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 is more to this recipe that these three ingredients. And what do we mean by ‘story’? The following activities help you understand the diverse conventions of this text type and how they can be used to various ends.

  1. Study the following 10 pages from ’99 Ways to Tell a Story’ by Matt Madden (2005). He has used 10 different styles to appeal to tell the same story. What do the pages have in common? What structural features of these texts define them as a text type? How do these different structural and stylistic features appeal to different readers or convey different messages about a seemingly insignificant story? Compare and discuss the pages as a class.

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  3. Study the following comic strip from 'Calvin and Hobbes' by Bill Waterson, which has been deconstructed with ‘shout out’ boxes and definitions. Return to your discussion on Texts 1-10 and discuss how these terms are relevant to the pages from '99 Ways to Tell a Story'. In pairs analyse one of these pages, using the vocabulary from the table below.



  4. 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’. 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. What happens between the sixth and seventh panel of this comic strip? It’s not clear who shot whom first, suggesting that war is confusing.
    Negative space: Negative or ‘blank’ space is the absence of drawn objects. It helps readers focus on what’s important in the frame or panel. 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, this is a relevant term for analysing the angle and perspective from which a cartoonist depicts a subject. 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.

    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, tear drops or any other drawings that can depict emotion, motion or sound in a drawing.

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

    Speech bubble: Speech bubbles are a form of direct narration, where the reader reads what characters say, word for word. Thought bubbles, often depicted with cloud-like bubbles, give readers insight into what characters are thinking. Voice-over, a term often used in film, can also be used in comics with narrator’s words appearing above or below the panel. 

    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, 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 punch line, and they appear more in comic strips than graphic novels.

    ‘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’.


  5. 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.



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

  7. You may want to explore a graphic novel for your freely chosen work. Keep in mind that graphic novels are considered 'literary works' for the IB. Non-fiction graphic novels fall under 'prose non-fiction' and fictional graphic novels fall under 'prose fiction', in terms of IB literary forms. In groups, explore the extracts from the graphic novels below (or get ideas from from this page). How might each graphic novel explore a global issue or theme that you are interested in? How does each artist use the stylistic and structural features of graphic novels, as presented on this page, to construct meaning?





  8. Comic strips may appear on Paper 1. Find a comic strip that you would like to analyse and write a Paper 1-style analysis of it, using the terms that you have explored on this page. Ask your teacher for feedback on your analysis, make improvements where necessary and place it in your portfolio for future reference.
Last modified: Monday, 17 February 2020, 7:30 PM