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Review of Silke Horstkotte and Nancy Pedri’s Experiencing Visual Storyworlds: Focalization in Comics

By Shawn Gilmore

Horstkotte, Silke and Nancy Pedri. Experiencing Visual Storyworlds: Focalization in Comics. Ohio State University Press  2022.

Silke Horstkotte and Nancy Pedri’s Experiencing Visual Storyworlds: Focalization in Comics (2022), as its title implies, brings a well-explored concept in prose narratology—focalization—to bear on comics, hoping, as the authors put it, to show how the “concept enables a deeper understanding of the art of comics and of some especially striking examples of that art” (xviii). Applying conventional models of focalization, or “the filtering of a story through the perception of a character or noncharacter narrator,” to comics “requires a substantial revision of the narratological key concept of focalization,” and much of Experiencing Visual Storyworlds concerns itself with those revisions (xvii, xviii). Thus, Horstkotte and Pedri explore the complications raised by the medial and formal properties of comics, which they distinguish via the genres and types of comics that they read throughout the book.

For those unfamiliar, the contemporary world of prose narratology, which has developed a dense thicket of terms and interlocking concepts, and which primarily addresses literary fiction, extends the work of mid-20th-century structuralists and semioticians, attempting to align rigorous analytic frameworks with the wily world of prose narratives. Horstkotte and Pedri, like many contemporary narratologists, take Gérard Genette’s Narrative Discourse (1972, 1980) and Narrative Discourse Revisited (1983, 1988) as central in the development of the sort of narratology they pursue. Notably, Genette introduced the term “focalization” to distinguish between “the ‘voice’ of the narrator and the ‘mood’ of the narrative,” as Horstkotte and Pedri put it, emphasizing “that perceptions, evaluations, and judgment inside a narrative world do not have to originate with the narrator but can also be anchored in non-narratorial characters” (4).

Experiencing Visual Storyworlds extends Horstkotte and Pedri’s earlier article “Focalization in Graphic Narrative,” published in Narrative in 2011, in which they highlighted “the necessity of identifying medium-specific discourse markers signaling focalization,” as well as “some of the necessary conditions for focalization to become an analytically productive category in graphic narrative” (332). In that version of these claims, the authors established “that focalization has to be signaled by distinctly subjective discourse markers in all texts, including visual and multimodal ones, so as to partake in the processing of a story’s raw material,” concluding that “in the field of graphic narrative, a wider survey of texts is called for, which would lead to a more detailed and exhaustive catalogue of focalization-marking resources” (352). The present book carries out that wider survey and fulfills the authors’ earlier call for a more nuanced exploration of focalization in comics but is ultimately constrained by the theories of narratology they work from and the rather limited kinds of comics they consider.

Though Horstkotte and Pedri reformulate focalization from frameworks built for prose (and sometimes film) to a framework they build throughout the book oriented toward comics, their main claims remain in general narratological terms, only noting that comics will be the object of their close readings:

Our main argument in this book is that the focalization of a narrative gives readers a particular kind of access to experiences within the storyworld, enabling them to have experiences in their own turn. In our study of how focalization can be productively engaged in concrete analyses of individual comics, we emphasize that focalization’s greatest action is not to provide an angle of vision on a particular object or narrative agent. Rather, its main narrative work is to cue readers as to how the narrative world is understood by those who occupy it and, by doing do, draw readers into the mental and physical experiencing of those inhabitants and their world. (xix)

This tension—between narratological models that aim for general applicability and the narrative work of specific comics—drives the book, with the authors mining the gaps in the theories of narrative they bring to bear, often via illuminating close readings of a limited array of comics. The authors “propose a broad definition of focalization that includes not only perceptual activity and mentation but also the spatial orientation, ideological and epistemic positioning, emotional stance, and dispositions and attitudes of focal characters and narrators” (5). But this approach greatly reduces the field of comics to Horstkotte and Pedri’s selections—most of which were published in graphic novel form between 2000 and 2012, derived from a very small range of genres. Further, the book at times shortchanges some of the complexity of the comics the authors consider, which include narrative and perspectival elements that don’t fully align with the schemas the authors construct.

Experiencing Visual Storyworlds addresses the many-headed hydra of focalization in comics via a variety of useful terms such as “visual focalization markers,” which draw attention to the medial and formal aspects of comics storytelling through “panel size, perspectival angle, color, or style frequently used in graphic narrative to indicate the cognitive processing, emotional involvement, or ideological stance of characters” (14). Importantly, “narratorial choice is notoriously difficulty to disentangle from the perception and subjective stances of characters, and subjective representation often blends into the representation of subjectivity,” usefully complicating how focalization markers might appear (15). As the authors concede, comics’ “versatility means that there are no hard-and-fast rules for what can and cannot constitute a focalization marker in graphic narrative,” and thus “focalization in comics needs to be assessed in relation to the specific givens of a particular text” (13).

To this model, they add “aspectuality,” a term borrowed from Alan Palmer’s Fictional Minds (2004), and the “what it’s like” of various storyworlds from David Herman’s Basic Elements of Narrative (2009), which are bound to one or more characters or narrators. In addition, Horstkotte and Pedri frequently employ a logic of “windows” of focalization, borrowed from Manfred Jahn, who adapted the metaphor from Henry James’ “house of fiction” preface to The Portrait of a Lady. In Experiencing Visual Storyworlds, the authors connect this notion of “windows” to a more traditional formal vocabulary of panels and frames, such that “the window of focalization is anchored in a deictic center with a more embodied spatiotemporal origin,” where “the term ‘deictic center’ describes a locus in the narrative world that readers use to orient and locate themselves in the process of meaning-making” (168).

All of this apparatus, which I’ve only gestured at, distributed throughout Experiencing Visual Storyworlds, is in service of what the authors describe as a “journey of discovery from first definitions in chapter 1 through a process of growing insight into the complexity of focalization strategies and focalizations markers in different comics genres to the conclusion chapter at the end of the book” (xxv). The book’s first chapter recapitulates and extends Horstkotte and Pedri’s 2011 article, providing nuanced close readings of passages from Jason Lutes’ Berlin: City of Stones (2002). The authors conclude with a new version of their earlier claim about the parameters of the project they are engaged in: “A working model of focalization in comics needs to consider all kinds of perspectivation (optical, cognitive, ideological, emotional, and so forth) under the broad heading of focalization, regardless of whether or not this perspective unfolds on the verbal or visual track” (27).

Chapter 2, “Focalization, Experience, and What’s It’s Like,” turns to moments in comics when “readers are confronted with the subjectively felt quality of experiences, perceptions, and events” (28). Taking up Josh Simmons’ Jessica Farm: Volume 1 (2008), Charles Burns’ Black Hole (2005), and Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan (2000), Horstkotte and Pedri borrow the terminology of “the qualia of felt experience” from the fields of psychology, cognitive sciences, and philosophy of mind” to help distinguish the “different ways in which the world appears to different narrative agents” (29). Across these comics, the authors surface “a phenomenological concept of experience,” under which “focalization is viewed as a point of connectivity between text-internal experience and the sense-making of readers who bring their own real-life experiences to bear on the narrative” (30). These hypothetical readers are thus imbricated in the comics the book addresses in a variety of complicated and sometimes counter-intuitive ways. To pick but one example, Horstkotte and Pedri offer a quite compelling reading a multi-page sequence from Black Hole (one of Keith’s fantasies), during which “a character’s internal and external worlds” blend together, which seem initially “to confuse readers” (43). The authors argue that in sequences such as this “panels become increasingly infected with a more knowledgeable aspectuality that appears to be unbound to any single character,” and represent a shift from character-tied narration to something more like external focalization (44), which nicely ties together the formal and narrational elements of the sequence.

The book’s second and third chapters, perhaps its most conventional, focus on graphic memoir and graphic historiography, respectively. Chapter 3, which addresses Ellen Forney’s Marbles (2012), Sarah Leavitt’s Tangles (2010), David Small’s Stitches (2009), and David B’s Epileptic (2005), treats the emergence of theories of autography. They note, for example that the “hand-drawn quality of comics style is explicitly connected to the corporeality of the memoirist and their being in the work,” leading to “a rich sensorial experience, enabling a nuanced access to the memoirist’s what it’s like,” while also “embedding a character-bound focalization in social networks of feeling and perception” (60). Similarly, in chapter 4, they treat an unusual range of graphic historiographies: Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1986, 1991), JP Stassen’s Deogratias (2006), Li Kunwu & Philippe Ôtié’s A Chinese Life (2012), as well as Joe Sacco’s Palestine (2003), Footnotes in Gaza (2009), and Safe Area Goražde (2002). These works, Horstkotte and Pedri claim, “grant unique insights into what it is like to live through extreme experiences of genocidal atrocity, civil war, famine, and the revolutionary rebuilding of societies, while simultaneously offering meditative explorations of how these experiences can be represented and how that narrative representation relates to reality” (103). Further, these comics display the processes “through which historical events become focalized and through which readers access the felt quality that characterizes historical experience, as well as its later processing” (103). Invoking now-standard concepts from memory studies such as “postmemory,” Horstkotte and Pedri “argue that focalization plays a crucial role for implicating readers in the affiliative process of postmemory and thus for the narrative ethics of the comics we study” (105).

The book’s final two chapters consider wordless and metafictional comics at some length. In particular, Chapter 5, on wordless (sans parole) comics addresses the challenge these comic pose to the bimodal (verbal and visual tracks) framework that Horstkotte and Pedri often invoke, as wordless comics pose “a particular challenge for interpreting focalization” by relying “exclusively visual means to evoke the what it’s like of a world and its experiential processing by one or several characters” (147). The authors make an admirable effort to attempt to integrate wordless comics including Josh Simmons’ House (2007), Eric Drooker’s Flood! (2007), and Shaun Tan’s The Arrival (2006) into their bimodal framework. Chapter 6 addresses metafictional comics “that reflect back on their own fictionality,” with close readings of Dave Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp (2009) and Craig Thompson’s Habibi (2011) (179).

These latter chapters, which contain some of the book’s most interesting close readings, also strain the logics of focalization in play. Near the end of chapter 5, Horstkotte and Pedri conclude that the “depiction of unstable narrative worlds and the use of unusual visual metaphors and of narrative metalepses systematically blur the boundaries between realistic codes of representation and distorted depictions of the what’s it’s like of characters, between narrative levels and emotional states” (176). While this helpfully describes, say, the sometimes surreal and obscurant worlds of comics like Drooker’s Flood! and Tan’s Arrival, which the authors note “obscure the distinction between character-bound and narratorial focalization,” this approach is overly allegiant to models of focalization so wedded to the narratologies from which they are derived flattening some of the interesting and irreducible nuances of these comics (177).

Experiencing Visual Storyworlds invokes the visible presence of artists when they present versions of themselves in their own comics—think Art Spiegelman as “Artie” in Maus or the version of Alison Bechdel she chooses to present in Fun Home—but lacks a clear sense of who does the work of “systematically blur[ing] the boundaries between” the codes the authors address (176). Anxiety over the origins of these representational choices pervades the book. Early on, Horstkotte and Pedri highlight this anxiety:

Even though text and image may be joined together in composite panels, the visual component is not necessarily associated with the same deictic origin or with the same perceptual and emotional orientation. Often, there is no clear indication where the images come from, leaving readers to search for their relation with the verbal text. Meanwhile, in comics that do not have an explicit narratorial “voice,” there is no single instance that corresponds to the narrator of a literary narrative. (13)

Though the book ostensibly sets out to navigate these gaps, its model derived from prose narratology leads to some odd readings. When they consider Lutes’ Berlin, the authors note that “through braiding,” a term introduced by Thierry Groensteen, “recurrent panels of public transport” “connect sequences in an almost random fashion, establishing a snowball system of storytelling with sometimes surprising cuts between storylines” (23). Though these cuts are indeed surprising, Horstkotte and Pedri’s reading of them does not include the creator of the comic as an organizing force, as their model of focalization must be tied to direct or indirect characters or narrators in the comics themselves. Sometimes, these anxieties lead to quite interesting readings, such as the author’s insight that in Stassen’s Deogratis, “it remains unclear whether this belated knowledge” of the character’s former crimes “is to be associated with Deogratis’s present memories of past events, thereby constituting a character-bound focalization, or whether such revelations about the protagonist are communicated behind his back directly to the reader, thereby constituting a narratorial focalization” (123).

These questions over where narrative information lies and how focalization in comics is constructed are further complicated by the book’s typified “readers,” who appear throughout. In their useful conclusion, “Putting Focalization in Perspective,” which reorients the now revised models of focalization the book has established, the authors note that “how comics involve their readers depends not so much on individual narrative devices, but rather on the coming together of various strategies, including style, content, choice of symbols, image composition, juxtaposition of panels, and braiding of passages across the length” of the comic in question (220). These general readers appear frequently throughout Experiencing Visual Storyworlds, and their hypothetical reading experiences guide how focalization is considered. For example, readers of Maus “have to assess the plausibility of one way of representing [a] prisoner over against an alternative way” (112). When considering Thompson’s Habibi, the authors note that it “contains many fantastical motifs from a Western oriental imagination,” describing an orientation within the comic, but also note the “strangeness of Habibi’s narrative world, which is far removed from the experience of Western readers,” presuming a readership of the comic (206, 199).

This slippage seems to stem from the narratological roots of these models of focalization, which presume ideal readers with typified readerly experiences. Though Horstkotte and Pedri invoke theories of reader response and Monika Fludernik’s Toward a “Natural” Narratology (1996), they do so to establish a shift within narratology “to move away from formal narratology and into pragmatics and reception theory,” but can never quite shake the reliance on idealized readers with typical reading practices (6). To pick but one example, when describing what they call the “ambivalent” braiding effects in Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, the authors note that “the open-endedness of these combinations and the lack of explicit commentary make it extremely difficult for readers to arrive at a plausible and satisfactory interpretation. Reading Jimmy Corrigan and trying to gauge the protagonist’s what it’s like can thus become a frustrating experience” (52). This, however, has never been my reading experience with Jimmy Corrigan, whose main protagonists lead dryly pathetic lives, filled with bursts of imagination that only make their suppressed desires all the sadder. I doubt my sense of Jimmy Corrigan, based on teaching and writing on it, is universal, but my readerly experience of it is at odds with that described in Experiencing Visual Storyworlds. Comics scholars turning to this text should be aware of these potential disconnects and should consider the importance of these assumptions about idealized readers.

Silke Horstkotte and Nancy Pedri’s Experiencing Visual Storyworlds: Focalization in Comics will certainly help introduce key terms from contemporary narratology, including those around focalization, and hopefully seed them throughout comics studies. The complex web of ideas the book attempts to present allows for a wealth of close readings, some of which future scholars will certainly return to, extend, and counter. However, I was struck throughout at the difficulty of building a framework about the narrative presentation of comics and the impacts of that presentation that comes with some of the limits I’ve noted. Certainly, readers are commended to the overall framework of Experiencing Visual Storyworlds, and hopefully many will be provoked to continue the work of building a model of focalization in comics that can account for more of what comics actually do.


Works Cited

Fludernik, Monika. Towards a “Natural” Narratology. Routledge, 1996.

Herman, David. Basic Elements of Narrative. John Wiley & Sons, 2009.

Horstkotte, Silke and Nancy Pedri. “Focalization in Graphic Narrative.” Narrative, vol. 19, no. 3, October 2011, pp. 330-357.

Jahn, Manfred. “Windows of Focalization: Deconstructing and Reconstructing a Narratological Concept.” Style, vol. 30, no. 2, 1996, pp. 214-267.

Palmer, Alan. Fictional Minds. University of Nebraska Press, 2004.

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