Comics and graphic novels

Comic strips, comic books and graphic novels are types of texts that use multiple panels, drawings and words to tell a story. But there are more three ingredients to this recipe. Use the following worksheet to analyse a comic strip or chapter from a graphic novel. 

Worksheet: Comics and graphic novels
  1. Study the following comic strip from 'Calvin and Hobbes' by Bill Waterson, which has been deconstructed with ‘shout out’ boxes and definitions. In pairs analyse a comic strip or several pages from a graphic novel of your choice, using the vocabulary from the table below and the worksheet provided above.

  2. Feature Example
    Panel: Comics are divided into multiple frames or panels. Some panels do not have a frame. Some panels are large and open, also known as a ‘splash’. How does your comic strip use panels to convey its message? This comic strip uses a combination of rectangular and square panels which helps set the pace of reading. 
    Gutter: The space between panels is known as the ‘gutter’. In comics, the reader actively has to ‘fill in the gaps’ and make assumptions about what happens in the gutter, between panels. How does your comic strip use the gutter to engage the reader and move the action forward? What happens between the sixth and seventh panels of this comic strip? It’s not clear who shot whom first, suggesting that war is confusing.
    Negative space or ‘blank’ space is the absence of drawn objects. It helps readers focus on what’s important in the frame or panel. How does your comic strip use negative space to draw the reader’s attention toward a certain point of focus? The negative space in the first panel gives room for both the title of the comic (‘Calvin and Hobbes’) and the philosophical question that is asked by Hobbes: “How come we play war and not peace?”
    Camera angle: Although comics do not literally involve a camera, the term camera angle is relevant for analysing the perspective from which a cartoonist depicts a subject. How do perspective and camera angle affect the reader’s understanding of your comic strip? In this comic strip, Bill Watterson depicts Calvin looking up. It is as if the reader looks down on Calvin as an adult might look. 
    Symbolism: Cartoons and comics often include symbols to convey meaning effectively and succinctly. Where do you see symbols used in your comic strip? What big ideas are they communicating? 

    Calvin’s helmet stands for ‘war’. The dart guns might symbolise boyhood and naivety. 

    Emanata: This curious term refers to the dots, lines, exclamation marks, teardrops or any other drawings that can depict emotion, motion or sound in a drawing. How and why does your comic strip use emanata? 

    In this comic strip, little lines appear near the muzzle of Calvin and Hobbes’s dart guns, suggesting a firing noise.

    Speech bubble:direct narration, where the reader reads what characters say, word for word. Thought bubbles, often depicted with cloud-like bubbles, give readers (but not other characters) insight into what characters are thinking. Voice-over, a term often used in film, can also be used in comic strips, with the narrator’s words appearing above or below the panel. Voice-overs often frame the narrative as a story, where the narrator speaks directly to the reader. In what ways and for what reasons do your comic strip use narrative techniques, such as speech bubbles, thought bubbles or voice-overs? 

    The dialogue of this story uses speech bubbles, meaning the reader is a distant observer, eavesdropping on Calvin and his imaginary friend Hobbes.

    Punch line: Comic strips traditionally appear in newspapers as serials, where they offer the reader a moment of comic relief. They may comment on life, tell a story or seek a good laugh. Meaning tends to culminate in the final frame. The final line of a joke is known as a punchline. How does your comic strip use a punchline to communicate a message?

    ‘Kind of a stupid game, isn’t it?’ says Calvin in the last panel. This captures the message of the comic strip as it comments critically on war itself, not just the game called ‘war’.

    Drawing style: To what extent is the drawing style of the artist cartoony? A ‘cartoony’ style is usually very simple, iconic, subjective, universal and abstract in nature. The opposite style tends to be more complex, realistic, objective, specific and concrete. See the table below. How cartoony is your comic strip? (See explanation of 'cartoonification' below)

    Bill Waters uses a very simplistic, minimalistic and iconic style to show the world how the world looks from the eyes of a boy. Calvin's imaginary friend, Hobbes, is especially cartoony, to emphasise that he is a fantasy. 

  3. Besides these defining structural features of comic strips, it is important to consider the style of the cartoonist/artist. In 'Understanding Comics', Scott McCloud explains that there are five scales (or spectra) on which viewers can analyse an artist’s level of cartoonification. Study the collage of images and the table below to understand this term. The most cartoonified drawings on the left are simple, iconic, subjective, universal and abstract. The least cartoonified images on the right are complex, realistic, objective, specific and concrete. Look up the definitions of the words in the table, if you are not familiar with them. How are these terms relevant to these images of tigers? Note: McCloud's 'Understanding Comics' is a must-read for anyone interested in understanding comics and graphic novels.

  4. Image A Image B Image C Image D
    Simple <--  --> Complex
    Iconic <-- --> realistic
    Subjective <-- --> Objective
    Universal <-- --> Specific
    Abstract <-- --> Concrete

  5. Check out this comic strip called 'Template' from 99 Ways to Tell a Story by Matt Madden. It's rather boring. But there are other, more exciting ways of telling this story. Get into groups and assign each group a different text from Texts 2-10. Check out everyone else's texts by visiting with them informally. Then present your own text by using terminology from this page. What makes your text engaging for a particular audience? 

  6. Are you interested in studying a graphic novel as a literary work? Some authors, such as Marjane Satrapi and Keiji Nakazawa are on the PRL. Here are interesting titles and sample pages for you to consider. Do an online search and talk to your teacher to find out if one of these titles or other titles is worth pursuing further as a literary work. 


Graphic novels are popular literary works for good reason: They help you develop Paper 1 skills (where comic strips may appear). You can compare them to other literary works on Paper 2. They lend themselves well to close analysis on the Individual Oral. And they're excellent texts for the HL Essay.

Last modified: Friday, 28 January 2022, 5:24 PM