Authorial Intent and Reader Interpretation in Comics

Over the past week we’ve learned about some of the methods that have been used to define comics and transitions within comics. Many of the transitions we learned about are tools for both the writer and the reader. A reader can see an aspect-to-aspect transition and take meaning from that, and an author can also make a conscious decision to use an aspect-to-aspect transition to set up a scene. However, as with any medium, what an author intends to do doesn’t always mesh with what the reader takes from the work. As with any method of storytelling, comic authors need to worry about how their story is interpreted. Unlike prose writing, however, comic authors also need to think about how they’re laying out their panels to make the reader read the story in the best possible way.

The dream sequence in Alan Moore’s Watchmen is an interesting example to look at and try to discern what Moore intended. The panels are suddenly very narrow and packed together compared to how they are presented on the other pages of the book. When we looked at the page in class recently people seemed divided on how to read it: do the thin panels make you read the page faster, because you spend less time on each panel and thus feel like you get through the page more quickly? Or are you supposed to spend the same amount of time on each panel despite their smaller size, thus taking longer to get across the page? Each interpretation seems equally valid, and it’s hard to tell which one is intended. Depending on how you read the page, the effect can be quite different, too. The story is the same, but the impact of it – whether it’s fast and surreal or slow and dreamlike – changes.

The dream sequence in Watchmen uses tall, narrow evenly-spaced panels.
The dream sequence in Watchmen uses tall, narrow evenly-spaced panels.

There are more egregious examples of how what paneling can cause a gap between authorial intent and reader interpretation – the example brought up in class of the turkey in Little Nemo comes to mind – but I think it’s more interesting to focus on subtle examples like Watchmen, as they highlight how much thought needs to go into setting up panels for a comic.

If the author didn't number the panels, it would be hard to tell how to read this page.
If the author didn’t number the panels, it would be hard to tell how to read this page.

We tend to find reading comics fairly natural. If you give us a page from a comic book, we don’t generally need to sit and think for very long about how we should go about reading it: we just read it. If the author wants us to read it in a specific way, they need to be very particular about how they lay out the page to make sure that the natural way we read it is the way that they intended for us to read it. Reading about comic theory and transitions in comics can help train us to understand the different effects that comic authors can employ, but they don’t necessarily help us overcome that natural method of reading.