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.
by Glen Downey, Comics in Education, www.comicsineducation.com
Filmic language can be useful in terms of understanding and expressing the relative distance between the reader/viewer and a given subject in a graphic story (see Filmic Language, Part 1). However, it can also help us understand our angle of view with regards to the subject, which in itself can have an impact on how we perceive what we are seeing.
A bird's-eye view in a comic allows us to view the contents of a panel from overhead, helping us to do one of a number of different things, including seeing the context of a scene with greater clarity or giving us a clear sense of a character's predicament. When a graphic storyteller shows us a character from a bird's-eye view, they can seem smaller, weaker, or more insignificant than when shown from a different angle. They can look physically smaller and less imposing, and therefore more vulnerable.
In this type of shot in a graphic story, the camera looks up at the subject from below. This can make the subject itself seem much larger, more imposing, or even more physically intimidating, especially as the bug's-eye shot moves closer to the actual subject and the angle gets closer to 90 degrees.
In this shot, a character is typically shown in the immediate foreground of the panel with another character further away. The action of the panel is sometimes literally framed bythe head and shoulders of the character in the foreground, thus giving the shot its name. It is a commonly used shot in the exchange of dialogue since it gives the reader an opportunity to perceive the character (or object, scene, etc.) in the distance from the general point of view of the character in the foreground.
For the POV shot, the viewer takes a small step forward from the over-the-shoulder shot to become, in effect, the character in the foreground. Comics and films from the horror genre use this shot frequently since it can develop great anxiety and anticipation in the reader/viewer. It can allow him or her to walk in the shoes of a killer or potential victim, seeing only what this character sees. Its use, however, is not limited to the horror genre, and a POV shot has wide applications in visual narrative.
Shot / Reverse Shot
This is a common technique in graphic storytelling that has been inherited from classic Hollywood films that sought to de-emphasize transitions from one scene to the next . Often, a shot / reverse shot in a panel sequence involves a medium over-the-shouldershot of two characters in conversation followed by a panel in which the characters' positions are reversed. This allows for a fairly seamless conversation.
Film, literature, Graphica, and How They Can Teach Us that Sometimes, the Less Said, the Better
I was reminded this past week that comics, indeed any sort of wordless visual narrative, can teach us how important it is when something is not being said. Now don't get me wrong. I love a good long story. The nearly one thousand pages of Dickens' Bleak House was enthralling for me as a graduate student. The twelve hours or so of the Lord of the Rings trilogy's extended edition was great fun. And I've watched a great number of musicals and plays with a pretty substantial running time and found myself amused, engaged, bewitched, and otherwise entertained from start to finish.
But I'm also reminded of one of my favourite examples of flash fiction--attributed to Ernest Hemmingway though the connection is tenuous at best--that consists of but six words:
Now I don't know if this story has the same impact on you as it had on me the first time I read it, but there is an economy about it that is startling, and so much of the story has been left unsaid that this economy has a profound effect on the reader.
A couple of years ago I had a similar experience when a colleague showed me the short film below. It had won the Phillips Cinema "Tell It Your Way" Competition's Grand Prize. The rules of the competition dictated that the films being submitted could consist of no more than six lines of dialogue, and this submission, The Gift, took home the prize.
If you've never seen this short film before and have now composed yourself after breaking down in tears at the end, we probably have quite a bit in common. This film only needs six lines of dialogue because the visual component of the narrative is so powerful. It is such a clever, well executed, and--as a result--profound piece of film-making.
So what actually got me thinking about narrative economy? Well, not surprisingly, it was a wordless comic book panel drawn by none other than writer and artist, Francesco Francavilla. He was sending it around yesterday and it brought back to mind how powerful an image can be--how much it can actually say--in the absence of words telling me how to interpret it. Here's what he tweeted.
I don't know about you, but this image just sort of sends chills through me. That's usually my reaction to things Francesco draws, but this one is especially so. It reminded me when I saw it of what an economy of words can do, and it should remind educators that those who would suggest that comics and graphic novels are a way of "dumbing down" the reading experiences we give to our students should, if anything, be pitied.
After all, think about what they're missing....
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.