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Drawing Photo Novels

By Jan Baetens

This article briefly introduces a collaborative project between Jan Baetens (text) and Johan De Moor (drawings) that offers a documentary presentation in comics form of the history and poetics of the photo novel. Scheduled to appear in Spring 2018, this book is part of a new series of didactic comics, BDTK/Bédéthèque, edited by David Vandermeulen with Éditions Le Lombard (the series aims at being a “Que sais-je” in comics format). In this article, the analysis will focus on issues of inter- and transmediality, while comparing this new collaborative work with previous examples of both comics and photo novels that blurred the boundaries between these two media.

A Double Caveat

Putting aside preliminary discussions on the mixed nature of any medium (Mitchell 2007), I would like to start the analysis of a collaborative work in comics on a particular photographic medium, the photo novel, with a double theoretical and methodological caveat that will help frame the stakes of my argument.

First of all, I think it can be useful to distinguish between explicit and implicit forms of mixed media, or, more precisely perhaps, between mixed media in praesentia (jointly present within a given work of art) and in absentia (when a “pure” medium can become mixed via its reference to another medium). By doing so, I follow a basic stance in intermediality studies, which covers a double (and often overlapping) field, that of the actual merger of media and that of references in a given medium to one or more other media (Rippl). In this sense, while all works can become intermedial in praesentia, all media are almost by definition intermedial in absentia, for it is nearly unthinkable that a given work in any media whatsoever would not hint at another media, as strongly argued by Jørgen Bruhn, who has elaborated a protocol for reading intermediality that starts from the identification of cross-media references in specific literary works.

Second, and here the larger framework is no longer that of intermediality studies but that of adaptation studies, the remediation of one medium by or into another medium should not be reduced to the study of actual adaptations. Rather, it should be enlarged to include the issue of what some scholars have called general adaptability, that is, the potential of any work to be converted into any other medium whatsoever, at least theoretically speaking (Jeannelle). This concern is determined with one of the major tenets of media archaeology, namely the idea that media studies should not simply reconstruct histories but develop alternate histories, making things complex instead of simple. As Siegfried Zielinksi’s “variantology” puts it: “Do not seek the old in the new, but find something new in the old” (3).

What is a Photo Novel?

A typically European, even South-European genre, since the main production centers have always been Italy and France, the photo novel is often but wrongly defined in terms of comics with photographs (for a discussion, see Baetens “Critical Response 1;” Pour le Roman-photo). Such a definition may make sense at first sight, but a closer look at the material immediately discloses more differences than analogies. Roughly speaking, the analogies have mainly to do with a) layout issues, b) publication format, and c) the use of speech balloons. Both photo novels and comics rely on a page composition that is generally determined by an underlying four-tier grid, each of them with 3 images, in the traditional European comic, and a somewhat simpler 3 x 2 grid in most photo novels. Second, both media also use speech and thought balloons rather than captions. Third and finally, comics and photo novels are often published in weekly magazine format: the traditional size of these magazines being close to the European A4 standard (for comics, this is no longer the case today; however, during the heyday of classic comics and photo novels, that is, in the 1950s and 1960s, this kind of magazine format definitely was still dominant).

These common features may look decisive at first sight, but they are rapidly overruled and displaced by crucial dissimilarities in almost all other regards. In terms of content, the photo novel is almost exclusively focused on romance, whereas European comics in that period massively privileged adventure strips. Visually speaking, the realism of the photo novel is a kind of kitchen sink realism, especially given the lack of anything other than a shoestring budget that forced the genre to avoid any kind of aestheticism, while even the clear line style of most comics did not prevent the authors from freely moving their heroes in time and space. Finally, the intended readership of photo novels and comics did not present the slightest overlap: the former was supposed to be read by housewives, and the latter, in spite of the famous Tintin slogan (“for readers from 7 to 77 years”), by young male adolescents.

The study of the photo novel is obviously a perfect candidate for the kind of mixed media research situated within the larger context of intermediality, more particularly word and image studies. On the one hand, it offers a good example of both implicit and explicit forms of mixed media practice. The photo novel is itself a strange continuation of a certain type of romance comics, the so-called drawn novel, which is now completely forgotten but was a tremendously popular genre in the post-World War II years, when magazine entrepreneurs invented almost from scratch this curious mix of at least four existing genres: comics, romance novels, melodrama in cinema, and illustrated film novels or novelizations. Drawn novels were serialized romance stories in comics format, whose handmade pictures were based on the technique of wash drawings (“dessin au lavis“), as known from certain press illustrations. They presented a result that more or less resembled photographic pictures, and whose plots and storyworlds were unashamedly plagiarized from the successful Hollywood tearjerkers of these years.

Figure 1: Christian, 3 Belles et un garcon, pp. 2-3.

The photo novel borrows many formal and thematic features from the drawn novel, yet its publication context in specialized magazines always confronts it with various other types of drawings, mainly cover illustrations, advertisements pictures, press illustrations, and comics.

Figure 2: Loretta Flavi, “Piccolo Cuore Milionario”, serialized in Il Mio Sogno, p. 2.

On the other hand, it exemplifies no less the extreme adaptability of a cultural form, which is part of an expanding network of intermedial adaptations that go back and forth between photo narrative and comics. It should therefore not come as a surprise that much existing scholarship continues to include the drawn novel in the photo novel corpus (Giet 1997) or that, more interestingly perhaps, many images of the corpus are very hard to pigeonhole.

The drawn novel aimed to copy virtual film stills, whereas many photo novel images were either so poorly printed or so heavily retouched that it is not always easy to see the difference between a picture and a drawing. A typical illustration of the difficulty to distinguish between drawn novel and film novel is the short 1949 documentary film by Michelangelo Antonioni, L’Amorosa Menzogna, a reportage on the shooting of a real photo novel with the same title, which addresses the two genres of the drawn novel and the photo novel as belonging to the same world; the photo novel being nothing else than a drawn novel with photographs.1

Figure 3: Cover of the magazine Sogno, 30 March 1955, featuring Sergio Raimondi, one of the actors of a previous photo novel, L’amorosa menzogna documented by Michelangelo Antonioni in his film with the same name (1949).

Drawing Photographs: Anachronism as Remediation

The transformation of photographic images (the filmic images that served as implicit models of the drawn novel) in handmade drawings (those of the drawn novel), which classic remediation theory would consider a curious anachronism (Bolter and Grusin), is neither an exceptional phenomenon nor a retrograde procedure. One may think, for instance, of the way in which photographic images, before the commercially viable use of halftone techniques, were reproduced in books and newspapers via woodcut engravings, or of the way in which the field work of archaeologists still partly relies on sketches and drawings (Cookson; Dorrell; Schank). In all these cases, the shift from picture to drawing should, theoretically speaking, involve a decrease of realism. In practice, however, this decrease is more than compensated for by other features, which tend to increase the truth value of the image: first, the possibility to select and highlight certain elements so that the possible information overload and semantic vagueness of a photograph may tend to go unnoticed; second, the possibility to add a layer of dramatization and thus storytelling that is often less clearly indicated in photographic than in drawn material (Davis).

The current fashion, if not the current craze, of documentary comics should therefore not come as a surprise, given the family resemblance between drawings and pedagogy. If the visual essay—the essay relying not only on visual evidence but on visual argumentation and visual thinking—has never managed to become an accepted way of writing (with images) outside certain quite limited contexts, for instance that of journalism or visual sociology (Pauwels; Vander Gucht), the use of comics and graphic novels as an appropriate medium for the communication of academic content is not as contested as it once was. Many university presses, that of University of Pennsylvania, for instance, regularly publish studies in graphic novel format, and in subfields such as the making and reading of life writing. Comics have even become a dominant production form, and graphic journalism has ceased to be a mere niche market phenomenon. BDTK, a kind of “encyclopedia in comics” series published by Le Lombard, a mainstream comics publisher in Belgium, is one of the most recent, but immediately highly successful, productions in this field.2 BDTK covers a wide range of topics, some of them rather abstract (for instance, “Chance”), others very visual (“Minimalism”), yet always with a good balance between textual and visual vulgarization.

But what happens when comics remediate photographs, and it should be clear by now that I take the concept of remediation here in the very strong sense of the word, for can drawings really improve the realistic impact of pictures? This is one of the challenges that was at the heart of a collaborative work on the history of the photo novel for the BDTK series (Baetens and De Moor). Far from being a simple fad, a way of exploring new ground for a comics market under great pressure mainly due to overproduction and the stiff competition with newer media, the choice of the comics format—and of Johan De Moor, a highly innovative comics artist with a great track record in the use of mixed media drawings—is a logical decision.

The Added Value of Drawings to Vulgarize Photo Novel

The migration from photographic pictures to drawings presents a threefold advantage that paradoxically strengthens the realistic aspects of the images and thus increases the pedagogic virtues of this upcoming volume in the BDTK series.

First of all, it reestablishes the dominant visual culture of the period that witnessed the emergence of the photo novel, a cultural form that was heavily indebted to many non-photographic norms and models, such as the drawn images and models of celebrity culture, as circulated via film posters and, in a more indirect but therefore no less efficient manner, advertisements for all kinds of beauty and body products, for example. When trying to communicate the core stakes and values of what the photo novel represented between the late forties and the early sixties, roughly speaking the golden age of the medium, it is only natural to take advantage of drawn images, which were then still more visibly present in the public sphere and the mass media magazines than were photographic pictures, certainly in Europe.

Second, it also reintroduces the medial variety of the publication venues of the photo novel, which appeared in installment forms in specialized magazines—and mainly there; other venues such as advertisements were rather exceptional—and which were almost never reprinted in book or brochure format (contrary to the film-photo novels, based on the remediation of existing movies, that would appear some years later, and whose status was quite different from that of the popular photo novel). Many of these magazines featured not only photo novel installments, but also other forms of melodrama (short stories, installment novels, reader’s digests) and related material (letters to the editor, gossip columns, horoscopes, publicity, etc.). The global perception of the photo novel was inevitably determined, if not biased, by the overwhelming presence of these other materials.

Third, it also demonstrates the highly debatable and, according to me, invalid claim that photo novels and comics share the same aesthetics or anti-aesthetics, since the comparison of both media automatically leads to accusations of formal poverty and ideological backwardness. The direct translation of the language of the photo novel into the language of comics makes clear how both media, historically intertwined and commercially interconnected as they may be, obey quite different visual and narrative structures, at the level of the single image (much more dynamic and less “posed” in the case of a drawing than in that of a photograph), but also at the level of panel to panel transition (less variegated in the case of the photo novel) or in that of page composition (much easier to homogenize in the comics world). The very effort to redraw photographs and photo sequences—even when one is just colorizing or photoshopping photographic archives—immediately shows the gap that exists between the two media, in spite of their tremendous hybridization in praesentia as well as in absentia. In this sense, the attempt to mix both media is the very proof that it is not possible to completely merge them or to scrutinize them in terms of supersession (the stronger “new” medium taking the place of the weaker “old” medium).

De Moor’s treatment of the BDTK script on the photo novel, which is now entering its realization phase, will foreground each of these features, while at the same time transforming the didactic plot into an autonomous work of mixed-media art, a perhaps surprising but therefore no less representative example of the many opportunities of mixing media in comics.

And to Conclude: The Peircean Interpretant

As a conclusion, references to semiotics are necessary to better understand the apparently paradoxical observation that drawings may enhance the realistic value of a medium, the photo novel, which loses its indexical link with the real in the migration to comics. As the basic configuration of the Peircean sign—the triadic structure of object/sign/interpretant—makes clear, it is finally the interpretant, and not the initial sign, that determines the way a given community approaches the object, which is, as such, “unknown.” The sign actually performs the selection of a certain aspect of the object, which is then translated into a certain interpretant. In the case of the comics remediation of the photo novel, the sign in question may lose the indexical quality of the object (a comics does not mainly work with photographic sequences), but it can be composed and processed in such a way that the interpretant eventually highlights or illuminates the photographic dimension of the original object. In other words, in order to communicate a certain idea of the photo novel, it is not necessary to use photographic signs; other signs, for instance drawings or words or a combination of both, can be as precise and efficient.


[1] The film was presented at the 1949 Cannes film festival.

[2] See the presentation on BDTK 2017.

Works Cited

Antonioni, Michelangelo. L’Amorosa Menzogna. Filmus / Edizioni Fortuna, 1949.

Baetens, Jan. “Critical Response 1: Reworking or Making Up? A Note on Photonovels in Diarmuid Costello’s Approach to Medium Theory.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 41, no 1, 2014, pp. 163-166.

—. Pour le Roman-photo. Les Impressions Nouvelles, 2010.

Baetens, Jan, and Johan De Moor. Le Roman-photo. Le Lombard, 2018.

BDTK: La Petite Bédéthèque des savoirs. 2017,,4255.html. Accessed May 12, 2017.

Bolter, Jay David, and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. MIT P, 1998.

Bruhn, Jørgen. The Intermediality of Narrative Literature. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Cookson, Maurice Bruce. Photography for Archaeologists. Max Parrish, 1954.

Davis, Keith F. “‘A Terrible Distinctness:’ Photography of the Civil War Era.” Photography in Nineteenth-Century America, edited by Martha A. Sandweiss. Amon Carter Museum and Harry N. Abrams, 1991, pp. 130-179.

De Moor, Joan, and Gilles Dal. La Vie à deux. Le Lombard, 2016.

Dorrell, Peter G. Photography in Archaeology and Conservation. Cambridge UP, 1989.

Flavi, Loretta. “Piccolo Cuore Milionario.” 13th installment. Il Mio Sogno, Jan 4th 1948, pp. 2-6.

Gérard, Christian. 3 Belles et un garçon. Éditions de la Flamme d’or, 1953.

Giet, Sylvette. Nous deux, 1947-1997. Apprendre la langue du cœur. Peeters and Vrin,1997.

Jeannelle, Jean-Louis. “Réadaptation.” Critique, no 795-796, 2013, pp. 613-623.

Mitchell, W. J. T. “There Are no Visual Media.” MediaArtHistories, edited by Oliver Grau, MIT P, 2007, pp. 395-408.

Pauwels, Luc. “Conceptualising the ‘Visual Essay’ as a Way of Generating and Imparting Sociological Insight: Issues, Formats and Realisations.” Sociological Research Online, vol. 17, no 1, 2012, Accessed May 17, 2017.

Rippl, Gabriele, editor. Handbook of Intermediality. De Gruyter, 2015.

Schank, Michael. “Photography and Archaeology.” The Cultural Life of Images: Visual Representation in Archaeology, edited by Bryan Leigh Molyneaux, Routledge, 1997, pp. 73-107.

Vander Gucht, Daniel. Ce que regarder veut dire. Les Impressions Nouvelles, 2017.

Zielinski, Siegfried. Deep Time of the Media: Toward an Archaeology of Hearing and Seeing by Technical Means. MIT P, 2006.

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