Immersing the Reader in the Narrative with Comics
The authors’ deliberate addition and restraint of visuals allows the narrative to better convey the characters’ motivations and cognitive experience. While David Small adds scenes to his panels to better inform the reader of his characters’ motivations, Tillie Walden limits the visuals provided to the reader in order to illustrate where the character’s focus lies. In Stitches, David Small overlays a later page in the book to provide relevant information that informs the reader about the motivations of David’s mother, Betty, for her actions. The supplementary scenes in the background of the panels are a trace of page 206 when David finds the letter about his cancer (Pictured below on the left). The overlaid images foreshadow this discovery of everything that David’s parents kept from him, for which Betty’s guilt certainly influences the actions she takes, whether consciously or subconsciously. Although Betty may not be explicitly recollecting the illustrated letter, she certainly would not have left to get David Lolita, the book she once confiscated, if she wasn’t overcome with guilt for contributing to his cancer. Since the events in the tracing have yet to occur, the images are an example of dramatic irony. In the last panel that depicts the just-slammed door that Betty exits through, there is a faint shadow of a keyhole, which appears in the same exact position and scale on page 206. In addition to its location on the desk, the keyhole also represents the secret that David’s parents are keeping 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 have nuanced illustrations that add complexity and a deeper understanding to the narrative. Betty is motivated to fulfill what she believes is going to be David’s last request because of guilt, which perhaps she hopes to alleviate with her uncharacteristically kind gesture. In Spinning, the selective illustration narrows the scene to only show what dominates Tillie’s mind at that moment. By shading out the background, Walden exemplifies how she was only able to focus on the accident as she was being driven away. Narrowing the frame through shading and only illuminating Tillie’s view out the car window emphasizes how oblivious she is to the rest of her surroundings; she is only able to see the traumatic moment of the near-collision. The seemingly random, scattered pattern outside the car window is reminiscent of the smoke silhouette depicted in the moments after the accident on page 168 (Pictured below on the bottom right ). The homologous imagery suggests that when creating this panel, Walden intentionally replicated the image of the accident in order to clearly indicate the vision that Tillie is captivated by as the car drives away.
Small and Walden utilize the symphonic effect, patterns in panel layout, and framing of individual panels to allow the reader to experience the characters’ emotions more vividly than in a traditional alphabetic text. In Stitches, the panel layout places the two halves of David and Betty’s face next to each other to create one fragmented whole. The juxtaposition of their expressions highlights their incompatibility and the tension between them, while overwhelming the reader with the mutual enmity David and Betty feel as they stare each other down. By viewing the two panels as one, the reader notices the contrast more easily. In “Comics for Grownups,” Hillary Chute describes comics’ unique opportunity for the reader to view a page cohesively, known as the symphonic effect: “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.” Small utilizes a layout where Betty is pictured three times in a diagonal pattern across the page from the top right to bottom left, with her eyeline in the series’ last panel following suit. Through this series of panels, Small establishes a pattern that mirrors the assumed direction of the narrative, which Small then deviates from. The abrupt departure in the bottom-middle panel from the diagonal pattern to Betty’s sudden turn to the door on the right highlights how unexpected the action is. While the panel placement in Stitches underscores the contrast and tension between David and his mother, the continuation of the shadow silhouette across the top two panels in Spinning demonstrates how sudden the transition from the accident to riding in the car feels for Tillie. The visual fluidity across the two adjacent panels shows how close together the two moments seem, while being completely different scenes. This duality, where the panels feel both connected and disparate, reveals to the reader how abrupt the sequence of events feels to Tillie and helps her empathize with Tillie’s disjointed recollection of the events, which is a common psychological response to trauma. Conversely, the thrice-repeated, over-the-shoulder shot that spans down the right side of the page creates a fluid experience for the reader that draws attention to the scene and makes her feel as though she was sitting right next to Tillie.
Comics allow an author to control the visual information drawn by the cartoonist to better convey characters’ motivations and focus, while panel layout and framing captures characters’ strained and startled feelings. By formulating their memoirs as a graphic novel, rather than an alphabetic text, Small and Walden successfully immerse the reader in the emotions and experiences of the protagonists, granting her a more authentic experience of the trauma in the narrative.
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.