Across Time and Space:
Reading Comics

Allison Sivak



Comics have long existed in the realm of the ideologically suspect, from the lurid sequential picture stories published for working-class amusement in 19th century Britain to Frederick Wertham’s 1958 book, Seduction of the Innocent, which charged comics with warping the minds of children and allowing them to evade ‘real’ reading (qtd. In Schmitt 157). At best, comics were seen as children’s material only, and at worst, a lesser form of reading that children needed to be trained out of as soon as possible. However, as argued by Scott McLeod, comics merge word and image together in ways that are unprecedented by any other media thus far; he further states that comics have revolutionary potential for understanding pictorial and textual narratives (3). In a world where multimedia and the Internet are major forces in communication as well as entertainment, the skills required to fully comprehend comics will be fundamental in understanding the way in which information is conveyed through new technologies.

The idea of visual intelligence is pivotal to a fuller comprehension of the skills needed to negotiate text-image relationships. Barry states that visual intelligence is a "holistic integration of skilled verbal and visual reasoning;" visual literacy is the ability to think, learn and express oneself in terms of images (6). Our contemporary modes of communication are increasingly reliant on the integration of the verbal and the visual, with the standards of television, film, and now the Internet. Further, through the Internet, we are being offered models of text-image integration that have not been used as comprehensively until this time. Visual literacy and visual intelligence are now necessary competencies. As the Internet continues to develop, we will not only gain a greater understanding of the methods of learning and practicing visual intelligence, but we will also recognize the importance of continued exposure to diverse textual-visual media in order to maximize this understanding. Rather than assuming that one graduates from images to text-only in order to demonstrate their sophistication in comprehension, we will hopefully encourage strength in a great variety of literacies with which to navigate our world.

This essay will examine issues of time and space as they pertain to reading comics. Time and space are major themes in many of the individual elements of reading comic books, not only in a metaphoric sense but in a very physical sense as well. For example, spatial issues with reading are not just the placement and sizes of panels on the page or the extent to which the images cover the page, but the size of the comic (both in thickness and in height and width). Time includes how long is spent reading the comic, but also how long the reader has followed the series or the artist’s work. These are just a few examples of how space and time become important elements of the reader’s relationship with the comic. Rather than examine how these elements function in the construction of the comic story (which has been well covered in Scott McCloud’s work, amongst others), my perspectives on time and space will connect more closely to relationships of the reader to the comic. While I will cover other themes, including reader repertoire and the actual process of reading text and image in a comic, time and space are recurring themes that will serve to anchor this exploration.

Rather than discuss all comics genres as a whole, I will focus specifically on alternative, or small press, non-mainstream comics. This is in part due to my own interest in and familiarity with these forms; in addition, alternative comics cater to a very particular subculture of readers, which I am interested in examining as part of some concerns with reader repertoire. Alternative comics audiences span a variety of ‘worlds’ and perform a particular search for legitimacy that can make for some interesting analysis of how readers find and experience these works. Garrett-Petts and Lawrence suggest that in order to successfully understand multiple and vernacular literacies, it is important to consider not only the ways in which the literacies are constructed, but also what is at stake culturally, historically, and personally for the reader when these literacies develop (21). At a later point in this paper, I will outline some of the characteristics of non-mainstream comics in the larger arena of the comics format. Further, I will discuss some of the observations made by "Luke," an alternative comics fan whom I interviewed. While Luke is a single reader and obviously not representative of non-mainstream comics readers, he has made a number of statements that provide insight into the areas that I am exploring.

Time and Space
Suspicious Literature
Mainstream Acceptance
Comics and Other Media
Unique Features
Reading Words and Pictures
War in the Neighborhood
List of Figures
and Works Cited


This paper was an assignment for LIS 599: Directed Study by Allison Sivak under supervision of Dr. Margaret Mackey.

It was converted to HTML to fulfill the requirements of LIS 600 (Capping Exercise) for the School of Library and Information Studies, University of Alberta.

Last updated March 16, 2003