ideas
2) Turn to page one
3) Read through again, paying attention to background and setting
4) Think about the characters
5) Examine the colours and think about how this affects the mood of the book

I don’t think there is ever a wrong way to read something, whether it be a comic book, novel or play. Some people are skim readers and like to get through a graphic novel quickly so that they can brag about how many books a year they read, whereas others like to comb through each panel of a comic with a magnifying glass looking at the creases in Superman’s tights.

So which way is correct? Whichever way does it for you, that’s the proper way. Whether you take a couple of hours to read a comic or you take a couple of days, it’s no one’s damn business but your own. And if the experts tell you that you’re doing it wrong and that you’re not absorbing the mood of the book, tell them to go get a cloth so they can absorb all the f**ks you give, except they won’t need that cloth, because you actually don’t give any. I’m not good at witty comebacks or insults.

Here’s how I read my graphic novels:

1) Make a cup of tea
2) Turn off the TV
3) Spread my legs over the couch
4) Read the first page
5) Read the first page again because I wasn’t concentrating properly the first time.

How do you read yours?

6 – Marvels by Kurt Busiek (writer) and Alex Ross (artwork)

Part of the appeal of Marvels is the fact it takes some of the best known Marvel superheroes and it inserts them into the real world. Plenty of superhero comics are set in something we are told to pretend is the real world, but not many actually manage to pull it off with any sort of realism, and instead the superheroes stick out like characters from Who Framed Roger Rabbit?.

Fans of Alex Ross and Kurt Busiek will be pleased to know that the pair triumphed with their 1994 four-issue story of the emergence of extraordinary individuals in an ordinary society. The story is told by everyman character Phil Seldon, a photographer who dreams to marry his girl and then get a job in Europe photographing the Second World War. The choice of Seldon as a perspective for the action was a wise one; through his very normal, and sometimes scared, eyes we realise how truly special superheroes are. Seldon is a bit of a dope at times, going as far as to call off his marriage to a girl well out of his league, but we’re all guilty of being a bit dopey on occasion.

The artwork in Marvels is jaw-dropping and it is easy to see why it launched Alex Ross’s graphic novel career. The realism of the comic puts you in the middle of the action and it makes it easier to believe in the story. This is important when too many superhero comics make it difficult for you to suspend your disbelief, and subsequently make it tough to relax and settle into the story. Between Ross’s sterling artwork and Busiek’s grounded story, you certainly won’t have trouble believing in Marvels. Your only problem will be finishing it too quickly.

Marvels is so high in my list partly because it is suitable for both long-time readers and novices to the comic book world. The story will give a beginner a fantastic catch up of the backgrounds of some of the greatest Marvel characters, people like the Human Torch and Spiderman right through to the Avengers. It’s a good starting point and it will give you a lot of ideas on where to go next in your graphic novel reading. Although hopefully this site is giving you enough ideas already! Some of the characters you will meet include:

- Fantastic Four
- Tony Stark
- Luke Cage
- Captain America
- Human Torch
- About 60 minor and major characters and superheroes in total

There have inevitably been discussions of the parallels between Busiek and Ross’s reimagining of old superheroes and the work Alan Moore has done in reinventing some famous characters, but after reading Marvels you will see that they do it in different ways. While Moore likes to make major changes in the backstories of established characters, Ross and Busiek instead keep the backstories of characters intact and instead try to wring new developments and themes from what's already there. Marvels will tell you so much more about characters you thought you knew inside out and it doesn't matter how many graphic novels you've read in the past, you'll still find this an incredibly rewarding read.

7 – Batman: Year One by Frank Miller

Read this if you like: Batman, Frank Miller, origin stories.

Year One is a Batman origin story written by Frank Miller (Sin City, 300) and illustrated by David Mazzucchelli. It recounts the story of both Bruce Wayne’s beginnings as Batman and Jim Gordon’s fledgling career as a Gotham cop. We follow both men from the moment they set foot in Gotham – Bruce after 12 years abroad and Jim as a cop who has transferred to the city – and watch them adjust to life in one of the grimmest metropolises in America.

Bruce’s goal of course is to both scare the crap out of the criminal hub of Gotham city and to get revenge for the cold-blooded murder of his parents. Miller imagines Bruce’s beginning as a crime fighter to be a tough learning curve; an early attempt to strike a blow on crime sees Bruce fleeing home in his Porsche whilst blood pumps out of an open wound.

Jim Gordon doesn’t fare much better. Transferred in from another police force where he made a name for himself by reporting on his fellow-corrupt cops, Gordon is appalled by the corruption he finds within Gotham’s police department. His story in Year One is of him starting to clean up Gotham’s police department, whilst at the same time trying to catch a new vigilante who stalks the streets wearing a bat costume.

It’s hard to imagine now, but before Miller stepped in with Year One the Batman character had become something of a clown. Full of silly one-liners and watered-down action, the series was in danger of losing the respect of its fans unless it underwent a serious evolution. Frank Miller was the man to do this. He gave the characters in the Batman universe credible backstories, inserted some adult themes into the storylines and gave the whole comic a grittier, more realistic feel. It is largely thanks to Year One that Batman’s popularity has endured and even grown over the last couple of decades. There is no way we would have the recent Dark Knight films if it weren't for the Batman comicbook transformation that  Miller back in 1987.

The aspect of Year One that stands out the most for me is the characterisation. Miller digs deep into the minds of two of the most important characters in the Batman universe – Bruce Wayne and Jim Gordon – and he has a proper look at what drives them. For Gordon, it is the desire to raise a family in a city that is safe. For Bruce it is twofold; to clean up Gotham, and also to clean up the memories of the past that haunt him. Miller makes us care about both men and makes us want to get behind their struggle to make Gotham’s streets safe, giving us a frame of context in which to view any Batman graphic novels that followed.

Read Batman: Year One: US Readers    UK Readers