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PANEL BUSTING: Unclaimed Images

graphic novels

Photo-illustration by Madeline Rombes

Graphic Novels and Other Illuminated Writing

Somewhere between the traditional illustration or graphic that occasionally appears in novels are what I’m calling here, for lack of a better phrase, unclaimed images. They are unclaimed in the sense that they don’t necessarily belong to a coherent tradition, such as the tradition of illustrations that accompany the text of a book, such as those in the original Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, or Fritz Eichenberg’s woodcuts that accompany the 1943 Random House edition of Jane Eyre, or the many illustrations that have supplemented the various editions of Gulliver’s Travels over the years.

Unclaimed images float somewhere in between formal illustrations and doodles. They are graphic interjections into the text. Unlike traditional drawings, woodcuts, engravings, photographs, and other images, it’s not always clear who the creator is. In some cases, it seems as if the author herself has created them. In others, it may be that the book designer made them. Because they are sometimes unattributed, they function as a sort of mystery—lost images that haunt the text.

Here are five examples, in chronological order, each one a different instance of the beauty and mystery of unclaimed images. I’ve specified the editions of the books here, as in some instances it’s not clear whether these images appear universally in all editions, with the original date of publication appearing in brackets.



1. Virginia Woolf, Orlando

New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973 [1928]

Reading Orlando back in the pre-Internet Era (PIE) I poured over the novel’s eight creaky, low-res, black and white illustrations. While I knew that a few of the illustrations were photographs of Woolf’s friend and lover Vita Sackville-West—and while I incorrectly believed that one of the photos was of Virginia Woolf herself—I wasn’t certain about the others. Were they Vita and Virginia in costume? Were they “fake” portraits of historical figures? Because questions like What’s up with those illustrations in Orlando? took a little more time to answer during the PIE, you could indulge your own theories, even if they turned out to be mistaken.

This is actually a portrait of Lionel Sackville, seventh Earl and the first Duke of Dorset (1688-1765) by Rosalba Carriera. According to Maria DiBattista, “knowing his views on the works of ‘mere imagination,’ Woolf places his portrait just before Orlando’s metamorphosis into a woman, a transformation that rebukes his low estimation of the power of imagination.”

virginia woolf orlando



2. Eudora Welty, One Writer’s Beginnings

New York: Warner Books, 1985 [1983]

What to make of the vine/plant leaves that adorn the chapter heads in Welty’s book? A symbol of the natural world that so informed Welty’s writing, the curling vine was, when I first read this book as a boy, an extension of Welty’s prose:

That summer, laying in the long grass with my head propped up against the back of a saddle, with the zenith above me and the drop of distance below, I listened to the mountain silence until I could hear as far into it as the faintest clink of a cowbell. . . . It took the mountain top, it seems to me now, to give me the sensation of independence. It was as if I’d discovered something I’d never tasted before in my short life.

You gently brush your thumb across that vine leaf as you hold the book, hoping that it opens a door into the world Welty describes, only to realize that her words have already opened it.

eudora welty one writer's beginnings



3. Larry Brown, Dirty Work

Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1989

This chapter, narrated by Walter, is the only one to use all caps. It’s a small, simple thing, and yet it conveys the high-pitched tension of the moment, a moment not about smoking at all but rather about what Walter is going to do to (to do for) Braiden, Vietnam War-wounded beyond reason, and how Walter’s act of hands-to-throat mercy demands all caps, caps that are a warning to the reader: Braiden has been grievously partially devoured by the gears of this world, and Walter will finish the murderous work those gears began.

larry brown dirty work



4. Roberto Bolaño, The Savage Detectives

New York: Picador, 2008 [1998]

This comes from the novel’s last section in all its hyper-distilled, comic terror. It’s probably easy to make too much of the play between text and image in the latter portion of The Savage Detectives, a novel so heavy and yet so light that by the end, when you reach these pages, you realize that the secret to happiness for the novel’s characters is laughter, laughter which cuts through the black spell that the book has cast over you (“ . . . my unhappiness, which came when it was time to sleep and dream, or dream that I was dreaming, about the cries that came from the maw of a chasm in a Galacia that was itself like the maw of a savage beast, a gigantic green mouth open painfully wide under a sky in flames, the sky of a scorched world, a world charred by a World War III that never was or at least never was in my lifetime. . .”), laughter which saves the book (and thus you) from its darkest shadows.

roberto bolano savage detectives



5. Salvador Plascencia, The People of Paper

San Francisco: McSweeney’s Books, 2005

“Interior illustrations by Sarah Tillman” reads a line on the copyright page. The People of Paper is riddled with Tillman’s humble line drawings, which are so sparse that at first you think perhaps they were made by the book’s previous owner. A weird intimacy develops between you and Ms. Tillman over the pages of the book, and, in the summer darkness, reading it not too far away from a window open to the drone of black crickets, you imagine that the three tallies in a crooked circle are some secret code for you and you alone. The truth is, for too long now your heart has been blank, and those three hash marks feel as if they have been etched onto that blankness inside of you. When you have finished it (its last line: “There would be no sequel to the sadness”) you put The People of Paper on your bookshelf and try to forget it, not because it’s a bad book (on the contrary . . .) but the more you try to forget about it the more you remember it, and especially those three tallies which, although they play a minor, insignificant part in the plot of Plascencia’s story, have assumed such an outsized, towering proportion in your mind.

salvador plascencia the people of paper

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