Comic Books and Graphic Novels 101: How to Start Reading

Learning to read comic books and graphic novels can be intimidating if you don’t know where to start. Opening up a book and trying to decipher how everything flows should be intuitive, but that isn’t always the case. I wanted to help anyone coming to the format for the first time, better understand it and hopefully not feel like it’s daunting.

There are a couple of different kinds of comics—all comics are a form of sequential art, regardless, but American comics are read a little bit differently than say, manga. They’re more or less the same but just in different directions. But again, to avoid confusion, we’re going to focus on the North American style of comics, like the ones I work on such as Oh My Gods! and The Racc Pack.


This seems like a good, logical place to start! When you open up a comic book page, you’ll see a bunch of panels (the individual boxes containing different bits of art that tell the story). Within those panels, there are caption boxes (usually in the top left hand corner of a panel) and word balloons near the character speaking.

The Word Balloon represents dialogue. It will almost always have a directional arrow that points towards the character speaking so that there is minimal confusion. They can still be tricky—What order do you read them in? But they’re the same as panels, so keep on reading:

The way to read the page (and the word balloons within each panel) is to go from Left to Right, Top to Bottom.

With the page shown on the right hand side from ParaNorthern, let’s go through the order that it should be read:

Panel 1 is the top left panel that reads, “Can I get a pumpkin spice latte?”

Panel 2 is the top right panel that reads, “UGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH! Isn’t that just typical!”

Panel 3 is in the middle with the dialogue that reads, “Silas! We’ve talked about this. Pumpkin spice lattes are not made with actual pumpkins!

And then the two panels along the bottom are Panels 4 and 5, respectively. And hopefully the above helped you to figure out how to read the remaining dialogue there.

Sometimes it’s trial and error a bit with bigger, more elaborate pages and panels, but the art should always be guiding your eye to where you’ll be going next. And again, the rule of thumb is Left to Right, Top to Bottom.


Traditionally, single issue comics come out once a month, and are about 22-pages long. There are longer single issues but you’ll see them sometimes referred to as an Oversized Issue.

The best way that I can describe a single issue is that it’s like an episode in a season of your favourite TV show. You get a piece of the story each month that tells a larger over-arcing storyline (aka an “arc”). A story arc can be anywhere from 4-6 issues. It can be part of a continuing story (called an Ongoing Series) or simply be a one-off story arc (which is a Mini-Series or Limited Series).

You typically can get single issues from your local comic book store. They tend to have the most selection when it comes to the comics that are available and are more likely to have something that you’re curious about in stock. We’ll talk more about comic book stores in another column.


Trade paperbacks (often referred to as TPBs) are usually a collection of a complete story arc for a particular comic book series. If we continue with the comparison to TV, this would be the complete season.

TPBs are great! They’re one of the more accessible ways to read comics since a huge variety of places carry them. You can pick up collected trades via Amazon, in your local bookstore, or borrow them from your local library. If you read your comics digitally, Amazon’s Kindle Store often has Marvel trades on for incredibly low prices, starting at around $5, which is significantly cheaper than anywhere else… unless you’re getting them from the library which obviously lets you borrow books for the low price of FREE.

If you’re picking up an ongoing series or a series that has already released trades before, make sure you’re looking at the spine to see what volume number you’re picking up. You’ll ideally want to start at Vol. 1 unless you’ve done your research on a particular series and know of an alternate jumping on point. We’ll cover more of this in later columns.

One other great perk about collecting or reading comics in trade is that there are sometimes little bonuses for readers. Content can include bonus essays, script to final product type demonstrations, and cool concept art.


OGN stands for Original Graphic Novel. These are trade-like comic books that are standalone. They’re not part of an ongoing series and if you hear someone saying “Check out this OGN!” it usually means that it is completely readable by anyone. My own books like ParaNorthern and Pillow Talk are originally, standalone OGNs.

Marvel and DC release a few of these a year and they allow for a fan (or newcomer) to check out a character or team in a way that’s not too bogged down by previous continuity.

A lot of the “smaller publishers” release these regularly though. They don’t have other comics or characters that you need to know.

There are many different OGNs that cover every single genre. There’s absolutely one out there for you!


There are so many types of comics too, like zines! But hopefully the above has give you the tools you need to tackle and check out any comics that you might be interested in. If you still have questions that are unanswered and are curious about more, you can check out Comic Book Creative Teams: Who’s Who and What Do They Do? and A Glossary of Comic Book Terminology.