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  • Focalization in Graphic Narrative
  • Silke Horstkotte (bio) and Nancy Pedri (bio)

Focalization, the filtering of a story through a consciousness prior to and/or embedded within its narratorial mediation, is a fundamental analytical concept in narrative theory.1 It allows researchers to differentiate between the narration of a story on the one hand and the mental processing of that story by a character—or by the narrator—on the other, thereby providing crucial insights into the representation of consciousness in fiction. Yet focalization remains one of the most problematic and contentious narratological concepts. As testified to by a recent handbook devoted to focalization (Hühn, Schmid, and Schönert), discussions continue to be very much geared toward principled dogmatic questions (such as whether narrators can be focalizers) and typological distinctions, to the detriment of proving the concept's usefulness for actual analyses. Some of the questions regarding focalization that have not yet been satisfactorily answered include:

  1. 1. The scope of the concept. Even though Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan proposed to include aspects of cognition and judgment as well as of sense perception in the category as early as 1983, there has since been a trend to revert to older concepts of "perspective" (Herman, Basic Elements, "Beyond Voice," and "Multimodal Storytelling")2 and "point of view" (Simpson), both of which are more narrowly concerned with visual perception.3 Other scholars, while referring to "focalization" rather than "perspective," have nevertheless spoken out against including "other types of thinking such as cognition and the emotions" in the category, advocating its use for phenomena of sense perception exclusively (Palmer 49; see also Herman and Vervaeck; Margolin; Prince).4 So far, then, no agreement has been reached as to whether cognition should be included in focalization; whether the concept ought, conversely, to be restricted to instances of (optical) perspectivation; or whether one might resolve these issues by [End Page 330] drawing a distinction between focalization (the restriction of narrative information) on the one hand and perspective, i.e. point of view, on the other (Niederhoff, "Focalization," "Perspective").

  2. 2. A second point of contention concerns the analytical differentiation—central to the structuralist concept of focalization—between "who sees" or "perceives" and "who speaks" (Genette, Narrative Discourse 186). This distinction has been insufficiently justified in structuralism, which often cites the use of Free Indirect Discourse as one of the markers of internal focalization, but overlooks or, at the very least, understates its ambiguous categorization as an aspect of voice rather than of vision or, perhaps, as including aspects of both.5 In this respect, neither the reversion to older concepts of "perspective" nor proposals to distinguish between different sensual aspects of focalization, such as ocularization and auricularization (Jost; Schlickers), are particularly helpful.6

  3. 3. Finally, despite Mieke Bal's forceful stance for the concept's usefulness within a visual narratology, relatively little research has been done in this area. Although some narratologists have begun developing theories of film focalization (Deleyto; Horstkotte; Kuhn; Schlickers; Verstraeten), the role of focalization in visual art, in mixed-media installations, and in graphic narratives and comic strips has, with few exceptions (Herman, "Beyond Voice and Vision"), remained unexplored.

The unique combination of word and image in graphic narrative provides fertile ground for an inquiry into these three questions, while simultaneously offering opportunity to demonstrate the concept's aptness as an analytical tool for multimodal narrative. This article examines some of the terms and conditions of focalization in graphic narratives so as to contribute towards a more rigorous visual narratology. Since "[t]he restless, polysemiotic character of the [comic] form allows for the continual rewriting of its grammar" (Hatfield xiv), graphic narratives provide rich examples for a sustained analysis of visual narrative processes, including those of focalization. Yet although there is growing critical interest in graphic narratives,7 very few theorists have engaged in narratological analysis.8 We intend to begin filling in this gap.

More so than illustrated and picture books, graphic narratives rely on an even blending of semiotic modes to convey meaning. The quasi-endless diversity of pictorial styles and techniques begs the question of how visual narrative marks off narration as opposed to focalization, and if this is, indeed, a...