The relationship between text and illustration in Sherman Alexie’s novel "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian"

Term Paper, 2014
17 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Illustrations
2.1. The Perception of Illustrations

3. Sherman Alexie’s Illustrations
3.1. Representation of Junior
3.2. Reprensentation of Eugene

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

Primary Sources

Secondary Sources

1. Introduction

Comics have been out there for several decades, but they have not always enjoyed a broad audience. The genre of comics is often readily dismissed as being for children, young male adolescents and even for sub-literates. This marginalized genre is more than that; it offers topics and themes for everyone, varying from fiction to politics, fantasy, erotica, essays, autobiography and many more. As Wolk puts it: “comics have grown up“ (3). As comics went through a long development of experiencing setbacks and success at the same time, today we have shops exlusively for cartoons, comics or illustrations.

As modern literature and culture changed into being more visual and less written the genre of comics and illustrations has become more attractive and popular. Moreover since the Marvel and DC comics and espescially their remakes as movies such as Spiderman, Thor, Ironman, Captain America, Evengers, Watchmen, Sincity and many more the genre became more accessible for people who have not had a huge interest in comics beforehand. Although comics are drawn and represent a picture “we read comics. […] holding them in our hands, turning their pages“ (Wolk 25). When in the 1970s the main topics were “simplistic superhero fantasies or violence“ (Bongco 8) the genre today is also dealing with serious topics.

Sherman Alexie is a native American, which he prefers to call Indians, and grew up on the Spokane Reservation, which is also the setting in the novel. His novel partially tells his own story which means it is semi-autobiographical (cf Bongco 263). One of the main topics of his novels, and also very present in this novel, is alcoholism, probably because his father had an alcohol problem as well. It is important to mention that Alexie’s novel is not a comic in the first place, because it mainly shows single illustrations which contribute to the text’s meaning. It is therefore a graphic novel meaning that it is a narrative with occasional pictures with a dominance of verbal elements (cf Albers 28). However, there are still five actual comics in the book. Not only writing novels but also poems and short stories his novels present the “nobly suffering Inidan“ (Campbell) but also the “hard reality of urban life“ (Campbell) by also telling the hard naked truth about being Indian (cf Campbell).

The following paper will deal with the relationship between text and illustrations in Alexie’s novel The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian. In the first chapter it is dealt with illustrations in general, what they are, what they are not, how they work and how the reader perceives illustrations. This being the theoretical basis of the paper, in chapter three an analysis of two illustrations of Alexie’s novel will be given focusing on the connection between picture and text, the relationship between text and picture within the picture and looking at which emotions are expressed. In addition the paper will also analyze the drawing style which was an important means in terms of choosing the two illustrations. Chapter four will conclude all the thoughts and ideas mentioned in the previous chapters and will focus on the question how had the reader perceived Alexie’s novel, if there had not been any illustrations.

2. Illustrations

Illustrations, comics, cartoons, comic strips, graphic novels/narratives or even sequential art - whatever people prefer to say, for the most part they mean the same thing: pictures being blended with words. But how, if they are all the same thing, are they defined? Many critics and researchers have tried to come up with a definition or with conditions how comics must look like that they can be named comics. Here are three definitions from three different critics which will show why a definition is hard to create:

1) A serially published, episodic, open-ended dramatic narrative or series of linked anecdotes about recurrent identified characters, told in successive drawings regularly enclosing ballooned dialogue or its equivalent and generally minimal narrative text (Blackbeard 41).

2) I would propose a definition in which a “comic strip“ of any period, in any country, fulfills the following conditions: 1) There must be a sequence of separate images; 2) There must be a preponderance of image over text; 3) The medium in which the strip appears and for which it was originally intended must be reproductive, that is, in printed form, a mass medium; 4) The sequence must tell a story which is both moral and topical (Kunzle 2).

3) Eisner describes comics as a “literary form“ (qtd. in Wolk 14).

It is obvious that these critics have very different ideas about comics and it is clear that anyone who was at some point engaged in comics will see that these are insufficient. There does not always have to be a “balloon“ or text within the pictures as Blackbeard claims. Alexie’s novel is a good counter-argument for that. Also it does not always have

to be episodical or serial. And bearing Eisner’s idea in mind the essence is: “it is improbable that unanimity will be reached on any of these conditions“ (Groensteen 129). However, all will agree that one condition must be fulfilled: they are all drawn.

Nevertheless Groensteen gives a very simple definition of comics saying “the necessary, if not sufficient, condition required to speak of comics is that the images will be multiple and correlated in some fashion“ (130). This is of course a broad definition, but because comics are variable and different in terms of style, language and meaning, it includes all comics. It is the definition which is sufficient for this paper and which also somehow includes Alexie’s novel with the pictures.

Another critical approach is the evaluation of comic books as they are most often referred to as popular culture. Bongco claims this is so, because it is different from other forms of culture which are “dominant or official“ (22), i.e. mass-culture. As they are in between pictures and text they are often in comparison to these forms such as cinema or novels (cf Wolk 12ff) and do not stand alone as a genre. Many critics especially drive at the comparison to literature in terms of “reading literature“ and “reading comics“, saying that texts offer “free play to imagination, while comicbooks […] produce passivity“ (Bongco 22f). This is a reason why comic studies have so often been neglected in the past years. Wolk emphasizes that the genre of comics needs to be acknowledged first before it can be read attentively, because “they are their own thing: a medium with its own devices, its own innovators, its own clichés, its own genres and traps and liberties“ (Wolk 14).

Furthermore Groensteen explains that they are not “based on a particular usage of a language, there is no place to define them in terms of diction“ (129). The emergence of autobiographical comics emphasize the malleability of the genre and also stresses the fact that comic is not merely art but also “truly a language“ (Groensteen 129). As it is nowadays readily accepted as a narrative form, Wolk criticizes the attitude of “if-it’s-deep-it’s-not-really-comics“, which is in fact nowadays absolutely outdated (12).

However, as already mentioned in the introduction, Alexie’s novel is not an actual comic, but is a mixture of text and image, i.e. a graphic novel. The combination and interplay of word and image here is “the vital criterion“ (Albers 28) and emphasizes the necessity of both in terms of conveying the full narrative meaning (Mahne 44). The fact that the reader can read a text and can then see a picture complimenting the text leads to individual perceptions and interpretations.

Comics were once meant to be read by children, but made its way towards a larger audience including all kinds of topics ranging from funny and satirical topics to more serious themes. As with novels or other literary forms there are no rules how a comic should be or should not be, what count are that ideas and thoughts can be expressed and conveyed to the reader with no limits set.

2.1. The Perception of Illustrations

The perception of illustrations is different from the perception of texts and even from film and photographies. Wolk describes this accurately by saying when you look at film or photography allgedly they are showing the reader something they would have seen if they had been there (118). This is very different from comics: when you see for example a person, as so many times in Alexie’s novel, the reader knows that the person which is drawn probably looks different from the drawing, but the reader also believes in the depiction. But what the reader actually looks at is a personal interpretation of that person that has been drawn (cf Wolk 118). It is how the author wants us to see this person, or this building, or anything. This is why it is rather called “cartooning“ (Wolk 119) than drawing.

Wertham and Schnackertz are critical of putting image and texts together and say that both media hinder each other to be fully perceived. While Wertham mistrust the series of pictures, Schnackerts mistrusts the language in the combination of both (Schüwer 317f). They both come to an agreement that language and image cannot be brought together, and that they rather disturb each other. Schmitt agrees with them and says “[…] word text and pictorial text are […] destructing each other“ (159).

On the other hand Albers draws on the importance how “visual arts in narrative fiction“ are presented (cf Albers 26). “The mode of presentation will determine the way the subject matter of a text is going to be dealt with by the reader“ (Albers 26). When texts and pictures are juxtaposed it is also important to look at how the text previously or after presents the picture co-existing with it. Quite often the reader gets an impression of the picture which the text describes previously and then the actual picture is presented right after that description. Wagner calls these kinds of text “iconotexts“ (Wagner 16) meaning “an artifact in which the verbal and visual signs mingle to produce rhetoric that depends on the co-presense of words and images“ (ibid.). Albers calls these texts “hybrid texts“ (Albers 27) meaning the same thing. Compared to the graphic novel iconotexts prefer a predominance of text wheras the former contains an eqal status of image and text (Albers 28).

Nevertheless, there are still heated debates about what is more important when it comes to meaning: image or text? Which has more meaning? Two notions need to be distinguished here: 1) total intermediality and 2) partial intermediality (Wolf 38). Both include text and images, but total intermediality means that there is no dominance of one of the systems and partial intermediality means that one of the systems has an upper hand (ibid.). Albers stresses a very interesting point here: “Why make use of both genres simultaneously while […] one […] will be seen as only supplemental?“ (29). The point is, as she quotes Umberto Eco that an image cannot communicate by itself if it is true or false, this is a priviledge only words have. If there is no text the mere image is open to any interpretation. A text serves as a guide to understanding or saying it differently “rein[s] in an affluence of interpretations (Albers 30).

Mitchell depicts a similar opinion:

The real question to ask when confronted with these kinds of image-text relations is not ‚what is the difference (or similarity) between words and images?‘ but ‚what difference do the differences (and similarities) make?‘ That is, why does it matter how words and images are juxtaposed, blended, or separated?“ (91)

Both influence each other, and by this influence it creates new “possibilities for creating meaning“ (Albers 30) especially when thinking about: What if the image/text had not been there? How would it have been perceived?

What if we withdraw the langauge from a picture? Schüwer argues if that is the case, just plainly looking at a illustration when there was text before as well, the reader is forced to look at it like a documentary: a foreign life, like a documentary about animals (320). The audience is forced to come up with an own story and to explore this foreign often surreal world creatively. This demands a higher performance of combination and deduction of the reader. The reader becomes a detective, interactive and emphasizes the identification between reader and the protagonist (322).


Excerpt out of 17 pages


The relationship between text and illustration in Sherman Alexie’s novel "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian"
University of Bonn  (Anglistik)
Native American/First Nations Literature and Culture
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
1029 KB
sherman, alexie’s, absolutely, true, diary, part-time, indian
Quote paper
Katja Grasberger (Author), 2014, The relationship between text and illustration in Sherman Alexie’s novel "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: The relationship between text and illustration in Sherman Alexie’s novel "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian"

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free