I don’t give much thought to page numbers when I’m reading comics simply for pleasure, but in my research and teaching, their absence can be exasperating. I can’t remember how many times I counted the 300+ pages in volumes 1 and 2 of Jeremy Love’s Bayou for an essay that I published on the series, and in the end, I don’t know how helpful my citations are for those who don’t take the time to count out each page on their own. And any instructor who has ever taught Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth knows what a bizarre experience it is to refer to Chris Ware’s pages in purely descriptive terms or in proximity to the narrative’s tiny paper cut-outs while the students flip madly through the book to catch up.

The origin of this practice may be related to the history behind comics editing and printing procedures, particularly given the insertion of ads and other extra-textual material in the traditional comic book pamphlet format. In his cultural history of the medium, Comic Book Nation, Bradford Wright didn’t even bother to include page numbers in his citations, claiming that “pagination in comic books is inconsistent and generally irrelevant” (xix).


Writer Derek McCulloch has experienced this inconsistency first hand. For his work at Image Comics, he explains: “I’ve had final say (along with the artist) over virtually every aspect of what’s on the page, I made sure that there were page numbers on Stagger Lee and clean forgot to ask for them on Pug.”  But his experience has been quite different at DC Comics, where he had little say over the production process. His latest graphic novel with artist Colleen Doran, Gone to Amerikay, a story that combines history and mythology to explore three generations of Irish immigration to America, doesn’t have a single page number.

Artist Eric Battle has had similar experiences working for Dark Horse, Marvel, and DC Comics, but he notes that with independent presses and creator-owned projects that “if pagination is intrinsic to the overall page design and I outline the specific need to have the pages numbered, I can’t think of any reason for the idea to be vetoed.” I have to admit that I hadn’t considered pagination as an element of “page design” or “need” before, only the ostensibly self-evident utilitarian uses.

So the inconsistency to which Bradford Wright refers is pretty evident then, but the question of relevancy is another matter. Are page numbers irrelevant in comics? The design of older serial comics may have been more heavily influenced by printing restrictions, but the decision regarding whether or not to number pages in today’s comics and graphic novels seems oddly impractical and yet, potentially laden with rich aesthetic implications. In the case of Jimmy Corrigan, for instance, I’m struck by the ways in which Ware sets us adrift in the diagrammatic images that shift back and forth through time; missing page numbers seem to heighten this sense of narrative unmooring. In another instance, Hillary Chute has remarked that Art Spiegelman’s unorthodox page numbering methods for In the Shadow of No Towers demonstrates “a material register of trauma’s inability to conform to the logic of linear and temporal progression” (Chute, qtd in The Jewish Graphic Novel).

So how does pagination shape the way you read comics? Might the use of page numbers enhance or detract from the storytelling process, or does the inconsistency simply exacerbate the perception of comics as disposable reading? I wonder, too, if pagination reflects how readers and creators approach comics predominately as objects of visual or verbal art?

Special thanks to Derek McCulloch and Eric Battle for their help with this post!


About Qiana Whitted

Associate Professor of English and African American Studies

9 responses »

  1. It seems that you and I have very similar lived experiences, Qiana. I hardly (never?) notice page numbers when I’m reading comics for pleasure. It wasn’t until I began publishing about comics and teaching comics that I began to rely on and, at times, miss pagination.

    Last summer, as i was revising my chapter on Afro Samurai, I decided to create a couple of tables as an appendix. I wanted to show the distribution of expressions in Japanese and English for the main characters, Afro and Ninja Ninja. That’s when I realized that the manga aren’t paginated consistently. The majority of pages in volume 1 have page numbers, but in volume 2, it’s a minority of pages. And in volume 2, 15 or 20 pages can pass before a page number appears. When I was doing the work of analysis, the lack of page numbers was rather frustrating, and like you, I counted pages more times than I care to remember.

    When I noticed the page numbering in Afro Samurai, I began to think that this was a symptom of my reading style. I focus much more intently on the speech balloons and the narrative balloons than I do on the images, and I thought that I probably ignored the page numbers because I was privileging the word over the image. But I wonder now if that’s the case.

    I think that literature (novels, even short stories) typically have page numbers because we need them. If a novel is 300 pages, then short of a book mark it’s important to be able to remember the page number you were on when you put the book down. With comics, though, is it easier to remember the image? Is it easier to pick up where you left off because of the word/image blend?

    Great post!

    • I don’t know, Frank – I could see it being easier to remember one’s location in a standard 32-page length comic book, but when a graphic novel is 300 pages, that case is mighty hard to make. (Also, I didn’t realize that manga pagination was sporadic like that!)

  2. slomomag says:

    Call me old-school, but I always loved the hand-lettered page numbers at the bottom of some comics from back in the day.

  3. Corey Creekmur says:

    I am in fact in the middle of teaching JIMMY CORRIGAN, and once again fumbling in class to hold up the book and ask students to try to find the page I want to focus upon … so, yeah, frustrating. And in this case I can’t see how page numbers might have harmed Ware’s aesthetic, though I’m sure given his obsessive attention to detail this was a choice he made.
    What is increasingly confusing to me is the role original page numbers play when comics are collected into longer volumes: which becomes more significant, the original page from the original issue, or the new number in the collection? The various collected editions of LOVE AND ROCKETS (that’s another issue, the same material collected in various volumes) have pages that retain the original page numbers, usually just of stories, not of whole issues. Would a proper citation be to the original story, original issue, and all reprints? That could be something like 5-6 different page numbers for the same page or panel…

    • Corey, I knew someone out there would be able to relate to my JIMMY CORRIGAN woes! I hadn’t thought about the matter of collected volumes, but you are right and it makes me wonder if this might explain why an editor these days might leave the numbers off knowing that the trade paperback would have them. When I came across this problem with SWAMP THING, I cited the original pagination, along with the issue number (which could also be confusing, since the trade paperback did not include issue numbers, just titles). This is crazy.

  4. Antonio says:

    As a reader of comics and of prose, I believe that page numbers are essential. I believe that in older comics numbering the pages was a tool important for the artist (in his production schedule) more than the reader, who had few pages to follow and interruptions in the sequence due to ads. In modern graphic novels, the page number, being an image to incorporate within the overall page structure, poses visual problems. Placing the numbers in the bottom margin detracts from the overall design. One solution is to place inobstrusive small numbers in the left and right margins, a practice that I’ve seen employed by some publishers.

    • Hi Antonio, thanks for stopping by. Your remark about “the page number being an image” confirms for me that I need to start considering pagination quite differently in terms of design and structure. It would be wonderful if they could embrace the challenge of incorporating page numbers the way some illustrators do with story titles and creator names. You know, some kind of creative, but less distracting way to insert pagination that matches the aesthetic of the rest of the page, like Eisner’s style in The Spirit.

  5. roytcook says:

    One thing that struck me: Page numbers in comics are, in a certain completely practical sense, sometimes even more critical than page numbers in prose novels. Here’s why: Imagine that you are reading a long novel and want to take a break. You have a limited number of choices for keeping track of where you are: leave the book open face-down on the desk (risking spine damage and detached pages), stick some sort of ‘marker’ in the book (this is why I like books – both prose and some comics – that come with the built-in ribbon, but such ‘marker’s are not always available), try to remember the page number (always difficult in a cluttered mind), or fold down the edge of the page. The last option is problematic for comics in a way that it isn’t problematic for prose, since creases on the page have a direct impact on one’s aesthetic experience of comics (the art), but they don’t have an analogous impact on one’s experience of prose (text has the same impact – roughly – regardless of the state of the paper it is printed on – something like Goodman’s autographic/ allographic distinction is at work here).

    As a result, lack of page numbers in comics, perhaps even more so than in prose, really does have the potential to “set us adrift in the diagrammatic images” as Qiana so nicely puts it. After all, you would never fold the page corner in Jimmy Corrigan, and as a result it is much more likely in a comic to lose one’s place. I suspect that in Ware’s work (and in Moore and Gibbons’ in Chapter V of Watchmen, and in a whole host of other examples), some of the effects depend, in subtle and perhaps largely unnoticed ways, on this difference between comics and prose.

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