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?

 

 

Critical Praise for CriticalPast.com

CriticalPast.com was voted one of the “The Top 100 Web Sites of 2010” by PCmag.com, and rightly so.  The site boasts a total of 57,409 viewable clips and 7 million photos “in one of the world’s largest collections of royalty-free archival stock footage” and offers “immediate downloads in more than 10 SD and HD formats, including screeners in all formats.” As the site reviewer at PCmag.com accurately remarked, “If it got captured for the news in the early part of the 20th century, there’s a good chance the footage you seek is here.”

CriticalPast.com was founded in 2007, by the brother team of Jim and Andy Erickson, along with a supporting group of archival research, film, and Internet professionals, to create “one of the largest privately held online archival footage sources in the world.” The collection is “drawn largely from U.S. government agency sources, the clips and images in the CriticalPast.com collection are available for license without the clearance concerns encountered when ordering from typical stock footage providers.”  So, this impressive video collection is free to browse and view on site (although, not surprisingly, you do have to pay for use off site) and the still photos are even “available for download as JPEG files, or you may take advantage of our professional photo printing services and have prints delivered right to your door.”

Finally, an archive that is sophisticated, professional, and plentifully sourced. CriticalPast.com is an impressive example of a modern digital archive. The site is attractive and easy to navigate, browse, and search.  The “browse by decade” visual aid is especially useful, allowing users to browse videos from 1890 to 1990, and take a quick inventory of the available stock.  The decade of the 1940’s is, by far, the largest collection with 23, 188 viewable clips (and growing).  This is, in my opinion, a fantastic and exciting resource for historians interested in twentieth century and contemporary history.

Happy browsing!

Picture This…

Close your eyes and imagine wandering around a city in a foreign country. You’re alone and you don’t know the language. All of a sudden it begins to pour. You run for shelter and find yourself in an art gallery. Disoriented and a bit soggy, you begin meandering through an exhibit. You see a series of abstract paintings, lined up along a wall. Each has similar brush strokes, form and symbolism. They are obviously in a series, but you can’t read the curator’s statement or the captions. All you can do is stare, wonder, react, and interpret. By the time the storm passes, you’ve failed to make sense of it all and take a fleeting mental note to Google the artist’s name.

David Staley, in his article “Sequential Art and Historical Narrative: A Visual History of Germany“, seeks to convince his audience that stringing together superficially connected images with little or no textual explanation is an under-utilized means of narrating history. His (painfully titled) ‘graphical article’ about Germany’s relationship with modern transportation during the 1940’s-1950’s, “explores the meaningful juxtaposition of visual primary sources as a serious form of historical narrative.”

Staley cites Michael Stanford’s 5 design principles for doing history as 1) asking questions, 2) seeking relevant primary source evidence, 3) weighing the value of these various sources, 4) Discerning patterns in the evidence and 5) Arranging evidence into a meaningful narrative strung together by words, sentences and paragraphs. The author believes that, by following this method, professional historians can as effectively convey information using deliberately ordered images as they can by using deliberately chosen words.

What Staley calls a ‘graphical article’ is persuaded by the conventions of design rather than prose, and seeks to ‘separate form from content.’  This concept is derived from the “sequential art” of Will Eisner, a celebrated comic book writer/illustrator and founder of the graphic novel. Sequential art, Staley reminds us, is perhaps the most ancient form of visual communication. Glyphs etched into pyramid walls, patterns stitched into tapestries, friezes painted in temples, are stories told through images. Thus using imagery to tell the story of history is in and of itself a historical practice.

The author relates that the job of the ‘sequential art’ designer is to close this conceptual space, aka ‘The Gutter’, between relatively situated images. “Closure in the gutter is a transitional realm that links two images, not unlike the way a transitional sentence links two paragraphs together in a logical sequence (just like this sentence has done).” To do so, designers must rely on “non-linear, conceptual and associative” interpretive powers of their audience.

This, in my opinion, is where Staley’s dialectic breaks down. Like our abstract art exhibit from before, there is usually significance to anything intentionally put into a series. But if the viewer doesn’t understand the question being answered, let alone being asked, then all that’s left is subjectivity on both sides. Staley should not assume that my “meaning of the Volkswagen is altered when an image of Hitler admiring an early prototype is placed in a sequence that includes displaced persons hauled by train.” That is his interpretation, which he has chosen not to spell out. All I can do is consider my own subjective reaction based on my potentially limited prior knowledge the image’s context.

Maybe there is no way around subjectivity in the field of history, using words, images or otherwise. I believe Staley’s argument evocative, but underdeveloped. And if I were a professional historian looking for images of VWs during WWII and came across David Staley’s graphical article… I would probably just go to Flickr.

A Digital Museum?

I love museums.  I could spend days in a museum.  With some museums there are truly not enough hours in a day to see everything; with other museums there is not enough space to fit everything in to the museum.

So here we have the inquisitive museum visitor and the space confined museum curator.  What are they to do?  The visitor simply doesn’t have the time and the curator doesn’t have the space!  And, added to that some of the most interesting pieces a museum may own could now be too fragile to be put on display, but what is the point of conserving something if the public can’t see it?

Enter the Smithsonian Institute, a fine example of two problems that museums suffer, too much stuff and not enough space.   What is a curator to do?  Put it online, that is what a curator is to do!  At HistoryWired: A Few of Our Favorite Things the avid museum visitor and history enthusiast can explore the vast collection of the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of American History.  On display now you can see pieces that are on display at the Museum of American History but also pieces that are not on display.

As implied by its name the HistoryWired website is a collection of the favorite things of the Smithsonian curators.  The website states that “With less than five percent of our vast and diverse collection on public display in our exhibit halls, we hope that Web sites like this will bring many more of our treasures into public view.”  When a visitor enters the “museum” they are shown a floor plan of the museum with rooms marked as Home, Clothing, Business, and the like.  Subdivided within these boxes are boxes of different shapes that the visitor can move their cursor over and discover what that box represents.  The sizes of these item boxes are determined by visitor voting, after viewing an item the visitor is then asked if they would like to see more objects like the one they were looking at.  The more popular and object is the bigger its individual box.  This voting system allows visitors to see what others have found interesting and noteworthy and let curators to change the exhibit to reflect what the public wants to see.  Read more about how to work the website here and more general information here.

This digital museum shows pieces directly related to the history of the United States whether that be the clothing of a time period or the invention of the computer a visitor should be able to find something that interests them.  The culture history of the United States is represented magnificently with items of clothing (highbrow and lowbrow), sports paraphernalia, musical recordings, and photographyScience, medicine, technology, are also represented in this digital museum.  With each image you click on you get more information about the item and the time period of the item.  Depending on what kind of item you click on you could be directed to a recording of music or a speech or articles written by Smithsonian historians.

With so many different pieces on this site one might wonder if it is difficult to find something pertaining to a specific time period or subject.  The answer would be no!  It is not difficult to search this site.  (Color me surprised!)  You can modify your visit by time period (like WWI or everything pre 1800) or you can look at items only dealing with daily life or whatever subgroup you are interested in.  You can even search for specific things like Woodstock or Hell’s Angels and find a match.  A hopeful search for airplanes or flight yielded nothing, a sad oversight I believe!

I have to admit that when I first started playing around with HistoryWired I was skeptical.  Very skeptical.  Why would I want to look online at objects that I could see in person?  After spending sometime looking at the objects displayed and reading about them I was won over.  I like that there are links to more information, that if you are looking at a piece of music there is a link to hear the music.  I thought it was great that I could look at a dress form the 1800s and then a playboy bunny costume and that each piece was given a historically valid reason for being part of the online collection.  This website manages to put what should be in several different museums all in one place.  Hours could be spent on this site but because of its formatting it does not seem overwhelming.  I do not think that this is what museums should turn into but I do think that it is a nice companion to a museum.  I look forward to more museums creating a site like HistoryWired.

The Wonderful World of Wordle

Wordle.net is a very curious little website. The website describes itself as, “a toy for generating ‘word clouds’ from text [the user] provide[s].” That is pretty much the only way to describe Wordle that I can think of. Alright, not necessarily the best, because not everyone knows what a word cloud is, but it is certainly good for a short description. Wordle lets anyone input text in a box and it will churn out an image of all the words arranged in a picture, such as the one provided :

The US Constitution in Wordle. Taken from the Wordle.net home page.

Working Wordle is actually very simple. The home page provides a short description and puts a link right in front of the user telling the user to create their own Wordle image. The interface in the creation page is fairly simple. There are three boxes that use can put text into. The top one lets the user type in whatever he wants. The second lets the user provide a link to a blog (well any website URL will do but they recommend a blog URl). The third allows you to put in a del.icio.us username and it will create a Wordle image of their tags. After providing whatever text the user wants, they can click the button to create a Worlde. They are then provided an image and limited ways to alter the image. The user can change the color of the words and background, the font or the text layout. The user can also change around the language setting for their image. Unfortunately, I do not really know any other languages so I just kept the default English settings.

The opening monologue from the video game Fallout 3. Image created by me using a custom color palate.

Publishing and copying images is a mixed bag. For those with a blog or website, Wordle.net is very willing to give you the link and even generates the HTML code for you to just copy and paste into your blog. If you want to save the image to your hard drive though, or if you are like me and are just too stupid to use the HTML code, you have to go through a more roundabout process. The website’s FAQ tells you that in order to save an image, you will have to use a screen capture and save it that way. It is kind of a hassle, but fortunately the FAQ is rather helpful with the process.

Speaking of which, the FAQ for the site is very useful. I do not know just how helpful the troubleshooting section is, because I did not have many problems that needed to be troubleshot, but there are some useful tidbits to be found there. One example is that the more times one word appears in a text block, the larger it is going to be in the image. So if you put, “gold gold gold silver silver copper” in the text box when you create your image, the copper is going to the smallest word, the silver is going to be twice as big as the copper and the gold is going to be three times as big as the copper. Another useful tip is that you can use a tilde(~) between words keep them together when the image is generated, and Wordle will replace the tilde with a space.

The FAQ also answers some questions on what you can and cannot do with a Wordle. The creator allows for you to copy and paste your Wordles and use and sell your creations freely. The site is fairly open. The only problem is with the code. Apparently the creator, Jonathan Feinberg, created the code for Wordle.net while working at IBM, and his contract stipulates everything created on company time belongs to the company. So Wordle belongs to IBM.

The are a couple of issues with Wordle that stands out in my mind. The biggest that stands out for me is that Wordle has a very short memory of the images it generates. What I mean is that every time I change tabs with a new image open that I forgot to save, for some reason Wordle loses the image. I do not know if this is a problem with my browser (Safari) or a problem with the website itself. I find it hard to complain to much though because that is a negligible problem that can probably be avoided rather easily and images are often easy to recreate. Also, the site does not appear to have that problem is you change windows, so you can just create your images in a separate window and do not open a new tab in that window.

Wordle is a very simple, very easy to use toy. It is very approachable for anyone who wants to try it. The only real problem that I could see is that I cannot figure out a point to it. I sit in front of my computer screen for a couple of minutes, put something into the text box, edit it a little. I now have a nice little picture and all I can say is, “Now what?” My roommate suggested that it might be useful for advertising. I could see that, but I am personally a little put off by it from a design perspective, so I am probably going to approach that suggestion with caution. It is, for me, a toy. Something you play around with for a couple of minutes, maybe return to once or twice, share it with your friends, and forget about it. There is a rather large gallery of images created by users, so you can see what other people did with it. It is interesting and easy to use, but at the end of the day lacking any real function.

David Bowie's Suffragette City. Image by me.
Hamlet's soliloquy. Image by Anonymous.