The twentieth century saw a much greater awareness towards the understanding of trauma, leading to an exponential rise in interest in the fields of trauma theory and trauma studies. In fact, towards the end of the millennium, dozens of works exploring aspects of trauma were published in Western academia, spanning several fields, including psychology, philosophy, and literary studies. What explains this sudden fascination with traumatic narratives? According to James Berger, the twentieth century was marked by historical catastrophes such as “world wars, local wars, civil wars, ideological wars, ethnic wars, the two atomic bomb attacks, the cold war, genocides, famines, epidemics”. These worldview-shattering events inevitably spurred theorists to turn to concepts of trauma in order to explain the impact of these events on humanity.Trauma shall have a twofold delineation in this paper: personal trauma, referring to “a disordered psychic or behavioral state resulting from severe mental or emotional stress of physical injury”, and collective trauma, referring to catastrophic events like the Holocaust, genocide and — in the case of Singapore historiography — separation from Malaysia. According to Berger, “trauma theory is another such discourse of the unpresentable, of the event or object that destabilises language and demands a vocabulary and syntax in some sense incommensurable with what went before”. Taking the aforementioned into account, trauma narratives have hence unsurprisingly manifested in the graphic novel form; in fact, it seems that the graphic novel form allows trauma to be represented in new ways that textual novels cannot. In Trauma Fiction, Anne Whitehead writes that the “impact of trauma can only adequately be represented by mimicking its forms and symptoms”, which include elements such as “intertextuality, repetition and a dispersed or fragmented narrative voice”. This, Blake argues, can be “replicated” in graphic novels through “visual clues such as colour, panel size, and repetitive imagery”. Critics generally agree that it is impossible to represent traumatic narratives purely through traditional language. As asserted by Judith Herman in Trauma and Recovery, “traumatic memories lack verbal narrative and context; rather, they are encoded in the form of vivid sensations and images”. Similarly, Caruth argues that “to be traumatized is precisely to be possessed by an image or an event” and that “there is a response, sometimes delayed, to an overwhelming event or events, which takes the form of repeated, intrusive hallucinations, dreams, thoughts or behavior stemming from the event”. Therefore, the graphic novel seems to be a medium that can more authentically represent the images that constitute trauma: Sara Beskow argues that the graphic memoir combines the text to describe the event and the visual aspect to trigger the mind of the reader. In contrast, the novel requires an active step by the reader to formulate the image for themselves, raising issues of subjectivity owing to different people potentially having wildly different interpretations. The study of graphic novels as a field, as compared to other forms of literary research dealing with purely text-based mediums, is very new. Furthermore, the study of Southeast Asian literature, as compared to the study of the Western literary canon, is also very recent. Combine the two, and we have a relatively untapped field of study in the form of Southeast Asian graphic novels. This research paper aims to apply this understanding of graphic novels to three texts: Saigon Calling (SC) by Marcelino Truong, The Best We Could Do (BWCD) by Thi Bui, and The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye (CCHC) by Sonny Liew. The first two feature narratives of families fleeing the Vietnam War, while CCHC depicts situations from Singapore’s past through allegorical comics, ultimately presenting an alternate version of the country if the Barisan had won the 1959 general elections. Through a close analysis of the presentation of trauma in the 3 texts, a better understanding of the abilities of the graphic novel to represent trauma will be achieved. While the three texts are not glaringly similar, they all function as memoirs, with a narratorial voice recounting traumatic events in the past, even if they do not appear explicitly so at first glance. All three discuss their country’s national trauma through portraying how such large-scale events have impacted them on an individual scale. The memorialisation of their trauma in the graphic novel form is a coping mechanism of sorts, an expressive medium through which these authors recount, grapple with, and resolve trauma. This research paper argues that graphic novels are effective at portraying trauma through its form, which effectively integrates visual and textual elements. At the same time, graphic novels are distinct for powerfully employing absence — frame transitions, or “closures” (a term coined by theorist Scott McCloud), act as liminal spaces within the text which allow for meaning-making by the reader between visual sequences. Moments within graphic novels where language is absent are particularly powerful in relating to the reader the trauma experienced, as it leaves only the images to tell the story. CHAPTER 2: Integration of Text and VisualsGraphic novels are a complex medium formed by the integration of textual and visual elements, with a unique visual grammar suited towards traumatic narratives. One notable effect is that graphic novels allow for greater authorial liberty to set the pace of the narrative. According to critic Paraskevi Lykou, “Everything is concentrated; the narration is very dense, as much as it is quick. One single panel can contain so much graphic and literary information that in a large-scale narration can be accomplished within a hundred pages”. The intensity of the illustration can mirror the trauma intended by the narrative, as well as elicit poignant reader responses.For one, graphic novels can contain multiple time-references within a single frame, hence creating a sense of motion and urgency contained by a static medium. With the use of speech balloons, a whole conversation for instance can occur in just one panel, whereas in other media it would require sequential chronology, i.e. quotes will be presented one after another.Saigon Calling, page 131In Saigon Calling, the building in which the Truong household is embroiled in a hubbub of confused shouting. As depicted above, the Truong children are excited by snow and Tet, while merely metres below them their neighbours – known to the us only as anonymous voices hidden behind dim windows – are anxiously watching a news broadcast of Viet-cong guerrillas. The effect achieved is one of vivid chaos – the proximity and number of speech bubbles jumps at the reader more than the content of the din does. Upon turning the page the reader must first comprehend the form in which dialogue is presented, the visual component of the dialogue, before reading the content, the verbal text within the speech bubbles. The sheer density of both visual and textual information presented in one panel serves to overwhelm and create a disconcerting effect, which aids in presenting the disorientation of traumatic memory. Not only that, in opposition to the emotionally charged text, the drawing is cold and detached: there is a nagging absence of visual reference to the human objects mentioned in speech bubbles. This disjunction between the clinical drawing and the earnest dialogue must disconcert the reader, in service of representing memories of trauma.Graphic novels sometimes also employ photographs to tether the narrative to historical reality. In his examination of seminal graphic novel Maus, Lykou suggests, “In the confrontation between photograph and cartoon, the cartoon, by its inherent abstraction, seems to lose; however, there is no such antagonism, the photograph is charged with its significance by being referenced within the illustrated world of Maus”. The photograph in its rare occurrence and by virtue of its assumed objectivity is effective in immersion: the reader is brought further into the realm of the graphic novel and convinced of its truth to life. It points to the narrative’s roots in reality, however shallow these roots may be, by appealing to a slice in history captured in the photograph.The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, page 179CCHC is a work of historiographic metafiction that blends historical facts with fictional reimagination. In this context, the photograph anchors the narrative in reality in a way a drawing or written paragraph cannot. Critic Linda Hutcheon writes of historiographic metafictional novels: “The photo ratifies what was there, what it represents, and does so in a way that language can never do. It is not odd that the historiographic metafictionist, grappling with the same issue of representation in the past, might want to turn, for analogies and inspiration, to this other medium, this ‘certificate of presence’ …”This paper would like to extend her criticism on novels to graphic novels: visual text in the form of drawings, like verbal text in the form of words in print, cannot ‘ratify’ historical truth in the same way that photographs can. The Best We Could Do, page 267In BWCD, the author inserts mugshots from her own family when they sought asylum after fleeing Vietnam. This inclusion of photographs emphasises the very real nature of the narrative presented to us: they show the author and her own family at their most helpless, with them almost seeming to be staring into the reader’s eyes. Through inserting these photos, the author grants this narrative a further sense of authenticity: that the horrifying details of their escape and the bombings are real, that she really did experience them all. The Best We Could Do, page 240Another effect that can be achieved by graphic novels is the use of images to substitute textual descriptions. In BWCD, as the narrator recounts her perilous escape from Vietnam (seen above), the process of electing a new boatman and his successful navigation is presented extremely rapidly; almost every panel shows a new significant detail. Here, the dialogue establishes the narrative on a literal level, but Nam’s ability to steer the boat is never actually shown. Instead, it is compressed into a single, small panel that shows nothing but a compass, so the details of him actually proving his abilities are absent but implied. While in a normal novel, the reader would expect some verbal explanation, in the graphic novel, the reader imposes his own meaning into this symbol as he moves from one panel to the next, which is sufficient to convey the desired meaning without being perceived as clumsy. Overall, this pace amplifies the sense of anxiety and hurriedness the characters feel (and, in turn, the reader is supposed to experience), allowing the reader to more authentically understand the true experience the narrator has gone through.The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, page 293Yet, both the text and the visuals can work in tandem to succeed in portraying a more unified whole, able to overcome the limitations of language and graphics working alone. The image alone is nostalgic, sentimental, a little bittersweet, perhaps, given its context in the novel (having to watch Lim Chin Siong embark on his political journey despite knowing its tragic end), yet the short line in the text box is able to capture a glimmer of hope through the heartbreak, and as mentioned in the footnotes, “although historical closure may be ever elusive, for the story at least, it marked an ending of sorts.”CHAPTER 3: Frame TransitionsA key area of analysis in the study of graphic novels is on frame transitions. In this paper, we shall analyse frame transitions using the vernacular of the critic Scott McCloud, who conceptualises the term “closure” as a grammar of comics. Closure between frames occurs when the reader may be required to fill in between panels and infer what possible relationships may be required to interpret between two panels. Eisner explains that: “In comics the reader is expected to understand things like implied time, space, motion, sound and emotions. In order to do this, a reader must not only draw on visceral reactions but make use of an accumulation of experience as well as reasoning”. This paper posits that the metaphorical and physical space between two frames is a liminal space, a blurry boundary zone between two established and clear spatial areas occupied by the aforementioned ‘implied time, space, motion, sound and emotions.’ In the space between frames, what exists is not an absence of meaning, but the imposition of one by the reader — much like how the post-trauma mind might plug gaps in memory with a probable history.The Best We Could Do, page 56-57A type of frame transition seen in BWCD is a moment-to-moment transition, which occurs when multiple panels are used to portray the atmosphere of a scene. The image above shows the scene of the large house from the outside with no people, as the narrator recounts her mother’s grief over the loss of her child – she was unable to reach Saigon in time to receive treatment (roads to the city being barricaded by communist forces). As seen above, individual images are broken into multiple panels. As the reader moves from one panel to the next, he imposes his own meaning: the effect of spending so many panels portraying the landscape in such minute detail is to emphasise the loneliness and grief experienced by the narrator’s parents. On a superficial level, the reduction of memory to images divided by panels is a visualisation of the effects of trauma: for those afflicted by traumatic experiences, personal history occurs in bits and pieces rather than a more coherent whole. Understanding these images by accessing them through multiple panels is therefore an act of understanding the nature of a traumatic narrative. Shifting focus to what happens between frames, the liminal space of the frame transition enacts the meaning-making process as the reader interprets the narrative. The security and certainty offered by a textual recount’s monolithic presentation of events is absent as spaces between frames shatter the comfortable, linked whole of the narrative. The Best We Could Do, page 248-249Transitions may go beyond simply transitions between frames – even page divisions can be used as a form of transition. In the midst of a haunting retelling of the narrator’s escape, there is an image of the narrator staring out at a bright starry sky. It takes up 2 full pages. The reader is required to physically turn the page to access this image and move on with the narrative, slowing him down considerably and insisting that he linger on the page. The effect is to suspend the reader in time, which gives the narrative a sense of hope as this moment of beauty can be fully appreciated without any other distractions. This is one noted advantage the graphic novel has: it forces the reader to view and process the image of the sky in its entirety, requiring them to physically turn a page before moving on. Even as the narrator reflects on her pain fleeing Vietnam, we also see that there is some form of resolution and that there still exists beauty in the world. The punchline is physically delivered by the turn of the page: we see, therefore, that the use of transitions is able to portray this consolatory moment, a constituent of a traumatic narrative, more effectively than a conventional novel is able to.The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, preface: “One Mountain Cannot Abide Two Tigers”Beyond just the boundaries between each panel, empty panels are an even more striking form of closure. In CCHC, while the page depicting Lee Kuan Yew’s progression over the years is full, Lim Chin Siong’s is glaringly incomplete, the final 4 only having one cursory panel briefly mentioning his death. As Lim was largely sidelined and out of public view following his exile, we can only guess at his experiences, due to them being not depicted. With the very direct contrast (the same format on both pages), their absence is far more keenly felt. The empty panels are able to represent this trauma, of being detained, having to leave his country behind, being forgotten in his later years despite his contributions to the development of the nation, culminating in an inglorious end, lacking in finality and closure, not even being at the end of the page. CHAPTER 4: The Superiority of the ImageIn presenting traumatic narratives, graphic novels have the distinct privilege of resorting to solely visual text when verbal text fails. Herman suggests in the trauma recovery process that some patients “may spontaneously switch to nonverbal methods of communication, such as drawing or painting. Given the ‘iconic’ visual nature of the traumatic memories, creating pictures may represent the most effective initial approach to ‘indelible images’ “. It can then be assumed that for authors of graphic novels, visual images or drawings are a more accessible representation and projection of memory than translation into words — it is a more intuitive means of recording mental images of the past. In switching from words to drawings, the author signals a change in mood as the narrative literally becomes silent. Words are shown to be inadequate or subsidiary — the memory, hence, is shown to be practically unspeakable. Any attempt at using language to express the trauma of the moment would only limit its effectiveness at portraying its true extent, and pure visuals would seem to be a more truthful, if not the most truthful method of depicting a traumatic event, as the memories of the event are very much graphic and graphical. Saigon Calling, pages 200-201The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, page 171-172In CHCC, after their ventures fall through one too many times, Bertrand chooses to give up their shared dream of doing comics in favour of practicality, and Charlie, who still clings to his aspirations, is thoroughly shaken. The image of Charlie, alone, speechless, captures this: without a window into his thoughts via a speech bubble, the reader is left only with this single picture to encompass the entirety of his feelings, of sadness, disappointment and betrayal. The turn of the page between these two panels accentuates this, delineating the gulf that has grown between them. With language being incapable of expressing the full extent and nature of his trauma, we are left only with the visual representation of the moment, which constitutes a more genuine depiction. Attempts to relate it in text would only narrow its scope, in a sense; its limitations hinder the portrayal that is far more visceral and poignant with solely the image. The portrayal of Charlie is gripping: his features are half obscured by his impenetrable glasses, and his thoughts are deliberately entirely erased from the page, leaving the reader in silent contemplation and quiet empathy.CHAPTER 5: ConclusionWe need to synthesise arguments to have final conclusionIn this paper, we have discussed the merits of graphic novels over conventional written novels in representing trauma. To further extend our research topic, it is possible to conduct a comparative study between graphic novels and memoirs that incorporate other types of visual media, such as photography. In Chapter 2, we argued that the inclusion of photographs in graphic novels allows graphic novels to present trauma more effectively, which implies that photographs have some intrinsic qualities that allow them to be more authentic than novels. Therefore, a comparison between photographs and graphic novels would be able to flesh out the merits of each medium and discover if the use of hand-drawn sketches over realistic representations of real life has any noteworthy effects.