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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Readers of comics tend to assume that panels are to be viewed in a certain, pre-determined order, and that order tends to be a Z-path, left to right and then top to bottom, which is also how English readers read English. English-reading readers of comics tend to view panels as if they were “reading” them, regardless of whether the panels include words or not.

Consider this 10-panel layout:  

While there are points of potential ambiguity, a majority of viewers would likely order the panels this way:

Some might instead read the bottom half of the layout as two columns and so order the panels in an N-path, top to bottom and then left to right:

Regardless, comics theory presumes that panels define the reading path. But what if they don’t? Consider what happens when the identical layout contains this content:

The top panels may be understood in two ways: 1) the figure is climbing into the water, or 2) the figure is climbing out of the water backwards. Even without the floating images in the bottom half of the layout, I think readers would understand the figure to be climbing into water. If so, that means the panels have to be “read” from right to left. If read left to right, the inferential leap from the fully standing figure to the figure submerged to her shoulders is difficult to understand.

The bottom panels are ambiguous too, but I predict the figure’s head defines the first and last positions. If so, the reading order would be:

Note that the final panel would be the bottom left, further disrupting Z-path and N-path norms. Consider a variation:

Here I assume this reading path ends in the bottom right panel, the same as any N-path or Z-path:

But then how are the three panels on the left ordered?  In both cases, I think viewers mostly ignore the gutter dividing those panels and instead treat the bottom half of the layout as three page-width panels:

But if a reader can ignore some panel divisions, what prevents a reader from ignoring all panel divisions? If panel divisions can be ignored, how can panels be the defining factor for reading paths?

Consider the same image content, minus the panel-shaped black context:

The image order seems fairly obvious:

And here’s the variant:

Again, the order seems straightforward:

In these cases, the images alone define the reading path. But might the images also define the reading path even when the images are part of panels? If so, readers of comics aren’t reading panels at all. They’re reading panel content, which typically correlates with panel division, creating the impression that panel division controls reading.

But what if it doesn’t?

When given a choice to follow a path defined by panels or a path defined by image content, readers might follow the images. Because comics creators tend to align panels and panel content, readers rarely face that choice. As a result, comics theory may be climbing down the wrong path.

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