Graphic novel

Are you studying a graphic novel for Part 3 of your syllabus? Persepolis, Maus, and Watchmen are a few of the popular texts in this genre. Before you discuss these texts, however, it helps to know some text-specific terminology. 

This lesson introduces you to the terminology of comic books, also known as 'graphic novels'. Comic book artists have tools at their disposal, just as painters use different kinds of brushes and materials. What kind of 'tools' are we talking about?

First of all there are the structural features. These include the devices that you see in the image below. These are the kinds of 'nuts and bolts' of graphic novels.

Furthermore, this lesson introduces you to terminology that describes the 'mechanics' of graphic novels, such as 'transition' and 'closure', which refer to how meaning is constructed in the mind of the reader.

Finally this lesson includes an activity to test your application of this knowledge. You may want to print out  the hand out that accompanies this lesson and use it to discuss a graphic novel that you are working on in class. 

The 'nuts and bolts' of graphic novels

Panel - Panel refers to the framed image. It offers the reader a perspective or point of view on the subjects also known as the camera angle. Sometimes panels do not have borders, creating a unique effect where the subject seems to stand outside the storyline.

Splash - Splash is a kind of panel that spans the width of the page. If it runs off the page entirely, it is known as a ‘bleed’.

Voice over - Narrators have the possibility to speak directly to the reader through a voice over. Usually this is done with a hard line separating the narrator’s speech at the top or bottom of a panel from the image within the panel.

Speech bubble - These are frames around the characters’ language, a kind of ‘direct speech’, where the characters speak for themselves. If these appear as clouds, they represent the character’s thoughts. If they appear in jagged lines, the character is shouting.

Emanata - This term refers to the teardrops, sweat drops, question marks, or motion lines that artists draw besides characters’ faces to portray emotion.

Gutter - This refers to the space between panels. Readers tend to ‘fill in the blanks’ and imagine what happens between panels, a process known as ‘closure’.

The 'mechanics' of graphic novels

Style - The artist’s drawing style can be discussed using several terms. Scott McCloud, in Understanding Comics, shows that there are four ‘scales’ of style: complex to simple, realistic to iconic, objective to subjective, specific to universal (see image).

Narration - Keep in mind that comic books allow the writer to show and tell at the same time, meaning there can be a combination of direct narration and indirect narration.

Color - The colors that an author uses will affect the reader’s experience as well. 

Graphic weight– This term is used to discuss the amount of contrast in an image. Are blacks offset with whites? Are there many shades of grey in between? With regards to colour images, one can look for the degree to which colours are vivid or opaque.

Time - Graphic novels and comic books do not have to tell a story in a linear way. Besides the use of transitions between panels artists can explore multiple moments in one panel, like a collage (see image below).

Foreground - Where is the subject or the point of focus for the reader. If the subject seems closer to the reader, in the front of the scene depicted, it stands in the ‘foreground’.

Midground - If the subject stands in the middle of the scene that is depicted, thern there it is in the midground. Placing a subject off-centre can also be used to create visual tension.

Background - The objects in the background (not usually the subject) help add contextual information for the reader.

Camera angle - If the panel were a photograph, where would the camera stand in relation to its subject? How far away from the subject is the camera? Is it a long shot, medium shot or close up? At what angle is the camera pitched? Is it a bird’s eye view, a high angle, eye-level, or low angle? All of this will have an effect on the reader’s understanding of the subject.

Transitions - There are six types of transitions that artists use in comic books, all of which have a different effect on the reader. Transitions refer to the process of closure (where the reader mentally ‘fills in the gaps’) in the gutter, between panels. These sample images are taken from Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. 

1. Moment to moment 2. Action to action
3. Subject to subject 4. Scene to scene
5. Aspect to aspect 6. Non-sequitur

Test your understanding

Apply the terminology that you have learned to the following page from Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. Give a detailed commentary of the stylistic and structural features that she uses. Explain their effects on the target audience? Why has she made these artistic choices? See the sample commentary below after you have discussed this page with others. Did you come up with similar comments?

Marjane Satrapi

 Sample commentary on Persepolis

 Marjane Satrapi uses a broad range of stylistic and structural features in Persepolis. First of all, one cannot ignore her use of blacks and whites. This use of heavy graphic weight could be said to reflect the stark contrasting themes of the graphic novel: secularism versus religious fundamentalism, adults versus children, or even good versus evil. In this passage, we also see the juxtaposition of childhood innocence and religious fanaticism. The extreme Muslims look very devout as they flagellate themselves. While the children look confused and bewildered.

To continue on the topic of the author’s artistic style, besides a stark use of blacks and whites, Satrapi has chosen for figures who appear very universal, simplistic and iconic. In the first panel the children appear like an army of covered, young Muslims girls, with no unique identity. Their facial features consist of simple lines to depict eyes, noses and mouths. Their expressions of bewilderment, in the second and fourth panel are all very similar. The use of emanata emphasizes their confusion and innocence, as question marks are placed over their heads. The author’s portrayal of the fundamentalists is equally simple and iconic. Emanata is used to depict the ‘whacking’ noise made as they beat their chests. Stars of pain appear on the men that beat themselves and big blood drops spray from a man’s head as he cuts himself. The pool of blood below him seems fresh, as it shimmers with simple white lines. From the looks of their eyebrows and open mouths, they appear in a trans of some kind.

Marjane Satrapi uses a combination of direct and indirect narration that can only be found in graphic novels. Her voice appears in the voice over boxes throughout the panels. She speaks directly to the reader, who presumably does not know much about the Islam. She explains that self-mutilation is part of an extreme Muslim culture. The final three frames make a transition from heavy direct narration, where she explains that some people flagellated themselves brutally, to indirect narration, where she simply shows what she means by how ‘far’ it could go. Furthermore, direct speech is used regularly through the use of speech bubbles. The teacher speaks to the children and the loudspeakers are heard in the background, all of which allow the setting to come to life.

As far as layout is concerned, Satrapi combines several interesting shots to create a very abstract, out-of-context setting. There is a mismatch in the first frame of a medium shot of the teacher and a high angle shot of the students in the same frame, making for an impossible perspective. Similarly the loudspeaker is unrealistically larger than the teacher standing beside it, making for another impossible moment. The backgrounds are completely white, meaning that these black, covered girls in the foreground could appear anywhere. The medium shots of the men flagellating themselves on a white background also make them appear in a kind of no man’s land. Satrapi uses these impossible perspectives and blank backgrounds to emphasize the extremist ideas that are being portrayed in the foregrounds.

The use of gutters and transitions on this page from Persepolis are characteristic of Satrapi’s graphic novel as they regularly require the reader to make a few mental leaps. Unlike many comic books in the West, Satrapi uses a great amount of non-sequitur transitions. These are transitions in which the one panel does not have any relation to the next panel. We see this in the transition from the fourth to fifth panel, from the fifth to the sixth and from the sixth to the seventh panel. The cognitive abstraction that is made here is from Marjane who is learning to beat herself as a girl in 1980 to Iranian men who beat themselves in general. This is her way of depicting her youth in the greater history of Iran. In the first four frames there are subject to subject transitions, in which we see the girls learning how to beat themselves from four different angles to emphasize the strange nature of this event. You could also argue that there is a motion to motion transition from the teacher beating herself to the students beating themselves, which emphasizes the way in which they were taught through drilling and imitation.

All in all, Satrapi makes use of a broad range of devices that graphic novelists have at their disposal. It’s fair to say she has mastered this medium. 

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Comments 4

Andrew Kenning 17 October 2016 - 09:35

Any thoughts on the word count rules for this? I have a student who after studying the Trump stuff wants to do a graphic story on the US after a Trump victory. He likes the idea of creating that dystopian world.

David McIntyre 19 October 2016 - 01:01

Hi Andrew,

Can you be clearer? What is the assessment component (Written Task 1?) and what is the topic option?



Sajani Kaplingat 3 May 2017 - 03:09

Dear David and Tim,
The exam. is today and my students are busy studying Economics and I guess I'll get only one hour to do a quick recap. Feeling frustrated I was looking for suitable resources among mine.I chanced upon the downloaded file of this page among my resources. I felt a bit relieved then and so I felt I had to thank you and even Brad Philpot if he was around when this was put in. Could you suggest any other last-minute resources? Paper 2 is with Math! I guess I won't see any of them today after English Paper 1. Sorry for having taken up your time.
Thanks a lot to you,

Tim Pruzinsky 3 May 2017 - 03:56

Hi Sajani,

I'm not sure that this is what you are looking for, but for me, at this time of year, I think the message David sent to his students last year - put in blog post - sums up what I would say to my students:

It's a beautiful piece of writing and I think it's a message that can't be said enough to students.


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