comics theory

Narrative Structure in Comics: Making Sense of Fragments

Barbara Postema, Narrative Structure in Comics: Making Sense of Fragments

Barbara Postema organizes her book about making sense of comics the way I was imagining organizing my own hypothetical one. She starts with single panels, then moves on to the relationships between panels, then the whole page, and finally the sequence of pages. Basically, she starts with the smallest elements of comics and then moves up in size. Her goal is to examine how these various elements function, but she doesn’t seem interested in developing some grand theory full of neologisms, as Thierry Groensteen does in The System of Comics. This makes for a book that is fairly accessible on the one hand, but a little unclear about its goals on the other.

The main focus of every chapter is Postema’s analysis of specific comics and I think this analysis is what may be most useful to people. If you want some more insight into The Golem’s Mighty Swing or Shutterbug Follies, then you may enjoy this book. Postema is a careful reader and exhaustively describes elements of the comics she discusses. This is a strength, though I also found it to be a bit tedious at times. In some instances, the descriptions are of factual details in an image and so seem redundant when paired with the very image she describes. Also, these long descriptions sometimes lack a clearly stated point in the beginning, so that one has to slog through a few pages to see what Postema is getting at. Still, she makes many insightful comments and I enjoy how she weaves in other theorists, such as Barthes and Groensteen.

The question I have here is: who is this book for? I think that the book is aimed at academics who want to engage with comics, but are unsure of how to do so. But Postema doesn’t present a systematic way of doing this. Instead she presents a series of observations about the different elements of comics, as if she were saying “take a look at this and try something similar in your own comics reading.” She wants to show how one might bring the theories of Barthes, Bakhtin, or Eco to bear on comics reading. But it’s more of a suggestion by example than a clear program. Also, she refers to comics that people who aren’t already immersed in comics reading probably haven’t heard of, such as Shutterbug Follies. I am all for expanding the canon, but this may alienate people new to comics instead of draw them in. Also, Postema goes into deep analysis of certain scenes of comics that are not reproduced in the book. This means that we cannot see what she means; we just have to take her word for it. And if you have never read the comic she is analyzing, then you are completely lost. In fairness, this is a problem I see in a lot of writing about comics. Comics essays tend to be styled like literature essays: lots of verbal analysis with a few quotations thrown in as evidence. Yet since comics is a visual medium, the evidence needs to be shown visually. Maybe this is difficult to do because getting the rights to images is a challenge. Yet I suspect the real reason is that the genre of criticism is steeped in words. It doesn’t yet integrate images very well (ironically). Also, as Neil Cohn points out, the appendix on comics terminology in the book is odd. Its inclusion seems to signify that this book is for people less familiar with comics and comics criticism. Yet the appendix only contains five terms, and those terms are only the most basic, such as panel and gutter. The terms that Postema uses to analyze comics, such as paratextual, syntagym, or the difference she makes between sequence and series, are not listed. I guess she or her editor assumed that these terms are sufficiently defined in the text. But oddly, many of these terms also don’t show up in the index.

All criticisms aside, I am really glad this books exists. Most books written about comics by academics for academics make odd assumptions or demonstrate shocking gaps in understanding. Postema doesn’t have these problems. For instance, she understands that comics is primarily a visual medium and doesn’t get hung up on the old saw that comics simply puts pictures and words together. The more wannabe comics theorists who understand this the better, and I thank Postema for trying to set them straight.

Also, as the title of the book implies, Postema sees how the various fragments of comics, its elements, work together to create a coherent narrative structure. For instance, she goes into some detail explaining how images in comics both represent things (the iconic level) and also signify ideas and associated meanings (the connotative level). While literary theorists understand the difference between denotation and connotation and how the two may work in, say, a poem, for some reason when the same theorists look at pictures they assume that the pictures just convey what they show. They are blinded by the representational. They miss the connotative possibilities and so miss a large arena in which comics function. The examples Postema gives to explain this from Julie Doucet and Jason Little are lucid. As I said, Postema’s strength is careful analysis, or, to use a term that has fallen out of favor in some places, her close reading.

Another idea that she brings up that I really am getting a lot out of is the relationship comics has to time. Scott McCloud makes much of this also in Understanding Comics, yet Postema’s observation explains how images in comics, even in a single panel, are different than images in painting and photography. This is due to how comics relate to time. If one looks at a painting or a photograph, what one sees is a frozen moment. The image seems static and timeless. Yet a comics panel implies the movement of time. “The moment that is shown is unfinished. It asserts itself as a fragment of a larger whole” (Postema 13). This is an idea that I want to write about more and I have to credit Postema for helping me in this direction.

Overall, Postema’s book acknowledges that comics is an art form that is capable of a complex interplay of its elements. In the end, she states that comics demand a lot of work from the reader (121). If I am right and this book is aimed at academics who are considering comics to teach or research, such an argument is essential, not just to counteract the negative assumptions of the past, but to seriously move comics criticism forward.

Get the book here.

Other reviews:

Derek Royal
Neil Cohn

The Language of Comics by Mario Saraceni

So I’m reading through a few books on comics and how to analyze them and the first one I finished is part of the Routledge Intertext series, The Language of Comics by Mario Saraceni.

The audience for this book is, I believe, college students and so the aim here is to help college students analyze comics. From my own experience teaching comics at the college level, this is a worthwhile goal and a clear text is needed. However, I’m not sure Saraceni’s book is that text.

For one, Saraceni makes a few counter-factual claims. Early in the book, he says that one of the two most important characteristics of comics is that it, as an art form, employs both words and pictures (5). While this is often true, it is obviously not always the case. David Carrier makes the same claim in his book The Aesthetics of Comics and that book, while well-intentioned, demonstrates a shocking naivety about comics. So this was an early red flag as I was reading. Then on the next page, Saraceni says that comics have six to nine panels per page (7). Yes, he modifies this statement with “normally,” but he cites this “six to nine” figure a few other times throughout the book. Oddly, he provides plenty of examples that show that comics pages can have any number of panels. While I don’t believe that Saraceni is as unread in comics are Carrier seems to be, these careless claims undercut his authority.

On the whole, the rest of the book provides many interesting insights, but feels a bit underdeveloped and ill structured. For instance, Saraceni asks what relationships exist between words and pictures and answers that there are only two relationships (13). Not only is it odd that he can only see two relationships possible, his way of explaining the relationships is very roundabout. Basically, the two categories that he comes up with are “blend” and “collaboration.” “Blend” is when the words and images convey the same information and “collaboration” is when they do different things but work together to create the overall meaning. Yet instead of saying this straight out, he waits fourteen pages before defining the terms he introduces. In those fourteen pages Saraceni explains the concepts of icon and symbol from semiotics. He ends up saying that words in comics exist between icon and symbol and that images do as well. So they inhabit a similar space. This is interesting, but it doesn’t really help to understand what he means by “blend” and “collaboration.” It also doesn’t help that as soon as he finally defines these two concepts he doesn’t use them and instead says that words and images “interact in many different ways” (28). So we jump from “two” to “many.” This isn’t completely nonsensical, but it is sloppy and adds to the feeling that this book needed a few more drafts.

Then there’s the whole chapter at the end about computers in which Saraceni goes through the icons on his desktop. One can infer some connections to the ideas he has brought up earlier in the book, but how any of this helps us understand comics is beyond me.

There are other odd things like this I could mention, but instead I want to briefly bring up the various exercises in the book. Since the aim of this text is to use it in a college classroom, the addition of exercises is appropriate. However, as a teacher I have difficulty imaging that I would use these exercises. Most of the exercises involve students making lists, which gets old pretty quickly. Also, while many of the exercises are trying to get students to understand how panels connect with each other based on common elements or visual themes, the exercises completely overlook the fact that what most often joins panels is narrative. Usually comics tell stories. This book seems to overlook that fact.

Overall, this book is interesting but it’s careless structure and long asides make it seem more like an early draft than a finished book. According to Neil Cohn, the book is adapted from Saraceni’s dissertation and that would explain why it goes to such lengths to explain certain ideas. Again, the goal of the book is admirable; I just don’t think it is very effective at accomplishing that goal.

pictures over words?

R.C. Harvey has an interesting essay over at the Comics Journal. I find a lot of what he says very thought-provoking and I have to agree with him on the examples he gives (for the most part), but one underlying preference that governs his criticism is that in comics the pictures should lead the pacing and not the words. While I too tend to prefer comics that are visually paced, I am loathe to overprescribe the medium. And in fact, I can think of works I like that are word-centric. For instance, I know that Alison Bechdel composes her comics in words first and then decides how to illustrate them later. And I think Fun Home is an incredible book. Dan Clowes also has a lot of works, such as “Immortal, Invisible” or the beginning of David Boring, that a very narrative heavy. I would say that in these works words set the pacing more than the images.

And yet I agree with Harvey’s overall point that many people who try to create graphic novels seem to not really understand the medium. Part of this may be they are coming out of a writing tradition and have not really thought through how comics function and the unique advantages of the form. Still, I don’t think the problem is that the words are the prime mover of the pacing.

More fundamentally, the problem is that the words and pictures are not given unique jobs. In the word-centric examples Harvey provides, the problem is that the pictures merely illustrate the words, not that the words lead the narrative. This is what Scott McCloud calls a “duo-specific” relationship. And this is not a new problem. The old  Classics Illustrated books and many of the EC horror comics had this same problem. So I also disagree with Harvey that somehow writers new to comics are destroying the medium. I think the problem is the same one that has always been: the medium has been viewed simplistically and its potentials ignored.

local images to global images = metonymy

Okay, first read this. It’s a translation of an article by Barthélémy Schwartz about the defining characteristic of comics.

I’ll wait here until you’re done.


Okay, so this reminds me of my old idea that comics are metonymy. With metonymy, a part or a related concept of a larger idea stands in for that idea. This can be seen visually in comics all the time. The minimalist backgrounds of someone like Jaime Hernandez are a good example. The backgrounds are often just simple lines and silhouettes that stand in for something like an entire neighborhood. So a part stands in for a whole. Yet this is done in painting as well, and so doesn’t seem like a fundamental enough idea.

So let’s move away from the individual panel or even the act of drawing itself. As Schwartz says, comics are created when “juxtaposed local images” make up “a global image.” For instance, we could have a panel of someone throwing a ball and another panel of another person catching a ball. As readers, we understand that it is the same ball in each panel and that the one person is throwing it to the other. Also, if they are dressed in uniforms, we may assume the act is part of a larger game, which brings in the related idea of other players and perhaps spectators. So these juxtaposed parts are pieced together and create a narrative larger than the pieces themselves. I would call this metonymy.

I’m not the first to say this. According to Ann Miller in her book Reading Bande Dessinée, Roman Jakobson first applied the concept of metonymy to visual art. Yet his understanding seems more akin to the first one I described above, which doesn’t capture what is special about comics from other visual art. Miller also says that “Fresnault-Deruelle has called [comics] a ‘metonymic machine'” (78). Still, as Miller goes on to describe this idea all her examples are of individual panels. For instance, she discusses how speed lines have become a grammatical element to stand in for speed.

But what I mean by metonymy in comics is more akin to what Schwartz says about individual images making a global image. The structure of comics itself is metonymic. The reader takes discrete images that relate to a larger idea to understand that larger idea. Related details stand in for a larger whole. This act is essential to being able to read comics. So it is a fundamental component of how the art form functions.

intentional dis-ease

John McWade had a fascinating article about typesetting over at Before & After. Basically, the thesis is that easy-to-read typefaces and layouts may not always be better. Sometimes confusing layouts make the reader slow down and pay attention.

I’ve thought about this in comics in terms of the density of panels. Denser panels tend to slow down the eye and make the reader work a bit more. Fractured narratives, such as The Sound and the Fury, have a similar effect. And I think the clunkiness of the gameplay in the original Silent Hill actually adds to its effect.

But it’s interesting to consider making a comics panel or layout confusing expressly with the intention of getting the reader to work more. I need to run off now, but I want to think of examples of this in comics. Do you have any?

text/image pairings in comics

Since I’ve been teaching Fun Home the past year and I just read Essentials of Visual Communication, I’ve thought a lot about what Alison Bechdel calls the “separate tracks” of comics, text and image. Scott McCloud categorizes these pairings in the “Show and Tell” chapter of Understanding Comics, but his emphasis is on which element, the text or the image, carries the most information. So he has categories like “word specific,” “duo-specific,” and “interdependent.” While I think these categories are useful, I’m more interested in what specifically the text and image are doing, what roles they are playing together. Obviously, wordless comics and dialogue-only comics are left out here, but Fun Home constantly pairs text and image and does so in different ways. I started making a list as a teaching aid and added to it a lot the past few weeks as I was going through Essentials of Visual Communication.

So I wanted to share a visual list of some of the pairings I came up with. Most of these came out of analysis of actual comics, especially Fun Home, while a few are theoretical. This is not supposed to be a complete list, but I am curious to hear if anyone reading this has other pairings to suggest. Besides the intellectual interest in making this list, I thought it might also be useful in teaching as well as creating comics. On the creation side, it could inspire creators to think of other ways in which text and image work together. In terms of teaching, I was thinking of putting some of these up for my students and getting them to look for which appear in Fun Home and where. If I were teaching a class about creating comics, then I could have students choose a certain number of pairings and use them as the basis for a comics panel or page.

So let’s start with narration and monstration. These are my pet terms of the past year. Narration is what is told, verbally. Monstration is what is shown, visually.

Sometimes the image shows what happens and the text explains how or why it happens.

In Modern Cartoonist, Dan Clowes says to think of the text as the mind and the image as the body.

And here’s one about the image/text red herring I mentioned in the Essentials of Visual Communication post.

The opinionated lizard narrator in Enigma made me think of this next one.

These next three come from teaching Fun Home.

And two theoreticals.

Do you have any others? Or any specific examples of the above pairings?