Sequential Art as Historical Narrative

Images have  always been used as aids in presenting historical narratives. They enliven texts, preserve memory, and incite emotional reactions. But how often have images alone told a substantive story? Daniel J. Staley of Heidelberg College attempts to convey how visual culture itself can provide a historical narrative without being supplemental to written accounts.

As Staley argues, placing certain images within a sequential order can create a meaningful and expressive account of history. Images should no longer be limited to complementing textbooks and museum exhibits. Staley believes that images, when arranged in an appropriate design, can stand alone as serious historical narratives. He terms this visual arrangement “sequential art,” illustrated through his own example of German history. Just as written narratives are told by arranging patterns of evidence into a structural format, so too can images be arranged to express an equally compelling narrative.

The key to “reading” sequential art is in the interpretation of the arrangement. Staley argues that sequential art only works when visual connections between images are discernible. The act of filling in the space (or “gutter”) between two images is called “closure.” Closure allows the viewer to interpret the connection between two images, establishing the context of the images within a storyline. Staley compares this to the transitional sentence between two paragraphs in a written account. If the two images are placed in a different sequence, the narrative changes.

So, does Staley’s visual representation of German history hit the mark? As mentioned in the article (or written supplement, as is stated), Staley’s visual concept would not suffice if each image were isolated, just as a written essay would not suffice with a single paragraph. His ordering of images presents a narrative that begins with Nazi Germany and concludes with efforts to revive the nation during the period of postwar reconstruction. He uses not just historic photographs but drawings and advertisements. Going through this visual narrative before reading the written supplement, I immediately understood the connection between the images as modes of transportation (trains, planes and automobiles!) and how these are represented within each image (comfort, mass transport, safety, speed, economic resurgence, etc). But how effectively does sequential art serve as historical narrative?

Questions to consider include: How prompted do you think professional historians will be to jump on the “sequential art” bandwagon? How effectively do images tell a story without the supplement of text? What happens to a visual narrative if certain images have been doctored? Do the images in Staley’s visual representation of German history speak “a thousand words?” And if so, what exactly is his “visual thesis?”

And finally, who can translate German??

Being a Public History student, I understand the importance of visual culture in telling history. Pictures do truly speak a thousand words. But for me, sequential art is not an equally viable alternative to written narratives. This should not undermine the importance of images – they are highly effective when engaging the historical imagination. But images cannot always speak for themselves, even within a visual sequence. Though, perhaps the merit in sequential art is in its nature to stimulate debate, as well as its endorsement for historical interpretation. What are your thoughts?



10 Replies to “Sequential Art as Historical Narrative”

  1. As a public historian, I am very in favor of the idea that less is more when it comes to text in the historical narrative. I feel that material culture, both objects and images, have great potential to give us historical information that we cannot get from written sources. They provide a different window into the past. However, these images and objects must be viewed in context. They draw their significance from the place that they occupy in the historical narrative.

    The danger in sequential art is that it has the potential to remove historical images from that context. For example, in the Visual History of Germany, the first image contains Hilter, one of the most recognizable figures in history. As such, the viewer is immediately situated in 1940s Germany. However, if the sequence were to start with the second picture, the average viewer would not be able to place the scene in Germany at a specific time period.

    I think that sequential art is a tool that can be utilized by professional historians. It provides a way to present historical information without the sometimes intimidating amounts of text. However, for historians dealing with topics that do not have widely recognizable images, sequential art has the potential of missing that initial connection with the viewer and its context within the historical narrative. In those cases, I think that some introductory text situation the images in history would allow this tool to be adapted to a wide array of historical topics.

  2. This particular example of sequential art reminded me of an Italian (or in this case I guess, German) museum with no English translation and no description – just pictures. As an English speaker, you have no idea what’s going on. I have a couple problems with sequential art:

    1. Unless you’re very familiar with the topic, there is no context to place the images. I didn’t know that the second picture was of the Autobahn, or that the ninth picture was supposed to show the “roominess” of Volkswagens. It wasn’t until I read the sources at the bottom of the page that I completely understood the author’s thesis.

    2. I think that sequential art with no supporting text could be interpreted many different ways. It’s kind of like a picture of a horse running with a fence in the background – is the horse in the fence or outside of it? How can the author be sure that his thesis will be interpreted correctly?

    3. Maybe it’s because he’s introducing this idea of sequential art as a new type of “essay,” but the fact that Staley went into more detail describing the images at the end instead of just listing the sources says to me that these images cannot stand on their own without some textual explanation.

    1. Angela raises some good points regarding the potential shortcomings of sequential art. Most of what she expressed comes back to the dearth of context that’s present in the medium, but I’m also intrigued by the pitfall of interpretation. I understand that there are biases present in all historical narratives. That being said, at least these various biases are static—they can be remarked upon. How do we confront these biases when the interpretation of history via sequential art is unique to each viewer? How much of a coherent narrative is really present when context is abandoned? At that point, is it “effective” or even serving its purpose as a historical narrative?

  3. I agree with you, colwillc, that sequential art is not a viable alternative to written narratives. A lot of the interpretation of sequential art is left up to the viewer and so the historian’s argument is not as clear. It is hard to pinpoint what exactly is Staley’s thesis in this sequence. Given his title of “A Visual History of Germany,” all I could come up with is he is arguing that Germany’s recent history has largely been influenced by cars.

    As Bridget states, sequential art provides a different window into the past and this is a major advantage for public history. For example, visitors at a museum learn in many different ways and sequential art can connect to people who like to learn through images. However, since academic historical practice is built on arguments of scholars (and clear theses are always better than vague ones–everyone at one time or another had “Need clearer thesis!” written at the top of their school papers), I think sequential art misses the mark. It is a great tool for displaying historical information at a quick glance, but will not be able to provide full historical interpretation that is best achieved by written narratives.

  4. I think that sequential art is imperative for communicating history. It is part of the architecture of an exhibit. The average human mind makes an initial judgement in less than two seconds and a secondary judgement in seven seconds. The sequential tools to guide a person through a thesis can be essential depending on the audience. I love museums, but I do not take the time to read the narratives the are designed to direct viewers through an exhibit. But, if an exhibit is designed well enough, I don’t feel that I have to. Stanley’s sequence led me through the negative assumptions of Germany’s history to the country’s progression after the Holocaust. I, myself compared the pictures from the 1960s to scenes I’ve seen from America’s history in the same era. I identified the pictures at the beginning as distinctly German, but as it progressed, I created less of a divide between an “us” and a “them.” History, by nature is an interpretation. Historians give artifacts context and present them to the public, but context is just a generalization.

    In a political science class, a professor had a whole theory of “Why does the doer do what the doer does?” He told a story of a woman who voted for a minor political party that held power for a number of years, and then began to vote for someone else. As the rise and fall of this political party was the topic of his thesis (which was a complicated anthropological and politically scientific idea), he asked her why she had voted with the movement. Her answer was somewhere along the lines of “Because my husband told me to.” Now obviously, this woman’s husband was not the motivation of every person’s decision to support the political movement, but had you just listened to this one woman’s narrative, one could assume that it was.

    Sequential art is subjective, but I don’t think there is anything wrong with each audience member having room for their own interpretation. Primary sources allow a person to be more involved with the process of history, and having them in sequence can provide enough context without giving a blatant interpretation. As a communications major, I have come to live by the words of President John F. Kennedy, “If we are strong, our strength will speak for itself. If we are weak, words will be of no help.” There is only so much that external communication can do. You can spin history, exclude major characters, or tell only one side. But at the end of the day, you can’t see every angle. History will always be subjective whether it be sequential or narrated.

  5. Angela, you really put it into perspective with your analogy about the horse – is it running inside or outside the fence? What message is the photographer trying to send us? Or, in this case, what is the intent of the designer? I agree with MadelineS that “History, by nature is an interpretation.” Some interpretations, however, can be misleading and even historically inaccurate. I suppose that is why Staley argues that sequential art should be a means of communication between professional historians. Sequential art as interpreted by members of the public, who may not have the learned skills of a professional historian, could be skewed and even backwards, especially without the guidance of supplemental text. Images can also be deceiving, especially if the public doesn’t recognize a doctored photo or piece of propaganda. Maybe sequential art works best when read with a trained eye.

  6. Great conversation, oh and what a crazy article eh? To some extent, I think the juxtaposition of the images potentially serves to communicate something about the relationship between WWII Germany, German industry, and the Volkswagen Beetle.

    For anyone interested, I think Mwest’s post from last year on this piece also does a nice job getting into a few other parts of Staley’s argument.

  7. As we have seen from some of the comments here, certain people have difficulty interpreting or understanding the argument behind images sequences. I myself am one of the. It seems as if this kind of “literacy” has the potential to be just as restrictive or accessible as print. Both have the potential to reach an audience which may partly overlap with the audience of the other. It does not seem that it is less viable, but just attractive to a different audience.

    It is clear that Staley does not intend for this change to take place overnight. In his accompanying essay he states several times that he is proposing something new and that many ideas, like viewing a picture as a paragraph, will emerge over time. It seems that he is hoping for a new kind of literacy to emerge.

  8. I agree with what has been said previously about interpretation, subjectivity, and the problems of lack of context when it comes to sequential images. Personally, the images from Germany on to me could be interpreted as connecting Hitler, the Holocaust, and Volkswagen, which might not necessarily be the interpretation/idea one should get from these images. (I believe the fourth one to be of deportation in wartime Germany, but again, without words or context, that could simply be a train of “displaced persons” as the two words say…. or is it propaganda from the wartime? How would someone know?)

    One way I feel sequential images can and have been useful, albeit accompanied by text or being part of a book, is in analyzing how particular ideologies and themes change over time. For example, in the book Revolutionary Conceptions Susan Klepp analyzes changing family patterns and sizes during the Revolutionary Era according to shifts in industry as well as a new emphasis on restraint and smaller families post-war.

    Klepp uses images of women (mothers) and their children to illustrate the changing motifs and symbols, including fruit to symbolize fecundity in the colonial era as opposed to books to symbolize a less rural, more educated culture after the war. Though Klepp’s book discusses these changes, portraits and pictures like these that are closely enough related could perhaps be a more successful set of images to use for sequential imagery.

    I feel as though Staley’s example of the Egyptian images describing economic systems is more readable that the use of the German images. Sequential imagery I believe would be most successful and useful as a tool of historians as long as the images have enough connection (not just the appearance of a car in each) and overlap enough that the interpretation is relatively to the point and apparent.

    As historians, do we really want our “work”, whether it be the sequence of evidence in a book or images, to be so widely open to subjectivity? I agree with Corey that sequential imagery requires a trained eye, with an understanding of context, and thus, importance of, the images.

  9. The question raised here on the discussion board about training people to look at sequential art is an interesting one. Many people pick up on many different aspects of the sequences of pictures and might very well come to different conclusions, theories, and lessons. By incorporating training into this practice, it would seem to me in part to benefit the sequential art historian so that people will pick up on nuances of the story being told. On the other hand, I have been told by several people that there is no “correct” way to look at art. It is entirely up to the viewers themselves to extract and derive meaning from what they see.

    I find that sequential art can be an extremely useful teaching tool to show students the impact of things like natural disasters and devastating wars. I can still remember when my high school history teacher showed a small sequence (2 photos) of Hiroshima on August 5, 1945 followed by a second photo taken the following day of the obliterated city. Words cannot convey what those two photos shown in a sequence impact students of history. Other powerful examples include the photos taken before and after hurricane Katrina.

    But these are simple, straight forward examples involving a mere 2 photographs. Staley has taken on a challenging endeavor by trying to show linkages to essential components of Nazi Germany. Like some of the other viewers for this piece, I found myself a bit nebulous regarding his precise message. I’m wondering if in a sequential art piece, could there be a “thesis statement” photograph? And, is an introduction an essential component to this style of art? I think it would be challenging and rewarding at the same time to undertake.

Leave a Reply to Katie Procter Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *