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Reading Comics

Reading Comics. Dr. Gwen Athene Tarbox, Western Michigan University, Department of English. Photo: Ben Krain. Comics Terminology. Comics is the medium.

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Reading Comics

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  1. Reading Comics Dr. Gwen Athene Tarbox, Western Michigan University, Department of English Photo: Ben Krain

  2. Comics Terminology • Comics is the medium. • A text such as Fun Home by Bechdel is called a long-form comic by visual theorists, but the terms graphic narrative and graphic novel are commonly used by publishers, critics, and English studies scholars. • Tan actually considers The Arrival to be a picture book, but many comics scholars disagree, and the book has been at the center of debate regarding a trend towards hybridity in visual works.

  3. Comics as Child’s Play?


  5. Comics Grammar • The Panel. The basic unit of a comic. • The Bubble. Spoken or thought text within or across panels. • The Gutter. The space between two contiguous panels. • The Text box. Narration placed in the gutters or in the panels. • The Page. A single page of panels. • The Spread. Two pages of panels that are joined in the middle with binding. • The Breakdown. The manner in which the panels are set out in terms of size, shape, and relationship on a page. And within an entire comics text, the way that the entire comic is set out. • The Script. The text of the comic set out during the breakdown phase by the comics creator

  6. Discussing the Panel • Within an individual panel, there are a number of factors to consider in order to understand how the scriptwriter/artist creates meaning. • Style • Color choice • Line • Shading • Shape • Layout • Placement of elements • Framing – or lack of framing • Relationship between image and text

  7. Breaking It ALL Down Understanding the relationship between contiguous panels marks only one of literally thousands of relationships that can occur as the panel comes into dialogue with every other panel in the comic. For this reason, it is useful to think of a comic as existing on a horizontal plane stretching from the first to the last panel. Yes, page breakdown is important, but so is the breakdown of the entire comic.

  8. Powell’s Career • Nate Powell’s novel Swallow Me Whole (2008) won the top award in comics, the Eisner Award for Best Graphic Novel, in 2009. • A graduate of the School of Visual Arts in NYC, Powell has worked as a caregiver for individuals with disabilities, has run his own Punk rock label, and has been a prolific author and artist for numerous comics.

  9. Reading Comics • Powell often defies conventional comics structure, making his work particularly fascinating…but you need to understand the conventions in the first place in order to appreciate Powell’s artistry.

  10. Powell’s Choices in Swallow Me Whole • Text bubbles are written in different types of font and sizes. • The gutters between panels are often indistinct or erased; as a result, movement between panels becomes difficult to follow in various places. • The narrative flow is interrupted by complicated visuals or by a string of panels that defy easy understanding.

  11. Content and Style Fuse • Swallow Me Whole is a coming of age story, but for the protagonists, growing up also means coming to terms with symptoms, finding coping devices, and attempting to make sense of the world. • Powell breaks comics conventions in order to provide the reader with the visceral experience of his protagonists, Ruth and Perry, who both experience schizophrenic symptomology.

  12. Time, Space, and Self • Schizophrenia is a disorder that has a slow onset, usually between the ages of 15-19 Individuals who experience schizophrenia often have difficulty maintaining a concrete and cohesive sense of self. • As the subject feels increasingly unable to maintain a coherent sense of self, s/he will often engage in repetitive behaviors that order time and space. Thus, many individuals will turn to dance, music, or other rhythmic pursuits that are grounded in time as coping devices.

  13. Time, Space, and Self • In Swallow Me Whole, Ruth’s carefully ordered coping devices collapse, and her dissolution is depicted as she sinks into a deeper and deeper state of disorientation.

  14. Fusing Text and Image • When an artist/author creates a complicated series of images, the reader has to work very hard to fill in the gaps. • It is helpful to read the script first and then go back to develop an understanding how the sequence of panels interacts with the text to create meaning.

  15. Ruth’s Description of Her Inner Life • “At times, arranging and reordering was all I could do to handle the day. Didn’t know they had a name for it and everything else. Early on, I thought I found a way way to exercise just a little control over my world. Until I felt my size through it. Felt the world shift into place. Felt myself dissolve into it. In line with everything else, if just for a time. I was frightened. Every time. Even when it freed me.”

  16. A Fear of Dissolving • The top panel on the spread is depicted conventionally, although the caption boxes are break through the frame of the panel and drift across the page, underscoring the lack of fixed ideas. • The middle panel shows Ruth as negative white space, surrounded by fuzzy shadows, as she describes her fledgling attempts to pinpoint and hold onto a stable sense of time and space. • Ruth claims that the control fades away when she feels her size in relation to the world. This fear is expressed in two entirely blurred panels at the bottom of the page that show only Ruth’s legs amid a swirl of movement.

  17. A Fear of Dissolving • On the right page, 12 panels of equal dimension, separated by thin gutters, depict Ruth’s fear of dissolving. The first panel shows a circular outline that might be the outer form of Ruth’s head,and in the second panel, only parts of Ruth’s face emerge. • On the next page, Ruth is depicted as a whole person, but the expression on her face indicates that she is ill at ease and pensive.

  18. A Fear of Dissolving • As the imaginary bugs begin crawling out of the air duct, Ruth calls for her mother, but even language begins to disintegrate as the hallucination becomes more severe. • Ruth also has come to realize that her parents are unable to accept or to help her face the hallucinations. As she says, “They’re here just for me.” The placement of Ruth’s narration and then the placement of the two beds.

  19. Nate Powell’s Creative Work • Many of the themes in Swallow Me Whole are echoed throughout Powell’s texts. • In 2013, Powell’s collaboration with Representative John Lewis and comics script writer Alvin Aydin, March, was released. March chronicles the career of John Lewis, from the Civil Rights Movement to his election to and service in the US Congress.

  20. Thierry Groensteen, Système de la bande dessinée, 1999 “If one wishes to provide the basis of a reasonable definition for the totality of historical manifestations of the [comics] medium, and also for all of the other productions unrealized at this time but theoretically conceivable, one must recognize the relational play of a plurality of interdependent images as the unique ontological foundation of comics” (17). Emphasis mine. The narrative in comics is primarily image driven. The thematic sequences that wend through a comic and carry the interpretative burden are called braids.

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