The Art of Graphic Narrative: An Apology for the “Lascaux Hypothesis”

Imagine a huge convention center that could house both the San Diego Comic-Con and Miami Art Basel simultaneously. As both conventions are happening they spill out into a common area where the attendees to both can mingle. Most walk past each other oblivious to the other’s presence, some stare dumbfounded, some snicker and point, and some mutter profanities under their breath. Never mind that comic making shares many of the same tools, materials, and skills that fine artists, animators, graphic designers, and illustrators use. Or that artists such as Raymond Pettibon, Takashi Murakami, and Henry Darger and designers such as Chip Kidd, Christoph Niemann, and Tomi Um (to name only a few) have freely found inspiration in comic art and the ways comics communicate. Despite these many obvious connections to clearly say where comics and art meet and overlap still remains difficult. Part of what is at issue is the very idea of what makes something art, or indeed what makes something a comic, can be rather nebulous, but underscoring these differences is in part the disparate status of these professions and the people who enjoy them but also the separate needs of the critics who talk about them.[1]

Stepping back from the longstanding cultural division between comics and fine art it is fairly easy to see that the vast majority of fine art leading up to the 20th century was based on narrative. Only with the ascendancy of modernism does the idea of narrative assume a pejorative and antiquated status associated with the worst affectations of the Art Academies of yore. It is perhaps no coincidence that the rise of the popularity of comics coincides with the degradation of narrative art as these two arts, like jealous siblings, carved up the cultural landscape. Narrative is making a comeback in the fine art world and some comic artists are now represented by art galleries, but the language and means for talking about narrative art has been largely forgotten, and furthermore, now new interests intend to frame comic art more as a form of literature rather than as a form of art.

Challenging the idea that comics are at all comparable to art are comic scholars, such as Thierry Groensteen who mockingly calls this idea finding comic-like features in art of the past the “Lascaux Hypothesis.” He argues that comparing comic art to narrative art, including the ancient cave art of Lascaux, is an inherently flawed project because no one has satisfactorily defined what is meant by the term comics or by what aspects they are related to the past.[2] Indeed, defining comics has been a problematic exercise for sometime, largely because the focus has always been on some kind of distinctive visual aspect, such as speech bubbles or panels on a page, when clearly there are legitimate examples of comics that do not have any of these qualities. Groensteen and others have further disparaged this Lascaux Hypothesis as a strategy that scholars have used seek legitimacy for their subject: that the lowly topic of comics is in need of padding its portfolio so that it can be taken seriously as “Art.”

Indisputably the relative status of “High Art” and “low comics” has had an enormous influence on their contrasting critical receptions and what has kept the study of comics separate from other areas of fine art. The challenge of connecting comics to the history of art is somehow having to contend with these past elisions, omissions, and condescensions at the same time seeing the connections and common ways each works. Connecting comics to art should be no less fraught than comics and cinema, comics and theatre, or comics and literature. Each has had an influence on the other, but it is remarkable that today the comics to art relationship is the one that provokes the greatest suspicion. The scholars who are wary of this comparison inevitably come from areas that have a vested interest in maintaining their own non-art authority over the subject of comics. Unfortunately, defining comics has become more concerned with walling off the topic from related forms of narrative art, such as children’s literature and fine art books, and arguing for its uniqueness instead of its more evident connection to visual art of the past and present.

The prevailing research attitudes toward comics can be seen in the way Charles Hatfield refers to his subject of Alternative Comics as an “emerging literature.” In his subtitle there is a conflation of two ideas that have become quite commonplace among new comic scholars: first, that modern comics are without precedent, and second, that they are a form of literature. Both of these ideas have become mainstream to a such a degree that seeing comics as art seems counter-revolutionary to those who would rather wipe the slate clear and talk of comics being a wholly original creation. Comics in their estimation is a new invention, like the lithographic press or television, which wholly changed means for communicating stories with pictures. This assertion has received very little critique and there has not been much research into comics by art historians who could bolster the idea that comics are first and foremost a visual art.

Looking back on the comic Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud wrote, the “trick is never to mistake the message for the messenger.” In his first effort to shape the study of comic art McCloud pushed people to consider how comics communicate independent of particular plots and characters as a way to see the potential that comics have to communicate beyond any particular example they may have known before. Rather than assume that comics were merely the means to make superhero stories, McCloud effectively demonstrated how visual features, such as word-image relationships and panel-to-panel arrangements, can alter the meaning of the individual parts of the comic. This semantic way of looking at comics provided a useful tool kit to get started discussing comics, but this project to understand the visual means comics use to communicate has since stalled. Part of the problem was due to McCloud’s penchant for self-invented categories and terms that arbitrarily framed some elements and obscured others. Several comic scholars have attempted to refine and rethink McCloud's categories in a more rigorous and academic way, but the utility of these revisions have faded as the newer, more nuanced categories complicated rather than elucidated understanding the comic reading experience. Newer scholarship on comics seems applicable only to a narrower set of contemporary examples rather than to the wider history of graphic narrative.

The other problem with McCloud’s self-invented categories is that he gave the impression that there was no prior knowledge of the way comics work and that comics were a unique phenomenon that had little precedent in visual means they used to communicate before they were invented. To his credit McCloud suggested there was a historic connection to older forms of visual art, but he did not really clarify that relationship except to say in a general way that they had a very long history. This lack of attention to this idea that comics have a historic past has meant that any effort to attribute some connection to past visual narratives in art seems like simple grandstanding or vain posturing to give the lowly subject of comics some gravitas.

The maturation of the field of comic studies currently has a literary semiotic basis that has been fully embraced by scholars in English Departments and Communication Studies and has become a significant research component of the Modern Language Association. Much of the current scholarship is based on the idea that visual aspects of the narrative are yet another kind of “text” that requires interpretation. The advantage of this interpretive approach is that it makes comics comparable to other works of literature and highlights themes and ideas that can be found there. It also provides a framework for analysis through well established ideas of narrative structure, such as narrative arc, catharsis, and denouement. The widely used term “graphic novel,” and less common “graphic literature,” embodies this notion of image as text, as if the pictures were a stand-in for the written word in novels.[3]

To push back some on the idea that comics are a form of literature and somehow comparable to written texts, it is important to recognize how visual images described in a text are different from an actual visual image. Peter Mendelsund has delved deeply into the kinds of mental images we make when we read a text. He notes the asynchronic way visual information is received when reading creates a kind of fog at the beginning of the reading experience that requires a series of mental adjustments as the reader progresses through the text.[4] Likewise, the images in our mind from reading a text are provisional and rarely become more vivid as the text progresses, though they can be more nuanced through a deeper understanding the way a character acts. These adjustments can happen too in reading a comic, but from the first there is an unmistakeable visual presence that demands attention. The visual information may not be wholly understood from the first, but it presents something indisputably visible that any understanding of the narrative must contend. Graphic narrative images do not represent words or ideas like hieroglyphs or Chinese writing, as Will Eisner posits,[5] they are themselves irreducible experiences that are parsed and made sensible in visual ways.

With almost no contributions by art historians, the discussion of comics as an art has drifted toward studio art and the making of comics where it is common to talk about the formal visual qualities of an image, some of which are its line, shape, and composition. Most analysis of narrative forms in these comic making guides comes from outside visual art where it is typical to see the way comic narratives are described visually according to neo-classical ideas of narrative (unities), 19th century theatre (the well-made play), cinema (long shot, close up, etc.) and video games (world building). The problem with non-art approaches to talking about comics is that they ultimately limit our understanding. There are many ways comics can communicate narrative that are not possible in literature, cinema, or video games, because narrative art is so much older and more varied than all these other arts.

Notable exceptions to the absence of art historians in comic research has been the David Kunzle, Patricia Mainardi, and Andrei Molotiu who have each made contributions to areas of Art History and Comic Art. Kunzle was an early pioneer in hammering out two large volumes of examples from the early evolution of European satiric print culture. Mainardi has focused on the pivotal period of the 19th century and Molotiu has examined contemporary abstract art through the lens of comic reading. What is largely missing from their work is the kind of visual analysis that has been done in narrative art in other areas of art history but has as of yet not been applied to comics. Vidya Dehejia has undertaken the analysis of narrative forms (modes) in early Buddhist Art in India, Jocelyn Penny Small has similarly analyzed Classical Greek and Roman visual narratives, and Meyer Schapiro has applied these narrative structures to Medieval Art. The analysis of modes in narrative art has made it possible to span these different cultures and speak to common structures that exist in the visual formation of narrative. By applying the idea of modes to modern comics it is possible to see the connection that comic art owes to the narrative art of the past, but also recognize some telling gaps that indicate where comic art has introduced new ideas in communicating narrative with graphic means.

Due to the long and convoluted history that led to modern comics it is important to speak of various forms of narrative art that have come to influence comics but are themselves not comics, or even “proto-comics.” My use of the broader term, graphic narrative, is simply a term that makes it possible to talk about the collective means for visually communicating narrative. It is not an attempt to “legitimate” comics in the world of art, but rather to talk about comics and other forms of narrative art in a historic way, as a innovation of ideas that slowly emerged out of 18th century that has its roots in the ancient practice of telling stories with pictures. The term graphic narrative does not conflate current narrative ideas onto the past, but rather is intended to show the evolution of the visual narrative as a history of ideas that is not bound by a specific medium,[6] or particular printing technology or means of dissemination. Other scholars, such as David Kunzle, Hillary Chute and Marianne DeKoven have used this term graphic narrative to refer more narrowly to the modern phenomenon of sequential picture stories without being genre specific like the term comics or graphic novel. I use the term more broadly to include any narrative pictorial representation that is fixed on a mostly two dimensional medium. The term does not represent all narrative art, which might also include examples of sculpture, performance art, and video art. Despite these caveats, the idea of graphic narrative is immensely broad, but it does have meaningful contours and boundaries and it has evolved over time as new ideas have passed from culture to culture. It is a history of ideas where sometimes new concepts take hold or not, and sometimes old ideas linger, fade away, or eventually return.

The ways people currently talk of comics and fine art is only driving them further apart and the common aesthetic experiences they share have only been made unintelligible and confused by this separation. By focusing on the visual means for communication, I hope it will be possible to reestablish the vocabulary that describes the way pictures tell stories. These terms and ideas are not literary, or genre specific, they are rather the foundation of how we discern meaning from narrative while looking at an unmoving image.

How to See a Story in a Picture

John Furnival’s Semiotic Folk Poem (1966) is a curious visual puzzle where abstract line art is used to tell a story of a “laddie” and a “lassie” rolling about in the “rye.” Without directly representing the action with any sort of realism, it communicates the movement of the characters through manipulating the symbols and ordering them in panels so that changes in their placement are interspersed with the empty panels in a way that suggests dramatic movement. The action is not rendered frame by frame, as might be seen in a comic, nor are the interspersed spaces representative varying lengths of time. Rather the reader scans and compares the five panels in each of the five lines of panels from top to bottom. Changes to the orientations of the symbols in each set of five frames suggests the characters “flirting” as their actions appear increasingly intimate. The lexical key helps establish the identity of the symbols, but it does not directly communicate the narrative action which is essentially visual.

Furnival’s graphic narrative makes fun of the reductive way semiotics translates everything down to its symbolic essentials. Reading this graphic narrative is not a semiotic exercise, as if the image was just another kind of text, like a rebus, whereby transposing the symbols into meaningful ideas the event becomes clear. The actual reading happens in a non-verbal space, phenomenologically distinct from reading a text or seeing a movie. The reader’s eye scans and compares spaces and symbols to each other and one row below to the row previous. There is no verbalization, or even vocalization, of the action necessary to arrive at an understanding of what is happening.

Furnival has created an original format for this graphic narrative that is really unlike anything else I have ever seen. And yet, with very little guidance from the text or prior experience with some similar kind of comic, it makes sense. His narrative references the real world, other poems, songs, movies and cultural ideas that help a reader understand what is happening, but its own internal logic ultimately communicates the action. While I have written about this comic before, it seems an important to return to it as it provides ample evidence of what makes visual narratives work and it challenges many ideas that are used define and describe comics and other modern graphic narratives. It questions assumptions that understanding a visual narrative is a process similar to a reading text. How do we experience graphic narratives if it is not a text? What visual cues do we use to make sense of what we are seeing? By exploring these questions it is my intention to understand how the visual experience of narrative comes into focus and how those means have changed over time. I will not limit this investigation to one genre or medium, but rather look to the means, or modes, themselves to understand the art of graphic narrative.

To better understand graphic narratives as a visual art it is necessary to focus on more than just the formal qualities of the image, such as line, shape, and texture, but also to understand the distinctive way fixed narrative images are seen and read. A picture can make fleeting experiences appear more tangible and irrefutable because they are seen and generally understood without any special skill or prior knowledge. As evidence, they may require no translation to be recognizable. But despite the clarity that an image presents, understanding a story from an image poses unique challenges. Pictures can describe a situation in great detail but they do not easily encode the narrative action and order. Because we see pictures more or less all at once and only later through some visual devices see relationships between various parts, it may not be clear where the action in the story begins and ends. Written languages by comparison, have a regular and predictable grammar that allow for the swift processing of information to establish hierarchies and sequential order. A very detailed and specific story can be told in a thousand words that, despite the claim of the popular aphorism, would be impossible to match in a single picture.

Pictures reveal more slowly their messages and the rewards for understanding them comes from the unique way meaning arises out of the visual information. The recognition of a visual narrative is predicated on signals that the viewer sees as communicating the potential for narrative. These are not specific things such as panels or the gutters between them, they are aspects in the image itself that signal that something is happening or is likely about to happen. An image may also use framing devices which create visual boundaries within the picture so that the picture has distinct areas, nuclei or loci, that partition the whole picture into various parts. Which areas the reader looks to first may be indicated by reading habit (right to left, for example), or by less conventional means indicated by the image itself. Converging lines or high contrasting values may take focus in the image whereas more muted values may have a less prominent role in the visual hierarchy and help to guide the reader along through the picture.

Narrative is not something that can be found in any kind of image or collection of images. A series of pictures arranged one after the other, like an exhibition of paintings by Jackson Pollock or Agnes Martin, may not have any kind of narrative information that can be read. Not only was no narrative intended when each individual work was made and later arranged, even if the arrangement of each work is chronological, the accumulated meaning that can be derived from these art works essentially refers back to themselves or tangentially to the evolution of the work of the artist. The meaning that accumulates in viewing abstract works does not reflect back on some other experience of a discrete self acting in the world.[7] Not that wholly abstract works are without personal meaning, just that formal aspects of the work (line, shape, color) do not coalesce all by themselves into forms that establish the essential markers of narrative.[8] Those more concrete markers have a more specific relationship to the real world and allow for a double form of viewing where the the relationship of the parts provide a specific narrative path through the image. The subset of images that contain these narrative markers are what defines an essential quality of graphic narrative.

While a picture is not inherently narrative, the human mind is. Angus Fletcher notes that because our neurons fire in a single direction, “we instinctively think in its story sequences, cataloguing the world into mother-leads-to-pleasure and cloud-leads-to-rain and violence-leads-to-pain.”[9] This means there is a very wide range of phenomenon where we might find narrative intent where there is none. This is not dissimilar to pareidolia illusions, that we find images in natural world. We are constantly looking for ways to make sense of things and we parse experiences into narrative components and are especially predisposed to find narrative when we can identify aspects that seem to communicate human intent, experience, and emotion.

Because readers are predisposed to find meaning with very little instruction, understanding graphic narratives is in some ways tied to the sense making mechanisms of the brain, but this is not the whole picture. To say that the processing of visual narrative information is only a neurological function is to put the experience of reading a graphic narrative into a class of mental responses that we are only dimly aware of, instead of as a kind of open-ended aesthetic engagement that requires more deliberate thought. On this point, I agree with Alva Noë, that despite the new tools for examining neural cognition, neurological explanations for understanding art are a reductionist approach that begins from the proposition we are our minds and everything we make sense of in the world is a reflection of how our brain perceives that experience.[10] In neurological studies of how the brain processes images it has become increasingly evident that there is no one clearly defined way that we experience and make sense of what we are seeing. This is especially true with aesthetic experiences where there are very few overlapping regions of the brain where this activity is processed, such that it appears, “Beauty is plural, diverse, embedded in the particulars of its medium.”[11]

The visual back and forth between seeing and reading that is found in graphic narratives is also a defining feature of comic art, though it is not commonly talked about in that manner. Comics are often called a hybrid art because they include both words and pictures. While many comics use both words and pictures, perhaps even a majority do, there are quite a few that do not use any words or often only use words intermittently. The absence or presence of words does not alter the need to read the graphic narrative visually, which requires finding the path through the picture. As Hillary Chute has written, “For me the issue lies less in the presence or absence of literal words than in the linear process of reading, the arrangement of signs in successive order, and the dynamics of motion this entails ...”[12] The presence and placement of words in an image needs to fit within the overall visual organization of the narrative. Visually, words must serve the needs of the narrative image. Thus, the hybridity of comics is not actually “words and pictures” but is the double fold nature of a static image being used to tell a linear story. Readers see the whole picture, or perhaps the whole page, synchronically while they also scan through parts of the picture, or from frame to frame, diachronically. This shift in focus from the whole picture to a series of parts happens throughout the reading experience and it shapes the narrative by providing context, irony, or collaboration to what is being seen. The relationship between these two activities does not actually make comics a hybrid (a third kind of new thing different from its constituent parts), more than an image that embodies an irreducible paradox.

This visual reading-like movement in comics encodes the idea of something happening over time is a quality that comics share with all forms of graphic narrative. The order of events cannot be experienced passively, as in a movie, but can only shown through a coded means that establishes relationships between its visual parts and assigns specific values to those parts, such as a figure and the ground they stand on. Key to identifying action in a narrative image is the reader’s recognition of a character. The character does not need to be figurative, as with Furnival’s example earlier, but it does need to consistently represent some kind of distinct identity that is differentiated from the background. Just as the planets in their independent motions in the night sky suggested they were divine personages, so too any picture that can differentiate the representation of a body, no matter how abstract, creates the potential for narrative action. Uri Shulevitz describes the relationship between these narrative elements as the “stage” and the “actor” and states that one or the other should be active while the other is stationary.[13] It is possible to confuse these aspects of the visual narrative, when both or neither seem to move, but that clarity is improved when the relative motion between these aspects is well defined. Jocelyn Penny Small in her analysis of ancient classical Greek and Roman narrative art, discusses this figure ground relationship by noting the awareness of motion, and by extension changing time, is achieved though the contrasting states of something in motion standing out against something fixed.[14]

The background or stage represents the given information that the action moves from or to. It is what Meyer Schapiro called “being in state.” As a feature of narrative art that is not just the inanimate aspects that cannot move, but it is also consists of other figures or characters that are not moving in the narrative at this time. Take for example the fresco by Massacio, The Tribute Money, where Saint Peter is represented three times, first receiving Christ’s instructions, finding the money in the fish’s mouth, and paying the tax collector, this is in contrast to the tax collector who appears twice and Christ and the apostles who appear only once. In this mode of narrative (a synoptic narrative), where there are repetition of some characters within a single framed scene, Saint Peter’s “being in action” is in contrast to the otherwise fixed placement of Christ, the apostles and the background of shoreline, building, and trees. Narrative will employ both fixed and moving elements, but not just fixed elements being in state. A portrait, a still-life, or a landscape are genres that resist narrative reading because they are in a fixed state. They may include symbolic references to history or allegory but those signs do not represent actual narrative action.

The reading-like path loosely assigns a direction to the unfolding experience but these conventions are open to new visual information. Consider how relatively easy it is to relearn how to read a translated Japanese manga in a right to left orientation and yet how near impossible it is to retrain reading a text in reverse order. The contingent way graphic narratives are read means the visual information is more significant than the verbal. The visual information is not read in absolute but rather the eye is scanning for significance and connections within the page. Viewers now have more control over cinema through pausing, rewinding, or skimming ahead, which can make the visual experience more like reading a graphic narrative. But these subversive strategies made possible from digital tools are not within aesthetic concerns of the filmmaker. In contrast to film, the reader’s changing visual experience is one of the conditions the artist of a graphic narrative uses to compose the visual experience and is an important way a graphic narrative communicates.

The double way we view graphic narrative is at the heart of the various visual narrative strategies, or modes. Key to reading any graphic narrative mode is determining the path through the parts and how that path relates back to the whole image. All told, there are about thirteen different graphic narrative modes that are either based on a story told though a single image, a non-ordered group of images, or a series of images in a consistent direction, or a sequence of images that are causally linked. Variation between the different modes in these basic categories is determined by the way the seen events are parsed through the repetition of characters (or not), or if the breadth of the narrative action is separated into multiple panels or contained within a single panel.

Most of the modes of graphic narrative have been in existence for several thousand years and can be found in some manner or another in any culture that has literacy and the intent to make pictures that tell stories. It is only with the invention of sequential images between the 17th and 18th century that graphic narratives enter into a rich and complex narrative construction that provides the means for original stories, not based on a previously known story. Sequential images engage in a complex ordering of actions and events that can draw from all the other different narrative modes and recombine them in new ways.

To see how modern comics fit into the larger history of graphic narrative it is essential to differentiate between two different classes of modes: a series and a sequence. Part of the confusion in determining the meaning of these terms is that in many different fields, such as cinematography, these words are often used interchangeably to mean any kind of ordered arrangement of moments. The main difference between the two is the series represents items in a row to be seen one after the other and the sequence presents its items in a more deliberate way so that the order provides meaning. Keith Smith highlights these differences in his Structure of the Visual Book. While there are excellent examples of how meaning changes with different sequential orders, Smith struggles with keeping series and sequences as separate ideas. Partly what is at issue is the way a series can be contained within a sequence, but not the other way around.[15]

In a series, the relationship can be thematic or simply chronological, like a to do list or the way photos appear in a camera, one after another, in the order they were taken. Historically, a series of images was used to show scenes from the labors of Hercules or Christ's Stations of the Cross, or Confucian scenes of filial piety. There is an overall continuity to the each individual element, like pearls on a necklace, no one of the scenes is especially more important than another and altogether they thematically resonate with a common idea. In a series the meaning is already incipient in each picture and it is made more evident as the themes are repeated and expanded upon. Changing the order of the images does not dramatically alter the overall meaning of the series.

A sequence, by contrast, is concerned with cause and effect, what Smith calls "disjunctive relationships" where the order of the images, builds a relationship in the viewer's mind that creates a wholly new idea. Scott McCloud used the term juxtaposition to describe this relationship but both series and sequences are juxtaposed, in the literal sense that they are simply side by side. The inferences that the reader makes about the relationship between the images are what matters and those relationships are not merely the ones that happen to be right next to each other. The inference is largely determined by what the reader understands how one image changes the way we experience the preceding and succeeding images. Töpffer demonstrates this in his Monsieur Pencil where the repetition of a theme, the character is admiring his drawing from different angles, over several panels instills a new idea that the character is self-absorbed and ridiculous.

The relationship between the images can be further influenced not only by the subject within the image, but also how the subject is framed within the image, how large or small one image is to the other, or if the frame of the image changes from one to the other. These differences between the images, and many others besides, make sequences of images far more complex to read. The best word for this relationship of images is the idea of a montage. Where the cumulative effect of multiple images, along with their deliberate order, creates a meaning that cannot be found in any one of the individual parts.

The word montage also has many different meanings depending on the medium it is used to describe. In cinema it is usually a visual effect where multiple images are piled up all at once, such as showing multiple newspaper presses running as a way the show the workings of the news cycle. It is often used to describe photo montages where several photographs are cut out and placed together. Sergei Tretyakov described the effect of this technique with photography when he observed, ”photomontage begins whenever there is a conscious alteration of the first sense of a photograph—by combining two or more images, by joining drawing and graphic shapes to the photograph, adding color or by adding written text. All of these techniques divert the photograph from what it naturally seems to say an underscore an active reading of the image.” Indeed, this definition of montage describes the essence of a sequential visual narration. The artist alters the “first sense” of the static image and opens it up to it being seen in a more dynamic relationship to multiple kinds of visual information that have a causal relation that depends on the direction they are read.

A series, where the images are thematically related, can be found in a sequence, but a sequence will employ this strategy for some portion of the total narrative and then move on to some other narrative strategy. The sequence cannot be found in a series because all of the elements in a series must be equal and ordered without deviation in form or theme. The complexity and flexibility of the sequence is such that every other kind of narrative mode can be contained within a sequence. This makes sequences very hard to define, especially if you are looking to single out a particular feature, but it also means that a sequence of images possess the DNA of the whole history of narrative art. To understand that history is to deepen one's understanding of what is possible in the art of sequences.

A Thousand Ships By Eric Shanower

The way a sequence can employ earlier narrative modes can be seen in a page from A Thousand Ships by Eric Shanower where the monoscenic mode, a single scene with no repetition of characters, is used to fill the page, but the image is partitioned into eight separate panels each holding inter-linked speech bubbles. Helen is debating with Priam, the king of Troy, to allow her to enter the city. This pivotal moment in the story highlights central themes that run throughout the narrative and this striking visual image, like a typical monoscenic narrative, rewards the viewer who knows and recognizes the underlying broader conflict in this moment. The image works both as a sequence and a monoscenic narrative. As a sequence of images the partitions make it possible to read the extended text in the correct order, but as a monoscenic narrative they also fracture the image in a way that highlights the divisions between the characters and their unequal status as Priam receives the petition from Helen.

This strategy of using a monoscenic narrative within the sequence has been called various things in comic studies, from splash page to medium objective shot, to embedded transitions, with each new term trying to explain the structure by using terms and ideas outside the history of art. While the ideas these terms convey speak to other ideas that are similar in comics they do not address the concepts that have organized visual art for thousands of years.

Michael DeForge's Ant Colony

Further Cues that Effect a Visual Narrative Experience

There are a number of other ways an artist can divert our attention away from the “first sense” of the picture being a representation of something and engage the viewer in interpreting or reading what is seen. The structural organization, or mode, of the graphic narrative, establishes the grammar of the story organization and the visual style of the art and the visual means for producing the image are like the meter and the voice of the graphic narrative. In visual art, the artist’s approach to making the image, ostensibly their distinctive style, is called the facture and it communicates through line quality, tonal variation, level of visual abstraction and compositional choices that shape how the reader can apprehend how the artist envisions the narrative. These qualities can be seen in the choice of inking technique, that distinguishes the folksy retro-style of dense cross-hatching by Robert Crumb from the Sci-Fi graphic "krackle" by Jack Kirby, or it can be as dramatic as the use of color and shape, found in the bewildering excess of Michael DeForge’s Ant Colony. Each of these artistic choices are a component that helps establish the narrative vision of the artist and signals to the reader about the subjective relationship the artist has with their narrative. Even as contemporary graphic narratives have expanded into journalistic subjects and non-fiction topics, the facture does not undermine the authority of the narrator so much as provide a vantage point that the artist can use to say, like Goya, “This I saw.”[16]

The other related visual quality, called faktura, is how the reader experiences the made qualities of the graphic narrative. The faktura is most dramatically seen in the elements that are exhibiting the inherent qualities of the actual material used to exhibit the narrative. Faktura is a provocatively visual aspect in which the viewer experiences the delight in the exceptional skill of the image. In a highly graphic spectacle of a large background scene by Hergé or Möbius, faktura encourages the reader to slow down and take in the myriad visual details. Faktura is also readily apparent in graphic narratives that employ collage or montage where the cuts and edits reveal how the image is made, such as in the joyously irreverent Punks: The Comic by Joshua Fialkov and Kody Chamberlain where the cuts, folds and scotch tape used to make the comic harken back to the anti-graphic designs by Jamie Reid. In either case the graphic narrative is asserting itself as a fabricated work of art.

Facture and faktura, sound similar and in a way they are related and difficult to completely tease apart. The artist leaves traces of their way of working in the medium while, at the same time, the medium shapes the way the artist works. The viewer is aware of these aspects as they read, which brings up an important phenomenological idea about the nature of narrative images. It is in the nature of an image, according to Richard Wollheim, to be something that is doubly not-present.[17] A picture is not the thing being represented and it is not a real thing at all but the illusion of a thing. To work as an image we can never forget that what we are seeing is an image apart from the thing it represents. As readers continually shift between seeing the whole and the parts of the image in some order and, at the same time they are also aware of artists vision (facture) and the material qualities of the image (faktura) there is no point when the image being read is seen other than as an image. What is generally true of any image is especially true of the narrative image because to make sense of what is being seen requires an extra kind of observation where the image is made to show someone else’s experience and speak in another’s voice. All this aesthetic theory is to underscore the idea that there is no point when the reader could engage in a "suspension of disbelief." Disbelief is a necessary aesthetic condition required to read the image, to make sense of it as an image and compare it to other images, consider the shape of the frame, the surface of the page, the weight of the book, or the smallness of the zine.

The reader experiences the graphic narrative through the facture and faktura and the narrative is understood not as if it actually represents something real in the world but mostly how consistent and true it is to itself. Tolkien called this idea "subcreation" in which a narrative maintains an inner consistency of reality. This parallel creation is not a symbolic interpretation of the natural world, nor an extension from it, it is a place with its own rules and conditions that reader and artist mutually create.

Being an autonomous invention does not mean that a narrative can be indifferent to human interests or oblivious to social concerns. A narrative presumes an audience is paying attention, no matter how small that group may be. In this way it is more outwardly focused on being seen or being heard so that it can be understood. The meaning is derived from the internal consistency and variation that correlates somehow to designs and patterns found in the world that some other person understands. When a picture contains visual references that are coded or when they have referential meanings, such as an allegory or satire, whose original purpose is obscure, the meaning of a visual narrative is easily lost. Without the prior knowledge of the secret meanings encoded in the aboriginal paintings from Australia, for example, even though they contain for the painter in their clan the history of their ancestors, to the uninitiated viewer they are formally beautiful paintings without narrative.

Such loss, or absence of meaning, limits our appreciation of the narrative picture, but it does not wholly eliminate the pleasures of viewing. Like all poetic communication, it is in the nature of narrative images to be ambiguous, and that equivocation makes it a compelling medium for storytelling. The Frolicking Animals scroll (Chōjū-jinbutsu-giga) from Heian Japan, presents the viewer with a rich variety of comic scenes where monkeys act like Buddhist monks, but its specific meaning, which must have been obvious to the maker, is now lost. For most people, a narrative picture, whether it is wholly understood or not, can have an immediacy that still speaks to the viewer in a way that it presents compelling possibilities. The Surrealists, especially Max Ernst in his narrative-esque collages, understood the presence that narrative can have even when the narrative is deliberately obscure and meaningless.

To see what can be learned from a graphic narrative that we can never fully understand it is worth while returning to Lascaux. Scholars of neolithic cave art can only speculate on the purpose of the art that was made for thousands of years and can be found on nearly every continent. Cave images from neolithic times powerfully communicate layers of symbols that suggest dream-like transformations, or theatrical performances, which are overlaid with constellations, and ubiquitous hand prints. They seem to represent some type of real or imaginary experiences without disclosing what they were intended to record, but there are tantalizing patterns that reveal an internal logic and iconographic consistency that suggests the work was done for a purpose and there was an audience in mind. There seems to be a very deliberate intention to place certain images of powerful animals (not typically the ones they hunted) that suggest fertility and fecundity in more central locations that were easier to access and more dangerous animals and situations in less accessible areas.

Deep in the recesses of the Lascaux cave, one of the few depictions of a man can be found. Representations of people are scarce in cave art and unlike the vividly realized animals that adorn many surfaces of the walls, with their fine attention to movement and anatomical detail, the person Lascaux is scarcely a stick figure that is crudely splayed on the rock surface, perhaps shown in the last throws of death having been killed by a bison while he was hunting. The scene sounds tragic, and yet the depiction of the man, with a bird-like beak and an erect penis, is unflattering, and possibly even comical. This stick figure man seems a self-deprecating and absurd counter-point to the other images nearer toward the entrance of the cave, which celebrate the power and grace of the animal world. While the actual narrative depicted here contains meanings we may never understand, Barbara Ehrenreich senses from this and other cave paintings, these early humans, “knew where they stood in the scheme of things, which was not very high, and this seems to have made them laugh.”[18]

There is no one meaning that the dying man represents and like many pre-literate graphic narratives the cave painting is possibly a simultaneous narrative that represents several overlapping events and provides many different narrative paths. No one makes cave art anymore, and literacy has wholly changed the way we see the world and record what we see, but the mode of the simultaneous narrative can still be seen in the complex graphic works of Chris Ware and the art book A Humument by Tom Phillips, and many others besides. The simultaneous narrative provides the reader with a web of possible pathways across a landscape of images, which is a valuable way to describe the complexities and ambiguities of experience in relation to the environment. When the cave was occupied between 28,000 BC and 10,000 BC, these paths would be variously interpreted depending on the needs of the storyteller. Adding to the complexity of how it was read is the possibility that this caricature-like representation of a man was possibly made by a woman.[19]

Lascaux is an enigma, but one that, like all truly great art, speaks to us now in ways we cannot entirely verbalize and it prompts us to consider the bigger truths of our existence in the world. While Lascaux is not a “comic,” it is a graphic narrative that uses its images in deliberate ways to communicate aspects of an event in the past to its audience. The readings of these narratives then, like the readings of graphic narratives today, are affected by the mode of the narrative (how the narrative parts are arranged), the facture (the distinctive way the artist approached the subject) and the faktura (the materiality of the art).

Comic makers and comic scholars need to broaden their ideas about what is possible in comic art and not wall off the topic from the past and isolate comics from the visual language of art. We not only need better stories, but also better ways to think about the stories we make. It is time to move beyond the antiquated ideas of a well-made-play, and the suspension-of-disbelief and consider new forms of graphic narrative inspired from our most ancient sources.

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[1] Bart Beaty in his book, Comics Versus Art(2013), has described the ongoing culture war between fine art and comics. In his estimation the differences are deep and intractable.

[2]     Thierry Groensteen and Ann Miller. “Gérard Blanchard's Lascaux Hypothesis, Yale French Studies, 2017, No. 131/132, Bande Dessinée Thinking Outside the Boxes (2017), pp. 11-20

[3] The term graphic novel has always been a bit of a misnomer as few of the actual comics were novels and also, starting in the 1980s, the new name was largely employed indiscriminately as a marketing term to get booksellers to warm up to the idea of selling long-form comics.

[4] Peter Mendelsund, What We See When We Read: A Phenomenology with Illustrations,Vintage Books,

[5] Will Eisner, Comics and Sequential Art, Poorhouse Press (1985), p.15

[6] The notion of a history of ideas is based on the development of timelines as described in the book Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline by Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton. Rosenberg and Grafton show that the form of the timeline dramatically changes from a simple list of names and dates to a graph showing the length of each life relative to each other. The conceptual leap that changes the form of the timeline became the new standard.

[7] Here I am taking issue with Molotiu’s notion of “Abstract Comics” that would open the door to calling an art work narrative so long as either the artist or a reader says so. In some ways this follows Marcel Duchamp’s conceptual art idea that art is merely what I say it is. Narrative has a more intentional relationship to the audience. There needs to be shared meanings that are communicated to an audience that must greater than one person.

[8] Scott McCloud and other commentators have made much of the way people can assign emotional values to abstract shapes. This is often referred to as the “Kiki/Bouba” effect. These emotional values do not, all by themselves, rise to the level of narrative content.

[9] Angus Fletcher argues that it is a distinctly human quality that computers, due to their logical architecture, will never be able to emulate. “Why Computers Will Never Write Good Novels: The power of narrative flows only from the human brain.” Nautilus, Feb. 10, 2021

[10] Nöe, Alva. Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature. New York, Hill and Wang, 2015. P.122-123.

[11] Jason Castro, “How the Brain Responds to Beauty: Scientists search for the neural basis of an enigmatic experience” Scientific American, Feb 2, 2021.

[12] Comics & Media: A Special Issue of "Critical Inquiry" (A Critical Inquiry Book) (Kindle Locations 871-872). University of Chicago Press, 2014.

[13] Shulevitz, Uri. Writing with Pictures: How to Write and Illustrate Children's Books. Watson-Guptill Publications, 1985.

[14] Jocelyn Penny Small, “Time in Space: Narrative in Classical Art.” The Art Bulletin, Vol. 81, No. 4 (Dec., 1999), p. 570.

[15] Smith, Keith A. Structure of the Visual Book. 4th ed., Smith Books, 2010.

[16] Goya titles a few of his engravings from the series Disasters of War with the provocative statement “this I saw.” Historians now suspect he did not actually see these events rather based his drawings on accounts he heard from other people. Goya’s drawings give powerful imaaaamediacy to these events that dramatically shape the way we understand these moments.

[17] Wollheim argues that Art is not a unitary physical thing but that it is a token based on a type. See “Art and Its objects,” in Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology, Eds. Steven Cahn and Aron Meskin, Blackwell Publishing,2017, pp. 466-478.

[18] Barbara Ehrenreich, “The Humanoid Stain: Art lessons from our cave-dwelling ancestors,” The Baffler,  No. 48, November 2019.

[19] Snow, Dean R. “Sexual Dimorphism in European Upper Paleolithic Cave Art.” American Antiquity, vol. 78, no. 4, 2013, pp. 746–761.