3.7 Narrative & visual style

The purpose of this exercise was to examine the work of illustrators that work in a graphic novel genre to access the relationship between the visual style and the narrative.

Key words from the brief:

  • Pick some examples of work [comic book, cartoon and graphic novel artists] that you find interesting.
  • What’s the relationship between the narrative and the style of drawing being used?
  • Which is most important in making the story work?

Graphic novels and visual style

I’ve chosen five examples of graphic novels and illustrators that I’ve either come across whilst completing earlier parts of this course or as part of my own personal research.

They include:

  • Emmanuel Guibert – The Photographer
  • Joe Sacco – Palestine
  • Laura Oldfield Ford – Savage Messiah
  • Molly Mendoza – Skip
  • Javier Montesol – Idilio

Emmanuel Guibert – The Photographer

The Photographer is a non-fiction graphic novel that tells the true story of Didier Lefèvre, a French photojournalist, who accompanied a Médecins Sans Frontières mission during the height of the Soviet–Afghan War in 1986.

The core of the narrative is structured around Didier Lefèvre’s black and white photographs that document the mission, the people, the conflict and the majestic Afghan landscape. The photographs form the keyframes of the story. The illustrations are the in-betweens that provide the context and colour to the narrative. The visual style of the illustrations remind me very much of Hergé’s adventures of Tintin by Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi.

The Photographer_Emmanuel Guibert.IN08
Fig 1 – The Photographer (2009)

The purpose of the illustration is to be very functional. It sits underneath, supports and extends the photographs but is the ‘glue’ that turns the photo-journalism into a structured documentary narrative about the effects of war.

The use of photographics contact sheets is a great technique and provides ready made comic strip panels.

Joe Sacco – Palestine

Palestine is a non-fiction graphic novel written and drawn by Joe Sacco about his experiences in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in December 1991 and January 1992.

It’s interesting because Joe Sacco illustrates himself into the narrative, so it’s drawn in the ‘first person’. It’s a brilliant and thoughtful way to discuss and illustrate the plight of the Palestinian people, their seemingly intractable situation and the issues they face in a way that has not been possible using other formats.

Palestine_Joe Sacco
Fig 2 – Palestine (2003)

The illustration is really important because it is packed full of the visual detail that is the primary driver of the narrative. Unlike The Photographer that has black and white photographs from out-in-the-field to add validity to the visual narrative, Sacco has to rely solely on his illustration to provide the mass of carefully observed detail that embellishes the story.

Laura Oldfield Ford – Savage Messiah

Savage Messiah was self published between 2005 and 2009 and focused on a different London postcode in each issue. They have a distinctive visual style very much in a punk fanzine genre; drawings, photocopies, black and white photographs, collage, handwritten text all glued together to reflect the grey estates and lives of the people and places that are the subjects of her work.

Laura Grace Ford (2017) says of her own work: “I regard my work as diaristic; the city can be read as a palimpsest, of layers of erasure and overwriting,’ She describes the work as “a series of stories; broken narratives that articulated a certain moment, a certain relationship with the city. It was about transience and impermanence, but also about the bonds that form in those moments: kinship, comradeship and love.”.

Laura Oldfield Ford_Savage Messiah
Fig 3 Savage Messiah (2011)

It is the visual language above all else that is the driving feature in this work.

Molly Mendoza – Skip

I initially saw the work of Molly Mendoza in the Autumn Edition of Varoom (2019, Issue 40). The illustrations are beautifully fluid and colourful and the way she uses the comic structure is really interesting. I bought the book.

Skip is a fictional graphic novel about the relationship of two unlikely friends, Bloom and Gloopy, who move through different worlds and different dimensions as their adventures unfold.

It’s the visual style that drives the whole story. Each dimension they move through is identified by a distinctive colour palette.

The pages below show the character’s the first transition from one dimension to another.

The illustration is sometimes quite abstract but the bold patterns and fluid movement across panels drives the story forward.

Skip_Molly Mendoza
Fig 4 Skip (2019)

Javier Montesol – Idilio

El Idilio‘ by Javier Montesol is an initiatory trip to Tangier in 1974 of a young man influenced by the work of Fortuny.

I saw this book in the Museo Nacional Del Prado in Madrid. I bought it because of the illustrative style; The panels are all painted in a loose watercolour style using a very limited colour palette.

The book was commissioned and published by the museum in support of an exhibition of the work of Mariano Fortuny y Marsal (1838-1874).

Javier Montesol_Idilio
Fig 5 Idilio (2017)

I can’t read Spanish and have never tried to translate the book but the narrative still reads through the visual style of the artist and structure and pace of the comic book.

List of illustrations

Figure 1 – Guibert, Emmanuel (2009) The Photographer (First American Edition 2009) New York: First Second

Figure 2 – Sacco, Joe (2003) Palestine London: Jonathan Cape

Figure 3 – Ford, Laura Grace (2011) Savage Messiah (1st ed.) New York: Verso

Figure 4 – Mendoza, Molly (2019) Skip (1st ed.) London: Nobrow

Figure 5 – Montesol, Javier (2017) Idilio (1st ed.) Madrid: Museo Nacional del Prado Difusión


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