The graphic novel is an artistic genre for our time which grabs the attention of readers of all ages and in all countries and one of its greatest riches is that it appeals to the contemporary reader who is used to a hybrid reading involving images and words in a special interrelationship that demands an active and creative de-codification. The contents of contemporary graphic novels respond to the social, political and artistic conditions of our world today, they speak of our problems and desires. They have left the simple and easy formats to one side and are now characterized by the complexity of their aesthetic construction. The reader must be disposed to approaching them in a playful, subversive and irreverent manner.
Certainly, every reader has particular competencies that will depend in great measure on their repertoire of previous reading and their cultural and life experiences, which is why these will be different for each individual. In general, the adolescent participants had read comics and “photo-novels”, popular forms of graphic narrative that favoured their understanding of Haghenbeck’s Justicia divina (see a summary of this book in a previous blog entry). Their cultural experiences also helped them make sense of the allusions to some of the legends and historical characters that appear in the text. The immediacy of the strong and enigmatic images created a first impression that was favourable and enthusiastic and which culminated in a fluid and pleasurable reading despite the complexity of format and the ironic, sometimes sarcastic, character of the graphic novel.
The aesthetic and discursive refinement of the graphic novel, as exemplified by Justicia divina, allows the reader to interact with both visual and written codes at the same time. This process implies interpreting and comprehending the interaction between them and, even if one is not an expert and is not completely conscious of it, it is possible to appreciate the aesthetic effects of this relationship and to enter into the dynamic it requires.
Starting from the notion that in the literary exercise there is an interaction between the reader and the text, in this instance we were particularly interested in exploring the way in which the readers slide from the verbal to the visual. In Justicia divina, the action has several temporal jumps and changes of characters, which is why we wanted to see how traditional forms of reading were subverted. We also asked ourselves about the way in which the presence of an intradiegetic narrator protagonist that introduces their thoughts throughout the narrative could favour the reader’s complicity. Taking this into account and in order to go further than oral responses, we wanted to create an activity that could help understand the forms in which a hybrid text like Justicia divina is apprehended by the young people. However, we found ourselves having to consider some important aspects: on one hand, an activity that only included text would be insufficient as it would leave aside the fundamental value of the image; on the other hand, a task dedicated to the visual responses could confront readers with the difficulties of drawing and therefore limit their expressive capacity. Therefore, we decided to create a task where both word and image would be tools for expression.
We based it on the three characters who had greatly interested the readers and made them laugh: the three legendary ghosts El Coco (the Bogeyman), La Llorona (the Crying Woman) and El Monje Loco (the Mad Monk). At the end of one of the sections of the graphic novel, the history of these characters is left open, something which permits the readers to speculate on their destiny and even imagine a narrative which is independent of this book. Therefore, we created an imaginary scenario where the action would take place: a kiosk (similar to the one that actually exists in the communities of both schools). The drawing, printed in A3 size paper, allowed the workshop participants to place a picture of the characters (also previously drawn and printed) in this space. The young people were then encouraged to write dialogues and put together the scene.
This activity offered them the opportunity to interact in a creative manner with the visual and written codes and, above all, develop alternative texts through their imagination using language for play and humour. The majority of the participants even added “rude” words, enjoying the opportunity that the workshop and the reading afforded them to subvert the formal language of the texts required by school.
An example of this activity is the scene created by one of the girls where Victor (the protagonist, drawn and added by her own initiative) meets the three spectres. The dialogue refers to the enjoyment these ghosts derive from reading fashion magazines but also to the theme of fear. It is interesting to note that the directionality of reading proposed by this girl is not the usual from left to right, rather, it begins with Victor’s words on the far right and seems to flow to the left, ending with the enthusiastic exclamation of the Mad Monk:
Victor: So, are we going to see each other here every month? You bring your magazines and I'll bring mine, ok?
Coco: You can give us advice on how to be better at frightening.
Llorona: Yes, and that way we can win over all the other fears in this country.
Mad Monk: Great! That's what we'll do.
The three spectres are grouped close to one another and Victor is approaching them. The brief dialogue between the characters is presented as a chat between a group of friends that support each other, giving the narrative an affable and fraternal character.
Through this activity, the readers reconstructed the mood of the text and created their own scene using the same iconotextual language of the text. In this way, the creative experience was transformed into a way of knowing. The task allowed us to observe how the readers activate their multimodal competence, that is, the capacity to select, activate, connect and interlink abilities and knowledge necessary for the reception of a text constructed with different codes and media and therefore, to elaborate meanings from an integrative perspective in order to carry out a reading that is both deeper and richer.