Category Archives: Week 10 – Nat Turner

on reading the graphic novel

I’m not sure I know any more about Nat Turner after reading this book.  Like the author, I knew very little about the man, and the frustrating part of the book was that I still feel like I don’t know much.  While the graphics were gripping at times, I believe there are still too many gaps to satisfy a reader willing to learn more about a famous slave.  If I had more time, I would spend it googling Nat Turner and try to fill in some of the gaps I feel were missing (but already I am very late getting this weeks readings done).

And that brings me to my next point – time.  Sure I was able to finish a 200 pg book in a very short amount of time, but the time I spent trying to figure out what was happening was frustrating.  There were plenty of sequences when I just couldn’t figure out what was going on (the killing of the old man drummer, for one).  Finally, when I finished the book there was a page of notes that explained that episode.  But it was frustrating going back and forth for a few minutes trying to figure out where I missed the panel “explaining” the situation.  I have lots of questions like this which weren’t answered on the page of Notes.

I imagine a college student, who is pressed for time, will absorb very little of this.  I don’t want to minimize the horror of some of the scenes, and depictions of the violence of slavery in general.  These are the images that will stay with me.  But if an instructor was expecting a student to learn all about Nat Turner, that wouldn’t happen with this book.  The busy college student who doesn’t want to linger and spend the time trying to piece the narrative together, and perhaps even spend a little time in google, won’t get much from this.    At the very beginning of his article, Rabkin says  “…we need extended time to apprehend art – to read it.” (36),  and I think this could actually be a problem with the graphic novel format.

I was really hopeful to see what I would take from this week’s reading.  While I think graphic novels are a nice break from the typical texts, this novel in particular might expect too much from students; many of the students I teach would be willing to put in the time to make the leap to fuller understanding.  I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately, about how students today read, and some experts are saying that because of the format of most of our reading, on a computer screen, we’ve become a nation of skimmers – we do a lot of surface reading, but very little deep reading – and therefore there is very little deep understanding.  And I think that might be a problem with this graphic novel.  The material is difficult and the gaps are sometimes too large, and therefore, the student will just skim the surface rather than take the time to figure it out.  It certainly is tempting just to skim when you have so many other things to do.

Taking the Fun out of It: Alternative texts in the literature classroom

Even conservative English classes have begun to incorporate more and more of the types of materials once reserved for cultural studies, an understandable combination since the latter in many ways grew out of the study of literature and the line between these two fields has always been somewhat indistinct. I find much to celebrate in the inclusion of many of these new forms and genres and, more broadly, with the mindset that acknowledges “reading” as a not-exclusively-textual act of understanding and interpreting. This week’s reading of Nat Turner and the other articles on graphic novels, however, has been instrumental in helping me to articulate what I feel to be one of the major weaknesses with using alternative texts into classrooms (and with students) that are not aware of the different approaches which must be employed here.

My issue is not with the texts themselves but with the way in which teachers and students deal with them. Although I believe that critical reading skills can be applied to all sorts of texts, I have found that literature classes rarely give proper consideration to the merits and limitations of different forms. They also tend to ignore critical discussion of the success of a given work in a particular medium. An example: Compare the graphic novel Nat Turner with the recent film Django Unchained. While there are obvious differences in the two stories, their similarities are immediately apparent to anyone who has been exposed to both works. Both offer vivid, violent depictions of slave uprisings but I found the effect of the two texts to be completely different: while I found Nat Turner to be somewhat superficial in terms of character development and explanation (a great ‘jumping off place’ for classroom discussions), Django Unchained offers viewers a more fully-realized situation that is also more limited in scope (a personal revenge story rather than a rebellion against the entire institution of slavery).

But literature teachers who incorporate these “alternative” texts into their classrooms must make a conscious effort to discuss interpretive strategies that are unique to each medium. The pacing/time issues that Rabkin mentioned in his article are just one aspect of the challenges that readers have when they encounter these materials. Failing to think critically about the type of texts that they have often consumed in non-academic settings may ultimately lead to more frustration than enlightenment.

as time goes by

In the same vein as previous commentaries, I revere those talented enough to take an indescribable, in this case habitual, processes and turn them inside out; thereby unraveling, even evaluating invisible sequence of events.  Piggy-backing off of what Molly wrote—I found Rabkin and McCloud’s work on temporal awareness, sincerely enlightening.

Positioning myself in Rabkin’s camp, he won me over from the get-go, beginning with the glaringly obvious concept, “…we need extended time to apprehend art, to read it” (36).  Of course that what it is!  You couldn’t stay we need more time to stare—too much emptiness implied.  I guess gaze would fit, but the term doesn’t really indicate a deeper level of critical thinking, not to mention the action seems pretty one-way.  Reading fits, because reading, as writing, is cyclical.  The piece presents information, one takes it all in–comprehending, evaluating, disseminating, etc.–then, said individual contributes these new ideas to the piece, do they fit?, not fit,? oh hey look, the piece brought up something new, and by extension, I have a new idea—and around and around we go.  As Rabkin noted, developing ‘analytical principles’ (43).

If that didn’t win you over, this next one might—although it’s a bit of a stretch. Pivoting off of the image, ‘reading in between the lines,’ that is reading blank space—if you just turned that space, vertical, you’d get a gutter…to read!

Still, Rabkin takes the idea of time happening in between the panels a step further, which I agree with; “But McCloud’s view of the reader’s role also needs refinement…we find single frames that can hold our eye for minutes as we note and decode a wealth of half-understood detail. Time, in graphic novels, then, is controlled, among other ways, by the degree of information density and representational immediacy in each frame” (37).

Take for instance, the many fight scenes in Nat Turner.  While one frame illustrates Nat attacking, the next frame doesn’t necessarily portray the other person’s reaction, let alone them fighting back.  More often then not, the next sketch was of a disfigured, dead body.  Here, the reader’s imagination is processing much more than what’s represented—and the gutters merely helped, not instigated said process.  Even if you could say, the author rendered the ‘quick and dirty’ nature of the killings, the contents of the frames themselves still represent time more than the space between.

And this all was routine.  Readers just knew—it’s not as if words were put in the past tense and you could point, to something tangible, and say here, I knew this sequence of events took longer, no.  The busyness of the frame subliminally measured time.

Storytelling Techniques in Nat Turner

I did not know much about Nat Turner prior to reading Kyle Baker’s Nat Turner.  I expected to see some of the obvious images of slavery since I knew about the history of slavery, but I did not expect the images to be this graphic.  I opened the book and followed the scenes until I saw the baby being overthrown on the slave ship (page 55). I stopped and put the book down for a few days, because I could not tolerate the painful images.  The graphics were very powerful.  The first time I studied the book I had many questions and some confusion about certain actions represented in some graphics or scenes. Studying the book again after I read McCloud’s chapter three and four, the image were much more clear and my confusion dissipated.

McCloud uses the term Gutter to represents the space between the panels, which takes two separate images and transforms them into a single idea (McCloud page 66) Examples of Gutter in Nat Turner are the images of the different phases of the moon on pages 29, 33, 95, and 183 to illustrate lapse in time in the story.

Another term McCloud refers to as Closure (a great picture of it on page 114 of Net Turner) indicates a phenomenon of observing the parts but perceiving the whole, which we depend on for survival on a daily basis.  Our past experiences, prior knowledge, assist us in achieving closure. When we look at the graphics of Nat Turner we commit closure – “Our eyes take in the fragmented, black-and-white image of the ‘half-tone’ patterns…. And transform it into the reality.” (McCloud, Page 64) The first image of two intense eyes, with two hands holding an open book in a complete black background is an example of Closure. We rely on our prior knowledge to conclude that the person is secretly reading the book in the dark. A similar eye appears on page 77. Another example of Closure is the third image in the book – an image of a firm grip of a sward juxtaposed against a bright full moon.  We can conclude that the image represents rebellion in the middle of the night.

McCloud refers to the silent contract between the creator, through art and craft, and the reader where the reader is the silent accomplice. “From the tossing of a baseball to the death of a planet, the reader’s deliberate, voluntary closure is comics’ primary means of stimulating time and motion.” (McCloud, page 69) The six types of the creator’s craft are the panel-to-panel categorizations below:

1-      Moment-to-moment requires very little closure.
2-      A single subject in distinct action-to-action progressions.
3-      Subject-to-subject while staying within the same scene or idea. Note the reader involvement necessary to render these transitions meaningful.
4-      Scene-to-scene transitions, transports us across significant distances of time and space.
5-      Aspect-to-aspect bypasses time for the most part and set a wandering eye on different aspects of a place, idea, and mood.
6-      Non-sequitur offers no logical relationship between the panels whatsoever!

These six categories I tried to apply to Nat Turner:

Categories Nat Turner pages
Moment-to-moment 21,38,42,43,48,71,79,80,92,157 – some show action in only two panels.
Action-to-action 21,26,27,34,35,37,38,42,43,50,52,54,60,64,67,71,74,78,79,80-85,90,92,96,98-99,107,114,118,126,134-135,144-145,154-156,157,158-159,182,188-189,200
Subject-to-subject 11,14-15,16-28,30-32,34-38,40,42-43-55,0-69,70-71,72-73,74-84,85-90,91-92,94-96,96-105,100-184,188-199.
Scene-to-scene 29,33,95,
Aspect-to-aspect 39,41,56-57,


In trying to categories Nat Turner, I became confused because many of the scenes could be a combination of the five out of six categories.

Some of the questions that came to my mind as I studied the book were:

What if I took some of the one panel images that stand alone and make even a shorter story, summarizing the book?

What if Nat Turner were a white male, a prominent figure in the church, would that have made a difference on how we would view him and his actions? Would history tell a different story?





Learning to read pictures

The question that was posed in the beginning of Perry Nodelman’s text reminded me of the discussion that we had in class last week. Nodelman asks the reader to ponder why children books have become so popular, and later debunks the assumption that children picture books are more popular than other forms writing because they are easier for kids to understand. I agree with his claims and think that picture books are enjoyable for children and adults for many of the same reasons that video games are enjoyable. The pictures that appear in children books and comics can be visually captivating, just like the graphics that you see in some video games. The visual images that appear in these different mediums attract viewers and can compel interest in the story that is told.

I found this to be true while doing the reading for class this week. The pictures in Baker’s Nat Turner were visually captivating,  and his novel is something that I would enjoy reading outside of the classroom. The text was enjoyable for me, even though I knew the outcome, because the pictures and the text work together to retell Turner’s narrative in a powerful and enthralling way. The images were thought provoking and at times difficult to interpret. I don’t think I would enjoy the text if it were easy to unravel or presented in a simplistic manner.  When I think back to my response about video games, I see now that I was practically addicted to finishing Tomb Raider that summer because the game was a challenge. I did find the narrative  that was unfolding through the game to be compelling, but part of my interest in the game came from figuring out how to work the controls, solving the game’s puzzles, and conquering whatever enemies appeared on the screen.  In the same way, learning how to read the pictures in Baker’s novel was a challenge. I paid more attention I think to the pictures at times than I did to the actual writing. Each picture told a story, and as the reader you had to work hard to unravel the meaning that was behind it.

I also think interpreting pictures along with text can be more challenging for readers. Nodelman writes that “As we shift our attention between the pictures and the text, we must shift between different ways of thinking” (154). Working to understand a written text along with the pictures that accompany it can help develop critical thinking. As a reader you work to compare what you see visually to what are reading. I think this can  result in a deeper understanding of the story that is told, and benefit learners.



I was excited to see that our syllabus included a graphic novel. Comic books were some of the first things I ever read as a child, and are something I’ve continued to read as an adult. While I’m the first to admit that they’re not all high literature, there are very real merits to the form that often get overlooked when the form is dismissed as “for kids”. Nat Turner is proof that not all comics are appropriate for children, and I can personally attest that it’s hardly an outlier in that respect. We think of any book with pictures as a ‘picture-book’, and picture-books are typically seen as appropriate for children. This always struck me as a strange way to think about books: at some point in a child’s life, books with pictures stop being seen as worthy of their attention. How did we get to that idea as a society? We love and appreciate art when it’s hung on the wall, but if it’s in a book with text, it’s not considered art anymore?
Scott McCloud‘s Understanding Comics honestly changed the way I read comics when I first encountered it more than ten years ago. While I already ‘knew’ how to read comics from growing up on them, I had never really thought about how to read them; it was a form of literacy that I had learned through exposure, the same way I had learned English. Nobody had to teach me how to read comics, so I had never really thought about the process. McCloud’s explanations of the mechanics of time and the complex interaction between image and text within the graphic novel format made me pay much closer attention to the way artists choose to lay out the series of images on a page with respect to the narrative process. I’m much more aware now when I come across a well-arranged or innovative layout of panels. Of course, the same is true of poor page layouts; sometimes it’s just not obvious what order the panels are meant to be read in, and that’s a failure of the artist to thoroughly consider the page as a whole and as a narrative/chronological space.

Graphic Novels and History

Cohn and Rabkin’s discussion of temporality in graphic novels was interesting. I’m used to being meta-cognitive when it comes to reading straight text or print, but I never thought about how I naturally read from left to right or top to bottom. I was also struck by the comments on the capacity or tendency of a graphic novel to depict the past or present. While Rabkin said portraying variations of past tense is particularly problematic, I thought of my own (limited) experiences reading graphic novels, all of which have been about the past. I’m thinking of Art Spiegelman’s Maus (which is mentioned in the readings) and a memoir Fun Home by Alison Bechdel.

Nat Turner too is a narrative of the past and like Maus, chronicles human suffering. What’s interesting to me is the seeming contrast between the visual style and the content of each work. A few days ago, a student of mine picked up Nat Turner off my desk and quickly paged through (I’d been reading it with my students while they did their independent reading). He started laughing and held up the image of the baby being fed to a shark to show everyone “what Miss Davidow had been reading.”

I was so immersed in the harrowing story up to that point that I hadn’t considered how the style of Kyle Baker’s work is cartoonish – even carrying traces of whimsy. I wonder if there is something to this. Baker takes Spiegelman’s approach of illustrating human atrocities in a relatively benign style compared to other ways these stories have been told. I think that a graphic novel like this about historical events that may, at this point, be too familiar helps us to bear witness in a new way. Rather than muting the reality of the situation, the unexpected format makes it new again.

The graphic “graphic” novel and a robust lit survey course

What are your most memorable classes?  Most of us would like say something that includes multiple mediums: listening to readings, performances, watching film, and being shown examples of concurrent artwork alongside the literature of the time.  Some of our most robust lit survey courses in undergrad likely contained a healthy dose of art history as well.  Whether it was the tapestries or illuminated manuscripts of medieval literature or Pablo Picasso’s Les Desmoiselles alongside late 19th and early 20th century modernist writers, art is ubiquitously connected with literature.   Therefore, (for me), it is easy to build a bridge between the literature classroom and a graphic novel.

I was unprepared literally or graphically for the gruesome nature of Nat Turner, which probably made my reaction to what I was “reading” all the more interesting in hindsight.  I won’t finish the frames with the baby dangling over the shark, or the inset frames depicting dead faces or severed limbs.  That being said, I am likely not a prime example of someone whose softer sensibilities would be violated by such things.  My guiltier pleasures include films by Guy Ritchie, shows like The Sopranos and Sons of Anarchy, and smuttier non-literary books I don’t wish to divulge here to the public.  To me, Graphic Novels and other non-traditional literary genres are equally important in terms of our student’s interpretive faculties.   The lines of distinction by high-art and street-art are continually blurred and why the hell not?!  It’s not like graphic novels will discredit the value of those that preceded it.

McCloud’s meta-renderings of showing and telling the visual and literary concepts that go into the design renderings of graphic novels was particularly enlightening to me as someone who has not had the pleasure or privilege to have the material brought into class with any fervency.  The graphic novel allows the literature student to step back from decoding text and sit back to observe as moment, subject, and action occurs in front of them, much like watching tv or film.  Rather than busily consulting supporting text and reference lit, images and occurrence can simply wash over one’s consciousness with the effective force of display.

All of this being said, I refrain that text and picture are complementary and should therefore be practiced in balanced unison, as much as this is possible.

Should we ask questions about age-appropriateness when we consider comics and graphic novels?

I found Kyle Baker’s graphic novel to be “graphic” in more than one way: certainly graphic in the pictorial sense, but also graphic in its depictions of violence, anger/hate, and bloodshed.

Concurrently with this course, I’m taking a course on dystopic literature.  To round out the genre, we considered Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games because the instructor wanted our class discussion to dip into the implications of this genre for a young adult (YA) audience.  I couldn’t help but thinking about the textual and pictorial differences of reading vs. viewing The Hunger Games as I read/viewed Nat Turner.

In a newspaper article about the collaboration of Collins and Gary Ross, the director of film adaptation, Collins and Ross explain that it was important to them for the film to be viewable by Hunger Games fans as young as twelve years old.  A tall order, in some instances: the novel depicts scenes such as an arrow piercing a child’s throat, and the child drowning in his own blood as he attempts to dislodge the arrow.  I don’t recall if or how the film depicted this moment, but I do remember having a queasier feeling in general as I watched the film than I did as I read the novel.

So, what’s the difference between reading a scene like that and viewing it?  When I was growing up and testing the boundaries of PG-13 and R-rated films—as well as novels such as Stephen King’s—the world presented to me two “truths” that I’ve always thought are irreconcilable.  On the one hand, I was told that my imagination was more powerful than anything I might see depicted in a film.  On the other hand, I was told to be wary of scary films because those images would “never go away” and be “burned into my mind.”  Okay—but if my imagination is more powerful than my eyes, aren’t I better off watching The Exorcist than if I were to read it?

The answer, I think, has something to do with innocence lost, but that’s another essay entirely.  The interesting thing is that, with Nat Turner, we both see and read about these horrific murders.  For me, I’d say the images were harder to swallow than the text, though the text didn’t go down easily, either.  This graphic novel is PG-13 at best, though I’d be one of those overprotective parents slapping an R-rating onto it.  Part of what I’m reacting to is the violent imagery; but also, the themes and issues taken up by this text are really intense.  Asking someone younger than 13 to grapple with faith-based violence, slavery, and child-slayings is a bit much, I think.

And yet—as Baker points out in his preface—we ask children to face these issues all the time in history books, though we do so highly ineffectively (perhaps because the true story of Nat Turner’s rebellion is a bit mature in content for school-aged children).  So I wonder, then, who Kyle Baker imagined as his audience for this graphic novel—and how different his authorial audience is from his actual audience.

The reason I mention young adult literature at all in this post is that I think one of the things working against comics/graphic novels as texts/artworks worth incorporating in the classroom is that, stereotypically, these texts/artworks are consumed by young people.  And yet, (at least judging by the tweets/posts so far) I think we all got something out of reading Nat Turner.  Similarly, I think the dystopia course benefited from including the YA novel—though I nearly, I admit, dropped the course when I saw a YA novel on a reading list for a graduate-level literature class.  Oh, the blasphemy!  But the class actually ended up conducting a pretty academic, thoughtful discussion about the text (and that has not always been the case with some of the more “grown-up” texts we’ve looked at so far).

As far as our other readings for this week, I wish I’d read them first—particularly the McCloud, as I think it would have helped me “tweet” more thoughtfully/educatedly about Baker.  But, speaking of age-appropriateness and audience, there was this moment in the Nodelman that was perhaps the most bizarre moment in our course readings so far this semester.  Maybe I’m overly sensitive, but my jaw dropped at the appearance of the word “rape” in the middle of an essay about “the pleasures of children’s books.”  Not only am I not sure what that Langer quote even means—I get that there are three narratives and that three is less harmonious a number than two—but I think Nodelman does a crappy job of unpacking his quote to relate it to his own essay.  Three competing narratives equals rape how exactly?  Like, gang rape?  Like, what???  It’s so unproductive to trivialize the subject of rape, never mind how surprised I was to see Nodelman/Langer trying to use rape as the anchor of a metaphor about artistic communication in, erm, children’s books.  I agree with Joy’s critique of these essays in that, unlike the McCloud, these writers only bring in a select few images to accompany what they’re trying to express in text about images.  But as far as this moment in the text goes, all I can say is thank god it wasn’t rendered pictorially.

Graphic Novels as a Model for Literary Interpretation

For me, reading Nat Turner was a bit like reading in Spanish: I know how to do it in the back of my mind, but it took me several pages to get used to the new language, and even after I did, I still struggled to understand some passages. Part of this is logistical: for the first few pages, actually, I tested the theory of reading all the way across the two pages, then down, unsure of which was the correct way to read the book. But the other part of the challenge to read this text is in the artful, nuanced illustrations Baker employs.

There were pages where I stared at the pictures for minutes, unsure of what was happening. The image on pg 198 is a good example. Are they dissecting him? Are they casting him in something? Are they sawing him in half (not sure why that would happen…easier disposal of the body?). Either way, as I looked at the image, I went through the same process I go through when reading a work of literature: asking myself why I see the image one way, and what evidence I have in front of me to suggest that the image is of a dissection rather than an embalming. There are other places where this happened for me, too: pg 175, for example, and I watched myself “reading” these images in much the same way I would read a work of classical literature: mining for the things I understand, being patient with the things I don’t, re reading in between, and waiting for things to come together in the end.

After reading this text, I think the graphic novel (especially an artful one like this) offers an opportunity to walk students through the process of interpretation without intimidating them with words. They can (hopefully) see when they look at the images, and can trust that what they see is real. By giving students a graphic novel to interpret I think we give them an opportunity to trust their instincts as a see-er, or as a consumer of visual information. In leveraging this confidence we just might be able to help kids move towards interpreting sentences rather than images—using the same processes and strategies they used in their own visual interpretations.  It’ll encourage them to practice writing in this context, meet that “burden of proof” when it comes to interpretation, too…#Excited!