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If the Medium Fits

aseidman's picture


Preface and Explanation


The following paper originally included photographs of pages from Marjane Sartrapi’s graphic novel “Persepolis.” I used these images to demonstrate my points to the reader. Upon glancing over the images, however, it occurred to me that I might make an even more effective point by attempting to describe the images in prose, rather than to demonstrate them in their original form.

The point of this project is to establish how much more effective, in some circumstances, images can be than prose. In his “Understanding Comics,” Scott McCloud effectively demonstrates through use of his own images, how it is that images can be most effectively used to create plot, character, and fictional nuance. I intend to demonstrate the same things, in the opposite way. Rather than demonstrate those things in pictures, I shall write my explanation of the effectiveness of images entirely in prose, so as to allow the reader of this paper to consider the dichotomy. In this class, we have all seen how effective the images are. This is an opportunity to consider the effectiveness, or lack thereof, of prose depictions of those same images.


If the Medium Fits

By Arielle Seidman


Let’s start by establishing how much I generally dislike comic books. I’ve been known to refer to them as “picture books,” and to deplore people of my own age who read them. For the longest time, I was convinced that the use of pictures in books was to teach children how to read, and that mature adults should be prepared to read prose. In my opinion, prose imagery and the creation of stories through prose was a great deal more difficult, and required more nuance and skill both to create and to understand.

I stand before you (figuratively) prepared to admit that this opinion of mine was incorrect.

More than once over the past two years, I have read Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics,” a comic book in which McCloud uses images to convince the reader of the way in which images can best be used to create nuance. I have never gotten anything particularly pithy out of that book, and in every circumstance have found a way in prose could, as I put it, “do it better.” Then, I read “Persepolis.”

Marjane Sartrapi’s “Persepolis” is very simply drawn. The images are black and white, and the characters are not intricately done. Still, there is something incredibly powerful about those images, and I will attempt to convey that power to you through this project. For that purpose, I will use two examples of images from Sartrapi’s text, and analyze them through the lens of McCloud’s theories.

McCloud makes the claim that it takes only a few simple lines to make an image recognizable as a human face. This J (for example) is a human face. Ye tthis face does not have any features that would allow us to recognize it as belonging to any particular character. McCloud asserts that we, the readers, will in this case tend to project our own personality onto this face, so that comic book characters (or indeed, characters of any kind) who are not carefully detailed and defined are more susceptible to our reinterpretation as similar to ourselves. In this way, we can find comic book characters visually relatable.

In “Persepolis,” Sartrapi draws her characters with very simple faces. The faces include eyes, a nose, and a mouth, all of which are capable of changing to exhibit expression. These faces are, however, very generic, and it is easy to see that each of the characters in “Persepolis” has essentially the same face, capable of making the same expressions and facial gestures. This is most easily seen on page 86 of “Persepolis.”

On this page, Marji is at school, and she and her classmates are reading their essays on the topic of “the war.” After she reads her essay, she sits down, her classmate Pardisse stands up to read hers. Every single one of the girls in the classroom is dressed alike, draped in black, so that their bodies are entirely hidden from the viewer. As the faces are all drawn in the same, simple style, every student appears to be expressing the exact same emotion while listening to Pardisse read her essay. On the face of each student is a tearful expression, and each student cries with the same screwed-up look. This makes it appear to the reader that the students are really all in complete harmony with each other, genuinely feeling the same thing on all sides. As many of these students have lost friends and family members in the same way that Pardisse has, this unanimous feeling of sadness seems very reasonable.

The reader, due to the generic nature of the faces, feels equally drawn in to the sadness of the scene. The main character ,with whom the reader should naturally most closely identify, is crying, and her emotions mirror those of the rest of the class. Within this scene, the reader cannot help but be aware of the pathos and the necessity of feeling for one’s’ friends.

McCloud also has a great deal to say about the way that images can be used to represent the passing of time. He demonstrates how, although several things may be taking place in a single panel of a comic, they may be arranged in such a way that each image’s position in the panel can represent a different moment in time.

On page 15 of “Persepolis,” a fire has just taken place at Rex Cinema, killing many people. In the panel, the reader sees the image of several people, or perhaps of bodies, or ghosts who were once people, drifting up with anguished faces towards the exit sign, or the top of the panel border. Although all of these people are in the same panel, our eyes cannot necessarily take them all in at once, and so we see the ones who are closer to the bottom of the page sooner, and the ones who are closer to the exit sign later. It appears, therefore, that the exit sign is farther away, and that those who are closer to the exit sign are both closer to safety, and closer to death, since being near the exit sign does not appear to have prevented them from the corpselike state in which we find them.

The effects of the images related above are much more difficult to create in prose. Certainly, it is possible, but you can see from these explanations how many more words and how many more excuses by way of description it takes in order to properly establish what is so much more quickly and easily established in Sartrapi’s images. Please don’t expect that I will walk away from this experience with a great love of the genre of the graphic novel…but at least a point has been effectively proven.


Works Cited

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics. Harper Perennial, New York. 1994.

Sartrapi, Marjane. Persepolis. Pantheon, Paris. 2003.


Anne Dalke's picture

On exploring difference

I think what interests me most here is the fact that you've set this up as a binary, an either/or: words are more effective than pictures, or pictures or more effective than words. "I used to think the former, now I'm entertaining the possibility of the latter." Such a dualism has, of course, a very long history, most effectively summarized by the claim of filmmaker-and-novelist Marguerite Duras, that "a word contains 1,000 images": because it is so "chaste," because its relative "spareness" makes it particularly inviting of engaged interpretation .....

What if instead of constructing a hierarchy--better than/worse than--we turned this project a little more in the direction of exploring difference? HOW do images function differently than words? HOW do words operate differently on us than images? There's @ least the beginning of that conversation @ "Something Quite Different From Dialogue ..." Might you like to go on in that direction? Or...?