How to Read a Graphic Novel or Comic Strip: Part 2 (Shots and Angles)

 By Jonathan Wilson

(AP/IB History, English Literature and English Language tutor at The Edge Learning Center)

Hi everyone, this is Jon, and I teach English and History here at The Edge. In my last blog, I broke down some of the structural elements of a graphic novel so that we had the vocabulary to talk about how a graphic novel’s stylistic choices can create a particular effect. This is really important for those IB students who have been assigned graphic novels such as Persepolis and Maus for their Paper 2. Last time, I also talked about how graphic novels use static sequential images and juxtapose them in ways that distinguish the graphic novel medium from that of movies. Well, today, I want to talk about some of the ways in which they actually are like movies.

Read more on Jon’s previous blog “How to Read a Graphic Novel or Comic Strip”

Just like in movies, graphic novels use images and (oftentimes) words to create a narrative. Sure, movies…well…move, and graphic novels don’t. And the presence of sound distinguishes film from comics even further (even film showings during the silent era featured live music). But one thing that graphic novels and movies do have in common is the shot.

Comic strips and graphic novels have a variety of shot-types related to distance just like movies do, and the vocabulary we use for each is basically the same. For instance, we have the long shot, like the one below from The Incal written by Alejandro Jodorowsky and illustrated by Mœbius.

The long shot (sometimes called a “wide shot” when the frame is wide like a movie screen) frames the characters so that their entire bodies are visible. However, it is often used to establish setting, rather than character. Above, we see what is also an establishing shot, or rather, a shot that establishes the context for a scene. The protagonist, John DiFool, is clearly in a lot of trouble as he falls into a seemingly endless pit in what appears to be a futuristic city center. Meanwhile, bystanders comment on the frequency of suicides here (“Whooa! There’ll be more!”), while some voice desire to shoot a falling body (“Get my weapon! Gotta bag me a falling one!”). In a single frame, we can identify the conflict the character is in, the architecture of this dystopian world, and the cynicism of the people who inhabit it.

The medium shot is not altogether clearly defined, as it may include the entire body of a character, or the frame may cut him/her off at the waist. What mainly distinguishes a medium shot from a long shot is that a medium shot places focus on the characters in the foreground rather than on what’s happening in the background. The medium shot is ideal for action and dialogue that is focused on the characters.

In Fun Home (above) Alison Bechdel (famous for the “Bechdel Test”) tells the story of growing up with a rather eccentric and not-too-loving father. Notice that the first medium shot frames both the characters, allowing the audience to see the father focusing on the mirror, and the young Bechdel resenting him. Then the second medium shot closes in on Bechdel as she and her sarcasm become the focus of the scene.

The next shot is the close-up. The purpose of this is to bring a particular subject into our focus. For example, a close-up of a human face can bring a character’s emotions into focus. This can have the effect of making the audience feel closer to a character and is a great way to introduce us to one.

Ed Piskor’s Hip Hop Family Tree traces hip hop music through its origins in the 1970s and 80s. Here, he uses the close-up to introduce three pioneering women in the genre.

The picture below uses this shot in a rather clever way.

It may be a little difficult to see exactly what’s happening in this frame from Jason Aaron’s Scalped, but the bloody knife in front of this sinister individual is lodged in the desk in front of him. He’s one of those villains who first enter the scene torturing someone, showing the audience that he’s a violent threat to our protagonist. In this frame, and the villain’s face is partly covered in shadow, and partly covered by his weapon of choice. It gives the audience the sense of seeing him without having a clear picture. We know that this guy is deceptive and extremely dangerous. We also know that the knife is important. This knife, and the threat of being scalped, is likely the thing that stands between the hero of the story (out of frame) and whatever it is he wants.

Along with the close-up is the extreme close-up. It may be used to focus on the details of a particular object, or may be used to bring the familiar so close that it becomes unfamiliar. In the case of the latter, the extreme close-up may instill unease or discomfort in the audience.

Next we have angles of framing, which are really the same as camera angles. The effects of these are similar to shots in that the perspective they create affects the way the audience perceives everything in the frame.

Eye-level framing places the shot at the same level as the main objects in the panel. This angle’s psychological effect on the audience is usually neutral, but that neutrality can be used in interesting ways when the icons and light and shadow create particular effects.

Feeling psychologically neutral? In this shot from Jeph Loeb’s Batman: The Long Halloween, we are meeting eye-to-eye in the darkness with a pretty intense, though cordial, aristocrat. What is most striking about this is how we are included in the scene, in what is likely a POV (Point of View) shot. With the icon directly addressing us as if breaking the fourth wall, we are made to feel involved in the narrative, as if he is talking directly to us. (Note that this use of breaking the fourth wall is not nearly as explicit as it often is with Deadpool).

High-angle framing (see below) places our perspective above the subject of the frame so we are looking down on it. High angle shots can appear from the point of view of someone looking down on another, or they can be used to communicate that a character is overwhelmed and powerless, as if that person is literally “in over his or her head.”

The above picture is from a cover of Transmetropolitan, by Warren Ellis. His Hunter S. Thompson-inspired protagonist is a rogue journalist in the future who is out to expose corruption at levels as high as the United States presidency. While he may be in over his proverbial “head,” his face would communicate that he is sly enough to handle the challenge, and his position on top of the city would suggest that he has a watchful eye over it. The effect is to create a paradox, in which one is made to look overpowered and powerful at the same time. This appropriately introduces a character that is heroic in his defense of truth, and hypocritical in the ways his actions disregard the same morals he professes to defend. He is a contradiction.

Low-angle framing has the opposite effect, making icons appear large and powerful.

Above, from The Little Man, Mary has run out of her house to tell her husband about the strange thing she found in her home. Artist Chester Brown provides us with a low-angle frame of Mary and Joseph, then shows us in the next panel that we were looking through the eyes of a young Jesus Christ. The left panel is then both a low-angle frame and a POV shot. This has the strange effect of bringing the audience and a character together to briefly experience things as one person, causing the audience to temporarily become an active participant in the narrative.

When a combination of these shots and angles comes together, we get something like the following (from Wool, a graphic novel based on the novel series Silo by Hugh Howey):

Reading the panels left to right, and top to bottom, we see that artist Jimmy Broxton has created a hectic scene in which our story begins from a slightly high-angle close-up of a boot, showing the importance of the soldiers’ movement. Then the next panel has an eye-level frame with soldiers in the background juxtaposed against children playing in the foreground, likely communicating that the children live here and that soldiers running around is normal. Next is a close-up of a radio emitting an urgent message, which conveys to us that a) there’s trouble, and b) we’re supposed to identify with the “sheriff”. After that, there’s a medium shot of a mysterious figure with God-knows-what on his/her back, then a high-angle frame of the man who is presumably our protagonist, followed by a high-angle long shot of the marines charging up the stairs. Then, a close-up of another boot (a motif, perhaps suggesting transience, or the trampling power of authority), a close-up of a hand, an extreme-close-up of an eye showing the protagonist’s panic, and then a medium shot of our protagonist about to get some bad news as he enters the cafeteria.

This sequence is hectic in both its style and its content. As this is the beginning of the graphic novel, we are launched into a narrative that is in medias res. The close-ups suggest the importance of minor human action in this world, while the longer shots establish this bleak metallic setting and the people who appear to live in it. Wool is clearly aimed at creating suspense by propelling the audience into the unknown, not giving them enough time to reflect on what they do know, but only giving them the chance to observe characters in action. Each frame communicates that this world is dreary, dangerous, and it’s all anyone can do to survive in it.

So, let’s keep in mind that shots and angles in graphic novels and comic strips are very carefully chosen. Whenever we’re looking back through our graphic novel texts for stylistic features that will help us score highly in Criterion C, we should consider what the artist wants us to focus on in each panel, and why.

Thanks for joining me, and we’ll see you next time!

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