The literary and artistic merit of the graphic text as new textual genre

The literary and artistic merit of the graphic text as
new textual genre and hybrid literary/artistic form
Catherine Beavis, Griffith University
Graphic novels as sophisticated multimedia form
The emergence of the graphic text over recent decades as an increasingly significant
literary and artistic form has led to considerable scholarly interest in many quarters. As
a genre, it combines visual and verbal modes to create rich and complex narratives,
managing sequence, space and time in ways that require significantly different forms of
‘reading’ than do primarily verbal forms, such as the novel.
Graphic novels are one of a number of multimodal genres, where more than one
meaning-making mode − writing, image, movement, sound etc. − is used to create the
narrative world. Words, images, panels and the spaces between them are the core
components of the genre, with graphic novels calling on the qualities or ‘affordances’ of
print and drawing, in a sometimes parallel, sometimes seamless combination, where
multiple forms of ‘reading’ are required.
The specific qualities of the genre − the modes and affordances − enable forms of
representation and storytelling that share family resemblances with older form, but
function differently. Graphic novels are quintessentially multimodal, and require new
ways of reading that call on conventions associated with both visual and verbal modes.
It is the combination of text and image, words and lines, sequential panels and the ways
in which the panels themselves are used, together with the spaces between them, that
give graphic novels their particular power. In the hands of accomplished artists and
writers, a ‘canon’ of graphic novels and graphic narratives is developing. Reflecting the
subtlety and status of this work, the form has prompting growing interest, requiring
what has been described as a ‘disciplinary reconfiguration’ (Gardner and Herman,
2011) among fields dealing with representation in various forms. To explore and
understand graphic novels, perspectives are drawn from the fields of literature and art,
fiction, narrative and history, each having something to contribute, and with graphic
novels in turn prompting a re-examination of these categories. Before examining the
ways in which graphic novels work as multimodal genre, however, and how the
intersections between visual and verbal and the organisation of time and space work to
create narrative, matters of definition and genealogy should be raised.
Nomenclature and Definitions
From a literary studies perspective, definitions of the graphic novel, or how to name
what is currently understood by that term, are not yet settled. The challenge is to find a
term that both encompasses the range of literature created in this form, including
nonfiction as well as fiction narrative forms, and acknowledge the comic book origins
of the genre, with the attendant risk that to do so in some quarters will be seen to
devalue the genre.
The Oxford English Dictionary (1993) defines the graphic novel as ‘a narrative work in
which the story is conveyed to the reader using sequential art either in an experimental
design or in a traditional comics format’. Similarly, Tabachnick draws attention to form
and provenance in defining the graphic novel as ‘an extended comic book that treats
nonfictional as well as fictional plots and themes with the depth and subtlety we have
come to expect of traditional novels and extended nonfiction texts’ (2009, p. 1). As
some of the most sophisticated texts are concerned with the representation of historical
and political events, the term ‘graphic narrative’ is sometimes used. The term ‘comics’,
as a singular noun, is also used by many in the field, to refuse distinctions between high
and low culture, and incorporates the full spectrum from popular comic strips to
complex literary/aesthetic forms.
Key characteristics
The graphic novel or narrative:
(i) is a hybrid word-and-image form in which two narrative tracks, one verbal and
one visual, render temporality spatially
(ii) moves forward in time through the space of the page, through its progressive
counterpoint of presence and absence
(iii)comprises packed panels (also called frames) alternating with gutters (empty
(iv) is highly textured in its narrative scaffolding
(v) does not blend the visual and the verbal − or use one to simply illustrate the
other − but is rather, prone to present the two non-synchronously
(vi) requires the reader to not only fill in the gaps between the panels, but to also
work with the often disjunctive back and forth of reading and looking for
meaning (adapted from Chute, 2008, p. 4).
Genealogies of the graphic novel variously emphasise longstanding early forms of
pictorial sequential storytelling, such as some Egyptian hieroglyphic sequences, the
Bayeux tapestry, Trajan’s column, and pre-Columbian picture manuscripts; etchings,
paintings and other forms in which a sequence of images are presented in narrative
form, such as Blake’s poems and drawings of heaven and hell, etchings and paintings
by Hogarth; and the more narrowly specific evolution of comic books in Europe,
America and the UK, traced back to the ‘picture novels’ developed by Topffer in the
early 19th century. At least three different traditions of the genre are discussed: the
French/European, as epitomized by Asterix and The Adventures of Tintin, the manga
tradition in Japan, and American popular culture, including the superhero form. While
some seek to distance graphic novels from these antecedents, others see this heritage as
an important component of the form; the ways it works and the ways it is understood.
Humour and the mass media provenance, and the expectations they marshal, remain
important elements in the ways in which graphic texts are approached by creators and
readers alike. ‘In the graphic narrative’, according to Chute, ‘we see an embrace of
reproducibility and mass circulation as well as a rigorous, experimental attention to
form as a mode of political intervention.’ (Chute, 2008, p. 10)
Multimodality and elements of the genre
To be fully literate in the contemporary world entails being literate with respect to both
print and multimodal forms, and to have the capacity to be able to both create and
analyse multimodal texts at a high level. Words and images have different logics, and
the design or organisation of page and screen work differently: ‘The logic of
(alphabetic) writing’, argues Kress, ‘is the logic of time and sequence; the logic of
image, on the other hand, is the logic of space and simultaneity’ (p. 140). Where ‘the
elements of writing unfold in time and are related by sequence … the elements of the
image are present in spatial arrangements, and they are ordered by spatial relations’
(Kress, 2003, p. 140).
Pages in graphic novels and graphic narratives are made up of words and images within
panels, the panels themselves, and the gaps or spaces formed between panels. In graphic
novels, word and image work together, but their integration entails something other than
the parallel existence of these two logics separately. To the key elements of words and
images, McCloud (1993) adds ‘time’, as the combinations and layers of image and
words within and between panels use space and relationships to create a sense of
sequencing and time. This is part of what makes graphic narratives unique. No other
medium, as Crutcher (2011) argues, ‘can present time in the myriad ways’ the genre
makes possible. Single frames ‘may or may not depict singular moments, illustrators
can adjust time through spacing and framing and detail.’ Further, ‘pages can exist in
multiple temporal places at once,’ and ‘motion can be represented … as vividly as in
film’ (Crutcher 2011, p. 55-6). The medium ‘offers range and versatility with all the
potential imagery of film and painting plus the intimacy of the written word’ (McCloud
1993, p. 212). Readers build connections between the panels, with these elements
(words and images, panels and spaces, the organisation of the page) together using
space to create a sense of sequence or time, through a variety of representational means.
In seeking to determine what distinguishes the genre from all other forms, from a visual
arts point of view, intrinsic to the ‘drawn’ nature of the narrative, attention constantly
comes back to two key factors – the spaces between the panels, and the line. The most
powerful examples of the genre use these qualities to create rich and nuanced narratives
unreproducible in other forms. As Crutcher (2011) argues, they mean that graphic
novels ‘can provide unique complexity not found in prose-based novels or traditional
films, and therefore deserve critical and scholarly attention’ (p. 69). This complexity
comes through:
(a) the medium: the way writers, inkers, colorists and others involved in the
production of a graphic novel impose control, create layering, build atmosphere,
and highlight artistic craft; b) stories: how graphic novels work well beyond the
superficial, delving into the human condition, political and cultural subversion,
psychology, and the duality of the persona; and c) character: creating and
sustaining icons that cross myriad temporal, visual, and setting ranges while
paradoxically remaining coherent’ (p. 69).
Three examples
1. Atmosphere, the aberrant and the line
The Japanese manga novel Adolf deals with militarism and nationalism in Japan and
Germany prior to World War II. The role of the line is evident in creating an
atmosphere of sinister menace, through the driving rain, the darkness and the shadows.
Also in evidence are unexplained non sequiturs between each panel − broken shop
signs, a body huddled in a doorway, an anonymous well-dressed figure, his face masked
by the umbrella, his unexplained presence in the rain. The reader takes all this in via a
complex visual process: filling gaps, building connections, asking questions and
incorporating unexpected elements as best they may, taking in the mood of bleakness,
dereliction and decay (Adams 1999, p. 71).
2. Aesthetic conventions and visual metaphor
Figure 1: Barefoot Gen: The Day After by Keiji Nakazawa (2004, p. 181).
Barefoot Gen, another Japanese manga novel, is set in the period immediately following
the bombing of Hiroshima, describing events from the perspective of a child. The
drawing of the child incorporates familiar elements from the kiwame (cute) aesthetic of
much Japanese popular culture, with wide eyes and Disneyesque drawings, but a very
different sensibility that eschews sentimentalism and presents the children as
persevering in the face of the bombing of Hiroshima, the incomprehensibility of what
has happened, and the seeming impossibility of rebuilding any form of society. Of
particular interest is panel 2 (see Figure 1), and the image of the sun − its simplicity and
burning intensity linking it simultaneously to the atomic explosion that has caused this
devastation (Adams 1999, pp. 72-3). The seeming non sequitur between this panel and
those around it intensifies the complexity of both narrative and mood, forcing the reader
to actively ‘fill in’ connections between them all, in their own creation of the narrative.
3. Competing and non-synchronous narratives: the multilayering of time
Spiegelman’s Maus II epitomises the ways in which panels weave together multiple
narratives, contexts and times. ‘Speigelman toys with narrative expectations of temporal
moments’, Chute argues. ‘As historical enunciation weaves jaggedly through
paradoxical spaces and shifting temporalities, comics − as a form that relies on space to
represent time − becomes structurally equipped to challenge dominant modes of
storytelling and history writing’ (p. 456). ‘In competing and nonsynchronous narrative
layers of comics [Speigelman] creates an intense level of self-reflexivity’ (p. 457). The
form is ‘a structurally layered and double medium that can proliferate historical
moments on the page, (… concentration camp corpses wordlessly invade a present day
SoHo studio)’ (p. 459).
The suitability of graphic novels for study as a new form of literary representation in
multimodal form in senior secondary English curriculum
As the field has matured, a canon of sophisticated, multilayered graphic novels and
narratives has developed, well worthy of study at senior secondary English alongside
other forms of literature in more familiar print and multimedia genres. By virtue of its
capacity to represent time and motion, in single moments or simultaneously, to draw on
the advantages of both print and visual forms to mobilise the qualities of each, to
reference intertextually, and to incorporate other media such as maps, photographs,
narrative and testimony in representing, for example, history. In its richest form the
genre has developed a number of aesthetically innovative and highly sophisticated
multidimensional narratives that deal with complex matters in nuanced and multilayered
ways − and all this within and between the panels, and the basic two-dimensional layout
of the page.
Adams, J 1999, ‘Of Mice and Manga: Comics and Graphic Novels in Art Education’,
Journal of Art and Design Education, vol. 18, no. 1, pp. 69-75.
Chute, H 2008, ‘The Changing Profession, Comics as Literature: Reading Graphic
Narrative’, PMLA: Publications for the Modern Language Association of America, Vol.
123, No. 2, pp. 452-65.
Crutcher, P 2011, ‘Complexity in the Comic and Graphic Novel Medium’, The Journal
of Popular Culture, vol. 44, no. 1, pp. 53-72, 55-6.
Gardner, J & Herman, D 2011, ‘Graphic Narratives and Narrative Theory:
Introduction’, SubStance, vol. 40, no. 124, pp. 3-13.
Kress, G 2003, ‘Interpretation or design? From the world told to the world seen’, in
Styles, M & Bearne, E (eds.) Art, Narrative and Childhood, Trentham Books, pp. 13753, Stoke on Trent.
McCloud, S 1993, Understanding Comics: the invisible art, Harper Collins/Kitchen
Sink Press, New York.
Nakazawa, K 1989, Barefoot Gen: Life After the Bomb. A Cartoon Story of Hiroshima,
vol. 3 of Barefoot Gen, New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island.
Tabachnick, S 2009, Teaching the Graphic Novel, The Modern Language Association
of America, New York.
Speigelman, A 1991, Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles Began. New
York: Pantheon.
Tezuka, O 1996, Adolf: An Exile in Japan, Cadence Books, Canada.
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