Joy Kim

Librarian. Book Reviewer. Coffee Addict.

Doorways to sequential art

Way back in February, I attended a workshop taught by Nancy Pearl on readers’ advisory. For those you not up on library lingo, readers’ advisory is the art of connecting readers with books, whether fiction or nonfiction. It’s not necessarily a recommendation service; it doesn’t matter so much whether you like it as it whether the recipient will like it. It’s about finding a title that matches what that reader is looking for. Every reader his or her book; every book its reader.

In the workshop, Pearl argued that there are four basic doorways through which a reader enters a book: story, character, setting, and language. So two readers may both like the Harry Potter series, but that doesn’t mean they like it for the same reasons. They might be entering the books by different doorways. One might have been caught up in the mystery of what would happen next (the story doorway); the other might have really loved Harry, Hermione, and Ron (the character doorway). When I first read the series in college, what I loved best was the wizarding world that Rowling was describing (the setting doorway).

This is why so many of those “If you like A, you’ll like B” recommendations fail: they are too often based on the assumption that all readers enter a book by the same doorway. Most good books are strong in all of these areas, but often one or two of the doorways will be bigger than the others. And Pearl believes that being aware of a reader’s favorite doorways into books is the key to making good book suggestions.

Last week, I found myself wondering how this model of reading and readers’ advisory might apply to sequential art. First, with sequential art, there’s definitely a fifth doorway: the art itself. You could argue that art falls under one of the other categories (especially setting, because art is so important in establishing that), and it’s true that all these categories overlap in lots of ways. But I think it has to be considered as its own doorway simply because it can also function as a point of appeal all on its own. Never underestimate the power of sheer pretty.

For fun, I did a quick analysis of my doorways into some sequential art series.

Obviously, your ratings might differ, because everyone’s doorways are different! I used a three-star scale in my ratings:

3 stars = Major doorway
2 stars = Above average doorway
1 star = Minor doorway
0 stars = Negligible doorway

Story Character Setting Language Art
20th Century Boys *** *** ** * **
Afterschool Nightmare *** ** * **
Bride of the Water God ** ***
Fruits Basket ** *** * ** *
Fullmetal Alchemist *** ** * *
Honey and Clover ** ** ** ** *
Mushishi * ** *** * **
Naruto ** ** * *
Ouran High School Host Club ** ** * * *
Saiyuki * *** * ** ***
Sandman * * ** ***
Time and Again * ** ** *
xxxHolic * ** * * ***
Yotsuba&! ** *** ** * **

I picked a fairly random assortment of series I’ve read and liked in the past year, with some bias toward what I’ve been reading lately. A few things I notice in this table:

(1) I’ve known for a long time that I have a huge preference for the character doorway and that’s reflected here. For example, I think Fruits Basket is a series with big story and character doorways, and arguably its story doorway is bigger than its character doorway. But my doorway as a reader was definitely the characters. I suspect my low rating for Sandman on character here is due to the fact that I’ve been re-reading it with a more critical eye lately; I probably would have given it 2 stars when I first read it a few years ago.

This is a bias I try to be mindful of and upfront about when reviewing, though I’m sure I only have mixed success at that. It’s definitely something to keep working on.

(2) Language doesn’t make a great showing overall. This is probably partly because so much of my reading on this list is mediated by translation, and the quality of translations sometimes leaves a lot to be desired. (I gave Honey and Clover 2 stars for language because of the way Umino uses narration in the series and despite the sometimes irritating translation in the Viz editions.) I tend to cut manga and manhwa some slack on the language front because I know that translation is an issue.

(3) Art is rarely my primary doorway, but I usually have to like the art to some degree to be really fond of a series.

(4) Story is the most obvious doorway. Pearl claims that it’s the most popular one as well, which is consistent with my own experience. I found it interesting that I gave two episodic, slice-of-life series (Honey and Clover and Yotsuba&!) decent story ratings. I don’t think of either of them being plot-driven. But the characterization in Honey and Clover is very story-driven, as is the comedy in the in Yotsuba&!, even if those stories are small ones rather than multivolume plot arcs.

(5) I suspect a chart of some of my regular fiction reading would look quite different. Character would still be king, but setting and language would be much more important. Awful writing in fiction, like subpar art in sequential art, is always a deal breaker.

What are your favorite doorways into stories? And tell me how your doorways into the series above differ from mine!


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  2. Now you’re making me wonder which doorway is my favorite.

    And I can’t really figure it out. I have difficulty separating things out – story reveals character, and character drives story. It feels like a chicken-and-the-egg situation to try and determine which I like first in a comic. And setting makes it harder, since characters and story shape and are shaped by wherever they are. Language and art are easier to for me to pick out. There are a few comics for which the language or the art were the doorway, neither is clearly my primary doorway.

    I saw the 20th Century Boys movies before reading the comics, and I was hooked when the prisoner tells his story and the audience figures out the thing which is eluding him – why he was imprisoned (the movies have a different beginning from the comics). So I suppose that was story. Naruto – the characters? I’m not sure. Those are the only two on your list that I have both read and enjoyed.

  3. All the categories do overlap to some degree, even language and art; after all, it’s hard to have an exciting plot or good characterization if the language and art don’t convey that. And good stories tend to have multiple doorways.

    I guess I tend to ask myself, “What makes me keep reading?” For both 20th Century Boys and Naruto, I read for the story before I read for the characters; my interest in the characters wasn’t immediate but something that developed over time. So for those particular series, I’d probably give story a slight edge over character.

    And as far as reader’s advisory, what someone is looking for can vary according to mood. I may have a bias toward the character doorway in general, but sometimes I just want to read something with beautiful art or witty dialogue, and then I’ll pick up something in accordance with that mood.

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