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Session 4: The Graphic Code of Comic Books

Comic books consist of a set of unique graphic signs that artists use to tell a story, and these are easily accepted and understood by most readers. They consist of gutters, panels, speech bubbles, sound effects, symbolic icons and character abstraction. McCloud believed more abstract, the more the reader projects their own persona onto the character.

Encoding and Decoding

Encoding involves cognitive reasoning in the selection, arrangement and layout of textual and visual elements that comprise the narrative. Decoding relies on the reader to read and understand the connections between textual and visual information and follow the actions from one panel and another.

In a comic book, past, present and future is shown at the same time and occupies the same space. This can cause erratic eye movement because the reader has to constantly transfers and rewind across the page. Various 'reader control' strategies are used by seasoned comic strip artists to avoid this, such as page layout, strip ellipses, panel co-ordinates, page breaks/cliffhangers, negative space, reader closure and transition types.

Control Strategies

Page Layout

The pages skeleton or multi-frame of a page; they encourage an appreciation of the creative process. The page can be approached by the level of the page, strip and panel.

Panel Co-ordinates

A panel has relation to the panels next to it as well as others in the multi-frame. Significant coordinates on the page include entry/exit and centre and are used to punctuate he narrative over a number of pages.

Negative Space

The drawn page only represents a portion of the stories content; the negative space in the margins and gutters functions as a surrogate for the omitted parts of the story. The reader has to use their imagination.

Transition Types

Scott McCloud suggests six transition types used in comic strips:

  1. ​Moment to moment (small lapses in time; little closure needed)

  2. Action to action (different actions/same scene; some closure needed)

  3. Subject to subject (different subjects/same scene or idea; needs more reader involvement)

  4. Scene to scene (changes geographic location/significant movement of time/space; deductive reasoning needed)

  5. Aspect to aspect (scene setting/no apparent shift in time; shows different aspects of the same scene)

  6. Non-sequitur (no logical relationship between panels)

I decided to look into the Canadian comic book artist Fiona Staples. She's best known for the comic book series 'Saga' but is also illustrated comics such as 'North 40', 'DV8: Gods and Monsters', 'T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents' and 'Archie', from which she has won many awards. Born in Calgary, Alberta, she attended the Alberta Collage of Art and Design.

'Saga' is a fantasy comic book series written by Brain K, Vaughan and is about a husband and wife from two different worlds at war with each other. The story is occasionally narrated by their adult daughter who is born at the beginning of the series; it depicts the couple trying to flee from the authorities during the galactic war, while caring for their new born baby.

The above scene is from the second book in the 'Saga' series and shows an alien family spending time at the beach. I annotated on the pages what transition types I think were used by Staples to illustrate the scene. I believe the anchorage is interdependent as the words and images work together whilst contributing information separately.



  • Gravett, P. Comics Art (pages 22 - 33)

  • Dodds, N. AOI VaroomLab (pages 42 - 51)

  • McCloud, S. Understanding Comics (pages 66 - 93)






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