Panelology – Why We Read (Part 1)

by Brandon
This week, I start a series of articles on the nuts and bolts of comic books. No, I’m not going to talk about the necessity of wearing spandex when Magneto busts into the X-Men’s hizzy or having the prerequisite teenaged sidekick in order to add uncomfortable sexual moments to the dynamic, but rather on the person reading the book. The fans. Over the next several weeks, I hope to answer the who, what, when, where, why, and how of comic book collecting. First up? Why we read comic books.

$3 comic books are like $4 gas; man, it sucks to have to pay those prices, but let’s face it, we do it. Sometimes it seems like having a healthy-unhealthy smoking habit might be cheaper. We certainly don’t read because it is a cheap hobby. Sometimes, the creators of the books do things to irk us, like having characters make deals with the devil or doing away with another creator’s run by negating all the things that happened therein. At other times, we read a book out of obligation rather than sheer enjoyment. So why exactly do we read comic books?

Reading comic books doesn’t come down to an act of God, self-loathing, or foolishness. I think it comes down to our brains, especially if they haven’t been diseased by some zombie infection. Comic books stimulate our minds, and it’s not because of busty chicks, monthly fisticuffs, or because we have a secret man-crush on all the members of the Guardians of the Galaxy. No, I think it goes deeper than that. I think comic books reinforce our patterns of learning. Maybe it is a result of my O.D.-ing on graduate school, but I think comic book fans are perfect examples of Howard Gardner’s educational Multiple Intelligence Theory.

Basically, the theory states that humans learn in different manners and enjoy and excel at different skill sets. The eight central Intelligences are Bodily-Kinesthetic, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal, Logical-Mathematical, Musical, Naturalistic, Spatial, and Verbal-Linguistic. Of these eight, I believe five directly relate to reading comic books. Let’s look at each of these five to see how comic fans reflect this theory.

1) Intrapersonal
Comic Books encourage both Interpersonal and Intrapersonal types of reflection because it reinforces both personal and group reflections. It’s just natural for us to read and reflect on what is going on (Intrapersonal), and it’s also natural for us to want to talk about our own thoughts with other like-minded individuals (Interpersonal). Comic book reading is a solitary activity on the surface. Sure, we sit and read, but few of us end the process right there. We love thinking about the details of a comic because it helps us learn. Analyzing scenes, predicting outcomes, discovering character motives, organizing details, and attaching value to the events depicted in a comic all strengthen our Intrapersonal reflections. This is all brain-candy for someone who is strong in the Intrapersonal intelligence. But again, it doesn’t stop there for most of us.

2) Interpersonal

Think about how many times you have started up a conversation online, or in a shop, or at a convention with a fan you didn’t even know. Who knew someone enjoyed the Slapstick mini as much as you did? Well, you do, because you probably have brought it up with your comic reading peers. Comic books fans don’t just brood in their musty lairs waiting to either ensnare a hapless woman or William Shatner in our web of deceit. We fans are inherently social creatures. There’s a certain degree of intrapersonal reflection to reading comics, but ultimately, we comic fans thrive on our interactions with others. It helps us strengthen our own intrapersonal thoughts on the comic books, but it also provides us with a social venue for us to broadcast our own ideas.

3) Logical-Mathematical

Math isn’t a huge part of comics. In fact, I don’t think I would enjoy comic books if I had to have a basic understanding of calculus or trigonometry to comprehend why some folks love M.O.D.O.K. (though, in that instance, it might help). But Logical-Mathematical people do love abstractions and reasoning activities. Comic books thrive on posing problems and finding solutions. Often, comic books ask the reader to do just as much investigating as the characters who populate the book. Comic books are like one large puzzle. It is interesting to these Logical-Mathematical fans to try and piece it all together and to test their hypotheses about what will happen next. Reading is rewarding for these types of fans because they see comic books as more than just a reading activity - it’s almost a game, an academic exercise. It helps them flex their most important muscle, the brain, while also having fun. It is like a block party for the brain and everyone is invited. Except Quasar.

4) Spatial

Let us start out by clarifying one thing; this is about Spatial Fans, not “Spacial” fans. We all know these orbital types (furries, Trekkies, Wookies, and Superman fans), but perhaps that is better topic for further examination in another column. People with a strong Spatial intelligence like to visualize things. What better way to visualize events than with a comic book? Although comics are a partially visual medium, they do leave a lot to the imagination. The panel shows us one small freeze-frame of action. Spatial fans love filling in the blanks. Comic books aren’t just static; they are instead a fluid medium meant to excite the brain. Comic books create this wonderfully animated motion picture in their head. Spatial fans probably feel comic books more intensely because they like creating the sensory elements we don’t get from the printed page. Smells, sounds, textures, and tastes all come just as loudly as the visuals they see in the book. These fans probably like reenacting the moments in their head, thus strengthening their own Intrapersonal intelligence as well. These fans may also be the more artistic ones.

5) Verbal-Linguistic

Along with the art, we also get words. Verbal-Linguistic fans love the written word. They like how words play off between characters and enjoy reading the panelized thoughts of their favorites. Because they value character interactions, they may tend to like those issues where we get more character reflection and relations than the slugfest-of-the-month type comic. Ever wonder why a Wordy McWordy like Brian Michael Bendis has such a staunch fan base? Wonder no more! Bendis thrives off this intelligence, playing words and conversation up more so in his comics than in other books. Verbal-Linguistic people also like memorizing facts and organizing information. Um, hello? Can you recite every fact about the Kree-Skrull War without breathing? Can you name all 9,834 Earths in the DC Universe? Of course you can! Well, at least you can if you are a really strong Verbal-Linguistic fan.

Multiple Intelligence Theory doesn’t explain everything about what motivates us to read comics. Not by a long shot. Yet, I think most fans display more than fair dose of those five intelligences. Arguments could be made for the other three basic intelligences, and don’t even get started on the other intelligences Gardner is considering adding to the mix. But I think these five intelligences form the core of our enjoyment of the medium.

For those interested in testing their Multiple Intelligence Score, click here.

Check back next week for part two where I will discuss other reasons why we read comic books.


Patrick Gaffney said...

Interesting theories. You would think that the intra/interpersonal theorys would contradict themselves rather than complement.

Brandon said...

I don't think so. I score on the MI test about evenly there. Just because you are strong in one M.I. area doesn't mean you are necessarily weak in others. Some people do their thinking out loud, while others internalize it more.

I really should post a link for those interested in taking an M.I. Quiz to find out what they are. It's pretty interest stuff, and it really has been on my brain for the past two years thanks to graduate school!

Vocal Minority said...

Cynical comments about the validity of personality theory aside, I liked that.

I'd say the logical-mathematical type relates more to the nuances of continuity with its systemising and rationalizing tendencies... but maybe that's just me.

Brandon said...

No, I thought about commenting on continuity too, but decided to not mention the "C" word just yet because it comes up in my next column!

Betsy said...

Nicely done, Brandon.

The General said...

I think one of the interesting side effects of what you are proposing, Brandon, is that I feel it also explains why comic collectors argue so much about what makes a good comic book. If people are interested in them for five distinctly different reasons (even if each person responses to several of the five reasons), you can quickly see how those five things start stepping on each others toes.

Cindy Cooper said...

Really interesting post, BJ. Finally someone can explain why I like Bendis when he's not doing that weird thought bubble thing!

Jon Quixote said...

This was a really cool post.

Matt said...

I thought I read comics for my Banshee-love. I guess it goes deeper than that.