How do people navigate through the panels of comic book pages, and why do some people find it so hard to figure out which image comes next?
Most people believe that the reading of comic pages moves along the same order as text: the "z-path" of left-to-right and down, in America, for example. A new paper reports the findings of a psychology experiment using Gestalt groupings of panels that deny a Z-path of reading. The results show that readers follow a far more complex process of page layout navigation than the z-path.
The author suggests that people follow several constraints guided by an underlying hierarchic structure, and this knowledge appears to be modulated by the experience people have in reading comics. Altogether, this paper shows that the strategies used to read comics are far more complex than standard written language.
The example below shows the debate over whether the page serves a decorative function or should use a standard conventional layout, such as a grid, to make it consistent. "Memento" was a great movie for going backwards in blocks of time equal to the protagonist's short term memory but it confused many, something comic pages seek not to do.
If comic pages are understood holistically through integration of the content of all panels on a page then pages no contiguous columns or rows of panels and colors of implying perceptual groupings between non-adjacent panels makes a linear reading order difficult.
In the 1960s while doing "Nick Fury, Agent of Shield", Jim Steranko defied the conventional linear path of reading (reprinted in Steranko, 2002). Image © 2002 Marvel Comics. Link: Frontiers in Cognitive Science
Eye-tracking experiments have shown that readers scan pages broadly and focus on "entry-points" before they begin focused reading - images and larger items grab attention and that is why media use them, even in newspapers, which are considered text-driven. English-language culture segments text into horizontal rows, and runs left-to-right and downward (a Z-path), while Japanese uses the opposite order, organizing text into vertical columns to read downward then right-to-left.
Despite the fact that comic page layouts often diverge from the uniform lines of text, most assume that comic pages follow the path of the culture’s written language.
Citation: Cohn N (2013) Navigating comics: an empirical and theoretical approach to strategies of reading comic page layouts. Front. Psychol. 4:186. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00186