The idea that comics have greater clarity when composed with the reading direction in mind tends to be widely understood. Almost all books on comics creation mention this. For instance, addressing English readers, Robyn Chapman points it out in her book Drawing Comics Lab: “your images themselves should reinforce the left-to-right movement” (39). Still, while this is a commonplace observation, it has profound implications for comics design. So I want to gather a few considerations here.
Lesson 11 of the Famous Artists Cartoon Course mentions the importance of reading direction, especially in reference to the placement of word balloons.
The first panel is obviously a mistake. The second panel makes sense, but seems unnecessarily muddy. In general, things read easier if the characters are arranged in a panel in the order that they speak in, such as in the third panel on the top.
If we think of a panel as a segment of time, then it makes sense that earlier actions happen on the left and later actions happen on the right. As Brian McLachlan says in Draw Out the Story, “something happens on the left side that the right side reacts to” (74). If we reverse that order, then clarity is lost.
Here we have an image of a monster throwing a ball through the panel. The action of the throw is on the left. The effect of the throw is on the right. The cause and effect follows the reading direction.
Now, let’s flip the composition.
Sure, you can still understand what is going on, but it looks weird. Since the panel is read from left-to-right, the effect happens before the cause.
So the time order in a comics panel only makes sense if it follows the reading direction. I think this is pretty obvious. There is a fairly clear “wrong” and “right” about the images so far.
Yet the reading direction also creates a very strong connotation of movement. As Jessica Abel and Matt Madden point out in Drawing Words & Writing Pictures, “the way the eye moves through a panel can suggest physical movement” (157). In other words, since our eyes are moving left to right, left to right movement is ascribed to figures facing or pointing that direction.
So actions that take advantage if this are clearer and seem more powerful. In this panel below, the left-to-right movement helps reinforce the flight of the javelin.
If we flip this panel, we still get the idea of an athlete throwing a javelin, but the action isn’t as strong. To me, the javelin just hangs there. This is because it is working against the reading direction.
Likewise, if a figure sits at the left of a panel and looks right, we assume that they have someplace to go. The panel offers them a place to enter into and the reading direction gives us the movement.
However, if placed on the right and still looking right, the figure now looks as if they’ve moved across the panel and are now leaving.
And if they are on the right but look left, they seem as if they have stopped and are looking at something in the panel.
So the reading direction has a larger implication on design than may be initially assumed. Basically, when characters face left instead of right, or when large shapes block the right side of the panel, the overall flow of the panel can be hindered. Chapman mentions this: “even still objects such as a face, a hand, or your character’s eyes can benefit the reading flow if they’re drawn pointing to the right” (39). So keeping the reading direction in mind isn’t just about clarity of time or cause and effect, it is also an element of composition.
In Art and Visual Perception, Rudolf Arnheim uses Raphael’s Sistine Madonna to point this out.
The panel on the left shows the original composition. The composition has a strong upward diagonal movement, emphasizing Mary. Yet, when the composition is flipped, as it is on the right, the large figure that was on the lower left now dominates the lower right. Arnheim claims that “he becomes so heavy that the whole composition seems to topple” (34). The figure draws our eyes down and he faces inward, blocking the left-to-right movement.
When I drew this panel for Lounger, I was wanting the reader’s eye to flow out to the right. The idea was that the character, Jack, was lost in his own thoughts. They trail away with the clouds. The direction of his gaze accentuates this.
Now, if we flip this panel, the meaning changes. The clouds seem to be blowing into Jack and our eye stops at him. He looks into the panel, encouraging us to keep our gaze there. It’s as if he’s come to a decision or is realizing something. This is his moment of revelation.
So how the panel is composed in reference to the reading direction connotes meaning. Try flipping any panel or image and see how its meaning changes.
However, it’s not as if having figures move right-to-left is always wrong. The reading direction doesn’t just connote movement, it connotes ease. Left-to-right movement seems easier. Right-to-left movement reads as more challenging. In Art and Visual Perception, Rudolf Arnheim states this:
Since a picture is “read” from left to right, pictorial movement toward the right is perceived as being easier, requiring less effort. If, on the contrary, we see a rider traverse the picture from right to left, he seems to be overcoming more resistance, to be investing more effort, and therefore to be going more slowly.(35)
So this insight can be used to accentuate meaning in a panel.
In this panel from Lounger, I had the butterfly enter from the left. It is carefree, and so it moves with ease from left to right. Jack, however, is not carefree. So he trudges from right to left. His whole entrance into the story pushes against the reading direction and is meant to connote his mental state.
Arnheim points out some other interesting ideas from painting and theater. He claims that a theater audience habitually looks stage left and expects characters to enter from that side. So characters that enter from the right seem more conspicuous since they defy expectation (35).
Arnheim goes on to say that this can also affect reader identification. If left-to-right movement seems easier and we naturally want to move our eyes in that direction, characters that enter the stage (or, in our case, the panel) from the left are more easily identified with since they conform to our preferred eye movement. Characters that enter from the right are in opposition to the reading direction and seem more naturally antagonistic. Arnheim points out that “in traditional English pantomime the Fairy Queen, with whom the audience is supposed to identify, always appears from the left, whereas the Demon King enters on the prompt side, on the audience’s right” (35).
So let’s recap what we have when we consider reading direction:
- panel flow
- cause and effect
- time order
- implied movement
- connotation of ease/difficulty
- reader identification (protagonist/antagonist)
So yeah, remembering that readers read English from left-to-right seems pretty obvious, but it has many effects on the success and meaning of a panel.
As maybe you noticed, I’m only talking about the single panel here. Things can get even more complicated and nuanced when you start placing panels next to each other. I’ll save that for another time.
Abel, Jessica and Matt Madden. Drawing Words & Writing Pictures. First Second, 2008.
Arnheim, Rudolf. Art and Visual Perception. University of California Press, 1974.
Chapman, Robyn. Drawing Comics Lab. Quarry Books, 2012.
Goldberg, Rube, et al. The Famous Artists Cartoon Course Lesson 11. The Famous Artists Course Inc., 1956.
McLachlan, Brian. Draw Out the Story. Owlkids Books Inc., 2013.