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Textual Recall: The Art of Braiding in ‘La casa del sol naciente’ and El arte de volar

Janis Breckenridge and Jenna Stanley

Antonio Altarriba and Kim’s (Joaquim Aubert Puigarnau) collaboratively composed graphic short story “La casa del sol naciente,” which serves as both an optimistic sequel and “un bellísimo epílogo” (a beautiful epilogue) (Beares) to their critically acclaimed graphic novel El arte de volar1 successfully transcends the relentless suffering, ongoing defeats and ultimate resignation that pervade the previous work. Whereas El arte de volar, much in keeping with Art Spiegelman’s now-canonical Maus, chronicles a son’s efforts to comprehend and literally draw upon a father’s personal experiences of traumatic historical events, “La casa,” in turn, narrates a reader’s encounter with the graphic novel and its creator. The book’s visual imagery triggers the reliving of a traumatic memory and catalyzes her subsequent interaction with the fictionalized author (Altarriba’s alter ego). An obvious homage, the contemporary storyline of “La casa” openly celebrates the historically grounded El arte de volar while reassuringly affirming a liberating if not exuberant (re)interpretation of suicidal free-fall. In keeping with the more modern temporality and the decidedly optimistic turn, the graphic short story features a full color palette in lieu of the exclusively gray tones, reminiscent of bygone days, that characterize the initial collaboration.2

Taking as its point of departure a father’s suicide, El arte de volar exploits an extended flashback to chronologically narrate nearly a century of Spain’s tumultuous recent history. Enduring a harsh childhood in the rural, agricultural town poetically named Peñaflor, a young Antonio Altarriba Lope dreams of escaping to the city. After two failed attempts and following his military service, Altarriba joins the Republicans and participates in key Spanish Civil War battles including those of Belchite, Teruel and Ebro. Altarriba becomes one of countless refugees in France, first held at the Saint-Cyprien concentration camp, then endures forced labor and eventually suffers imprisonment in Limoges from which he escapes during an air raid. Subsequent to his eventual return to Spain, he suffers several failed business ventures as well as a failed marriage. Not surprisingly, Altarriba struggles with severe and prolonged depression; following an unsuccessful suicide attempt, he is placed in a psychiatric clinic. Later, upon return to the elderly home where he moved after divorcing his wife, Antonio Altarriba successfully takes his own life, jumping from a fourth-floor window of the institution. In this way, the text intimately traces the deleterious effects of the nation’s social, political and economic upheavals on an individual, chronicling various hardships suffered throughout the father’s ninety-year life span.

Relating an unexpectedly parallel tale of adolescent pregnancy and parental oppression, “La casa del sol naciente” tells the story of Chantal who attends a book signing promoting the graphic novel’s French translation (L’Art de Voler) in order to share her own personal ordeals with the author and provide him with reassuring solace. The distressing images that depict the father’s suicidal act serve as a powerful catalyst for this mature female reader, triggering traumatic memory recall of devastating events that took place during her teenage years. Chantal, like the author’s father, faced the agonizing loss of innocence and freedom only to suffer even greater oppressive violence. As a naïve sixteen-year-old, Chantal experienced intense anguish when publicly ridiculed by her friends following what she understood to be a meaningful sexual encounter. She was then brutally forsaken by her father, exposed to physical violence and confined within the four asphyxiating walls of her bedroom for the duration of the pregnancy. Chantal then endured the traumatizing loss of her child who was immediately placed in adoption according to her father’s prearranged decree. Like Altarriba’s father, Chantal too attempted to take her own life by jumping out of a window; she now recounts her sublime experience of free-fall to the grateful author-son. Thus “La casa” highlights an empathetic reading of Altarriba’s father’s plight while paying self-conscious tribute to the potential for literary art to successfully convey determination and resilience as well as to facilitate restorative human connections. In short, the recurrent visual, thematic and emotional presence of El arte de volar within “La casa” provides much more than a mere framing mechanism for the graphic short story; as a narrative element within the story, the source text functions to catalyze reader identification, trigger memory recall and inspire narrative storytelling.

Not coincidentally, “La casa” borrows several narrative devices, rhetorical strategies and stylistic techniques from its predecessor. In addition to the obvious visual reprise in depicting suicidal free-fall, numerous shared structural and thematic elements emphasize the highly intertextual relationship between the two works. Such resonances include comparable fusion of narrative voices, analogous narrative structures and corresponding visual conceits. Arguably, this mirroring of narrative and visual tropes—particularly the highly intertextual strategy of incorporating an embedded reader who not only relives and overcomes personal trauma but also retells her ordeal in order to solace the fictionalized author—effectively utilizes both narrative content and comics syntax to dramatize Cathy Caruth’s scholarly reflections regarding the ways that trauma can be remembered, repeated and eventually worked through.

Following a brief discussion of the texts’ parallel construction featuring circularity and fluid narrative voicing, this essay explores in detail the more significant of the numerous tightly interwoven echoes between “La casa del sol naciente” and El arte de volar, revealing the depth of interdependency and complementarity between these graphic narratives. Particular attention is paid to continually evolving representations of the falling body, recurrent depictions of walls to symbolize oppression and despair together with the concomitant presence of windows that offer brief but promising glimpses of freedom. Specifically, the structural mechanism of braiding—understood as a form of linking or bridging that, through repetition in whole or in part, creates an intricate network of visual motifs and imagistic details within graphic narratives—occurs here, not merely within an individual visual text, but across two graphic works that are, somewhat paradoxically, wholly independent yet intimately interdependent.3 In this way, much as “the panel is enriched with resonances that have an effect of transcending the functionality of the site that it occupies” (Groensteen 148), here visual reiterations, reverberations and proliferations function to deeply enhance and expand plot development, narrative structure and artistic elaboration in “La casa” while simultaneously fostering dynamic re-readings, nuanced reevaluations and retroactive re-interpretations of El arte de volar. Perhaps even more significantly, braiding imposes a non-linear and fractured reading pattern upon the graphic narratives, cutting through and across chronological plot developments. This sustained technique of fragmentation, recurrence and repetition-with-difference of visual motifs in the two works effectively mirrors the processes of delayed recall and repeated returns that constitute the reliving of catastrophic events intrinsic to traumatic memory.

Aligning Subject(ive) Positions: Structural Considerations

El arte de volar and “La casa del sol naciente” feature remarkably similar circular structures; that is, both are cyclical comics whereby the ending cycles back to the beginning thematically as well as formally.4 Beginning just prior to the narrative climax, in both instances the denouement becomes a framing device which orients and contextualizes extended flashbacks that return full-circle to the initializing sequence in order to attain resolution. El arte opens with a three-page introductory sequence that sets the stage for the father’s suicidal jump, turning to an embedded (auto)biographical narrative comprising the bulk of the book before closing with a final page layout that revisits the suicide sequence. “La casa,” a brief fourteen-page sequel featured in Panorama: La novela gráfica hoy (a collected volume showcasing vignettes created by twenty-eight of Spain’s most illustrious graphic writers and artists)5, models a similar, albeit highly metaliterary, circularity. Here, a woman’s inspired reading of El arte de volar precipitates an (auto)biographical flashback; a return to the opening sequence culminates with an intimate exchange between embedded reader and fictionalized author. As such, although presenting an entirely original graphic tale, “La casa” highlights the affective power of Altarriba and Kim’s original collaborative work.

In both cases, visual imagery and format complement and reinforce narrative structure. El arte de volar capitalizes on the architectural design of the building’s four floors to reconstruct the father’s lived experiences (narrated chronologically or progressively in time) even as he flies precipitously downwards toward his long-awaited death. Four chapters, each preceded with successive images of the father’s fall, focus on pivotal periods of his life story: childhood and adolescence (the third floor, 1910-1931); coming of age with the advent of a democratic Republic, joining the Republican militia in the Spanish Civil War and the ramifications of World War II (the second floor, 1931-1949); life under Franco, disastrous business alliances and a failed marriage (the first floor, 1949-1985); and finally, entering a residence facility and committing suicide as a senior citizen (the ground, or 1985-2001). While illustrating the clichéd notion that one’s life flashes before their eyes before dying, such narrative fragmentation allows definitive play with time and pacing. Rapid free-fall is deliberately halted, drawn out across the entire length of the graphic novel; what takes seconds in narrative time becomes minutes or hours of reading time and encompasses nearly a century of historical time.6

“La casa del sol naciente,” in turn, employs successive rejuvenating panels in order to exit the framing narration and enter into the protagonist’s distant past. Years recede from her face and her long gray hair gradually becomes brunette, allowing the metaliterary framework to likewise fall away, effaced by recall of life-altering events suffered as an adolescent.

Significantly, each text likewise incorporates multiple levels of narration that ultimately result in a complex (con)fusion of narrative voicing. A melding of identities and an intricate blending of narratorial subject positions remain overtly articulated in El arte de volar; this novel approach, though far more obliquely employed, likewise persists throughout “La casa del sol naciente.” In El arte de volar, the author-son assumes a first person narrative position to articulate the father’s life story, serving not merely as compiler, editor and mediator for the father’s first-hand account of ninety years of Spanish history, but instead asserting his ability and authority to directly relate another’s story from the same privileged viewpoint of narrator-witness.

Antonio Altarriba (son and narrator) understands the paternal relationship as an intimate form of doubling that transcends formal name sharing, a cherished bond that allows his father to speak directly through him. From the outset, the narrator assures the reader “…y ahora, una vez muerto, [mi padre] está en mí. Así que puedo contar su vida con la verdad de sus testimonios y la emoción de una sangre que aún corre por mis venas. De hecho, voy a contar la vida de mi padre con sus ojos pero de mi perspectiva” (…and now, once dead, [my father] is in me. Therefore, I am able to retell his life with the veracity of his testimonies and the emotion of his blood that still courses through my veins. As a matter of fact, I am going to tell my father’s life through his eyes but from my perspective) (14-15). Accordingly, in the framing narration of the graphic novel the author-son’s measured retrospective narrative voiceover remains distinct and isolated from the visual narrative, set apart in extradiegetic text boxes. Kim’s art in contrast, create a sense of immediacy and urgency by visualizing the father’s suicide from his first-person perspective with thought bubbles in the present tense.

The first three panels of the extended flashback, in contrast, adroitly intertwine external narrative voicing with subjective interior monologue (“Mi padre, que ahora soy yo … Mi abuelo, que ahora es mi padre … Mis tíos, que ahora son mis hermanos”) (Mi father, who is now me … My grandfather, who is now my father … My uncles, who are now my brothers). Once this fusion is definitively established with the words “Yo, que ya soy un solo yo” (I, who am now just one me) (19), the graphic novel unequivocally adopts a singular, first-person testimonial stance. This unique narrative approach has led one critic to enthusiastically proclaim the birth of a new literary genre: “ha creado un nuevo género, puesto que basándose en las notas escritas por su padre rememorando su vida, escribe en primera persona, de forma autobiográfica, como si fuera su progenitor” (he has created a new genre, given that basing himself on his father’s written notes recalling his life, he writes in first person, in autobiographical form, as if he were the parent) (Mena n.p.). While such an exuberant assertion might be overstating the case in terms of crafting a new genre paradigm, throughout El arte de volar, to be sure, the traditional boundaries between biography and autobiography, professional transcriber and testimonial informant, become blurred if not indistinguishable.7

In turn, “La casa del sol naciente” relies on a similar, albeit far less transparent, form of narrative fluidity. Here, Altarriba and Kim recreate (through both text and image) a female reader’s orally rendered autobiographical tale, mediating her personal story through the filter of their own creative and professional endeavors. Mute or silent passages alternate with sequences propelled by intradiegetic dialogue. The short story dispenses with the graphic novel’s extradiegetic, narrative voice-over, fostering a sense of immediacy with the events related. Although wordless, an implicit third-person omniscient narrative perspective—a position easily, if not imperceptibly assimilated by readers—governs the opening sequence. In contrast, the flashback or embedded narration remains focalized through the protagonist. The concluding sequence returns to the framing narration albeit with a critical shift to the perspective of the fictionalized creators, who explicitly observe Chantal from a position closely aligned with that of the initial sequence. This subtle blurring of the enunciating subject position aptly reflects the multiplicity of roles assumed by the characters—Chantal, Altarriba and Kim—all of whom are, simultaneously storytellers, protagonists, and readers/listeners.

Reading Between the Lines: Formal Considerations

Figure 1: The opening page of “La casa del sol naciente”

Rather than an establishing frame that serves to contextualize location, present referential relationships and/or clarify time, “La casa del sol naciente” opens with an unbounded and slightly askew panel that showcases a detailed close-up of the French publication, L’Art de Voler. A disembodied female hand occupying the interstitial spaces of the gutter enters the plane at a sharp forty-five-degree angle and literally lifts the critically acclaimed text up from the page as evidenced by the presence of drop shadows. The resulting vector, together with a conspicuous lack of the distinctly outlined, rectangular borders characteristic of the rest of the visual narrative, disrupts the otherwise linear page layout, effectively isolating this pivotal act and placing it on a slightly different plane, both temporally and spatially. As comics theorist Barbara Postema postulates, such “Frameless panels tend to be less anchored in time than framed panels” (40) and, as she additionally notes, these “unmoored moments” provide an organic quality to the page layout. Opening in this way, then, effectively establishes a timeless quality, staging an act of absorbed reading so deeply engaged as to obliterate the protagonist’s awareness of her current surroundings.

Significantly, the woman’s thumb, in alignment with the raised arm and clenched fist (the anti-Fascist or Republican salute) of a shadowy figure in the cover’s background, points directly to the title of the embedded graphic novel, itself appearing much like a comic panel inlaid onto the cover art. At the same time, the positioning of the hand, overlaid by three consecutive panels, serves to physically connect individual frames that illustrate the protagonist’s (and by extension the viewer’s) increasingly immersive reading experience. Reinforcing this effect, a measured zoom causes the woman’s profile and hands to gradually disappear from the panels even as an accurate rendering of Altarriba and Kim’s work begins to fill the frame and assume a protagonic role. With this wordless opening sequence, the comic creators establish a decidedly self-referential narrative framework; it is, accordingly, a timeless and hermetic (inter)textual world that introduces the ensuing tale.

Within this tightly closed framing narration, the reader advances from the role of distanced observer or witness to occupy a more intimate and empathic position. An increasingly aligned narrative perspective imparts the protagonist’s experience of reading L’Art de Voler, literally sharing her (point of) view as she contemplates the crucial sequence in which Altarriba’s father meticulously prepares to jump from the window of a confining residence facility (the page that opens El arte de volar). Together, the protagonist and the reader become immersed in a contemplative reading of the source text which, as a trigger for both textual and traumatic memory recall, facilitates a shared experience of working through personal and collective trauma.

Not coincidentally, although roughly sketched, the visual reproductions of El arte de volar that appear in these initial vignettes of “La casa” remain faithful to the graphic novel, although, as leading comics theorist Thierry Groensteen makes clear, even the exact replication or

[t]he reprise of the same panel at two locations in a comic, contiguous or distant, does not constitute a perfect duplication. The second occurrence of the panel is already different from the first by the sole fact of the citation effect that is attached. The repetition raises the memory of the first occurrence… (148)

Further maintaining that braided relationships between panels demonstrate the existence of a network or system in comics, Groensteen contends that in addition to the “syntagmatic logic of the sequence, it [braiding] imposes another logic, the associative” (158). Arguably, with “La casa del sol naciente” it is in fact a doubly associative logic that functions to incite memory. Through affective impact, these images operate to fuel personalized and traumatic recall for the female protagonist who presumably reads the graphic novel for the first time even as, simultaneously, visual duplications serve as a stimulus for literary consciousness in the knowing comics reader. Effectively, then, “La casa del sol naciente” invites a critical re-reading. Or, given the central role afforded to braiding, perhaps it could more appropriately be stated, that the graphic story in fact fosters a critical re-viewing of El arte de volar.

Immediately upon adopting the female reader-protagonist’s precise narrative perspective, the unsuspecting reader encounters a wildly subjective interpretation of the source text; we unexpectedly view a ludic adaptation of the originally somber, if not overtly traumatic, recurring image of the father’s falling body. Rather than facing downwards as he rapidly approaches his impending death, here Altarriba’s father bears a wide grin and stares out from the page, directly engaging both the female protagonist and the reader with a triumphantly elated gaze.8 This uncanny and shocking visual transformation of the foundational series of images underpinning the graphic novel, which we later understand reflects Chantal’s affirmation and positive recognition of herself in the graphic representation of Altarriba’s father flying toward the ground, breaks the narrative frame (the so-called fourth wall) to directly implicate the reader. In short, we share a knowing wink of complicity with the creators of this multilayered graphic fiction.

A shift in focus towards the figure of the female reader and away from the embedded textual work in her hand precipitates an extended flashback that, much like the narrative structure of El arte de volar, recounts traumatic events from the past. Curiously, the representation of this intercalated tale, in which the reader becomes engrossed in the protagonist’s personal narrative, mirrors the initial process of Chantal’s engaged or, to borrow Groensteen’s terminology for astute detection and decryption of braiding, “crazed reading” (147) of Altarriba and Kim’s graphic novel. In other words, to best understand, appreciate, and accurately interpret the intertextual complexities of the text in hand, the reader must be aware on a literary level, as is Chantal on a personal one, of the intricate connections to the source text for, as Postema reminds us: “intertextual codes add another layer of signification, building connotations on top of the purely denotational signification” (13). In short, naïve readers can certainly appreciate “La casa” as a well-conceived and expertly drawn stand-alone work. However, the knowing reader’s familiarity with the source text greatly enhances and expands the narrative content and visual material beyond what lies on the surface of the page.

Figure 2: The first tier of panels, page 26

Significantly, it is a solid black panel—seemingly void but in fact loaded with latent content and structural relevance—that closes the extended flashback.9 What follows, a close-up featuring Chantal’s hand clutching her copy of L’Art de Voler drawn in a way that is remarkably similar to the story’s first panel, signals a return to the framing narration. Maintaining the opening frame’s detail shot and dramatic forty-five-degree angle, this panel shows the graphic novel firmly grasped and held close to Chantal’s body, particularly her chest and midsection, implying strong emotional connection to the source text if not also, perhaps, a subtle allusion to the protagonist’s teenage pregnancy. Notably, this tightly-drawn frame, in contrast to the opening image, remains strictly confined by a border that cuts off the corner of the book while containing her hand within the panel limits. With the resulting vector, her thumb is now aligned with the young protagonist’s (namely Altarriba’s father’s) defiantly raised arm and clenched fist, symbolic of Republican solidarity, as depicted in the foreground of the graphic novel’s cover; both point directly back to the solid black panel. In this way the visual imagery underscores or redoubles the empathic bond, forged through the uniquely shared experience of suicidal free-fall and communicated through literary representation and immersive readership.

Only now does an establishing panel provide context for the highly metafictional framing narration that produces the flashback. The reader-protagonist, in attendance at a promotional book signing for L’Art de Voler, awaits an opportunity to privately approach Altarriba and Kim: graphic co-creators who have transformed themselves into their own literary creations. This atypical comics reader (a female advanced in years whereas the other patrons are, not surprisingly, predominantly young men) takes center stage and earnestly delivers her message to Altarriba as the background once again begins to fade away, becoming monochromatic and dull. Much as her immersive reading overshadowed and ultimately obliterated the spatial and temporal context in which it took place, this visual technique effectively underscores the primary importance of their verbal exchange. The elimination of background details brings the protagonists (drawn in nearly photographic detail and strategically situated in the foreground) into sharp relief. His father did not suffer, she urgently confirms, but instead experienced a joyous event; his four-story fall was truly a prolonged flight. This heartfelt interpretation amplifies and intensifies what the original work’s title, the father’s internal monologue and the author-son’s narrative voiceover have already assiduously attempted to convey.

Figure 3: Closing frames of “La casa del sol naciente” (page 27)

The mature Chantal concludes by asserting that “…Cuando todas las puertas se cierran, está bien saber que siempre queda una ventana abierta…” (…When all doors close, it’s good to know that there’s always an open window…) (27), reinforcing verbally the connotative value of the works’ fundamental recurring visual imagery. With this positive affirmation, the ideal reader-protagonist confidently strides away under the steadfast, triangulated gazes of Kim and a grateful Altarriba. Background details once again come into focus as her steps (and the reader’s gaze) lead directly toward an opposing wall that subtly takes on characteristics distinctive of the recurrent window motif permeating both El arte de volar and “La casa del sol naciente.” Through the associative or citational power of braiding that occurs across these graphic narratives, the presence of a nearly translucent curtain behind a distant book-signing booth transforms a seemingly innocuous background detail (a blank wall) into an eloquent expression of redemptive possibilities and creative potential. As Groensteen explains, “Braiding overdetermines the panel by equipping coordinates that we can qualify as hyper-topical … the panel is enriched with resonances that have an effect of transcending the functionality of the site that it occupies” (italics in the original, 147-148). In other words, given the explicit intertextual relationship between Altarriba and Kim’s two works, constructed by means of interrelated storylines and artfully reinforced through overtly associative visual correlations, this penultimate panel effectively articulates meaning beyond that which is strictly represented within the frame. Here, a rather mundane image undergoes an inspiring transformation that functions in tandem with the uplifting nature of the narrative’s climax; even as this wall can now be viewed as a window, a visual reading made possible only by an enriched intertextual reading, the father’s death can now be interpreted as an affirming event.

Visual Conceits (I): Embodied Interpretations

It is, unsurprisingly, precisely the representation of jumping—or flying—to one’s death as a liberating and redemptive act, the very act giving rise to the title El arte de volar, that becomes the most visibly obvious and narratively climactic link between the graphic texts. Strikingly similar imagery makes these parallel sequences appear nearly identical at first glance; however, upon closer inspection, nuanced representational strategies lead to pronounced differences in narrative pacing and, ultimately, focus. In both texts, a gentle breeze with softly billowing (if not, perhaps, beckoning) translucent curtains—together with the protagonist’s deliberately measured and manifestly corresponding actions that include opening a window, placing a chair and stepping up to a ledge with a view of the street below—contribute to a sense of determination, quiet resolve and serenity. Concomitantly gauged but distinctly measured representations of the passage of time in these sequences, especially as regulated by the use of elongated panels to slow narrative pacing, together with the employment of discrete visual perspectives, artfully distinguish the woman’s attempted suicide from the father’s definitive act.

El arte de volar exploits an extended series of smaller, rapidly paced vignettes to build narrative tension as, panel-by-panel, the father carries out numerous premeditated and highly surreptitious (not to mention, nearly detected) actions that eventually culminate with the much-anticipated leap. In addition to an interior monologue that verbalizes escalating disquiet when confronted with unanticipated setbacks (a delay in the dispensing of medications, unavailable elevators and the necessity of hiding behind a potted plant in order to avoid discovery), precise visual perspectives render heightened awareness to obstacles that must be overcome. An extreme close-up on his wide-eyed, alarmed stare highlights mounting anxiety while waiting for the hallway to clear even as subsequent frames pan out in order to feature Altarriba’s father as a stooped, diminutive figure facing a towering staircase or extensive corridors. Once positioned on the window ledge, a crane shot effectively diminishes his stature even further while a subsequent and abrupt zoom on his feet amplifies the effect of the vast empty space below, intensifying the sensation of vertigo for the reader.

This highly dramatic sequence does not, however, culminate with a visual depiction of the climactic moment of his anticipated jump but rather with an elongated double panel—inset from the margins as if floating on the white space of the page—in which time and action remain suspended, seemingly coming to a standstill. This interior view displays abandoned house slippers and a carefully discarded cane (constant companions during his odyssey) set next to a neatly arranged stack of disregarded magazines: in short, a tableau of a life willfully left behind and a stillness (a still-life) that evokes death (naturaleza muerta). With this image the reader, having come to identify with Altarriba’s father after following his laborious efforts to successfully execute this final act, senses satisfaction, fulfillment and relief upon contemplating the window that has provided freedom to a long-suffering elderly gentleman.

In this way, Altarriba and Kim effectively establish distance from the shock of the fatal fall and at the same time avoid graphically depicting the grisly aftermath of suicide. Nonetheless, despite the notable absence of immediate representation, a series of haunting recurring drawings representing successive moments in the father’s flight opens each of the graphic novel’s four sections. Arguably, this particular form of braiding makes visible the son’s traumatic memory of his father’s tragic demise. That is, the repeated images, separated by time and space across the narrative, slow down the act of free-fall, delaying or postponing the precise moment of deadly impact. This narrative technique effectively illustrates both the fragmentation and the reconstruction of a highly dramatic event characterized by extreme emotional intensity, thus replicating the very processes of traumatic memory. The reader is literally shown how the son gradually, in a discontinuous, recurring and fractured form, can only attempt to imagine the potentially horrifying final moments of his father’s voluntary death.10

In each of the four successive images (single panels placed just above center on full black pages) motion lines extend to the upper edge of the frame underscoring the speed, duration and downward trajectory of an ongoing fall while sharp angles made by the body’s unnatural posture—arms and legs flail dramatically—suggest a tumultuous flight. The father’s suit jacket, which has replaced his pajamas in order to conceal his identity as a patient, now billows up and away from his body, buffeted by the sheer force of air resistance. Outstretched hands, indicative of the natural instinct to protect oneself, impart further tension. Considered together, these successive images, which feature the tumbling body delineated against discrete sections of the residence facility, create a visual crescendo. A faintly sketched brick wall with nearly featureless windows gives way to a more detailed representation of the brick façade and the father’s ambiguous facial expression in the second panel’s zoom. The visual series reaches a peak, however, when the father is directly framed in front of a wide, arching window. In this third vignette, potential onlookers mirror the reader’s voyeuristic position; although most are obliviously unaware, a woman looks out in horrified shock as she observes the father’s flight. The fourth braided image of free-fall, with the institutional backdrop now completely whitewashed, leaves the father braced, but eternally suspended above concrete just prior to impact.

In contrast, Altarriba and Kim profoundly re-imagine the representational strategies for depicting suicidal free-fall in the decidedly uplifting sequel. The previously established rhythm is radically altered by inverting placement of the equivalent elongated horizontal panel in “La casa del sol naciente,” opening rather than closing the suicide sequence with an establishing frame that condenses emotional resolution and initial preparatory actions. Quickly removing both an intravenous tube and a bedsheet in order to escape the confines of her hospital bed, the young female protagonist steadfastly contemplates a half-open window. The telltale billowing curtain sheers, a direct echo from El arte de volar (and, significantly, a detail missing in prior frames depicting this same hospital-room window), immediately, albeit subtly, signal her suicidal intent to the knowing reader.

This visual recognition makes a wordless sequence possible; a calm silence replaces the interior monologue and the author-son’s voiceover that verbalized each step of the prior narration. In like fashion, a mere three panels suffice to reiterate the parallel actions that lead, now, not to a tumultuous jump but to a graceful, streamlined swan dive. Here, two frames depict the female protagonist’s free-fall. Shown from below and without motion lines, as if the protagonist glides toward the reader in a highly controlled fashion, the neatly aligned falling body appears relaxed. Flowing hair blends into the soft folds of a gently billowing skirt. A zoom on her blissful facial expression unequivocally shifts narrative focus from the father’s careful preparation for death to the woman’s sublime experience of flight. To this end, an opportune page turn, judiciously placed between the two distinct panels that envision the art of flying, successfully prolongs the duration of her invigorating free-fall even further.

Such changes in representational techniques highlight the positive, affirming aspects of the suicidal act. “La casa del sol naciente” dramatically illustrates that in the end, both protagonists, having suffered oppressive forces, deliberately and joyfully escape the strict confines and physical walls of their respective medical care facilities. This braided visual reprise, the celebratory end-product of inspired readership and authorship, utilizes the very image of the falling body to effectively affirm that intentional free-fall is not strictly a tragic demise to be mourned or grieved but rather a desired liberation and welcomed escape from overwhelming societal constraints and pressures.

Visual Conceits (II): Hitting Brick Walls, Finding Windows of Opportunity

In fact, recurring imagery of walls—interior and exterior, literal as well as symbolic—to embody and represent these dominant forces of oppression likewise serves as a fundamental visual trope not only within, but also across, the two graphic texts. With El arte de volar, pivotal moments in the father’s life, which at times directly coincide with significant historical events, are often directly linked to depictions of walls (including property boundaries, military barricades, prisons and refugee camps and later a senior residence) that impede progress, inhibit movement and obstruct freedom. Chantal likewise finds herself severely constrained by harsh patriarchal structures, callously imprisoned by her uncompromising father within the four walls of her bedroom so as to preserve familial honor. Depictions of both protagonists’ enduring aspirations and defiant acts of resistance become tied to the potential promise afforded by open vistas, particularly those made possible by means of (open) windows.

Throughout Altarriba’s father’s childhood, the frenzied construction of walls stand as concrete signs of the townspeople’s greed and corruption. The structures gradually close off the once vast, expansive fields, augmenting the insularity of the remote village of Peñaflor and increasingly inhibiting the children’s freedoms of sight and movement. This belligerent demarcation of farmland, described somewhat humorously in exaggeratedly bellic terminology as “la guerra de las tapias” (the war of the garden walls) (30) in which neighbors battle for control of cultivable terrain with the understanding that “la tierra… hay que pelearse por ella… defenderla” (the land…you have to fight for it… defend it) (30), can be understood to visibly and rather ominously foreshadow the impending Spanish Civil War. At the same time, childhood defiance in the form of climbing these walls and hurdling down into forbidden territory (a liberating exploit described, appropriately, as similar to flying) anticipates a lifetime of struggle, punctuated by occasional joys and victories but ultimately overshadowed by defeat, an arduous existence that will culminate with the fatal flight prefigured here. The father’s words of nostalgic reflection make such associations explicit: “crecí lo suficiente para encaramarme a las barreras … para burlar algunas .. para saltar otras…pero nunca crecí lo suficiente para superarlas definitivamente” (I grew up enough to climb the barriers… to outwit some… to leap over others…but I never grew enough to overcome them definitively) (25).

To this end, the graphic novel highlights such images as a panel touting achievement of poetic justice drawn in the style of wartime propaganda posters. This hyperbolic frame features a heroic, just come-of-age, bare-chested Altarriba (father) symbolically bursting through a low-lying brick garden wall, brandishing his newly obtained and long-desired driver’s license along with his six-pack abs (44). In a similar but more realistic vein, a dramatic war sequence depicts the destruction by American bombers of the exterior walls of a German prison camp where the father has been detained. As if his desperate mantra “Tengo que escaper. Tengo que escapar. Tengo que escapar.” (I have to escape. I have to escape. I have to escape.) (103) conjured their very existence, the father unexpectedly and almost miraculously finds himself not only alive but, temporarily at least, liberated. Nevertheless, most depictions of walls remain quite foreboding: the child’s hands are twice cut by glass when attempting to scale the neighbor’s garden walls and the same walls impede prompt medical attention resulting in the death of his best friend. In this way, El arte de volar showcases walls not simply as mechanisms to partition space, include or exclude or even to protect, but rather as ruthlessly constructed, insurmountable obstacles.

As such, Chantel’s confession that “mis motivos fueron muy distintos a los de su padre… motivos de mujer… pero también sufrí el autoritarismo y el agobio de los muros” (my reasons were very different from those of your father… a woman’s reasons… but I also suffered the authoritarianism and oppression of walls) (27) openly signals the asphyxiating presence of walls as a unifying thread between the works. In “La casa del sol naciente,” their depiction represents oppression in symbolic terms—societal repression of women in general, patriarchal castigation of a pregnant, unwed daughter in order to preserve family honor in particular—as well as in the literal sense of physical confinement both within her own home and later, within the institutional confines of the hospital where she gives birth to the child that will immediately be taken away from her.

Appropriately, the first depiction in “La casa” features a downcast protagonist, seemingly bowed down by the overwhelming presence of austere dining room walls and the severity of her father’s harsh and succinct command: eat.11 Foreshadowing Chantal’s imminent captivity as punishment for dishonoring the family and further signifying women’s entrapment by societal norms, these physical walls quickly give way to those of Chantal’s room, themselves eclipsed by those immediately beyond her bedroom window. An austere brick façade and a formidable stone structure highly reminiscent of the agricultural demarcations in El arte de volar serve as constant reminders of confinement even as they mark the passage of time, precisely through the encroachment of lush vegetation. Over the course of nine months, interior views, with the exception of Chantal’s ever-transforming body, remain static (implying that patriarchal oppression remains firm) while an increasingly verdant exterior barrier indicates changing seasons and, more significantly, fertility.

Figure 4: The full page layout, page 23

A sequence of three paired vignettes records the passing trimesters, alternately depicting Chantal as, first, she contemplates her body’s transformations in a mirror in an obvious act of (self-)reflection and then, in counterpoint, as she whiles the time away, supine upon her bed. Undoubtedly the story’s most captivating and multifaceted page layout, internal braiding allows the tiers to be read both vertically and horizontally. Reading from top to bottom, somewhat narrow panels—mute and themselves structured vertically—showcase Chantal’s reflection in a full-length mirror framed by external walls as glimpsed through the window. The narrative and visual point of view once again strategically places the reader precisely in the protagonist’s position. Readers share her gaze and likewise contemplate physical signs of fertility in the form of her swelling breasts and growing belly together with the disappearance of the stone wall beneath lush vegetation. Reading from left to right, these solipsistic silent frames alternate with somewhat elongated panels of her outstretched (rather than upright) prone body, now observed from a neutral, third-person narrative perspective. Here, immobility, tedium and stagnation are highlighted. Interior walls dominate the frames (the window gradually recedes in prominence as childbirth looms) while the exterior wall remains impermeable, repressive, and completely barren. In this way, the contrasting representation of walls sharply juxtaposes the protagonist’s internal, subjective view centered on pregnancy with a more detached narrative perspective focusing on authoritarian oppression. Bare (barren) austere walls reinforced notions of authority and sterility whereas the encroaching presence of flowering vegetation taking root in and thus slowly crumbling these very same walls steadily transforms the image into a potent symbol of nascent life. Reading against the grain as well as against established reading patterns of the comics page,12 the window allows psychological escape from unjust captivity even as this inverse view subtly anticipates the impending liberation made possible with physical flight from the hospital window.13

Post Script: Re/Viewing Form and Content

In the end, as this article has attempted to show, a circular narrative structure exists not only within each of Altarriba and Kim’s collaborative graphic texts, but with “La casa del sol naciente” something akin to a closed looped system has been fashioned between these two works. Openly acknowledged intertextual resonances (structural and narrative, textual and visual) carried out by intertwined storylines and braided or fused imagery, establish a definitive and incontrovertible bond between the works while fostering “a semantic enrichment and a densification of the “text” of the comic” (Groensteen 147). Repetition with difference of key visual elements—particularly the braided conceits of the falling body, restrictive walls and, especially, the liberating potential of windows—intricately link “La casa del sol naciente” with El arte de volar.

At the same time, these precise pictorial echoes expertly meld narrative content with graphic form. Recurring depictions of architectural constructs such as stone walls, brick façades and window casements directly relate to the specificity of narrative plots and simultaneously, though far more subtly, correlate to the structural composition of comics more generally. That is, the partitioning of fields and various architectural structures curiously resembles the grid pattern typical of comics format, described by Groensteen as the division of space into units or compartments (144). In the images that compose the respective suicide sequences, background details including floor tiles, doorways and especially the buildings’ aligned window casings create frames within frames, reproducing internal grid-like patterns highly reminiscent of the graphic novel page layout. Windows, which serve as sources of hope and inspiration for both protagonists, often promising alternative views and ultimately providing a means of escape, become an especially poignant form of such interior duplication for, as Neil Cohn astutely observes, comics panels themselves “act as a ‘window’ on a visual scene, and thus serve as ‘attention units’ to highlight parts of a scene in different ways” (56). This function remains notably visible throughout both works.

Appreciation of such metatextual qualities together with recognition of the intimate connections between these graphic works, fosters a deep and richly nuanced understanding of Altarriba and Kim’s collaborative productions. To be sure, a strongly forged identification with the reader-protagonist (turned inspired storyteller) in “La casa” becomes possible precisely through the shared experience of an immersive reading that actively stimulates memory recall. It is due to (literary) reminiscences that we, too, experience Chantal’s tale as both creation and re-creation for, as Linda Hutcheon perceptively theorizes regarding adaptation (understood as a specific form of intertextuality), “we need memory in order to experience difference as well as similarity” (22). Accordingly, the knowing reader experiences a profound sense of gratification upon recognition of and familiarity with intertextual codes and visual reprises whether openly announced (the initial framing sequence), overt (depictions of suicidal free-fall, walls and windows) or transformed (the combination of two braided images such that a curtained wall portends a promising future). In essence, as with adaptations, Altarriba and Kim’s sequel deliberately “creates the doubled pleasure of the palimpsest: more than one text is experienced—and knowingly so” (Hutcheon 116). To be sure, it is also important to remember Hutcheon’s assurances that should a reader be unaware of what she terms “palimpsestic doubleness,” this would not constitute an impoverished reading but rather “simply experiencing the work for itself” (127). Considered in this light, “La casa del sol naciente” artfully and creatively presents its own storyworld while offering a brilliant introduction for new readers to one of Spain’s most highly acclaimed graphic novels. On the other hand, when considered together, as demonstrated throughout this essay, each text can be understood to inform, expand and enrich the other in a tightly woven and intricately braided synergy.

The authors, Janis Breckenridge and Jenna Stanley, wish to express their gratitude to the Parents Fund and Whitman College whose support made this collaboration possible.


[1] El arte de volar has received numerous awards, far too many to allow for an exhaustive listing here. Some of the more prestigious include Premio Nacional de Cómic, Premio Nacional de Cómic de Cataluña, Premio a la Mejor Obra Nacional, Premio al Mejor Dibujo Autor Nacional, Premio al Mejor Guión Nacional, Premio Mejor Guión Historieta Realista, etc.

[2] “La casa del sol naciente” echoes the title of the renowned folk and blues tune, “House of the Rising Sun.” An international phenomenon that strongly impacted the history of rock and roll as well as a highly relevant pop-cultural reference within Altarriba and Kim’s graphic short story, the song laments a life of ruin, lost to sin and personal degradation and serves as a warning to the listener. Prominent incorporation of this particular composition provides temporal orientation, imparts a moral consciousness that resonates with the storyline and, perhaps most importantly, serves as a masterful example of interior duplication. Specifically, it is The Animals’ 1964 transnational hit and Johnny Hallyday’s subsequent recording, Les portes du pénitencier (also released in 1964 and appearing on the French Billboard’s Top 10) that are featured in “La casa.” Not coincidentally, these versions transpose narrative voicing: originally told from a woman’s perspective who laments how her boyfriend led her into a life of degradation, here a young man points to his father, a gambler and an alcoholic. Legendary music critic Lester Bangs aptly described The Animals’ rendition as “a brilliant rearrangement” (170), a description that equally applies to “La casa del sol naciente” with respect to El arte de volar.

[3] Both texts, of course, display internal braiding techniques. A partial list of the more prominent recurring visual imagery would include representations of automobiles, airplanes, corporeal punishment and abuse within El arte de volar. Repeated depictions of characters’ hands play an important role in “La casa del sol naciente.”

[4] There are a number of comics that employ variations of this somewhat classic circular or cyclical narrative format. Some titles include Leif Tande’s Morlac, Ray Fawkes’s One Soul, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Richard McGuire’s Here, Charles Burns’s so-called “Nit-Nit Trilogy,” Rebecca Dart’s Rabbit Head, Ben Newman’s Ouroboros, Peter Milligan’s Enigma and Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell among many others.

[5] The volume, compiled by Santiago García, highlights the diversity of themes, styles and perspectives of Spain’s most prominent and promising writers and illustrators of graphic works. Among those appearing are Paco Alcázar, Miguel Gallardo, Max, Pere Joan, Sergi Puyol, Paco Roca, Juanjo Sáez, Fermín Solís and Alfonso Zapico.

[6] In theory, the tension created by these divergent chronologies would attain resolution with the father’s impact, a point at which the progressive timelines necessarily converge. However, the actual moment of death is never depicted leaving the reader, together with the father, hanging in suspension.

[7] Conflating the father’s first-person, eyewitness account with the external narrative voicing of the author-son complicates established conventions regarding the testimonial subject. Antonio Martín’s prologue aptly describes El arte de volar as expressing “la crónica de toda una generación a través de los sentimientos de un hombre corriente” (the chronicle of an entire generation by means of an ordinary man’s feelings) (n.p.). Antonio Altarriba himself characterizes his father’s story as representing that of a victim of socio-historic circumstances: “Ha sido una de las generaciones más sacrificadas … por la historia” (it has been one of generations most victimized by history) (“Encuentro con Antonio Altarriba”). Even more directly, in his opening remarks to Antoni Guiral’s didactic guide, Altarriba cites as a factor in the graphic novel’s success “su carácter testimonial. Además de la vida de un hombre, toda una generación se encuentra retratada” (its testimonial character. In addition to one man’s life, an entire generation finds itself portrayed) (3). Such descriptions closely echo those of canonical testimonio texts. For example, Rigoberta Menchú asserts “que no soy la única, pues ha vivido mucha gente y es la vida de todos. La vida de todos los guatemaltecos pobres” (21) (“I’d like to stress that it’s not only my life, it’s also the testimony of my people… My story is the story of all poor Guatemalans” (1). Accordingly, critics such as Doris Sommer have studied such “personal” accounts in terms of collective representation. At the same time, testimonio has long been considered to be a mediated genre, with the role and ethical positioning of the academic or intellectual who edits, selects and at times corrects the oral testimony becoming the subject of intense debate.

[8] The representation of the exaggeratedly smiling falling body capitalizes on what Altarriba himself has described in a televised interview with Antón Castro as a predominately realistic visual style that nevertheless features hauntingly esperpentic interludes: “dibujo realista pero al mismo tiempo caricatural… esperpéntico” (realist drawing but at the same time caricatured… esperpentic (“Antonio Altarriba en Borradores“).

[9] The dramatic employment of solid black panels that impact both plot development and discursive structure remains central in both texts. Four solid black pages in El arte de volar correspond to key transitional moments, represented spatially and temporally in the father’s fall floor by floor, mark pauses or cessations in the narrative. Four additional solid black panels in El arte de volar signal entry into disturbing visions or dream sequences. “La casa del sol naciente” likewise incorporates this visual device at a pivotal moment in the brief narrative. Here the black panel simultaneously represents (again without showing) both the moment of impact and an ensuing coma, effectively eliding an unspecified, but significant, duration of time. In this way, the temporal function of the solid black panel allows the embedded storyline to return to the framing narration, seamlessly bridging (or braiding) past and present.

[10] Cathy Caruth defines trauma as “the response to an unexpected or overwhelming violent event or events that are not fully grasped as they occur, but return later in repeated flashbacks, nightmares, and other repetitive phenomena” (91). Anne Whitehead, in turn, describes how “trauma assumes a haunting quality, continuing to possess the subject with its insistent repetitions and returns” (12) and further studies various literary strategies for representing trauma such as the breakdown of chronology and linearity, fragmentation, repetition, and dispersion, among other narrative techniques.

[11] Curiously, a verbal command issued by disembodied voice out of frame, though far less stern, terse or domineering, also opens the flashback sequence. It is her friends’ repeated admonishment of “Corre” (Run) (15) that leads Chantel to her subsequent downfall. This subtle textual bridging complements the story’s reliance on visual braiding.

[12] In a chapter titled “Navigation of External Compositional Structure” Neil Cohn theorizes “readers do have a system for navigating layouts” (106). The results of his studies indicate that the Z-path (left to right in a downward direction) is the strongly preferred reading pattern for speakers of English (and, one assumes, similarly constructed languages including Spanish and French). However, comics creators can manipulate or eschew the standard grid, incorporating elements that challenge establish reading patterns and alter governing principles.

[13] Significantly, the wall featuring this window also showcases a poster depicting a picturesque sunny beach surrounded by trees and mountains. On the adjacent wall hangs a stark cross, symbolic of conservative, institutionalized repression. Such a staging equates the idyllic landscape with the window and Chantal’s desire to be free. At the same time, the material existence of the bedroom wall is linked with the more abstract but no less present repressive authority of the Church and patriarchal norms. Chantal remains trapped between the two.

Works Cited

Altarriba, Antonio, and Kim. El arte de volar. Alicante: Ediciones de Ponent, 2009.

—. “La casa del sol naciente.” Panorama: La novela gráfica española hoy. Comp. Santiago García. Astiberri, 2013. 13-27.

—. L’art de voler. Trans. Alexandra Carrasco. Paris: Denoël Graphic, 2011.

“Antonio Altarriba en Borradores.” Interview by Antón Castro. Aragón TV, 17 Nov. 2010. Web. 24 July 2015. .

Bangs, Lester. “The British Invasion.” The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, Ed. Jim Miller. NY: Rolling Stone Press, 1976. 164-171.

Beares, Octavio. “Panorama: La novela gráfica española hoy: VVA Coordinado por Santiago García. Astiberri, 2013.” CuCo, Cuadernos de Cómic 1 (2013): 282-87. CuCo Crítica. Web. 11 July 2015. .

Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1996.

Cohn, Neil. The Visual Language of Comics: Introduction to the Structure and Cognition of Sequential Images. London: Bloomsbury, 2013.

Encuentro con Antonio Altarriba, Autor de ‘El arte de volar.’ Premio Cálamo Extraordinario 2009. Prod. Libreriascalamo. Perf. Antonio Altarriba and Kim. Librería Calamo, 26 Apr. 2010. Web. 31 October 2015. .

García, Santiago, Comp. Panorama: la novela gráfica española hoy. Bilbao: Astiberri, 2013.

Groensteen, Thierry. The System of Comics. Trans. Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen. Jackson, MS: UP of Mississippi, 2007.

Guiral, Antoni. El arte de volar: Instrucciones de uso. Alicante: Ediciones de Ponent, 2012.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptation. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Mena, Ricardo. “Éste puede ser el tebeo del año.” Tendencias. Micromedios Digitales S.L., 22 July 2009. Web. 11 July 2015. .

Menchú, Rigoberta. I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala. Ed. Elisabeth Burgos-Debray. Trans. Ann Wright. London: Verso, 1984.

—. Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú y así me nació la conciencia. Ed. Elisabeth Burgos-Debray. México: Siglo XXI, 1985.

Postema, Barbara. Narrative Structure in Comics: Making Sense of Fragments. Rochester, NY: RIT Press, 2013.

Sommer, Doris. “Not Just a Personal Story: Women’s Testimonies and the Plural Self.” Life/Lines: Theorizing Women’s Autobiography. Ed. Bella Brodzki and Celeste Schenck. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1988. 107-30.

Whitehead, Anne. Trauma Fiction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2004.

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