"What is a Graphic Narrative?": A Literary Guide for English Students and Teachers

View the full series: The Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms

"What is a Graphic Novel (Part I)" Transcript (English and Spanish Subtitles Available in Video. Click HERE for Spanish transcript)

By Raymond Malewitz, Oregon State Associate Professor of American Literatures

27 March 2020

When you were a small child, you probably read picture books.  In the next two videos, I want to show you some strategies for reading the adult equivalent of these kinds of stories: graphic narratives.  Like those picture books from your childhood, graphic narratives usually include both pictures and words.  However, as you would expect, the relationship between the pictures and words in graphic narratives written for adults is often much more complex that the relationship between pictures and words in a picture book written for children.

In those picture books, the images on the page usually reinforce or complete the textual narrative.  In this example from Mo Willems’ terrific Elephant and Piggie series, Gerald the Elephant points to a bowl that Piggie carries, and asks “What is THAT!?” Piggie holds up the bowl and replies “THIS is slop!”  Simple, right?

But what about this passage from Chris Ware’s graphic narrative “Thrilling Adventure Stories (I Guess)?”, a painfully awkward coming-of age tale of a young boy who is so obsessed with comic books that he dyes his underwear different colors so that he can look like a superhero.  While he is looking for adventure, the story he delivers is far from “thrilling.”: “Once my grandmother told me this really funny story about [my grandfather].  She said she was up in the kitchen fixing dinner and he was in the basement getting dressed after taking his shower.  She heard this really loud yelp and she ran to the top of the stairs to see what was wrong.  He said that he’d zipped himself up in his fly.”

If we look at the images that accompany this narrative, we’re immediately confused.  Why is a person being shot?  Who is this caped superhero who crashes in from the glass roof to save the day?  And what the heck does this have to do with the grandmother’s story?

As this (admittedly extreme) example suggests, graphic narratives can often be understood as two stories in one: a textual narrative and a visual narrative.  These narratives are placed in juxtaposition to one another, calling our attention to differences or contrasts as well as to unexpected similarities between the two stories.  In the passage from Ware’s graphic narrative, the seemingly simple and mundane TEXTUAL story that the boy’s grandmother tells him is somehow translated in his head into a hyperbolic, cartoonish VISUAL story.  Reading the two narratives together is a strange experience for sure, and at first, the two stories appear totally unrelated to one another.

If we give it some thought, however, here and elsewhere in Ware’s story, we can begin to see some common features that cross over between the visual and textual narratives.  Both narratives involve pain: the pain of being shot and the pain of, well, zipping yourself in your fly.  Both involve observation: the grandmother checking on her poor husband and the superhero observing the crime in progress.  Finally, both involve zips and flies, though the words are obviously used very differently in the graphic narrative and the textual narrative. 

Identifying these ideas in juxtaposition with one another, we can begin to make sense of this very strange passage as the story of a boy’s struggles to translate unfamiliar phrases and events into his own limited (and comic book obsessed) worldview.  When the boy hears that his grandfather “zips himself up in his fly,” a superhero zipping and flying through the roof is, perhaps, what he thinks.

This is, obviously, an extreme example, but it does remind us that we should slow down when we read a graphic narrative to consider how the words and the images on a page are juxtaposed with one another rather than reading the visual narrative as a mere complement to the textual narrative. 

Consider one more example from Lynda Barry—a short comic called “Help You.”  The textual narrative involves a young girl named Maybonne struggling to practice her typing skills in class while dealing with the trauma of being abandoned by her father.  The textual narrative places this anxiety in juxtaposition with the visual narrative—her father at an anonymous bar seemingly oblivious to the destruction he has caused.  There may be other contrasts and similarities at work in this passage, and if you spot any, I hope you’ll share them with me in the comments section in the video.

So, now that we have established a fundamental property of graphic narratives—the principle of juxtaposition—the next question that arises is how exactly to analyze visual narratives.  As our literary terms series suggests, there are a ton of terms for describing what’s going on in literary texts, but students of English literature may not have as developed a vocabulary for close reading visual narratives.  In the next lesson in this series, I’ll try to give you a handful of terms that I have found useful in my teaching and research to get you on the path to thinking about and writing about graphic narratives in as sophisticated a manner as you now read textual narratives.  In the meantime, stay healthy and have fun reading your next graphic narrative! 

Want to cite this?

MLA Citation: Malewitz, Raymond. "What is a Graphic Narrative (Part I)?" Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms, 27 Mar. 2020, Oregon State University, https://liberalarts.oregonstate.edu/wlf/what-graphic-narrative. Accessed [insert date].

Further Resources for Teachers

Art Spiegelman's Maus I and Maus II are often taught in high school and college English classrooms.  These stories often ample opportunities to discuss moments in which the visual narrative departs from or complicates the textual narrative, most notably in Spiegelman's decision to represent Jews, Germans, Poles, and Americans as different kinds of animals.

Writing Prompt: Choose an interesting 1-2 page sequence within Maus I or Maus II in which the visual narrative operates in juxtaposition to the textual narrative (there are MANY). Try to explain the significance of this juxtaposition within this small moment of comic storytelling and consider how that smaller moment might help to illuminate some of the larger themes of Spiegelman's strange retelling of his father's story.

Interested in more video lessons? View the full series:

The Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms