Toward a Shared Vocabulary for Visual Analysis: An Analytic Toolkit for Deconstructing the Visual Design of Graphic Novels

Article excerpt

Visual literacy--which, following Avgerinou (2009), I define as the ability to interpret (read) and produce (write) images--is an established standard in many state curriculum frameworks. Nevertheless, like media literacy, the conceptual umbrella under which it belongs, visual literacy is not guaranteed to receive substantive attention in teacher education programs. Bleed (2005), for example, states that, "Any teacher education program that would embrace the teaching of [this] new literacy would be on the cutting edge in the United States" (p. 9). Nor is visual literacy the subject of professional development programming for in-service teachers with any degree of frequency. Instead, classroom teachers are left largely to their own devices to figure out how best to address a subject with which they might lack experience.

Under these conditions, some literacy educators have turned to graphic novels--a term that denotes a book-length narrative written in the medium of comics--as a tool for teaching visual literacy (see, for example, Frey & Fisher, 2008; Gillenwater, 2009). Like the comic book, its older sibling, the graphic novel interweaves word and image to tell a story. Yet whereas comic books are generally 32 pages long and published serially, the extended format of graphic novels makes it possible for cartoonists to present an entire narrative in a single volume. Like mainstream comic books, some graphic novels focus on the exploits of superheroes. Others, however, explore issues and themes that are more likely to resonate with educators, including the horrors of the Holocaust (e.g., Art Spiegelman's Maus); the complexities of life under a theocratic government (e.g., Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood); and issues associated with familial relationships and coming-of-age (e.g., David Small's Stitches). Because they rely in part on images to construct a narrative, graphic novels lend themselves to the study of visual literacy. At the same time, one might ask whether classroom teachers who are unfamiliar with graphic novels, or who lack a background in the visual arts, are confident in their ability to lead students in close analysis of visual texts.

Secondary English language arts teachers, many of whom were trained to read literature in university English departments, stand to inherit a set of analytic concepts the field has cultivated for analyzing literature. In turn, they might ask their students to consider the role that symbols and themes, irony and foreshadowing, point of view and characterization play in shaping their response to literary texts. Through this process they invite students to become members of an interpretive community to which they belong (Fish, 1980). Yet while state curriculum frameworks tend to hold English teachers accountable for teaching skills associated with visual analysis, there is no guarantee that they have recourse to an equivalent set of concepts for analyzing visual texts.

That this should be the case is surprising, especially when one considers, as Chandler-Olcott (2008) does, that more than a decade has passed since the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association issued a joint document--Standards for English Language Arts-that "called explicitly for teachers to ... attend to 'visual language 'as well as spoken and written language" (p. 67, my emphasis).

Drawing on scholarship in the field of art, along with Kress and van Leeuwen's work with images (1996/2006), my objective in this paper is to outline the beginnings of a shared vocabulary teacher educators and preservice teachers can draw on to evaluate the role issues of design play in eliciting their response to visual texts--in this case, images in graphic novels. In working toward this end I focus on the role that three concepts--basic shapes, perspective, and left-right visual structure--play in the design of visual texts. Having done so, I demonstrate how those concepts function by applying them to my own reading of two panels from I Kill Giants, a graphic novel by Joe Kelly and J. …


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