Adventures in Duck-Rabbitry: Multistable Elements of Graphic Narrative
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Adventures in Duck-Rabbitry:
Multistable Elements of Graphic Narrative

Multistability refers to those moments in a narrative when readers are made aware of two mutually exclusive possibilities, conceived as an analogy to the visual illusion of the duck-rabbit, which can be seen either as a duck or as a rabbit, but not as both at the same time. Such mutually exclusive possibilities can arise from image elements that have different functions in different panels, words that refer to different things in the dialogue and the panel images, narration that can be read as either extra-or intradiegetic, or, indeed, moments of hesitation whether a metalepsis (a transgression of narrative boundaries) has taken place or not. Duck-rabbitry, that is, the tendency to create multistable moments (or instances that mimick the "tilt" between one percept and another), is a narrative effect in its own right and therefore needs to be distinguished from multiperspective, polyphonic narration, and allegory (because, in these cases, the two possibilities are not mutually exclusive), as well as from irony (because, in this case, one possibility is considered superior to the other). It extends across the narrative space of the fictional world, the narrative time of the plot construction, and the experience of the reader, leading to particular effects of fluency and rupture. While this article foregrounds comics as a medium that is particularly prone to duck-rabbitry, the conclusion also draws attention to its occurrence in other media and its importance for the project of transmedial narratology.


ambiguity, comics and graphic narrative, duck-rabbit, multistability, transmedial narratology

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THE DUCK-RABBIT was a humble visual trick tucked away on the pages of the German magazine Fliegende Blätter (October 23, 1892), along with cartoons about huntsmen and entertaining fables, before it was discovered by philosophy, art history, and the psychology of perception and began its rise to fame through these disciplines. The contrivance is this: we perceive a single figure depicted on paper (see Figure 1) that can appear both as a duck and as a rabbit, but never as both a duck and a rabbit at the same time. The duck-rabbit is a classical example of what is called "Kippbilder" in German, that is, a visual illusion that invites the switching back-and-forth between two different, coherent percepts on the basis of the same visual image. In some instances, such as the Rubin vase, this multistability involves a switch between figure and ground. For our purposes here, however, we will focus more specifically on instances that "tilt" between two different percepts and become multistable with respect to what they seem to represent.

In Pursuit of the Duck-Rabbit

While the duck-rabbit itself is not a graphic narrative, its origin in the illustrated papers from the turn of the 20th century places it in close proximity to the form. In particular, the cartoons and caricatures in Fliegende Blätter, where the duck-rabbit first appeared, have been considered as a key influence on early comics, such as Rudolf Dirks's Katzenjammer Kids (1912–39; see Smolderen 113). The multistable visual trickery of the duck-rabbit shares family resemblances with the mechanical "mischief gag" (where a hose seems empty in one panel and then suddenly full of water in the next; see Smolderen 114), the metamorphoses in Winsor McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberland (1905–26), and multipath page layouts such as those in Frank King's Crazy Quilts (1914; see Smolderen 87). The aesthetics of visual panache in these early newspaper comics, however, seems rather different from contemporary graphic narrative with its narrative engagements that extend beyond the single page "mischief gag," its perspectives that do not rely as often on multi-path page layouts to achieve their complexity, and the seriousness of its concerns (see Kukkonen, Contemporary Comics Storytelling and the collected articles in Gardner and Herman; Stein and Thon

Figure 1. The duck-rabbit. From: Fliegende Blätter, 1892.
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Figure 1.

The duck-rabbit. From: Fliegende Blätter, 1892.

[End Page 343] for an indicative coverage of the range of graphic narrative today). Can we observe what I call "duck-rabbitry" (that is, multistable percepts and instances...