Comics, also known as graphic novels, is a literary genre that provides the reader with a visual component to go along with the text. There are numerous types and styles of comics, but they all have a similar, panel-based form that some readers might find confusing at first. So, how do you read comics properly?
Reading comics is quite easy, and it can be very engaging and beneficial for your intellect. Western comics, like Marvel, DC, Image Comics, etc., are read top-to-bottom, left to right. On the other hand, Japanese comics like manga are read top-to-bottom, but right-to-left, as if reading in a mirror.
If you’re just beginning to dive into the mesmerizing world of comics, you’re in the right place. Keep reading and learn all the hows and the whats you need to know, but most importantly – where to start.
Is Reading Comics Really Reading?
When people think about reading, some genres get somewhat “discriminated” and not considered “true” reading, like traditional literary forms are. However, reading comics IS really reading, and if you or your kid are interested in giving it a shot, I encourage you to do it. Even those who don’t enjoy reading regular books should go for it.
It’s a great way to engage your mind and understand other, non-graphic literary forms much easier. I wasn’t a fan of reading before, but once I got into the world of comics, I started swallowing issue after issue and quickly turned to more traditional literature and books.
The graphic segment allows you to follow the story more easily and teaches you how to pick up on the tone of the narration. It translates to reading other books and texts, too.
Comics have a unique way of storytelling that can be fantastic for children’s cognitive development but don’t get fooled by the superheroes and the cartoon-style drawings. The vocabulary can be quite sophisticated, which is just another plus.
Finally, the topics are incredibly diverse, from light and funny to dark and scary. You are almost certainly going to find something tailor-made for you, whether you’re into science, martial arts, sci-fi, romance, horror, or anything else.
Is It Bad to Read Comics?
There is nothing bad about reading comics, no matter what age you are. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. As I said, comics can be great for intellectual growth, improving reading abilities, vocabulary, memory, and a whole list of other benefits that make graphic novels good for anybody, from children to seniors.
Of course, you should always be careful about picking the right comics. You surely won’t give your six-year-old The Walking Dead comics to read, would you? Spider-Man, on the other hand, will blow their mind on one level, and once they’re asleep and you decide to flip through the pages, you’ll get pulled in on a deeper level.
I have a weird ritual when reading single issues. It depends on the comic, but they are usually between 20 and 30 pages long. So, I gobble up the story in 20-ish minutes and then go back to the second read, where I take it super slow, appreciating every frame of the spectacular artwork.
As you read more, you’ll notice how easier it is to follow the story and pick up on the undertone when scanning the images more thoroughly.
One study suggests that reading comics is heavily associated with pleasure reading and that children who read comics will most likely read more in general. 
To conclude, reading comics isn’t bad in any way, provided that you keep an eye out on the genre and the age limit.
How Do You Read a Comic Dialogue?
Reading comics has similar rules as any other literary form. However, it’s a bit more complicated due to the panel-based page composition. Sometimes, it’s not that clear in what order you should read pieces of text on the page, especially dialogue. So, how do you read a comic dialogue?
First, you should know how a dialogue looks – it’s usually a bubble with a tail pointing to the person/character who’s saying it. You should read a comic dialogue from top to bottom and from left to right. That means you should first read the bubble at the left-hand top of the first frame on the page.
Continue reading from left to right until you finish the frame before moving on to the next frame. If there are two or more frames in the same row, finish the row from left to right before moving towards the bottom of the page.
Suppose the characters each have more than one dialogue bubble in the same frame. In that case, they are usually connected with a line between them, with the bubbles interchanging between characters and going from top to bottom. Read the first dialogue bubble of one character, then the first bubble of the other character, and continue going from top to bottom until you finish the frame.
Suppose two or more dialogue bubbles from the same character are stacked on top of each other with no visible line separating them. In that case, it usually indicates that the character is saying the lines altogether, without the other character’s response between them. You commonly see it when somebody is telling a story or reminiscing about past events.
Do You Read All Comics from Left to Right?
All western comics (namely American) are read just like any other book or text – top to bottom left to right. However, not all comics follow the same pattern. Some comics, you read the other way around.
Many Japanese comics (commonly known as manga) are read from right to left. It’s in their cultural heritage to read and write in such a way. Also, you start from what would be the last page in western civilization and read from right to left to the “first” page. In other words, start from the back and read to the front of the comic.
Just imagine reading in a mirror. You still read from top to bottom, but the sides are reversed. It takes a minute to get used to it, but it’s just like reading it the “normal” way after the initial adjustment period.
Some Japanese publishers reverse their comics for the western market, so if you find it too difficult to read from right to left, try the “reversed” versions. The artwork and themes are quite different from western comics but just as enjoyable.
How to Read Comic Bubbles?
Now that you know how to read a comic dialogue and how to follow the timeline correctly, you’ll notice that not all the bubbles are of the same shape or form. Each type of speech or text has a particular bubble style, so let’s name a few that you’ll commonly see.
Regular Speech Bubbles
Regular speech bubbles are by far the most common. I’ve mentioned them before – they are circular (or oval), and they have a tail pointing towards the character who’s saying the lines. This means the character is talking in a normal tone or loudly, depending on the interpunction.
Jagged or Zigzag Bubbles
Jagged or Zigzag bubbles usually mean that the character is shouting. It’s more than just talking loud; this type of bubble is used when the writers highlight that the character is shouting. Sometimes, the font inside the bubble can be enlarged and bolded to emphasize it even further. Enlarged and bolded font in a regular speech bubble counts as shouting as well.
Dashed or Blurred Bubbles
When a character is whispering or talking silently, the bubble will usually be dashed or blurred with grey instead of black text. Sometimes, the text within the bubble will be smaller. If the text inside a regular bubble is smaller than normal, it can also depict whispering.
Cloud bubbles are referred to as thought bubbles. The character isn’t saying the text within the cloud out loud, but rather thinking it inside their head instead of verbalizing and speaking to someone else. However, bubbles don’t have a tail but rather a trail of dots (looking like smaller and smaller clouds) leading to the character’s head.
Rectangular bubbles in comics are known as narration panels. They are usually differently colored from dialogue bubbles for you to distinguish them even easier. Narration bubbles don’t “belong” to any character, but rather the 3rd person narrator, explaining or clarifying the scene.
For instance, they’ll tell you “there’s a strong smell in the air,” or something similar to reveal information that the characters are unaware of, or they never acknowledge it themselves.
How to Read Comic Faster?
I had a problem when I first dived into the spectacular world of graphic novels – I started following too many storylines at once as they were coming out, and I just didn’t have the time to read through everything.
Eventually, I lost interest in a couple, so I have more time to enjoy the ones I like the most, and you’ll probably end up doing the same. In the meantime, if you want to make time to read more without having to drop out of storylines, there are ways to get through issues faster.
First, learn how to “read” the illustrations. Humans get over 90% of information from the world through their eyesight, meaning we are incredibly visual beings. A quick glance at the illustration can give you much information about what’s going on.
When you perceive the situation visually, it’ll be easier and faster to read the text. If you want to read faster, glance at the images first, and then read the text.
While reading the text, ensure you’re reading to yourself silently without vocalizing. Speaking what you read will make you read slower, and if your goal is to speed up, do the reading in your head.
There’s also a technique called skimming that works as an extension of the technique I talked about just now – glancing at the images to gather information quickly. You do the same thing, but you conclude whether the frame is worth reading, or could you skip the text – for instance, if the frame is only an extension of the previous illustration or situation.
I advise you not to use the technique, as you can’t experience the comic fully if you skip some parts, even if it’s just detailing. It’s better to stay focused on the text and try to understand it as you read it.
If you do everything I’ve said – glanced at the images first, then reading silently while focusing on what you’re reading, it’ll allow you to read faster. Also, you won’t need to reread segments to understand them better or go back because you missed something.
When I first implemented these methods, I’ve cut down my reading time per issue in half. But, as I’ve said, I found it better to just drop some storylines that interest you the least and truly appreciate the ones you like the most, reading them thoroughly with understanding. You can always go back to the storylines you’ve dropped if you find more time to spare later.
How to Read Comics Without Damaging Them?
Trying to fly through an issue fast or simply not knowing how to handle your comic can cause a lot of damage. And, comics are expensive nowadays, but most importantly, they’re collectible and fragile, to a degree. That’s why you need to handle and store them with care.
First of all, do not roll the comic in a tube. Ever. I’ve seen my roommate folding a comic up trying to kill a fly, and I cringed. The more you fold or roll the pages, the more warped and damaged they get.
When reading, avoid holding the comic with your fingers on each side, slightly pulling on it to keep it upright. That way, you’re putting a constant strain on the pages, and especially the spine, which will eventually tear. Instead, gently place the comic on your palm or a table and read it that way.
Flip the pages gently, and try not to grasp the page near the corners but rather around the middle to avoid potential tears. When you flip the page, let it drop on its own instead of pressing it down. That way, you let it sit where it naturally should instead of warping the spine in the process.
As for storage, keep your comics upright instead of stacked on top of each other if you can. If there are too many stacked on one another, the ones on the bottom might suffer wrinkles, bends, tears, and deformations. However, that’s not as important as keeping them in a cool, dry place.
There are three mortal enemies of stored comics, and they are light, heat, and humidity. If you find storage that lacks those three features, your comics will be fine. Although, you should avoid cold storage places too. If the comics are cold, don’t open them instantly because the spine may crack as the glue becomes brittle from the cold. Instead, let the comic sit for a few minutes to get closer to room temperature before reading.
Don’t eat or drink when you’re reading, and keep your hands clean and dry to avoid marks, lumps, wrinkles, wet spots, etc.
What Comics Should a Beginner Read?
Now you know all the whats, hows, dos, and don’ts, it’s time to pick your comics. First, you need to know what you’re interested in. What themes do you want to read about? Do you like action or romance? Is sci-fi or human psyche more your thing? There’s something for everybody, so I’ll give you some great suggestions on different themes and styles.
Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World
We are kicking things off on a funny note, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World is light but hysterical, a comic that will have you laughing out loud. The storytelling is quite straightforward, so it’s a great choice to ease you into the world of graphic novels.
The story follows a geeky guy named Scott, a lazy musician who falls in love with a girl. However, she has a ton of ex-boyfriends – mean, crazy ex-boyfriends who Pilgrim has to go through to get to the girl.
It’s a spectacularly well-written story from Brian Lee O’Malley and Oni Press you should try out if you want something light, fun, simple, yet brilliant to get you into comic books.
If you like the superhero genre, but not quite over-the-top like cosmic entities and multiversal warfare, I suggest you try out Hawkeye from 2012 for a few reasons.
One, it’s a fantastic superhero storyline, but at the same time, it’s about an entirely human guy – no superpowers, no magic, just his spectacular skills as a marksman.
Two, you’ll learn more about the Marvel Universe and meet some amazing characters you might get interested in to dig deeper into the genre.
Three, Disney+ is just about to give us a new MCU TV show called Hawkeye, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the events in this storyline depicted on the big screen.
Now we’re taking the superhero genre in a whole other direction. Alan Moore’s Watchmen has been inducted into Time Magazine’s 100 Best Novels list, which is all you need to know about how awesome this DC Comics story is.
I won’t get into the story’s details, but only the broad basic – you follow a group of superheroes. Still, instead of being a part of some alternative universe, they are right here, influencing history-changing events such as the war in Vietnam, etc.
It’s a sensational story, albeit a lot darker than Marvel’s Hawkeye or similar comics. They deal with topics such as extreme violence, sexual assaults, social injustice, and other heavy, deep subjects that dig deep into the core of our society.
The Walking Dead
Yes, THAT The Walking Dead. Many fans don’t know that AMC’s blockbuster TV series is based on the Image Comics story made by Robert Kirkman. And, I must say, it’s even better than the show.
Of course, it’s a horror comic revolving around a post-apocalyptic world decimated with a zombie apocalypse. Still, it’s so much more, diving into human psychology and our primal instincts such as survival, hunger, love, passion, etc. It’s all blood and zombie gore on the surface, but it deals with very important, heavy subjects when you dive deeper.
It’s not for everyone, but if you enjoy the horror genre, get ready to be scared to death and then back. Zombie pun intended.
Dragon Ball Z
Finally, I wanted to include a Japanese comic to this list simply because they are really special, and you’d be missing out on a lot if you don’t check them out. Dragon Ball Z has been my favorite anime since I was a kid, and I bet you’d love it, too, despite a cultural difference and a particularly interesting way of storytelling.
If you don’t feel like reading right to left, there are plenty of “regular” editions on the market, so make sure to check them out.
Honorable mentions of comics for beginners: Saga (Image Comics), The Dark Knight (DC Comics), Bandette (Monkeybrain Comics), Fantastic Four (Marvel Comics)