"Bridges become frames for looking at the world around us"

rachelr's picture

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            I became interested in the concept of framing last semester in Anne’s class on genre, and wrote my third paper on that subject (serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/node/7149). There we discussed both literal and figurative frames, and I concentrated my efforts on looking at the figurative frame; the context, background, the artist. In that sense, the frame can be applied to everything- a story over coffee, a novel, a memoir, a photo, painting, or graphic novel. Now I wanted to look at the literal frame in the graphic novel, the way each frame is constructed, the way the text is placed, the size and orientation of the frames, and the negative space.

            In a novel, the words are formed into sentences, paragraphs, chapters. But the only way to have the images pop off the page, and for the readers to grasp a sense of time and space, is for the author to paint that picture with their words. In comics and the graphic novel the combination of the words and the explicit images pare the narrative of the novel/memoir with a literary technique that draws on the art of the popup book and children’s literature. Time can be represented by how large a frame is, how long a gap there is between frames where narrative or dialogue occurs, or how large a negative space there is between the frames themselves.

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            I have been searching to find a concrete description of how the graphic novel frame really works, and I believe that this is it: “The frame constitutes the basic syntactic unit of the comic strip. Placed in a discrete sequence these frames form a grammatical block analogous to a conventional sentence (changing the sequence of frames changes the meaning of the total strip). However, unlike words, frames can interact in more complex syntactical forms: superimposition, interlocking and transmuting frames (where speech bubbles become the frame and vice versa, or where a group of frames form a window into a complete scene)” (McCaffery and Nichol, 129). It isn’t just about any single frame, it is the collective frame(s) that are embodied and interact within the narrative as a whole.

            The importance of these variations of frames is illustrated in Fun Home, and not only do Bechdel’s choice of frames tell us a lot about what is passing within them, but it also highlights her emotion towards these events.

 

            On page 52, Bechdel has drawn herself before her father’s casket, and this one image is split into two frames. For me this represents both the double-sided relationship she had with her father and the mixed emotions that this brought her, but also the dual nature of her father’s life. On one hand he was the father who came home to his wife and children every (or almost every) night. On the other, his past was forging a future that he either socially or emotionally could not handle. Later Bechdel uses a similar tool, but in this case she uses a frame within a frame. We are observing Alison and her father from the outside of the house, through the two different windows. While from the previous image we know that they are physically in the same room, this image draws a line between them, a dark, uncrossable void (Bechdel, 86).

            Bechdel tells us that when her obsessive-compulsive disorder began and was manifested in part with close care to her shoes, that “It took several painstaking minutes to line up my shoes exactly, so as to show neither one preference (the left one was my father.)(the right one was my mother.)” (137). However on page 98, Bechdel frames her mother and father within the general frame. But within that frame is also a mirror, where she and her father are framed, her mother left to the side. This double frame illustrates the separation that seems to be a major theme of the book between both Bechdel and her mother and her mother and her father. It often seems as if her mother is a solitary spectator; passive about her personal and family life, passionate only about the world she can escape to in her plays. And that is exactly what can be seen in this frame, as we look beyond just the image of the family and into the reflection of how their life appears.

      

            Very few of the frames in Fun Home are full page, but the remnants of the sudden storm (178) covers a full page. It is as if the storm was able to rip apart the foundation, the heart of Bechdel’s father’s precious house. The sheer size of this frame is striking, as are the lines; he house makes up the vertical lines while the broken tree cuts across like a jagged, horizontal wound. And again, her mother stands alone on the porch while her father and brothers crowd around the scar. A very different but equally striking series of frames composes the very rare, altering exchange between Bechdel and her father (220). In these 24 equally sized and spaced frames there is no internal movement, and the emotion rides a serious undercurrent. This style of framing helps create an atmosphere of stagnant time passing in awkward, lilted conversation. And the frames are so unlike any of the others, that fact alone shakes the readers awake and again highlights the mirrored nature of Bechdel and her father.

 

            The most stunning framing of the graphic narrative, in my opinion, is both a literal and a figurative one. The book opens on page 3 with Bechdel and her father playing airplane; he is dressed well, laying on an elaborate carpet in her perfectly manicured, predictable house, and Anna Karenina lays beside him. It is a half page frame, a bird’s eye view of a reluctant father playing with his only daughter. And mirroring this is another half page frame at the very end: Bechdel’s father below her, waiting to catch her in his arms. Only this time he is in a simple bathing suit, surrounded my water, and while his face wears a most similar expression, somehow this time it is easier to see beyond that, to the fact that he is her father, and that he does have his arms wide open.

            As Scott McCloud explains in one of his online graphic comics, the layout of graphic novels and comics allow the author to play with the structure (the frames) of the narrative and do things that cannot be done with written word alone. Not only can a frame separate and isolate one image from others but frames can stretch, prioritize, and highlight in a new and creative way. So next time you read a graphic novel, look closely at a few frames. What are those frames trying to say, beyond the written words? How can a life be presented in a frame no more an inch x inch or page x page? Its all in the presentation- presentation is everything.

 

 

Bibiolography

Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: a Family Tragicomic. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007.

"The Graphic Novel." The Electronic Labyrinth Home Page. Web. 16 Sept. 2010. <http://elab.eserver.org/hfl0206.html>.

 

Comments

rachelr's picture

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Anne Dalke's picture

Framed, Literaly (Literarily?)


Rachel--
I really like it when I can see my students building on, and expanding out from, earlier work that they have done. This usually happens within a single course; what gives me particular pleasure here is to see you carry over an idea that was so important to you last semester into the new context of this class, and in the process altering the idea from a figurative to a literal one.

Who are McCaffery and Nichol, who supply the description you wanted for how the graphic novel frame works? (your works cited list doesn't quite coincide w/ your interlinear citations; McCloud is missing from that list, also). Anyhow, what McCaffery and Nichol give you is a key--and really neat--idea for your analysis: that the frames in graphic narratives need to be thought about collectively, as interacting with one another, as shifting between frame and ground and negative space. They are not fixed, but really interactive--which is why I "figured" your topic, above, not w/ the picture frame that we used to image this topic last semester, but rather w/ the much more complex "framing" of a house: you have shown us the "framing" of Fun Home.

There's much here to instruct and intrigue: thinking of children's books as ancestors to graphic novels (wish we'd done more w/ that idea in class), the way time can be represented by altering the size of the frame, or the gutter .... You do quite a nice job of reading various pages of the text, calling our attention to double frames, to frames within frames, to mirrors within frames, to the disappearance of frames (I love the image of the storm as ripping them apart!), to a sequence of equally sized and spaced frames in which no movement occurs, to the paired frames of the narrative's beginning and ending images, to Bechdel's directing us first within a frame, then beyond it--all these techniques serving to highlight the separation that is such a major theme of the narrative.

Where I'd nudge you a little more is in the conclusions you draw from this exhaustive looking @ frames. You say that the variations in frames in Fun Home "tell us a lot about what is passing within them, but it also highlights Bechdel's emotion towards these events." I'm more interested seeing you risk a larger generalization: what do these literal variations tell us about the figurative work of framing? What do they tell us about the particularities of the form of graphic narratives? What, most importantly, do they add to our understanding of nonfictional prose? Might you try to actually define the genre in terms of the frames it chooses and uses? If we "frame" a text w/ the expectation that (what?...), does that make it nonfiction? I'm curious to hear your larger speculations on these matters...

rachelr's picture

Citing a site?

  So to address McCaffery and Nichol, I found a quotation from them on a website and then couldn't find the source that the quotation originally came from, but I did cite the site that I found the information on. 

 

I really think we could do a lot with children's books (in the next quarter, perhaps?) in looking at both non-fiction and the idea of framing- I'm sure we could do more with it. I babysat all summer and I cannot count the number of times I read all about dump trucks, fire trucks, the solar system, and answered the question, Is A Blue Whale The Biggest Thing There is?

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I think that the literal variations tell us, and bring to light, the importance that Bechdel gives to events, the amount of detail/time the frame is meant to contain, and, as I said before, her emotion towards the moment that she chose to capture for an instant in the frames. I think it would be hard to define the genre in terms of frames, because it is really dependent on more the "sub-genre" of graphic novels; Gaiman has a very different objective with his use of images and frames than Bechdel or say Satrapi do. Gaiman's images can explode out into the frame, while Bechdel and Satrapi stay within the frame's boarders. So I really don't know how to answer this question… in truth, I think I would need to read many more graphic novels, or at least think very deeply, to even begin to answer. It is a very complex question. I think it is still nonfiction, even though it is framed, literally and figuratively. Every memoir or autobiography is framed based on the author's experiences, the details he or she chooses to impart to the readers, and of course personal experiences. So we are back to Shield's question: can we really say that non-fiction exists?

 

 

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