Sequential art (also visual narrative, graphic narrative, pictorial narrative, sequential narrative, sequential pictorial narrative, sequential storytelling, graphic literature, or narrative illustration) is an art form that uses images deployed in sequence for graphic storytelling or to convey information. The best-known example of sequential art is comics, especially comic books and comic strips, which are a printed arrangement of art and speech balloons.
The term is also applied to other media, such as film, animation or storyboards. Scott McCloud notes in Understanding Comics that the movie roll, before it is being projected, arguably could be seen as a very slow comic.
Origins of the term
The term "sequential art" was coined in 1985 by comics artist Will Eisner in his book Comics and Sequential Art. Eisner analyzed this form into four elements: design, drawing, caricature, and writing. Scott McCloud, another comics artist, elaborated the explanation further, in his books Understanding Comics and Reinventing Comics.
Types of sequential art
Sequential art predates comics by millennia. Some of the earliest examples are the cave paintings, Egyptian hieroglyphics and paintings and pre-Columbian American picture manuscripts, which were recurrent media of artistic expression.
Wall paintings and hieroglyphs
All the forms of communications since the dawn of human intellect has always served to transmit human experience. Wall painting is the earliest form of graphic communication; it pre-dates written communication and its earliest example are found in caves. Egyptian friezes made more accurate, methodical and organized depiction of their lifestyle through this same medium.
Egyptian hieroglyphs codified the images into repeatable and easier to reproduce symbols. In fact the proto-writing and the early alphabets, such as the Egyptian Canaanite alphabet, Chinese and Phoenician, also make clear references to their evolution from wall painting.
Since only five codices of Mayan culture are known to survive to this day, the major sources of pre-Columbian sequentian art are paintings on vessels and plates.
Tapestry is a form of textile art. One of its basic characteristics is that it is woven, rather than embroidered. Weaving has a direction—that is, you begin at one point and proceed, by interlacing threads, to another point. You do not range over the surface, as a painter might while working on a canvas.
In some cases tapestry was used as a medium to tell stories. The misleadingly named Bayeux Tapestry (it is actually an embroidery) tells the story of the Norman conquest of England. It looks in some ways like a cartoon, as the story unrolls—two combatants (the Anglo-Saxon English, led by Harold Godwinson, recently crowned as King of England (before that a powerful earl), and the Normans, led by William the Conqueror) fight in 1066 a battle over the control of what was then England.
Sequences in painting
Painting can also be a common ground for sequential art. For instance, in Lucas Cranach the Elder's Paradise different scenes of the Biblical story are shown in the same painting: on the front, God is admonishing the couple for their sin; in the background to the right are shown the earlier scenes of Eve's creation from Adam's rib and of their being tempted to eat the forbidden fruit; on the left is the later scene of their expulsion from Paradise.
Cubist paintings share characteristics with sequential art, with the main difference being that the images are not juxtaposed but repeated over themselves in different poses sharing some shapes.
Early printed sequential art
The invention of the printing press, allowing movable type, established a separation between images and words, the two requiring different methods in order to be reproduced. Early printed material concentrated on religious subjects, but through the 17th and 18th centuries they began to tackle aspects of political and social life, and also started to satirize and caricature. It was also during this period that the speech bubble was developed as a means of attributing dialogue.
William Hogarth is often identified in histories of the comics form. His work, A Rake's Progress (1732–33), was composed of a number of canvases, each reproduced as a print, and the eight prints together created a narrative. As printing techniques developed, due to the technological advances of the industrial revolution, magazines and newspapers were established. These publications utilized illustrations as a means of commenting on political and social issues, such illustrations becoming known as cartoons in the 1840s. Soon, artists were experimenting with establishing a sequence of images to create a narrative.
While surviving works of these periods such as Francis Barlow's A True Narrative of the Horrid Hellish Popish Plot (c.1682) as well as The Punishments of Lemuel Gulliver and A Rake's Progress by William Hogarth (1726), can be seen to establish a narrative over a number of images, it was not until the 19th century that the elements of such works began to crystallise into the comic strip.
Comics were an eventual product of the invention of printing. As an art form, comics established popularized itself in the pages of newspapers and magazines in the late 19th and early 20th century, alongside the similar forms created as a consequence of the invention of photography: film and animation. The three forms share certain conventions, most noticeably the mixing of words and pictures, and all three owe parts of their conventions to the technological leaps made through the industrial revolution.
A storyboard is a graphic organizer used by directors and artists for the purpose of pre-visualizing a motion picture, animation, motion graphic or interactive media sequence, including website interactivity. They are commonly a series of illustrations, pictures or images displayed in sequence.
The latest form of sequential art is the web comic. As pointed by McCloud in Reinventing Comics, in contrast with any printed media, it is not really limited to the size of a page. While the size of the screen might limit what the reader might see at once, the story might continue in other pages, or in any direction of a single page. Although not unique for the web medium, a single panel of a web comic can also continue in more than one sequence.
- Will Eisner, Comics and Sequential Art, Poorhouse Press, 1990, p. 26.
- Lan Dong (ed.), Teaching Comics and Graphic Narratives: Essays on Theory, Strategy and Practice, McFarland, 2012, p. v.
- Neil Cohn (ed.), The Visual Narrative Reader, Bloomsbury, 2016, p. 26.
- Hannah Miodrag, Comics and Language: Reimagining Critical Discourse on the Form, University Press of Mississippi, 2013, p. 143.
- Aaron Meskin and Roy T. Cook (eds.), The Art of Comics: A Philosophical Approach, Wiley-Blackwell, 2012, p. xxx.
- Carole Ann Moleti, "Graphic Literature: A Blend of Genre, Medium, and Form: An International Survey of Graphic Literature", The Internet Review of Science Fiction, June 2008.
- Durwin S. Talon, Panel Discussions: Design in Sequential Art Storytelling, TwoMorrows Publishing, 2007, p. 102.
- A term first coined in Italian by Hugo Pratt as letteratura disegnata (see Gianni Brunoro, Corto come un romanzo nuovo. Illazioni su Corto Maltese ultimo eroe romantico, 2nd ed., Milan: Lizard, 2008, p. 225).
- Andrew D. Arnold, "A Graphic Literature Library", Time, Nov. 21, 2003.
- J. J. Llorence, "Exploring Graphic Literature as a Genre and its Place in Academic Curricula", McNair Scholars Journal 15(1), 2011.
- Shane McCausland and Yin Hwang (eds.), On Telling Images of China: Essays in Narrative Painting and Visual Culture, Hong Kong University Press, 2013, p. 23 n. 12.
- Will Eisner, Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative, Poorhouse Press, 2001 (1st. ed.: 1996), p. 6.
- "You might say that before it’s projected, film is just a very very very very slow comic!"—Scott McCloud as quoted in Michael Cadden, Telling Children's Stories: Narrative Theory and Children's Literature, University of Nebraska Press, 2010, p. 149.
- Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics, Harper Perennial, 1993, pp. 10–16.
- Will Eisner, Comics and Sequential Art, Poorhouse Press, 1985, pp. 15, 101.
- Cf. Elaine H. Kim and Chungmoo Choi (eds.), Dangerous Women: Gender and Korean Nationalism, Routledge, 2012, p. 6: "[Yong Soon] Min's ... visual essay, "Mother Load," features the bojagi wrapping cloth... The first two parts of this sequential sculpture refer to the past and present of ... Korea."
- Anne Magnussen and Hans-Christian Christiansen (eds.), Comics & Culture: Analytical and Theoretical Approaches to Comics, Museum Tusculanum Press, 2000, pp. 59–60.