Focalisation in verbo-visual texts: ‘Treat’ by Stephen Collins


The text under discussion here is a comic strip, a short ‘verbo-visual’ narrative (Saraceni, 2000) that can either take the form of a self-contained unit such as Collins’ Treat or it can form part of a much larger narrative (Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury). These strips are published daily or weekly in newspapers and their purpose is to amuse, hence their former nickname, ‘the funnies’. Treat is reproduced in full above (Appendix A), and again below (Appendix B) with numbered panels for ease of reference, and a glossary of key terms.

Appendix B for posting

In spite of the centrality of focalisation as a concept in narrative theory, there is dissension amongst scholars as to the scope of this concept and whether or not it should include ‘aspects of cognition’ alongside more traditional considerations of purely visual perspective (Horstkotte and Pedri, 2011: 330). The argument presented here adopts Horstkotte and Pedri’s conception of focalisation as a ‘cognitive operation related to aspectuality [Palmer, 2004: 194-200] that subsumes the narrower optical view’ (2011: 332). In other words, focalisation, or the filter through which the storyworld is presented, comprises processes of perception and cognition that are inseparable: an object or event is not merely placed before the reader as a fact, it is perceived in a way that is peculiar to the perceiving consciousness. The concerns expressed by Horstkotte and Pedri (2011) relating to the dominance of the visual facet of focalisation at the expense of the cognitive are compounded when the text contains both visual and verbal elements, in which case the need is even greater for a more flexible approach. The perceptual facet of comics, or graphic narratives, obviously cannot be dismissed, but to restrict the analysis of focalisation in these texts to a description of ‘camera’ angles alone is to do them an injustice. In this essay, I argue that focalisation is realised in Collins’ comic strip in three different ways. First, the vectors created by line of gaze describe a transitivity which places the boy wearing the devil-horns in subject position. This transitivity is also demonstrated through a variation of shot/reverse-shot editing, a filmic technique which aligns the object observed with the observer’s visual perspective. Second, the reader is primed to accept the boy as focaliser by means of the reader’s knowledge of the conventions of the fairy-tale genre which is established early on as a parallel secondary narrative. Finally, the boy is identified as focaliser in the second tier through repeated instances of a particular panel representing a narratively significant ‘pregnant moment’ (Kukkonen, 2013a: 48-50).

Focalisation as a concept grew out of the need to differentiate between various competing narrative voices in purely linguistic texts (see Genette, 1980), and given the relative importance of focalisation in narrative theory, there is justification for exploring how this concept might operate in graphic narratives. The relatively recent boost in academic interest in comics coincides with an accelerated proliferation of multimodal texts to the point where the co-existence of the verbal and the visual is arguably creating ‘a new semiotic landscape’ (Saraceni, 2000: 5; see also McCloud, 1993: 58-59; and Goodman, 2007: 113-146). Kukkonen claims that comics provide a useful test case for the new transmedial narratology, or ‘the project of investigating how particular media constrain as well as enable storytelling practices’ (2011: 34), and Ewert’s sensitive analysis of the combined effect of the visual and the verbal in Art Spiegelman’s Maus showcases the contributory potential of such work to narratological studies. Ewert’s essay makes an eloquent case in favour of ‘a poetics of the graphic narrative’ (2004: 191), a framework which, though currently lacking, would greatly facilitate and enhance scholarly discussion. Practitioners such as McCloud and particularly Eisner laid solid foundations for future research in their own seminal publications, both of which, for example, discuss the different types of word/picture relationships occurring in graphic narratives (McCloud, 1993: 153-155; Eisner, 1985: 122-138). Saraceni adds ‘semiotic blend’ to this discussion, a word/picture combination in which verbal and pictorial elements acquire each other’s characteristics (Saraceni, 2000:43), exemplified in Treat by the moon in panel 1 which doubles as a full stop. Other occasional instances of semiotic blend in this text occur against a background of ‘mirroring, when the verbal and visual texts reinforce each other and can operate independently to tell the story’ (Saraceni, 2000: 43). I shall return to this point later in the discussion of focalisation and genre.

The first part of the analysis presented here focuses on the perceptual facet of focalisation and how this can be realised in a verbo-visual text. Kress and van Leeuwen apply Halliday’s work on ideational transitivity to the relation of objects in images (Halliday, 1994: 106-175), and they suggest that the interaction between objects can be ‘visually realized by vectors’ (Kress and van Leeuwen, 2006: 42). For example, the tail of a speech balloon in verbo-visual texts forms a vector between the character speaking and what was said, and the transitivity pattern in this case is that of the mental externalised process with a speaker and an utterance. In the second tier of Treat, a vector is formed by the boy’s eyeline as he looks at the head: the boy’s gaze and the direction of the vector travel left to right in accordance with the reading experience. Although the stylised depiction of the boy renders his expression enigmatic, the direction of his gaze is not in doubt because the physical position of the dot which represents his eye changes as he looks up and down. When he looks up at the old woman, his eye-dot shifts up and to the right (compare panels 15 and 16). The transitivity pattern here is a mental internalised perception process (or ‘reactional’ in Kress and van Leeuwen’s terms), with the boy as ‘senser’ (or ‘reacter’) and the head as ‘phenomenon’ (Kress and van Leeuwen, 2006: 67). The eyeline vectors establish the boy’s act of looking as the event of silent panels 13, 15 and 20. If a vector is a visual realisation of an action verb (Kress and van Leeuwen, 2006: 46), then the boy is the subject of that verb, and because the verb denotes an act of perception, the boy can be identified as the perceptual focaliser at this stage of the narrative.

As previously stated, this transitivity of senser and phenomenon is also signalled by a shot/reverse-shot sequence played out over panels 13 to 21 as the ‘camera’ switches back and forth between focaliser in mid-shot and focalised in close-up. Kukkonen notes that in shot/reverse-shot editing ‘readers can identify the middle image as being perceived from the perspective of the character’ (2013a: 49; see also Saraceni, 2000: 200 and Mikkonen 2008: 312). A shot/reverse-shot sequence usually incorporates the focaliser’s emotional reaction to the focalised and certainly the reader is invited to imagine the boy’s response to the gift offered. I shall argue in the sections to follow that the boy’s reaction is spread over a sequence of eight successive panels, thus requiring the reader to participate in this extended moment of indecision.

Before I discuss the playing-out of the boy’s reaction, however, it is necessary to introduce some genre-related considerations, which have already been briefly touched on. Genre schemas can be evoked through textual clues (Kukkonen, 2013a: 69), and in this particular case, the fairy-tale genre is activated in the witch-like imagery (the pointed hat, an old woman giving sweets to children) and, most importantly, in the traditional structure-of-three. There are three trick-or-treaters, each of whom is offered a ‘treat’. The first two are offered ‘Nice’ biscuits and the pattern is broken with the third child who is offered ‘a lovely life-destroying cursed head in a jar’. The convention of the structure-of-three dictates that the reader will be expecting this change and will no doubt have already seen panel 12 before commencing a more detailed reading: after all, the whole strip is viewable at a glance (see Eisner, 1985: 40-41). Nevertheless, the positioning of the head at the end of the first tier creates a pause between the offering of the gift and the boy’s reaction to it in panel 13 on the second tier, almost as if the tiers could be read like lines of poetry. The importance of the boy’s reaction is therefore structurally marked both in this pause and in the anticipated break in the pattern as dictated by genre. Narrative progression can be partly guessed at once the fairy-tale genre is active, and this brings the argument back to the word/picture combination of ‘mirroring’ mentioned earlier. Both the visual and verbal components of Treat seem sufficient on their own to tell the story; however, one must ask what is lost if, for example, the words are removed from the pictures. Speech and thought representation is an important facet of focalisation and the verbal component is vital ‘in constructing the sense of a mind’ (Mikkonen, 2008: 312). Here, the boy’s voice works in postmodern contradiction to expectations aroused by genre. Kukkonen notes that ‘[p]ostmodern fairy tales [can]…subvert readers’ expectations…by not following the narrative probabilities and modes of verisimilitude that genre decorum prescribes’ (2013a: 80). The subversion of expectations in Treat is twofold: first, in the boy’s obvious reluctance to accept the offered gift, and second, in his vocalisation of this reluctance. In traditional fairy tales, the narrator is usually the dominant narrative voice and fairy-tale characters are rarely allowed to speak for themselves. When they do speak, they express themselves only in bland or ritualised utterances and this convention no doubt stems from the oral origins of fairy tales which feature numerous formulaic and therefore memorable speeches. In Treat, the boy voices his disappointment that his gift is not also a biscuit both indirectly to the old woman and directly to his peers in the final panel. To summarise, the evocation of the fairy-tale genre primes the reader to anticipate that the third gift-offering will break the established pattern, and the third child will emerge as protagonist. The protagonist is not necessarily the focaliser, however: what singles the boy out as focaliser is his vocalised response to the ‘treat’ offered and the slow playing-out of his reaction in the panels of the second tier.

Both Eisner and McCloud devote entire chapters to the panel (Eisner, 1985: 38-99; McCloud, 1993: 94-117). The panel is ‘a portion…of the narrative, where something actually takes place and time’ (Saraceni, 2003: 7) and ‘panel arrangements…are used to imply temporal sequence’ (Kukkonen, 2011: 35). Each panel marks an indeterminate time-span which is dependent on variables both internal and external to that particular panel, including narrative context and reader input. For example, there is no dialogue to provide any indication of time-span in panels 13, 15 and 20, and the reader can determine for herself how much time passes. Panel shape and size adds another dimension to the illusion of narrative temporality and the removal of the panel’s border altogether can create the impression of unlimited space or infinite time (McCloud, 1993: 102), as seen here in panel 12 with the introduction of the cursed head. Panel shapes in Treat are clearly divided into groups, and these groupings reflect semantically-linked narrative moments: for example, the proffering and acceptance of the biscuits is rendered in panels 6 to 11, comprising two groups of three duplicated frames. Panels 1 and 22 are the same shape and size, thus inviting comparison, and the content of these panels reflects the major narrative change, that is, the boy’s acquisition of the head. In panel 1, the scene is an urban one, depicting human habitations picked out by street-lamps and lit from within. The street is lined with carefully-spaced trees and neatly-parked cars, and the trick-or-treaters stand on the doorstep, about to knock at the old woman’s door. In the final panel, the houses and cars are nowhere to be seen, but the visually dominant trees tower over the silhouetted figures of the children in what has become a horror-story setting.

Equally important to the structure of graphic narratives is the space between the panels, known as the gutter, and it is always present even if the panels are adjacent (Saraceni, 2003: 9). If each panel is the grammatical equivalent of a sentence (Eisner, 1985: 28), then the gutter is the space between one sentence and the next, and it is a space in which the reader infers all that is missing from the narrative: ‘just as you step across the gutter, your mind creates connections between the individual panels, by drawing inferences about how the action in the one can relate to the other’ (Kukkonen, 2013b: 10). As is the case with purely linguistic texts, the reader infers that which the narrative does not tell. In fact, Collins’ strip demonstrates unity of time in all but three places (between panels 1-2, 5-6 and 21-22), and it is here the reader uses real-world knowledge to fill the gaps. Nevertheless, the reader of Treat is required to perform only a minimal amount of inferencing to construct a coherent, meaningful narrative, for two reasons. First, the strip features a high level of visual repetition from one panel to the next, rendering it an enormously cohesive text: the repetition functions as an explicit marker of ‘relatedness’ (Saraceni, 2000: 101). Second, the movement between panels for much of the strip is what McCloud describes as a moment-to-moment transition, noticeably in the second tier when the boy’s indecision is played out in detail (1993: 70).

It is at this stage that the function of panels 7 and 10 becomes clear. If they were to be removed from the strip, the moment-to-moment transition of panels 6 to 8 and 9 to 11 would become action-to-action transitions depicting the offering of the biscuit and its acceptance, and the loss of panels 7 and 10 would not occasion any confusion on the part of the reader. However, far from being redundant, the function of these two panels is to emphasise the moment between the proffering and acceptance of the old woman’s gift, so that this moment can be extended over panels 13-20. The extension of this moment and the hesitation it depicts on the part of the boy clearly marks him as the text’s internal focaliser. Mikkonen notes that in ‘visual narratives we often see the mind in action from a focalised perspective’ (2008: 316, emphasis in original) and that is precisely the case here. As previously stated, the boy’s reluctance to accept the gift is played out over eight panels and this is a significant proportion in a text of only 22 panels: the moment between proffering and acceptance in this instance comprises just over a third of the whole strip (36%). This example of a ‘sustained continuing-consciousness frame’ (Mikkonen, 2008: 316) is a relatively straightforward feat for a short verbo-visual narrative such as the comic strip, but medium-specific constraints can curtail attempts to prolong internal focalisation over longer stretches of text.

In this essay, I have claimed that the boy wearing the devil-horns can be identified as the internal focaliser of the events of the second tier of Treat, and that this identification is made possible through a combination of factors. The perceptual facet of focalisation was explored in a discussion of the transitivity of the text created by eyeline-vectors, and a shot/reverse-shot sequence which coincides with the boy’s viewpoint. Saraceni notes that the perspective through which the relationships between characters and objects are conveyed has an equivalent function to deixis (2000: 203), and deixis is defined by Simpson in relation to linguistic texts as ‘features of language which function to locate utterances in relation to speakers’ viewpoints’ (1993: 13). The textual features discussed here locate the viewpoint as that of the boy. However, I argued earlier that the perceptual facet should be combined with the cognitive in order to fully encompass all that is implied by the concept of focalisation. Saraceni makes a case for a merger of the perceptual with the psychological because access is needed to a character’s mind in order to see what they see (2000: 172). The psychological facet is realised here in the playing-out of the boy’s reluctance to accept the gift offered in a drawn-out moment of narrative significance. Finally, I have coupled the perceptual and psychological facets of focalisation as evidenced in the text with the contribution brought to the narrative by the reader: that of the recognition of a secondary genre which informs the text and allows the reader to infer that the third child will receive a different gift. The reader can therefore anticipate in advance the boy’s role as focaliser.

List of references

Collins, S. Treat. Published in The Guardian on 26 October 2012. Available at Accessed 18 February 2016 at 18:22.

Eisner, W. (1985) Comics and Sequential Art. Paramus: Poorhouse Press.

Ewert, J. (2004) Art Spiegelman’s ‘Maus’ and the Graphic Narrative. In Narrative Across Media: The Languages of Storytelling. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 178–193.

Genette, G. (1980) Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Goodman, S. (2007) Visual English. In Redesigning English. Abingdon: Routledge, 113–159.

Halliday, M.A.K. (1994) An Introduction to Functional Grammar. (2nd ed.) London: Edward Arnold.

Horstkotte, S. & Pedri, N. (2011) Focalisation in Graphic Narrative. Narrative 19(3): 330–357.

Kress, G. & van Leeuwen, T. (2006) Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design. (2nd ed.) London: Routledge.

Kukkonen, K. (2011) Comics as a Test Case for Transmedial Narratology. SubStance 40(1): 34–52.

—-2013a. Contemporary Comics Storytelling. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

—-2013b. Studying Comics and Graphic Novels. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.

McCloud, S. (1993) Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: HarperCollins.

Mikkonen, K. (2008) Presenting Minds in Graphic Narratives. Partial Answers: Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas 6(2): 301–321.

Palmer, A. (2004) Fictional Minds. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Saraceni, M. (2000) Language beyond language: Comics as verbo-visual texts. PhD thesis. University of Nottingham.

—- (2003) The Language of Comics. London: Routledge.

Simpson, P. (1993) Language, Ideology and Point of View. London: Routledge.

Reading Challenge 2016: A Book You Can Read In A Day

Julie Maroh Skandalon

Mario Saraceni The Language of Comics

Skandalon_top pictureI’m kicking off this year’s Reading Challenge with a couple of books, both of which can be read in a day: Julie Maroh’s Skandalon, and Mario Saraceni’s The Language of Comics, and I’m going to use one to discuss the other. A little bit of background is necessary for the Maroh novel, however: it can be read and understood on its own terms, naturally, but Maroh provides an Afterword which situates the main character in a different, more mythical dimension and provides an explanation for his behaviour which goes beyond the rather trite summary to be found in the book’s blurb: ‘a fiery and intense contemporary myth about the recklessness of fame’. Well, no, not really. The myth in question here is not a new one for our times, it is a much older myth that has been retold in a modern setting with a main character who is the perfect vehicle: an immensely successful rock star who wields enormous power over his fans, men and women who adore him and follow wherever he leads.

Skandalon is a truly astonishing book. Much is explained in Maroh’s Afterword, which, following the writings of René Girard, sets out the philosophy of prohibition and the way in which myths and rites produce stories which become culturally embedded, thereby reinforcing and perpetuating accepted behaviours. The skandalon is a figure that transgresses these imaginary boundaries, attracting scandal as he does so and encouraging others to mimic his behaviour. But inevitably, the skandalon eventually becomes the scapegoat or victim. He who has vicariously fulfilled the desires of others has to face the consequences as the people turn on him – which they must, if societal order is to be restored. And so it is with Maroh’s main character, Tazane, the name being of course a pseudonym. His real name is Cedric. (One of the other characters suggests that the name Tazane is cursed and all would have been well if they’d stuck to Cedric.)

Saraceni’s book is a wonderfully accessible introduction to the study of comics as multi-modal texts: complicated concepts are made simple and exemplified with reproductions of numerous individual frames and complete comic strips. What I propose to do here is to explore a few of Saraceni’s observations with reference to Skandalon, but what follows is certainly not going to be an exhaustive exploration of how comics work – merely a taster.

One of the most interesting points of Saraceni’s discussion lies in his comparison of the layout and format of a comic strip with that of a text composed entirely of verbal features. He notes that the difference between functional and content words is reflected in the make-up of the verbal and visual language of comics, where functional words (words that link other words together to build a sentence, such as conjunctions and prepositions) have their counterpart in functional components, and content words (nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc.) in content components. The functional components of comics are things like captions, sounds effects and emanata (text or icons that represent what’s going on in a character’s head, so for example, sweat drops can indicate anxiety or nervousness). In this image here, for example, the ringing of the telephone rendered by the dring sound effect becomes more insistent over the three panels; Tazane ignores it, but the increased size of the letters and the frequency with which they appear indicate both the character’s consciousness of the sound, the length of time which has passed since the telephone first began to ring, and his growing agitation as the words gradually fill the frame. (Eventually he rips the socket from the wall.)


Another functional component is the speech balloon. This is the space that is used to report what a character is saying, and its physical appearance on the page acts as a sort of adverb to tell us how something is said. Here, for example, we know from the visual elements (the crowSkandalon-redd, the microphone) that Tazane is onstage singing, but we can guess from the spiky balloons and large spaced-out font of the letters that he is not crooning softly, but belting out the words. The colour scheme reinforces this impression: think how these panels would differ if rendered in pale blue or green, for example.

Saraceni also argues that the gutter – the blank space separating the panels – ‘is similar to the space the divides one sentence from the next’. The gutter is not simply a blank space, in fact: every narrative is necessarily incomplete and this is a space for the reader to fill with real-world knowledge. Take the following example.

montage skandalon

This montage is made up of two pages, with the page break occurring down the middle, after the third panel from the left: this is important, because in the Western world we read each panel from left to right, top to bottom, and we do the same thing with the whole page.

So what’s happening here? We see first of all a cloud of smoke. On its own, this means that something is on fire, but what? In the second panel, a lit cigarette lies next to a butt in an ashtray, and we can see that the smoke comes from the cigarette. The ashtray is on a table, and in the third panel, we see what else is on the table: empty or near-empty bottles of alcohol – spirits and beer rather than wine – one bottle could be vodka, another Jack Daniels. The fourth panel shows us another view of the table (and all the time, the repetition of the table image is leading us to assume that it is the same one): a pencil, and some papers with musical notation. Finally, the fifth panel shows us the human agent behind all this – a hand playing a guitar – and we can infer that the musician shown here is the one who has been smoking, drinking and writing music. This is Tazane.

Onto the panels on the right-hand side of the montage, and we see at the top a close-up of Tazane with eyes closed, clearly absorbed in his task. The ‘camera’ pans out for the next panel and we see him playing, the tops of the bottles just visible in the right-hand corner. In the panel which follows, Tazane is writing on the paper, and we can infer again that he is writing down the tune he has just played, or perhaps some lyrics. The foreshortened perspective of the image ensures that the hand holding the pencil is central to the panel, with the trajectory of the pencil leading the eye back to Tazane’s face and from there down to the point of the pencil again, following the circle of thought from the origin to the recording of that thought. He returns to his playing for the final frame, depicted from yet another angle, and here we note an interesting point Saraceni makes about the panel – that it is not the same as a photograph or a film still, because the panel represents a portion of time rather than a snapshot. The final frame of this sequence could take up any amount of time: he could be playing for a few seconds, or a few hours. Panels can fill an entire page, as the one shown below does.


And there are numerous other examples of one-page panels in Skandalon. Page 85 is entirely blank, with not even a page number, but this can also be considered a panel; in fact, the page is blank because the narrative has reached a point where Tazane rapes a young female fan, and the blank page emphasises the horror of the scene by hiding it from the reader.

I mentioned the ‘camera’ earlier, and something that has sparked interest in recent years is the presence of the narrator in comics and graphic novels. In Skandalon, Tazane himself does some of the narrating for us, rendered in square captions in a font different to that of the round speech balloons. So Tazane is narrator as well as character. The other character, Philippe, also does a little narrating for us. On finding the remains of Tazane’s mobile phone, he says ‘Not again!’ – but who is he talking to? Ostensibly, himself, but arguably he is speaking to the reader as well and imparting the information that this is not the first time Tazane has smashed up his phone. But I think there is yet another narrator, the one that decides what to show us in each panel and whose point of view we see: close-ups, for example, are more likely to invite us to feel empathy for the character concerned. Creating a graphic novel involves decisions about the shape and size of each individual panel, its positioning on the page, its relation to other panels and its place in a sequence as well as what is depicted, how characters and events are depicted, what point of view is represented, whether or not captions are used, and many, many other decisions relating to both functional and content components. It is perhaps here, in these decisions, that we should be searching for the narrator. Saraceni recognises that the narrator’s presence cannot be reduced to a consideration of captions alone. The kind of syntagmatic and paradigmatic analyses that are applied to verbal texts can equally be applied to graphic novels, if we consider creative choices made on both horizontal and vertical levels.


To conclude, Skandalon is a disturbing but immensely rewarding read, and Saraceni’s exceptionally useful book helps the reader to understand and articulate Maroh’s work. I’ve had a happy week with this, all in all.

Interesting use of panels to show the division between land and water in Tazane’s heroin-induced narcissistic hallucination.

My Top Five Favourite Comic Books, an Outsider: ‘Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes’ by Mary and Bryan Talbot


Today has been a rotten day, to be honest. When the metaphorical whistle blew on my day job, I waded across the sludgy campus to spend the afternoon in the library, where long-suffering library users like me who actually want to Do Some Work huddle hopelessly in the silent study rooms on level five, desperately wishing that other less considerate library users could at least make some effort to grasp the idea of silent study. ‘Silent’ means ‘shut up’. Whispered conversations are not okay, because we can all hear you, and if two people are whispering in an otherwise silent room, it’s very distracting. Shut. Up. No giggling, no whispering, no eating crisps or other noisy and/or smelly snacks, no noisy breathing, no listening to some ghastly whining female vocalist at full volume on your iNoisyToy, and if you must type rather than use a pen, please try to Do It Quietly. No need to hammer at the keyboard. You’re not using an Underwood.


The loud stage-whispered conversations in the library this afternoon would not be swayed by any amount of shushing from myself, so I moved to the other ‘silent’ study room where unfortunately everyone seemed to be suffering from pleurisy. At this point I gave up and came home, and now I’m in the mood to be spiteful so it’s the perfect time to write a blog post about this book which, quite frankly, was never going to make it into the magical Top Five.

To be fair, I should make it clear at the outset that, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I’m not much of a one for biography. It’s just not my cup of tea. I simply find it rather dull, and biography in graphic novel form is for some reason even more dull. It just seems to go nowhere. David B’s Epileptic is a valuable exception, but Harvey Pekar’s The Quitter bored me rigid. Anyhoo, there was a bit of a to-do about Dotter because it was shortlisted for the 2012 Costa Biography Award, so I thought I’d give it a whirl. In a nutshell, Dotter is written by husband and wife team Mary and Bryan Talbot: she did the words, he did the pictures. The book tells of two dysfunctional father-daughter relationships: the story of the author Mary and her ‘cold mad feary father’, an eminent Joycean scholar, is told alongside that of Lucia Joyce, daughter of the famous James, whose promising career as a dancer is cut tragically short, with her parents being in no small way to blame for this.


At first it seemed as if all my preconceptions and worst imaginings concerning graphic biographies were going to be confirmed. The first 25 pages of Dotter are pretty awful: the exposition necessary to orientate the reader is, on the whole, clumsily executed, but I quite like the ‘typed’ narrative voice – it has an appropriate kind of nineteen-fifties feel to it. However, I hate the wifely interjections: ‘NB: My mother wouldn’t have been seen dead in a frilly apron’, and again on page 18, ‘NB: Bryan’s wrong again. In my school boys were seated on one side of the classroom, the girls on the other’. Well, why didn’t you tell Bryan this before the book went to press, Mary? You’re married, aren’t you? I assume this means you live in the same house and spend a fair bit of time together, so you could have told him, couldn’t you, instead of inflicting this rubbish on us? And if the cutesey interjections aren’t bad enough, the clunky dialogue on page 15 is just excruciating:

(Scene: university canteen)

MARY: Yeah, well, when I discovered Joyce had a daughter, I was curious. My parents were named Nora and Jim too!


RANDOM COLLEAGUE 2: So you’re finding parallels?

MARY: I bloody hope not! She spent most of her life in mental institutions.

RANDOM COLLEAGUE 2: Just like this place, then!

RANDOM COLLEAGUE 1: And you fit in so well!

Please, by all the gods, spare me. Spare me from other people’s wackiness.


The book takes off though, once Lucia’s narrative begins. Three different colour schemes help keep the reader grounded: full colour for the present day, sepia for Mary’s childhood, and muted blues for Lucia’s story, which, chronologically-speaking, is the oldest narrative; so we move therefore from a sort of black and white into sepia and finally into full colour, as if looking at a century’s worth of old photographs. Splashes of colour dribble into the sepia colour-scheme, and these splashes become increasingly dominant as Mary and Bryan’s history begins to catch up with the present time. This method of selective colouring is also employed to achieve other, striking effects: for example, the streaks of red blood following the birth of Mary and Bryan’s first son are foregrounded against the still predominantly sepia background.


The two storylines share similar themes of parental abuse and neglect, but it seems to me self-indulgent to parallel Mary Talbot’s sufferings with those of Lucia Joyce. After all, Mary had raised two children and gained a PhD by the time she was thirty and it is difficult to believe this would have been possible without some measure of parental support. Poor Lucia Joyce had made a promising beginning as a dancer, but was denied every opportunity to further this career and was eventually committed to a mental institution by her own brother after a nasty fight with her appallingly vicious mother. In the parallel narrative, Mary Talbot’s father seems to have been a nasty piece of work in some respects, yes, but Mary isn’t seen to end her days in the loony bin.


In fact, I think on the whole I’d have preferred to read the biography of Lucia that we see Mary reading at the beginning of Dotter.


Just two more points before I wrap this one up. The artwork is lovely and I’ve always liked Bryan Talbot’s stuff – his style is clear and clean, but astonishingly expressive nonetheless. He’s also the author of another very successful comic book, Alice in Sunderland. Finally, it’s interesting to compare the depiction of riot scenes caused by the Paris debut of George Antheil with the rendering of the same scenes in Catel & Bocquet’s Kiki de Montparnasse. Yes, I know the latter is biography and I’m not supposed to like it, but it’s also a rollicking story with boobs, bums and plenty of dancing and drinking, so it’s alright with me.

My Top Five Favourite Comic Books, an Also-Ran: Joff Winterhart’s ‘Days of the Bagnold Summer’

ImageFifteen-year-old Daniel’s trip to Florida to visit his absent father and the stepmother who ‘would rather be seen as a friend’ is cancelled owing to the latter’s advanced pregnancy, and as a result Daniel and his mum Sue face a long six weeks together over the school summer holidays. Days of the Bagnold Summer is a narrative structured by the weeks of that summer, one week per chapter. Each page features a subtitle or heading which provides a theme for the panels to follow, some themes more abstract than others, and the drawings are mostly of human figures executed in a pencil and ink wash. A narrator is ever-present in the often lengthy captions, providing the reader with an omniscient insight into the minds of mother and son as the long weeks pass slowly by.

The six-week block of time that is the Bagnold summer is framed by a forthcoming wedding and the need to buy Daniel some black shoes to look smart for it. The story opens with yet another failed shopping expedition and ends with Sue and Daniel walking into the distance, growing smaller and smaller inside successive frames as they make their way towards the wedding venue. Daniel wears black trainers instead of shoes, having finally worn Sue down.


As far as the actual story goes, that’s pretty much it. But any idea of ‘plot’ is, of course, beside the point. The focus of Winterhart’s narrative is the relationship between Daniel and Sue, the relentless tedium of the summer holidays when one is young, how dreadful it is to be a teenager and how difficult to be the single parent of a teenager. Winterhart’s achievement is to generate an equal amount of sympathy in the reader for both Sue and Daniel without tipping over into sentimentality; even the repulsive Ky, Daniel’s bullying best friend, is temporarily the object of the reader’s pity when he responds badly to Daniel’s having been accepted into a local band. Ky is momentarily wrong-footed and we get a glimpse of his fragility in his short-lived ‘muted reaction’.

Sue battles to understand her teenage son and tries to establish a connection with him by mentally recreating her own teenage years. She remembers those years as ‘an incredibly difficult and lonely time’. Daniel himself is a typical fifteen-year-old boy: he listens to heavy metal and fantasises about being the lead singer in a metal band; he enjoys drawing, but his taste is limited to pictures of axes, corpses and skulls. He is revolting in the way that teenage boys are: he is scruffy, he never washes his hair, he drinks barbecue sauce straight from the bottle when Sue isn’t around. He is also inconsiderate and lazy, but only in an average-teenager kind of way and the reader knows that Daniel will improve with age. And Daniel’s thoughtless selfishness is matched by Sue’s ability to come up with excruciatingly embarrassing comments (‘Aftershave…make you smell a bit sexy for the girls’). The relationship between mother and son at this most difficult time of Daniel’s development is characterised by a tension which increases until it explodes into the inevitable row – pretty normal teenager-parent stuff. The most touching moments in the narrative are those infrequent times when Sue and Daniel actively understand each other, such as when Sue describes Ky’s mother as being a bit ‘much’, to which Daniel responds positively, actually looking at his mother for once and agreeing with a little smile and a ‘Yeah’.


Parallels between mother and son are drawn throughout – a disinclination to wear anything other than a black hoodie or a shapeless sweater, a desire to be admired as a musician, an innate inability to join in, a bully for a best friend – and the reader is left with a keen awareness of inherited traits travelling down through generations. Family history is invoked through the use of photographs and other memorabilia. Absent fathers provide another point of connection between the various characters: Sue’s father was a GI who left his wife and daughter to return to the country of his birth; Daniel’s father left his mother to set up home with another in the US; Ky’s likeable but flaky mother, like Sue, is struggling to bring up a teenage son on her own.

A gentle humour pervades the book which relieves the sadness of it and Winterhart almost never allows the narrative to become mawkish: the only false note is the overly-melodramatic story of Sue’s short-lived relationship with a strange, troubled boy when she herself was Daniel’s age. This implausible episode in Sue’s past of armed robbery and subsequent suicide feels out of place in an otherwise humdrum event-free world. Nevertheless, I like this book very much. And with every re-reading, it never fails to make me extremely glad that my teenage years are now a long, long way behind me.

My Top Five Favourite Comic Books, an Also-Ran: Stephen Collins’ ‘The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil’



Warning: spoilers!

Before I begin, allow me to say how much I love Stephen Collins’ work. Every week I cut out his comic strip from the Saturday Guardian magazine and glue it into my notebook. Many’s the happy hour I’ve passed in the library re-reading old comic strips instead of making notes on yet another article about Spark’s manipulation of narrative time in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and here I am now, writing a blog post about Collins’ first graphic novel instead of sifting through aborted PhD chapter drafts to weed out the useable bits. May I also point out as a preliminary observation that as a title, The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil takes some beating, it really does. For me, this title encapsulates Collins’ work in a very neat way: a superficially childish locution which hides a deeper profundity…and is very amusing at the same time.

Not that there’s much to laugh at in TGBTWE. It’s actually a very sad story, beautifully drawn and multi-layered: I’m not at all sure that I’ve yet plumbed its depths and fathomed all its meanings. The story takes place on the island of Here, which is neat, tidy and soulless. The people who live on Here are also neat, tidy and soulless: they spend much of their time transfixed by the screens of their phones. Everything is homogenised as far as possible and everything is in its place. The daily routine continues unchanged day after day. The weather forecast is the same every day. People go to work every day, but they don’t really know what they’re doing or what their job is. However, this seems to be the way they like it.

Beyond the sea, however, lies There, a place of disorder and chaos. And There breaks into Here through Dave, our enormously likeable hero. Dave is not quite the same as the other inhabitants of Here because although he loves his quiet, orderly life, he doesn’t sit in front of the telly every evening as the others do: he sits in his front room and draws what he can see in the street. But Dave the artist becomes a conduit for evil when There invades Here in the form of an enormous beard which grows out of Dave’s face in the space of a few frames and resists all attempts to be shorn. 


The moment a break in the routine pattern of repetition is established is the moment a narrative is formed. The remainder of Collins’ book relates the phenomenal and inexorable growth of the beard and how finally the beard – and Dave – are dealt with, all to the backdrop of The Bangles’ Eternal Flame, which Dave listens to over and over. The scary story of what happened to the fisherman’s son who sought to know What Was Over There functions as a standard literary device to provide a pre-echo and perhaps an indication of Dave’s fate, but on the other hand, perhaps the same fate did not befall Dave, because his drawings keep coming. Collins collapses the narrative levels here between author/narrator/characters: Dave’s drawings are identical to the author’s own and Professor Black’s final book is not intended for publication, but it’s clear that TGBTWE is that book. Dave’s departure leaves its traces. The world of Here is changed forever, and I’m left wondering whether There is so terrible after all. Perhaps the beard came to Here to encourage its inhabitants to embrace change and to face their fear of difference.


Collins is a satirist, after all, and like my very own Muriel Spark, he uses humour and satire as an effective means of attack. The Daily Mail is vilified in this graphic novel and elsewhere in Collins’ work as a rag for the mindless, a pernicious publication for those who want someone else to do the thinking for them. Its fictional counterpart The Here Mail’s hatred for and suspicion of all things that come from over There will be recognisable to all as characteristic of our very own hate-filled red top. Collins is also an eager parodist of consumer culture: his Exit Ian strip shows a dead man shopping for memorabilia of his own life in a heavenly gift shop before he is allowed to move on, complete with souvenir baseball cap. (You can visit Collins’ website here. Look down the left-hand side for separate links to the Guardian strips.) Once Dave has been removed, his house is turned into a museum and visitors’ centre, and the merchandise for sale invokes an unbearable melancholy while at the same time we can raise a wry smile at the familiarity of the scene. 

Worthy of note is Collins’ use of the gutter, or the space between the frames. What may be lurking in the blank space which separates the images ties in with the thematic concern of TGBTWE, and Collins exploits this idea in the placing of captions and the fragmentation of the images. The gutter is also essential to the timing of comic book narratives, and in the image below we can see Collins using the gutter as a kind of film strip, both in external appearance and in its relation to narrative pace: each successive frame reveals the extent to which Dave’s beard has grown since the previous frame, so the reader is left in no doubt that the beard grows in a matter of seconds. 


TGBTWE has much in common with utopian narratives: a seemingly perfect world is actually a hideous nightmarish dystopia, because the humanity has been wrenched out of it. In Huxley’s Brave New World the people are controlled by sex and the happy-feel-good drug soma; in Orwell’s 1984 people are controlled by terror and lies. In TGBTWE the people have become like the robots in the last of the Wright/Pegg/Frost Cornetto Trilogy, The World’s End. As is usually the case in utopian fiction, there is no room for art or artistic expression. Dave, the man who liked to spend his evenings with his pencils and his sketchpad, is the artist for whom there is no place in Here, the man who asked what it was that his company actually did (and didn’t get an answer), the man who suspects that the reason for the apparently meaningless routine is fear. The invasion of Here takes the form of a beard in a world of clean-shaven men and Dave always had that small, tough hair that would not be plucked, razored or waxed. 

Why isn’t this wonderful book in my Top Five? I wish it could be, I really do, but I thought I was pushing it by lumping Tintin and Asterix together at #2. If I’d put this together with Gemma Bovery as I wanted to, then I would have been giving myself carte blanche to include as many books as I liked in the Top Five, and that’s cheating. So I’m afraid TGBTWE has to remain outside the Top Five as an also-ran, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t beg, borrow or steal your own copy right away. You could even buy one. Make sure you have a box of tissues nearby when you read it, however, because it’ll make you a bit weepy. Happy reading!