Image [&] Narrative #8: Tying ends together: surface and storyworld in comics by Steven Surdiacourt

27 Dec

The twin concepts ‘sujet’ and ‘fabula’, ‘story’ and ‘discourse’, ‘histoire’ and ‘récit’ have become anchors of our understanding of storytelling. More than that, the interaction between a ‘what’ and a ‘how’ has commonly been recognised as the conceptual core that defines any narrative, independently of its medial form. Seymour Chatman (1990: 9), for instance, has defended the idea that “what makes Narrative unique among the text-types is its ‘chrono-logic’, its doubly temporal logic.” In recent narrative theory, the validity of this distinction is nevertheless regularly questioned (see, for instance, Pier 2003), sometimes resulting in the rejection of the concepts as dated relics of a structuralist narratology. I will not linger over the general details of this criticism here, but rather focus on the applicability of the introduced concepts to graphic narratives.

Responding to Chatman’s reflections on the fundamental character of the ‘chrono-logic’, Martin Schüwer (2008) writes in Wie Comics erzählen that the distinction between story and discourse can be quite problematic for comics. The main reason for this, he argues, is the “inextricability of the material form and the content of the drawing in comics” (Schüwer 2008, 23 [my translation]), the impossibility of separating the signified from the signifier. For Schüwer, this inextricably raises questions such as: “Should we consider the caricatural style of Charles M. Schulz’ Peanuts as a mere feature of the discourse and imagine that Charly [sic] Brown and Lucy actually look quite differently in the recounted world?” (Schüwer 2008: 23 [my translation]). Since the story/discourse dichotomy seems unable to account for certain essential aspects of the medium, Schüwer decides to restrict its use to the analysis of the (double) temporal structure of comics.

To substantiate his argumentation, Schüwer refers to Jens Balzer’s (2002) essay ‘Der Horizont bei Herriman. Zeit und Zeichen zwischen Zeitzeichen und Zeichenzeit’. Analysing a remarkable Sunday page of Krazy Kat, Balzer (whose train of thought is not always easy to follow) sets out to demonstrate the inseparability of signifier and signified in graphic narratives. The page Balzer discusses, depicts yet another day in Coconio County, presenting the obligatory love-triangle constituted by Ignatz Mouse, the brick and Krazy Kat. Yet in this particular story the main protagonist seems to be the horizon line. Balzer focusses on the shifting functions of this line throughout the story. It appears firstly as the conventional representation of the horizon and activates as such a three-dimensional interpretation of the space, it appears also as the horizontal demarcation of a two-dimensional space through which Krazy tickles Igantz’s feet and, finally, as a wire that can be cut or ‘hewed’ and used to tie down Krazy. What is more, the introduction of every new ‘perspective’ does not simply trigger a retrospective revision of the nature of the line. The new function is rather added to the already established one(s) so that, in the end, the horizon line takes on it various shapes simultaneously in the different panels of this minimal story. In spite of the obvious semiotic instability of the line (and its fourteenfold (re-)appearance on the segmented page), the text insists on the identity (or oneness) of the line. In the first four panels, the line is referred to as “the same”, “a continuation” or an “immutable filiform demarcation.” The text, arguably, refers to the graphic surface of the story, where the line remains a line, an identical (or at least similar) graphic mark on the page, despite its multiple functions.

George Herriman’s notoriously unstable world might not be the most reliable base for a general reflection on the narrative organisation of comics, but I do think that this particular strip provides an interesting starting point for the exploration of the mechanisms of graphic representation. What is at stake here, I would suggest, is not the distinction between story and discourse. Schüwer’s problem is not so much caused by the postulation of two different narrative dimensions (which seems to go against his view of the relation between signified and signified) but by his understanding of the relation between those levels. His argument is based on a traditional (read: structuralist) conception in which the story provides the raw material for a particular narrative representation (or discourse) and thus logically precedes this representation (which is, in turn, understood as a distortion of the original story.) Richard Walsh (2007: 52-68) has convincingly challenged this view and has argued instead that the story is not an objective reality that exists independently of a particular narrative representation, but is an interpretative construction by the reader based on the discourse, the only textual reality to which (s)he has access. In his view, the discourse or sujet logically precedes the story and the story or fabula functions as “an interpretative exercise in establishing representational coherence only as a means to the end of this perceptibility” (Walsh 2007: 67) or, in other words, as “the reader’s working version” (Walsh 2007: 68). The story or fabula is then “how we understand sujet per se, and how we understand its contingency (potentially, its unreliability), not in relation to facts or sources, and usually not in comparison with other versions, but with respect to its own disposition of values.” (Walsh 2007: 67). If the story is “a distillate” (Walsh 2007: 66) of the discourse, Schüwer’s question about the appearance of Charlie Brown and Lucy obviously loses its pertinence. The constructivist view of the story also dissipates Balzer’s concern that the uncertain status of the line would be fitted in a linear logic by a narrative approach, that its interesting complexity would be reduced. Since the story, as Walsh emphasizes, is a construction based on the proper disposition of the discourse (and not on a comparison with some external reality), the uncertain status of the line would count as an ‘event’ (albeit a not so common one) in the story. And Balzer’s own effort to describe what is going on in the discussed Sunday page is in itself already a (public) act of interpretative construction.

While the endorsement of this different view on the relation between story and discourse accords with the intuition that the most readers have no difficulty to articulate what is happing in a particular comic (even in a complex one), it doesn’t help to explain the particularity of the discussed Krazy Kat story. Caran d’Ache’s Lettre de Napoléon à Murat (available here) offers a similar but less complex example which helps to grasp said particularity. It presents an even more minimal story in which both Napoleon and General Joachim Murat briefly figure (Napoleon appears in the first five panels, Murat in the very last one). The main part of the text is, however, devoted to the depiction of the adventures of an anonymous courier, carrying a letter from Napoleon to Murat. The journey of the courier (which is quite stirring) reaches its climax in a series of three panels near the end of the text, in which his horse is brutally dismembered by an explosion and, all is well that ends well (at least for the moment), neatly tied back together. What is remarkable about this passage is the temporary breach in the iconic regime of the story: the peculiar revival of the horse is only possible because of its graphic rendering in a style that is known as fil de fer or iron wire. Said otherwise, the two halves of the horse can only be knotted together because the horse is from the beginning on a line or a wire. (Just try to imagine a cinematic equivalent of the described scene.) In these particular panels the continuity of the story seems determined more by a logic of the line than by a pre-determined logic of action. As in the Krazy Kat example, where the line ceases to be a stable spatio-temporal coordinate determining the space in which the action could take place, the line partly liberates itself from its figurative function and brings into play its materiality.

This short lapse does not seem to cause any significant problems for the understanding of the story, it doesn’t even seem to interrupt the narrative continuity. But it does challenge the accepted Platonic notion of mimesis and demands a more complex understanding of the act of reading graphic narratives. The acceptance of a definition of mimesis in dual terms (such as the one advance by Aristotle (see Halliwell 151-176)), as the metaphorical act of seeing a represented world in a crafted object (Halliwell 2002: 189-193) allows for a better understanding of the role of the medial surface in the construction and experience of graphic narratives. It entails a view of the readerly experience not as the unearthing of a virtual narrative by the penetration of its medial surface, as Chatman (1978: 27) phrased it, but as a form of reading in and with the graphic surface, in which the “appreciation of both medium and ‘object’ of the material artifact [sic] and the imagined world that it represents, coalesce in a complex state of awareness.” (Halliwell 2002: 181-182).

Works Cited

Jens Balzer (2002) “Der Horizont bei Herriman. Zeit und Zeichen zwischen Zeitzeichen und Zeichenzeit.” In: Michael Hein et al. (eds.) Ästhetik des Comic. Berlin: Erich Schmidt Verlag, pp. 143-152.

Seymour Chatman (1978) Story and Discourse. Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. Ithace: Cornell University Press.

Seymour Chatman (1990) Coming to Terms. The Rhetoric of Narrative Fiction in Film. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Stephen Halliwell (2002) The Aesthetics of Mimesis. Ancient Texts and Modern Problems. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

John Pier (2003) “On the Semiotic Parameters of Narrative. A Critique of Story and Discourse.” In: Tom Kindt & Harald Müller (eds.) What is Narratology? Questions and Answers Regarding the Status of a Theory. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, pp. 78-83.

Martin Schüwer (2008) Wie Comics erzählen. Grundriss einer intermedialen Erzähltheorie der grafischen Literatur. WVT: Trier.

Richard Walsh (2007) The Rhetoric of Fictionality. Columbus: Ohio State University Press.

Steven Surdiacourt is a doctoral fellow of FWO-Flanders at the University of Leuven (Belgium). His PhD research is devoted to the description of storytelling in graphic narratives. He is a member of the editorial board of Image [&] Narrative.

Read more editions of our Image [&] Narrative column here.

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Posted by on 2012/12/27 in Image [&] Narrative


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