Arsène Schrauwen reminds me a bit of the work of Ben Katchor, with his blocky businessmen engaged in endeavors that seem just outside the real. The book also reminds me of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, in the sense that expectation is often thwarted and any sense of narrative tension is drained by the inanity and passivity of the main character. I make these comparisons to Katchor and Sterne so you understand that this is a book aimed at a particular sensibility, at a reader who enjoys the absurd and the structurally inventive.
So we get a story of the artist’s grandfather, a man-child who moves to a colony- a place that is never named, inhabited by a people we don’t get to see until late in the book- and who spends most of the “adventure” hiding in his bungalow, too afraid to venture out. This is not the story of a hero, nor does it seem to be a critique of colonialism. It’s an anti-story the way that Tristram Shandy is. Yet things do happen. There is an obsession that may be love. A character is committed and receives electro-shock therapy. People get lost. Leopard men come out of the jungle. A city is built. Still, a decisive climax is avoided and all the grandiloquence of the project the colonialists undertake is undercut by the needs of capitalism. At the end, we see Arsène bicycle into the darkness, no more a solid character than he was at the outset.
Besides his playfulness with the absurdity of the story, Oliver Schrauwen is also playful with the layout and drawings of his comic. Colors shift between blues and reds, grids give way to double-page spreads. Schrauwen also uses visual metaphors. When Arsène is arroused he turns into a donkey, like a Belgian Bottom. At other times he becomes a young boy, at others his penis is a bird. Most of the other characters in the comic don’t have faces and instead have simple spheres for heads. At certain moments, their faces emerge, but often quickly disappear again. This may be Schrauwen’s style, but it underscores how little the titular character thinks about other people.
I found the playfulness of this book to be funny and charming. The whole thing was constantly inventive and engaging. At the same time, I can see how this book isn’t for all tastes. Also, I was a bit troubled that a book about a colony in Africa doesn’t have any black people in it. Reality is not Schrauwen’s game here; he is playing more with the European narratives of the great artist and the great adventurer. Still, the lack of a native perspective was at times an unnerving hole in the book.
I read Arsène Schrauwen through my library on the Hoopla app. So if your library has a similar service, you can try it out that way. Or you can get the book from Fantagraphics.
Does the shape of a panel carry inherent meaning?
A square panel seems to imply stability. Its four equal sides create a sense equilibrium.
Rectangular panels imply movement, horizontal for wide panels, vertical for tall panels. From fine art we also learn that these shapes can infer content. Wide frames are for landscapes, tall are for portraits.
Circular panels create a sense of centering, all edges being an equal distance from the middle.
Yet while all these meanings are implied, what is in a panel can supersede these connotations.
For instance, in the panel below the squareness doesn’t connote stability, but instead works in contrast with the image to heighten its instability.
Of course, the same image could be placed inside a vertical panel. Now we feel the weight of gravity more. So the shape does have some effect.
Still, the implied movement can be nullified by content. While the panel below is wide, the strong focal point of the eye precludes its horizontal movement.
A circular panel can lose its centeredness by having an off-centered composition.
So the meaning of a panel is not inherent to its shape. Yes, the shape can imply a meaning or accentuate one, but whether or not it carries that meaning depends on other, more powerful, elements. These are the context and the content.
Context refers to what the panel is relation to. Usually a panel sits on a page in relationship with other panels and this relationship creates meaning. For instance, below the third panel seems to drop, since it is longer than the first two panels.
Yet if we change the context and make all the panels the same height, the meaning disappears. So shape doesn’t make the meaning, the context does.
But we can reclaim the meaning through content. Here, there is a sense of falling again.
While the verticality of the panels helps show the height of the fall, the panels could be square and convey the same basic meaning.
So the panel shape may accentuate the meaning, but it is not required to do so. So for a comics artist, shape is something to consider, but not something to obsess about. There is no one “right” shape for every given situation. Context and content are of greater importance.
Note: This question of whether or not panel shape has inherent meaning was inspired by Hannah Miodrag’s Comics and Language, especially chapters 7 and 9.
The subtitle of this book is more accurate than it’s main title; Miodrag examines what she sees as common assumptions and mistakes that comics critics make. She points to lack of precision, sloppy reasoning, and confirmation bias. While at times the arguments are a bit belabored and redundant, her book is a needed amendment to the patterns of a lot of critical thought about comics.
One trend she sees is how often writers seem obsessed with claiming that elements in a specific comic are universal. As if how the relationships in that comic work, between word and image say, are endemic to the medium itself. I once got on David Carrier’s case for just this issue (Miodrag points out a different one on page 89). In his book The Aesthetics of Comics, he claims that what defines comics are word balloons. Yet if the small selection of comics you read and write about have word balloons that doesn’t mean that it is the defining characteristic of the medium. What about Miné Okubo’s Citizen 13660? Or Edward Gorey’s work? Or much of Eleanor Davis’s Why Art? Not to mention the thousands of completely wordless comics out there. The issue is that so many critics are desperate to claim legitimacy for comics that they leap to hasty generalizations. A group of comics may all exhibit the same quality, but that doesn’t mean that all comics have this quality, or must have it to be considered comics. It’s a reductionist view that does nothing to help the medium.
Miodrag also places nice attention to pacing. This is a subject that has been habitually overlooked. Groensteen addresses it and Tom Hart is teaching about it, but these are exceptions. Even books that tell you they will teach you how to create comics often overlook pacing entirely. Miodrag’s analysis of how Posy Simmonds paces Gemma Bovary, for example, is enlightening. Miodrag is a careful close reader and her analysis is one of the strengths of the book.
She also contributes to the argument that comics have more in common with graphic design than any other medium. But actually, that’s more my own hobby horse than Miodrag’s. So I guess you’re just getting a sample of how I may quote from her book later.
While there are all sorts of little things I could quibble with in Comics and Language, my main objection to the book is how sometimes she goes to an odd extreme to make her points, sometimes setting up a straw critic to take down. For instance, in the first chapter she claims that critics don’t analyze Herriman’s Krazy Kat for its literary qualities. Her goal is to point out that in comics criticism, critics confuse imagination and plot for literariness. In other words, they don’t evaluate the use of language. This is a good point but I don’t think it really applies to Krazy Kat. It goes against my personal experience, for one. And there are several public examples. E.E. Cummings wrote an analysis of the characters in the strip and Umberto Eco wrote of the its poetic qualities.
Still, her main point that comics criticism is often very limited in what it means when it uses the term “literary” is an important one. The emphasis tends to be on creativity and storytelling, not on depth of character, complexity of theme, and use of language. With these standards, Michael Moorcock would be a better writer than Gabriel García Márquez. This is why, as she points out, that writers such as Will Eisner and Alan Moore (61) get touted as exemplars. This is something I had always felt but had never articulated, much less as carefully as Miodrag does. I had always been annoyed that certain graphic novels were held up as standards of the medium when they seemed so mediocre, or merely good. Part of the issue, according to Miodrag, is that critics’ notions of what actually make a comic “literary” are very simplistic. In the end, I think this undercuts the very thing that critics are trying to do. They are trying to show that the medium has great works. But by holding up painfully adequate books they are just showing that comics are indeed incapable of being taken seriously. Is Watchmen genuinely as profound as The Sound and The Fury?
The real reason I’m writing all this, besides trying to digest my own thoughts and recommend the book itself, is to take on one argument I have with Miodrag. Again, it’s another example of her saying something a bit extreme to make her point, but in this case it is just wrong. On page 100, Miodrag takes issue with the idea that outside captions always operate differently than in-panel text boxes and word balloons. What I think she’s trying to get at is that the role words are put to in a given comic is more important than any “rule” about how captions or word balloons always operate. But the argument is a bit messy. And on page 101 she states this: “The role words play is not determined by their position.” Okay, I agree that a comic creates its own logic and that this tendency of critics to want to establish absolute rules can actually hinder their analysis, but this is wrong. In comics, position is meaning. It is not absolute- the meaning is always dependent on context- but how the artist choses to place the elements in the comic is one of the ways they create meaning.
We all know that position is meaning when it comes to prose. “Grandma, let’s eat!” has a different meaning than “Let’s eat Grandma!” Same words, but position makes one an invitation and the other cannibalism.
How about this:
The first panel shows question and response. The second conveys a lack of recognition. Again, same words, different placement, different meaning. The roles are dictated by their positions.
But this quotation I’m digging into comes within the context of captions and if placement within the panel always works better. So let’s look at an example like that:
In the first, the caption sits outside the panel. Here the words seem to be about the scene as a whole. We are invited to see this landscape as where the narrator is. In the next two panels, the caption is placed within the panel. This invites us to read the words in the context of the image plane and so new meanings emerge. In the second panel, the caption is in a text box located over the tree. This implies that the narrator is hiding in the tree. Lastly, placing the narration over the ground makes it seem as if the narrator is dead and buried. Same words. Different placements. Differing meanings.
Just to clarify, I’m not arguing that any one approach is superior or that the relationships above will always exist in every comic. I’m just saying that the position of words affects their role. And I take Miodrag’s point that many critics, such as R.C. Harvey, assume that words within the panel inherently work better. Yet to argue against this I feel she briefly overlooks how the comics medium works. She says that it’s wrong “to confuse position with function” when it comes to words, that instead it is a “question of [their] role” (101). Yet their placement is their role. Again, that role depends on context, but placement is meaning. To deny that is to deny one of the ways comics functions.
You can read a more chapter by chapter review of Comics and Language here:
I love anthologies. I love seeing new work, being introduced to artists and approaches I have never seen before, and, of course, getting a solid read. Maybe it’s being placed next to other, different styles, but sometimes the best work an artist has done is a little story that appeared in some anthology. And yes, many anthologies suck. Or they are full of little pieces that never satisfy your hunger for something transportive. But sometimes the opposite is true and an anthology blows you away with the quality of the pieces it contains or the new possibilities for the medium that it shows you. These days, most anthologies seem to be one-shots. But even when there were serial anthologies, such as Dark Horse Presents, Last Gasp, Zero Zero, and Top Shelf, there were never too many in the market at once. The anthology, it seems, is never an easy venture for a publisher. But, again, I love them and want new ones to be created. So here’s a short list of some of my absolute favorites.
Raw Vol. 2 No. 1.
I think it’s difficult to understand the impact of Raw. Even these days when there are graphic novel sections in book stores and libraries, Raw stands out for its quality. Imagine it in the late 80s. Way ahead of its time. Vol. 2 No. 1 was the first issue I saw and it’s incredible. There is work by Charles Burns, Justin Green, Joost Swarte, Lorenzo Mattotti, Basil Wolverton, Ben Katchor, and of course a chapter from Spiegleman’s Maus. On top of that, this issue contains Richard McGuire’s iconic comic “Here.” And the disturbing little comic “Paul” by Pascal Doury broke my little teenaged mind.
I chipped in to buy one of these when I heard the concept. Basically, the french publisher L’Association decided to put together a brick of a book, a 2000 page anthology of wordless comics about the new (at the time) millennium. Obviously the anthology contains a lot of french artists, but there are works by Americans such as Chris Ware, Jessica Abel, and Nick Bertozzi. And there are also works by artists from Spain, Norway, and Japan. There is definitely some work whose inclusion I question, but the overall effect is inspiring. There are just so many styles on display here. Also, since the stories have to be wordless, some artists get very creative with what they do visually. In fact, this is the work that convinced me to try my hand at wordless comics. There’s no coincidence that the first Kit Kaleidoscope story came out in 2000.
Nosotros Somos Los Muertos #3
In 1998 I was in Barcelona and bought the first five issues of this Spanish-language anthology. Issue 3 is my favorite with work by Federico del Barrio, Sequeiros, Martin Tom Dieck, Muñoz, Javier Olivares, and Thomas Ott (among many others). It also has Mattotti’s work “El Secreto del Pensador,” which Fantagraphics later published as Chimera. I can barely read a word of this book, but I love it.
Drawn & Quarterly, Volume 3
The Drawn & Quarterly anthology was always good, but things got really nice when they stepped up their production values and put out the anthology in large volumes. In this volume there are stories by Blutch, R. Sikoryak, and Franco Matticchio. The biggest revelation in this volume comes with the reprints of Frank King’s Gasoline Alley. Many of us had read Ware extolling King’s strip and here he was able to show us what he was so inspired by. The King-themed end papers by Ware are also a treat.
Kramer’s Ergot 4
This is the issue when Kramer’s Ergot stepped up from being a quirky little anthology to a force to be reckoned with. This issue introduced me to so many artists I had never heard of and whose work I would have probably never bought. The styles on their own didn’t appeal to me, but somehow together they became something incredible, an awe-inspiring rush of color and audacity. What anchors this book, and what the other issues tend to lack, is the long, solid read of Harkham’s own “Poor Sailer.” This provides the narrative satisfaction one often looks for, letting the more experimental works not have to hold up the entire impact of the issue.
As a publisher, Nobrow always has some of the best printing on its books. The anthology is no different, often giving artists a certain palette of spot colors to work with. This not only makes the colors vibrant, but gives a cohesion to the various works. Nobrow is a bit like the old Blab! in that it includes comics and full page illustrations. In terms of comics, this issue has solid reads from Jillian Tamaki, Eleanor Davis, Ethan Rilly, and Joseph Lambert. Overall this is just a beautiful book full of fulfilling little stories. It’s just quality all the way through.
Rodolphe Töpffer usually wins credit for being the first comics artist. He put multiple panels on a page and employed the new advancements in printing to get his work read. He may not have used word balloons, but most of the elements of contemporary comics started with him. What I didn’t know (and maybe you didn’t either) is that he also was one of the first theorists about this new medium. In 1845 Töpffer wrote Essai de Physiognomie, his thoughts on what made littérature en estampes (as he called it) so special. Sorry, Will Eisner.
I learned this because a new translation was recently published under the title How to Create Graphic Novels, translated and edited by John McShane. While I understand the need for a better title than “Essay on Physiognomy,” “How to Create Graphic Novels” is a bit misleading. Still, this is a very interesting little book and I’m really glad this new edition exists.
I just want to mention that the introduction to this book is both helpful and confusing. It gives a bit of background on Töpffer and goes over what parts of Essai de Physiognomie of have been cut for this edition. But the unrestrained enthusiasm and unfocused chronological jumps make it hard to tell when the opinions being described are Töpffer’s, his time period’s, or the editor’s. Also, almost half the introduction talks about contemporary works. I understand that McShane is trying to contextualize Töpffer’s influence, but it makes for a muddle of times and ideas that obfuscate more than illuminate. That being said, McShane’s translation of the main text is very readable and engaging.
As Töpffer’s original title implies, most of his book concerns facial expressions and how what characters look like reveals their personalities. Töpffer does mention some other ideas in the beginning. The one I found most interesting is that an artist can use multiple panels in quick succession as a kind of visual hyperbole. Yet he doesn’t say much more than that; most of the book discusses physiognomy.
I was concerned when I first saw this term used. Physiognomy usually goes hand-in-hand with prejudice. The very idea of it, that we can judge people’s personalities based on their looks, is the definition of pre-judging. And yet so much of what we do as artists in comics is based in this. We convey character through visual signifiers. This is something that has always troubled me since there are so many examples of how this can go horribly, even fatally, wrong. All you have to do is look at the hooked noses and dark skin in the history of Disney villains to find one example. While he never mentions racial profiling or caricature used as warmongering, Töpffer understands that physiognomy has its limits. He emphasizes that the types of visual signifiers he discusses are about drawings and don’t always relate to “nature.” He says, “these signs never present, neither when considered in isolation, nor when considered together, an infallible criterion by which to judge the intellectual or moral faculties.”
What is so refreshing about his approach is his sense of play. Töpffer says that an artist doesn’t have to go to school and study anatomy. All they need to do is sketch faces, no matter how simple, and play around with the features. See what happens when you move the eyebrows, the lips, or the nostrils. Observe what kinds of characters reveal themselves from these shifts. He then encourages artists to mix up these signifiers. He shows the result of drawing a mouth that denotes laughter with eyes that imply crying. It is this subtle interplay between these different features that Töpffer feels is the medium’s strength and what advantage it has over the novel. And so we see, even in the earliest essay on comics, this bid to prove that it is as worthy a medium as writing.
This is a short book, but a fascinating one. I can see how some of Töpffer’s ideas could be easily made into exercises for a class on creating comics. And again, I was really charmed by Töpffer’s tone. He is an enthusiastic proponent of this new medium, but he is also a practicing artist who is thoughtful about the realities of what he is doing. This book helped me not only respect Töpffer but like him.
I didn’t read Edmund J. Sullivan’s Line: An Art Study all at once, but piece by piece over a few months. Besides just life getting in the way, I took this book slowly because it isn’t the kind of book you get lost in. It’s written in an older style and it references people and ideas that are not around anymore. That makes a lot of the book nonsensical. So you have to wade through that to find the parts that are still helpful. Sullivan also has the attitudes of a man of his time, including the casually racist ones (he has no trouble tossing around the word “nigger,” for example). For all that, Sullivan was an incredible pen-and-ink artist and his thoughtful observations about the craft come from years of experience.
So because of these two things- Sullivan’s insights and Sullivan’s attitudes- I feel the need to recontextualize what he says. Also, his insights are rooted in a pen-and-ink style that is not popular anymore and he of course wasn’t considering comics. So again, I feel the need to put his ideas into my own context. So here we go…
One thing using a dip pen gives you is the ability to modulate line weight. Often, the rationale for this is that heavy lines are used to depict areas of shade. Sullivan makes an interesting observation about this; he calls it “doubly wrong” (74). He thinks that the heavier lines should be on the side of the object nearest the light source. This is for two reasons. One, if the heavier line is on the shaded side, then that side tends to come forward rather than recede. As in painting, darker shapes seem near, while lighter shapes seem distant. He shows a drawing of a head with the far side in shade outlined with a heavy line and it makes the head seem odd, because the dark side, which is supposed to be receding, actually comes forward. His second reason is for contrast. The light side will seem lighter if set off with a darker line. I can also think of a third reason: the thick line will get lost in the shading and so lose its power.
So here, the egg on the left has the weighted line on the shaded side and the egg on the right has the weighted line on the light side. Notice how for the egg on the left, all your attention sinks to the bottom right. The egg on the right has a fuller form. The line weight and the shading balance each other. And as a result, the center comes forward and the whole thing seems more three-dimensional.
Still, if one doesn’t use any shading, which is much more common in drawings these days, then putting the heavier line towards the light source looks odd. The egg on the right looks a bit like it’s floating, while the one on the left seems more grounded.
The other useful thing line weight is used for is the relative distance of objects in your drawing. As I said, darker objects come forward while lighter objects move backward. In the drawing below, the guy on the right seems farther away. This is partly due to him being overlapped by the person on the left, but it’s also due to his lighter line weight. The person on the left has a heavier line weight, so comes forward. There is also more line and tone variety in how she’s drawn. That also makes her command our attention more.
However, Sullivan doesn’t talk much about balancing line weight against itself. For him, it is always balanced based on some external rationale, like light source or relative distance. While he does say that varying line weights makes for a more visually interesting picture, he doesn’t abstract line from what it is supposed to represent. This is probably a result of his time period and tradition, but it limits his insights into line weight. Again, he only thinks of it representationally. Recently, I have been playing around with alternating line weight by putting a heavy line next to a thin one. So I change line weight not based on any claim on realism, but simply based on the lines themselves. I’m not saying that this is the best way to do things, but I present it as an option that Sullivan doesn’t consider.
Speaking of which, I of course think about this in relation to comics. Personally, I find really thick panel lines to be distracting. If the lines in the border are bolder than the lines in the drawing contained within, then the panel comes forward and takes attention away from the drawing you are supposed to be reading. Likewise, a panel composed on lines all of equal weight can be difficult to read. In my early comics, I didn’t vary line weight but used a lot of shading. That resulted in a lot of muddy panels.
I found this part of Sullivan’s book to be very interesting. Yet again, I wish he had gone even further with this topic. Basically, he says that you should have a rationale for how to do your shading. He offers three possibilities: the shading running across or perpendicular to the light rays (A), the shading running parallel to the light rays (B), and the shading being molded to the form of the subject (C).
While Sullivan seems to prefer the third, his point is not that one approach is better than the others, but that if you mix approaches then the drawing will become muddied. I realize now that I tended to use A before and now I am much more drawn to C, but honestly, before reading this book I didn’t consciously categorize these different methods. And when I first started with pen-and-ink, I didn’t consider my approach at all; I was just scribbling down lines. So Sullivan entreats us to stop a second and consider what we’re doing.
As before, Sullivan’s rationale is based on representing reality. Here, line harmony has to do with how one shades in relation to the light source. But of course, you could approach line harmony in other ways. You could gather your lines to a certain focal point or to convey a certain emotion. For instance, I once noticed that in a lot of his portraits, Van Gogh radiates his brush strokes away from the eyes. The result is that the eyes of his subjects have a particular intensity.
You could also arrange your lines to make your image more readable. This is something many cartoonists consider. In the example below, John Adkins Richardson shows how the lines in this George Price cartoon help draw the reader’s attention to the speaker (The Complete Book of Cartooning 128-9).
When you’re dealing with multiple panels, the lines from one panel can relate to the lines in another. Again, this can help readability. I did this in Carnivale on a few occasions. In these three panels from page seventy-two, I used the background shading lines to guide the reader’s eyes to the correct reading order. I was also hoping that the strong vertical lines of panel one would take the reader’s eyes down to panel two. And notice how the lines that compose the tree in the second panel swoop from the panel above to the panel on the right.
Sullivan says many more things in his book. He discusses perspective, anatomy, and beauty. But the ideas above are the ones specifically about line, not drawing in general. They are also the ones that stuck out to me the most and made me think. So while Line is an odd book in many ways, it still manages to teach after all these years.
(written October 26, 2016)
I picked up this book having struggled with The System of Comics translated by Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen. While I loved the direct analysis of that book, much of it was difficult to understand. Part of that was just due to reading theory; it takes some time to get into someone else’s mode of thought and terminology. But part of it was due to the stilted sentence structures and odd choices of words. So I was surprised to find Comics and Narration so readable. Sure, there were complicated ideas and I had to slow down and even reread passages at times, but by and large the book was engaging. I even found myself charmed by the tone, something I would never say about the previous book. So this begs the question: did Groensteen’s writing get better or is Ann Miller a much better translater than Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen? My French is too elementary for me to know for sure, but comments Groensteen has made on-line (see comments here) point to the latter. Melissa Loucks and the writer at Critical Takes also think this.
That being said, this book is an extension of The System of Comics, so a working knowledge of that book is necessary to engage with this book. One drawback to that is that it makes this book feel like a series of appendices more than a solid entity at times. Still, Groensteen’s ruminations of narration and rhythm are insightful. What I always appreciate about Groensteen is that he grounds his theory in an analysis of actual texts and his ultimate goal is how his theory can be practically applied to actual texts.
Like Barbara Postema, Groensteen states that a single panel “can evoke a story” (23). Yet he sides more with Scott McCloud in further stating that a single panel cannot be a narration, since, by definition, a narration needs a beginning and an end. Still, he discusses comics’s relationship to time and that sequence creates a sense of time and that the gutters leave space for the reader to fill in. This may not sound like anything new, but Groensteen breaks things down even further into shown, intervened, and signified. These categories indicate the level of engagement of the reader. The shown is what is exists in the panel or “that which the monstrator displays to us” (37). The intervened is what the reader assumes to have happened between panels (38). As Groensteen implies, the length of the intervened can create rhythm. He offers a page by Jason (on page 150) in which the intervened is mostly just the back and forth between two characters talking, while the last panel offers a longer intervened time. So the final panel introduces a new rhythm, and so a new scene. Lastly, signified, as I understand it, seems a bit like connotation. It is when what is shown is not literal, but figurative. The image alludes to an idea or feeling. We might call this a visual metaphor or symbol. The example Groensteen uses is on the cover of the book and on page 49. In it, Jimmy Corrigan turns into a child while talking to his mother. Neither is he literally a child, nor is his mother literally standing next to him. Yet the conversation evokes these feelings and memories for Jimmy. This idea that Jimmy is remembering a previous time with his mother and therefor feels childlike and helpless is signified by the images (39). Groensteen’s overall point with this is to give us a new way of ascertaining “artistic achievement” (41). Stories that simply show and in which the intervened is simple to deduce from the shown are more simplistic works. Works that engage the reader further and make us try to understand the signified are more complex works.
As I quoted above, in this book Groensteen employs the terms monstrator and monstration first coigned by André Gaudreault (as I understand it). I’m excited by this because I too have taken to using monstration. However, I avoid the term monstrator, because I want to get away from the linguistic obsession with who makes the utterance. For me, narration is what is told and monstration is what is shown. I don’t care who the narrator is (unless it’s important for the story). Groensteen, however, is concerned with enunciation and so the monstrator decides what to show and the monstration is the effect of that decision (86). Furthermore, Groensteen makes the monstrator a subset of the narrator. For him, the narrator is the “high[est] enunciating source” (94). The narrator then selects what is told and what is shown, in the roles of the reciter and the monstrator. So Groensteen’s theory is couched firmly in structuralism. While I personally don’t wish to use these terms, they do allow Groensteen to theorize about the various roles the two play, which he discusses on pages 90-95.
The other major theme in this book, which I briefly mentioned above, is rhythm. Groensteen mostly discusses panel layout, but also considers how words affect rhythm. While I liked this, I wished that he had gone further. Layout creates rhythm of course, but so does the relative visual density of the panels. So does the amount of time in the intervened. As I showed above, Groensteen hints at this possibility. Again, the fact the Jason chooses to end his page with a panel that implies a longer space of intervened time creates a change in rhythm to the end of the page. If Groensteen didn’t say this explicitly, he pointed the way. In other words, he has invited us to continue where he left off, which is one of the great gifts of well-written theory.
Overall, I’m glad this book exists. First, it proves to us English readers that Groensteen can be an accessible writer. It also gives us new modes of analysis and jumping off points for our own theorizing. Comics and Narration is both useful and inspiring.
(written February 1, 2016)
The story of Helen Keller is a famous one and one that has been told many times. So if an artist were tasked with telling the tale, there are many possible versions of the story to look to for inspiration or perhaps fall into the trap of imitating. Yet what Joseph Lambert has created is not simply a Classics Illustrated retelling Keller’s autobiography or a static version of The Miracle Worker, but a book that lives and breathes as a graphic novel, using the medium to its full advantage. Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller is a book that should be on everyone’s permanent “best-of” lists.
Lambert had the challenge of making an old story new again yet readable to an all-ages audience. Upon flipping through the book, the first thing one notices is how Lambert has chosen to depict Helen’s world. Forms only appear in rough outline, with color denoting the separation of self and other. Over the course of the book, sign language starts appearing in the darkness, gradually to be replaced by words. The visual device both accents Helen’s isolation– she is literally in blackness– and makes it clear how she comes to understand language. The images and words in Helen’s world get more complicated as her understanding grows.
Lambert uses the static medium shot in vogue among people like Jason and Chris Ware. Of course, it is also also a style used by the early newspaper strips, such as King’s Gasoline Alley. Here the technique serves to let the drama unfold naturally without any potentially bathetic use of close-ups or fancy framing. Still, at times I felt too separate from the action. For instance, I didn’t understand at first that Annie was spelling words out on Helen’s hand. Since the hands were so small I didn’t realize the significance at first. Yet in general, the restrained compositions of the book make the actions of the characters come to life by heightening the small changes in their faces and posture.
Yet this book has more going for it than its formal decisions. One thing I’ve always felt that comics tend to lack is depth of characterization. For all the talk about “literary” comics, I think the majority of comics don’t get to the complexity of characterization that literature does. Yet Lambert’s book is not guilty of this fault. Overall, this book is a close character study of Annie Sullivan. We come to understand why she is uniquely able to get through to Helen, seeing both depictions of her experiences and expressions of her temperament. And Lambert doesn’t put Annie on a pedestal or candy-coat things. Annie is hot-headed and quick to vindictiveness. And by the end, I began to feel that she was too possessive of Helen. Not only does she keep people away from Helen, but it becomes clear that Helen’s sense of reality is mediated by Annie. Helen’s knowledge that the warmth that she feels is actually the sunlight through the trees or the fact that a story is fact or fantasy is dependent solely on Annie Sullivan. And in the end, we see the possibility that this is too claustrophobic a reality. Yet again, what Annie does is just an amplified version of what all parents do. On top of that, who else and how else could Helen be reached? And so, I was left thinking that it couldn’t have been any other way.
Such musings point to the complexity of Lambert’s book. Lambert doesn’t shy away from these complexities and he notices (or creates) many subtle details. And, thankfully, he doesn’t judge. For instance, on page 52 we see Mrs. Keller’s day and how being a housewife in that era was a full-time job. After nine panels depicting her work, her husband and brother return home (from doing what?) and her brother asks with unthinking privilege, “Dinner ready?” We understand Lambert’s point if we choose to, but he doesn’t belabor it. Nothing more is said and Mrs. Keller goes off to make dinner as a woman of her time would. This scene is not simply a feminist political statement; it helps to underscore Annie Sullivan’s reality. If she cannot have the job teaching Helen then what autonomy she has will be gone. Again, no character says this, but we understand it due to Lambert’s staging.
Such incredible restraint and trust of the reader are the hallmarks of a cartoonist in complete control of his craft. That and the deep understanding– and at times frustration– we come to feel for Annie make this a truly remarkable book.
The main quibble I have is with the ending. I think it may have required a firmer authorial hand. Lambert depicts the events of the plagiarism trial against Helen and allows a certain amount of vagueness about what actually happened, at least in terms of how much Annie Sullivan may have coached Helen to cover up the truth. This works and it creates a sense of doubt in the reader about Annie’s methods and we can see it creates doubt for Helen about her own sense of reality and herself. Yet the important thing is the relationship between Helen and Annie. With the trial we see a whole new side of that relationship; a strain is put upon the trust that the relationship is founded on. In other words, what is Helen thinking? How does she feel about Annie now? And this is left unanswered. The book ends here. It’s as if a door is opened in a house and a new room is revealed, but we are quickly told that we cannot enter and must in fact go home. And so I feel that the main relationship in the book, the one between Annie and Helen, is left in limbo. And so the book ends more with uncertainty than resolution. On the other hand, maybe I’m accusing Lambert for lacking the very thing I lauded him for earlier: lack of drama.
Besides this minor reservation about the choice of ending, I find Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller to be an incredibly strong book. In fact, it’s a book I’m going to add to the short list of graphic novels I will suggest to people who don’t read comics. It is such a solid work with such unassailable strengths that it will appeal to almost any reader. This is a book more people should be talking about. I hope it gets the attention it deserves.
(written August 27, 2012)