Research 2.2 The visual language of graphic novels

The purpose of this research point was to further investigate the forms and visual language of graphic novels 

Key words from the brief:

  • Reflect on what you can take from these examples [from list of illustrators provided] in relation to your own practice. 
  • Identify examples more closely linked to your own practice that explore similar ideas of narrative, storytelling and the representation of time?


The brief listed eleven artists, illustrators and authors to select and research. Some I was familiar with, some were completely new. I skimmed through them all and selected those that resonated with me in some way:


I researched some of the theory behind comics particularly the use of panels in expressing movement through time for exercise 3.1 Slow that was part of Visual exploration.

In their excellent book “Drawing Words & Writing Pictures”, Jessica Able and Matt Madden dedicate a whole chapter to panel design and describe the different design and compositional techniques that form the language that is at the disposal of the comic artist.

The list includes:

  • Asymmetry
  • Tonal balance
  • Diagonals
  • Reading path
  • Highlighting
  • Internal framing
  • Visual rhythm
  • Negative space
  • Silhouetting
  • Depth of field

(Able, Madden, 2008 pp156-159)

Rather than repeat that exercise here, I concentrated instead on another aspect of the visual language of comics.

Tom Hart describes the elements of the visual language of comics in his book The Art of the Graphic Memoir (2018) as having two parts:

  1. How pictures work; and
  2. how words and pictures combine.

In this exercise I looked at how my selected illustrators combine words with pictures because this has most relevance to my next exercise, 2.3 Developing content.

The artists I chose to research are:

  • Maria Kalman
  • Richard McGuire
  • Didier Lefevre and Emmanuel Guibert
  • Tim King

Maria Kalman

Maria Kalman is an American illustrator, author and designer who lives and works in New York. She is a prolific writer that has produced over 30-books for children and adults as well as regularly contributing to the New Yorker and The New York Times.

Her work is often witty and represents her particular and very personal point of view, What I like about her approach is why she chooses her themes and subjects. She describes this in her own words: “You don’t need to understand all the things that are motivating you, you just have to go with your instincts”, and “The digressions are more interesting than the topic” (Kalman, 2010).

When she speaks about her work she seems to be endlessly curious, always making connections and tying subjects together in sometimes obtuse but fascinating ways.

In an interview with Rumaan Alam, she says that her writing and illustration carry equal weight: “How do I combine this writing and this art to say as much as I can with as few words as I can” (Alam, 2018).

Her books written for adults The results are often witty and

To hear her talk about her work was a breath of fresh air. My design process often gets blocked by me overthinking what I’m doing, rather than just trusting my taste and making what I think is interesting.

Fig 1 – Page from “And the pursuit of happiness” (2010)

I experimented with this kind of ‘curious connections’ by drawing different people on a Zoom meeting and adding snatches of dialogue that seemed strange or interesting to me.

I used handwritten lettering inspired by Maria Kalman to see what resulted. I created several other drawings in this way as part of 2.3 Developing content.

Fig 2 – This is how products are done now (2021)

Richard McGuire

Richard McGuire is an American illustrator, comic book artist and musician. He is a regular contributor to the New Yorker where is has created covers for nearly two decades. He’s probably best known for a comic novel called Here (2014).

The book was first published in the experimental comics magazine RAW in 1989 as a 6-page comic strip. It was re-published in 2014 as 304-page book that was 15-years in the making.

Here (2014), describes future and past events that take place in the corner of a room. It uses frames within frames and captions to create a narrative that jumps backwards and forwards in decades of time, completely breaking the conventional practice where the story moves from left to right moving forwards in time.

Fig 3 – Here (2014)

The book is powerful because the concept is so simple.

There are two things that I noticed in this work that relate to my own pandemic diary project.

The first is about framing. McGuire uses the corner of a room as a simple framing device that provides the space for multiple interconnected and overlapping storylines across millions of years of history.

The second is that as well as publishing a physical book, there is also an eBook where it’s possible to shuffle and reshuffle scenes to create new narratives and connections.

This is interesting to me because my pandemic diary project has a simple diary structure with multiple chunks and snippets of content that link together. A digital format has all sorts of possibilities for how content is combined, shared and extended using social media platforms.

I used Here (2014) as inspiration for a 6-page comic strip that explored the passing of time through the graves and headstones in Brookwood Cemetery. The work was made in exercise 3.1 Slow as part of Visual exploration.

Fig 4 – Page 1 of Memento mori (2020)

Didier Lefevre and Emmanuel Guibert

The Photographer (2009) is a non fiction graphic novel that tells the story of Didier Lefevre, a photographer working for the Médecins Sans Frontières on a mission during the war between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union.

Lefevre returned home to France with over 4,000 photographs charting his trip, and he was encouraged by Guibert to retell his story using a combination of photographs, drawn panels, dialogue and narrative text.

It’s a powerful piece of documentary that seamlessly combines the photographic and hand drawn elements into flowing narrative.

The story arc is simple and compelling.

Fig 5 – The Photographer (2009)

There are number of lessons I can take from the visual language and structure of this book into my pandemic diary project:

  • The overarching story arc is the glue that holds everything together and drives the reader forward. I need to think carefully about how to present the pandemic diary story arc because there are many different ways to tell the story.
  • The book, in a sense, is a dramatised personal diary of Didier Lefevre. The core content of the story are a series of black and white photographs that were not originally conceived as a graphic novel. Whilst the photographs are strong images showing the harshness and reality of war on the Afghan people, the genius of the book is the narrative framework that was constructed around them and turned them into an engaging story.
  • The book starts with an 8-page introduction that sets the scene by explaining the historical context to the situation in Afghanistan that led to the rise of the Taliban and the latest Afghan War. I think having an introduction providing the wider context to the coronavirus pandemic project would help position the reader in relation to the content.

Tim King

Tim King is a London based reportage Illustrator and Art Director. What interests me about his reportage work is that it captures the ordinary day-to-day stuff of life. One of his visual approaches is to work in a drawing-a-day format, with projects spanning whole years.

What caught my attention was his Kickstarter Campaign to raise money to publish a “Unique story of the year we’ll never forget: 2020” (King, Tim 2020). The book consists of 366 days of reportage drawings capturing everyday life as it happened during the various lockdowns and Covid-19 restrictions.

King frequently combines snatches of conversations within his illustrations and is inventive in what he uses to illustrate onto. Face masks, toilet paper, protective gloves and other found objects have all been used as a canvas to weave another layer into the work.

As well as working in analogue using a whole range of pens, pencils and different media, he also works totally in digital or using a combination of the two.

Fig 6 – Day 134 – Clap fatigue (2020)

There is a strong link between the daily sketch projects King does and my own ways of working. The fact that we’ve both carried out daily sketch projects throughout the pandemic is interesting because the focus of the projects are quite different:

  • King’s reportage is about recording external events and behaviours to create a sense of an extraordinary year. I’m assuming his account will be told primarily through the drawings.
  • My pandemic diary is a more personal reflection on the year. The combination of daily diary entries, news headlines and drawings (frequently not directly related to the pandemic), paint a personal picture life under lockdown.

The fact that he used Kickstarter to raise £8,000 to fund the design and print of the book that includes at least 366 illustrations gives a high-level indication of the production costs of producing a book of that scale.



Abel, J. and Madden, M. (2008) Drawing Words and Writing Pictures: Making Comics: Manga, Graphic Novels, and Beyond. (s.l.): Macmillan.

Alam, R. (2018) The singular magic of Maira Kalman. At: (Accessed 25/04/2021).

Inktalks (2014) Maria Kalman: What I choose to illustrate and why [Video] At: (Accessed: 16/04/21)

King, Tim (2021) 2020: Drawing a day Kickstarter Campaign [Web page] At: (Accessed: 25/04/21)


Hart, Tom (2018) The Art of the Graphic Memoir (1st ed.) New York: St. Martin’s Griffin

List of illustrations

Figure 1 – Kalman, Maria (2010) A page from “And the pursuit of happiness” At: (Accessed: 07/04/21)

Figure 2 – Hadfield, Hugh (2021) This is how products are done now [Sharpie pen] In possession of: the author

Figure 3 – McGuire, Richard (2014) Here [Interactive e-book] At: (Accessed: 07/04/21)

Figure 4 – Hadfield, Hugh (2020) Memento mori [Ink pen] In possession of: the author p.1

Figure 5 – Lefevre and Guibert (2006) Treating patients in war-torn Afghanistan Lefevre and Guibert (2009) The Photographer New York: Roaring Book Press p.103

Figure 6 – King, Tim (2020) Day 134 – Clap fatigue At: (Accessed: 25/04/21)

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