The Secret Language of Comics

Final Reflection (In Progress)

Over the course of the semester, I accomplished several major projects revolving around the theme of comics –  the Halfa Kucha, creative Sunday Sketches, literacy narratives, and tracing pages. On the journey of completing the plethora of assignments, I practiced my digital citizenship by attempting to create and publicize work via new technologies, became a more mature writer, critical thinker, and confident presenter by rethinking & redrafting arguments on analysis of graphic novels as well as my own story, and above all, appreciated the power of visual thinking.

In my opinion, Halfa Kucha is the most challenging assignment integrating multiple learning outcomes. My Halfa Kucha presentation presented an analysis of Stitches alongside Gender Queer under Judith Hermann’s theoretical framework of stages of trauma recovery. My proudest achievement in this assignment is to incorporate the class spirit of “draw to win” by trying new technologies – unlike going straight to Microsoft Powerpoint, I intentionally stepped out of my comfort zone and familiarized myself with, which turned out to be more user-friendly than PPT; I drew out the symbolized abstraction of certain essential characteristics of selected pages to make a visual argument in this multi-medium rhetorical situation. Hence, I met the learning outcome of digital citizenship and visual thinking – “Demonstrate visual thinking strategies to analyze and interpret visual information and to experiment, assemble, and arrange visual and written documents of their own.” The most challenging part, on the other hand, is certainly the time limit of 20 seconds per slide. Unlike finishing a written assignment, I practiced over and over to make sure I could present material fluently in front of the class; the entire process involved text, images, live speech, and synchronous digital presentation, which achieved my learning outcome “rhetorical composition” – “to compose texts in multiple genres using multiple modes”. 

However, the “draw-to-win” success wasn’t built in one day, rather it was a consequence of continuous practice in weekly Sunday Sketches assignments – my favorite chill part of all assignments. From hand-drawn sketches to music playlists, SK series presented my personal ideas through music, words, photograph, and drawing – again a great challenge for a person who hadn’t been drawing for several years. Take “Mr. Forest II” as an example, I blend in personal symbols in the framework of Forest Gump’s poster, conveying my wish for positivity and productivity. Also, one of the early works “Zero and Snake” visually demonstrated Hilbert’s Nullstellensatz, a theorem from another math course that has a highly geometric essence. By applying visual thinking skills to the abstract maths course, I deepened my understanding of the theorem itself and was able to convey the intuitive ideas even to outsiders, despite its complicated background in algebraic geometry. Thus the SK series, by applying multi-media for creative expression and digitalized distribution, again achieves learning outcomes “visual thinking”, “rhetorical composition” and “digital citizenship”.

Peking Impression

It’s been a while since I left Beijing – a city where I spent my childhood and the most golden of autumns in Chaoyang. However, I’m intimately connected to the city when meeting its people, viewing it in media, or just recollecting my own memories. Therefore, I would like to display my impression of “Peking” (not the real Beijing city at this moment, but the “elsewhere” I once know of.)

  1. First Coronation – My Kindergarten always plan trips to walk around the Forbidden City, a place people used to say to call “a wonder”; I used to believe they were dramatizing because it looked like “just a usual bigger house”. Yet now I know it really was a wonder, not only because it’s “bigger”, but due to what it symbolizes for this nation over hundreds of years of imperial power’s reign up to this point.
  2. Er Huang + Peony Pavilion – One Peking Opera and one of the genre’s best modern abstractions.
  3. 4,5,6, – No comment.
  4. Some of the city’s rock stars in the 80’s and 90’s are the best, many of whose works were performed in Tian’anmen Square, invoking great popularity.
  5. The best adagio in the history of humankind expresses my wish for it to remain peaceful and preserve its colors in this chaotic time.

Measuring Sense of Fulfillment

I picked the three measurements crucial to my life that are not so easily quantifiable. I utilized Numbers to visualize data, which was really convenient. I picked up keeping a diary a few weeks ago, so luckily helped a lot for this project.

3/21: Skipped 8:30 morning class to sleep, felt good about making the right decision. Confirmed summer research offer from IAS. Talked to more than one first-year student other than best friend. Doubted my intelligence as usual in Math 523, but appreciated the 5:30pm vector spaces class. Backed on a promise to work out at night, but walked a lot in the day.

Fulfillment: Academic: high; Spiritual: medium; Belief in Human Relationship: high

3/22: Skipped differential equations class – a right choice. Attained permission codes for fall registration from DZB; waitlisted by some summer program, felt anxious. Exercised for 2 hours, loved the empty track field and starry night. Wanted to talk to some peers but ultimately didn’t do it.

Fulfillment: Academic: high; Spiritual: high; Belief in Human Relationship: medium.

3/23: Dreamt of a strange real-life event in high school, but characters in which were people I met in college. Didn’t skip 8:30 class, right choice – interesting new material on the voting systems; understood a whole Math 523 class for the first time, exhilarated. Ate a lot. Talked to more than one first-year student other than best friend.

Fulfillment: Academic: very high; Spiritual: medium; Belief in Human Relationship: high.

3/24: Didn’t skip differential equations – right choice; didn’t fully understand the technique taught in class. Wanted to talk to some peers but didn’t do it. Fixed almost everything for this summer in the States – summer school, travel, research, and housing. Attained all 5 permission codes for the fall. Played basketball, ran, and worked out.

Fulfillment: Academic: medium; Spiritual: very high; Belief in Human Relationship: low.

3/25: Happy conversation with an old friend, then fell into existential crisis – didn’t know what do in the future a classical struggle between bread & dream. Then met an annoying guy from first floor, who tried all dinner to convert me to CS major (which I partially am). Back to dorm without exercise, listened to Mahler – another long-lost friend – and regained some tranquility. Almost a day with no productivity and going to bed with existential crisis, until I discovered a brilliant article on Markov chains and Gerschgorin’s Disk Theorem, exposing a hidden facet of the world of probability, exhilarated.

Fulfillment: Academic: High; Spiritual: low; Belief in Human Relationship: medium.

3/26: Had a good DCT Saturday brunch with a friend, spent 2 hours in South American section in Carlos Museum, picked a cup of Ebrik coffee, and lay in quad for half an hour with him. Went back to dorm and finished Markov chains and lots of differential equations material in a mental flow. At dinner, discovered the fact that I could cut and eat oranges in DCT. Appreciated Karen Mok’s classics and had a nice shower. Talked to more than one person.

Fulfillment: Academic: very high; Spiritual: high; Belief in Human Relationship: high.

3/27: Doesn’t feel very well. Felt anxious about two presentations and summer school coming up at the beginning of April. Desperate about human relationships, my future, and my finals. (In progress)

Fulfillment: Academic: medium; Spiritual: low; Belief in Human Relationship: low. (In progress)

Reflection for Literacy Narrative Part III

The third literacy narrative was a complete redraft compared to my first literacy narrative: based on Professor’s advice and peer review, I was able to reconstruct the story and narrow the focus down to my self-exploration to words and poetry, rather than a random collection of thoughts in some unrelated areas. During this whole process of first trying to write a literacy narrative, condensing my history, then re-organizing the ideas into a more well-rounded story with a controlling idea, I practiced writing skills and recursively experimented with drafting, revision and reflection. 

Weaving both the narrative III and the comics version taught me the intricate difference through practice. In the process of extracting a narrative from a detailed essay, I realized I had to choose the key turning points and incidents to draw instead of picturing every single word of the essay on the page; on the other hand, I realized I had to imagine the visualization in order to resonate with the reader instead of just utilizing the combination of words – a genre I’m much more used to – like the essay did. Furthermore, I realized that visual form is a better and easier way to present my impression of the works I mentioned in the text. In literacy narrative, words have limited power to express my feeling toward a certain poem since I wasn’t filling the entire page with a detailed analysis; however, in comics, I could draw a detailed and visually dense picture to present my imagination of certain imagery which could be filled in a reasonable space. In one sentence, an alphabetical narrative could contain more literal information and detail, but a visual narrative is extremely efficient in conveying imagination, resolution, and perspective. During the process, I experimented with visual thinking and creation using digital technology for the first time, then incorporating and publishing it in public space via WordPress; moreover, collaborating with classmates was a decisive factor that renewed my narrative from I to III, thereby benefiting from collaboration skills.

Link to Literacy Narrative Part III:

Reflection for Journey to the Words in Comics

As I had re-drafted my entire literacy narrative, I finished literacy narrative part III before literacy narrative II, so I could think through and construct the story in words before abstracting it into comics, a genre I’m less familiar with.

Given fully composed essay on my exploration to words, I experienced greater challenge than I expected to encounter to select what and how to draw, and then seamlessly weave the different scenes into a thematic story, and thus I realized I’ve always underestimated the difficulty of doing so before as the reader. In practice, I chose the major turning points of the entire narrative: first acquaintance, reading misty poems with Geheim, introduction to English poetry. ; just illustrating these moments made me realize that my comics conveyed more emotion, value and sensations rather than trivial details as my essay would present.

I gradually begin to classify the images into 2 categories, the ones about my understanding of poetry and the ones telling my real life process. I really enjoyed drawing the first kind because I could express my impression of the poem in an artistic, visual way, and the images turned out good. On the other hand, illustrating a real life process was more technical and a greater challenge. I experimented the form of quadriptych, learned in one Sunday Sketch, to illustrate my interaction with Geheim, and compacted our story into one dense page with four closely interconnected panel. However, the disadvantage was that I haven’t fully utilized the webblock design of WordPress, so I “listed” pages in linear order, rather than arranging them in a potential more creative manner. Lastly, since I extracted the story once I finished literacy narrative III, the comics were as literal dense as it was visually impactful – I basically imitated the ratio of Adventures in Depression, by adding a few lines of texts before each drawing, rather than putting them into the image.

In summary, experiencing both genres of creating the same story taught me through practice the intricate difference between comics and essay, and the enjoyment as well as challenges there could be in the process of visual narration.

Link for Literacy Narrative II:

What Can I Hold You With

I came up with many kinds of classical quadriptych tricks but decided to appeal to poetry. Coincidently, a quadriptych has four panels to fill for each of the four imageries I really appreciated in Jorge Luis Borges’ poem What Can I Hold You With: the lean streets, desperate sunsets, lonely moon, and the yellow rose. The comics has one even more advantage than Borges’ lines of poetry: comics could create the symphonic effect and render all four melancholic symbols to readers’ eye at one time, but poetry things go in order of the words. I hereby attach the entire poem:

What can I hold you with?
Jorge Luis Borges
   What can I hold you with?
   I offer you lean streets, desperate sunsets, the
      moon of the jagged suburbs.
   I offer you the bitterness of a man who has looked
      long and long at the lonely moon.
   I offer you my ancestors, my dead men, the ghosts
      that living men have honoured in bronze:
      my father's father killed in the frontier of
      Buenos Aires, two bullets through his lungs,
      bearded and dead, wrapped by his soldiers in
      the hide of a cow; my mother's grandfather
      - just twentyfour - heading a charge of
      three hundred men in Peru, now ghosts on
      vanished horses.
   I offer you whatever insight my books may hold, 
      whatever manliness or humour my life.
   I offer you the loyalty of a man who has never
      been loyal.
   I offer you that kernel of myself that I have saved,
      somehow --the central heart that deals not
      in words, traffics not with dreams, and is
      untouched by time, by joy, by adversities.
   I offer you the memory of a yellow rose seen at
      sunset, years before you were born.
   I offer you explanations of yourself, theories about
      yourself, authentic and surprising news of 
   I can give you my loneliness, my darkness, the
      hunger of my heart; I am trying to bribe you 
      with uncertainty, with danger, with defeat.

Link to Poetry: 

Trauma in Different Lens

The two canonical graphic narratives – Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and David Small’s Stitches – both investigated real childhood trauma through extraordinary comic techniques. Several common stylistic elements are employed along with significant differences, leading to a deeper insight into the thematic core of the two masterpieces. In this essay page 286 of Stitches and page 123 of Fun Home would be explored in detail, both pages showcased the authors’ interaction with his/her father, pointing to the deepest source of their traumatic experience. First, both pages of comics utilized the strongest weapon of comics – “choreograph and shape time” by “arranging pace on the page in panels”, using Hilary Chute’s words. In page 286 of Stitches, the first row had two smaller boxes showing father detachedly and aggressively telling small David the truth that he had given him cancer; the next small box demonstrates David’s numbed face with no reaction, but then followed by two large panels displaying fathers’ face, then David’s astonished, frightened facial expression, while his fingertips touching the “growth” on the neck. The large panels without comment or dialogue “frozen” time for David as well as for the reader to accept the cruel fact that the source of David’s trauma – parental emotional abuse and medical disease – is interconnected. On the other hand, the Fun Home page had an enormous panel (about 2/3 of the page) illustrating Alison’s dream hiking with her father. The focal point of the image is the sunset, surrounded by the heavily emphasized lining of woods; Alison was pictured at the corner of the image pointing to the sunset, inviting Dad to come uphill and appreciate the scenery with her. The disproportionately large size of a single panel also slows down the reader’s time as a reader would take a while to read off the woods, words, details, and symbolism. Interestingly, although the reader may read elements on this panel in a certain order, the positivity conveyed by the “sunset scenery” of the entire page would come in the first moment, known as the “symphonic effect” in Hilary Chute’s words. 

David’s “Frozen Time” Traumatic Panel

Furthermore, the two authors had different rhetorical situations in terms of purpose and narration. David’s linear narrative begins from childhood and ends in adulthood since his trauma is deeply linked with his medical conditions and unfolding secrets over time; however, Alison recollects instances from different stages of her life and embedded texts and commentaries from various periods, thus constructing a “labyrinth” of time into the core of the story. Meanwhile, Alison’s commentary-dense literary style shaped the reader’s perspective to that similar to hers, but Stitches, having less comment, was more open for interpretations and perspectives. Moreover, the purpose of page 286 of Stitches is to express small David’s fear and astonishment realizing he was sentenced to cancer by his own father, hence emphasized on delineating facial expressions rather than the environment; however, Alison’s purpose on page 123 is to demonstrate her cure of trauma and what she wished Bruce had done, via the symbolism of sunset only she had seen.

Large Sunset Panel

Therefore, although Fun Home and Stitches’ theme is childhood traumatic experience relating to bad parenting and emotional abuse, the core, and resolution of trauma and authors’ rhetorical situations are distinct: David intends to linearly unfold his growth and the secrets in order for readers to empathize with his fear, escapism, and helplessness; Alison gradually resolved the trauma over her discovery of homosexuality by investigating into her father’s sexuality and spiritual world, finally resonated with his situation and related to him. Such distinct core ideas and purposes of two literary drawings resulted in the stylistic and literary differences in each of traced pages, making comics a unique, empowering way to express authors’ intimate and sincere feelings and experience.


1. Chute, Hillary. Comics for Grown-ups? from Why Comics?: From Underground to Everywhere. HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 2017. 

Annotated Pages:


Reflection Post:

Tracing Pages Reflection

My analysis starts from examining page 286 of Stitches and page 123 of Fun Home, leading to a comparison of rhetorical situations and stylistic elements employed in two works, finally reflected on the core of two traumatic experience: Alison investigated her own homosexuality and resolved trauma by empathizing with her father, yet David exhibited traumatic experience of horrid emotional abuse and medical gaze from childhood.

It’s a calm, appreciating experience to trace pages with pencils. By really imitating the contours, lines, and other details on the tracing paper, I could intimately feel the power and detail of images created by two talented drawers, and meanwhile come up with comparisons of their work and thus deeper understanding of their message, which helped a lot to form the thesis idea.

This is the first time for me to write an ABT thesis, or any essay that start from simple observations and proceed to a larger claim. However, I realized this isn’t the first time I read such text – the first-rate maths/science textbook would also start off from motivations and examples, then proceed to proofs of more generalized statements. This is indeed a rather reader-friendly, heuristic way to write an essay.

Apart from aforementioned stylistic observations, I also noticed more interesting facts about each work: Fun Home employed spiraling timeline, but Stitches used rather linear progression; on the thematic level, Alison empathized with her father’s sexuality and pressure laid by heterosexual normativity, but David voluntarily chose to forgive his parents after many years and trouble. These elements combined definitely tell the “secret language of comics” that hides below the surface drawing of the first sight.

Annotated Pages: