graphic novels

Semiotic/Comic Analysis of Coraline


Coraline: The Graphic Novel (Source:

Coraline: The Graphic Novel (Source:

I recently spent time reading and analyzing the graphic novel of Coraline, written by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by P. Craig Russell through the understanding of both semiotics and comic theory. The graphic novel is an adaption of Gaiman’s national bestseller that introduces us to a curious young girl named Coraline who discovers a secret, hidden door that takes her into an alternate world that is unlike anything she has ever experienced. In this world, she has a mother and father who are eager to spend time with her (unlike her distracted, “real world” parents), but with considerable strings attached. While I enjoyed the story, I was interested in how I was going to understand this graphic novel, which I will admit is a genre I do not usually read.

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Playing in the Gutter With Nylon Road

Nylon Road was much different than I thought it was going to be. There was a clear narrative, but not a linear one. The story was driven by Parsua Bashi’s reflections about her political, societal, and life values as they all came back to haunt her as she tries to balance her past life in Iran and her new life in Germany. But as I read the book, I was looked a little deeper than just the surface narrative and into the subtle semiotic devices used by Bashi.

I was interested in the play Bashi did with the space between the boxed images—the space that McCloud, in Understanding Comics, calls the gutter. This space, as McCloud explains, is where “human imagination takes two separate images and transforms them into a single idea.” Understanding this makes parts of Nylon Road all the more interesting—particular parts like these two images of Bashi reading a book (picture 1).

Picture 1

Courtesy of St. Martin’s Griffin

Bashi’s arm reaching between the gutter has more than one effect. First, her arm sticking out between the images acts as a play on the domain of the gutter. This play across images is a demonstration showing that the gutter just as a much is a psychological space as it is a pause a physical location on the page. Though the conventional spaces between pictures act as a cue to the reader to prepare them for the next images and/or text, those spaces are not the solely gutter itself.

Her hand reaching between the two pictures is also a play that grays the lines between what constitutes a single picture. Does her arm unite the pictures into one? Or is the picture from the right trespassing into the one on the left? You could even argue whether or not the gutter is even there (take another look at the picture. The walls line up in the correct position between the two of them, almost making it look like the gutter was just a part of the picture).

Bashi also thinks like a comic maker—utilizing the benefits of comics that don’t commonly exist in other art forms like photography. For instance, many of Bashi’s images represent something more than single moments. Take this next scene from Bashi’s private art display (picture 2).

Picture 2

Courtesy of St. Martin’s Griffin

Unless everybody in Bashi’s universe has the ability to respond to others before they know what they said, we have to assume that there are conversations going on in this picture that presumably exceed five, six, maybe ten seconds. As McCloud states, “Perhaps we’ve been too conditioned by photography to perceive single images as single moments. After all, it does take an eye time to move across scenes in real life.” So, maybe picture 2 is only as confusing as it is accurate. The people are sharing conversations at different locations in the room–not particularly in any synchronous order orchestrated by Bashi. Because of this, the reader must use McCloud’s “rope,” to make a winding path throughout the picture and determine the order of events.

Though McCloud doesn’t note it in the section of his book containing the aforementioned statement, maybe the gutter also applies to this image as well. After all, don’t we find ourselves separating the meanings of each of these conversations and then applying them to the others, despite the fact that they all take place in the same pictorial borders? Between every one of these dialogue bubbles–and even every face, piece of furniture and corner of the house–there are fuzzy, gray gutters that make all of these elements simultaneously autonomous and collectively contributory to the larger meaning of the scene.

After such an analysis of Bashi’s book, one can gain a better understanding about how illusive–and perhaps even omnipresent–gutters can be when reading such material is this. And I don’t doubt that Bashi knows she is toying with both the reader and the comic genre itself. Note even the single leg and corner of the coffee table protruding out of picture two; it’s just enough to let us know that Bashi is working within the generic framework of comics, but is in no way bound to it.