Instructor Reflection – The Shadow of Turning (3.1)

By Fred Johnson

As a multimedia project Hannah Charlton’s short comic (completed for an upper level course during her freshman year) lacks the high-tech wow factor of video or animation. What it has, though, is terrific low-tech wow factor, demonstrating some of the fundamental power of well-conceived, well-deployed visuals. “The Shadow of Turning” shows Hannah’s impressive ability to take advantage of the affordances of the comics medium, both at the level of the single image and at the level of the page.

It’s always a challenge to work out all that is signified, intentionally and serendipitously, when words and images are combined in a compelling way, and I won’t try to point out everything I see happening in Hannah’s comic. But I’d like to point out a few things I enjoy about what Hannah has created here.

On page 1, Hannah presents an outpouring of junk, and she splits the page (below the title) into three large, similar panels, suggesting a steady outpouring happening over time. At the bottom panel, Hannah turns the “junk” into a metaphor, suggesting that it is pouring forth from her narrator’s mind (and also that thinking about communion has focused the narrator’s busy mind, at least for a moment). Hannah’s evenly paced panels end up evoking a quiet narrator with a penchant for ordering the world but also a messy spiritual and intellectual conundrum on her mind; different panel sizes and combinations filled up with similar junk images would hint at different meanings than Hannah evokes with her design choice here.

The rest of the comic plays the disorganization of human “junk” against the protagonist’s sense that she is being pressured to fit her messy self within the tidy expectations of others (and maybe also against the narrator’s own expectations about the proper ordering of the world). The narrator is thinking particularly of religious others, but, especially through the drawing, Hannah points to additional social pressures toward conformity: the others who set up organized study spaces and write books about the way things ought to be, who leave behind the open spaces of the woods and favor the confinements of study tables, written texts, and nicely-contained fires. One of those others, I think, is the narrator herself, who is so concerned with conformity and deviations from conformity.

I like how page 1’s bottom panel rewrites the page, bringing the “brain junk” metaphor into play; I also like the instantaneousness of the page—the fact that while a close reading observes the page panel by panel, the average actual reader will see the brain-junk connection, and the slow outpouring, immediately. Comics artist Chris Ware says (in the introduction to McSweeney’s 13) that the act of reading successful comics is like seeing a drowning man wave his arms; the watcher understands and responds immediately, without pausing to consider “the gestural grace of a person drowning.” Hannah is learning to achieve that kind of instantaneous intellectual and emotional communication, and it shows here.

In a live reading of a poem, a reader would convey pacing using her voice; Hannah paces her reading of “The Shadow of Turning” visually. It’s remarkable how she adds varying rhythms to the poem’s text by juxtaposing different-sized panels, different kinds of page layout, and different kinds of images. The varyingly open or rigid layouts of her different pages enhance what the comic is saying, too, so that she has achieved a dynamic mixture of word and image (a major goal of the class assignment). Notice how pages 6 and 7 (which are connected, facing pages) look next to each other: on the left, an open space slowly being filled with disordered objects; on the right, images of confinement, definition, and arrangement, ordered themselves and then ordered again in the grid structure of the page. But also notice how the grid runs out of space at the bottom of the page, by design—another failure of confinement, and another chance for Hannah to vary the pace of her visual reading of the poem. Consider, too, the way pages 10 and 11 (also facing pages) open up next to each other, showing the narrator’s fear/fantasy of being abducted by the shadow, taken to a frightening/beautiful place of organic shapes that is striking in part because of how different it is from the grid-like pages, places, and states of mind that appear on and in surrounding pages. The abduction picture is readable in an instant, but it also creates a visual pause, a moment when the artist-as-performer asks the audience to consider what life in the shadow’s country might mean.

On the final page, Hannah repeats the partial face from page 1, but she has replaced the disorder of page 1’s junk with a grid of objects and words. She gives the sense here that the narrator’s mind is becoming more ordered and focused, but without suggesting complete resolution or release from the problematic state of mind depicted on page 1. This narrator is still longing for order while finding the lived experience of conventionality to be confining and less attractive than trees and clouds.

My “Visual Text Project” assignment sheet tells students they don’t need to worry if they have no artistic talent; the idea is that they’ll experiment with visual storytelling and learn something from the process, whether or not their final products are gorgeous. It’s a project assignment designed to produce many different kinds of final product, so long as those products represent an occasion for serious inquiry into the inner workings of visual narratives. Hannah Charlton does (obviously) have a good deal of developed talent, and she has spent a lot of time thinking about how she draws and why she draws that way. She also came into my Visual Narrativescourse as an admirer of comics by artists like Craig Thompson and Hope Larson, whose work is whimsical and visually striking and built around story and character. All of that prior preparation helped Hannah create a project that was not only an opportunity to learn but also an aesthetic success. As a teacher, I’m impressed with the great work Hannah was able to do as a college freshman, and I am also interested in how her success with this project depended partly on her prior preparation, partly on her ambition and excitement about the project, and partly on the way the project challenged her to try new techniques. However this “Visual Text” assignment changes over time, I hope to hold onto that preparation-ambition-challenge combination, so that no matter how sophisticated my students are as visual communicators, they can dream up ambitious projects that will push them to do a little more with visual narratives than they have done before, and so that these projects will become occasions for learning by doing and then for learning by analyzing the doing, no matter how the final product turns out. In the context of those learning goals, the process behind Hannah’s project (which she explores in her own attached essay) is as exemplary as the final product.