Improve Your Comics by "Distancing the Narrative"

The newest 'Strip Panel Naked' video teaches the importance of keeping the reader at bay.

by Giaco Furino
Jul 10 2016, 11:50am

All panels from Hellboy in Hell #10. Illustrated by Mike Mignola, colors by Dave Stewart. Screencaps via

It’s tempting to throw the reader into the middle of the action in a comic book, but Mike Mignola’s final issue of Hellboy in Hell keeps the reader at arm’s length. In this week’s edition of comics masterclass, Strip Panel Naked, Hass Otsmane-Elhaou discusses narrative distancing. Otsmane-Elhaou describes it as a storytelling device where “the author puts you at a remove from the characters in the story, and you're aware you're being told a story. In this case—rather than by having the narrative follow Hellboy as it does in practically every other Hellboy comic—we are told most of the events through a narrator, after the events have happened. And not a reliable narrator, either.”

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According to Otsmane-Elhaou, the distancing effect completely changes the feel of the comic. “It feels much more 'epic' in scope, and it allows an artistic licensing to feel 'bigger.'”

And if the comic was told with the reader right in the action? “It would have felt more honest, potentially, but smaller and more intimate throughout, which would ruin the effect of the ending, I think.”

For other examples of narrative distancing, Otsmane-Elhaou suggests readers look to the works of Bertolt Brecht and Woody Allen. As he explains, “where I first really understood it, was in Woody Allen's Annie Hall. It opens with Allen's character addressing the audience and giving his backstory—it stops you from immediately getting into the film as though it's happening in real time, and often with it's fourth wall breaks and nods to the camera and audience. It keeps reminding you you're being told a story.”

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Watch this week’s Strip Panel Naked below to see how Mignola creates a gap between reader and subject, thus effecting the story:

Check out what you missed with earlier episodes on the Strip Panel Naked YouTube page, and if you’re digging the work consider supporting Otsmane-Elhaou's efforts on the website, Patreon.


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Mike Mignola
This Week in Comics
Comic Class
Comic Theory
Strip Panel Naked
Hass Otsmane-Elhaou
Hellboy in Hell
Narrative Theory