This insightful article examines children’s understandings of comic books over time using a Western comic A Gunman in Town!. The study looked at ten children in each of 3rd, 5th, and 8th grade, balanced for gender and race with diverse socio-economic status. They were shown each frame individually and asked its contents following each panel. This might not have hugely hampered the sequential understanding though, since the panels seem largely dominated by text.
All the children recognized broader information: that the book was a Western and that it would end with the villain losing. All the children were concerned with the concept that the story was going to end, showing knowledge of it as a story and that stories have endings. Most of the phenomena showed small jumps and differences in understanding between grades. For instance, in readings of the last panel of the book, a steady increase of children recognized the correct reading order of word balloons (Grade:number of kids – 3rd:2, 5th:4, 8th:7).
Many third graders would skip over reading dialogue, especially when it was heavy in panels. They also will gather most of their reading from stereotypic knowledge, missing important story elements or filling in missed information with further stereotypic knowledge about genre.
Fifth graders pick up far more information than third graders, with explanations seeming less stereotypic – allowing them to anticipate and integrate events more quickly and accurately. Eighth graders “move back and forth between their knowledge of conventional genre structure and the particular story” (46). Fifth graders are more capable of predicting future events from individual panels — each panel implies something about future events. While eighth graders can predict to the end of the story, fifth graders make more short-term predictions about action sequences.
Eighth graders see the story as conventionally ordered by the dictates of the genre. Two strategies were used by eighth graders. When uninterested, they use a “flat” style that perceives and decodes the story as it unfolds bit by bit. A contiguous reading style incorporates the understanding of the genre to expand on the given information with schematic knowledge (unlike with third graders, this isn’t to make up for missed information though).
These results further indicate that the ability to understand sequential images increases with age, and perhaps with exposure/experience.
Pallenik, M. (1976). A Gunman in Town! Children Interpret a Comic Book Studies in the Anthropology of Visual Communication, 3 (1), 38-51 DOI: 10.1525/var.19220.127.116.11
[Originally posted: 12/24/07]