A Graphic Story: Narrative, Image, and Words in Comic Storytelling

A graphic novel is, as has been discussed, a communicative medium that represents first institutions that were created previously. This means that the logic of both the novel and the illustration are present, but the whole of the graphic novel cannot be reduced to the sum of its parts. This is for a number of reasons, but primarily because the unity of these forms creates a different narrative framework and its functionality is created out of different material circumstances than its foundational parts.

The illustration and the literary form are not media that can be reflected as specific to a socio-economic era, though the novel itself is very specific to the sense of the individual that marks protest driven bourgeois capitalism. Instead, all of these forms have evolved through different periods of struggle and have a sense of permanence that exists beyond their permanent incarnations. They do exist now and are influenced by current post-industrial conditions, but there is a tradition from which they hail and therefore a consistent set of standards and expectations that exist in both word and image from which they must draw on.

The comic book, in a contrary position, is a form of proletarian literature that is specific to mass production and industrialized capitalism. This form was one that served a socio-economic function that could not be replicated in a non-commercial form. Illustrations have existed as a foundational form of expression since before structured society, and the narrative in the form of the word began before it could be sold. The comic book, as the unity between these, has never been more than a commodity, and therefore the expectations for its method of communication is built on this framework. The ability for this form to develop depended solely on the ways in which its form, style, narrative perspective, characterization, and the like served the commercial forces of mass production. There is no way to separate the comic book from these motivations because it did not exist before them.

The second aspect here is that word and image play off each other in ways that are not able to be isolated to them individually. In our own texts we begin to see this clearly as we started with Watchmen. The opening pages show us text within the story space by presenting Walter Kovacs holding a sign declaring the end of the world. This image can be deconstructed in several ways, all of which play on the way that the context of text is created in the image. Here we see a fairly caricatured image of eschatology, one that we understand in the American lexicon to communicate paranoia and possible mental defect. This image is archetypal, and we see that the text is not one that meets the hegemonic standardization of printing, and therefore is hand written and unique to that characters perspective. The text exists within the story space as an actual object, and therefore we understand that this does not only hold as a role to communicate to the audience, but also so that the audience will understand how this character wants to communicate to other characters in the story space. All of this actually plays purely on the image itself and only references our need for language, but does not use language as the primary tool for communication.

This goes even further as we get shifting forms of narrative in Watchmen where the idea of a standard narration is eliminated and we can see clearly, both in the style of writing and the visual way that the writing is portrayed on the page, that the perspectives are highly subjective and unique. This creates a narrative experience that would not be possible if the form was regulated to either illustration or text exclusively.

V for Vendetta takes this in a number of possible directions, often playing on the way that we respond to iconic imagery. Watchmen did this specifically because of our ability to respond to the images of comic history, but V draws out the immediate sense of class and domination that we see in art and culture. The immediate choices in how V speaks, what types of artifacts are seen in his residence, and even how he presents himself creates a paradox as to how we are to perceive these images. This is positioned within a narrative framework that is complex in terms of characterization and the specifics of the political scenario and is only possible with the heavy text on which it relies.

Here we are taken into the world of propaganda, which deals with the emotional ways that people respond to imagery in the same way that they do to manufactured brand meaning. These images use text as images, images as motivation, and positioning and context as a way of changing the way you perceive common situations and discourse. The contrast here is with the extremes of the political spectrum where anarchist sloganeering is challenged against the state propaganda of Norsefire. The notion of this propaganda cannot be understood without the combination of text and image, and to try to represent this unity in either medium would leave it impotent.

Palestine further shows how the presentation of text as part of an image can recontextualize the text itself. Since the content of the text is often undermined by its position on the page we have a completely different response to it and allow a more vague subjective sense to take over our interpretation. At the same time, the image of the people discussing the different issues is truly up to Sacco since he is drawing them in a way that is far from photo realistic. Therefore he contextualizes how their words are taken, and in Palestine he sees few people as being worthy of the grand narration.

Maus requires the image in a profound way since the way that real events are characterized is subjective, but part of that subjectivity is how they are drawn. Spiegelman makes a choice that people of different races will take the role of different animals, which is a less than subtle commentary on the way that we perceive ethnic difference. This commentary, and the ludicrous nature of it, is fundamental to how we see the events in his story. Without this the events take on a different character, and are less specific to the subjective experience that he is telling about his father. If we are not provided with the image of him as a mouse and the German’s as cats then we do not have a visceral response because of our ability to relate this image to the cat and mouse archetype from our comic history. More than this, the eventual disconnect that Spiegelman feels from his racial identity cannot be made clear unless we have the ability to see him wearing a mask.

The comic book exists as an artifact in the way that many other forms that combine image and text do not. First, it does not just create image and text as co-dependent in its communicative structure. It instead unites them frame-by-frame primarily, which is much different than just allowing them to accompany one another. This means that there is no declaration of importance where one is assumed to be in the service of the other.

Moving media like film have been discussed as a parallel to this, especially since it was also birthed out of the model of art and communication as a commodity. The idea that the comic book is perfectly adaptable to film is extended even further because of the way that the frames mimic the camera, or so we are told. Instead, this connection is simply because of the ability to make a common franchise. The investment in new properties for film concepts is one of incredible amounts of capital, and it is much more profitable to choose an existing property that can then be streamlined into a whole range of parallel commodities for sale. This drives the focus on the comic book as a foundational entity for film, but there connection is not one that is substantive beyond the ability for centralized corporations to develop consistent financial models around them.

Instead the comic book actually differs a great deal from film because the way the audience interacts with it is much different. The filmic experience asks the audience to remain passive and to watch the film in a linear form, even if the narrative is non-linear. The comic book does not do this because all the media present is present and available at all times during use. This is to say that you can just as easily look “backwards” as you can “forwards,” and this is often not at odds with the narrative flow. What this allows for is a subtlety in the play between word and image that would not be possible when you get one quick pass at a moving image, as in film. Narratively, it is also not as possible with a novel even though it too acts as a physical artifact. The comic book presents frames that can be looked over in a number of ways even if a narrative flow is suggested for how to process it. In this way the comic book presents a series of singular experiences that you then piece together in your own sense of story structure. The novel does not allow for this as you are simply strung through from beginning to end, not allowing for the functional experience of going in reverse.

The image presents an aesthetic experience for the reader that is non-quantitative and therefore can challenge the text itself. Here you can not simply reduce the experience of the image and can find pleasure in viewing it, repulsion from it, or a variety of other responses that are going to alter the character of the narrative fundamentally.

The term graphic novel is constantly coming under attack from all sides of the framework, but mainly on its pretentious nature. In one direction, it is suggested that the term graphic novel is meant to elevate a common literary pulp form of the comic book to fine art. This represents a very standard bourgeois criticism where the fine arts are not supposed to be tampered with by the more commercial ones, which is a form of class antagonism disguised as academic snobbery. In contrast, many artists do not want to use the term graphic novel because it denigrates the term comic book. If only the works of quality are able to use the term graphic novel then the term comic book, and the whole of the history under which the form developed and had been labeled as such, therefore lacks legitimacy.

It appears clear that the term graphic novel serves little practical purpose other than to identify a new market for an established form. The development of the idea of the graphic novel is one that has been developed by those in control of the means of productions, not the consumers ascribing value to it. This would, of course, not be possible if consumers did not already ascribe different levels of value to novels than they do to comic books, but the forceful creation of the graphic novel industry has been an exploitation of that division.

This is not to say that the creation of the concept of the graphic novel has not had an effect on the industry. As we move into the era of the personal narrative it is hard to see the ability for the comic book to sustain the lengthy volume in a serialized form. Since the personal narrative is derived from forms like the autobiography and the novel more than any other it is easiest to understand the creation of such a narrative in a single volume. Without the creation of a market for comics sold in single volumes under this label it would be hard to see how the singular volume narrative would have evolved. Here we have to see the transfer of a narrative to a commodity as central to its development as the ability to produce and disseminate it as an actual item is what legitimizes its creation. The singular volume form has not actually been dominant for all of these personal narratives, and we can see that Persepolis, Maus, and Palestine all had multiple volumes as their original form. This does not matter in the grander sense since their existence as important works for the public only coincides with their nature as collected volumes.

If we are going to walk away from the graphic novel as a label then it is important to ascribe value to serialized forms. This is difficult since the way that commercial value is ascribed is directly connected to the format in which it is published, and the accessibility of the comic book has led to its position as a lesser form. This class association cannot be eliminated since class hierarchies are inherent to techno-capitalism, and therefore comic books will always have this stature in the collective understanding. Unfortunately, the expectation of the graphic novel will likely ask comic publishers to consistently upgrade the quality of their physical copy. This will raise prices and exclude certain areas of the public, mainly working class people and children, from the comic experience. This will then change the content expectation, permanently creating a rift from the history that comic books have had. This is seen even more concretely as comic books attempt to shift to digital forms that, to be viewed correctly, require computer equipment that is prohibitively expensive to much of the original consuming class.

The evolution of the comic book is going to be determined as much by preference as it is by changes in production and communication, and this could really go in a lot of directions. The digitalization of the medium has allowed for practical piracy to become a real possibility for standardized consumption, which had a profoundly democratizing effect on the music industry. Here the value of an artist as a material commodity decreased as the same time that the means for producing recorded music was made more available, decreasing the value of the musician as a professional and bringing it back into the public sphere. This transition could take place in the comic industry as web comics and piracy allow for the digital world to be forcefully decommercialized, though mass production will still dominate the form since that is where it was founded. There has been an interesting correlation between the two as there is the creation of the extended experience for many graphic novels. In our own readings, Persepolis was updated for web publication under the name Persepolis 2.0. This document was only ten pages long and was more of a political commentary than the rest of her personal narrative, but it still expresses the possible unity between the commercial and the public in the future.

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