Narrative in comics

Thoughts on H. J. Pratt’s article “Narrative in comics” (2009)

In this post I reflect on the final section of the article “Narrative in Comics” by Henry John Pratt. It was published in 2009 in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, pp. 107-115.

Dr. Henry J. Pratt is assistant professor of philosophy at Marist College. His primary research interests include artistic value, philosophy of comics, film, pornography, and serial narration.

In this article Pratt examines the nature of narratives in comics from a philosophical angle. He attempts to determine if comics offer any narrative structures or strategies that would make them distinct from similar artistic media employing the same narrative tools. After exploring the similarities between comics and film narration, he argues that comics do have their own distinctive narrative features. With his research and this article, he aims to “achieve a greater understanding of the nature of comics as a unique and important art form” (Pratt, p. 108).

I would like to point out that Pratt’s assertions throughout the article are based on rather broad terms and definitions, which he explains at the beginning. In the text at hand he refers to comics as “juxtaposed pictures that comprise a narrative” (Pratt, p. 107) His remarks on the structure in comics are usually based on a standard comics page including text such as speech bubbles or captions.

The final section of Pratt’s article, subtitled “Distinctive Narrative in Comics”, forms the subject matter of my critical analysis.

First, Pratt notes that the techniques of pictorial storytelling in film and comics are strikingly similar. He then asks if there is actually anything unique that comics offer as a narrative medium.

In answering this question, Pratt challenges McCloud’s argument of “closure” (McCloud, p. 66) being the unique feature of comics that would make the medium distinct from film and all other arts. Closure in comics is achieved by the reader’s constant participation, creating an intimacy between reader and narrative. Closure in film, however, is “continuous, largely involuntary, and virtually imperceptible” (McCloud, p. 68).

Pratt goes on to examine the controversy this argument raised in comics literature. He lists a number of objections from experts who by and large contend that McCloud’s definition of closure can easily be applied to film as well. Transitions in film from shot to shot, as well as sequential shifts between temporal and spatial locations, require viewer involvement, thus creating the same the same intimacy mentioned above.

After comparing McCloud’s position to David Bordwell’s² constructivist theory of narrative film, wherein “the artwork is necessarily incomplete, needing to be unified and fleshed out by the active participation of the perceiver”, Pratt concludes that closure does not seem to be the distinguishing feature of comics; the similarities with other narrative media are too close (Pratt, p. 114).

Pratt maintains, however, that there is a cluster of features unique to the narrative strategies in comics. One is the physical dimension of the medium, in which the panels of a comic are displayed simultaneously in the same space. In film, by contrast, the different frames and shots are projected at different times in the same space.

He also argues that the artistic choices regarding panel size, shape and position are available only in comics, suggesting that the panel layout in comic books is the most important narrative tool for the comic artist.

Pratt expands on the narrative effects produced by the page layout, and on how panel size and arrangement in combination with word balloons can facilitate or hinder the process of closure. Variety of page composition helps capture and keep the reader’s interest. Pratt finds applying these techniques to film to be unsuccessful. He argues that use of the split screen (simulating panel arrangements) serves only to cause unnecessary narrative effects, which distract the viewer and detract from the power of the story.

The portrayal of simultaneous actions or overlapping speech bubbles within one scene is mentioned as a narrative attribute that he deems possible only in comics. In film, it would result in an incomprehensible mix of voices and force the viewer’s attention to one scene at the expense of other scenes.

Pratt finalizes his argument with what I think a very compelling proposition: time. It is the self-determined pace of reading comics that produces a very distinctive experience. The reader is able to reflect on imagery and narrative as long as he/she chooses to, whereas in film he is subject to a certain speed of perception.

Lastly, Pratt closes his argument by discussing the medium’s general appeal. He attributes this to its inexpensive and fairly easy means of production, similar to the creation and distribution of literature. Film production usually requires collaboration between the author, director, actors and many others, which takes away some of the creative control one person could exert.

In the article section I chose, I think Pratt delivers a very clear and comprehensible argument, informatively pointing out the dominant narrative characteristics of comics and what makes them so distinctive.

The way I think about narrative features in comics, film and literature has become more nuanced due to the analysis of this article. I understand better what the comics medium can potentially achieve, how it differs from other narrative media like literature and film, and why certain characteristics in comics work and why, when applied in film, those same features would not work or would not work very well.

I slightly disagree with the last paragraph, where Pratt cites inexpensive and independent production as one of the reasons for the medium’s appeal. Due to the emergence of new user-friendly devices such as smartphones and accessible, inexpensive technology, filmmaking as become as easy as producing a comic. On the other hand, this article was published nearly 10 years ago, where smartphones were only starting to emerge.

I conclude that he has met the goal he presented earlier in the introduction of this article, which was to investigate and map out the most important narrative features of comics and, by doing so, produce a better understanding of the narrative nature that the medium offers.

Pratt, H.J. (2009) Narrative in ComicsThe Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 67, no. 1, pp. 107-117.

McCloud, S. (1994) Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: Harper Collins & Kitchen Sink Press

Bordwell, D. (1985) Narration in the Fiction Film, p. 32

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