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Talking, Thinking, and Seeing in Pictures: Narration, Focalization, and Ocularization in Comics Narratives

[This essay appeared in print in The International Journal of Comic Art. It was written for a class on in the Spring of 2010.]


The concept of “point of view” in narrative has taken on a number of theoretical transformations through narratological study. The ur-text on this subject being Gerard Genette’s work on focalization in Narrative Discourse. While an overwhelming amount of words have been written on this subject in regards to literary and filmic narratives, only a few texts have addressed this issue in comics narratives.[1] The all too common use of “first person” and “third person” in many discussions of comics shows a distinct lack of specificity for addressing this often complicated issue.

At its heart, the subject at hand is about the “regulation of narrative information” (Genette,1980: 162). Is narrative information filtered through a single character? Is the reader privy to what the character is thinking or only their external actions? Does the reader see through a character’s eyes? Or does the reader watch their actions from an external place? Over the course of the story, does the narrative seem to be unfiltered: the reader is privy to the internal thoughts of many characters, actions are shown from many characters, actions are shown that no character would have seen? These are only some of the narrative questions that will be addressed.

This article is meant to be analytic and descriptive, pulling together various theories of focalization and an international array of comics works to take another step towards furthering a shared vocabulary that will enable a more nuanced discussion of the works themselves. My purpose here is not specifically to evaluate the effects of any of these narrative strategies; all have their uses and effects. My purpose is to investigate how these strategies are created in comics and how they can be named and discussed.

Literature Review

I will focus specifically on texts about “point of view” in relation to comics. Writings on focalization in literature are numerous, with many variations of theories. I have settled on Genette’s work as a basis for my discussion as his is both clear and relatively uncomplicated. Many authors have followed his work by adding, in my opinion, often unnecessary complications to his system. These complications offer little gain in descriptive power. Literature, being a textual medium, also offers only a limited use to discussion of comics, as comics are (perhaps primarily) a visual medium.

Writings on this topic in regards to film are also quite numerous. Being a visual media, filmic theories bear some relation to the studies of comics, but there are many places where the two differ. In particular are issues of the “camera” and the “profilmic” (that is, the material that exists as that which is filmed (actors, sets, etc.)). As comics have neither a true camera nor are they recordings of material that actually existed, many of the elements of film focused on by film theorists are irrelevant to comics studies.

The earliest writing on comics and focalization I have found is Parent’s 1982 article on Mexican “Illustrated Stories.” He discusses focalization, drawing only on Genette and Bal, focusing primarily on levels of narration (stories within stories) within what appears to be a very consistent and unvarying corpus of works.[2] He never address the images at all nor how the text and images interact.

Shamoon’s (2003) article looks at work by manga-ka and novelist Uchida Shungiku. She compares the use of focalization in a novel and two manga stories, focusing on how the shifting of focalization can effect the reader’s identification and sympathy with characters and can create internal critiques of specific characters. The reading is interesting, but by narrowing her focus so much Shamoon only addresses a very limited set of possibilities in comics.

Eric Lavanchy’s Etude du Cahier bleu d’André Juillard : une approche narratologique de la bande dessinée (2007) is the only booklength study of the issue in regard to comics. Lavanchy uses Andre Juillard’s The Blue Notebook as his primary example through a close reading of that narrative’s shifting focalizations. Lavanchy’s theoretical work is primarily a synthesis, but as such has been quite useful to me in clarifying many issues from other sources.

Ann Miller, in her Reading Bande Dessinee (2007), also uses The Blue Notebook as an example for a discussion of focalization and ocularization in comics. Her work, like Lavanchy’s, is also primarily synthesis, but it is clear and accessible synthesis (and in English for the non-French readers).

Julia Round’s (2007) article is oddly retrograde in the way she brings the concept of first, second, and third person back into the discussion. She also shows only a partial familiarity with many of her sources, citing Genette’s work on narrators but completely missing the concept of focalization.

Mikkonen’s (2008) article focuses on comparisons of verbal and visual strategies and norms for presenting internal thought. Her comments on the interaction of textual narration and visual narrative are astute and worth reading.


In his highly influential work, Narrative Discourse, French narratologist Gerard Genette posited the concept of focalization, originally describing it in such ways as “the question who sees?” (1980: 186), “who is the character whose point of view orients the narrative perspective,” (1980: 186) and the “regulation of narrative information” (1980: 162). Later, he offered, the “selection of narrative information with respect to what was traditionally called omniscience” (Genette, 1988: 74). The concept has been debated by narratologists ever since, with numerous refinements, expansions, and criticisms. It is not possible to address even a majority of the debate, though two of the most cited authors are Bal (1997) and Rimmon-Kenan (2002). Bal in particular takes Genette’s work and adds layers of complication and terminology, creating a system that becomes less descriptively useful the larger it grows and the more it focuses on micro-level changes of focalization. Rimmon-Kenan, on the other hand, offers the useful addition of considering focalization through multiple facets–perceptive, cognitive, and ideological–, a variation of which I will use here.

For our purposes, focalization is a restriction on narrative information, usually in relation to characters. Though one can imagine narratives with animal or object related focalization, I will refer to focalization in relation to characters to simplify my writing. Focalization is often associated with the protagonist(s) of a narrative, though this is not always the case (for instance, while Sherlock Holmes is generally considered the protagonist of A Study in Scarlet, Dr. Watson is the character through whom the book is focalized).

Narrator v. Focalizer

An important part of Genette’s original purpose for the concept of focalization was to take the idea of “point of view” or “perspective” in its conventionally considered literary sense and separate out the issue of the narrator from the issue of the “restriction of narrative information.” The classic “first person” point of view tends to focus on the grammatical “I” of a narrator without providing the kind of specificity that allows for an “I” narrator who is telling a story through someone else’s perception. Genette’s classification of narrators can be quickly summarized, as further details will be offered in the analyses below.

Narrators are classified by their relation to the main narrative (diegesis). A homodiegetic narrator is telling a story in which she herself takes part. A heterodiegetic narrator tells a story in which she does not take part. Narrators can also be categorized in relation to the story “levels.” An extradiegetic narrator is narrating from outside the story, while an intradiegetic narrator is a narrator inside the story. There can also be hypodiegetic narrators who are narrating from within an intradiegetic narrator’s narrative. In The Book of the Thousand and One Nights, the framing tale about Scheherazade is narrated by an unknown narrator outside of the story itself, a hetero-extradiegetic narrator. Within the framing tale, Scheherazade herself narrates a number of stories, wherein she becomes the hetero-intradiegetic narrator. Within Scheherazade’s stories are often found narrators telling another level of stories, making them homo or hetero (depending on the story) hypodiegetic narrators. And so on, until one gets to a story like John Barth’s “Menelaiad,” where there are seven levels of narrators at work. In The Canterbury Tales, many of the character narrators tell a story about themselves, making them homo-intradiegetic narrators.

Narrators and focalizers are not always different characters (many autobiographical narratives, for instance), but it is important to be able to differentiate these two functions in a narrative when necessary.

A Typology of Focalization

A typology of focalization is best shown though a number of variables. I borrow from Rimmon-Kenan in considering focalization as a faceted function, but I am not explicitly using all of her facets. Her “ideological” facet is outside the scope of my interests. I leave that to another to analyze in comics narratives.

Location of Focalization

The facet is concerned with the location of focalization as seen through the number of characters used for focalization. Free focalization (a term I borrow from Nelles (1990) in place of Genette’s “zero focalization” or “non-focalized”) is a narrative with access to the perceptions of any character (i.e. traditionally labelled omniscience) where focalization can shift between any number of characters. Fixed focalization is when only one character is accessed (“limited point of view”). In between these two extremes are degrees of variable focalization, where the focalization shifts between a limited number of characters (i.e. The Sound and the Fury, Rashomon).

Focalization is not always consistently located. Even the most fixed focalization, where the whole story only offers narrative information through one character, often includes small moments where information outside the focalizing character’s perception/knowledge is available. Genette calls this a “paralepsis.” The shift from variable focalization to free focalization cannot be easily demarcated outside of a specific narrative context. One can imagine a narrative wherein each of a hundred sections is focalized through a different character that could be considered variable focalization, whereas another narrative where the narrative is focalized through one hundred characters seemingly at random could be considered free focalization. Variable focalization is often about structure more than the number of focalizers (again, consider The Sound and the Fury or Rashomon).

As noted above, the location of focalization is often, but not necessarily, connected to the protagonist(s) of the narrative. An observing focalizer who acts as a witness to the protagonists actions could also be used.

Cognitive Focalization:

A second facet of focalization concerns the narrative’s access to the focalizer’s inner thoughts, feelings, memories, and other intellectual processes. It is called internal focalization when the narrative has access to those aspects of the character, while external focalization is when those processes are not accessible except as perceptible from the actions and words of the character.

Internal focalization can take the form of simple represented thought or more complicated stream of consciousness. It can also be much more subtle than that, offering the character’s inflected view of the world. The use of thought balloons in comics provide a direct and clear example of some kind of internal focalization at work. Comics also make use of various visual effects to make an image show a character’s internal thoughts or feelings. Prominent examples include may of the types of emanata commonly found in comics or the flowers and stars used in the background of many shojo manga.

In a narrative with multiple focalizers, cognitive focalization may be different for each focalizer.

Perceptual Focalization and Ocularization

The perceptual focalization facet can shift between an as direct as possible (for the medium of the narrative) recreation of a focalizer’s perception to a complete disconnect between the narrative information and the focalizer’s perception. Depending on the sense evoked, this can take different forms. The most relevant perceptual focalization for comics narratives is of a visual nature, which I will address here. Lavanchy discuss aural focalization in his work, which can also be relevant to comics but much less so than visual focalization.

Visual focalization is more easily referred to with the term coined by film theorist Francois Jost: ocularization (1983). Like the cognitive facet, one can also consider ocularization as internal or external, with some extra variations.

External ocularization includes the most conventional of comics imagery, where the focalizing character is seen from the outside, with no attempt at recreating their particular visual field. Even more extreme is what Jost calls spectatorial ocularization where the viewer/reader is privy to visual information outside the focalizer’s ken. The classic example of this being an image of the monster/killer sneaking up behind an unwitting victim. Most comics are predominantly in external ocularization.

Internal ocularization covers the range of effects used to represent the viewer’s visual field. Jost divides this into primary and secondary forms, though the difference is primarily in how much context the reader/viewer needs to connect the image with the focalizer’s perception. The primary form is when the image “allows us, without relying on context, to identify a character not present in the image” (Jos,t 2004: 75). Jost lists a number of cues for this, including: a part of the body reaching forward so it appears to be connected to where the “camera” is, seeing the shadow of the viewer, the exaggeration of a foreground object such as a key hole, or seeing the camera apparatus (or another viewing apparatus like binoculars) (Jost, 1983: 196). A comics specific cue is the tail of a word or thought balloon which trails off the bottom of the panel (see Fig. 1, which also shows the reach body part cue and the close-up on an object).

Fig. 1: Acme Novelty Library, v.18 p.11

Secondary internal ocularization relies on context to show the character/viewer’s visual perception, such as an image of the character looking at something and then the image of the object looked at. In the case of comics, this form of ocularization usually requires the context of another panel (often the preceding one), though the use of braiding [3] or the narration might also establish this. This is the filmic “point of view shot” as discussed by Edward Branigan [4].

Related to both these forms is the less internal “vision with” which Lavanchy discusses in his book. In this type of image the viewer sees along with the character, often showing the character from behind in the foreground and the object of the character’s gaze in the background. This is like a point of view shot compressed into a single image.

Narration and Monstration

The theories concerning narrators and focalization were first made in relation to literary texts where words are the medium. In a comic, words are not always present, and images are often the primary means of storytelling. In this respect there is not always a “narrator” as such in a comic. A comic strip like Peanuts (almost) completely eschews any narrative text. The story is told primarily through images as well as through text that is either a visual representation of sound/speech (word balloons) or thought/internal monologue (thought balloons). This is quite similar to a film where the story is primarily told through images and sound (excepting films that include actual audio narration). Many film theorists have worked to create a narrator-like function to exist as the narrator of image-based works, with names such as the “grand imagier” or the “monstrateur,” but I side with Bordwell in believing that there is no need for some kind of personified creator function to account for the images (Verstraten).

In the case of comics, one must make allowances for what is often two levels of narration: the images and the textual narration (Lavanchy, 2007: 56). While these two levels (when both are present) are often closely connected, there are cases where the two levels diverge and need to be considered as separate narrative functions. For our purposes, I will refer to written/scriptural narration in a comic simply as the narration. This most frequently takes the form of text placed in boxes referred to as caption boxes, but can also appear free standing in the panels or outside the panels. The narrative level of the image, the primary narrative level of almost every comic, will be referred to as the monstration, borrowing from Gaudreault’s film theory (but leaving out his concept of the monstrator in the background).

While the narration will have both a narrator and focalization, the monstration can only have focalization. The exception to this is when the monstration is a result of transsemioticization, a term taken from Gaudreault and discussed in relation to comics by Miller, wherein a narrative in one medium is transformed into narrative in another. Miller uses the example of André Juillard’s The Blue Notebook, wherein a chapter is narrated through the written diary of one of the protagonists. This starts out as narrative captions, but, instead of actually writing out all the text of the diary, Juillard, for most of the content, switches to just showing what the diary is narrating. That is, the narration has been shifted from written language to visual representation; it has been transsemioticized. In this case the monstration is a result of narration and thus has an intradiegetic narrator.

It is important to realize that all text in a comic is not narration (Lavanchy, 2007: 46). Text representing sound (sound effects, contents of word balloons) is not narration. Text in thought balloons is also not part of the narration. These textual elements are part of the monstration. Thought balloons in particular are an indication of internal focalization at work in the monstration not the narration.

The interaction of text and image in a comics narrative creates the potential for a great variety of narrative strategies through the use of different types of focalization in the narration and monstration. In particular, ocularization of the monstration can offer a rich source of narrative variety. A brief look through the following comics narratives will highlight some of these strategies and interrelations. This will show where the above concepts offer a richer descriptive power than the traditional notion of “point of view” (first, second, third). In contrast to much of the literature on comics in extent, I will address comics from three strains of cultural legacy: American comics, Franco-Belgian bande dessinée, and manga.

Analysis of Works

Tarzan #15 “Tarzan and the Cave Men”

I’ll start with a Jesse Marsh drawn Tarzan comic from 1950. The story follows Tarzan as he rescues a deposed jungle queen, fights animals and cave-men, and unites said queen with a new group of subjects. Narration is limited throughout the story, with only 12 panels containing captions over the course of 23 pages (approximately 5-6 panels per page). The narration is primarily objective description, setting scenes and timeframes; for example: “For the next twelve hours, the herd of great pachyderms travels slowly, grazing as it moves” (155). The narrator occasionally colors the narration with subjective commentary, such as a panel showing hyenas watching Tarzan and his companion: “But others than Tantor are interested in the strange man-things that have invaded Pal-ul-don” (161, my emphasis). Once the narrator even seems to know the internal feelings of an elephant: “Wistfully, Tantor, the elephant watches his friends out of sight” (161, my emphasis). At no point is the narrator identifiable or present in the story.

Fig. 2: Tarzan: The Jesse Marsh Years, v.3 p.161

Almost every panel of the monstration shows Tarzan. Those that do not are all events Tarzan is there to see with the exception of a couple panels where Tarzan is briefly knocked unconscious and the queen is kidnapped by a cave man. At no point are any thought balloons used or is any indication, that is not spoken or externally visible, given of a character’s thought or feelings. Perceptually, a few of the panels not showing Tarzan could be considered as secondary internal ocularization. For instance, the third and fourth panels on page 161 (see Fig.. 2) first show two hyenas, then an image of Tarzan and the queen looking back at the hyenas. One could read that first panel as part of what Branigan (1984) would call a retrospective point-of-view, wherein the seen object seen is shown before the seeing subject.

Thus, one can say that the narration is clearly of the hetero-extradiegetic type and, if it can be considered to be focalized at all, one would have to say it is freely and externally focalized. The monstration is, for the most part, fixed external focalization with external ocularization.

Daredevil #239 “Bad Plumbing

In a similar vein is this Ann Nocenti written, Louis Williams pencilled Daredevil issue from 1987. While written in a quite traditional comics style, the character of Daredevil, imbued with super-senses, offers the creative team room to create unusual subjective effects. In this issue, among other things, Daredevil confronts a mentally disturbed antagonist called Rotgut.

Like many comics in the “mainstream” and our previous example, the narrator is an unidentified voice who speaks from outside any involvement with the story and is present only intermittently through the comic, a hetero-extradiegetic narrator. The narration starts on the first page describing the surroundings of the yet to be named Rotgut. Three pages later the narrator shifts to describing Daredevil, telling not only of his thoughts, but also of his special perceptions: “The voices strike chords, a concerto of tones and chills rush his spine” (4). The internally focalized narration continues on two more pages (6-7) with Daredevil and then drops away. For the rest of the issue, the narrator provides only a few time and locational cues: “The world of rotgut.” (9), “Outside a lecture hall” (13), “Moments later emerging from the alley…” (18). The focalization is variable, shifting between the two primary characters in the story, hero and villain, but, by internally focalizing on the former and externally focalizing on the latter, it offers the reader a closer look at the hero.

The monstration is also variable in its focalization. The primary focalizer in the story is Daredevil himself, with a secondary focalization coming through Rotgut. Early in the story, there is additional external focalization for a limited time on a woman Rotgut harasses via phone. The reader sees her on the telephone reacting to his words, information that he would have no way of knowing. In one scene there are also a limited number of brief thought balloons given to a boy Daredevil meets, but otherwise all thought balloons in the comic belong to either Daredevil or Rotgut.

The reason I chose this example, though, is some of the ocularization in the story. At different times, the monstration shows subjective images from both Daredevil’s and Rotgut’s viewpoint. Daredevil’s are primarily recreations of his special “radar” sense that he uses in place of his (lost) sight.

Fig. 3: Daredevil #239 p.7

These panels from page 7 show different types of subjective images (see Fig. 3). In the first, the reader sees Daredevil’s girlfriend Karen as he sees her, with an altered visual sense. In the third he is seen (as his non-costumed self) embracing her with the background drawn in a pale blue monochrome. Both are internally focalized, but the former is also an ocularization, while the latter is simply a metaphorical image of the separation (“enveloping”) he feels from the world in her arms. The color shift seen here is an often used tactic in comics to signify some type of shift in perception, narrative level, or subjectivity.

Fig. 4: Daredevil #239, p.9

Similarly (and surely a way the writer is drawing parallels between the hero and the villain), two pages later are a similar set of subjective images for Rotgut (see Fig. 4,5). Panel one shows what I infer as his view of the world, distorted and grotesque, an internal ocularization and internal focalization. Then in panel six, there is an externally ocularized, yet cognitively internal focalization where a visual representation of the “foul hot breath of the dying” that he imagines enveloping him is seen behind him.

Fig. 5: Daredevil #239, p.9

Another noteworthy element in this issue is the use of a what is most likely a transsemioticized narration. On page 11, the first panel opens up a two page sequence where Rotgut becomes an intradiegetic narrator telling of his childhood and his mother. This second level of narration is marked off in a few ways. The first and last panels of it have, respectively, a left and right panel border that, instead of the straight lines used in the rest of the issue, appear ragged like ripped paper. Panels borders are often used in comics to indicate changes in narrative level from the primary narrative to a dream or fantasy sequence or, as here, to a flashback. The panels in this sequence are also marked by their monochrome yellow backgrounds which are in great contrast to the rest of the issue. Even more importantly are the narrative captions that start and end the sequence which are the narration of Rotgut rather than the unknown extradiegetic narrator speaking in the issue’s other captions. One can also note the way the first caption ends and the last one begins with ellipses.

So, like the Tarzan story, this story has a hetero-extradiegetic narrator, but there is also more internal focalization at work in the narration. In a similar way the monstration is primarily externally ocularized but includes more internal ocularization and internal focalization around the main two characters.

Paradise Kiss

Ai Yazawa’s Paradise Kiss is a rather different example. As this manga series runs five volumes in length, I will only discuss some elements of the first volume’s first chapter. Even in this twenty-four page section, many levels of narration and variations in focalization are in evidence. The first page starts with a series of narrative captions that is clearly retrospective (speaking of the past) and internally focalized: “It was like a secret hideout. They called it their studio,” (7). The tone is almost wistful. The reader quickly realizes that the narrator of this text is the protagonist Yukari narrating from some point in the future. This narrator sets up the beginning and closes off the ending of the chapter (as well as other chapters later).

After a two page title spread, the next page includes a new narrator, this time outside of any caption boxes and written in the present tense: “It makes me sick the way these people scurry through the streets like roaches,” (10). This is Yukari’s internal monologue concurrent to the events in the story. Yukari’s present internal monologue narration runs through the story much more so than the retrospective narration. The use of two narrators who are the same person but speaking at different times is an interesting tactic used by Yazawa. She is alternating between the homo-extradiegetic narrator who knows what the future will hold and the homo-intradiegetic narrator who knows only the present. Both show consistent fixed internal focalization.

The monstration, on the other hand, is less consistent in its focalization. While Yukari is, especially at this point in the story, the primary focalizer in the story, one scene in this chapter exists outside of her perception, as some of the other protagonists talk, a shift in focalization that is not unique to this chapter.

Fig. 6: Paradise Kiss, v.1 p.14

Internal focalization is used throughout and signaled with a variety of strategies. Thought balloons are used as an entry point to the thoughts of both Yukari and other characters. A variety of emanata are used, primarily in regards to Yukari: for example, jagged lines emanating from Yukari’s head (see Fig. 7) or a small tear drop placed in front of her head. Also prominent are various subjective image effects (quite common in shojo manga). For instance, in one scene Yukari first meets the unconventional looking fashion students who later become her friends. The tall cross dresser (or transvestite, it’s never clear) hugs Yukari, who thinks she is being chased for some nefarious reason. Yukari’s internal narration mentions the “angel of death” and around that text is shown a circle of spiky flowers on a vine, emphasizing her fear (see Fig. 6). These effects are not exclusive to Yukari, though, at this point in the manga, they are used more in regards to her[5].

Fig. 7: Paradise Kiss, v.1 p.11

Yazawa also uses secondary internal ocularization at a number of times during the chapter. These cases involve multiple characters and are part of the narrative’s shifting of attention to characters other than Yukari. This is emphasized early on, where the narrative, to this point focusing only on Yukari, makes use of spectatorial ocularization to show us the punk rock fashion student, Arashi, watching her (see Fig. 7). Yukari is shown walking with her head buried in a book, but we see Arashi from behind in a “vision with” panel. This at first seems like a classic horror/stalker type interaction, which Yazawa plays up in the panel mentioned previously. But these people other than Yukari, who are first shown as outsiders, also become primary characters for the reader to identify. This starts with that “vision with” image of seeing Yukari from the outside.

Were I able to spend the time, the shifting focalizations of Paradise Kiss would prove a fertile ground for further investigation. In contrast to the previous examples, this manga uses more wide-ranging effects of focalization and ocularization in regard to a larger number of characters, but it is all enclosed in the retrospective internally focalized narration of Yukari herself.

“Life Through Whispers”

“Life Through Whispers” by Jaime Hernandez offers a more subjective narrative. The six page comic is narrated by the character Ray Dominguez. Ray’s narration appears at the top of every panel in the story, written in the first person (the first person pronoun that is). Ray is a homo-extradiegetic narrator, narrating his own story (Genette calls this type of homodiegetic narrator an autodiegetic narrator). At no point is the story in a place where Ray is not, nor does the reader learn anything Ray does not know. But the story is also not just following him around. The reader is privy to his thoughts. The narration is fixed internal focalization.

On the other hand, the images are almost completely externally ocularized. In the thirty-one panels that Ray appears there is no indication he is being viewed by any character (or object). Of the four panels that remain, three panels might be read as secondary internal ocularization. Because of the context of the surrounding panels and the accompanying narration, I read these images as ocularized through Ray. For example, in one panel the image shows Doyle (a friend of Ray’s) standing in the foreground center mostly obscuring two men doing something between two cars (see Fig. 8). The accompanying narration clearly indicates this is what Ray is seeing: “…before I could see more, Doyle blocked my view…” (Hernandez 58).

Fig. 8: Life Without Whispers, p.58

The last panel of the four that do not show Ray, and coincidentally the last of the comic, is a mental picture in Ray’s imagination, a kind of full panel visual thought balloon, what I might call a mental image. While I know this panel is part of the internal focalization of the narrative, I cannot, from cues in the panel (including the narration) or in the surrounding panels, say that the image is ocularized through Ray, that it’s something in reality he is looking at. One must assume it is in his imagination.

“Life Through Whispers”–as a comic with an “I” narration and a strictly internal focalization both in the narration and monstration–is much closer to a single character’s experience than our previous examples, which worked at more of a distance. A great many autobiographical comics are written/drawn this way. This comes as no surprise since comics have historically and are contemporarily focused greatly on character (and autobiography tends to focus on the creator/narrator/character). But not all comics are so completely focused on the narrator/character.

Yukiko’s Spinach

Frederic Boilet’s Yukiko’s Spinach is an ambiguously autobiographical comic about the narrator/protagonist’s, whom I will label “Boilet”, brief affair with a Japanese woman named Yukiko. In contrast to “Life Through Whispers”, Yukiko’s Spinach does not use any traditional narrative text. It is a work solely of monstration. Even without the narration, a reader of the comic quickly realizes that the narrative is completely restricted to what “Boilet” knows and experiences. Nothing outside of “Boilet’s” perception is ever included. But this restriction to “Boilet” is not the same as the restriction seen in “Life Through Whispers.” The reader is never really inside “Boilet’s” head. His thoughts and feelings remain almost completely opaque. The reader remains outside his cognitive point of view. This is an example of fixed external focalization, but Boilet does not completely distance the reader from “Boilet”. The comic is almost completely internally ocularized through “Boilet”. The reader does not know “Boilet’s” thoughts but does see through his eyes.

The seven page opening sequence of the book shows a series of buildings and signs along a street. No characters appear, nor do any cues of primary internal ocularization. The accompanying text, appearing in captions at the bottom of the panels is, at first, easy to mistake for narration, but this is actually the first of a couple paralepses in the book. After reading further into the book, one realizes that these caption boxes at the bottom of the panel are how “Boilet’s” dialogue is shown. Even further into the book, one finds these words repeated again in a scene. My reading of the first seven pages, with its images of a Japanese street with a prominent hotel scene and the parallel dialogue, is that it takes place subsequent to the rest of the story. This is “Boilet” walking down the street and remembering. The words are not narration, they are the memories that trigger the rest of the story as recollection. This scene is an internal focalization, only really noticeable on a second reading. Also, only really noticeable on a second reading, do the images in these seven pages take on a secondary internal ocularization. In fact, the majority of the book’s panels require the context of the surrounding images to create the sense of “Boilet’s” viewpoint.

In the context of a sequence of panels, Boilet often creates a sense of the wandering gaze of “Boilet”. Images that could be read as “normal” non-ocularized images in isolation become the directed view of the character when the images are sequenced. In one scene, “Boilet” and Yukiko are having dinner together (See Fig. 9). Over the course of a few panels, the reader sees Yukiko’s face as she talks, then a lower view on her chest, back to her face, and then sideways to the legs of a woman at an adjacent table. Through this use of ocularization, Boilet says a lot about the protagonist in a way that would be difficult and more obvious without it. It should also be reiterated that the text at the bottom of the panels, treated like conventional narration (in boxes), is actually the represented speech of Boilet, shown at the bottom of the panel, metaphorically near the location of the character. It is a more subtle cue than the trailing word balloon tail shown in the Ware example previously.

Fig. 9: Yukiko's Spinach, p.24

Fig. 10: Yukiko's Spinach, p.26

The majority of the book is in this secondary internal ocularization through “Boilet,” though a number of panels make use of some of Jost’s cues to indicate primary internal ocularization such as foregrounded body parts and a visual deformation of the image. At a dinner scene, the reader sees “Boilet’s” hand reaching forward to pick a bean from a plate. (See Fig. 10) In a few scenes his notebook is shown in the foreground with a hand holding a pencil, drawing in the book. He makes use of a subjective optical effect to show a blurred bicyclist speeding by. (See Fig. 11)

Fig. 11: Yukiko's Spinach, p.35

Boilet does not maintain the ocularization for every panel in the book. At a few times “Boilet” is seen from the outside. The two longest scenes where this occurs are still internally ocularized: one occurs in a video photo booth with “Boilet” and Yukiko seen in the video screen, while another occurs in front a large mirror in a hotel room. The other times offer no such visual cue and seem out of place in a work that is otherwise so consistent in its internal ocularization (it’s another paralepsis). They do serve to distance the reader from too much identification with the character. Perhaps this is purposeful by Boilet.

In comparison with Hernandez’s work in “Life Between Whispers,” Boilet’s use of ocularization and focalization shifts the focus from the character to the gaze. Boilet seems less interested in telling a story about the character than he is in constantly showing images of Yukiko. By mostly removing the character/viewer from the comic this focus becomes ever more prominent. The comic ends up being about the gaze, the look, more than anything else. A prominence he solidifies with the way he sequences and composes his panels to foreground the movement of the viewer’s gaze (as in the example page above).


If Boilet’s strategies shift the focus from character to the gaze, Brian Ralph, in his series Daybreak attempts to shift the focus to the reader and his identification with the viewer.

The first panel of Daybreak shows a single one-armed man saying “hello” and looking out at the reader. He continues on, addressing “you” and looking out. The reader of Daybreak quickly realizes from the context that the one-armed man is addressing an unseen viewer. Unlike in Yukiko’s Spinach, Ralph never shows any hint of this unseen viewer, no appendages, no shadow, not even any dialogue. The book maintains a secondary internal ocularization over the course of the whole comic. The unseen viewer is never seen, yet one can surmise from the context that someone/thing exists in that viewing position. Primarily this context is the one-armed man’s ongoing conversation at (one cannot say “with” since no replies are ever shown) the viewer, but a few other scenes point to effects on and actions by the viewer.

In one case the one-armed man says, “Behind you.” The next shows a dark passage. The viewer has turned around to look behind (See Fig. 12). Another scene features the cave-in of a tunnel. Two panels show falling stones and wood beams, followed by an all black (well, brown) panel. I assume the viewer is knocked unconscious.

Fig. 12: Daybreak, v.1 p.21

While this strict ocularization might lead to an easy equation with “first person point of view,” Ralph’s use of focalization belies this. There is no narration in the comic, the unseen character never speaks, nor is the reader privy to any thoughts. This narrative of strict internal ocularization is equally strict in its external focalization. This combination of focalization and ocularization is so strict and consistent that it is hard to say there is even a character there at all.

Oddly, because of this, the one-armed man becomes the real protagonist of Daybreak. He appears in almost every panel in volume one except for a brief scene where he is believed lost. Despite the unusual narrative strategy at work, Ralph follows most comics in focusing his panels on a character. When the one-armed man disappears, another man comes to temporarily take his place as the focus of the panels.

Daybreak becomes a narrative of following the one-armed man around. The unseen viewer fades into the background (foreground) and the reader is mostly left with a protagonist who has an odd tendency to narrate his own actions in the second person. The few times that some action on the part of the unseen viewer (such as in the example above) is actually shown are not enough to establish any real presence to the viewer nor any sense of participation in the reader.


As shown in the above analysis, the interaction of narration and monstration, of focalization and ocularization can create a broad variety of narratives strategies with differing effects. I hope the breadth of options for “point of view” or “perspective” in comics has been made clearer and that my attempts at adapting terminology from literary and filmic narratology have added some descriptive potential for discussing and analyzing works. Surely, more remains to be said on the subject, in particular on the types of subjective imagery seen in comics and how other formal elements of a comic may be said to show focalization.


1. I used the term “comics” here as a generalized stand-in for the form/media (an argument for another day) that encompasses American comic books and strips, European bande dessinée, Japanese manga, and other cultural forms, as well as the marketing term graphic novel.

2. This issue is not specific to the article in question. Too often academics write broad reaching articles on comics using an extremely limited corpus of works that is insufficient for the attempted task.

3. On braiding, see Groensteen, 2007.

4. For a summary of pov types as discussed by Branigan see this post on my blog: http://OFFLINEZIP.wpsho/archives/branigan-on-point-of-view

5. One might even argue that the shape, size, and composition of panels can be used for internal focalization. That is a subject for another day which would require more study. For some study of this see Driest, 2008.


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