Franz Wickhoff’s methods of narration – in comics?

Franz Wickhoff’s 1895 text Die Wiener Genesis (also known as Römische Kunst, available in English at is best remembered for two things: on the one hand, Wickhoff recognised the value of ancient Roman art at a time when it was still regarded as a poor man’s Greek art. On the other hand, he proposed a theory of three methods of pictorial narration:

  • the isolating method: each scene of a story is depicted in its own image, clearly separated from the others.
  • the continuous method: different scenes of a story share the same background, so that the image of one scene continues into the next one.
  • the complementary method: all scenes of a story are depicted in one single image.

Obviously, comics with their panel borders usually use the isolating method to tell their stories. There have been attempts by comic scholars to use all three of Wickhoff’s narrative methods in definitions and classifications of comics, e.g. by Eckart Sackmann in 2006 (in German). What I’m more interested in, though, is if we can find examples of continuous and/or complementary narration in comics that predominantly use isolating narration.

J. P. Nishi: À Nous Deux, Paris, p. 5To test this, I picked up a comic that I happened to be reading (not a scholarly sampling method, mind you), the French edition of J. P. Nishi’s  パリ 愛してるぜ~ Paris aishiteruze (À Nous Deux, Paris! in French). And sure enough, there are plenty of examples of continuous narration on the first couple of pages already. Consider, for instance, an image on the third page (p. 5 in the Philippe Picquier edition): the same figure is depicted twice in a telephone booth, standing up and kneeling. The effect of this use of continuous narration is to emphasise the suddenness of the young man’s diarrhea attack – in one moment he’s still able to stand, in the next moment he isn’t anymore, but the time between these two moments is too short even for a panel transition.

This kind of continuous narration is fairly common in humorous comics, but I have yet to find an example of the complementary method in comics. I can imagine that certain kinds of short episodes within a story, such as dreams, or events narrated by a character, lend themselves to the complementary method.

10 Comments on “Franz Wickhoff’s methods of narration – in comics?”

  1. Interesting post!

    Though I’m not sure I would classify the depicted image as continuous in this sense; I would expect a continuous arrangement in comics to still have some inkling of panels in sequence, just with the action drawn out through them in continuation. In other words, I would expect the continued action not only to include more than one pase per image, but also to bind together more than one image.

    As for the complementary method, would it suffice to have a continuous background, as in most “Men in Hats” wpisodes, for instance?

    …or is the presence of any kind of sequence a dealbreaker here?

    • Martin de la Iglesia says:

      Thank you for your comment!

      I should have added that in “À Nous Deux, Paris” the reading order is from left to right, unlike in most other manga. With this in mind, I do see a sequence of two distinct scenes in that panel, albeit very short/similar ones. Maybe the last panel of the previous page (×345/0/48/00/01/bd4/A-nous-deux-Paris—Extrait-0.jpg) would have been a better example.

      As for “Men in Hats”, I think the dealbreaker there is not so much the sequentiality but rather the panel borders, which make it hard to see the comic strip as a one single image.

  2. Ruth says:

    I enjoyed reading your blog post using Wickhoff’s terminology for comic studies. I think the three categories “isolated”, “continuous” and “complemantary” are not well-defined enough to understand the difference between them. In the “continuous” method there are different scenes of a story that share the same background, in the “complementary” method all scenes of a story are depicted in one single image. So it seems as if the quantity of merged scenes is the criterium of differentiation but I think this is not the point. But what exactly is the point?

    • Martin de la Iglesia says:

      Thanks, Ruth. I think the difference between the continuous and the complementary methods is not the number of connected scenes, but how they are connected: in the continuous method, each scene (or most scenes) is connected with its previous and/or its following scene, while in the complementary method, all scenes are connected with each other because they share the same background (e.g. the first scene is connected with the third scene, which would not be the case in the continuos narration). I wish I had an example at hand to illustrate my interpretation of Wickhoff’s model. I’ll keep my eyes open for that.

  3. […] Franz Wickhoff’s methods of narration – in comics? → […]

  4. […] ex-girlfriends kindly gave me comics as presents. I’ve blogged about one of these comics: Paris aishiteruze (À Nous Deux, Paris!) by J. P. […]

  5. Hello, it’s interesting to establish the relationship of these categories here, but the distinctions seem to me not to be correctly captured. It should be: 1. the isolating method, where only one moment of a story is depicted, 2. the continuous method, where the same person appears several times in front of the same background and 3. the complementary method, where different moments of a story are depicted but no person is repeated. This is where your description is a little confusing. One example which makes it clear is where we see a depiction of Odyssey 287-346, Polyphemus eats the companions of Ulysses ; Odyssey 346-370, Ulysses makes him drunk ; Odyssey 375-400, he is blinded. It has nothing to do with the number of elements shown.
    Hardly any picture shows all moments of a story – and Wickhoff doesn’t say they do.

    • Martin de la Iglesia says:

      Thank you for your comment. I think it’s important to keep in mind that Wickhoff is not concerned with ways of composing an image, but with “ways of telling a story” (p. 13 in the Strong translation). Therefore, the isolating method is about depicting several moments of a story “either separately or else side by side, but divided by framework” (ibid.), not about depicting only one moment.

      As for the complementary method, Wickhoff says “it aims at the complete expression of everything that happens before or after the central event, or that concerns the subject matter” (ibid.). I guess it’s a matter of debate which elements of a story have a connection to the chosen central event or subject matter. I can image episodes within a larger story that are quite short and could be told using the complementary mode with just a few scenes. However, within such an episode, all of its moments (or “stages”, p. 14) need to be depicted. But how do you define “moment”?
      In your example, one could argue that the subject matter is “Ulysses and Polyphemus”, and the three depicted moments are the most important ones in that story, and therefore the story is “completely” told in this image.
      Unfortunately, Wickhoff is not very precise in his definition of the complementary method and its associated terminology. Anyway, thanks for raising this important point!

  6. […] Paris aishiteruze by J. P. Nishi: despite the crying protagonist depicted in my blogpost, this manga is rather lighthearted than sad. None of the three themes present. […]

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