My daughter started first grade last month and we are reading constantly – anything with words – street signs, food labels, chapter books, and of course, comics. She prefers comic books based on her favorite TV shows (SpongeBob SquarePants, Disney Fairies) along with a few that I enjoy myself, like Art Baltazar’s Tiny Titans…aw yeah, Titans!

I have found, though, that reading these stories aloud to her can be an unexpectedly awkward experience, one that may be useful for our conversations here at PPP. It’s hardly as straightforward and immersive as reading a novel and lacks the familiar rhythms of story hour at the public library, in which one recites the words in a picture book before pausing to display the accompanying images.

Instead you are compelled to provide your own attribution for the dialogue in a comic, taking care to describe visual components and abstract inferences along with any necessary exposition. You have to note the placement of narrative boxes, sounds, and characters before determining the order in which to convey the events taking place. And if you’re reading to someone fairly new to comics like my six year old, whose eyes roam wildly around the colorful pages, you may end up having to point out key elements in each panel. If you approach the comic as if it is Goodnight Moon, you will be left stumbling. The demands placed on both the reader and the listener (or viewer) are substantial.

But I wonder if the experience of reading comics aloud does more than simply affirm the participatory nature of the medium. Once my husband introduced our daughter to his old, dog-eared collection of Calvin and Hobbes, for instance, the strip quickly became her favorite and most requested comic. I was puzzled at first (I thought she wouldn’t get the deadpan humor) but after watching them spend ten minutes laughing over a single four-panel strip, it wasn’t hard to figure out why she loves it so much. Dad does the first read through and selectively translates what he sees in a way that she can understand, and then they end up going over and over the comic several times, highlighting new details in each panel that buttress the strip’s punch line. The hilarious facial expressions alone invite multiple, extended readings in these strips and it isn’t long before my daughter has invented new dialogue to capture what Hobbes is really thinking here and or visualizing what Calvin could possibly do next there.

What I hear in these bedtime story performances are hardly recitations of comics that Bill Watterson wrote and illustrated, but something closer to revisions and rewritings of his strips – and that is what interests me the most. The act of reading the comic aloud, rather than generating an immersive experience, seems to necessitate a vigorously interpretive one. In previous posts, Barbara has touched on the question of immersive reading, while Roy offers a different kind of rereading of a Calvin and Hobbes strip. I wonder what we might make of their queries if we also think of comics as the kind of text that can extend beyond the silence of the page into collective reading modes. Although my daughter has seen every page of that Calvin and Hobbes collection over a dozen times, could it be possible that she has never encountered the same comic strip twice?  And perhaps never will?

About Qiana Whitted

Associate Professor of English and African American Studies

4 responses »

  1. Barbara Postema says:

    I love your post, Qiana! I had similar experiences reading comics with my oldest daughter when she was younger. We read _Sweater Weather_ by Sara Varon a LOT. The book contains a number of short stories, many of them silent, so we would make up dialogue, and as you say, it involved drawing attention to all kinds of important parts of the pictures.
    Two things stand out to me about this experience, after reading your post. The first is that reading comics with my daughter gave me insight into how differently the work comes across to other readers: my daughter would notice different things than I did, read them in a different order, or interpret facial expressions or body language quite differently. Secondly, reading a comic aloud like that becomes a kind of performance, so yeah, it really adds a dimension to the original work. That’s something I have sometimes also experienced at readings by comics artists. Some of them do voices and things like that for their stories and strips (especially in R. Sikoryak’s Carousel) and it really brings the work to life in a different way. But it’s nice that we can do something similar by ourselves at home.

    • Hi Barbara, I’m glad to hear that someone can relate! I am going to add Sara Varon to our list, too. I haven’t had as much opportunity to see comics creators doing readings of their work in person, but I was thinking that another analogous experience would be an academic presentation where you are compelled to describe a scene for analysis – of course, then, your audience is prepared to assess your interpretive choices, but it’s still not a self-evident reading process.

  2. roytcook says:

    Dang, so now I have to have kids in order to understand this stuff?

    Kidding aside, I think this is really important. In particular, the different ways that comics are experienced in this read-aloud context seem to me (amongst other things, discussed above) to emphasize that learning to ‘read’ comics (in the sense that we, supposedly ‘sophisticated’ readers, read them) is a learned skill, and one over and above merely learning to read the kind of text included in the comic, and merely learning to decode the visual representations of the art. Interestingly, however, this also emphasizes that in learning to read them on our own, we might actually lose something, in a certain sense (the performative and collaborative experience of reading out loud with a child seems to emphasize the multiple interpretations that are possible in terms of emphasizing different aspects of, and assigning different weights to, various aspects of the pictorial versus textual content, among other things).

    I wonder how these observations about children’s early experiences with comics connect to problems that some older adults have with reading comics. Is this sort of early collaborative reading experience with comics (or some sort of early exposure to comics, at the very least!) essential to learning to properly navigate the typical picture-text hybrid of comics? Is it possible that learning to seamlessly integrate word and pictures in comics is facilitated in some way by this sort of experience – one that involves recognizing that some picture-word combinations of this sort open themselves to additional, interpretive flourishes on the part of the reader? Deep questions, and ones that I don’t really know how to answer.

    • Ha, too funny – kids are definitely not required to understand comics!

      I completely agree that this experience reinforces the notion of reading comics as a “learned skill.” Eisner has a great sequence about that in one of his books that highlights all the coded language and reading patterns that you have to acquire in order to make the narrative flow seamlessly. Otherwise, it’s a strange experience (like how I felt when reading manga for the first time in my 30s…).

      When I was writing this, I was also thinking about all those supporters of the medium who tried to make a case for the legitimacy of comics by promoting it as a tool for literacy. It doesn’t seem to be a great tool for this at all. Or rather, it teaches a different kind of literacy that doesn’t necessarily translate as well to straight prose (it’s much better at teaching comprehension or interpretation, maybe). Despite DC and Marvel’s latest attempts at publishing kid’s chapter books using their characters, there must be a reason why we don’t see too many comics versions of “The Cat in the Hat.”

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