Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Bennett Rafoth, Ed.D.

Second Advisor

Nancy Hayward, Ph.D.

Third Advisor

Gian S. Pagnucci, Ph.D.


Popular bias against comics and graphic novels represents a belief that multi-modal texts likely perpetuate deficit literacy. As such, experienced readers of these texts practice a kind of outsider literacy that heretofore has been primarily examined as a bridge to verbal-only literacy. Therefore this study, which explored how experienced adult graphic novel readers read graphic novels, has become the first to apply think-aloud protocols to graphic novels in an effort to discover what reading these complex texts entails, and what literacy experiences shape that reading. Nine adult male and female graphic novel readers were recruited through snowball sampling, participated in tape-recorded think-aloud protocols for two graphic novels (superhero and shojo manga texts), and completed follow-up interview and literacy history questionnaires. The protocols, interviews and questionnaires were transcribed, coded, member-checked for accuracy, and reported both quantitatively (reading action frequency tables) and qualitatively (anecdotal case summaries.) The study’s results provided insight into the actual reading actions participants used and the experiences that shape their readings. Participants reported 28 specific reading actions that comprised six overarching reading practices. Of these 28 actions, eight were specific to visual-only aspects of the sampled texts, and another eight represented hybridized actions specific to verbo-visual aspects of the texts. All reading actions reported were consistent with critical reasoning reading strategies traditionally associated with verbal-only texts. Furthermore, the literacy histories and follow-up interviews indicated how participants’ approached (and ultimately appreciated) a text was greatly influenced by genre--and possibly by gender. Conclusions drawn from these results indicated that participants read actively, critically, and creatively, and reported routinely experiencing a kind of visual and temporal fluidity that lent a cinematic quality to their readings. Genre also informed their literacy experiences as readers reported that their early encounters with superhero comics and graphic novels created the foundation for their expectations for these kinds of texts, a fact born out by their difficulty reading the shojo manga text. Lastly, a strong split between the male and female readers’ observations of (and reactions to) perceived sexuality in each graphic novel suggested that readings may be gendered as well as culturally-situated.