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 How to Read a Comic was a lecture by graphic artist, Paul Karasik, held in the Art building at UT Austin. It intended to address mostly students majoring in art or some derivative of it. I, however, had wandered in for my love of creative writing and the appeal of the lecture’s title. It turns out I was in the right place as soon it became evident that the techniques of a graphic artist are quite similar to those of a writer. No matter the artist, the goal is the same: to establish a relationship with the reader .

The lecture truly began with Nancy: a comic about a school girl always present for various gags. It was almost a guilty indulgence, Karasik explained. No one spoke about reading Nancy although undoubtedly most did. On the surface it was plain, uninspired, lacking actual wit. But Karasik noticed how effective it was in drawing the reader’s attention. So, he looked closer. He invited us to do the same with the one below.

Nancy Comic Strip by Ernie Bushmiller

A deconstruction of the comic began. He quoted Louis Sullivan, “Form follows function.” Then he turned to the audience to ask how these three panels affected the narrative.

    “The last panel is larger because it needs to show more,” one guy in the back said.

    “Yes,” Karasik said. “What about the middle one?”

    “It’s smaller. It establishes rhythm. It doesn’t really show us anything new,” a girl said.

    In just three panels, and a single line, there is a story.

    “What about what he doesn’t show – why doesn’t Bushmiller include a fourth scene with the bully drenched? Can you imagine how fun that would be to draw?”

    “Tension. Humor,” someone said.

    He nodded. “He lets us use our imagination to finish the story.”

Instead of turning the scene over to us for consumption, he allows for the participation of the reader. Frank Conroy spoke of this in his essay, The Writer’s Workshop, when he discussed the relationship between writer and reader. “The reader is pouring energy into the text,” Conroy says. Then the writer must write (or the artist must draw) “to allow the reader’s energy into the work.” When the two arcs of energy overlap, then the story makes sense. That’s when it’s most effective.

    “Now, what else? What about the action itself? What about the number of panels?” Karasik asked.

The story is in three panels. The magical number three, the repetitive, classic pattern of three that parents have hammered into their children’s heads with fairytales for generations.

    “Someone’s been sleeping in my bed. Someone’s been sleeping in my bed too. Someone’s been sleeping in my bed and she’s still here,” Karasik said.

Once is for concept, second is for rhythm, third is for surprise. Just when you think you know, the carpet is pulled out from under you. That third panel is a way to play with the reader, Karasik explained. Everything is a tool for the artist. Is action speeding up? Increase the number of panels. Decrease their width. Shorten sentences.

Karasik’s adaptation of the existentialist detective novel City of Glass into a graphic novel, illustrates how deliberate an artist’s choices are. The novel begins following a rigid nine panel grid to establish rhythm and reflect the uptight protagonist. But as the protagonist starts to unravel and lose his grip on reality the grid starts to disintegrate. The gutters between the panels begin to grow and separate. The alignment is lost. Some panels tilt and drip off the page.

Structure and form reveal meaning. Every choice of an artist, whatever artist, matters for the purposes of the creation. Words are tools. Sentences are tools. The structure of a text has function. It invokes an emotion, passes on meaning. The choice to include something is just as important as to exclude something else.

    As a closing to his lecture, Karasik asked, “Is there a point to all of this? Yes, and here it is. Are you ready?” He called to those in the back to ensure everyone was awake.

“Study what you love in depth.” Whatever it is. “Slow down and study the beauties of art – and in doing so you will find out something true about yourself.”


Eleni is a nerd who prefers to be called an intellectual. She loves pondering philosophical questions and reflecting on life as a twenty-something, both of which she does on her blog: sharingimpressions.com. Anyone creative and curious is welcome.
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