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Three different images showing a beam of light shooting through the scene.
Three images from The Rocket Book (1912) showing storytelling through imagery (Pages 17, 23, and 35), Peter Newell, Children’s Book Collection, Digital Collections, Library of Congress.

Exploring Storytelling Through Pictures

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This post was written by Jada Kamau, a recent graduate of Wheaton College and Spring 2024 Library of Congress Internship (LOCI) program participant in the Informal Learning Office.

Captain Underpants. Spiderman. Charlie Brown.

When I read these names, I can picture the characters clearly and envision myself in their worlds. Although their escapades are printed on paper, these characters are so vivid in my mind because their stories are full of pictures, which ignite readers’ imaginations differently from reading words alone. Let’s explore the Library of Congress’ collections to learn about some different ways that authors over time have used illustrations for visual storytelling.

Sometimes, authors decide not to use words to tell their stories; instead, they rely entirely on pictures. These stories can take the form of comic strips, comic books, graphic novels, and more. Many experts consider the wordless novel Gods’ Man by Lynd Ward to be the originator of graphic novels. The stand-alone visuals were striking, compelling, and particularly revolutionary in the early 1900s, and this mode of artistry continues to flourish today. For example, Molly Idle, modern author of wordless children’s books including Flora and the Flamingo, spoke at National Book Festival, describing why she chooses her distinct, wordless storytelling style. Hear her tell the story yourself in the video below between the timestamps 3:00 and 3:27.

Molly talks about focusing on the illustrations of her books. What about you? Do you prefer pictures, words, or both together?

Most comic strips combine images and words. In the late 1800s, newspapers began including sections for cartoons in the form of comic strips, creating iconic characters that pantomimed humorous, sad, or thought-provoking stories. Some comic strips promoted or condemned wars, participated in dialogue about civil rights, or simply served as entertainment.  Many times, artists used newspapers to help people laugh about mundane or challenging aspects of life.

A black and white comic strip showing a little girl convincing her mother to let her play outside.
“Willie Cute Tries a Little Persuasion” comic strip in the Los Angeles herald, (Los Angeles, CA), Jan 01, 1905.

Some comic strips, like the one above, use both pictures and words to help the reader understand the story. With your family:

  • Take a look at the comic strip above and try to understand what the story is without reading the words.
  • Next, only read the words, and ignore the pictures.
  • Try examining the words and pictures together. How do the pictures and words work together to tell the story? Did you find it challenging to understand the story when you only paid attention to one part at a time?

Alt Text: Comic book covers of an All Star Comics issue and a Spider-Man vs. Wolverine issue.
Covers of [All Star Comics, Issue #8, 1941:Dec./1942:Jan.] and [Spider-Man vs. Wolverine, Issue #1, 1987:Feb]. Comic Book Collection, Newspaper and Current Periodical, Library of Congress. Photo courtesy of Jada Kamau.
While comic strips share short scenes, comic books share a slightly longer story that is often extended through multiple issues, like we see with DC or Marvel comics. These two publishing companies have created hundreds of stories starring their iconic characters, and many early editions are in the Library of Congress’ comic book collection. Sometimes, comic books continue the stories of their characters for a long time through multiple issues. Then, people can continue to read about the characters they love for many years. For example, Captain America was created in 1941, and Batman was created in 1939; we still have new movies and books being created about them for younger generations. These characters have become timeless!

Unlike comic books, graphic novels have longer stories contained in each individual book. Those graphic novels can also be a part of longer exciting series. Author Dav Pilkey created characters that readers love and has carried their adventures through multiple series and spin-off series. He even partnered with the Library of Congress to create a video series of how to create some of his most popular characters. Check out how to draw Petey here!

Alt Text: Three covers of The Montgomery Story in different languages.
Covers of The Montgomery Story, issue 1, 1957 in Spanish, Arabic, and English. (Comic Books, Newspaper and Current Periodicals, Library of Congress). Photo courtesy of Jada Kamau.

Even though people often think of cartoons as whimsical, they can powerfully depict important stories that reach diverse audiences. Did you know that there was a comic book about Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr written and published in 1957 while he was still alive? The Montgomery Story was distributed to spaces of community and change, like churches, so people could learn about the Civil Rights Movement. Today, it has been translated into several languages, like the ones you see in the picture above. Watch between timestamps 15:01 and 15:49 of the video below to hear author Andrew Aydin explain how MLK’s comic book inspired him to coauthor the graphic novel March about Congressman John Lewis.

There are so many ways to tell stories using pictures! Pictures can ignite people’s imaginations, accentuating a story’s power, humor, or emotion. Do you want to try your hand at visual storytelling?  Check out this activity with the children in your life to discover your own style of visual storytelling. Also, visit the Library of Congress online to explore our collections of comic books, graphic novels, children’s books, and more!

Additional Resources:

There were several people who helped a lot with researching for this post! I thank Katie McCarthy, Jennifer Ezell, and Alli Hartley-Kong, ILO staff who walked me through the process and Antonio Parker for his leadership in the Library’s internship program.

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