Skip main navigation

How do we acquire comics literacy?

Comics literacy is not intuitive. Watch Clémentine Beauvais talk about how children gradually learn to decode graphic narratives.
You 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.
Note 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.
And 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.
My 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.

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.

This article is from the free online

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

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education