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Author: David J. Staley
Title: Sequential Art and Historical Narrative: A Visual History of Germany
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
September 2002

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Source: Sequential Art and Historical Narrative: A Visual History of Germany
David J. Staley

vol. 5, no. 2, September 2002
Article Type: Article

Sequential Art and Historical Narrative: A Visual History of Germany

David J. Staley

Heidelberg College

Technical Assistant: Daniel Hiler


Designer's Statement

This graphical article explores the meaningful juxtaposition of visual primary sources as a serious form of historical narrative. My goal is to elevate visual sources from the background of historical representation to which historians have long confined them, and to arrange such images prominently in the foreground. [1] The images selected here are not illustrations used to decorate and enliven a textual account. They are not intended as visual aids. The display is not intended only for schoolchildren or museum patrons. Neither should the images be viewed as a supplement to a written account. In fact, the text you are now reading should be viewed as the supplement, an illustration of the images. I designed this visual narrative as an experiment in a multimedia form that professional historians might use when communicating with each other, an alternative to the traditional prose narrative.

The act of creating a history involves an historian imposing a design upon sources. Whatever our individual specialties, all historians follow the same design principles: we ask questions, seek relevant primary source evidence, weigh the value of these various sources, discern patterns in the evidence, and then arrange the evidence into a meaningful narrative strung together by words, sentences and paragraphs. [2] This graphical article is based on the same design principle. I have located and selected pertinent visual primary source evidence. I have arranged those sources into a meaningful pattern, a sequential order that serves as my narrative of German history. Rather than through prose, however, the narrative emerges from the deliberate arrangement of the images themselves. It is the sequential ordering of these images that make them a history, instead of merely a haphazard collection of pictures or "gallery of images." Just as a pile of written evidence is not a "history" until an historian discerns a meaningful pattern, a collection of images cannot properly be called a history until the historian imposes some meaningful order upon them. History is the act of design upon evidence.

The design principle I am working with here draws from "sequential art." This is a term coined by Will Eisner to describe what most of us think of as "comics." Artists like Eisner and Scott McCloud have redefined the genre of comics by separating the form from the content, in order to emphasize the unique formal properties of the art form. Comics, according to McCloud, are not simply funny pictures of superheroes; such a definition focuses too much on the content of the art form (although McCloud would like to expand the content beyond male superhero fantasies). Instead, he defines comics as "juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence," [3] hence the term "sequential art."

Given this formal definition, we might locate the origins of sequential art hundreds, even thousands of years ago. In fact, sequential art may be one of humanity's oldest and richest forms of narrative. Consider these examples: The Egyptian tomb of the scribe Menna features scenes of harvesting, reaping, surveying and tax collection that was designed to be viewed as a sequence of images, a story of economic activity. The Ara Pacis of Augustus was a sequential ordering of images depicting the great works of the Roman Emperor. The Bayeux Tapestry was a sequence of images narrating the Norman Conquest. While we can certainly view panels of these larger collections in isolation from the others, the intention of the designer was for the viewer to link all of the images together into a coherent narrative whole. [4] These examples suggest that the sequential ordering of images is an ancient and expressive form of storytelling. [5]

Visual narratives emerge only when an historian meaningfully places two images alongside each other, not when one image stands alone. The viewer's understanding of the information conveyed in the image is affected by its position relative to the other images in the sequence. The sequence of images creates a context which affects the meaning of each image. Change the arrangement of the images, alter the selection of images so juxtaposed and the meaning of the individual image is changed. Thus, the basic unit of sequential art is not the isolated image but rather the "gutter," the conceptual space between two images. The designer juxtaposes two images, asking the viewer to then "fill in" the narrative between the two images. The act of filling in the space between the two images is called "closure," and according to McCloud is a central feature of sequential art. [6]

Closure in the gutter is a transitional realm that links two images, not unlike the way a transitional sentence links two paragraphs together in a logical sequence (just like this sentence has done). This analogy has other implications; it is often said that "a picture is worth a thousand words." This somewhat hackneyed expression is, nevertheless, a useful description of the value of an information-rich visual image, when one considers the number of words required to "translate" these images into written paragraph form. If a picture really is worth a thousand words, we might begin to view images and other visual evidence as something like thousand word paragraphs. In the same way a prose composition links paragraphs together, we might link these "visual paragraphs" in sequential order, joined by transitional gutters, thereby constructing something that resembles a "visual essay." [7]

This visual essay is different from a written essay, however, in that the transitions between the "paragraphs" are non-linear, conceptual and associative rather than linear and logical as in written prose. [8] Each one of the "visual paragraphs" is a representation of a concept: the security of middle-class comfort in Hitler's Germany; the brutal destruction of that illusion; the resurrection of comfort and plenty in the postwar period. Like variations on a theme in music, this postwar resurrection is conceptually distinct from its earlier incarnation (the appearance of foreign guest workers, for instance) yet certain persistent patterns remain (material plenty, the automobile as symbol of national resurgence). Viewers may discern meaningful patterns of resemblance and difference between the images that would not have been apparent had each image been displayed alone. For example, note how your understanding of the meaning of the Volkswagen is altered when an image of Hitler admiring an early prototype is placed in a sequence that includes displaced persons hauled by train and an image of the 1950's version of the Volkswagen powering the economic miracle. Like a montage, historical narrative emerges from the conceptual and associative connections between these images. [9]

This visual article is an experiment in sequential art as a rich and expressive form of historical narrative. My goal here is to suggest ways that professional historians might communicate to each other through this visual medium. I hope that viewers critique my choice of sources, examine the interpretive assumptions I make, and perhaps even suggest an alternative to my visual thesis. That is, I would hope that viewers treat this visual article with the same seriousness that they approach a written article.


1. The critical theorist W.J.T. Mitchell defines this relationship between words and images as a kind of cognitive division of labor. He is especially interested in the "collaboration" between images and words. Often, however, pictures do not collaborate and are not "co-equal" with the words, but are rather subordinate illustrations of words. Mitchell explores photographic essays, including those where the images have an "independence" from the words, and can convey narrative. See "The Photographic Essay: Four Case Studies," in Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994): 281-322.

2. I have relied on Michael Stanford's The Nature of Historical Knowledge (London: Blackwell, 1986) as my guide to the historical method.

3. Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics (New York: HarperCollins, 1993): 9.

4. Peter Burke identifies these forms of visual representation "narrative strips." See Eyewitnessing: The Uses of Images as Historical Evidence. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001): 140-154.

5. David Mamet defines good filmmaking as "a succession of images juxtaposed so that the contrast between these images moves the story forward in the mind of the audience." (2) See "Storytelling," in On Directing Film (New York: Penguin, 1991): 1-7.

6. McCloud, 60-93.

7. In Ways of Seeing (London: British Broadcasting Corporation and Penguin Books, 1972), Peter Berger included three chapters that he described as visual or "pictorial ." "These purely pictorial essays," he wrote, " are intended to raise as many questions as the verbal essays. Sometimes in the pictorial essays no [written] information at all is given about the images reproduced because it seemed to us that such information might distract from the points being made." I have drawn much insight and inspiration from this example. I have also been influenced by the comparative photographic essay by Peter Menzel, Material World: A Global Family Portrait (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1995). Also important to my thinking was the photographic essay by Marina McDougall titled "Banalities of Information" in James Brook and Iain A. Boal, eds. Resisting the Virtual Life: The Culture and Politics of Information (San Francisco: City Lights, 1995). William McNeill included a series of comparative photographic essays in his World History, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979) that I believe are excellent models for the representation of historical information. Finally, see the interesting and thought-provoking collages in Tyler Volk's Metapatterns: Across Space, Time, and Mind (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995).

8. I have elsewhere described such visual essays as "associative assemblages." See David J. Staley, "From Writing to Associative Assemblages: 'History' in an Electronic Culture," in Dennis A. Trinkle, ed. Writing, Teaching and Researching History in the Electronic Age: History and Computers (Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 1998): 3-13.

9. On the use of sequences of images and of montage as forms of communication, see Art Silverblatt, Jane Ferry and Barbara Finan, Approaches to Media Literacy: A Handbook (Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 1999): 57-58.


  1. Hitler admiring an early Volkswagen prototype. From 1938. Source:
  2. Propaganda for the Autobahn. Picnickers depicted as enjoying lunch by the roadside. Source: Richard Bessel, ed. Life in the Third Reich (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987). Original source: Ullstein.
  3. May 1945: Germany in ruins. Source: From Division to Unity 1945-1990: An Illustrated German Chronicle (Bonn: Press and Information Office of the Federal Government, 1992): 43.
  4. Displaced persons after World War Two transported by rail. Source: Michael Stuermer, The German Century: A Photographic History (New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1999): 213. Original source: Hoehne/Poh
  5. "Free Travel in the Future," advertisement for the Forum der Verkehrsteilnehmer (Forum for Road Users, a consortium of tire manufacturers). Source: Der Spiegel, 20 October 1954, p.25.
  6. "We are all Road Users," advertisement for the Forum der Verkehrsteilnehmer. Source: Der Spiegel, 22 September, 1954, p.35.
  7. "The Streets of our Century," advertisement for the Forum der Verkehrsteilnehmer. Source: Der Spiegel, 8 December, 1954, p.39.
  8. Two models pose for a photograph in the magazine Film und Frau (Film and Women). 1950's. Source: Michael Stuermer, The German Century: A Photographic History (New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1999): 241. Original source: F.C. Gundlach.
  9. On left: a guest worker (Italian) working on a Volkswagen assembly line. From 1962. On right: a publicity photograph showing the "roominess" of a Volkswagen. From 1953. Source: Michael Stuermer, The German Century: A Photographic History (New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1999): 239.
  10. An advertisement for Volkswagen, emphasizing its precision and quality. Note also the production and export figures at left, which points to the role the Volkswagen was playing in the resurrection of the German economy. Source: Der Spiegel, 4 January, 1956, p. 43.
  11. "Ever more and ever better!" An advertisement for Volkswagen emphasizing production and export figures (exported to 83 countries around the world). Note how the Volkswagen spirals upward, a visual metaphor for the resurrection of the German economy (indeed, all of Germany) from the black void (the destruction after the war). Source: Der Spiegel, 6 January, 1954, p. 35.