Comics Studies

Photo: Marco Merkli

My interest in word-and-image relations has recently led me to explore the unique combination of words and images in graphic narratives. In the co-authored article "Focalization and Visual Perspective in Graphic Narratives" (with Dr. Silke Horstkotte, University of Leipzig) (2011), we examine some of the terms and conditions of focalization in graphic narratives so to partake in the setting of a foundation upon which a rigorous visual narratology can begin to take shape. Proposing a conception of focalization as an aspectual filtering that incorporates cognitive as well as perceptual processes, we examine some focalization-marking resources found in Maus, Persepolis, and Watchmen to conclude that focalization, as we define it, is a pivotal concept for a visual or multimodal narratology. Focalization directs meaning and opens up the possibility for variance in meaning and mood. It is also a largely interpretative category that links a text and its reception. This article won the International Society for the Study of Narrative 2012 Prize for the best essay in Narrative.

In "When Photographs Aren't Quite Enough: Reflections on Photography and Cartooning in Le Photographe" (2011), I focus on the unique combination of photography and cartooning in Le Photographe. Arguing that multimodality in graphic narrative reaches beyond the oftentimes theoretically oversimplified combination of word and image, I explore the meaning-making properties of the particular combination of photography and cartooning as well as those of each type of image. Particular attention is given to determining how their coming together foregrounds the distinctive characteristics of each storytelling mode.

The co-mingling of cartooning and photography is particularly important for understanding how the factual and the subjective are negotiated in graphic memoir's truthful portrayal of self. In "Cartooning Ex-posing Photography in Graphic Memoir" (2012), I set out to determine how the coupling of these two types of images impacts graphic memoir's illusion of truth and authenticity. In it, a brief comparison of the formal difference between cartooning and photography leads to an exploration of the narrative function of photographic images in four graphic memoirs: Maus by Art Spiegelman, Cancer Vixen by Marisa Acocella Marchetto, Mom's Cancer by Brian Fries, and One! Hundred! Demons! by Lynda Barry. Particular attention is given to how photographs and cartoon images work together to secure the graphic memoir's claims to truth. 

"Graphic Memoir: Neither Fact Nor Fiction" (2013) also probes the question of truth in graphic memoir to ask how cartooning can tie the representation of self, with all the fictionalizing that it entails, with the memoir’s authorial subject position. My focus on the incongruence between the real and its cartoon representation points to the creative interplay between an individual, private self and its representation in the public realm of graphic memoir. This interplay, I argue, dismantles notions of self as anything other than always mediated and assumed, and not given. In graphic memoir, the factual joins the subjective to achieve the representation of the truthful. What ultimately comes to light is the central role of the subjective in graphic memoir’s commitment to the telling of truth.

In "Re-visualizing the Map in Guy Delisle's Pyongyang" (2014), I further explore how multimodal narrative strategies and conventions operative in comics impart to readers the cartoon image's special reality, special in that it attains accuracy by accentuating, and not hiding, its own fictional techniques. Analyzing the drawing of maps in Pyongyang, I ask how deliberate cartographic forms of manipulation—from concealment to abstraction, omission to highlighting—work toward securing the type of accuracy desired in maps, an accuracy that is operative even when maps are included in the comics universe. I show that Deslisle's drawn maps communicate not only the particualrs of the land, but also the character-narrator's perspective, his interpretation of North Korea, its people, and its political regime. I conclude that throughout Pyongyang, the mark of location extends beyond geographical objectivity to include human dimensions—social, cultural, political dimensions.

The problematic link between repetitive seeing and cognition guides my consideration of how and to what effect familiar images associated with the Holocaust are reworked in Art Spiegelman's Maus. "Rendering the Familiar Unfamiliar: Art Spiegelman's Maus" (2013) engages in a detailed reading of the representation of the swastika and the prisoner tattoo. Tracing the innovative repetition of these familiar images, I conclude that Maus secures the reader’s active participation in the narrative by appealing to his or her cultural encyclopaedia to confirm and then slowly expand upon common (and oftentimes careless) presumptions informing the images' understanding.

"What's the Matter of Seeing in Graphic Memoir?" (2015), adopts a narratological approach to examine the question of perspective and how it relates to character subjectivity. I set out to determine if it is theoretically attractive to distinguish between thinking and seeing, focalization and ocularization, given the many ways in which graphic memoir's visual track is used to communciate subjectivity. I conclude that questions of perception need to extend beyond the optical domain to include cognitive processes, beyond sight to include the subjective filtering of information, beyond seeing to include thinking. To understand perspective not as vision in the literal sense, but rather as vision in the figurative sense (interpretation and evaluation) accounts for the narrative function of perspective. Through a critically informed analysis of visual techniques used in Persepolis, Stitches, and Fun Home to represent character perspective, the article concludes that ocularization is a part of focalization, and not separate from it.

“Thinking about Photography in Comics” (2015) provides a short history of photography and cartooning, with an eye toward elucidating their comingling in comics. Drawing from the work of several theorists and practitioners, it traces a variety of methods in which photography has been used in comics. Emphasis is placed on comics’ flexibility as a narrative form; photography’s impact on narrative practices, especially visual narrative practices; and how the use of photography in comics extends well beyond fulfilling a documentary function.






Nancy Pedri

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