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How experts read a graphic novel

Image by Katelyn LeBlanc, via Flickr

In many quarters, especially in K-12 education, graphic novels are held in low regard, as glorified comics or the kind of thing students turn to when they can’t handle real books. Laura Jimenez, a lecturer at the Boston University School of Education, thinks this owes to the fact that most teachers don’t understand graphic novels: They think of them as lightweight because they don’t know how to read them.

If you’re accustomed to reading traditional books, it’s no wonder graphic novels appear less substantial: They have far fewer words and lots of illustrations, like children’s books, and they tend to be popular with adolescent constituencies that don’t have the best reputations in school. Jimenez’s research looks at formalizing strategies for how to read graphic novels.

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To create these pointers, she surveyed “expert” graphic novel readers, including “the guys who hang out in gaming shops and can talk about every issue of Aquaman,” she said in a recent BU News article. The strategies she developed from those conversations all involve ways of extracting information from the page that go beyond merely comprehending the words. Jimenez’s experienced readers would approach a novel by first skimming the whole thing to absorb its overall aesthetics. Then they’d turn back to the first page, where they would “study the background, setting, and time period”; then they’d consider the characters, and examine the colors to “determine the mood of the book.” Only then would they settle in to read it.

In her view, graphic novels aren’t so much a subordinate kind of literature as a different—and, in their own way, difficult—form of media. Just like with romantic poetry or Renaissance painting, graphic novels are hard to appreciate fully unless you know how to approach them.

Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at
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