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How to read a comic book: appreciating the story behind the art

Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Reading a comic book can be a daunting task.

Text flies at you from all angles. Sometimes, the sequence of events can be hard to follow. And there are plenty of titles that are specifically meant to be challenging. And by and large, comics readers have to be self-taught. We don't have a great system for teaching people how to read stories told in visuals.

But there's an art to reading a comic book, one developed over nearly 100 years in the US.

As the age-old practice goes mainstream, both readers and artists are experimenting with new ways to speak to and read each other. Here, then, as part one of an ongoing series, is a brief guide to comic basics — starting with panels and gutters.

In this article, we're primarily referring to American comic books. There are other comics, like Japanese manga, which are structured and read differently.

How a comic book is structured:

Ody-C #2 (Ward/Image)

Comic books have a form and their own language to refer to that form. The diagram above is a very basic breakdown of what it would look like if you opened a page in a comic book.

Pages are meant to be read from left to right and in a "z-like" pattern — you read the rows as they're tiered and make your way down a page. Each page consists of panels — single illustrations, usually sequential, that tell the story. And the space that separates each panel is known as the gutter.

While stuff like the gutter and the size of a panel or what a panel's border or frame looks like might seem like tiny details, they're actually places where comic book artists are weaving in important concepts and making deliberate decisions.

What a comic book artist's job is like

Comic books are unlike any other art form. Because of this, the comic book artist has to juggle lots of information on any given project. They have to rationalize the angles and point-of-view the way a movie director would. They have to think about composition and contrast the way a photographer might. And they have to conceptualize the use of colors in their illustrations the way a painter does.

"The biggest difference between a single illustration and a comic book is time," Christian Ward, the artist for the comic book Ody-C, told me. Ward was an art teacher and is now a full-time artist, working with companies like Image (the publisher of Ody-C), Dynamite, and Marvel.

"You're trying to illustrate time and the passing of time. You don't see that passing of time in the comic because if you're doing it right, the passing of time should be the gutter of it," he added. "Each panel is a moment of time. And then the gutter is the time occurring, and the next panel is what happens after that time's occurred."

Here's an example from Ody-C. The two characters in these panels step into a kind of hot spring, but you don't see a continuous sequence — you see fragments. The actual motion of the characters stepping into the spring and adjusting to its heat is in your head (if you're following along):

Ody-C #2 (Image/Christian Ward)

In a sense, comic book artists play the part of editors, too, choosing which fragments to give life to, when they want to hold the reader's hand, and when they want the reader to infer something on their own.

"You have to decide how those fragments of time are," Ward said, explaining that Matt Fraction, the writer of Ody-C, gives him a plot script but ultimately lets Ward decide how to compose each panel.

"Each page will have bullet points. So I've got to make the decision [of how to portray those important points]. I then kind of draw it up," Ward said, adding that it takes him around four weeks to create the art after receiving the script.

Where the magic happens

All of this could make comic book art sound almost formulaic. But that isn't the case at all. Within the boundaries of panels and gutters, artists change the way readers absorb a book by playing with the form's existing conventions.

For instance, there are no rules about a size of a panel. When artists make panels big and wide, readers slow down, spending time closely examining an image. This is hugely effective when you want to, say, show off a superhero team, as in Avengers & X-Men: Axis:

Avengers & X-Men Axis #1 (Kubert/Marvel)

By shortening a panel, artists make the pace more frenetic. Here, in Alex + Ada, artist Jonathan Luna plays with size to speed up the violence and heighten the fear in the sequence:

Alex+Ada #12 (Jonathan Luna/Image)

There are also ways that an artist can subconsciously signal time or a state of mind to a reader. In The Wicked + The Divine, artist and co-creator Jamie McKelvie and colorist Matthew Wilson do this by changing the colors of the comic's gutters.

When McKelvie and Wilson are portraying the present and a dialogue you're watching as a third person, you see white gutters and crisp lines:

The Wicked + The Divine #2 (McKelvie/Image)

When McKelvie and Wilson depict an altered state, the colors of the gutters shift, as well as the framing of the panels:

The Wicked + The Divine #8 (McKelvie/Image)

And when the comic is depicting a flashback, the gutters turn grey. The frames or borders of the panel also become fuzzy, perhaps because this is an imperfect memory:

The Wicked + The Divine #2 (McKelvie/Image)

There are ways to subvert the rules and form of panels and gutters to convey parts of a story.

If panels and gutters represent time and structure, then the absence of panels means something is broken or something is so powerful that rules don't apply to it:

Uncanny X-Men Annual #1 (Sorrentino/Marvel)

Artist Andrea Sorrentino plays with this in Uncanny X-Men Annual #1. Sorrentino is telling the story of a mutant named Eva Bell with the power to travel through time. But Eva isn't quite in control of her powers, and in order to convey this, Sorrentino beautifully creates chaos, shattering panels and having them bleed into one another. By the time Eva has grasped a little bit of control (the bottom of the page), order is restored.

What Ody-C does so well

Ody-C offers an operatic inversion of Homer's classic tale. Instead of a ship at sea, Ward and Fraction have taken the story to space and gender-flipped the epic's characters.

Ward's art is bonkers. It's dizzying, one of the most artistically ambitious books on the market:

Ody-C #1 (Ward/Image)

"I've always liked doing pages that are more challenging," Ward said, explaining that he wants to play with the format of a page. "I'll often approach a page like a puzzle."

The result is swirling spools of images that look like the comic lovechild of Dali, Daft Punk, and David Hockney. "People never believe me, but I've never done drugs before," he said.

Ody-C #2 (Ward/Image)

But Ward's ambition isn't without thoughtfulness. The absence of structure is a methodical decision that only occurs when the scene involves the story's gods.

"The gods are the only characters that speak with speech bubbles," he said. "They kind of exist in a different, three-dimensional plane from the rest of the comic … When the gods are involved, we see them directly fiddling around cosmically."

Ody-C #2 (Ward/Image)

Because they are gods, the rules of form don't apply to them. Therefore, the pages where Ward depicts them are nebulous, with structure almost ignored. When the comic focuses on the story's human characters, the scenes are quieter, and the panels become more sequential, feeling as if they occur in the present tense, instead of outside of time altogether:

Ody-C #3 (Ward/Image)

Space, which is usually very linear and structured in many sci-fi stories, is nebulous and mysterious in Ward's comic. This fluid feel is an ode to the original tale and meant to mimic what people look like underwater, Ward told me. "The comic book's liquid elements are a wink and nudge to that," he said.

With Ward weaving so much into the comic book, it's possible that not every reader picks up on exactly what he's thinking. Sometimes, he explained, just making a person feel a certain way through art — even if you can't put your finger on why you feel the way you do — is why he loves his craft.

"Every page, you make a thousand decisions, some of which are conscious, some of which are subconscious," he said. "But when people do pick up on these ideas, some of which aren't always sign-posted, that's fantastic. You know you're doing something right."

Ody-C #3 goes on sale on Wednesday.

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