The Drawing Body

A Theory of Narrative Drawing reviewed by Antonia Purk

Published in Palgrave Macmillan’s »Palgrave Studies in Comics and Graphic Novels«, Simon Grennan’s A Theory of Narrative Drawing formulates not only a comics theory, but also a new theory of drawing in general. This is first discussed in theoretical terms and then put to the test in two practical demonstrations. Grennan here draws comics in the styles of other artists, such as Jim Medway, Mike Mignola, or Chris Ware, to highlight the interrelations between drawn representations and the human body.

Simon Grennan is both a postdoctoral research fellow at the Department of Art and Design of the University of Chester, UK, and a comics artist himself (see e.g. Dispossession, Grennan’s graphic adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s John Caldigate, 2015). A Theory of Narrative Drawing is his first academic monograph. In it he brings together his two areas of expertise of academic scholarship and practical comics drawing as the book provides a block of chapters theorizing drawing and narrative, as well as two »Drawing Demonstrations«, which experimentally expound the theory put forth.

The first two sections of the book, »Drawing, Depicting and Imagining« and »Narrative«, comprise of 160 pages of very dense theorizations of aspects of drawing and narrative, which Grennan later takes up in his two demonstrations (of roughly fifty pages each). After a very brief introduction, the monograph immediately starts into its first section on »Drawing’s Devices«.  Here, he argues for an aetiological approach to making marks, by which he means a goal-oriented consideration of drawing in opposition to regarding it solely as a technical activity. The focus on goal-directedness allows Grennan to consider drawing in a variety of contexts, such as »purpose«, »orient[ation] towards a future«, »novel activities«, and »failure« (3), for which technical analyses cannot account. Further contextualizing the aetiological activity of drawing, Grennan directs the reader’s attention to the spatio-temporally situated body, which by creating representations produces traces of this very activity. Regarding drawing as an embodied activity might be the most innovative aspect of Grennan’s work here. Unfortunately, however, it is also the most difficult one to comprehend for his complex way of expression. Especially on the first 100 pages, which theorize drawing, depiction, and visualization, Grennan’s writing style is characterized by an excessive use of technical terms, not all of which are explicitly introduced to the reader (such as homeorhetic or noetic). Moreover, while the subchapters of A Theory of Narrative Drawing intricately build on each other, the author leaves aside any introductions to help his readers make connections between the range of different aspects of drawing he discusses. In particular at the outset of the book an introduction would be useful to guide the reader into the topics at hand and to draw the connections between the different sections and chapters of the book.

Following his theoretical explorations of drawing, the section on narrative (thirty pages in total) is logically necessary in the structure of the book on »narrative drawing«. However, in opposition to the sections on drawing, which make for the originality of this book, the short section focusing solely on narrative theory is somewhat less exciting. Grennan here largely draws on the theoreticians G.W.F. Hegel, Edmund Husserl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Alfred Schütz, and Nick Crossley to discuss concepts of intersubjectivity. The section aims to show that human consciousness is »necessarily embodied« (126) and that »the physical traces of human actions are only meaningful in so much as they reflect relationships between subjects« (134). In the following, Grennan employs literary theory (by e.g. Gerard Genette, Michail Bakhtin, Tzvetan Todorov, or Roland Barthes) to understand intersubjective relationships as integral aspects of narrative. The sub chapter (2.3) presents what Grennan calls »An Epistemological System of Discourse Characterised as Narrative«, by which he emphasizes the temporal positioning of any representation in a series of events. »Drawing Demonstration Two« later returns to this topic to exemplify the claims of this chapter.

Finally, in his two intriguing »Drawing Demonstrations« Grennan puts to practice his earlier theorizations. In both, he ventures to draw in the style of others: First, he adapts the narrative content of renowned comics (a page spread each of Jim Medway’s Teen Witch, Mike Mignola’s The Chained Coffin, and Art Spiegelman’s Maus) to the styles of other artists (Mike Mignola’s, Chris Ware’s, and Jim Medway’s, respectively). The results are striking! Grennan indeed creates drawings confoundingly similar to the styles of the three well-known artists. The demonstration lays bare Grennan’s process and his personal experience of dis-habituation in adopting others’ forms of representation, again coming back to the function of the body in the production of drawings. This experiment on himself, as well as the second one, which focuses on the drawing styles of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, works well to visualize Grennan’s thoughts on the drawing body, especially since the theoretical part of the book is sparsely equipped with illustrations. Again, a conclusion, more explicitly contextualizing the »Drawing Demonstrations« with the theory chapters might be useful at the end of the book. Nevertheless, A Theory of Narrative Drawing delivers what its title promises and will be a rewarding read to students and scholars of both drawing in general and comics in particular, who are interested in considering aspects of the production and reception of drawings beyond its technical aspects.


A Theory of Narrative Drawing
Simon Grennan
London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017
277 p., 106,99 Euro
ISBN 978-1-137-52165-1