by Glen Downey, Comics in Education, www.comicsineducation.com
Filmic language allows us to talk about key elements of the visual in graphic storytelling. However, it is useful to draw upon critical, theoretical approaches like "The Gaze" that allow us to talk with greater sophistication and insight about what is happening in a visual narrative. Gaze theory is a theory about how men and women look at one another and what the implications of this looking are in visual culture. The theory examines subject/object relations and sexual politics, but of special interest to us are its insights into how visual media is composed.
In the Gaze, "attention" refers to how characters budget attention within a narrative frame. When the characters in the frame are focused on one another they are said to show reciprocal attention. However, when one character is focused on another (a man on a woman, for instance) but the second character is not returning the gaze, theattention is said to be semi-reciprocal. Divergent attention is shown when the characters in a visual narrative are focused on different things (and not one another) while object-oriented attention has both characters (or more than one character) focused on the same object. It is a relatively simple matter to see the implications of these different forms of attention. Reciprocal attention can suggest that the characters are listening to or focused on one another while semi-reciprocal attention often connotes a lack of interestof one of the parties in the other. Divergent attention is often used by graphic storytellers in representing characters who are not connecting, while object-oriented attention can show the power of a particular person, place, or object that is attracting each of the characters' focus.
When referring to visual narrative, diagesis refers to the world represented in the panel that the characters inhabit. In comics as in film, characters generally have a gaze that is intra-diagetic, meaning that the gaze is focused on something or someone inside the world of the panel. When the gaze is extra-diagetic, however, the character's gaze is directed outside the panel, either at the viewer or at something or someone else thecharacter perceives. Sometimes this extra-diagetic gaze is sustained, as in something like Scott McCloud's primer on the world of visual narrative, Understanding Comics. When the extra-diagetic gaze is directed squarely at the viewer it is sometimes referred to as a "direct address." When a character moves from an intra-diagetic gaze to an extra-diagetic one, he or she may well be intended to break the fourth wall, a metanarrative technique in which the comic draws attention to itself as a comic and not as a story that is "really happening."
The voyeuristic gaze is one of the two principal ways in which the heterosexual male gaze operates when dealing with representations of the female body. This is an approach to looking in which the male viewer remains concealed, secretly observing the female at a distance. It can be useful to explore the extent to which voyeurism in a visual narrative is depicted, challenged, or undermined whether for characters in the narrative itself or for the reader/spectator. Voyeuristic looking can serve to reinforce and indeed magnify power imbalances between the sexes depending on how it is depicted in a graphic story or comic. Gaze theory suggests that when the heterosexual male spectatorial position is not using a voyeuristic mode of looking it is probably using a fetishistic one. The latter is a way of looking that breaks down the female into constituent "parts" and derives visual pleasure (scopophilia) from the process. When a female is observed in such a way or reveal slowly or by degrees in a graphic story or film, she is often being fetishized by the "eye of the camera." This gaze undermines the person being looked at since it suggests that the person's "parts" are more important than the whole.
In his "Notes on the Gaze," Daniel Chandler cites Michael Watson's work in identifying cultural variability in the intensity of the gaze. Watson argues that there are three forms of intensity: sharp, clear, and peripheral. This has implications for visual narrative, with the sharp gaze focusing on an individual's eyes, a clear gaze focusing on the area of the person's head and face, and the peripheral gaze only have its object within its general field of vision. This examination of intensity can be applied both the characters in the panel of a comic or graphic story or to the reader / spectator.
If you've found this site useful and would like to donate to Comics in Education, we'd really appreciate the support!
Dr. Glen Downey is an award-winning children's author, educator, and academic from Oakville, Ontario. He works as a children's writer for Rubicon Publishing, a reviewer for PW Comics World, an editor for the Sequart Organization, and serves as the Chair of English and Drama at The York School in Toronto.