Studying storytelling through silent comics 

Dr Barbara Postema holding a copy of one of her favourite graphic novels, Leaf, by Daishu Ma (Fantagraphics Books, 2015)

An avid childhood reader of Tintin, Asterix, Lucky Luke and Donald Duck, Dr Barbara Postema probably didn’t envisage she would oneday be paid to read and research comics.

But she is doing just that, treating comic books, graphic novels and experimental approaches to genres such as silent, or wordless comics, in the same way other academics approach more traditional literary forms. 

Comics and graphic novels, she says, possess similar literary features, from sophisticated plots and narrative devices to character development, compelling themes and big ideas. 

“I’ve read comics for as long as I can remember, and I was a voracious reader of all kinds of material – not just comics,” she says.  

When studying for a Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Amsterdam she came across It’s a Good Life, If you don’t Weakenby Seth, a Canadian cartoonist. “That graphic novel really spoke to me,” she says.  “I felt like the kind of literary analysis I was doing on [American writers] Paul Auster, Don DeLillo and Toni Morrison – this was a graphic novel where this would totally work as well.”

Since then she’s been interested in researching the literary aspects of comics, particularly the form (panels, sequences, word balloons) and always; “to see how the narrative works, how does storyline get formulated and how does it move forward.” 

Rather than focus on the likes of Thor and Wolverine, she is interested in earlier forms of silent comics as well as emerging new authors and artists whose works often deal with social justice and environmental issues.

For a literary scholar, a focus on silent comics might seem a conundrum – they tell their stories using images alone. “With comics we think of the combination of text and image, but silent comics don’t use written dialogue or captions,” she says.

Silent comics have been around as long as traditional comics, from 19th century on, says Dr Postema. She spoke in a panel discussion at the recent Manawatū Writers Festival on the topic along with New Zealand graphic novelists Sarah Laing and Dylan Horrocks, whose work she is interested in.  

She’s observed that now is a “bustling time for comics in general – it’s an experimentation, appealing to authors who choose to make a challenge for themselves to work within the constraint of not using text. The market is big enough and readers are interested in them.”

Interactive reading skills – a comic effect

A distinctive and appealing aspect of reading silent comics is its interactive nature. “Readers have to bring in their own emotions and their own reading practices because they can’t rely on dialogue to make sense of what’s going on or even what characters are feeling – they have to glean from facial expressions and body language.”

She notes this keeps readers engaged and is a good skill for young children to learn, as well as being another way of enjoying stories in themselves for readers of any age and stage – herself included.

Originally from The Netherlands and now based at Massey’s Manawatū campus as a senior lecturer in the School of English and Media Studies, Dr Postema is currently working on a book titled Telling Stories Without Words – Visual Communication in Silent Comics

The book explores the history of the form over 150 years, examining examples of how they have been successful as well as on some of the recurring social justice and environmental themes, such as Australian graphic novelist Shaun Tan’s The Arrival, which is about refugees and immigrant experience.

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