Thursday, July 1, 2010

Judicial Fumetti and Narrative

The front page of the print edition of today’s New York Times features a fumetti about the Elena Kagan confirmation hearings. The photo comic emphasizes design over chronology, yet it maintains a clear sense of the “story” being told. In other words, while the sequencing of the images has narrative implications, the comic does not follow a time-based ordering: the symmetrical design gives me reason to think that the photos are not shown in the order in which they were taken. It's not really a narrative comic, in the traditional sense -- but it's not non-narrative either . . .

Kagan, as the subject of the hearing, is at the center of the grid, surrounded on every side by a male senator. All of the senators in column one look to the right, as those in column three look to the left; so all face the center column, the one occupied by Kagan (only her face looks toward the reader/viewer). And for balance, the senators above and below her face the opposite direction from each other.
I would call this a semi-narrative comic because there is a kind of ‘story,’ but one without a plot. The image sequence is a-chronological and there’s no way to tell (from the comic) what the real sequence might have been. Narrative comics typically feature characters who reoccur within the story, but here no one appears more than once (yet Kagan is the implied subject of every panel). Despite this, there’s a continuity of place and time that holds the ‘story’ together.

One of the metaphorical 'narratives' here is about hands as dramatic and emotional signifiers (only one senator's hands are not visible), perhaps another is about gender and power -- Kagan is the smallest main character, and if we know she will get confirmed, then the hearings are really about the performaces of the senators, the larger characters. Appropriately, the comic’s 'punch line' -- the last panel -- is a photo of Senator Al Franken, a former comedian (and we see both hands of a senator only in this last panel).

We are always told that western comics read from left to right, but this kind of ‘news fumetti’ (like some advertising comics) really doesn’t. Of course, you could read it this way, and it would work. I'd guess, however, that most readers would randomly scan across/around the images to get the 'story.' Reading order doesn’t matter and closure between panels seems absent. The 'story is told by the structure of the page -- Kagan surrounded, literally "boxed" in from all sides. The gaps between the frames, then, are non-narrative spaces.