As playwright William Nicholson said, “We read to know we are not alone.” One of the key advantages of a visual text like a graphic novel is that readers have so many resources to reach to when encountering the text – from the speech that characters share together, to the creation of full background scenes and settings in panels, to the ways that characters are rendered. Readers can literally see representations that they relate to.
Today’s Monday Motivator post pays homage to many of the features of graphic novels, but tunes in with a particular focus to the ways that characters are drawn and interact visually on the page. In order to talk about this feature, I share about a recent graphic novel publication, Slip, written by Marika McCoola and illustrated by Aatmaja Pandya. I also give a nod to an upcoming graphic novel, Forest Hills Bootleg Society, written by Dave Baker and illustrated by Nicole Goux. Some of Baker and Goux’s design work inspired this post.
Slip was published on July 7, 2022 by Algonquin Young Readers and tells the story of a young artist, Jade. When Jade’s best friend attempts to end her life, Jade begins to explore her own experiences and feelings through her art. She also begins to develop a romantic interest in one of her peers, Mary.
This book does not veer away from the emotions or complexities of young adulthood, and the reader gets to know Jade based on the typical ways that characters are presented – what they say, what they do, what other characters say – but also through expressions, movements, and visual depiction.
Breaking the Web
Teachers who are looking for a deeper dive on character work and who want to expand beyond the web graphic organizer approach can invite students to take notes on both the visual and verbal aspects of Slip, and these notes can also be captured in words and pictures.
As mentioned at the outset of this post, I was inspired by the work of Dave Baker and Nicole Goux in Forest Hills Bootleg Society. While I won’t share too many details about the book (it is due to be published in September 2022), I was struck by a page entitled “A Brief History of Kelly’s Obsession with Anime.”
Baker and Goux have developed an introduction to a character with this approach that features an image of Kelly with other characters’ heads drawn around them, floating in space and delivering details about Kelly. The character’s narrative is told in a paragraph/prose form that flows down the page and additional word bubbles emerge that contain more information but are not attributed to any particular characters.
With Slip, teachers can use the text to hone in on these visual elements and engage with students in an organic approach to understanding characters based on the mise-en-scene work of graphic novelists like McCoola and Pandya. A sample approach might look like:
Page 1, Panel 1 (a presentation of Jade’s artwork): What do we know about this character immediately before we even see their face? In the next panel on this page, we see Jade from behind, engaged with art-making. Why would the author/artist team render the page this way?
Page 2, Panel 1 (a phone call from Phoebe, off-screen): We still do not see Jade’s face in this panel, but we are observing a conversation. What do we know about Jade and Phoebe from this panel?
Page 2, Panel 4 (Jade’s pencil breaks): Based on the information, we have gathered on this page, what can we infer about why Jade might be accidentally breaking her pencil? What does this suggest about her emotional state? What does she feel in this moment? What does this tell us about her character, overall?
Page 3, Panel 2 (Jade’s physical response): How does the way that the artist rendered Jade in this panel relate to what we already know about her? What does the position of her hands on her head and the way that her eyes appear, including her full expression, tell us about what she is feeling?
Page 4, Splash Panel (Jade’s physical response): We now see Jade from farther away. Why would the artist choose to depict her in the center of the panel without other characters nearby? Her hands are covering her mouth, her eyes are still wide, and she is no longer sitting, but is curled on the floor. The phone is no longer in her hands. What does all of this suggest about her? What do we know about her as a character from the way she is responding?
By taking a close look at panel content, including the position of characters, their relationship to objects and other characters, including isolation, and the ways that both expressions and words convey emotions, teachers can lead students through a close noticing and trace the way what we know or assume about characters begins to take shape throughout a visual story. This work can then be applied to prose, verse, or additional graphic novel texts.
Teachers can consider using any number of graphic novels to engage in this process. In particular, I recommend the work of Maia Kobabe, Victoria Jamieson, Jerry Craft, and Jarrett J. Krosoczka – all of these authors and artists present intriguing concepts for students to consider, and all have an appealing visual style that invites attention to expressions and movements.
Stergios Botzakis, http://graphicnovelresources.blogspot.com/ blog.
Teaching Reading Comprehension with Graphic Texts: An Illustrated Adventure by Katie Monnin and Rachel Bowman.
Nick Sousanis, https://spinweaveandcut.com/ blog.
Adventures in Graphica: Using Comics and Graphic Novels to Teach Comprehension, 2-6 by Terry Thompson.