How to Read a Graphic Novel Insightfully

Comic books have grown beyond their origins as collections of cartoon characters and stories of superhero adventure. In the form of graphic novels, they can and do deal with many of the same themes and story types as print literature from children's and young adult stories to mature histories and biographies for adult readers. Accordingly, graphic novels are now part of school reading and literature classes, where they are covered much the same way as traditional print literature, and graphic novels are also reviewed in print and online much the same way as print novels and nonfiction. To teach or write about graphic novels requires the ability to read a graphic novel insightfully; following are steps to help you develop that insight.


  1. Image titled Read a Graphic Novel Insightfully Step 1
    Read a wide variety of comics. To read a graphic novel insightfully, you should read a number of comics in a number of genres. While comic books and graphic novels are associated primarily with "funny animals" for the youngest readers and superheroes for most others, comics have expanded their range into many of the same areas once covered only by print fiction. Graphic novels today include biographies, such as Reinhard Kleist's "I See a Darkness" about Johnny Cash; memoirs, such as Marjane Satrapi's "Persepolis;" and historical allegories, such as Art Spiegelman's "Maus;" along with sword-and-sorcery tales, such as Richard Corben's "Bloodstar" and Gil Kane and Archie Goodwin's "Blackmark;" and re-examinations of the superhero in Alan Moore's "Watchmen" and Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns."
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    Read as broadly across the history of comics as you can. Although the name "graphic novel" dates back to 1964 and the present usage of the term to 1976, the practice of creating graphic novels can be traced back decades earlier to the beginnings of the modern comic book itself. By reading comics from the earliest years to the most recent, you will see how the quality of both the writing and the artwork has improved from the earliest Golden Age (1933 to 1955) stories to those of the Bronze (1971 to 1985) and Modern Ages (1986 to present).
    • One way to read older comics is to find digital copies of older comics on the Internet. These digital comics are compressed files of graphic images that can be read sequentially with a graphic reader program.
    • Another way to read older comics is to read story reprints in comics annuals, comics digests, and larger graphic anthologies. Most of these reprints are oriented toward superhero or science fiction comics, primarily, while some are oriented toward comic strip instead of comic book characters.
    • A third way is to read comic stories reprinted in collections such as Jules Feiffer's "The Great Comic Book Heroes," which features the Golden Age origin stories of well-known superheroes, as well as the author's commentary.
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    Read books and websites about comics and graphic novels. Part of the process to developing your own insights into the graphic novels you read is to learn some of the insights offered by those who write about the comic medium. Books such as Will Eisner's "Comics and Sequential Art" and Scott McCloud's "Understanding Comics," written in comic book format, will explain to you how the comic medium works and help you understand some of the things you see in the comics you read. Popular graphic novels, particularly those that have been made into movies, have websites devoted to them, such as the section on the DC Comics website devoted to "Watchmen," and reviews are available on sites such as Blogcritics and
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    Become familiar with literary techniques as used in comics. Although comics are primarily a visual medium, comics and graphic novels do use many of the literary techniques found in printed literature. Some examples of these techniques and their uses are described below:
    • Allegory is the use of symbolism to explain big or abstract concepts by drawing analogies with common objects that can be more easily understood. Spiegelman's "Maus" uses allegory by using talking animals to represent scenes of Nazi violence and concentration camps, similar to the way George Orwell used the animals in "Animal Farm" to represent Soviet Communism.
    • Allusion is making reference to a person, place, event, or literary work by naming a character or place in the story in its honor. One of the most recognizable examples of this in comics is Arkham Asylum in "Batman," which is named in honor of the fictional Massachusetts town that figures in stories in H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos. Likewise, the graphic novel "I See a Darkness" takes its title from one of Johnny Cash's more recent songs, and "Watchmen" alludes to the question "Who watches the watchmen?"
    • Diction refers to the writer's choice of words for the narration and character's speech, such as Marvel Comics' version of Thor using "thees" and "thous" in his speech to identify him as more than mortal. In comics and graphic novels, this can be augmented graphically; Dr. Manhattan's speech balloons in "Watchmen" are rendered in blue instead of white to show both how his voice has been changed by acquiring his powers and to further show his difference from the other, non-powered heroes and from humanity in general.
    • Foreshadowing is presenting an event early in the story that parallels or foretells what will happen at a later time. In "Watchmen," the father of 16-year-old Jon Osterman forcibly directs his son to abandon his plans to become a watchmaker and instead become a nuclear physicist in the wake of the announcement of the atomic bomb drop on Hiroshima in 1945. Fourteen years later, Osterman goes into an atomic testing lab to retrieve his girlfriend's broken watch, only to be locked inside and be transformed by the radiation into Dr. Manhattan.
    • Framing devices can be used to introduce or conclude sections within a work or the entire work itself. Each chapter of "Watchmen" ends with a chapter of Hollis "Nite Owl" Mason's memoir "Under the Hood" that amplifies both the modern-day and flashback scenes presented within the chapter. "I See a Darkness" introduces each section of Johnny Cash's life with a dramatized version of one of Cash's songs, with Cash depicted as the lead actor in each dramatization.
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    Become familiar with some of the visual techniques used in comics. Because of their visual nature, comics and graphic novels exemplify the maxim in fiction of "Show, don't tell," using light, shadow, color, and visual depiction to display the setting, convey the mood, and further characterization.
    • While most comic books are 4-color publications, many graphic novels are published in black and white or with limited use of color. This can be done to recreate the sense of foreboding in film noir of the 1940s, as Frank Miller does in his "Sin City" graphic novel series or to also symbolize the public image of its protagonist, as Reinhard Kleist does in "I See a Darkness," connecting to Johnny Cash's image as the Man in Black.
    • In those graphic novels that do use color, color choices can convey special meaning. In "Watchmen," Alan Moore chose the shade of light blue he did for Dr. Manhattan to match the tone of human flesh, but yet show that Manhattan has become something other than human. Moore further displays this by showing that during his career, Manhattan has worn progressively less clothing, until he finally wears only a circular mark on his forehead.


  • In addition to reading and reading about comics and graphic novels, you should also read widely in traditional print fiction as well to develop an understanding of how authors paint pictures with the words they choose. This will further your insight into graphic novels by enabling you to contrast the techniques artists and writers use to breathe life into their stories.

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