Engaging Two Audiences in a Trauma Narrative using Relatable Emotions
David Small and Tillie Walden utilize addition and restraint of visuals in their memoirs to better convey the characters’ motivations and cognitive experience. While Small overlays scenes to inform the reader about the motivators of David and his mother, Betty, Walden limits the visuals to illustrate how Tillie’s near-collision seizes her attention. In Stitches, Small overlays a tracing of a later page to clarify Betty’s motivations for her actions. The supplementary scenes in the background are a trace of page 206 when David finds the letter about his cancer (Pictured on the right). The overlaid images foreshadow David’s discovery that his parents hid his cancer from him, which reminds the reader how Betty’s guilty conscience drives her actions. Although Betty does not specifically reference the letter, she would not have left to get David Lolita, the book she once confiscated, if she wasn’t overcome with guilt. In the last panel of the just-slammed door that Betty leaves through, there is a tracing of the keyhole which is found in the same location on page 206. The keyhole represents the reality of his cancer that David’s parents kept from him. In “Comics for Grownups,” Hillary Chute describes comics as “a hybrid form that can be abstract and surreal, and also immediate and direct,” which captures comics’ unique ability to use nuanced illustrations to add complexity and a deeper understanding of the narrative. Betty is motivated by guilt to fulfill David’s potentially final request with an uncharacteristically compassionate gesture. In Spinning, the selective illustration narrows the scene to only show what dominated Tillie’s mind. By shading out the background, Walden exemplifies how she was only able to focus on the near-accident after it happened. Narrowing the frame to only illuminate Tillie’s view out the car window emphasizes how indifferent she was to her surroundings; she dissociated from reality and could only see the traumatic moment replaying in her head. The billowing, cloud-like, pattern outside the car window is reminiscent of the smoke silhouette depicted in the moments after the accident on page 168 (Pictured below). The homologous imagery suggests that when creating this panel, Walden replicated the imagery from the accident to explicate what Tillie is mentally consumed by. Comics’ choice of moment allows authors to more effectively convey their characters’ perspectives and emotional responses to trauma.
Small and Walden utilize the symphonic effect, panel layout, and framing to most effectively capture their characters’ emotional experiences so that the audience can relate to and empathize with the protagonists. In Stitches, the panel with half of David’s face is adjacent to one with half of Betty’s face to create one fragmented whole. The juxtaposition of their features underscores the tension between them as they stare each other down. In “Comics for Grownups,” Hillary Chute describes the symphonic effect–a unique characteristic of comics that describes how an entire page is initially viewed cohesively: “Comics does not propose linear reading in the same way prose does. Cognitively, one’s eye usually first takes in the whole page, even when one decides to start in the upper left corner and move left to right …In comics, reading can happen in all directions; this open-endedness, and attention to choice in how one interacts with the pages, is a part of the appeal of comics narrative.” This freedom to consume the narrative at an individual’s discretion the audience to control the pace of the memoirs. Small establishes a pattern in panel layout by picturing Betty three times in a diagonal line across the page from the top right to bottom left, with her line of sight in the third panel following suit (See arrows in image on the right) . The pattern, which mirrors the assumed direction of the narrative, intensifies the reader’s shock when Small deviates from it because they don’t expect Betty to be compassionate, just as they don’t expect her to retrieve Lolita. The abrupt departure in the bottom-middle panel from the diagonal pattern to Betty’s sudden turn to the door in the following panel highlights how unexpected the action is. While panel layout in Stitches underscores David and Betty’s strained relationship and forces the reader to experience David’s feeling of surprise, the visual fluidity across the top two panels in Spinning demonstrates how abrupt the sequence of events following the near-accident felt to Tillie. At the same time, the three over-the-shoulder shots that repeat down the right side of the page create a smooth progression of time that adds to the impression of a slow, unchanging scene. The continuation of the silhouette across the two adjacent panels shows how close together the moments seemed, despite being distinct in time and setting. This duality, where the panels are both connected and disparate, helps the reader empathize with Tillie since her disjointed recollection of the night’s events is a common response to any type of trauma. Thus, readers who have not had a similar near-death experience will still empathize with her. Despite capturing the fast pace of events, the medium allows the audience to slow down the narrative if it becomes too overwhelming, which returns agency to survivors that could be triggered by a lack of control. Both Spinning and Stitches use patterns in panel layout and framing to allow their readers to experience the strained and startled emotions that their protagonists feel in traumatic moments.
Both Small and Walden utilize comic’s hybrid form to achieve an authentic portrayal of trauma that both helps readers who identify with the protagonists process their own trauma and lends understanding to readers who couldn’t otherwise relate. The authors use choice of moment, framing, and the symphonic effect to help readers who have suffered similar trauma heal by presenting trauma as accurately as possible in a medium that grants the audience control over pacing. By granting the audience control over the speed at which they move through the narrative, survivors can empathize with the protagonist without being triggered, since they avoid reliving the terror of not having control during a traumatic experience. Attaining control over a feared experience allows readers to digest their trauma and view it as less overwhelming. The authors use the same techniques to emphasize relatability to enhance the reading experience. By invoking familiar feelings of fear, tension, and anxiety, any reader will empathize with the protagonist, even if they aren’t a trauma victim. Through engaging with the audience on an emotional level, the books impart an understanding of the elusive feelings that result from trauma. Fostering empathy engages the reader in the narrative and imparts insight into the challenges victims of trauma face. Ultimately, comics are successful at capturing the complex experience of trauma when they use their dual form to make the protagonists’ emotions accessible to all readers.
Chute, Hillary. Why Comics?: From Underground to Everywhere. PDF ed., New York, Harper, 2017.
Small, David. Stitches: A Memoir. New York, W.W. Norton, 2010.
Walden, Tillie. Spinning. New York, First Second, 2017.