The Secret Language of Comics: Visual Thinking and Writing

Literacy Narrative Comic Reflection

Now that you’ve completed your Literacy Narrative Comic, publish a reflective blog post of about 500 words about the writing process, paying special attention to how the work you have done has helped you to meet the Learning Outcomes for this class. That post should link to the page with your literacy comic.

Some other questions you might respond to: How was it different to write your literacy narrative as a comic? How did you think differently once the visual component was added? How did that help you to see the story you were trying to tell in different terms? Was your analytical thinking process any different? How have your thoughts about your alphabetic literacy narrative changed in the process of transforming it into a comic?

I’d also like you to discuss choices you made in creating your comic and to explain why you chose the way you did. Especially if there’s something you were really trying to do in your comic which you felt you couldn’t realize as perfectly as you would if you had a lot more time, more resources, or if you could have hired an illustrator to turn your vision into exactly what you wanted. If there are aspects of your comic where you have a clear sense of what you were trying to accomplish and how you would have done so if some things were different, then explain that in your reflection. Doing so allows you to demonstrate that you have the knowledge you need about this sort of writing even if you have not yet developed all the skills necessary to make that knowledge visible in the final artifact you’ve produced

Tracing Stitches and Spinning: Reflection

Once you have completed your Tracing project and published the pages to your site, you need to publish a reflection post as well. The post serves to turn the project in when it syndicates to the class site, and is also an opportunity for you to explain your process in the work you just completed.

Your reflection post should link to the main page for your project and also to the assignment prompt. Tell us in the post what the thesis of your essay is and give a one or two sentence preview of your argument.

You should also address the following questions:

  • Before writing your essay, you went through a pretty involved process of tracing and annotating two pages from the books. Briefly explain what that process was like for you — probably this was very different from most other writing you’ve done, so try to explain what was useful about the process for you. What productive thoughts or analysis occurred through the act of tracing and annotating?
  • For this assignment, I asked you to be very conscious of writing an inductive essay with your thesis at the end, which is probably a pretty foreign way to structure an essay for you. How did your writing process change to address this assignment?
  • This assignment is a close reading exercise focused on identifying aspects of the “secret language of comics,” the series of choices the authors make in crafting comics that probably pass by many readers with little or no conscious notice. Do you feel that this assignment helped you to get in on this secret language? Do you understand Stitches and Spinning better after having written this project? What’s the single biggest insight you gained about the two books during the process of tracing, annotating, and analyzing these pages (maybe something you “knew” on some level before you started but that you really get now, or maybe something you hadn’t really noticed until you worked on the project)?

Tracing Stitches and Spinning

The primary focus of this piece of our analytical work in the class is thinking and reading rhetorically across the multimodal texts we are reading this semester. This assignment is an exercise in close reading and explication in order to identify and analyze the rhetorical situations of these texts, in which you will look very carefully and precisely at 2 specific pages of your choice from the books we have read so far this semester, making notes about what you observe, and then you’ll present what you uncover in the process and draw some connections between what you see in those pages and the larger narratives presented.

Assignment Details

  • Due: 10/3
  • Format: 2 traced pages with annotations, plus 500 to 750 words of analysis. Published to your site as a series of interlinked pages, plus a reflective post (more about this structure below).
  • Audience: You should assume an audience that has read Stitches and Spinning and thought about the texts, but who understands the books not quite as well as you do.
  • Tone: The style of your written reflection should be “academic casual.” I expect coherent, grammatically correct prose that communicates clearly and directly. Show yourself to be a thoughtful, engaged person who is interested in explaining your ideas without getting overly bogged down in formality or jargon.
  • You should use at least one quote from Hillary Chute’s essay “Comic for Grownups?” Make sure you “sandwhich” the quote with your own words — introducing and analyzing the quote. You will also need to provide an MLA citation for Chute’s essay. (More on quote sandwiches and source citation soon.)
  • You are not required or expected to use any other outside sources for this assignment; however you are allowed to do so, particularly any of the other texts from the class. Make certain that you cite any sources (and link to any texts that are online).
  • Title: Your essay must have an interesting title.

Close Observation

Choosing pages

You will trace or otherwise re-draw two different pages for this project, one from Stitches and one from Spinning. (I’ll distribute tracing paper in class, but you can also do this tracing digitally if that works best for you.) A “page” means a single verso or recto page. You may do a two-page spread, but only if that spread forms a coherent unit, in which case a two-page spread will count as one “page” (and that will make this assignment more difficult for you, so consider carefully before you take it on).

The only significant criterion is that you should find the pages compelling. A page might be compelling to you because of one particular moment on it that really stands out or because of something odd or confusing or quirky that you want to spend more time thinking about. You might find yourself thinking about a larger theme of the text that you know you ultimately want to address and then looking for pages that will allow you to do so. Or you might find yourself thinking about interesting pages that somehow surprised or captivated you and choosing those pages without knowing ultimately exactly what themes they will lead you to address. Either approach is potentially fruitful.

Tracing Pages

(I recommend that you take notes for the analysis described later as you trace your pages, instead of waiting until you’ve finished. You will probably discover much during the actual process of tracing that you’ll want to talk about for the reflection.)

First Tracing

  • Pick a compelling page from Stiches and trace it or redraw it freehand. Your goal is not to create a look-alike reproduction of the original page but rather to distill the original page into a simplified line drawing. If there are caption bubbles or text boxes, you should trace their outline, but please do not copy the text within.
  • Once you have finished tracing, scan the page digitally and save the file as an image (jpg or png). Use an actual scanner (the best scanners for this purpose are located in the Media Lab space on the 4th floor of the library) not a simple cell phone photo.
  • Either print out the scanned image or make a photocopy of your trace page, so that you can draft the next step without worrying about destroying your first trace image.
  • Annotate the printout or photocopy of the traced page with “gutter text”—your own text, written into the gutters, margins, empty captions, and space around the margins of the pages (see instructions for annotating below).
  • When you are satisfied with the annotation on the traced page, scan that page and save the digital image at a high resolution (again, use an actual scanner).

Second Tracing

  • For the second tracing select a page from Spinning that is also compelling.
  • As in the first tracing, distill the original page into a simplified line drawing.
  • After you have traced this page, repeat the rest of the steps above, this time annotating with an eye toward what makes this page different from your first selection.

Annotating the traced pages

Think of your gutter text as a dissection of the page, in which you highlight both the salient and the subtle characteristics of the page’s panels.

In this process, you might find yourself noticing some of the key terms of rhetorical situation — audiencegenrepurpose, and design. You might notice various formal features of the drawing: color, saturation, shading, line styles, shapes and sizes, angles and placement, perspective and framing, layering and blocking. Or considering the relationship between the elements on the page: the transitions between panels, the interplay between words and images, the way time and motion are conveyed. As you annotate the page, focus on recognizing the choices Small and Walden make with regard to Scott McCloud’s framework of writing with clarity: choices of moment, frame, image, and flow (don’t worry about word just yet).

Remember, as Art Spiegelmann argues, that the unit of communication for comics is the page, moreso than the panel. Pay attention to the overall layout of the page: the use of gutters and margins, the arrangement of panels, the flow of narrative or imagery. How do all the various panels on the page work together to create a clear and coherent unit? What do you notice when you look at the page as a unit?

What elements of the “secret language of comics,” the “underlying formal elements that create the illusions,” do you see at work on these pages? Keep your eyes out for: spatially site-specific elements; the shaping of time by arranging it in panels; the weirdness of time on the page; experimentation with duration and motion; layering; economical and dense narrative; experimentation with directions of reading or nonlinear reading; the all-at-onceness or “symphonic effect” of comics; methods the authors use to slow down the reading process or to make the reading process more participatory; ways in which the authors put “productive pressure on what ‘normal reading’ is”; and ways in which these comics “champion the tug-of-war” between binaries like the vulgar and the genteel, word and image, youth and adult, slow and fast, reading and looking; what is pictured and what is left to the reader’s imagination (all of these quotes and terms are found in “Comics for Grown-Ups?“) Note that you should not, indeed cannot, consider all of these ideas as you trace your pages. Choose one or two of these that seem most applicable to your chosen pages.

You might not be able to fit all your notes actually on the page, in which case you can either write them on additional pages or type them up and add them onto the page when you upload your traced images. If you need additional space to include your notations like this, you should probably number them and add reference numbers on your traced image so your notes can point to specific spots on the page.

Once you have completed your annotations, publish 2 pages on your site, one for each annotated tracing page. Include a large version of your scanned traced page (or a smaller size image that links to the full sized image) and any additional notes.

Abstraktes Bild (Nº 635)” by Gerhard Richter

Analyze your tracings

Now that you’ve spent some sustained time and effort looking very closely at these two pages, take a step back and go through your notes, think about what you have seen, and identify any patterns that come to your attention, especially with regard to those elements of the secret language of comics listed above.

Above all, you are engaging in a process of pattern recognition with your annotated pages: identify some pattern(s), ask yourself what you think it might mean, and then communicate your answer to that question as clearly as you can. Focus in on the two or three most interesting patterns you recognize.

Publish your analysis

Once you have annotated the pages and looked for these patterns, write a short essay (500-750 words) in which you compare the two pages and sketch out your most interesting observations about the two. Try to present your argument in a three-part structure. In the first section explain one similarity or difference you have seen in these two pages and why that pattern is interesting. Then in the next section present a different comparison of the two texts. Then in your final section, try to make some slightly larger claim about why these two texts are doing these things similarly or differently, what you think these patterns mean.

Each paragraph of your essay should be about both of your pages or both of the comics.

  • Do not write one paragraph about Stitches and then a paragraph about Spinning.
  • Do not write one paragraph about ways these two texts are similar and then another paragraph about ways in which they are different.

Try this for me: make the thesis of your essay the topic sentence of the final paragraph of your essay, instead of putting it at the beginning. In the best case scenario, your thesis will build on the two patterns you present in the previous sections and synthesize them into a new understanding of how the authors address their rhetorical situations.

Your thesis should definitely not be “Stitches and Spinning are similar but different.”

Make the two pages that contain your traced pages subpages for this essay and link to them someplace within the body of your essay.

Your essay should include at least one image, probably a few. Do not include the entire annotated page as an image in your essay; however you might crop your traced page to include specific details that you’re describing in the text and include that. You might also scan a particular part of the page you traced and put that scanned image into conversation with your traced image (in other words, you might choose to include one panel from Stitches alongside your traced and annotated version of that same panel). Or you might even scan a panel from a page you did not trace and compare it to a panel from your chosen page.

Reflection Post

After that is all done and you’ve published your pages to the site, publish a reflection post that links to your analysis and to this assignment prompt. Here’s some further instructions for the reflection post.

Literacy Narrative, Part 3

Due: 12/5

Return to your alphabetic narrative and revise, taking into account the further thinking you did as you created your comic. You can (and probably should) really rethink, rearrange, and reenvision the literacy narrative — rather than merely replacing words with other words. You should have a much clearer sense of the ideas or tensions in your literacy narrative now, after having drafted an alphabetic narrative and then a comic narrative, so go back and write it as an essay.


Publish the new version of your literacy narrative as a page on your site. Then publish a reflective post that links to that page and answers the following questions:

  • How has the entire literacy narrative project helped you to meet the Learning Outcomes for this class?
  • How was it to return to the alphabetic literacy narrative after having created your comic? How did you think differently after having worked in the visual medium and now returning to a text narrative?
  • How do you see the story you are trying to tell in different terms now? Was your analytical thinking process any different?

Parts 1 & 2

Literacy Narrative, Part 1

Literacy Narrative, Part 2

Literacy Narrative, Part 2

Parts 1 & 3

Literacy Narrative, Part 1

Literacy Narrative, Part 3

Now that you’ve completed a draft of your alphabetic literacy narrative, gotten feedback from me, and perhaps read some of your peers’ narratives, it’s time for you to make your own comic narrative about your literacy. For your narrative to be a comic, it must include some words and some images. You are free to veer away from your alphabetic narrative in whatever ways you’d like (you are not bound by the draft you already published to your site), and in fact you will need to fundamentally rethink your narrative in at least some ways in order to make it work as a comic instead of just an alphabetic text. Ultimately, your goal is to both tell a nonfiction, autobiographical story about yourself as a writer/reader and to connect your own personal narrative to the experiences of other people as well — to convey what’s at stake in your narrative.

As you develop your comic, you should refer back to Scott McCloud’s Making Comics, which we read earlier in the semester, and especially the “Clarity” diagram. You will need to make choices about moment, frame, image, word, and flow as you draw your comics. You can experiment in order to develop the style that seems appropriate to the story and ideas that you are presenting — your goal is to create a clear narrative that makes your argument in a way that your readers can grasp, and that might entail playing with techniques that are new to you.

You can make your comics by hand or you can use digital methods.

You can incorporate photographs or other media if you’d like.

Turning your alphabetic literacy narrative into a comics comes in two steps:


Due: 10/31 (in class)

Length: 3-4 pages (ballpark)

In class on 10/31 we will workshop the drafts of your narratives, so come to class with a rough sketch of the complete story you are telling. It should actually be rough — stick figures are fine, as are notations that explain what you are aiming for if it doesn’t come through in the rough sketch. You need the storyboard to be just detailed enough that your peers can read it and understand the 5 choices you are making and see what you are doing in the story, so that they can give you productive feedback, but not so detailed that you will feel invested in the storyboard as if it is a final product and won’t make revisions based on that feedback.

You can bring in a hard copy of your storyboard or you can scan it and publish it to your site. (I will eventually ask you to publish the storyboard before you complete the final draft, so if you can go ahead and do that before class on 10/31, but it’s fine for that class if you bring a hard copy.)

Final Comic

Due: 11/12

Length: 3-4 pages (ballpark)

After you’ve gotten feedback on your storyboard, make a final version of your comic. If you have drawn it in an analog space, get a really nice scan of it (don’t just snap a picture with your cell phone) and upload that to your site. It can be published to a single page or across a few separate pages.

Once you have published the page, write and publish a reflection post that links to your comics page. (Reflection prompt to follow.)

Literacy Narrative, Part 1

Due: 9/12

Length: 500-750 words


We will complete a freewriting exercise in class on 9/3. Following up on that exercise, do some more freewriting in response to the following questions. Don’t worry too much about how the pieces will fit together or what it will all look like in a final essay. Just let your mind go to wherever it goes as you think about the questions. You should try to write for at least five minutes in response to each question. Use as much detail as you can — try to imagine as clearly as you can but don’t worry about spelling, grammar, or structure yet.

  • Please write about the key moment when, where, and how you first learned to read. What was learning to read like for you? What sorts of books did you read?
  • How did you feel about reading and writing as an adolescent — say, during middle and high school? What sorts of experiences did you have as a reader and writing in school?
  • What are your experiences with social networking sites like MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, or others? What do you remember about your first experiences with such sites? Do you text on a smartphone? What sorts of experiences have you had writing to/for people with those sorts of technologies?
  • What are some of the biggest struggles you have had as a reader and/or writer? What are some of your best moments as a writer?


Now that you’ve done some brainstorming, write an essay in which you analyze the key experiences that shaped the way you read and write.

Take a step back and reread the freewriting you did, looking for any interesting patterns that you surfaced about your history with reading and writing. You do not need to directly address the questions above or include points from the brainstorming you’ve done, but hopefully in the process of freewriting and thinking about those questions, you’ve recognized some issues or patterns that are interesting enough for you to analyze more carefully.

You’ll have opportunities for revision and later in the term I will ask you to remix the writing you’re doing here into a graphic narrative but for now just focus on drafting this essay.

Nuts and Bolts

Publish your narrative as a page (not a post) on your class website (make certain to add it to the menu, so we can all find it).

As with everything you publish for me this semester, you need more than just words for your narrative — you must have at least one image, video, or audio file with your narrative. You’ll need to provide a caption and give credit to the creator of the image (even if it’s your own). We’ll talk briefly in class on Thursday about Creative Commons and finding CC-licensed images with Flickr.

Reflection Post

Once you have published the page, you need to also write a separate blog post. That post should link to the page you have published and reflect on the process of writing it.

Further instructions for the reflection post here.

Parts 2 & 3

Literacy Narrative, Part 2

Literacy Narrative, Part 3

Final Portfolio and Reflection Letter

Length: 1000 – 1250 words (4-5 pages)

Due date: 12/17

Look back over the writing you’ve encountered and produced this semester, and then draft a cover letter for your portfolio that explains how you have met the learning outcomes for this course. This letter is an opportunity to think about your writing and clarify — for yourself and portfolio readers — how your skills and awareness of your writing processes have grown this semester. Think of each piece of writing included in your portfolio as an “exhibit” that you are analyzing and reflecting on in this letter.

What should your letter do?

  • Explicitly address the course outcomes and how you encountered them throughout the reading and writing for the course.
  • Guide your readers through the exhibits, discussing your writing while looking for larger patterns. What do you see about yourself as a writer when you step back and look at the work you’ve produced this semester?
  • Discuss at least one piece of writing in depth, considering the stages of the writing process as it developed. How did you think about audience, purpose, or genre while you wrote this piece?
  • Explain how you have applied (or will apply in the future) insights from this course in your other classes or other rhetorical situations. Use specific examples, if possible.
  • Employ evidence to support your claims. Just like in the other writing assignments you’ve completed this semester, you will need evidence to support of your argument; however, in this case, the evidence you will use is your own writing.
    • Remember that you need to incorporate quotes into your own writing with clear framing language.
    • Also remember that you always need your own interpretation and analysis of any quote you use in order for it work as evidence.
    • Forms of evidence from your writing exhibits could include, but are not limited to: quotes from your own finished writing (embedded in sentences or longer quotes in blocks); quotes from early drafts of your writing or notes; reported or quoted feedback from others; illustrations or quotations that show how a particular exhibit evolved; or screenshots or images from your work.

Publishing your cover letter

The reflection essay should become the new home (or index) page for your course site and should begin with a note indicating that the site is an archive of the work that you completed as part of ENG101 at Emory University during spring semester 2018. You should link to the course site, so that a reader who is going through your work can easily find out more information about the course you were in.

You should organize the work on your course site into a finished portfolio showing all the work you have done this semester. Make certain that your entire course subdomain looks complete, coherent, and like you’ve given some thought to its overall design and aesthetics.

Just like with any assignment you’ve completed this semester, your reflection letter should include at least one image (though you can certainly include more than one. You might consider using your Assemblies image as the primary or feature image for your letter — hopefully constructing that chart will help you to think about how the work you have completed this semester fits together, and hopefully it will help to communicate that understanding to your readers.

Halfa Kucha

Pecha Kucha Background

pecha kucha is a particular style of oral and visual presentation where speakers present while showing 20 slides, each one timed to display for exactly 20 seconds. Hence, every pecha kucha presentation lasts for 6 minutes, 40 seconds. 

Here’s a sample pecha kucha, which I chose almost at random from the pecha kucha site, called “Drawing to Document,” by Charis Loke:

For your third major project this semester, you’ll perform something akin to a pecha kucha, but in order to keep the scope of the assignment manageable and to have enough time for you to give your presentations to the class, we’re cutting the number of slides you’ll have in half — so you’ll have exactly 200 seconds, with 10 accompanying images, to present your argument.

Trauma and Recovery

In Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence — From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror Judith Lewis Herman observes:

The ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness. Certain violations of the social compact are too terrible to utter aloud: this is the meaning of the word unspeakable.

Atrocities, however, refuse to be buried. Equally as powerful as the desire to deny atrocities is the conviction that denial does not work. Folk wisdom is filled with ghosts who refuse to rest in their graves until their stories are told. Murder will out. Remembering and telling the truth about terrible events are prerequisites both for the restoration of the social order and for the healing of individual victims.

The conflict between the will to deny horrible events and the will to proclaim them aloud is the central dialectic of psychological trauma. People who have survived atrocities often tell their stories in a highly emotional, contradictory, and fragmented manner that undermines their credibility and thereby serves the twin imperatives of truth-telling and secrecy. When the truth is finally recognized, survivors can begin their recovery. But far too often secrecy prevails, and the story of the traumatic event surfaces not as a verbal narrative but as a symptom.

The psychological distress symptoms of traumatized people simultaneously call attention to the existence of an unspeakable secret and deflect attention from it. This is most apparent in the way traumatized people alternate between feeling numb and reliving the event. The dialectic of trauma gives rise to complicated, sometimes uncanny alterations of consciousness, which George Orwell, one of the committed truth-tellers of our century, called “doublethink,” and which mental health professionals, searching for calm, precise language, call “dissociation.” It results in protean, dramatic, and often bizarre symptoms

And here’s another quote from the same book:

Recovery unfolds in three stages. The central task of the first stage is the establishment of safety. The central task of the second stage is remembrance and mourning. The central focus of the third stage is reconnection with ordinary life.

Assignment Fundamentals

Due: In class presentations on 11/19 and 11/21. (We’ll spend the first 45 minutes of each class on presentations. Please be sure to attend class on these days and be a good, attentive, respectful audience for your peers.)

Medium: This presentation will take the form of a “halfa kucha,” which means that you will create ten slides that will each stay on the screen for 20 seconds before automatically progressing to the next slide. Each slide should have a compelling visual image on it with no or very minimal text. Over the three minutes and twenty seconds of the slideshow you will explain your argument orally to the class. I will ask you afterwards to export the slideshow as a video or PDF to publish to your site along with a description of your argument.

Audience: The audience is your classmates, so they have read and thought about and discussed the books. But just like with other assignments this semester, assume that you are the smartest, most perceptive reader in the class and you have noticed things the rest of the class has not.

Tone: You can choose a tone ranging from casual to “academic casual” to very formal. Whatever fits your argument, personality, and presentation style the best. Remember, though, that you’re talking about trauma — so if you decide to be casual, still be respectful to the subject and to the sensibilities of your audience.

Title: You are required to have an interesting title for your presentation.


Thinking about the two quotes from Herman above and Hillary Chute’s “Introduction: Women, Comics, and the Risk of Representation” that we read earlier this semester, present to the class an argument about how two or three of the books we have read this semester investigate and represent trauma and healing.