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  • Some Medium-Specific Qualities of Graphic Sequences
  • Pascal Lefèvre (bio)

The role of the chosen medium in the creation and reception of a work has been explored by various disciplines, including aesthetics, communication, and narratology. While some scholars defend a doctrine of medium purity (Greenberg), even arguing that "the medium is the message" (McLuhan), others deny the influence of a particular medium, like the structuralist narratologists who consider fabula or story as a mental construct that is completely independent of the medium used. In contrast to these rather extreme positions, and like some other scholars (Herman, Davies, Ryan), I would argue for a position that acknowledges variable degrees of influence of media on the process of telling a story. In other words, though stories told in various media may use a common stock of narrative design principles, they exploit them in different, media-specific ways (Herman 51).

In what follows I shall focus on some narrative opportunities and constraints in the medium of comics, as compared to those of other narrative media such as printed texts and cinema. Graphic narratives, a term that in my usage encompasses the comic book, bande dessinée [comic strip], and Japanese manga, constitute a spatio-temporal medium that can combine two channels, a visual and a verbal one. Further, this medium is associated with well known narrative traditions and publication formats, such as American superhero comics, Japanese shojo manga, graphic novels and many others.1 As a hybrid medium, the graphic narrative shares many features with other media, but uses those features in unique ways; think of drawing styles, the mise en scène in panels, the way verbal and visual elements are combined (e.g., in speech or thought balloons), the breakdown (or "découpage") of story elements into distinct panels, and the interaction between individual panels and page layouts. It will not be feasible for me to analyze here all these aspects of comics as a medium for storytelling. Hence I will limit myself to just three aspects of graphic narration: drawing styles, the temporal dimensions of individual panels, and the interpretation of sequences of panels. [End Page 14]

Graphic Narrative Style

I will approach issues of graphic narration via the broader phenomenon of style, which involves in the case of the comics medium the graphic style, as well as the composition (mise en scène, framing) and sequencing of panels. Style is for the Russian Formalists (and for theorists like Bordwell [see Narration]) the reader's gateway to the fabula and the sjuzhet—that is, the chronological sequence of events recounted in a narrative, on the one hand, and the sequentially arranged discourse cues that allow the reader to construct a time-line for those events, on the other hand. These terms—style, sjuzhet, and fabula—provide an entry point for the study of the influence of a medium on narration, because they allow the analyst to differentiate between three levels or aspects of the interface between narrative and medium. Only the first level—style—can be directly perceived by the reader of graphic narratives; this level encompasses the lines and colors that form images and the letters that form words and sentences. In turn, the level of style provides access to the sjuzhet, or the actual composition or emplotment of events in the work. Via the sjuzhet the reader / spectator then constructs the fabula or story—the chronological sequence of events as they are supposed to have occurred in the time-space universe of the narrative being interpreted.

But though this theoretical framework is widely shared among narratologists, film scholar Torben Grodal ("The PECMA Flow" 6) questions its applicability to cinema, thereby shedding light on the medium-specific qualities of graphic narratives. For Grodal, watching a film does not foreground the process of reconstructing an independently existing fabula, because "The viewer primarily experiences the film as a simulation of real life events that come into evidence as the film progresses." Thus Grodal considers discourse elements not as ways of presenting a story or fabula, but as modifications to the canonical story form that create different emotional modes. To differentiate between story and plot is, for Grodal, only useful when...


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