Methodology: Analyzing Graphic Novel Devices

As graphic novels are both visual and verbal, they use elements of both to make their points clear. As Scott McCloud explains in his work Understanding Comics: the Invisible Art, graphic novels use elements from both. Artists use lines, shape and color to represent concepts: elements of one sense can be used to evoke the responses of all five. Lines around a character’s face, for example, can be used to convey the loudness of a shout. Words may be bolded, capitalized or otherwise emphasized to show vehemence, passion or force.

Line also conveys mood: just as Van Gogh and Munch expressed their inner turmoil with explosions of color and shape, so too do modern comic artists. Graphic novels are not just limited to the devices of artists; the composition of panels and even the spaces between them, called “gutters”, can be used to affect time and space and create a cinematic experience. For instance, a director may use a panorama to show the bustle of a city or to encompass a battle scene. The types of transitions affect the reader’s sense of a situation: quick shifts from aspect-to-aspect of a scene may mimic the movement of a camera, creating an effect that takes in the entirety of the situation.

Lutes masters visual and verbal elements – line, shape, color, icon, text and transition– along with content to show not just what people did, but a very visceral example of how they felt. This project seeks to understand Lutes’s use of devices and depth of research through close studies of his coverage of five factors: the communists, the nationalists, the police, the government, and the minorities. In so doing, I hope to know not only what Lutes means, but how he represents it.

Case Study: Analyzing a Comic Panel

Here, we have pages 46-47 of Berlin. This work uses visual, textual, synesthetic and expressionistic devices to make his point clear: that Thälmann, the speaker here and the leader of the German Communist Party, makes the state’s job unnecessarily difficult with demagoguery and instigation of the crowd. Thälmann Speech

Interdependence of Text and Visuals 

Graphic novelists make use of text, which can be subject to any rhetorical bias, but also combine text with the imagery of a panel for a specific effect. On this page, two of Thälmann’s slogans are combined with imagery that disconfirm them. “Gun-toting puppets of the state” is shown in combination with two wary-looking policemen (who are actually portrayed positively in the rest of the book), and “social fascists” appears in a panel with an uncomfortable-looking Severing. Thälmann uses gross simplification in his speech, but the visual input of the two sympathetic policemen and the disagreement of Severing make this more obvious.

The Importance of Context: Transition

Sometimes, readers need specific context to understand the meaning of certain visual choices. This is the case with Lutes’s presentation of Thälmann. He is shown alone for several panels, in which his gesticulations and facial expressions are shown. This type of transition, called action-to-action, is meant to showcase an event in progress for a more immersive and active experience. The significance of this transition is only apparent upon reading further into the novel, which shows an unnamed Nazi speaker (assumed to be Joseph Goebbels). This speaker receives the same positioning and action-to-action transitions as Thälmann, and it is safe to assume that Lutes did this intentionally to make a statement about their similarity.

Hearing Lines: Synesthetic and Expressionistic Elements in Graphic Novels

Graphic novelists have the task of representing all five senses with just one, and they have to do it without descriptive words. Therefore, devices have been created to visually show noise, emotion, and motion. For instance: the lines around Thälmann’s hands while he gestures would not exist, yet they are an accepted way for comic artists to convey motion on a static page. The small lines around the crowd represent the noise of cheering. Even the shape of Thälmann’s word bubble in the fourth panel to the right of the page represents a characteristic of sound – the shape of the bubble shows that he is emphasizing the word “murder”.


  1. Book Zuwanderungsland Deutschland. Beier-de Haan, Rosmarie., and Deutsches Historisches Museum. 2005. Zuwanderungsland Deutschland : Migrationen 1500-2005.Wolfratshausen: Minerva.
  • Summary: This book describes immigration in Germany from 1500 until 2005. I have a special interest in the immigration during the Weimar Era. This book is a photojournal of migration, with accompanying historical information. It describes 3 types of immigration that happened during the Weimar era: Eastern-European Jews, the so-called “burdensome foreigners”; refugees of German background from Poland and Alsace-Lorraine; and finally, agricultural migrant workers.
  • Relevance: This book covers issues of migration, provides types thereof, and is a part of my argument that the greater German public was not accepting of immigrants. It also contains useful information of the everyday life on the time: the clothing, situation and expressions of the immigrants depicted may represent something about their general condition.
  1. Book: Zank, Wolfgang. 1998. The German Melting-Pot : Multiculturality in Historical Perspective. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
  • Summary: This source discusses multicultural history since the beginning of the German national identity. Specific to the Weimar era, it includes a history of the time which focuses especially on immigration, and the treatment of the Jews and other minorities.  It also includes an overview and explanation of the political parties of the times, including the constant streetfighting between the Communists and police, and the later-appearing Nazis. It offers political turmoil between these parties as a major reason for the Weimar’s distruction.
  • Relevance This book includes specific proof of the generosity of the Weimar Republic toward minorities in law. I will place this in contrast to its actual behavior in my paper. It also provides evidence that the Weimar Republic collapsed because of social/political problems between the communists, and presents the interesting idea that the communists indirectly enabled the success of the Nazis by alienating the middle class with constant protests and destruction. It also provides specific examples of Weimar antisemitic canards: for instance, among the army, there existed the idea that Jewish “defeatists” were responsible for the loss of World War 1. Pro-war chauvinists (later, Nazis) were likely to believe this because Jews were not allowed to become officers until 1914.
  1. Article Schönwälder, Karen. 1996. “The Constitutional Protection of Minorities in Germany: Weimar Revisited”. The Slavonic and East European Review74 (1). Modern Humanities Research Association: 38–65.
  • Summary: This source attempts to discover if the fundamental protection of minorities offered in Article 113 of the Weimar Constitution represented an actual tolerance and care for minorities. Schönwälder comes to the conclusion that Article 113 was really intended to protect the concerns of German minorities in other countries after the end of the war.
  • Relevance: This source is important for my thesis, given that it represents a contrast between progressive thought in the fundament of the Weimar Constitution and the conservative reality of its intention. It is another layer to overwhelming proof that the Weimar Republic was not as liberal as its political veneer.
  1. Book: Göthel, Thomas. 2002.Demokratie Und Volkstum : Die Politik Gegenüber Den Nationalen Minderheiten in Der Weimarer Republik.Kölner Beiträge zur Nationsforschung, 8; 8. Köln: SH-Verl..
  • Summary: This book attempts to answer the question of democracy in the Weimar Republic. It uses the lawful measures and behavior of the Republic with regards to its national minorities to come to its conclusion. Göthel believes that the policies of the Weimar Republic with regards to minorities represent an attempt to win prestige and positive treatment of minorities abroad. He qualifies this with the fact that some progressives did believe in the rights of minorities – but they were not in positions of power in the Reichstag.
  • Relevance: This book was the core of my historical argument with relation to minorities. It provides the majority of substantive proof (using data on minority schools in Germany) for the idea that there was a contrast between the laws and reality of the republic, and also that this represented a contrast between the progressives and autocrats of the republic.
  1. Book: Panayi, Panikos., and Mazal Holocaust Collection. 2000. Ethnic Minorities in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Germany : Jews, Gypsies, Poles, Turks and Others.Themes in modern German history series; Themes in modern German history series. New York: Longman.
    • Summary: The goal of this book is to find continuity lines between the experiences of ethnic minorities in Germany, through all regime changes and wars. The Weimar Era was not a liberal interlude between the two wars: nationalism, fascism and antisemitism were a constant, boiling presence.
    • Relevance: I used this source as a guidebook to the times, since it included specific, personal examples of the contrast between the laws and behavior  of the Weimar Republic’s government.
  2. Book: McCloud, Scott. 1994. Understanding Comics : [the Invisible Art]. 1st HarperPerennial ed. New York: HarperPerennial.
    • Summary: This book provides a guide to comics (or graphic novels) and their devices. McCloud discusses degrees of abstraction and what they might mean, types of line and their expressionistic and synesthetic potential, gutters (or the spaces between comics) and how their lengths can be manipulated, how time can be represented spatially in panels, and everything else possible.
    • Relevance: This source provided the mass of my proof for writing an analysis of Lutes’s graphic novel. For example, it allowed me to say what precisely about a line makes it special: whether it is used expressionistically to represent feelings or synesthetically to represent sounds or other things which cannot be conveyed through visual media alone. He explained how types of transition (action-to-action vs. aspect-to-aspect, for example) can be used to manipulate the cinematic qualities of a scene – making it exciting, or introspective. I simply could not explain what anything in Berlin means without McCloud’s book, which outlines all the ways which graphic novel artists mean something.
  3. Website: Lefèvre, Pascal. “Tools For Analyzing Graphic Novels and Case Studies.”Tools For Analyzing Graphic Novels and Case Studies. Pascal Lefèvre, 2012. Web. 06 Dec. 2015.
  • Summary: This website provides much of the same information as does McCloud’s work, but also includes ways to analyze the author/artist’s context, providing case studies, and discusses elements of plot, layout, mise en scene and graphic style – especially focusing on the ways that graphic style change throughout a narrative.
  • Relevance: This work was useful for thinking about the ways that plot may affect a work’s voice: why it is important that Kurt Severing, the main character, visits communist rallies and encounters nationalists, instead of going to other places. I came to the conclusion that since Lutes controls Severing the character, he must have decided that these parts of history were important. This idea – that every plot point is intentional– is helpful for proving my thesis that Lutes sought to provide an accurate view of Weimar history.