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”.