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Learn How to Read Graphic Novels That Entwine Words and Visuals

How to Read Graphic Novels
It's like asking someone what they see when they look at a painting. Sometimes, there isn't much to decipher, while sometimes you will have people arguing over the true meaning. Same goes for a graphic novel; whether you're reading it to gain knowledge or just for the heck of seeing pictures, here's how you do it.
Arun Prabhu
Last Updated: Mar 26, 2018
I believe a graphic novel to be the best combination of comic book styled panel art merged with the literary sense of a fluent writer. While a graphic novel does have some shortcomings, it seems to be the best option to get people who abhor reading, to discover the world of literature. The best part with a graphic novel comes with letting kids read it. For minds totally accustomed to reading in a frame-by-frame pattern, a good graphic novel is the best way to impart a bit of history on their impressionable minds. And face it, who doesn't like to read a book with a lot of pictures in it! You'd now be asking, "So what's the real difference between a so-called graphic novel and a comic book? They look all the same to me!"
Setting Apart Comics and Novels
While this subject wanders slightly askew of the main matter, it is very important that you understand the real differences between a novel, a comic and a graphic novel to exploit the full potential of reading graphic novels better.
Woman reading novel
The first question I'll ask you is, 'What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you think about novels?' Your dictionary answer would be, a fictional prose narrative of considerable length, typically having a plot that is unfolded by the actions, speech, and thoughts of the characters. While I agree with the given definition, what remains unexplained is the reader's connection to the book. A true, good novel can instill in the hearts of readers, a sense of belonging and imagination so vivid and infallible, the very things that make a book simply impossible to put down. The books so unanimously regarded as the best novels in the world are the ones that the larger part of the world is taken to, intoxicated and left breathless.
Comics for kids
When you now take a look at a simple comic book, you'll notice immediately that there is a high level of emphasis on visual art and not text. For those too accustomed to the picture-less novels, you'd find switching over to comics a rather sizable dent on your imagination. You'd say the comics hardly leave anything to the imagination, and visualization is too precise to roam about by yourself. While it is true that one page of visual art can depict many pages of the written word (if you believe the old saying, each panel should be equal to a thousand words!), what remains unseen and therefore left to the reader is the picture between two frames. If two frames show different things, what the author leaves to you is to fill out the spaces in between.
Graphic Novels
Graphic Novel
This brings us to the conclusion of the graphic novel. It remains, in the best of intents, the work of someone who will use both pictures and words to express the gravity of a plot. Because there are times when words may fall short of filling a canvas, while at other times, a picture cannot truly show what an individual is exactly feeling or what a landscape is supposed to show. When I read a graphic novel, the panels form a basic framework of thought, around which flow the dialogs in text and the descriptions that make the frame move. It's like watching a motion picture where each graphic panel represents one frame in the reel and your mind is the projector, the screen and the audience.

Other, more stark differences between a comic book, a novel and a graphic novel are the levels at which each dialog is delivered. The voice that you hear in your head is far stronger in a graphic novel than the other two, because you're seeing the built, face and nationality of the characters as they speak. Another rather valuable difference is the way the graphic novel author can drop subtle hints that go a long way in explaining things that are not really in line with the main story, but are important nonetheless. Case in point, if or when you happen to read the graphic novel 'Maus' by Art Spiegelman, you will fully understand the depth to which a graphic novel can take you. For example, Art shows Jews as mice, Germans as cats and Poles as pigs in Maus. Every once in a while, you come across the Jews mixing with the Poles to escape the Gestapo, and the scenes that include this have the Jewish 'mice' putting on the masks of Polish 'pigs'. Small things that explain the scene in such detail can only be found in a graphic novel.
Top 10 Graphic Novels
  • Persepolis
  • Bone
  • Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth
  • Fun Home
  • Blankets
  • Ghost World
  • Black Hole
  • Sandman
  • Watchmen
  • Maus
Reading a Graphic Novel
Little girl reading book
With the age that we live in, graphic novels will be preferred mostly by kids and teenagers, the ones who have been reading comics the day they could get their hands on one and now think that novels are bigger in size, have too many words to interest them and are filled with nonsense. To be precise, most kids think that novels stink.
The next part is therefore, aimed at getting them to read a graphic novel the way it should be read. Adults who have never ventured into this unfamiliar realm before, feel free to get the basics right and grab a graphic novel yourself. To explain the ways of the graphic novel, I have taken a little help from 'Maus', but rest assured, there are no real spoilers.
The Appeal
Graphic novels are not unrealistic in their descriptions. You will find that most of them are about non-fiction. They contain historical backgrounds (like World War II in Maus and The Cold War in Watchmen), threaded by an earnest attempt on accurate storytelling through the eyes of those who experienced it. Like Vladek Spiegelman, whose words ring in our brains as he describes how he survived the Holocaust.
You see his memories as flashes that come and go, added to which are the conversations between Art and Vladek Spiegelman, as son and father. The resulting effect is something that novels cannot reciprocate and comics cannot elaborate. The total appeal of a graphic novel, hence, lies in the profoundness of entwining words and pictures together. As an adult, you have heard a lot of stories about the second World War, read books on it, but never before have you read something that takes you to levels this deep and personal.
The Plot
You will find striking similarities in the plot when you compare novels to graphic novels. The difference between a comic and a graphic novel is that the latter is a one time read. Comics come up with a new story every release, whether it's about the main story or a side-plot, lies in the author's discretion. The plot in a graphic novel is linear, with each chapter revealing more and more about the main story or of the characters involved.
The deviance of a graphic novel from a regular novel comes from the fact that the pictures used are often enough to explain the background story. The details on a character are what you see, not what you picture from words. In a way, you delve far from your own thoughts and are brought, by invitation, into the shell of the author himself. While a novel can describe someone as accurately as possible, you'd still end up drawing a picture of them according to your imagination, whether it's from your acquaintances or from the kind of person you think them to be. The graphic novel leaves no such thing to you, making it amply clear that the characters are built according to the author's thoughts and not yours. This, in a way, makes the plot all the more important, because you find it difficult to predict what the author's character is going to do next.

Graphic novels are intended to be narratives rather than regular fiction works. That makes it all the more important to have a plot with a high level of design. Narratives often zip back and forth in time, which can be used to increase character depth.
The Images
Girls reading book
The conundrum around the graphic novel is a product of the usage of pictures. If used accurately, they are more valuable than an entire chapters worth of words in explanation. It is the double-edged sword for the graphic novel, because if the panel isn't drawn right, the resulting confusion can throw the reader off.
The art in a graphic novel can be, when compared to a comic, as simple just to put a point through, or as detailed (or even more than a comic) to help express the situation even better. The art can be dark and unsettling, or bright and cheery, according to what the author wants to show. The panels need to express what is more important at the moment, the character or the background, which is what you, as a reader, will eventually pay attention to.
The Text
Graphics novel
The text comes into play in order to deepen your view on the characters. The text follows a pattern similar to comics. The author will often change the font size of a word to increase or decrease its importance or to portray the way the character said it. Bold and italics are lavishly used to further put the voice of the characters into your head. It's like this, if you see the picture of Morgan Freeman and some text in front of him, you'll imagine his voice. Now, if the text includes font size changes, bold and italic words, then you will feel the way the sentence is said even more. Same goes for a panel in a graphic novel, although you will not know how the character actually sounds like, you can use the way the text is written to imagine what the voice will be like. Vladek Spiegelman, in Maus, is shown to be an uptight, money conscious Jew. Although the view can be regarded as one with a touch of racism, it is what you, as a reader will use to 'hear' Vladek's story. Even the speech bubble comes into play, like when a character screams, the edges of the speech bubble become shredded.
I have, with the best of my knowledge, explained what a graphic novel is and how you can read it better, to enjoy it more. The biggest trick to reading a graphic novel is to truly submit yourself to the book and the author's thinking with an open mind. Because it is a journey that doesn't take you within your own mind, but into someone else's mind.