STATE OF THE ART: How to Read a (War) Comic

By: Ryan Stuart , US Naval Postgraduate School

The phrase "war comic" feels oxymoronic, doesn't it? While war poetry, war novels, and war movies are long-accepted narrative forms (the first ballads passed down in most oral traditions are war epics)—and despite the rampant humor some of those forms exhibit—somehow the words "war" and "comic" just don't seem to go together.1

There's the more highbrow term graphic novel. It's kind of a weasel term, borrowing as it does the solemn acceptance of the novel as "art," while furthering the assumption that no mere comic can claim that august mantle. But let's use the term anyway, at least until the canon comes up with a better one.

Terminal Lance: The White Donkey is a graphic novel based in part on one former Marine's experience in Iraq.2 Some of you may be familiar with author Maximilian Uriarte's "Terminal Lance" strip, which is published in the Marine Corps Times newspaper and on his own website.3 The first time Uriarte went to Iraq, in 2007–2008, he deployed to the Zaidon region as the turret gunner of an MRAP.4 Based on his own experiences during that deployment, The White Donkey follows a Marine named Abe and one of his buddies from early in their enlistment to Abe's dark, PTSD-induced encounter with suicide.

Moving Parts

Graphic novels generally have two aspects: the pictures and the words.5 Both carry the story's plot and themes equally. For this article, we'll look at the pictorial art and how it conveys the story's plot, themes, and emotions. I lean heavily on Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, a fine work that gives an insider's perspective on how comics and graphic novels function.6

Just as each sentence in a novel is (one hopes) carefully crafted by the author for a specific effect, to illuminate a character or scene or to convey thematic meaning, so is each aspect of the art in a graphic novel chosen to depict the author/illustrator's intent.7 The illustrator of a graphic novel makes deliberate choices not only about what should be described in words and what should be shown in pictures, but also about the level of visual abstraction, the appearance of lines, how to distribute panels to show time or convey feeling, and how to use color
(or its absence) to best effect.


Let's begin with the knottiest, but in many ways most interesting, aspect of graphic novel illustration: abstraction. Put simply, any object can be drawn as a photorealistic imitation or as a quick sketch of just a few marks, or as any interpretation along the spectrum between those points. Take a look at your coffee cup: it can be drawn with all the stains and scratches, or as a couple of lines and arcs. The viewer will recognize it in either case.

This is even more the case with human faces—a face can be reduced to two dots and a line, and you'll still recognize it as a face, as in figure 1.


The interesting thing about levels of abstraction is that the more detailed a drawing of a face is, the less likely one is to identify with that character. In figure 1, that handsome fellow on the left is clearly a white guy somewhere around age 40; as you move toward the right he begins to lose those distinctive features until, at the far right, he may not even be a he. That far-right face could be any person, at any age. The specific face has become the idea of a face. This degree of abstraction allows a reader to see him- or herself as the character, to enter into the world of the story as that character.

In The White Donkey, our protagonist Abe is introduced in a very detailed image (figure 2).

Underneath the helmet, he has identifiable features and a clearly sanguine expression, and we gather information about him: he's young; has nice-enough, regular features; he's got on military gear; he's maybe a little bored. Can a reader identify with him? Perhaps in parts—being a young man, being in the military. But can a reader (psychologically) become him? Not likely. He's still only himself, and the reader can't have his specific features.


But in moments of high stress, something interesting happens (figure 3).


Gone are many of the distinguishing features—the shape of his eyes, the few lines around his mouth, the contours of his lips. He's pure, abstracted expression now: he's all terror. Granted he's not two dots and a line, but still, it's not much of a stretch to say that you can't be positive he's even a he, and so this face could be anybody. In your mind as a reader, this could be you. Abstraction opens the door; it allows you to feel terror.


You might think that lines wouldn't have much to say, but they're actually very expressive (figure 4).

And there are yet more variations on a line than shown here: drawing software can create thousands of different types of lines. A person drawing by hand has an infinitude of choices. Everything about a line carries meaning: its weight (thickness), angle, hue (darkness or lightness), uniformity, and so on. In the panels shown in figure 5, the gradual lightening of the donkey's lines gives the scene a ghost-like spectral feeling.

By this point in the graphic novel, the donkey has made a few interesting and unlikely appearances. It clearly carries some heavy symbolic significance for Abe and his companions, and for Uriarte. In figure 5, as the donkey disappears, we must ask what the donkey represents—is it a hallucination? A dream? A vision? Or a sign?

Panels as Time

In traditional comics, a panel was literally a box—one box that surrounded each drawing. In newspapers, an editorial comic might be one drawing in one box, while a daily strip might have four or five same-sized boxes. Comics these days use panels far more flexibly and interestingly, so that now a panel can convey time.

In real life, time is not experienced as a sequence of fixed, equal parts marching in lockstep. Combat time has been called "long periods of boredom punctuated with sheer terror." Panels chop time into discrete moments or events, and the shape of the panel illustrates not the duration of time but the feeling of it (figure 6).

In the top image, the disinterest of the mustachioed fellow, staccato in three panels, is clear and unchanging. It could have been represented in just one panel, but the duplication makes it extra clear that some time has passed before he answers his interlocutor's question.

In the bottom image, some uninteresting detail has been added (the lamp, the back of the chair), but the experience is of a long stretch of time between question and answer. It actually feels longer than the three staccato panels.

Uriarte uses panels to very good effect in The White Donkey. After Abe undergoes an assault of a haircut across 13 panels that are compressed into two pages, Uriarte gives us this image, which occupies the next full page (figure 7).

Abe's resigned disgust is evident in the expanse of that panel, and the fact that it occupies a full page gives us plenty of time to absorb his feeling.

In general, Uriarte uses multiple panels to express compressed time, and larger ones to express its expansion. In figure 8, Abe's on his first mission in Iraq, an escort patrol. His job is to keep an eye out for any suspicious item in the road that might be an IED. Here he's spotted a truck ahead that's carrying some large and unidentified canisters, but his more experienced driver has told him to chill. Figure 8 shows the art as they pass the truck.

The alarm in his face is evident (again, note how his face is drawn more abstractly) and the tight space between the three panels gives a feeling of time being squeezed. These three panels are also chained by Abe's drumbeat of curses—reading them, one counts each curse as a second or so of time. Taken together, words and picture create a sense of time being terribly distorted, as it must feel to someone who fears they're passing a monstrous bomb.

Shortly after this event, Uriarte introduces the reader to the white donkey of the title. The convoy has passed the not-a-bomb truck but has not yet reached its destination when it is stopped by a white donkey in the road (figure 9).

This image is the first in the graphic novel to span two pages, and Uriarte has made some really intriguing choices for this art.

Many things about it contribute to the feeling of a full stop: the white space around the image (it doesn't continue clear off the page); the border around the panel; the balance of the lead truck's big, heavy, black wheels across the centerline of the image. Although the donkey is clearly walking, the two trucks appear motionless, and the blurriness of the palm trees in the background gives no clues about movement. It's an odd, arrested image.8 It tells you without doubt that the donkey is important, very important, and you should stop and pay attention.

One last panel relating to time is fun to examine. This one occurs after Abe has been in-country for some time and the newness of the experience has waned. Scary things have happened, but none were scarring, and the images feel settled and unconnected (figure 10).

This panel also covers two pages. It is composed of a number of small scenes—handing out water, negotiating at a checkpoint—entirely without borders. Across the top of the panel, trucks come "in" toward the reader; at the bottom, they exit the scene in rhythm like a small metronome. The images are all fairly matter-of-fact and some are quite heartening. But they are unbounded by time, by the black boxes of panels, and the feeling the collage conveys is of random events or memories in snapshot. This is the everyday routine.9


Color is emotion. Don't believe me? Look at figure 11. Give it an honest test, now: look at it for at least five seconds and check your inner emotional register.

Don't you feel a little cheerier, kind of upbeat, like maybe tonight would be a good night to go out dancing? I don't have the expertise in color theory to tell you why, but for most Westerners, these are energetic, happy colors.10

Ok, now have a look at this (figure 12).

If you're like most Westerners, you'll be feeling rather less chipper now, maybe a bit relaxed, even serene. Color has a very direct effect on how we feel.

Uriarte uses a lot of what are called duotones in his work. The images are made of black and one other color (see figures 7–10 for examples). Sometimes the color is pale, sometimes deep, but it is still only one color plus black, which can also become some hue of gray. That's a duotone.

Generally speaking, Uriarte has a color scheme for each location in the novel: a sea-green for the training base in Kaneohe, Hawaii, sepia for Camp Wilson, California, purple for some half-waking states, khaki for Iraq, and so on. These shifts make for a nice visual hint: the reader absorbs the idea that if the color has changed, so has the place—external or internal. The color is not always bounded by line (remember learning to color within the lines?), but is generally a wash of watercolor that shifts subtly in hue and density, giving the work a range of texture. It's a nice choice that allows for a lot of variation in the art.11

Having set up these rules for himself, Uriarte breaks them in some interesting ways. In one panel, otherwise colored in Iraq khaki, the red and green of the Iraqi flag practically jump off the page. For reasons I can't guess, the goggles the Marines wear are often some color between tan and a dusty rose. In figure 13, Abe is handed a Gatorade after a particularly horrible day, and the drink's cheerful pink is jarring.

One of the worst events in the book is covered in red. The scarcity of other colors throughout makes that red feel shocking and terrible. Finally, the most awful nightmare in the book is all in stark black, white, and red, and is unforgettable.

Words & Pictures

So there you are at your drafting table, working up the next scene in your graphic novel, and you have yet another choice: do you write it in words, or draw it in pictures, or both? If both, do the words express the same thing as the picture? The opposite of the picture? Something entirely tangential to the picture, like a character's thoughts in a bubble? Do the words amplify some non-pictorial aspect of the scene?

There are a lot of choices to be made.

Uriarte tends generally to stick to pretty conventional choices: the words and images in The White Donkey are closely tied, one generally supporting the other. There are usually a lot more words on the page when Abe's at home on leave, so we can assume civilian life is a lot chattier. Until the end of the book, that is.

Abe is deep into depression and suffering from PTSD by the last 40 or so pages of the book, most of which are set in Oregon where Abe is home on leave. It's very evident that language is deserting him. He speaks very little—whole two-page spreads can go by in which he stays silent, and all the talking is done by others in his life. There's one remarkable series of 20 pages (an eternity in a graphic novel) where he speaks not one word and is not even capable of language. Uriarte is trying to convey, I think, the terrible difficulty of putting the experience of the Iraq war into words. Or perhaps the fact must be faced: there are some experiences that cannot be conveyed in words, however expert the writer.

Why a Graphic Novel?

Uriarte says that he began writing this story as a conventional novel, which didn't work. He then wrote it as a screenplay, ending up with a 145-page version. (That would make it a two-and-a-half-hour movie.) Because Uriarte earned a degree in animation, storyboarding the screenplay must have seemed a natural fit.12

Given the other art forms that are available, however, we have to ask: why make a graphic novel? A text-based novel would surely find a wider audience than a graphic novel. A movie could make more money. Assuming that either of those things could be made without creative interference, what advantage does the graphic novel hold for a storyteller?

A text-only version of Abe's story would lack the immediacy that the graphic novel inherently offers. However fluent we are, reading text is still an effort of translation: the reader must transform the squiggles of type into mental images, sounds, smells, and so on. A graphic novel does all this mental heavy lifting for us by drawing the pictures, giving sound a shape (the jagged shape of the line container around a BOOM, for example), and depicting smell with stink lines or an expression of disgust on a character's face. It's a much less mediated, much more direct experience.

Why not make a movie, then? A movie hands the watcher all the pictures and sound a person could hope for, sometimes to the point of sensory overload. But one thing is lacking in film: identification. To a limited extent, people do identify with a movie character when the character shares some trait with the watcher or expresses some familiar emotion. Still, I think the experience is much more constrained. We can never become that guy on the screen because he's seven feet tall, absolutely specific in his gestures and voice, and probably much better looking than we are. In a comic book, the generally iconic style of representation allows a reader to inhabit the character, not merely to observe.

All in all, I found that Terminal Lance: The White Donkey allowed me to feel what it is like to be a shiny new Marine in a combat zone—and all the deadly consequences thereof—in a way no other medium could do. Reading it is an experience not to be missed. ²

About the Author(s):

Ryan Stuart is an artist and designer, and the design and layout manager of CTX at the US Naval Postgraduate School.

  1. Let's agree to ignore the propaganda comics skulking in that dark corner over there. go back up
  2. Maximilian Uriarte, Terminal Lance: The White Donkey (New York: Little, Brown & Co.), 2016. go back up
  3. See go back up
  4. Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected armored vehicle. go back up
  5. Some graphic novels don't have words at all except the onomatopoeic ones, like "BOOM!" go back up
  6. Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (New York: William Morrow Paperbacks, 1994). go back up
  7. Let's dispense quickly with the fantasy, shall we? No art form—pictorial, musical, kinetic, written, or whatever—is a serendipitous outpouring of Muse magic. All serious artists study and practice their craft for years, as thoroughly as any scientist, soldier, and—it is fervently to be hoped—dentist does. Inspiration isn't the same as fairy dust. go back up
  8. The donkey gets some very interesting visual treatments throughout the work, as do a coyote or two and a fox. go back up
  9. Other, later panels have quite the opposite visual effect. I hope readers of this article will be intrigued enough to read The White Donkey, so I'm not going to spoil it by examining those more shocking panels. You'll know ‘em when you see ‘em. go back up
  10. If you're curious, you can read more here: . Culture matters with regard to color. For example, in Western cultures black is associated with death; in Asian cultures, death is white. All my commentary here relates to Western cultures. As a side note, I once saw two Pantone books (those are printers' books of color swatches, a little like the color strips you see in a paint store) side by side: one made for the United States and one for Japan. The two books were easily distinguishable: the very range of color and hue was different. This leads me to wonder whether people from different parts of the world actually perceive color differently, and react to something more than cultural cues. go back up
  11. Comics traditionally have used only black and white or duotones to reduce printing costs. I can't say whether Uriarte chose duotones for this reason, or possibly as a nod to comic art history, or for another reason altogether. It works for his story, however. go back up
  12. Learn more about storyboarding here: . It's an amazingly useful technique for much more than creating graphic novels. go back up
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