On the Dual Roles of Framing in Crime & Mystery Comics

The medium of comics has been commonly viewed through a pop-culture lens, keeping it for the most part considered an illegitimate and “childish” medium of literature that tends to be viewed as a genre, not a form of storytelling. This mistake in reading and in appreciation has been corrected over time, with comics being viewed more and more in the past few decades as a serious literary form for storytelling. What this means is that just like prose or poetry, literary theory can be applied to take the medium apart and to look at the stories that can be told. We can apply “framing” as a way to break down and critically read crime comics to not only look at how the graphic storytelling medium tells effective crime and mystery stories, but it also how framing allows to interweave personal and non-“mystery” stories within the larger narrative, with multiple levels telling multiple stories at the same time to get to multiple conclusions.

Comics has always existed as a literary medium that employs framing, albeit in a literal sense, with panel borders creating both clearly-defined borders for the sequential elements but also lines that help to tell the story through helping the reader establish story beats. They are, literally, guiding lines.

As Christina Meyer states in 2012’s “Teaching Visual Literacy Through 9/11 Graphic Narratives”;

[T]extual framings describe all the framings in a work […] to the overall arrangement of a page and intra- and inter-textual references in a text; that is, cues prompted by the text and actualized in the reading process. Textual framings also point to the structuring guides such as captions and subtitle footnotes, the artist’s signature, and frame-numbers and dates accompanying a graphic narrative. […] The framing activity is a signifying process; in other words, it is the combing of cues given in a text to a meaningful and coherent unit in the reader’s mind. (p. 55)

Meyer wants readers to realize that sequential storytelling works in a unique way, neither superior or inferior to convention prose, but rather alternatively. Comics works in a way that indicates steps in a story, an alternative to the continuous flow of a prose narrative. Meyer is highlighting how, for some narratives, that step model can be more effective.

Meyer’s work focuses on how comics works well to help create narratives about the 2001 September 11th terror attacks in New York City. She dives into how the literal/physical framing done in comics is an ideal way to talk about aftermath of an event like that thanks to how comic panels are similar to TV screens, where the 24-hour cable news cycle worked to created narratives about the event. Ultimately she points to comics’ strength as a literary/visual combo medium to tell stories that are both text- and word-oriented as well as visually-oriented, such as infographic- and video clip-heavy news reporting.

What this says about framing is that in a larger sense, framing is an ideal way to capture moments in a narrative. We can therefore draw a working definition of framing as the literal framing of story elements and narratives as well as the metaphorical application of elements to “frame” a narrative or story elements in a larger work, to provide context and comprehension assistance.

If we hold Meyer’s definition of framing in graphic storytelling as true, then what we can draw from this is that the graphic storytelling medium both intertwines and divides multiple feeds of information (footnotes, text, dialogue, character posture, narration, etc), letting each both stand on its own as well as moving towards a singular unified narrative.

The definition of a narrative, for us, would be a single narration of events and thoughts within a larger fictional word. A single character’s movements and actions within the fictional world of an author’s (or in this case, the cartoonist’s) creation is a narrative. The definition a story, for us then, will be combining elements such as setting and narrative to create a larger cohesive whole. The narratives of several characters within a world intertwining towards an end result is a story.

Meyer herself describes it as working through the combination of cues from a page towards a singular overall story (2012, p. 54), and we can apply to towards the idea of multiple narratives and multiple stories. Comics’ basic defining characteristic of being an easily-framed literary medium (in a literal physical sense) with panel borders and word balloons/panels is is what allows for it to be, arguably, the superior medium for multiple narratives that can help a story rise above the limitations of genre through the narrative elements. Cartoonist Matt Kindt’s graphic novel Red-Handed: The Art of Strange Crimesand “Crime Raiders International Monsters and Executioners,” a story by Jaime Hernandez in the Love and Rocketsindependent comic universe he and his brothers created, are both examples of how this can work, with a seemingly-traditional crime story being told alongside several other narratives. These narratives work alongside the crime narrative but also stand alone, with framing being used to help each narrative stand out but still tie in with the others to overall tell an effective and unique overall story.

Arguably one of the more straightforward forms of storytelling with fairly standardized conclusions are crime stories, mysteries where the protagonist(s) work towards either an answer to a mystery, or towards a goal that is achieved during something illegal (i.e. a “heist”). Traditionally viewed as a genre relegated to “pulp fiction”, crime and mystery as a genre of fiction has nonetheless been making a resurgence in popular awareness, leading to not only a flood of new material, but also of more in-depth material that functions to tell different kinds of crime and mystery stories, ones that can do more than just ape the mannerisms and tropes that were established by now-canonical innovators of the genre such as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Mickey Spillane.

In the graphic novel, Red-Handed, Kindt uses different visuals to separate different narratives in the story. The “strip” format of several of those narratives, styled as clippings from newspaper comic pages, are separate from the panels and action that are representing another storyline in the main pages of the book itself. Within that one “main” storyline, we also have different viewpoints going on, with each chapter being a different viewpoint/point of view and a different crime. Each one of these stories, which either include crime and mystery elements, also contains a secondary narrative or narration interwoven within, sometimes in sync with but alternately, at odds with, the framed action.

From RED-HANDED: THE FINE ART OF STRANGE CRIMES by Matt Kindt, 2013 First Second Books

In the “strip” segments, the literal framing is obvious, with panel borders and the artistic effect Kindt uses to give the illusion of literally having cut the strips out of another work (such as the comics page of his local paper) and pasting the to the page of the book’s main story. Therefore, the strip stories can be separated into their own reading order, as well as their own titles. The strips tell several stories;

  • The background of the character Tess (in the in-book strip “Tess’s True Heart”)
  • The life of Gould’s wife outside of her marriage (in the in-book strip “The Detective’s Wife”)
  • Gould himself, told Dick Tracy-style (in the in-book strip “Detective Gould”)

At the same time, the main story itself, where one would think that they could simply lay out a standard singular story, instead allows itself to not be fully understood until the end. Gould’s transition as a character thanks to the semi-villainous Tess (literally framing is shown to move towards a pivoting moment that is almost entirely expressed through the visuals of the panels, taking advantage of the comics form to express story in sequential art).

Frames are both isolated and isolating, purposely placed within the book (physically) and text (symbolically) to create sets of narratives that only intertwine with the larger one as we get more and more context through the reading and understanding of the various narratives.

On top of all that as well, Kindt creates yet another layer, another narrative intertwined, framed both literally and metaphorically. The newspaper clippings, adding more information to help ultimately fill out the main story as well as tell another narrative through the invented “journalist(s)” who would compose those viewpoints of the crimes being reported on, are yet another narrative “framed” in its own text boxes with their own borders.

On the other hand, when we look at our other sample, we see a limited usage of that literal framing, with the very different sequential storytelling of Jaime Hernandez in “Crime Raiders International Mobsters and Executioners,” a short story in his Love and Rockets universe that appeared in Love and Rockets: New Stories and then later in The Best American Comics 2014.

“Crime Raiders International Monsters and Executioners” by Jaime Hernandez, from LOVE AND ROCKETS: NEW STORIES NO. 5 by Gilbert Hernandez & Jaime Hernandez, 2012 Fantagraphics Books

One of the major draws that Hernandez’s work has had to the reading audience has been his very real and very relatable characters, whose personal dramas and lives play out in the focus of his stories while we can watch the rest of the world go by in the background. Unlike Kindt, Hernandez uses a far more traditional comic layout in his work, a standardized panel border-divided story that works beat-by-beat. Even the thickness of his literal frames is uniform, matching the thickness of the lines that make up the characters and the items within the panels themselves. It creates a sense of normalcy within the panels, helping to reinforce a seemingly normal and uneventful atmosphere of Hernandez’s stories.

Vivian is meant to be the primary focus of “Crime Raiders…”, but she is far from the only focus. There is also Tonta, whose story is both a personal one like Vivian’s but also clearly meant to be a comedic flipped version of Vivian’s.

The character of Mel Spropp is, on the other hand, almost a nonentity. The older man who opens the comic showing off Vivian in a level of obvious objectification (and later on in the comic through Spropp’s wife a low-level racial and socioeconomic prejudice) is a mystery other than being a man who is Vivian and Tonta’s “in” to the exclusive pool club. He exists primarily as a name that people speak of in semi-hushed tones, a trope that is drawn from literary crime fiction of larger-scale underworld figures (an example that comes to mind is the elusive Keyser Sözefrom the 1995 film The Usual Suspects, directed by Bryan Singer and written by Christopher McQuarrie.)

However, what’s key in the panels where the two major elements really overlap within a single set of literal frames on page 21, where Tonta views the attempt on Spropp’s life by one of the gang members who had been talking to Vivian earlier. A connection about maintaining a standard behavioral pattern (the girl waiting by the phone as a sign of obedience) is now made abundantly clear; it’s important that “Viv” not break the cycle so that they can keep Spropp thinking nothing is out of the ordinary and assassinate him (2012).

Here we finally see the literal visualization of the overlap of the two storylines, Vivian and Tonta’s adventures at the club, and the true nature of a figure like Spropp shown through the actions of Vivian and Tonta’s “friends” in trying to shoot Spropp with the gun left at Vivian’s earlier in the story.

As the main focus here is on the application of a combination of literary prose technique and sequential visual storytelling technique, ultimately what is being done is fairly new territory. As all new territory does, this brings with it questions and concerns about the process and the overall effectiveness, in this case just how valid and helpful as an overall reading and literary reading technique this kind of dual usage of framing can be.

One criticism that comes to mind is one of the most obvious ones, which is that too much is being read (literally and figuratively!) into art. Sequential art in comics is primarily there to assist in the written storytelling, adding a secondary element to help push the narrative forward. Another key point that could be brought forth as a criticism of this kind of dual-framing is the very subjective nature of art, and how various artistic styles applied sequentially reflect the personal style and tastes of the artist in his visualization of story elements. Artistic style and sequential style, in varying from cartoonist to cartoonist, could not be possibly consistent enough across the board to have a singular set of standards as we’ve discussed.

Regardless, this type of criticism relies on the assumption that sequential storytelling is simply a combination of two forms of storytelling, prose with art. It discounts the possibility of a third form, one where the two work in synch to support each other to tell the story. There are absolutes of the form that work in an arguably-objective way as prose works for storytelling.

However, what does all this mean for the consumption and critical reading of material like this? While the arguments around the inclusion of comics into a literary and academic canon go on even into the 21st century (not “the” canon as the state of literary/academic canon is arguably a fluid non-centralized collection with no set authority), it can be difficult to view the above examples as anything less that examples of not just contemporary crime fiction, but also examples of sequential storytelling and examples of literary framing being applied in multiple ways.

What all of this shows us in the end is that comics are not only an obviously-legitimate literary medium, but that we can and should take advantage of their fluidity and format to tell multi-narrative stories in a unique and highly-effective manner. Even though so many comics exist in multiple styles art-wise, the medium itself is wide-open for usage. Crime stories are especially ripe for the telling, because they are allowing these kinds of multiple-narrative stories, Deeply-subjective personal journeys and thoughts can play out in both almost complete isolation from and in perfect tandem with a fairly-standardized cliché story about a crime, a mystery, or characters involved in such. The framing of comics simply makes that framing far more obvious and, if anything, could be argued to enhance the writing through the visualization of the technique in application. Crime comics like Matt Kindt’s Red-Handedand Jaime Hernandez’s story “Crime Raiders International Mobsters And Executioners” are excellent examples of this, with framing not only building unique graphic storytelling forms but also intertwining personal and human stories alongside what are arguably classic crime stories and tropes.


Referenced Works

Hernandez, J. (2012). Crime raiders international mobsters and executioners. In S. McCloud & B. Kartatopoulos (Eds.) The best american comics 2014(2-26). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Kindt, M. (2013). Red handed: The fine art of strange crimes. New York: First Second.
Meyer, C. (2012) Teaching visual literacy through 9/11 graphic narratives. In L. Dong (Ed.), Essays on theory, strategy, and practice; Teaching comics (53-65). Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc.

3 thoughts on “On the Dual Roles of Framing in Crime & Mystery Comics

  1. I really enjoyed this post! The idea that comics can be more than words and pictures —a synthesis of both -is valuable. I think of Art Spiegelman’s “miniature” masterpiece, “Ace Hole, Midget Detective” as a perfect example of entirely different “channels” in one story making a whole in a way that prose alone could never do. Thanks for pointing to Matt Kindt. I was completely unaware of his work. After doing a fairly conventional comic book this year. I’m trying to raise the bar, reading Hillary Chute and looking closely at the “Best American Comics” series. There’s so much to learn. Scott H Spencer, asteroidstu@gmail.com

    1. Thanks so much for reading! There was a little Spiegelman tied into the theory behind this piece but I’m not super-familiar with his work, so I might have to go back and find that one. Yeah, I love Kindt’s cartooning work, it’s a unique and great look and voice.

      1. I don’t remember where I first found “Ace Hole,” but the copy I have now is collected in The New Comics Anthology, ed. by Bob Callahan (Collier, 1991). It probably goes back to the 70’s. There’s a copy of “Red-Handed” at my local library that I’ve got on request. Thanks again.

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