A Guide To Getting Started With Graphic Novels

Please note: as of August 13, 2021, I've updated the information from this post and made it into a new page on my blog! I'm leaving this one up for posterity's sake, but I recommend you don't bother reading what I've said below and, instead, head over to the updated page here. Thanks!

You've probably noticed that I review a lot of graphic novels. In all of my time reviewing them, I've noticed that there are quite a few readers out there who have read few, if any, graphic novels and aren't really keen on getting into the genre. And this post is not to pester any of those people—if you are confident that graphic novels really will not be your thing, then by all means, continue reading what you love! But as I've thought about this issue lately, I realized that a lot of readers may not actually be opposed to graphic novels—they may just worry about how to begin. And I get what they're thinking! I only started reading graphic novels a few years ago, and I definitely recall thinking of them as a foreign and scary medium. But reading graphic novels is actually a skill—the more you read, the better you get at reading and enjoying them! And that's what this post is for. If you've been intrigued by all of the fabulous stories being published in graphic novel format but worry about whether or not you'll be able to enjoy them, then read on for some tips...and a fabulous new rating system I've created! ;)

First of all, what makes reading a graphic novel different from reading a regular book?

Great question! (I love how I'm complimenting my own question.) In my personal experience, there are a few key elements of graphic novels that can make them a challenge to parse if you are unfamiliar with the medium (or, let's be honest, even if you are familiar with the medium).

  1. How many (or few) words are used. The more graphic novels I've read, the more styles of writing I've noticed in them. Some graphic novelists are quite wordy—Raina Telgemeier, for example, who is basically the queen of MG graphic novels, uses quite a bit of first-person narration and dialogue to accent her books. And some books are wordier than that—Almost American Girl by Robin Ha could practically have been a pretty good prose book if all the illustrations were cut out, there's so much writing. Other graphic novelists, though, use far less words to make a point. Many graphic novels lack narration entirely, using illustrations to fill in for third-person narration and allowing us to see into the characters only through their expressions and dialogue (take City of Secrets by Victoria Ying, for example). You might think that having lots of words in addition to illustrations would make the book harder to make sense of, but I find that, for those unfamiliar with graphic novels, it's actually easier to follow a wordy plot (even if it means you pay less attention to the illustrations) than to make sense of the entire story through illustrations and a few words here and there.
  2. The panel layout and contents. This one still trips me up, to be honest. Some graphic novelists use relatively traditional layouts of comic panels—a few rectangular panels on each page. But some graphic novelists attempt to convey more movement or energy with unconventionally shaped panels (where the order may be harder to follow) or unusual page layouts (such as having panels move across the spine from left to right before going to the next line), which can be particularly difficult for newer graphic novel readers to make sense of.
  3. The art style. Newer graphic novel readers will do well with graphic novelists like Raina Telgemeier, who use clean and clear art styles where every item and action in each panel can be discerned at a glance. Some graphic novelists, however, use more stylized illustrations, more unusual "camera angles" that can cut off parts of a scene until the scene is difficult to interpret, and occasional drawings and facial expressions that simply make no sense. In addition, even just adding more depth or lines to an illustration can make its interpretation a bit slower.
  4. The color scheme. This is somewhat related to art style, but having a full-color color scheme can be very valuable in easily distinguishing characters, settings, and objects. Monochrome or low-contrast color schemes can occasionally make it hard to tell at a glance, for example, if the protagonist is walking through the woods or if the woods are empty.
So how can I succeed at reading graphic novels if there are all of these things that can trip me up?

With my new Ratings for the Graphic Novel-Averse, of course! These ratings are designed to tell you how easy it is to read and enjoy a graphic novel if you're relatively inexperienced with the medium. The higher the score, the better the book will be for you! Please note, these ratings do not correlate whatsoever with the actual quality of the book—that's what my regular rating scale is for. Here are the ratings, from highest to lowest:

Rating: 4
Graphic novels with this rating are awesome for beginners! They have easy-to-follow panels, colors and art styles that are clear and easy to discern, and a relatively high volume of words that ensure that you can make sense of the graphic novels even if you have little experience with following a plot through illustrations.

Rating: 3
These graphic novels may be a little bit tougher for unfamiliar readers. They often use less words, requiring a bit more experience with discerning plot events and characters' emotions from the illustrations. Making sense of the illustrations should still be pretty easy, but there may be a few confusing panels or pages.

Rating: 2
These graphic novels may have more complex art styles that will require your attention—especially since words will be pretty spare here, meaning lots of story details will be depicted visually only. At this point, panel designs will start to get a bit strange, so you'll have to pay attention to speech bubbles and layouts to follow along. With practice, though, reading graphic novels even with a 2 rating will feel like second nature.

Rating: 1
I can only think of a select few graphic novels that will garner this rating, but if I'm being totally honest, I've already redesigned these labels once, so I'm not doing it again—I'll keep this one around in case more books fit into the category. Graphic novels with this rating are very visual and may be challenging even for very experienced graphic novel readers (like me). These graphic novels will be pretty divisive and may break away from a lot of established storytelling mechanisms. You'll definitely want to have a strong grasp on graphic novels before even trying to make sense of these books.

Again, please let me emphasize that absolutely awesome books will garner ratings of 2 or even 1—it has nothing to do with how good the book is! I will be using this rating system on my future graphic novel reviews and also retrofitting past reviews with these ratings. I definitely recommend starting with the higher ratings (click the links above to view books with each rating). With practice and occasional challenges (i.e. moving down the ratings), you might be surprised at how quickly you get the hang of reading graphic novels! I hope this system is helpful to you, and I hope you enjoy all of the wonderful stories that are out there in graphic novel form!


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