Composing Graphic Narratives

Graphic Narrative: Before and After


Titian, Noli Me Tangere

Figure 1 Titian, Noli me Tangere, 1511-12.
National Gallery, London.

In Titian's Noli me Tangere, Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene after his resurrection, and the historical audience for this work could be expected to know the story. Just as later audiences, should they be unfamiliar with the biblical event, can be expected to know how and where to look it up (John 20:10-18).

In modern narrative painting, however, reference to a specific external story tends to disappear. In its place, there is often ambiguity. There is nothing outside the picture, and too little (or perhaps too much) in the picture, to tell us what has happened or what will happen.

The Menaced Assassin

Figure 2 René Magritte, The Menaced Assassin.

The art of comics develops various resources for dealing with the narrative before and after surrounding what a picture shows. One resource that comics share with narrative painting is the presentation of pregnant moments, depictions of actions that strongly imply the moment before and/or the moment after.

Very often with isolated images, as with this panel from a Nancy comic strip, the full context of before and after remains obscure.

Nancy collides with a pane of invisible glass.

Figure 3 Ernie Bushmiller, Nancy, detail.

Another resource combines such pregnant images with text narration in captions and word balloons, as in this Superman episode:

Lois falling.

Figure 4 A panel from Superman in which Superman rescues a falling Lois Lane.

Or as in this self-contained single-panel Dennis the Menace gag cartoon by Hank Ketchum:

Denis the Menace one-panel cartoon.

Figure 5 Hank Ketchum, Denis the Menace.

A further characteristic resource of comics is the multi-panel sequence.

Nancy colliding with a pane of invisible glass.

Figure 6 Ernie Bushmiller, Nancy, comic strip.

A truck collides with an immovable object.

Figure 7 Harold Gray, Little Orphan Annie.

Captain America fighting Batroc the Leaper.

Figure 8 Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Captain America fighting Batroc the Leaper.

Peter Parker meets Mary Jane.

Figure 9 Stan Lee and John Romita, Peter Parker meets Mary Jane.

Page of Flies on the Ceiling

Figure 10 Jaime Hernandez, "Flies on the Ceiling," page 12.

Page by Tsuge

Figure 11 Yoshiharu Tsuge, "Marsh," page 10.