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Graphic Reading

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One day in class, Anne posed a point-blank query to me: “Why do you prefer words over images?” I had never explicitly pondered this question before, and it certainly got me thinking.  I came up with the following answers to her question that night, and posted them in our class’ online forum: “I thoroughly enjoy the work that it takes to understand language. The thrill I get out of word analysis and even further, close reading, is unlike what I feel when I look at a picture, with all the details laid out for me.  Little work is involved here: also, the room for interpretation is relatively small.  Where's the thrill in that?  I feel like drawings are like answers that are given to you; hardly any effort or interpretation required!  Pictures result in immediate comprehension, while words lead you on a journey to understanding.  I love this journey!”  This statement sums up my  former feelings on the subject.  Thanks to the work that I have done reading and analyzing graphic novels in this class, though, I have changed my tune and developed a new appreciation for pictures that accompany text.  In fact, I find the act of “close reading” images is just as fun as picking apart words.  This paper is a step-by-step account of the beginning of my newly discovered journey through images.

My voyage wasn’t always a happy one, mind you.  In class, we started out our graphic novel unit by reading volume five of the Sandman stories called A Game of You by Neil Gaiman.  The reading experience was hopelessly dull for me: it was exactly what I had been scared that this genre would be (I had never read a graphic novel before).  An action comic with gory and overly dramatic pictures was not and still is not my idea of an engaging and worthwhile reading experience.  After we finished this novel, aw went on to our second work in this unit, and the dark clouds cleared as I beheld a shining ray of light.  My salvation, my savior: it was Persepolis. 

The storyline was fascinating: my primary love at the time, text, pulled me into Persepolis.  This text describes the young life of the author, Marjane Sartrapi, and her experiences in her homeland of Tehran.  Also, the novel featured pared-down images that were a contrast to the in-your-face, distracting graphics of A Game of You.  I could still focus on the words; but wait, what about these pictures?  I entered the throes of this graphic novel by way of its textual component, and by the time I got into the thick of the story, I was ready to investigate the image side of it. 

In class one day, we analyzed various panels in the novel; it was through this exercise that I started to learn how to read pictures.  Before, I had skipped over the pictures, or else quickly glanced at them.  The words were the interesting part for me, and the graphics were an extra and unnecessary feature.  That day in class, though, showed me that the way to fully appreciate the image component was to carefully peruse the graphic, searching out details and pen strokes to find the other half of the story.  Depth and meaning is provided by the graphics that cannot be portrayed by the words alone!  Enough of my raving about the wonder of pictures, though.  Let’s see if my new-found picture-reading skills hold true outside of the classroom.

 I’ll first close-read the pictures in Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return.  Noting how exciting it was for me to picture-read with Persepolis before, I anticipate a successful image-session.  I’ll start with a panel at the beginning of the “Skiing” chapter on page 113 of the Pantheon Books version.  It shows a wide-eyed Marjane staring ahead as she is surrounded by a number of people (I can make out eight) all telling her what she should do now that she has returned home after living in Vienna.  The text reveals that these people are Marjane’s family and close friends and that they are giving Satrapi advice.  It also reveals that Majane perceives a slight condescending sentiment behind this advice with Satrapi placing herself as the receiver of this advice in the sentence structure, as she states that “[they] decided that it was time I benefitted from their good advice.”  The sarcastic tone of this statement is reflected in Marjane’s incredulous gaze, and so the image illustrates the text well as it reveals to the reader more details that are unsubstantiated in the text.  Also, the overwhelmed feeling that Marjane feels, unstated in the text, is made clear through the closing-in effect of the image.  While in this panel the graphics display effects that they, and not the text, can achieve, the words also show an example of an aspect of a story that pictures cannot as aptly illustrate.  At the bottom of the panel, a caption reveals what Marjane is thinking in response to all the advice she is given.  It reads, “But I didn’t want to exercise, or get married, or study…”  How would a picture depict these inner thoughts of Marjane’s?  Not so well as these words, I suspect.  In this instance, words are the most effective way to portray this inner aspect of Marjane.

At times, the graphics directly illustrate the text.  At the top of page 114, a series of four panels ends with a caption that reads, “My secrets weighed me down.”  The series of panels show an anxious Marjane going through four stages of personal defeat: first, her wide-eyed stare, then her hands supporting her head, then her hands hiding her face, and finally her head face down in her arms.  The pictures here illustrate so vividly the idea of Marjane being gradually weighed down, a task that I doubt words could do the same job of illustrating.  Another example of this is a panel on page 116.  After hearing about Marjane’s sexual escapades, a classmate of Satrapi’s in Tehran asks her angrily, “So what’s the difference between you and a whore?”  The sentiment of these barbed words are concretely illustrated by the jagged, barbed lines encircling the comment, as is Marjane’s embarrassment by the shading covering her cheeks.  On the bottom of page 136, the tangle of Satrapi’s and Riza’s arms  demonstrates the sense of “suffocating” and closing in on each other, as these are Satrapi’s words describing the situation.  It is a sense that is much more aptly exemplified by images than words: it brings the viewer visually into the characters’ experience, surrounding her with a similar setting and thereby creating a similar sense of suffocation.  In Persepolis, images work to augment shallow or non-existent textual references to character emotions.

Sometimes words paired with pictures do the best job of portraying the situation.  At the bottom of page 137, a cloud of words floats above the head of Satrapi’s grandmother.  Marjane’s grandmother is reminding Satrapi of her ancestors and the humantitarian way they acted with others, as she stresses the integrity that Marjane should always act with.  This word/image pairing does a worthy job of portraying her giving a lengthy and angry lecture to Marjane: I don’t even have to read the words to know that Grandma is giving a piece of her mind.  This panel uses words and image together to form the best representation of this event.

On page 145, the model for art class adhering to traditional regulations is shown as a mass of black robes with only her face peeking through.  This Muslim women can be interpreted as a pillar of traditional Islam that is now taking over Tehran.  The art students are seated in a circle around her at their sketchbooks, looking with dumbfounded expressions at what they are supposed to draw.  These expressions illustrate the dismayed feelings of these Tehranian art students.  Below this panel are a series of four panels in which every angle of the model is shown, so as to illustrate the complete concealment of every inch of the model’s body.  The image exemplifies Satrapi’s own disagreement with the traditional Islamic government in Tehran at the time, as it also shows the challenges that the government set on Tehranian people, including Satrapi.

On page 150, the graphics do the talking.  The series of panels in the middle row of the page start out with a picture of five people, including Marjane.  This image is echoed by the text, which states, “At first there were only five of us.”  In the next panel, nine people are pictured as the words drop off: they say only, “Then….” Lastly, the two captions for the end panel in this row reads, “And finally….  We were much more numerous than I would have believed,” as it labels an image of more than 20 people.  Here, pictures convey the sense community that Marjane starts to feel among the non-traditionalist Muslim students in her school. The words leave off as the pictures show the gradual increase of bodies.

In another panel on page 150 shows a descriptive illustration for “the official representation of my country and the real life of the people, the one that went on behind the walls.”  Pictured in the center is a stark black and white photo of six bearded Muslim men; this is the “representation.”  Surrounding the square photo is a black background with white outlines of officially forbidden things, such as dancing, wine, and makeup.  This is taken to illustrate “the real life of the people, the one that went on behind walls.”  The picture here therefore tells the more complete story: the words prepare the reader, and the pictures go on to show the complete story.  On this page of the novel were examples of images doing the real legwork of telling the story: they show the details of what the words have set the stage for.

So I have now picture-read my way through Persepolis 2 using the techniques I learned in class, and discovered that I actually like this graphic stuff.  Without Anne there to guide me, however, and without Marjane’s fascinating life to follow, I wonder: will these skills be transferable to another graphic novel?  There’s only one way to find out.

The next image-reading adventure I will take will be into the eerie depths of Fun Home, written by Alison Bechdel.  I originally was attracted to this novel for the same reasons as I was grabbed by Persepolis: an online recommendation for the novel identified it along the lines of “a story for anyone who loves words.”  Going off this, I bought the novel and began to read. A personal history like Persepolis, this “Family Tragicomedy” mostly takes place in the abode of the title, which is actually the town funeral home.  The graphics look like a black-and-white comic’s would, made up of rounded edges and shading to convey different colors.  Let’s give this one a try, I thought, as I dove into the novel.

My image-reading begins with a panel on page 13.  It shows three children sitting around and looking up into the thicket of the decorated Christmas tree.  A shadow of a spectacled man with a wine glass is standing by, gazing at the children.  From the text of the panel, we learn that the children are the little Bechdels, and the man is their father.  This graphic closely mirrors the text of the panel when the words describe the children and the Christmas tree as the father’s “exhibit”: “a sort of still life with children.”  This wording is mirrored by Bechdel’s drawing as she renders her father as a man studying a piece of artwork in a museum.  What’s more, this scene of the children looking at the tree resembles a scene captured in a painting.  The shadow outline of Bechdel’s father adds to the sinister feeling that the reader gets of the father throughout the story.  This man’s outline is only defined: the rest of his inner details are obscured, and therefore mysterious.

On page 14, a panel at the bottom of the page presents an example of text and image working together to present the best rendering of the scene.  The caption reads, “I grew to resent the way my father treated his furniture like children, and his children like furniture.”  The graphic reflects this perfectly, with his daughter (the author of the novel) doing mechanical work for him, much like furniture would, to position a mirror correctly.  Also, much like, furniture, the child is given no choice in the matter of where things are placed and must take all direction from the owner: this idea is illustrated by the father’s orders to “Hold it” and not move.  Also, going with this theme of no choice, Alison is pictured saying “I hate this room,” the room in question being  her room.  Any truly caring father would let a child decorate her own room the way she wanted.   In this panel, Alison Bechdel’s father’s love for his furniture is juxtaposed with the careless treatment of his child.

At the top of page 20, human feelings are objectified as illustrated in the panel’s graphic.  The caption speaks of the father’s shame inhabiting their house, and then goes on to compare it to an aroma, which cannot be effectively drawn and so is not pictured in the graphic below.  What is pictured, however, is a large leafy plant blocking the way to a curtained opening of darkness.  This arresting image reminds the viewer that there is a deep and dark secret living in the house.  The plant, put there  presumably by the Bechdel father, is guarding the way in to dark recesses.  The image can be interpreted as showing that decoration and aesthetics are shielding the view of something hidden away in the depths.

On page 34, a graphic echoes an image in this reader’s mind.  The picture shows Alison opening to a page in a book of Addams family cartoons.  The image of the Addams family is shadowy, mysterious and eerie, and shows a large old and rickety house much as I imagine the Bechdel’s “fun” home.  It also shows a man, a woman, and children, much like the Bechdel family.  Sometimes, graphics work to jog the viewer’s own imagination. The Addam’s family exists in the collective American popular unconscious, and therefore elements of their experience seen in different contexts always subtly hearken back to this popular, though creepy, television family.

In this novel, pictures better evoke some moods than words do.  On page 42, the three Bechdel children are pictured lying in bed with gaping eyes beside their grandmother in the dark as she tells them a childhood story from their father’s childhood.  The childrens' mood of shock and awe at hearing this tale is conveyed perfectly by this drawing; it does a much better job than a simple textual description.  Imagine: “The children laid there with wide eyes as they listened to Grandma’s tale.”  Is that better than this?

At times, the words only touch on a subject that is further elaborated by the graphic.  An example is on page 52, a panel in which the three Bechdel children are standing over their dead father who lies in a coffin.  The caption describes Alison and her brothers as standing there looking at him “for as long as we sensed it was appropriate.”  A sense of the children fulfilling a duty is given here, but only a shade of this feeling is revealed in the words.  That sense of reluctant fulfillment of duty is solidified, however, through the sideways glances and screwed-up mouthed expressions of the children as drawn in the image.  The picture makes clear what is only suggested in the text.

Echoes of a conventional novel are felt when the most part of an image is words.  On page 57, a dictionary page is pictured as certain definitions are highlighted to depict the subject of the captions: the definition of “queer.”  It’s a different technique than words in the text of novels play; here, words of a dictionary page are used as an illustration for the caption text, to depict how the investigation of this term took place.

This book’s texts and graphics play off of each other to form alternative renderings of literary devices. At the top of page 71, a panel’s image shows the Bechdel mother’s passport, complete with a picture and an official seal.  There is a smaller caption describing this object, but it’s only secondary text for this panel: the larger group of wording heading the graphic describes Alison’s young future mother’s trip to Europe for which she needed the passport.  In this way the words and image work together to display a crafty kind of synecdoche.

Another instance of an image and text mismatch in a panel is at the bottom of page 73, where the wording speaks of the author’s later life, in which she “would never get married…[and] carry on to live the artist’s life they each had abdicated.”  Despite this fast forward in time, however, the image returns the viewer back to Alison’s childhood, where she is (again) doing work for her father as she carries his suitcase, and he yells at her to “move.”  This pairing indicates that Bechdel feels that her later life was heavily influenced by her young days. 

Once in awhile, an image will underline the importance of a viewer’s attention to the illustrated details.  He top of page 76 is such a panel: Bechdel is in the middle of describing her homosexual investigations.  The top text box is cursory and does not elaborate in the slightest: “My researches were stimulating yet solitary.”  ‘Stimulating how?  All by herself?’ the reader wonders.  The viewer then shifts her eyes from those unhelpful words to the image, which at first can be seen as just as useless as the writing.  Then, one notices details and starts asking questions: ‘Why are her eyes closed?  What is she doing with her arm?  Why is it by her side…ohh….’  Bechdel’s arm leads the reader’s eyes to the second caption, which speaks of this character’s realization that she had to “enter the human fray.”

A literary device I found exhibited by this novel is simile, with the image and text once again working together to form the method.  At this point in the novel, Bechdel is writing and drawing of her father’s death (which she presumes was a suicide), and the causes behind it.  She speculates that her coming out had something to do with it.  Then, she wonders if he timed it to make his amount of life lived equal to that of his idol, Scott Fitzgerald. Bechdel then states that this idea “would only confirm that his death was not my fault.  In fact, it had nothing to do with me at all.”  And on the bottom of page 86, she speaks of her reluctance to accept the latter idea and thereby let go of their “last, tenuous bond.”  The picture below this text shows a simile to reflect these words: Alison and her father are pictured in separate windows, both in the same room but at the same time so disconnected and disparate.  The graphic here symbolically mirrors the text.

Another picture/text simile is displayed on page 94, when Bechdel is writing of Marcel Proust.  She mentions the French novelists and her father’s similarities earlier in the story, but the effect of words that tell a story of Proust’s life headlining an image of a scene from her father’s life solidifies the likeness between the two men.  Also, the fact of switching so deftly between the two mens’ experiences in the text causes the reader to lose track of who the captions are talking about as she shifts her eyes to the images, which stay constant in their depiction of scenes from Bechdel’s father’s life.  In this way, the words and graphics work together to produce a cognitive trick of a simile.

At the top of page 95, Bechdel describes her father as cultivating the young men that worked for him “like orchids.”  The image shows Bechdel’s father on his feet, working to tend to, or “cultivate,” a young man, who lounges with his feet up.  Bechdel’s father is encouraging him to stay with the beer, the mention of the Blind Faith album, and the relaxation he is offering; this is a true cultivation, for Bechdel’s father is promoting the prospering of this “cultivated” object.  Also noted in this picture is the trading of roles: the employer is working for the worker.  This panel is an example of an image that quite directly illustrates the text.

By page 141 of the novel, I started noticing a pattern: I found that my eyes wouldn’t always follow panels of the novel in the right order; I found their organization to be slightly baffling at times.  I now reflect retrospectively on this confusion and find it to be unquestionable assurance of my improvement in integrating my text and picture reading. In my former days of graphic novel reading (back when I glossed over the graphics and primarily read the text), I wouldn’t have noticed these errors in my reading of the panels so readily, or else I would have just kept plowing through the reading, moving on to gain a shallow understanding of another section of the text.  This integration broadens my increased attention to the whole of graphic novels, and I am glad to have acquired this new reading skill.

This is the tale of my journey in graphic reading.  I started out this journey skipping over images and focusing on the words.  But I was missing half of the story: the title of this genre is “graphic novel,” after all.  Two parts make up this literary kind: graphics are combined with the written novel to produce an extensively detailed story.  To answer the question I posed before, yes; my skills were certainly manageable in the context of Fun Home.  I know now that I can successfully read a graphic novel without the presence of Anne Dalke or Marjane Satrapi.  They both, however, deserve a thank you from me: they held my hand as I began down this path!  They taught me all I know in graphic novel reading!  I will express my appreciation when I pass them on this road, as I make my way to my next reading adventure!