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Taking a Different Road: How Does Form Change Content?

KT's picture

In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud makes a point to distinguish form from content.  Comics have been traditionally thought of as superhero picture books for an immature audience.  More recently, however, comics have grown up.  Much as a child might transition from being called Jimmy to James as an adult, now the comic is the graphic novel and its form is being utilized address more serious themes.  But what is the effect?  How does this format alter the content or the way in which we interpret the material?

A new space:
One of the outcomes derives from the stereotype of comics themselves.  To take a very serious issue of a country and its people in turmoil, as Satrapi does in Persepolis, and place it in a historically child-like format alters the space in which our perceptions and interpretations of the novel are formed.  It invites the reader into the more basic level of reasoning that we used as children, an exploration of content from a different but formerly familiar place.  In the same way that you might reminisce about your younger days when visiting your old elementary school, maybe we are being asked to reminisce about the way we used to think about the world when we’re placed in this youthful space versus the space in a very adult-like piece of literature.  

A new “space” = a new thought?
Satrapi indicates that she’s using the novel to break-down the stereotype of Iranians as terrorists in this memoir and to show readers the common side of Persians.  One avenue to break-down stereotypes, is to break-down our usual routine and pattern of thought. In The Breaking Project, Alice Lesnick introduces her sourcebook with the following thought:

I’ve called this sourcebook Breaking because it focuses on the necessity and creativity of the work people do to break bonds, patterns, and histories; break into new thoughts and forms; and in so doing change themselves, what they write and know, and the world. [2]

Satrapi’s format choice creates a “break” for the reader and thus welcomes us into a new space to take in the lives and politics of Persians.

How does this change the perspective and understanding?
One of the hallmarks of child-like thinking is that everything is new to you.  You don’t have preconceived notions because you lack the experience of an original notion that needs to be reconceived.  We often find ourselves getting into patterns that work for us and we don’t stop to check if these connections are still applicable and accurate, especially if they are not part of our everyday world.  Cathy Davidson, Professor of English and Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke University is the author of a Blog called “Now You See It:  How the Brian Science of Attention will Transform the Way We Live, Work and Learn.”  [Link].  In her commentary on babies and learning, she outlined the following point:

Think about any sport or skill you have learned as an adult.  I learned how to “Moonwalk” a few years ago.  Remember how hard it was to unlearn bad habits and learn the most basic, simple patterns of shifting weight or movement?  And then, suddenly, it became simple, automatic, you didn’t have to think about “heel up, opposite foot back, heel up, opposite foot . . .” you just do it without thinking about it.  Once you no longer think about it, well, you can make like Usher, air walk, glide, you name it.   All of infant learning is like that, iterative, accretive, with learning becoming patterns, patterns becoming habits, habits feeling automatic and reflexive, and everything else building upon that. [1]

I think that the graphic narrative inspires us to break out of things we know “automatically” by juxtaposing the youthful conception of comics with a serious topic.   

Does this alternate space alter the reception to the material?
When I went to, a search engine designed to use the “DNA” of a book to direct readers to books that are similar to ones they like (or at least similar to what they type into the prompt), and I entered Persepolis, the results were geared towards the “Historic Combat” genre and they were not comics.  This was a far cry from how I perceived Persepolis.  But would this be the case if Persepolis wasn’t a graphic narrative?  Would the results have been more accurate if they incorporated the form as well as the content?  When I go to Amazon and look at Persepolis, I get recommendations not from a “DNA” analysis but from what others who liked the book looked at and bought.  These results were graphic narratives.   The format made that difference.  In fact, librarians consciously organize their collection of graphic novels together, separated from the rest of the books in their collection [Link].  This trend points to the difference in how we perceive the material based on its format.  A graphic novel with the same content as a traditional novel is not approached in the same way.

In reading about serious issues in a graphic narrative, a new and different form dictates a new space from which the content can be perceived and constructed in our heads.  The space reminds us of a previous way of thinking, when we were children and experienced the world anew.  I found this new form to be instructive in guiding me to reconceive my old patterns of thinking (a “break” from my usual routine), and in doing so, I think it changes the content by changing the lens by which we perceive the material.  There is a perceptual change that occurs when we take a different route.  It makes me wonder though, why do we not get to the same place?  And how many new places can we find if we keep taking different roads?

Bibliography and Works Cited

[1] Davidson, Cathy Now You See It:  How the Brian Science of Attention will Transform the Way We Live, Work and Learn.

[2] Lesnick, Alice The Breaking Project /exchange/breaking/introduction



Anne Dalke's picture


in my response to your last web event, I asked whether you were trying to figure, in form, what you were arguing, in content: you offered a fragmented narrative that (I imagined) might have been a way of showing what you were telling: "a way of figuring a collective in which difference is unassimilated, unaccomodated, uncompromised? A way of not valorizing individual voice?"

You use the same sort of form this time around, with each fragment working as a short, almost stand-alone comment. At first, I was puzzled by your decision to re-use this format, and I was also sometimes frustrated, because it seems often to stop short your thinking (and so my own). When you end by observing, for instance, that "There is a perceptual change that occurs when we take a different route.  It makes me wonder though, why do we not get to the same place?  And how many new places can we find if we keep taking different roads?"--THAT's where I want the conversation to begin!

On reflection, I'm realizing that this form also activates the "gutters" inbetween your fragments. I note this following your own illumination, one that, btw, gave rise to another whole webevent by one of your no-longer "genre-ist" classmates! --in which she argues that "Gutters are those places where the narrative jumps, and the reader jumps with it, filling in the blank spaces to gain a picture of what was not said." So maybe that's some of what's (consciously or unconsciously....?) going on here?

Among these fragments, I think the most interesting piece, for me, is the one comparing the search engine run by w/ that run by Amazon: the first using a "DNA" focused only on content, the other foregrounding form. But doesn't your reflection on the different outcomes --that "format made the difference"--run counter to McCloud's advice (with which you begin your project here) "to distinguish form from content"?