The Help Desk: Deflated by word balloons

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to

Dear Cienna,

I never figured out how to read comic books. This sounds silly, I know, but every time I look at a page, I don't know where to start. This word balloon? That box with text over there? Starting in the upper left corner doesn't seem to work for a lot of comics pages. I'm 35 years old and I've tried to read all the comics everyone says I should read: Persepolis, Palestine. I never get more than a few pages in before I develop a terrible migraine. But my friends, particularly the guys, say I should keep at it. Is it okay if I just give up?

Deborah, Hawthorne

Dear Deborah,

I get it. Personally, I can’t read read technical instructions or nutrition information without bleeding from my eyes. If you’ve given graphic novels your best effort, feel free to do what I do whenever a well-intentioned friend confronts me with technical instructions or nutrition information and threaten to burn their house down. (Practice saying to your guy friends, “I am a strong independent woman and if you wave that shit in front of my face again I will burn your motherfucking house down with gasoline and fireworks.”)

If, however, you want to give the medium another shot, I suggest you relax and treat them as you would children’s books: look at the pictures first and then, if you feel inclined, read the text. Remember: you’re not being tested on the material so who cares about comprehension? Also, maybe try reading a fun graphic novel before diving into beautiful-but-bleak works like Persepolis and Palestine? I recommend Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. It’s at least equal parts funny and bleak.