While many of the most influential models in narrative theory emerged out of the study of literary narrative, it has from the start been motivated by what James Phelan calls an "expansionist impulse" to direct its gaze to across media (Phelan 206). Such expansion is never without its tensions, of course. Given the profound differences between cinematic narrative and literary narrative, for example, one could have imagined narrative theory beating a hasty retreat. After all, as Metz reminds us, film is not a language system; it has no easy equivalent to punctuation or the sentence. And yet the history of the encounter between film studies and narrative theory has on the whole proved remarkably productive despite these differences, and the exchange of ideas has by no means been a one-way street. Indeed, we can see how conversations across media have helped bring new precision to concepts in narrative theory: interventions in the muddied concept of point-of-view were certainly informed by conversations along the borders between narrative theory and film theory, and Genette's concept of focalization and Chatman's proposed refinements of slant and filter (Chatman 144) draw in part upon the mechanics and theory of narrative film.
At almost exactly the same time that film began to form its fundamental grammar and mechanics as a new narrative medium, sequential comics emerged as the other new storytelling medium of the early twentieth century. A century later, especially since the publication of Art Spiegelman's Maus directed academic attention to the form in the U.S., the conversation between narrative theory and comics studies is finally under way, and there is every reason to be confident that it will be challenging and mutually beneficial. But as with all such encounters, there is always the danger of importing wholesale from the study of narrative fiction methods and tools that might not be ideally suited to the task at hand—dangers in this case especially tempting as comics are rebranded "graphic novels."
I want to focus on one key element of comics in order to start thinking about where and how narrative theory might need to expand or revise some concepts in addressing this vital narrative form: the line, arguably the most undertheorized element in comics scholarship and one that has no neat equivalent in any other narrative form. Much of the best narrato-logical [End Page 53] work on comics thus far has focused on aspects of narrative that translate relatively effortlessly from novel to comic: the representation of time, narrative frames, the narratee, genre. Very little attention has been spent addressing the one feature of comics that marks them as profoundly different—and perhaps even irreducibly so—from both novel and film: the trace of the hand, the graphic enunciation that is the drawn line.
The vast majority of texts we read (especially in the 21st century as the handwritten letter moves steadily toward extinction) render the hand of the linemaker invisible. For this reason it is worth reminding ourselves that the notion that the graphic line exists in a space apart from that of the line of writing is a product of relatively recent history (and one for the most part unique to the West), made possible by new technologies (printing) and institutions (academies). In A Brief History of the Line, Tim Ingold argues that by the late eighteenth century, the literal making of lines, once understood to be central to all arts, had become associated not with the artist but with the artisan, and specifically with the printer (128). Writers were transformed from scribes—those who literally inscribe lines upon the page—to wordsmiths. The author was now a master of words, working with his mind as opposed to his hands, able to find the right words and place them in the right combination to convey an emotion or describe vividly a scene, real or imagined. For the writer, choice of tools (pen, typewriter, laptop) have become irrelevant: the achievement of the author seems wholly independent of the tools or the act of making.
The shift can be usefully illustrated by comparing portraits of English prose writers from the...