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Light in the graphic novel

Five comic-strip stories in which light plays a leading role

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Published: 23 Mar 2020
One of the narrative forms in which light plays a particularly important role is, without doubt, the graphic novel. The light in a comic strip panel can change the sense of a scene, its emotional charge and its role in the plot.

This awareness of light is often accompanied by a careful depiction of settings, whether these are domestic interiors or outdoor urban spaces. The five graphic novels we have chosen to focus on feature both bold narrative experimentation and an extraordinary level of sensitivity to light and colour.

1. Here by Richard McGuire (Rizzoli Lizard)

I
n 1989 Richard McGuire published a story consisting of 36 black and white panels in the first issue of the second series of «Raw», the experimental American comic magazine edited by Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly. This story, called Here, blows linear narrative out of the water. The reader is presented with a picture of a simple and anonymous room, in which the passage of time is communicated through a series of time-windows that open up inside the various panels to reveal details from both the past and the future. In 2014, Richard McGuire developed this multi-dimensional vision of time and narrative flows when he decided to return to the story and expand it. He began by transforming the original black and white drawings to colour in order to better express the moods of the various characters who all live in the same simple room, but at different moments in a timespan that stretches from 3,000,000,000 BCE to 2014. At the end of the day, the real star of the story is the room itself or, perhaps, the passage of time, .
Light in the graphic novel
2. The House by Paco Roca (Tunué)

The House by Paco Roca also focuses on the passage of time, but in this graphic novel the room is extended to an entire house. The Spanish artist weaves together past and present to recount the story of three siblings, who return to the house they grew up in, a year after their father has died. Initially they want to sell it, but staying there, they are forced to confront their memories and the fear of losing a substantial part of their past and themselves. The light and colours have the melancholic tint of memory. For example, the siblings’ childhood reminiscences are depicted in warm tones that amplify their emotional importance. There are painful memories too, like their father’s illness, where the light and colours are colder. But rather than distancing the reader, this effect succeeds in drawing us even closer into the story that Fernando Marías in his afterword describes as being «full of love and sincerity».
Light in the graphic novel
3. Sabrina by Nick Drnaso (Coconino Press)

In 2018, Sabrina became the first graphic novel to be longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. In short, the plot is as following: A woman named Sabrina goes missing and her boyfriend, Teddy goes to stay with an old school friend, Calvin, who works for the American air force and is currently trying to hold his life together after his wife and daughter have left him and gone to Florida. Fake news, conspiracy theories and Internet clickbait threaten the mental health of both characters and the story’s claustrophobic atmosphere is rendered masterfully by Nick Drnaso with deceptively simple line drawings and minimalist settings. The light helps to intensify the sense of claustrophobia the characters are trapped in. There are no shadows for them to take refuge in, and Sabrina’s sister, Teddy and Calvin are always depicted in a clear light that lays bare their psyche and underlines their fragility and lack of stability.
Light in the graphic novel
4. Sin City by Frank Miller (Magic Press)

Sin City is a series of neo-noir comics by Frank Miller. The first story appeared in 1991 and since then, it has succeeded in winning over a vast audience, while always remaining well outside the mainstream. It focuses, in fact, on classic hard-boiled themes, like sex, violence, brutal murders, and even cannibalism, paedophilia and prostitution, which are worlds away from the mass American comic market. To narrate the stories of Sin City, Miller basically uses two colours only, black and white. However, there are several small, but interesting exceptions, like That Yellow Bastard, in which the main character is always coloured yellow to make him stand out against the black and white background. The typical hard-boiled urban atmospheres of the series, the frame angles that distort the reader’s perception of reality by creating disorientating, above or below viewpoints and the stark black and white colouring create a harsh sense of contrast that enhances the story lines, as this is the best way to evoke the atmosphere of a dark, nocturnal world that is made of light and shadow, violence and cruelty.
Light in the graphic novel
5. Le variazioni d’Orsay, Manuele Fior (Coconino Press)

In his Le variazioni d’Orsay, Manuele Fior guides the reader through one of the most famous museums in the world.

Before housing the vast majority of the best-known works of late nineteenth and early twentieth century French art, the Gare d’Orsay was a Parisian railway station. In 1973 the building was officially named an important heritage site and in 1986 it was turned into a musée (following a conversion project designed by Gae Aulenti). Originally opened in 1900, on the occasion of the Universal Exhibition, the station was built in line with the architectural vision of the time, i.e. a massive structure of glass and metal masked by a monumental stone façade. The natural light that filters in through the vast windows makes this structure an ideal location for exhibiting works of art. Using gouache colours, a technique that is closer to painting than the classic language of comics, Fior explores the works on display at the museum as well as the lives of the artists and the city of Paris itself. The result is 64 pages of that typical fin de siècle atmosphere of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists that we love so much. From en plein air scenes to the glass and ironwork of liberty-style buildings, Fior creates a fragmentary kaleidoscope of anecdotes. A dreamlike journey that recounts the mystery of art and the elusive fascination of the creative act.
Light in the graphic novel