The Secret Language of Comics

I just flipped a Stitch

The two graphic novels Stitches, by David Small, and Spinning, by Tillie Walden, are memoirs about bildungsroman. The coming to age of the two respective protagonists are have many similarities, although the stories are each unique. For started, both protagonists encounter similar trauma, whether it be emotional or physical. Small makes it evident from the beginning that he has no role models in his life, few people he can talk to, and an absence of any emotional support. This makes him feel isolated. As a result, Small is an incredibly introverted and quiet child. That being said, he is not the only one in this graphic novel who endures trauma or pain. It is clear that a common theme in the novel is suffering. This is shown by basically every character small writes about. Both parents seem to hate their life and family. Even the therapists seems to have underlying troubles. The significant aspect of this is David’s parents oblivion to this. For example, once David is recovered from his surgery, he begins to go down a dark path. Instead of trying to get help for David, his parents send him to boarding school as they believe he is a “normal, rebellious teenager.” The fact that his parents can’t even realize he is suffering plays a pivotal role in how his behavior. He begins to go on an ever-looping, depressed cycle where his life continues to unravel and fall apart in front of him. This dark cycle parallels the youth of Walden. Walden practically had the same day on repeat throughout her childhood. She would wake up incredibly early, skate, go to school, skate again, and go home. Similar to David’s reading, skating was Walden’s safe place from the trauma and unpleasantness that surrounded her.

Chute points out that authors like to tell stories of themselves as children. By doing this, they are opening up to their audience about the root of a lot of their underlying issues. They display this darkness through a literal lack of color in their illustrations. The two scenes I chose to trace and annotate are from the early childhood of both characters.

Both scenes use positive and negative light to show an ominous tone. The juxtaposition of darkness and light creates a transparent mood of sadness and shows a repetition of depression. Likewise, both illustrations feature a focal point where the subject is the clear target as they are scaled largely in comparison to the background and foreground. Another similarity is in the shading. For the most part, both illustrations use only the whiteness of the paper and different shades of dark gray or black. They use the dark black to outline the other objects in the scene. However, there is still gray shading to show the subject. Overall, the two scenes are very dark which displays the trauma which the two protagonist endured throughout their childhood. Focusing on stitches, the usage of lines shows that David is somewhat in motion. The other lines show that he is in some sort of crevice or cave as the lines are curved and move around the focal point. Small takes up a whole page with just three frames. The transitions are frank and go in chronological order, as small is delving deeper into the crevice. The crevice is actually his own mouth, and he is looking at his recently clipped vocal cord. By using only three frames, Small makes it clear that this is a significant point in the story. This is the point when David goes from being able to talk, to not being able to ever verbally communicate again. In contrast, Walden includes a bunch of small frames, showing small changes. The changes show an actual movement, similar to a flip book. That being said, there is one very large frame which takes up a quarter of the page. The frame shows her sitting alone in the dark, waiting for a ride. The reason this is big is because it displays a level of sadness to the audience as she is sad and vulnerable.

Tracing Stitches and Spinning: Reflection

This assignment was definitely more challenging than the title makes it sound—sure the act of tracing the pages was easy but that was literally it. When I was thinking of what two pages to trace, I went through my bookmarked pages—there was pages I thought seemed important while I read along so I would bookmark them. The page I selected from Stitches was one I had bookmarked, however when I was going through my bookmarked pages in Spinning, I could not find one that seemed at first sight “easily comparable” to my chosen Stitches page, so I flipped through pages within the areas of bookmarked ones until I kind of decided to just do a “random” one. I traced and annotated my Stitches page first, feeling decently confident about the details I was noticing as I worked, then while my chosen Spinning page did not seem comparable at first sight, once I started tracing and adding annotations, I was noticing a few compositional things of comics’ secret language that were implemented in both pages but presented in different ways. This point of view was completely different than when I was reading the comics for the first time; the first reading, I was more focused on the storyline and while I obviously acknowledged the visuals, it wasn’t in this critical and analytical point of view.

I always have trouble writing “traditional” essays with the thesis sentence at the beginning because I usually don’t know what I’m even going to write about. And, while this format was supposed to be more helpful in the sense that you can just get started and not worry about the thesis statement until the end since it will be a synthesis of your main claims, I still did not really know what to write about/how to structure what I wanted to talk about. Additionally, thinking of how to word my thesis statement even at the end was still stressful. I think this process felt similarly stressful to writing other essays because even when I write in the “traditional” structure, I kind of make some weak thesis statement or skip it and just start writing, then return to it later… In the end, I made my thesis statement: David Small and Tillie Walden’s choices of flow, moment, and image work cooperatively to provide the reader with enough information to decode the narrative. While it may seem like the reader has not much other than the visual representations to rely on for decoding the meaning in these individual pages with minimal text, both Small and Walden set up these pages in a way that provides just enough information for the reader’s comprehension.

You can find my annotated traced pages along with my essay here.

Tracing Reflection

Analysing text has always been a bit of a challenge for me. I know I have issues with taking things from text too literally, or looking over small details in the process of picturing the scene in my mind. Thankfully with comics, I feel like I am a bit better at analysis. Being able to see all the components of the scene at once instead of having to skim the text over and over again is easier for me and I pick up on details more. Tracing also helped me to pick up details that I hadn’t noticed before like the lamp in Stitches. 

Writing a thesis at the end was tricky for me. I’ve always been taught to start out with the thesis and usually during the essay I will keep on referring back to it to make sure I don’t get too off topic. Of course I had the thesis in mind when I wrote the essay but I didn’t actually have it written out. I was afraid my essay sounded too ramble-ly in my essay but I think with enough editing I avoided it ok. 

I feel like this assignment did help me to unlock the “secret language”. I am a fast reader, much to the detriment of my reading comprehension. Taking the time to trace these pages and really get to know them helped me realize that no detail is put on the page without reason. Until I did this analysis I didn’t get quite how they were different. I knew they were different of course, but until I did I couldn’t say what exact elements made them stand out from each other (Like the shading in each book).

Original Assignment Post

My Analysis

Tracing Pages Reflection

The Tracing Pages assignment was something that I’ve never done before. I thought that the process of first tracing, then annotating and then finally writing the essay was very conductive to the inductive style of writing. Normally I try to start from the claim or thesis, but the tracing and the annotating made me notice patterns, which allowed me to make a claim. The challenge was actually choosing which patterns to include because 500-750 words is limited space.

It was almost like building from the ground up, which mimics the style of the essay. Even though this was new, I have done something similar to inductive writing, but we did not have the last section where we synthesized what we talked about. The synthesis was definitely the hardest part to put together because it was completely new and it was almost like backwards thinking. What really helped me through this was to write and then come back to it some other time to see if the ideas in the synthesis were coherent.

Overall I think that this essay assignment helped me better understand the Secret Language of comics. Language is built from small units and writing or thinking inductively throughout this assignment helped me uncover those small units and piece them together into a message. You can read this essay where I make the claim that both Spinning and Stitches use dualities in time and color to create a relationship with the audience. You’ll see how the two things create a message within the story and how they combine to serve an audience.

Tracing Pages Reflection

The Thesis of my essay is that In Spinning and Stitches, the authors present different ways to confront trauma and control the passing of time to emphasize pivotal moments and feelings in the story. The stopping of time during the comic’s traumatizing event allows the reader to control the pace at which they read to give them the time to deal with the emotions presented.

The process of annotating the pages was a beneficial way of getting my thoughts flowing. But I found it challenging to explain some of the things that I saw on the page. When I started, I knew which page I wanted to trace for Stitches, but choosing one specific page for Spinning was a little more difficult because the page I decided required me to sum up a lot of emotionally weighted information. The tracing process helped me solidify a specific topic that I wanted to discuss in my essay and made the similarities between the two texts more explicit.

Writing an inductive essay for the first time was a disorienting experience. I found it challenging to organize my thoughts and arguments in a way that flowed together coherently. Before writing my essay, I created an outline of the ideas I wanted to make and the evidence I wanted to use when explaining, but I felt a little lost in the process of writing. My thought process toward writing a paper had to be revised to get my argument across.

Through the tracing pages assignment, I learned a lot more about comics’ secret language because I was able to focus more on individual pages and the tools that helped aid in the progression of the narrative. Also, this assignment allowed me to understand the commentary on the trauma that David Smalls and Tillie Walden present in their comics.

Tracing Assignment + Essay

Image credit: Smalls,David. “Stitches” pg. 234

Reflection of Tracing Stitches and Spinning

Choosing one page from the entire book was not easy. I traced three different pages for Spinning, since I felt like I was forcing to fit the essay into the image when I wrote based on what I traced. As I attempted to come up with the thesis, I was struggling to find some similarities and differences between Stitches and Spinning. However, after I chose proper pages for my analysis, the process of tracing Stitches and Spinning allowed me to see some features that I did not see when I just read them, such as shading, the arrangement of panels, perspectives, and backgrounds. Therefore, tracing helped me brainstorming ideas about my analysis essay. By annotating the traced images, I could find some rhetorical strategies and visual patterns of two comics. 

Inductive writing was somewhat difficult for me, since I was used to deductive writing. I felt like my induction does not provide any more analysis or new information about my thesis. Writing the final section was harder than the first two sections, because I felt like I was repeating what I’ve said earlier in the essay. It was hard to come up with a larger claim that explains how the observations and patterns that I analyzed in previous sections really mean in the books. These challenges made me read what I wrote over and over again, to be not repetitive and be more analytical. Through this assignment, I could better understand and empathize with the stories of Stitches and Spinning. Tracing, annotating, and analyzing each page of these two books helped me identify the “secret language of comics.” Also, I could notice more about the perspectives of the characters that authors want to display in the book.

Analyzing Their Tears

Assignment Prompt

Trauma Exposure: That’s “Why Comics”

Annotating the traced pages was very different from annotating and analyzing a novel. I was especially thrown off because we had to keep the text out of the page and focus on the stylistic elements of the page. It was useful for me to look for the aspects of comics that stood out the most in both books, knowing I would be comparing them. Once I noticed a pattern or two, the annotating started to flow much more.

Putting my thesis at the end of my essay made me really focus on the topic sentences and analysis within each section. I was building my claim as I wrote the essay which allowed me to develop the idea throughout the writing process.

I definitely thought a close reading of these pages broadened my understanding of Stitches and Spinning. Focusing in on specific aspects such as frame, image, and moment for each page allowed me to apply the analysis to the rest of the book because of the relatively similar style carried throughout each book. Now knowing how deliberate every aspect of the comic is, I have a better understanding of each author truly putting the reader into their mind and position.

Tracing Pages Reflection

Assignment link here.
Essay link here

Reflection timeeeeee

Thesis: In “Stitches” and “Spinning,” the different uses of gutters and perspectives support each other to show the character development of the main character in the frame while they are in the presence of another character. Both authors use the same technique but in different ways to portray their narratives.

While tracing the panels, I was mainly thinking about art style, and how they drew the panels. I enjoyed doing it because I felt productive but not at the same time. After tracing the pages, I couldn’t find things that I could analyze, but I went back to the chart with all the elements of a comic. Looking at each column, I was able to find at least one thing to annotate or note. I really just had to not overthink it and just *look*. It was fun realizing similarities and differences in between the two pages.

As for the essay style, I was looking forward to writing it. When I write the usual 5 paragraph deductive essays, I find a better way to present the essay near the end after I discussed the thesis. When I write an essay, I have a good grasp about the parts but not how they connect as a whole. Inductive writing would make sense for me because I can really present the main part of the essay after I discuss the evidence. I would need to compare deductive and inductive essays to truly see which one I like better. I also had to limit myself to not reveal the thesis in the early sections because you usually had to connect it back to the thesis while writing about the evidence.

As for the secret language of comics, I think it helps me to watch out for certain elements of the comic and bring it into a boarder context of the story. I only annotated one page per comic, but if I spent time in analyzing more pages, I would be able to get a better grasp of the comics. I learned that I had to compare frames to see certain things like with “Spinning” I didn’t realize the changed background in between panels. I totally overlooked it at first.

Tracing Stitches and Spinning Reflection

The thesis of my paper is that both Tillie Walden and David Small both slow down time and disorient the intended direction of reading to emphasize their respective emotional climaxes. I identified each of these climaxes as David realizing that his mother doesn’t love him, and Tillie underperforming at worlds, which eventually leads to her crashing her car.

Before choosing a page from both Spinning and Stitches, I knew that I wanted the pages to relate somehow. Something that we talked in class about both works was Tillie’s and David’s emotional climaxes. Therefore, I took a page from each comic that I interpreted as each character’s emotional climax. I felt that annotating and tracing the pages was very useful. It was almost like a forced pre-writing assignment since it helped me brainstorm ideas. By analyzing and annotating my tracings, I applied the concepts in Chute’s essays and began to notice the similarities and differences between the works.

The writing of this essay did not change my writing process too much. I still brainstormed ideas before and lightly outlined my essay. If anything, this essay was quicker to write because it is acceptable to immediately to start analyzing the evidence. There is no need to write and wordsmith an introduction.

After doing this assignment, I do feel that I understand “the secret language of comics” better. When initially reading both of these works, I did not notice any of the patterns I discussed in my essay. During my first read of both Stitches and Spinning, I was more reading for plot rather than examining the author’s images intricacies. Tracing and annotating really opened my eyes to how each author poetically elaborated about key plot elements. For instance, by tracing the page in Stitches, I realized that all the panels showed no signs of life, which emphasizes David’s loneliness. In my essay, I make further analysis like this. Therefore, I feel like I do understand Stitches and Spinning more after writing this essay. By tracing and annotating, I know realize why creating a certain page or panel may take weeks for an author to illustrate. In Chute’s essay, Art Spegielman says that he sometimes spends weeks on certain panels in pages. I initially thought that he did to make his art high quality and implement simple illusions. However, after writing this essay, I know realize that authors must draw their images at a high quality, but also they must decide, which poetic patterns they will use to highlight certain messages or plot points.



Tracing Pages Reflection

The thesis of my essay is “The two different uses of slowed progression of time and movement were used to highlight the significance of both scenes.”. My main arguments are that the choice of moment and flow were most influential on the pages I analyzed. The design choices made these pages stand out among others throughout the novels.

I enjoyed the process of tracing and annotating. It was interesting to analyze the pages without text, even though the pages I chose originally didn’t have much dialogue or text. It was useful to go through the five choices in comic making and see if I could see them represented on the page. The suggested themes to consider were also helpful because they helped me categorize my annotations. The whole process helped me delve deeper than surface level observations.

My writing process didn’t completely change with the inductive thinking format. I knew pretty quickly what my first two topic sentences would be. It has always been hard for me to formulate thesis sentences. In this instance, I found it to be more difficult because I would easily slip into thinking that my first topic was my thesis even though it wasn’t. This confused me until I took some time to draw conclusions I made from the points made in the first couple of paragraphs. I was then able to choose which I felt fit the best.

As mentioned before, this project helped me look deeper at the pages. I think I overlooked some concepts when I first read these two novels. Analyzing them allowed me to look really close and try to observe as much as possible. It is easy for me to gloss over pages and not look at deeper meanings. After this process, I realized why that can be dangerous. It can cause me to miss important themes and messages that could possibly change my viewpoint on a character, situation, or topic. For example, I honestly missed the point of the zoomed-in panels in Stitches and the many little panels on the page in Spinning. I have been able to understand the likely motivations behind these design choices. I think I now appreciate the creativity and attention to detail a lot more.

Link to project:

Link to assignment prompt: