Skip to 0 minutes and 3 secondsYou might think that reading comics is instinctive and easy, but comic literacy is an acquired skill. It is a kind of hybrid visual-verbal literacy, that requires mastering conventions regarding the visual representations of narrative sequentiality, of psychological states, or the passing of time. When we are competent in comics literacy, we know that more time has passed in-between two panels like those than in between two panels like those. The first example, in Scott McCloud’s words, is an ‘aspect-to-aspect’ transition, where each panel, contemplative and static, evokes a slowing-down of time. The second is an ‘action-to-action’ transition, where we understand that what happened in-between was a fast change of action.

Skip to 0 minutes and 58 secondsNote that it’s us, there, who are providing closure: we are making hypotheses, very rapidly, about what happened in the gutter. We conclude that more or less time has passed, and it influences everything from our understanding to the story to our reading pace. How do we acquire comic literacy? Likely through a mixture of passive exposure and active engagement. I suspect I acquired it as a young child, when my father used to read me comics like this one. He would do different voices for each character, thus implicitly teaching me where the phylactera were coming from. He would do sound effects that gave meaning to the various symbols on the page.

Skip to 1 minute and 41 secondsAnd he doubtlessly pointed at each panel as he read them in succession, indirectly teaching me the ‘right’ way to read a comic sequence. Interestingly, I developed comics literacy through exposure to Franco-Belgian comics, and those skills are not always transferrable. As a teenager, I discovered manga - and that required very different skills.

Skip to 2 minutes and 2 secondsMy manga literacy developed more chaotically: friends helped me understand how to make sense of those pages, and other things I figured out myself. In moments like those, you really see why comics literacy is an acquired, rather than instinctive, skill.

How do we acquire comics literacy?

Clémentine Beauvais told us about the way she became an proficient reader of Franco-Belgian comics…

How did you acquire comics literacy? Tell us in the comments.

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This video is from the free online course:

Pictures of Youth: An Introduction to Children’s Visual Culture

University of York