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

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What is a Graphic Novel? (Part II) Transcript (English and Spanish Subtitles Available in Video, Click HERE for Spanish Transcript)

By Raymond Malewitz, Oregon State Associate Professor of American Literatures

3 April 2020

In last week’s video, we discussed a curious feature of graphic narratives, namely, the fact that the images and text in these stories often operate in juxtaposition with one another, calling attention to differences as well as to similarities between the textual and visual narratives.  In this video, I want to dive a little deeper into the VISUAL side of graphic narratives and give you the 5 most common terms you’ll need to properly analyze their form.

We’ll be using Art Spiegelman’s graphic narrative Maus to illustrate these terms.  Maus tells the story of Art’s father, Vladek, who was a prisoner of the Auschwitz concentration camp during the second world war. As you would expect from last week’s video, throughout this graphic narrative, the textual story of Vladek’s experiences is placed in juxtaposition with the visual narrative, which depicts Jews as mice, Nazis as cats, and Poles as pigs.  A central question, of course, is what is the function of this strange juxtaposition? There are many ways to answer this question, and I encourage you to give it some thought (it is THE central question of the text). However, in this lesson, I want to put that question aside and look at the details of Spiegelman’s visual work.

First up: comic panels.  In this passage from Maus, you’ll notice that Spiegelman has segmented the chain of events into six discrete panels [only 4 are shown above, see the video for more].  These panels constitute the basic unit of time in a graphic narrative.  Artists can choose to make their panels bordered or unbordered, and Spiegelman here has chosen to leave the panels where he is speaking to his father in the present unbordered while Vladek’s past experiences in Auschwitz are bordered. This decision helps us to distinguish between the two time settings—past and present—that are also juxtaposed with one another here.

You might have noticed that the second, third, fourth, and fifth panels in this passage can, with a little imagination, be made to form a single image, and you might wonder why Spiegelman has separated out this larger image into discrete panels. Asking this question (and trying to answer it for yourself) will give you greater insight into how a comic panel works and what meaning Spiegelman’s decision might be conveying here.  

Next up: gutters and bleeds.  Artists usually leave some space between the panels of their visual narratives.  That space is called a “gutter.” While most of the time, gutters cleanly separate out one panel from another, graphic artists will sometimes play around with this space.  In the panels you see here, for example, Artie’s shock in the left panel extends beyond its border and into gutter between the two panels.  That effect is called a “bleed” and can also be used to a variety of effects.

Finally: speech bubbles and captions. In graphic narratives, there are usually two kinds of words that appear in panels—direct dialogue spoken by characters, and narration spoken by a narrator.  Whenever a character speaks, his or her words are placed into what are called speech bubbles, which usually contain a tail directing us to the character who is speaking.  When the narrator wants to offer crucial information on the images depicted in the visual narrative, their words are placed into what are called captions, which are usually, but not always, attached to a border of a panel to avoid distracting from the images.

Panel, Gutter, Bleed, Speech Bubble, Caption.  If you can recognize these features of visual narratives, you’ll be well on your way to thinking about and writing about graphic narratives in a complex manner.  Let’s try to put them all together in this disturbing and formally sophisticated passage from Maus.

You’ll notice that there are five panels in this passage of varying sizes. You’ll also notice that Artie and Vladek appear in the gutter between the fourth and fifth panels and seem to hover above these panels in a strange kind of bleed. You’ll see that the third and fourth panels repeat one another with some crucial differences, and thus break from the convention of moving forward in time from panel to panel. Finally, you’ll notice some very strange and interesting decisions that Spiegelman has made based upon where he chooses to place his speech bubbles and captions.

So, what are we to do with these observations?  Well, now we can play around with what they might mean through a process we call close reading. I have my thoughts on what these formal features of Maus’s visual narrative are doing, but rather than tell you them, I invite you to find your own meanings in these passages. Maus has a powerful story to tell us through both its textual narrative and its visual narrative, but like all narratives, it requires you, the reader, to enter into the conversation to complete the story.

Want to cite this?

MLA Citation: Malewitz, Raymond. "What is a Graphic Narrative (Part II)?" Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms, 3 Apr. 2020, Oregon State University, https://liberalarts.oregonstate.edu/wlf/what-graphic-narrative-2. Accessed [insert date].

Further Resources for Teachers

Christian Cooper's story "It's a Bird" in the free issue of the DC Comic Represent! offers many opportunities to practice identifying panel, gutter, bleed, speech bubble, and caption.

Writing Prompt: How do the placements of these elements in Cooper's story affect the powerful way in which it is told? How do these elements relate to the plot of the autobiographical story?

Interested in more video lessons? View the full series:

The Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms