The Nested Spaces of Graphic Narrative

Paul Fisher Davies


The topology of graphic narrative has commonly been conceived of as ‘sequential’ (see Eisner 2008; McCloud 1993) – that is to say, a paratactic arrangement of bordered images to be read in a linear sequence, even when the gridded layout of these images is taken into consideration (as in Groensteen 2009). This sequential organization of space, baked into the epithet ‘sequential art’, is in danger of becoming an orthodoxy.

This article considers the ways in which nested spaces – images inside images and worlds within worlds – are essential to graphic narrative, and will argue for a consideration of comics’ hypotactic structure, the layered embedding of the spaces they construct. Comics from the start represent a space within a space: within the ‘discourse space’ of the world in which creators communicate with readers, the flat plane of the page represents a ‘phatic space’ of contact on which the text-worlds of the creator are inscribed. Within that space appear yet further spaces, inscribed in speech balloons, thought balloons, and other abstract enclosures. The article uses Paul Werth’s Text World Theory (expanded and made available after Werth’s death in Gavins 2007) within a framework derived from the functional linguistics of Michael Halliday (previously adapted to multimodal media texts and art by theorists such as Kress and van Leeuwen 2006; O’Toole 2010) to account for the ways in which comics, like language, recursively construct and project spaces in which their narrative takes place. The artice characterises the nature of world-building in graphic narrative, and how the ways in which stories are narrated in this form oblige the creator to build and rebuild the worlds of the story (despite the options available to evade this commitment). The article presents ideas emerging from the development of a functional framework for describing graphic narrative which systematically adapts Halliday’s social semiotics (see Halliday 1978; Halliday and Matthiessen 2004) to account for comics, fumetti and bande dessinée


hypotaxis; text world theory; Halliday; comics; linguistics

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