Comics as Narrative Text

April 30, 2009 at 13:22 (Uncategorized)








According to the Oxford Dictionary of English (ODE 2003) a comic is ‘a periodical containing comic strips, intended chiefly for children’ while a cartoon  is ‘a narrative sequence of humourous drawings in a comic, magazine or newspaper’.  Pop culture definitions for comics and cartoons differ somewhat – a comic is defined as a sequence of drawing that tell a story, either through a periodical or a once off publication, while cartoon refers to an animated story usually with wildly exaggerated actions and situations or . 


For comics to be considered narrative text, they first have to be considered reading material.  ‘Worthy’ reading material contains words that form logical sentences that depict situations, fact or fiction.


Fact is most often considered worthy of being read while some genres of fictions are considered to be of less worth than others, for example fantasy rates lower than crime.


Could it be that because most comics have fantasy elements that are less than worthy?  Or is it because of the use of pictures rather than words to depict scenes and characters?


Or is it because of the picture books of children’s tales lead people to believe that comics, which use pictures for storytelling, are for children?  It is common practice for publisher to reprint popular children’s novel with ‘adult’ covers so readers don’t have to be seen reading books for children.  This reinforces the notion that comics are for children as it creates a precedent for adult reading and comics and childrens’ literature do not consider ‘good’ literature.


Comics can be as playful and light as children’s tales but also as dark and violent as ‘serious’ fiction.  They can be for entertainment or education.  The artwork can be good or bad.  They can send a message or play around with nothing. 





Poetic, dramatic and narrative.  Of these three literary genres why do comics fall into narrative? 


Poetic cannot be considered because the language used in comics is not poetic – that is, it is not figurative language. It is not laid out a poetic fashion, for example short unpunctuated sentences.  The sentences are informative and follow the grammatical rules of the language they are written in.   


Dramatic cannot be considered as comics are not written to be preformed.  Actors are not required to act out on stage what is depicted on the page of a comic.  There are no didascalia in comics but there is narration. There are focalisers and characters.  Fabula is depicted with the use of pictures and sjuzet through character speech and actions. 


Comics tell a story by quoting characters and narrating scenes with pictures.







What makes text narrative?  A story that is narrated depicting character’s actions and set in a fictional world.  But does that definition only apply to novels?  A comic is a narrated story is a fictional world.  Indeed, a complete story arc of any comic series is called a graphic novel.  [The term ‘graphic novel’ generally refers to the complete bound edition of any comic’s story arc or collection of chapters.  For the purpose of this paper comics shall be used for both graphic novel and comics.]


The main difference between a novel and comic is that the reader doesn’t have to imagine what the scene looks like.  The pictures show the reader what they need to see but the full imagery required to complete the scene is provided in text boxes such as the smell of the place, the noise or the temperature.  The character will describe his own view of the place through his speech or body language. 





The main focaliser in comics is usually the main character – often the character the comic is named after.  Readers see only what he see and experiences, there are other focalisers but again, you only see what they see and experience. There is little description concerning the characters or the environment they find themselves in; inner thoughts and views are expressed in text box narration or spoken (quoted) out loud.  Any external narration is usually at the beginning of the story or chapter beginnings.  They mostly express hypothetical situations or possibilities the character is likely to encounter but always relate to the main story in some way; often expressing aspect of the greater plot by likening it to something else.





There is very little (if any) written character description when new characters initially appear.  If there is, it is usually something that cannot be portrayed through the artwork such as a smell or some minor, generally repetitive, action.  The readers get an almost complete physical description when the character appears through how he is drawn.  Characterisation is generally indirect through other character’s thought and the character’s own thoughts and actions.  As the story progresses, a clearer image of the character is revealed.  His beliefs and goals are revealed through his actions and inactions. 


There is a lot of characterization though speech.  Comic characters are also quote, their speech is in speech bubbles, and they do not know they are being quoted.





There are many examples of novels (and plays) being reproduced as comics.  Views on these adaptations are varied as some feel the original feel of the novel is lost while other feel the story has gained a new audience and a new lease on life. 


Focalization and characterization are both present in these adaptations as is narration.  To a new reader the adaptation may be enjoyable but to the reader who has read the original novel, the adaptation may be a disappointment.  The pictures may not display the imagery they had in their heads.  The words used by the original author invoked certain feelings and thoughts that are different to what the artist portrayed in his work.  Of course, the artist may have captured what the reader had seen and the adaptation may be just as enjoyable as the original novel. 


Though these are often abridged as the full scope of the story may be too long/complex to convert.  Comic narration is somewhat like dramatic text in that it is created for a purpose but not the purpose of being performed.  But rather to be told using pictures. 





So to end the tale… Were comics to be classified in a literary genre, the genre would be narrative as comics fill all the requirements of narrative text. 




Sources consulted:


Van Rooyen, T, Grabe, I, Keuris, M. 2008. Theory of Literature Text and Workbook.  Study guide 1 for THL802V.  Pretoria:  University of South Africa.

Oxford Dictionary of English. 2003. Oxfordshire: Oxford.


Basics of English Studies. [O].                                                                                          Available:  Accessed on 2008/02, 2008/03, 2008/11, 2009/02.

Umberto, E. 2002. On Literature. London: Vintage.



  1. Zainurrahman said,

    how happy I find your this article… I don’t read it yet, but I copied it. Would you mind to tell us what are conventions of english narrative text? By knowing this, we may know which is good narrative text and which one is not… Thank you, visit me

    • nantalith said,

      You copied my work? Please do not copy my work – I am still working on this paper and it is far from complete. You are welcome to comment on it but do not copy it – thank you.

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