Comics are a strange thing. When you look at a comic page, if you’ve beheld a few of them before, you usually get right into reading it. Panel one first, then panel two, and so on… But step back and just look at the page as a whole for a minute. It looks a bit odd, doesn’t it?It’s an entire image unto itself. Yes, the panel borders imply separate images, but how exactly do our brains organize these constituent parts into a reading experience? How do we know that the panel at the top left happens ‘first’ in fictional time, and the one at the bottom right ‘last’?
The answer, of course, is reading convention. Reading conventions differ for every region of the world, but they all involve a direction of reading. Reading is a process of going from point A to point B. This direction, whether left-to-right (English), right-to-left (Japanese), bottom-to-top (Chinese & Others), or otherwise, defines how we understand language – how one word comes after another to form a sentence, or in comics, how one image comes after another to form a page.
Now, this is a very basic truth of how we comprehend pages as readers. But comics throw us the curveball of images. While words are understood purely through the direction of their reading, images are not. Images are directional experiences unto themselves! When we look at an image, our eye is directed by its visual elements to different parts of the picture. This direction is not necessarily confined to a “Point A to Point B” scheme either – images can have our eyes rise, drop, coast, fall, and spiral any which way they so desire! This makes the reading of images in sequence actually more difficult if they do not flow very well from one to the next. But using image direction in tandem with reading direction produces incredible results.
1. Left-to-Right vs. Right-to-Left
Essentially, when you juxtapose reading direction with image direction, you can actually affect how a reader experiences a comic on a subconscious level. Now, in the predominately English-speaking part of the world, everything is read from left to right. This is reversed in many Asian countries, and reading proceeds from right-to-left. I will be using the western idiom of left-to-right as the basis for my analysis and discussion, but all the same ideas and effects apply to the eastern method, just in reverse!
So how do these ideas and effects work? Well, there are three basic ways in which reading direction and image direction can combine: they can coincide, clash, or remain neutral.
Coincide – This is when the reading direction and the image direction are the same! This means that in western comics, the image flows generally from the left to the right – a punch, a walk, an arm, or even a character’s gaze can direct the audience’s eye. If those indicators move from the general left of the image to the general right, then the direction is probably coinciding! In terms of subconscious effect, actions that occur from the left to the right often appear faster, more authoritative, more powerful, and appear to meet with less resistance. We, as readers, expect things to go from left to right, and when they do, everything is according to plan!
Clash – This happens when the image direction contradicts the reading direction! The image will flow from right to left this time. The difference this causes in the audience’s perception is profound. Actions which occur from the right to the left appear to be slower, more sudden, and working against a much greater resistance. They can even appear more surprising! This is because subconsciously, it is surprising to us – the reading direction that has been engrained in our brains for years is being contradicted! This feeling extends to what we are viewing, and affects our experience of the story.
Neutral – This occurs when the image direction neither flows with nor flows against the reading direction. Usually this means the image is largely directed either into or out of itself – without a strong, clear direction to or from either left or right. This type of image is actually the hardest kind of image to read and understand, and it does not create a strong feeling as the other two do. But since it does create a sense of bewilderment – not knowing whether or not the action is “sanctioned” by our reading direction or not, as it were – it can be used to build a sense of tension, or invoke a feeling of neutrality itself.
We’ve discussed how and why reading direction affects our experience of comics. Now let’s see it action!
2. Balance of Power
The following example comes from the pages of Wolverine Vol. 1, #4, written by Chris Claremont, drawn by Frank Miller, inked by Joe Rubinstein, and colored by Lynn Varley. The scene is the final fight sequence between Wolverine and the main villain of the mini-series – Shingen Yashida. It contains one of the clearest examples of reading direction affecting reader experience that I know of! Since left to right and right to left can get confusing after awhile, I’ve added arrows to each panel that clarify the actions discussed in the text. Let’s get to it!
Immediately we notice that in the first two panels, Shingen is moving from the left to the right, and Wolverine from the right to the left. Another important bit is that the panels themselves are offset towards their directional origin – Shingen’s panel is set to the left, and Wolverine’s to the right.
So, right off the bat, reading direction supports the conclusion that Shingen is faster and more powerful, while Logan is the underdog – fighting against forces greater than himself. This perfectly describes the story so far – in an earlier issue Shingen disgraced Wolverine in a duel and knocked him unconscious. Logan has returned for round two.
Panel three shows the combatants crossing, but maintaining their directional orientation – Shingen from left to right, and Logan from right to left. The two mini-panels of their weaponry maintain that directional flow respectively. The fifth and final panel serves to re-establish both parties’ locations. Note that even though Shingen and Wolverine crossed, panel five is drawn at such an angle so as to put Shingen once again on the left side. That is the position of power, and his gaze leads us from the left to the right to the wounded Wolverine.
Shingen instantly takes advantage of his advantage and attacks with a brutal swipe! In an unmistakably left to right motion, the power of his sweep serves to reinforce his superiority. But in panel two, the balance shifts! Shingen now attacks from the right to the left, overextending himself. This is depicted in the drawing and reinforced by the direction he is moving – and he misses! This is the first time in the fight Shingen has made a mistake. But Wolverine’s respite does not last long. In panel three, Shingen once again scores a hit from left to right, but this time Wolverine blocks. This trend continues into panel four, with Shingen still having the upper hand, but Wolverine defending himself much better.
The first four panels, taken as a sequence, also imply a great deal of spatial maneuvering simply through reading direction. This is because each panel has a different direction of attack. Panel one is left to right, and panel two reverses that direction. In panel three, the motion is generally from the left to the right, but we notice that Shingen is not actually in the panel – his sword is. With the strong directional force of Shingen’s body no longer visible, the sword takes on the main thrust of the movement – and its movement is actually at odds. The force of the strike is going downwards to the left, yet the sword is pointing upwards diagonally! This nullifies a bit of the visual power of the strike. In panel four, however, Shingen returns to the image, and strikes again left to right.
This flow of attack conveys two important messages subconsciously. The first is that when read quickly, it gives the impression that Shingen is literally slashing circles around Logan – he has attacked from every lateral direction. This implies that he is moving much faster and is relentless in his strikes – Shingen has attacked Logan from all sides, and Logan hasn’t even got a hit in yet! The second important message is that through this ordeal Logan has learned to defend himself – the same strong left to right attack that drew blood in the first panel, Logan successfully blocks in the fourth. He’s beginning to catch on.
This supposition is supported by the fifth and final panel, where Wolverine finally scores a hit! But looking closely, the hit is actually directionally neutral – Wolverine is striking at Shingen directly out towards the viewer. The page ends on a tense note – will Wolverine gain the advantage?
Yes he will! Panel one puts Logan on the left now, and Shingen gives a long sweeping circular slash, which Wolverine ducks without a problem. The direction of Shingen’s slash is ambiguous – it could be said that it goes both left to right and right to left, because at different points it does both, and his body seems to have no directional force – he is just slashing in a circle. This is the equivalent of a directionally neutral panel, but with Wolverine on the left, our underdog is poised to take the upper hand.
And in panel two he does, with a thunderous sweeping hit! But Shingen capitalizes on the drop in Logan’s defenses. The Yakuza master’s blow in panel three comes from the same neutral-forward direction as Logan’s did on the previous page, but this slash has a much more decisive left to right character. In short, Shingen’s not out of the game yet! But the next panel proves he’s hurt. He delivers a much more feeble looking stroke from right to left – which Wolverine easily blocks.
Panel five is an excellent setup, with Wolverine taking his shot – the swing starts from left to right, but Shingen ducks! Wolverine’s missed slash, as well as the rest of his body, then circles around from right to left – contradicting the reading direction and leaving us in a state of tension. Will Shingen capitalize like Logan did? Can Wolverine sustain another hit?
Ouch! Panel one is a backbreaker. In a sudden, vicious right-to-left stab, Shingen impales Logan. Here Miller makes full use of the surprise factor inherent in a right-to-left motion – Shingen might turn the tables!
In panel two, as Logan staggers back, Shingen remains on the right, in the subconsciously less powerful position. But the sweep of his sword leads us from left to right – the direction of power. Is Shingen going to score the killing blow?
Panel three assures us that isn’t the case. Logan catches Shingen’s final effort, and now the sword, all force nullified, is pointing from right to left. Logan reaches in on panel four in quick left to right motion, and follows through with the final blow in panel five. A straight shot – brutal, quick, and effective. Notice that the final two panels echo the first two panels of the fight – both offset, one to the left, and one to the right. But now the balance of power has been reversed! Shingen occupies panel four on the right, while Wolverine assumes the position of power on the left in the final panel. The tables have turned.
Whew. That was a roller coaster. The creators managed to imply all of that using only the direction of the combatants’ attacks! The fight scene was protracted for four pages, but managed to remain engaging and suggest a changing balance of power! Clearly, reading direction has a large effect on how we perceive the plight of the characters on the page.
But juxtaposing reading direction against image direction is not useful only for fight scenes! Power, authority, and tension are just as much players in any conversation as they are in physical conflict. But no matter how a storyteller chooses to use it, the clever use of reading direction and image direction will reveal the event in a way only comics can produce – a way only comics can tell a story.