Multidimensional Narrativity
The Expressive Potential of Graphic Novels

This is the transcription of my lecture held at the Intesive Project Theory and History of European Graphic Novel.


Most graphic novels are not really known for their well-crafted plots. Off course, there are exceptions, but when compared to other forms of storytelling the plot of the graphic novel all too often only seems to be an thin layer of varnish around a package of sex, violence or fantastic constructions. The graphic novel is not alone in this, popular cinema, genre fiction and video games are all considered to be of the same stock. The poor quality of these popular fictions is contrasted by the intricate plots of 'high literature' and occasionally of 'art cinema'. These stories are worthy of much greater acclaim because the particulars of their complex plots are regarded as more articulate representations. It requires a higher level of craftsmanship from its author, and it requires a higher level of 'literacy' on the part of reader.

It is a common mistake to dismiss graphic novels because their plots cannot compete with the likes of Shakespeare or Dostojevski. Only recently a film critic stated in a national Dutch newspaper that as a form of art, graphic novels are inferior to literature (Blokker 2005). These and similar claims are familiar to the scholar of the graphic novel. In this article I will re-investigate these claims. On what premises are they made? Is it a coincidence that the popular media accused of having shallow plots are often also visual media? Or is their popular appeal index of a particular form of representation complete depth and sophistication? Can an investigation of the graphic aspects of these novels shed more light on their particular depth and sophistication? I am inclined to think so.

Sequential Stories

In Narratology Mieke Bal defines a narrative text as follows:

A narrative text is a text in which an agent relates ('tells') a story in a particular medium such as language, imagery, sound, buildings, or a combination thereof. A story is a fabula that is presented in certain manner. A fabula is a series of logically and chronologically related events that are caused or experienced by actors. An event is the transition from one state to another state. Actors are agents that perform actions, They are not necessarily human. To act is defined here as to cause or to experience an event (Bal, 1997: 5).

At the heart of this and many other definitions of narrative is the idea that a story requires a development from one state to another. The chronological progression of a story also presupposes a causal relation among the related events. Narrative defined in this way requires a sequential medium to represent the sequence of states. Needless to say spoken en written language are very good vehicles for this type of stories, because these are sequential media 'par excellence'. From a the point of the narrative written language is probably best because readers can continue the story at their own speed and leisure, increasing the possible length of such stories considerably and allowing for more elaborate plots.

The problem I have with such definitions of narrative is that it has to favour the modern novel because their dependence on chronology and causality, which are best represented in a pure sequential medium: they are best represented with words. It should come as no surprise that these narrative idea(l) of the long, complex plot has developed during the same time the modern novel dominated narrative culture. The narrative ideal is formed at least as much by the advent of this particular textual form as the narrative ideal formed the modern novel. Worse, the narrative ideal advocated by the novel has blinded us for the expressive potential of other types of media, and visual media in particular.

Development, chronological related events and causal plots are best mediated in sequential media because these media have an temporal axis on which it is very easy to map these events. The sequence of signs corresponds directly to a flow of time that is required for these developments. Because of this a still picture cannot show such a development, unless it introduces explicit or implicit frames that divide the picture into number of scenes that tell a story when put in some sort sequence. The sequence of panels is a well known and well documented aspect of the art of graphic novels, but it is not its only aspect. There are many examples when a dominant sequence is deliberately weakened in favour of an ambiguous sequence. It is a strength of graphic novel that has no direct counterpart in traditional literature and thus is not really covered by traditional literary theory.

Figure 1: 'Storytellers creating worlds' (McCloud, 2000: 211)

Scott McCloud hints to an alternative view on storytelling when he stated that "Storytellers in all media and all cultures are, at least partially, in the business of creating worlds." (McCloud, 2000: 211; figure 1). Stories as worlds accommodate more types of conceptual structures than only those based on chronology or history. Most importantly they accommodate a spatial structuring of the story that are well expressed by visual media. It is a promising view that can cast new light on 'graphic' storytelling. A view I will adopt and try to develop in this article. In this view, the particular disposition of the novel and the associated notion of narrativity has long dominated culture. For a long time the printed word was the best and most respected form of communication. One of the ideas that carries a lot of weight is that spoken or written language is the vehicle most suited to represent though, and knowledge (cf. Ryan 2004: 3). These days the dominance of the printed word is challenged by the advent of different new media. Cinema, television, the Internet in particular mix verbal and graphic modes. This has weakened the claim that language resembles thought and knowledge best. Renewed appreciation for graphic illustrations and infographics, the sophisticated visual rhetoric used in advertisements and speed with which visual information can be processed has forced us to re-evaluate this claim, up to the point where narratives no longer thought to communicate a sequential logic, rather the evolved to communicate a pattern-like configurations of concepts and ideas (Crawford 2005: 6-13).


It is not only literary theory that is heavily influenced by the characteristics of language. Semiotics is also notorious for taking language as the best example of a sign system (up to the point where 'language' and 'sign system' have become synonyms in many semiotic treatises). However what are important characteristics for language might not be as important for other sign systems. And important characteristics of other sign systems are sometimes overlooked because they appear to be less important in language: there is some reason to believe that unlike Saussure stated (1983: 166) there is more to language then only differences. More specifically in many sign systems association, similarity and juxtaposition are at least as important as differences in the structuring of a 'text' or a set of signs.

Difference in language is established by articulation: signs are differentiated from what proceeds and follows using volume, pitch and timbre of the voice and the spacing and rhythm of temporal dimension of sound. However, marked used of articulation can establish relations among signs that defy their sequential ordering. This effects is very obvious in poetic language, where metre (rhythm) and rhyme (timbre) by the virtue of their similarity of articulation can cause words to be "drawn together in meaning" (Jakobson 1986: 167). Likewise particular use of typography to mark headings, sections and chapters can be used to superimpose a secondary structure on a linear text. Here too, textual similarities are matched conceptual similarities. As we shall see graphic novels are particular good at foregrounding and exploiting such similarities.

The means of articulation associated with spoken text are very important for all sequential media. In effect, in its most basic form these sequential media use their particular means of articulation of to mimic the means of articulation of the spoken word. Printed text is most prone of this tendency. To contrast this 'verbal' set of articulation with a 'graphic' set of articulation a number of interesting differences come to fore. Graphic articulation occurs in two dimensions: the two axes of the picture plane. On these axes the individual signs are articulated by differences in position, colour, shape, size and juxtaposition. Where similarity in articulation seems to be secondary to differences in verbal text, it is much stronger in graphic text. Perhaps because the human eye is 'hardwired' to spot both differences and similarities. In the graphic novel and in many drawn pictures the most obvious means of articulation is the line. But as McCloud noticed before the line itself is a very important vehicle for expression (1993: 124-125; images 2 and 3). This expressive function of the line clearly goes beyond simple articulation to help us distinguish one sign from those that surround it. It has become a meaningful way of articulation that communicates meaning in a rather direct and intuitive manner.

Figure 2: Expressive lines (McCloud, 1993: 124)

Figure 3: Expressive effects (McCloud, 1993: 125)

Saussures observation that in language there are only differences, remains an important one because it acknowledges that the expressive potential of a sign-system stems directly from its means of articulation. Saussure was wrong to equate articulation with difference only. Visual sign-systems in particular depend on a different expressive potential of graphic articulation but as I hope Jakobson's observations made clear in spoken language too there is more to articulation than only difference.

To explore the graphic nature of the graphic novel further is good to take a closer look at what I will call the dimensions of a text (used here in a broad semiotic sense: to indicate sets of signs that together form a more or less coherent representation). Each text has a number of dimensions that are dependent on its material medium. The material of the signs allows for particular ways in which signs can be articulated, and thus the characteristics of the textual dimensions of a specific medium determines its particular expressive potential. This way the expressive potential of the novel is differentiated from the expressive potential of other media for storytelling. The novel's strength resides mostly in its sequence of words, which can be accessed at any time and at any speed. This is different in oral storytelling where the listener has little control over the pace and of the story and cannot as easily go over a particular passage again. I think this is one of the reasons why stories from oral traditions are much shorter than stories that are written for novels. The difference in potential between novels and visual media such as cinema and the graphic novel are even more profound. The latter add to the sequence of the words the material, graphic dimension of the picture plane or the silver screen. To ignore these dimensions (as literary critics tend to do) is to ignore a significant part of the work, and any theory of narrative that disqualifies the graphic dimension because lack of sequence will have to come to the conclusion that the quality of the storytelling is less than the level of storytelling found in pure sequential media.

Graphic Expression

What then, are the strengths of the medium of graphic novel? What are its dimensions of articulation and expression? I will highlight three strengths of graphic novels: 1) narrative economy and intuitive symbolism; 2) simultaneous, spatial juxtaposition as an alternative to sequential ordering; and 3) visual modality. I think these are very important and have a large impact on the way graphic stories are told, and in what ways their telling differs from pure verbal ones.

Narrative economy & intuitive symbolism

The graphic dimensions of the graphic novel lend themselves particularly well for the representation of space. There is direct correspondence between the space of the picture plane and the space of the represented world. The third graphic dimension of the represented world is only a little more difficult, as the artist has at her disposal the theory and practice of natural perspective. This direct representation allows for a certain "narrative economy": both word and image can be used to represent what these sign systems represent best (Ewert 2004: 181).

In the graphic novel there is no immediate need for detailed descriptions of landscapes, for these can be simply drawn. Spatial relations between characters are immediately present, an author does not need to 'spell' these out. This frees the words of a burden they carry in other texts. In graphic novels words are used most commonly for dialogue, monologue, or to mark transitions. Short descriptions are sometimes used, mostly when the author prefers to suggest rather than show something.

One effect of the combination of words and images in the graphic novel is that the graphic dimension is better disposed to accommodate symbolism. Jeanne Ewert (2004) observes that the blatant use of symbolism in Maus would never work in words. By depicting jews as mice and Germans as cats, Art Spiegelman taps into a whole set of relations and connotations commonly associated with cats and mice. It is immediately there and somehow acceptable, perhaps because the graphic novel unlike the literary novel is less bound to a conventional realism. But in my opinion also because graphic expressions depend more on the association of particular means of articulation with meaningful concepts. Association comes natural to the image. Examples of this have already been given above with McCloud's discussion of the expressive powers of lines and pencil-work (figures 2 & 3).


Because of the spatial dimension the graphic novel lends it self particularly well for a simultaneous juxtaposition of panels and scenes as an alternative to the singular string of pictures that form a linear story. The sequence in a graphic novel is almost always dictated by the sequence of the panels, and this sequence is usually pretty clear the reader still has the advantage that she can review an entire page at a time. This has a number of effects. For instance, the pages dictate a rhythm the graphic artist better acknowledges. If she wants to add a surprise it is better included on a new page than in the last panel of the right hand page.

Figure 4: Fear of Falling, pages 1 and 2 (Gaiman, 1993: 2-3)

Figure 5: Fear of Falling, pages 3 (Gaiman, 1993: 4)

Figures x & x illustrate this. These are the first three pages of the eight page story "fear of falling" from Neil Gaiman's Sandman (reference). The first two pages (figure 4) form a two page spread and introduce Todd, a troubled playwright who's first play will premiere in only a few days. But Todd is afraid, he thinks the play will not be good enough and has decided to quit. He is visited by the lead-actress and tells her he will blow the whole thing off the next day. He finally falls a sleep and starts dreaming. Then on page three (figure 5) he meets Sandman, the Lord of Dreams, a godlike figure who's domain includes stories and storytellers among other things and who has taken a personal interest in Todd's troubles. The appearance and intervention of Sandman is main of point of the short story. The position (and size) of the panel on the third page of the story add visual weight to the dramatic twist of events and is a good example of how careful pacing of panels can achieve such effects.

Looking more carefully at the first two pages, the dramatic appearance of Sandman is foreshadowed by the shift of colour in the last four panels of page two, and also the decrease in size of the last three panels. These prime the reader for a dramatic event without telling what will happen exactly. A reader who is familiar with the nature of Sandman can probably accurately predict his appearance because Todd (a troubled playwright) starts dreaming in the last four panels of page two (enters the Realm of Dreams which master is also governs stories). But more importantly any reader will, consciously or unconsciously, be effected by this build-up from the moment she glances the whole page and starts reading. The effect is always and immediately there.

Figure 6: Pictorial subnarratives 1 (Gaiman, 1994: 6.16)

Figure 7: Pictorial subnarratives 2 (Gaiman, 1994: 6.17)

Figures 6 & 7 illustrate another effect of the juxtaposition of signs: two sequences of events that happen at the same time. The first sequence of events has Marv, a blue collar worker in the Realm of Dreams, repairing the 'Dream Library' by pasting paper depicting bookshelves unto a brick wall and discussing his master Sandman with Lucien the Librarian. The second sequence starts at the fourth panel in figure 6 and has Sandman appear from the bookshelves just pasted unto the wall and surprise Marv in the second panel in figure 7. There are many examples of such small parallel stories in both graphic novels and cinema. Mostly parallel stories occur in the background of same panels of the main narratives. Jeanne Ewert calls these "pictorial subnarratives" in her discussion of Art Spiegelman's Maus (2004: 181). The possibility of parallel stories stems directly from the graphic, two-dimensional form of the graphic novel. A similar construction in a pure sequential medium is impossible, although it can be approached by alternating quickly between two different sequences.

Figure 8: Delerium (Gaiman, 2003: 116)

Figure 9: Conceptual map (from Kress & Van Leeuwen 1996: 103)

The spatial structure of a picture occasionally becomes so dominant that it actually breaks down any sequential 'reading order'. Figure 8 is an example of this. It is a page from a Sandman story that features Delerium, Sandman's youngest sibling whose domain is madness. The sequence of the texts is more or less clear but the sequence of the images is not. A page like this might be better understood as a conceptual map: an image where the spatial relations among the depicted elements correspond to conceptual relations among the represented elements. Figure 9 is an example of such a conceptual map that depicts the relations between the different sciences that deal with language. Association is the most important interpretative structure a viewer of such pages use to make sense of them. In figure 9 the association is directed largely by the context of academia, but the viewer is allowed much more freedom in the interpretation of figure 8.

Visual modality

Modality is a term that originates from linguistics where it is used to refer to the credibility of a statement. Propositions and claims that are presented as facts have high credibility or modality, they are presented as being 'true', whereas statements that are clearly attributed to the be the opinion of certain people or factions, statements who are presented as being 'likely' or even 'unlikely' have low modality. The modality of a text is affected by the use of particular words, grammatical and stylistic structures. But different type of texts attribute high or low modality to different structures. A well written academic text is different from a piece of journalism. Gunter Kress and Theo van Leeuwen (1996) apply the notion of modality to the visual domain. In their view an image can be said to have a high or low modality depending on how close the image resembles the 'natural image' produced by the photo camera. Thus a picture that contains depth, natural lighting, a natural spread of colour, is said to have a high modality. Pictures that deviate from the norm either because the lack in these qualities or have them in abundance have their modality lowered, they are presented as less likely to be true (1996: 159-168). Although Kress and Van Leeuwen discuss different 'coding orientations': norms of high modality other than photo-realism, they stop short of interpret the particular deviation of such a norm an image might have. Each image can be said to possess an individual modality 'fingerprint'. It for instance an image might contain realistic colours and lighting but no depth, and such deviation might be marked use of modality. Much in the way that the absence of colour in black and white photography signifies a certain sense of history or nostalgia even if only originates from certain technical limitations. Kress and Van Leeuwen also fail to attach meaning to significant shifts in modality. A well-known and perhaps overly-used application is the use of black-and-white and soft focus in television an cinema flashbacks.

In images 4 and 5 when can see a number of examples of significant use of modality and modality shifts. The dark greenish colours that dominate the first page stand in stark contrast with the reds used to depict the dreaming sequences. The first dreaming panel in the middle of page 2 represents a dream remembered by Todd. The modality of this panel is further lowered and the shades of red deepen. This is repeated on a later page (see figure 10) where Todd remembers other childhood dreams. When Todd wakes up towards the end of the story the colours shift back to the dark colours of first scene (see figure 12). Although this time the dominant colour is purple instead of green, perhaps signifying that the Todd's dream has changed his real life. In line with the open character of the image I leave it to the reader to interpret the used colours as symbols. There are many possibilities that seem equally valid. Likewise I leave I also leave it to the reader to make something from the fact that Todd falls away from the greenish colours that seem to linger at the edge of the dream just before he 'learns there is a third alternative to dying and waking when falling in a dream' (image 11).

Figure 10: Fear of Falling, page 5 (Gaiman, 1993: 6)

Figure 11: Fear of Falling, page 7 (Gaiman, 1993: 8)

Figure 12: Fear of Falling, page 8 (Gaiman, 1993: 9)

Modality as a sophisticated graphic device in the employ of the artist / storyteller, one that is very similar from the effects of focalisation in literature. This is best exemplified by the use of the 'subjective camera' in cinema modality can 'colour' the perspective of the depicted events, with modality shifts coinciding with shifts in perspective, and as with so many things the choice of perspective is often meaningful and a conscious construction of the author. To be able to 'read' patterns of modality one has to draw on past experience with the medium. It depends largely on what Kress and Van Leeuwen would call a 'visual literacy', an aspect of visual storytelling easily overlooked if one focuses too much on traditional (non-graphic) literary techniques.

Graphic Stories

If we take into consideration the expressive dimensions of the graphic novel and their graphic nature the difference between the stories of the modern novel and the graphic novel should not come as a surprise. The novel is very good at creating a history, a web of relation and their development over time, where as the graphic novel is very good at creating a world in which relations and concepts are simultaneously related in space. They create story-worlds and invite the reader visit these magic realms of imagination. Especially when the dominant themes and genres of the graphic novel (fantasy, science fiction and superheroes) are approached as metaphors for particular aspects of life, the strengths of the graphic narrative come to fore. For instance, the cyberpunk sub-genre is often seen as an extrapolation of typical eighties issues (addictive vices, rogue capitalism, ever more dominant technology) to a near future setting where these can be exaggerated and investigated from many angles.

In this respect narratives worlds become almost like a simulation, a form of representation that leaves more room for interpretation and exploration (of themes), and inspires more participation, experimentation and expression in its audience.

Geoff King draws a similar conclusion with his investigation of popular cinema (2000). He identifies a single structure: the 'Frontier Myth' and shows how this structure gives meaning to many films. The Frontier Myth resolves around an individual hero who has some control over the technologies she uses. She is contrasted with the anonymous powers of a technological, hedonistic and bureaucratic society which often is the covert antagonistic power of the story. The agents of this power are controlled by the technology they use. The story takes part in a Frontier setting, originally this was the American West, but today the Frontier can have many forms, deep space, the ocean, the desert or any other wild lands not yet touched by civilisation. This setting has a purifying effect on those who enter, and only those that can be delivered from the clutches of technology will survive. The Frontier Myth is not as much an narrative template as it is an conceptual template. It sets up a metaphorical space that includes the concepts of technology, society, the individual and the frontier and in which many narratives can be mapped. The causal plots themselves are not important, rather these stories draw their expressive power and relevance from its portrayal of these concepts.

The story worlds of graphic novels are expanded beyond the confines of the single publication. Many graphic novels are episodic. In that respect they resemble television series more closely. Each publication in a series of novels has to present a short self contained story on its own, while at the same time it also contributes to the long term construction of the story world. Of course graphic novels are not the only medium in which these story-worlds are represented, The Lord of the Rings and related works from J.R.R Tolkien is a another good example and universally acclaimed for the richness and the detail with which Middle Earth is crafted. Likewise the Star Wars enterprise with its six movies, numerous games, novels, role-playing games, internet sites and fan fiction is creating the fiction of a world more than anything else. The Star Wars theme-park rides are exemplary in this respect: these do not attempt to relate the story of any of the films, rather they evoke the illusion of a visit to the world of Star Wars. There are many more examples in the world of fantasy and science fiction: Indiana Jones, The Matrix, The Disk World, various settings of Dungeons & Dragons, and of course the numerous series of comics and graphic novels. These story worlds are increasingly represented in different types of media. Graphic novels, novels, films, games all contribute to the same fictional universe. Series might spawn spin-offs that share the same background, setting or ideas but little else.

Another interesting analogy can be drawn to folktales and myths. For example, Norse myths (which inspired much fantasy fiction) is a collection of short tales that on the one hand are small self-contained stories and on the other hand are part of an larger text. The order of the individual stories of the Norse myths is not really important, although some are clearly part of the beginning of the cycle while others are clearly part of the end of the cycle. There are a few long developing storylines that establish something of a chronology: the creation and following destruction of the world, and the increasing antagonism of Loki, the trickster god. The many reference and foreshadowings makes the sequence of middle stories less important than the element of the story-world they focus on and how these element interrelates with the other elements of the story-world. The whole cycle of the Norse Myth can said to have unifying theme which binds the myths together and gives it general shape, but this shape is contained in the mythical world all the stories combined sketch out.

Story-worlds structure is well suited to be represented in media that mix sequential and graphic dimensions of expression. It is particularly well represented in the graphic novel. The graphic dimension of the graphic novel lends itself well for the representation of the world as a space where different concepts are personified. The expressive nature goes well with conceptual constellation of the powers that be. These type of stories are very different from the causal and often naturalistic plots of the modern novel, but they are by no means less sophisticated or less important.


Bal, Mieke (1997) Narratology, Introduction to the Theory of Narrative, Second Edition. Toronto, University of Toronto Press.

Blokker, Bas (2005) "Geschoten en gesneden, bedenkingen bij Quentin Tarantino c.s." in NRC Handelsblad (June 10, 2005).

Ewert, Jeanne (2004) "Art Spiegelman's Maus and the Graphic Narrative" in Marie-Laure Ryan (ed) Narrative Across Media, The Languages of Storytelling, pp. 178-193. Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press.

Gaiman, Neil, et. al. (1993) The Sandman, volume VI: Fables & Reflections. New York, DC Comics.

Gaiman, Neil, et. al. (1994) The Sandman, volume VII: Brief Lives. New York, DC Comics.

Gaiman, Neil, et. al. (2003) The Sandman: Endless Nights. New York, DC Comics.

Jakobson, Roman (1985) "Linguistics and Poetics" in R.E. Innis (ed.) Semiotics, An Introductory Anthology pp.145-175. Bloomington, Indiana University Press.

King, Geoff (2000) Spectacular Narratives, Hollywood in the age of the blockbuster.

Kress & Van Leeuwen (1996) Reading Images, The Grammar of Visual Design. London Routledge.

Crawford, Chris (2005) Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling. Berkeley, New Riders.

McCloud, Scott (1993) Understanding Comics, The Invisible Art. New York, HarperCollins Publishers.

McCloud, Scott (2000) Reinventing Comics, How Imagination and Technology Are Revolutionaizing an Art Form. New York, HarperCollins.Ryan, Marie-Laure (2004) "Introduction" in Marie-Laure Ryan (ed) Narrative Across Media, The Languages of Storytelling, pp. 1-40. Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press.

Saussure, Ferdinand de (1983) Course in General Linguistics. Chicago, Open Court.