barry windsor smith’s beguiling narrative technique

epic illustrated 16 (feb 1983) contains an eight page strip called the beguiling by barry windsor smith which features an extraordinary narrative technique (described below under the jpgs of the first two pages)

this strip appears at first sight to be a 1980s version of prince valiant by hal foster: smith’s protagonist resembles val + as was foster’s convention speech or thought balloons are not used to carry the script.  the beguiling does not seem to function either as a critique of or homage to prince valiant though: smith himself in an interview with archie goodwin in epic illustrated 7 (aug 1981) mentions the main influence on his work at the time being the pre raphaelites, who also famously depicted the middle ages (see egs below).  as they did not work in sequential art he may have drawn on foster for a storytelling style to weave the images into a narrative

the pre raphaelites

looking more closely at those images it is easy to see which elements of pre raphaelite paintings have been adopted for use in the strip: attitudes, expressions, the blurring of foliage + figures, etc

barry windsor smith v raphaelites
smith discusses how he derived the hybrid of oil painting + comic book line drawing of which the beguiling was to become an example in the interview in epic 7

‘line can be restricting and I’ve tried to get away from it at times by painting in oils instead … but even in that medium I’m attracted to drawing lines around everything’

+ he ends up with a hard black outline filled with tonal colour instead of the flat same tone fill normally used in comics

but smith also appears to have imported something very unusual for a comic strip: stillness.  at the start of the story very different angles are used to frame what movement there is – as the story progresses he flattens + freezes panels to remove the dynamic elements comic strip artists usually (instinctively?) build in to their artwork, effectively unlearning this core technique + replacing it with the sort of stillness depicted in the paintings

defining this unlearning further: the key to successful sequential art is making it look like the artist is showing continuous often violent action broken up into snapshots, posing the characters to look as if they are eg putting their weight behind a punch or reacting to that + losing their balance: the story is usually simple (good v evil) + easy to interpret.  for the artist that drew conan in the 70s throwing punches, losing his balance + triumphing over evil to rethink this completely is extraordinary

although note smith had just spent a decade working outside sequential art producing portfolios of individual images so maybe his readers should have expected him to come up with a story which combines both disciplines.  perhaps the inspiration for the beguiling may have been noticing a potential narrative existing between two or more of the individual images produced during this period

prince valiant

comparing the two strips in more detail makes the initial impression (an 80s version of prince valiant) look less likely.  where the pre raphaelite influences are all positive + adopted wholesale into the artwork on closer inspection any that may derive from prince valiant appear to be largely negative: elements found in the strip are inverted or subverted if that’s the right word + their opposites appear in the beguiling, which is almost the scene below in reverse

copyright king features syndicate.  reproduced in will eisner’s graphic storytelling and visual narrative (2008) – every home should have one

whereas the beguiling starts with a knight lying down + rejecting medieval society because there’s too much vacuous macho sparring this strip ends with a knight lying down wishing there was more of it

slightly expanding that (simplistic + reductive) description: the heroes’ attitudes to their ideals + their lives are polar opposites.  val feels distanced from real life as depicted in his strip – his mind is set on chivalry + swash buckling.  smith’s character is shown to be alienated from chivalric traditions which do not fit his experience of the real world.  note smith states he had a similar idea for the the hero of his unpublished project the real robin hood, represented as ‘not the classic robin hood, but a real human being’ [epic 7 again]

the root cause of smith’s protagonist differing so sharply from more traditional heroes is smith himself electing to express his own preoccupations (frame of mind, relationship with the society in which he lives, cynicism, uncertainty, etc) through his artwork – he states this explicitly in the same interview

‘when I was drawing comics before the conan stories that started to sparkle, it was a job that I was pretty good at, but when I discovered that I could inject these things with personal meaning – that I could say something of myself through them – then I found I felt better about myself … it was a matter of exorcising demons’
‘I don’t do illustration … it has to be personal or nothing’

the subject of the specific personal preoccupations being expressed comes up in a discussion of the conan story the tower of the elephant, which smith states ‘had the seeds of everything I ever wanted to do – the magic, the other wordliness, the decadence of far civilisations, the lean hero striving through it.  my conan character was just an invented version of myself, how I’d like to be in that situation’

hal foster may also have expressed his personality + views through val – making him a straight hero (in the same category as the classic robin hood): an ideal for a young readership to aspire to – or he may have simply adhered to editorial dictats concerning the traits of the character he was employed to depict.  either way, if smith did in fact have foster’s strip in mind when he wrote the beguiling, val’s characteristics were rejected or replaced allowing him to express his own attitudes + articulate his own feelings to his (less young) readership

at this point it may be worth wondering if the initial impression of foster influencing smith might have been a misreading.  it may still hold up however as even if smith may have had issues with prince valiant as a hero he does not appear to have had any with hal foster as a comic book artist as the following analysis of narrative technique in the beguiling will hopefully demonstrate


the passage of time (denoted by the panel borders) is significant in this strip.  a very slow rhythm is established, the time lapse being shown by the distance covered by the protagonist between panels + the way he is posed – walking or just standing

the convention of writing the text within the artwork (as per hal foster) is also established across these first panels.  this is necessary for an extraordinary narrative effect – in panel 2 of page 2 the text representing the protagonist’s thoughts is literally cut off by the appearance of two new characters – the artwork overlays the words in mid sentence, which resumes from the beginning in panel 3

also panel 2 is split – two disorientingly different perspectives are shown of the same event at the same time, differentiating it from the previously established system of panel borders which have used a change of angle plus the presence of white space to show a different space + a later time.  here the border is reduced to a line (= smith’s version of the cubist practice of showing the same object from different viewpoints on a flat canvas?).  if the intention was to show detail of a wider shot traditional comic book grammar would be to have one panel inset into the other.  in this instance both viewpoints (two long shots) of the event appear to be intended to be read as simultaneous.  closer inspection of the figures on the bench (kissing on the left, slightly apart on the right) qualifies the viewpoints on this event as in fact being virtually simultaneous, but the effects of disorientation + the radically different scale (virtual lack) of time lapse denoted by this technique persist

in short this panel represents a double take by the protagonist

at which point, having identified the unusual narrative technique used in the beguiling, this article would be expected to end


the obvious interpretation of this scene – the characters actually see each other, with the protagonist interrupting his story to comment on the lovers + walking close past them

is not the only one

as the narration states the protagonist is thinking of his youth when the lovers appear + mentioning that his schooling involved noble maidens consorting with serfs this scene may be read as a flashback – the double take is initiated by the location which triggers a memory: perhaps of his younger self consorting with a maiden, being caught in mid consort by an older man in whose place he now stands (ie the characters only appear to see each other)

returning to the aforementioned interview for clues as to an interpretation of this page there is a statement by archie goodwin – ‘with a lot of your work … it’s always a moment of implication.  where something is going to happen or may have happened’

to which smith responds in terms of his portfolio images

‘there’s always a central image and something is always happening but the implication is, if I work it right, that something happened before to make this happen now.  thus the secondary implication is that something will happen after the picture is gone, like the figure is still walking after the camera has snapped a shot which freezes the action …’

+ his sequential art

‘…  but with graphic stories … you can tell the whole story … a series of images which shouldn’t leave anybody guessing’

in the case of page 2 of the beguiling he has come up with a central image (the lovers) which may be interpreted either as currently occurring or as an event from the past – these panels are a series of images which are intended to leave his readers guessing.  compelling his readers to import the same method they would be expected to use to interpret solitary images (ie thinking about the implications of the central image) to interpret panels of sequential art is another sign of smith having unlearned something from earlier in his career

there may be other valid readings of the scene but in the light of the end of the story the second reading seems to fit best: the scene shows an actual past romantic experience where no relationship proved possible.  the difficult + transient nature of relationships in the protagonist’s world would explain why he would reach for + feel the need to attain a permanent perfect relationship with an angel (spoiler alert: there is a relationship with an angel)

the obvious interpretation of this being a past tense story halted by a present tense event cannot be correct in hindsight as the only present tense events occur on the last two pages (see note below for even more tedious detail about tenses)

returning to the unanswered question of the influence of prince valiant

adopting a narrative style similar to hal foster’s is necessary for the double take effect: smith may have had prince valiant in mind when he came up with this

+ the other aspect the beguiling has in common with foster’s strip which sets them both apart from the mainstream is silence.  one of the elements of prince valiant which betrays its age to a modern reader is the absence of sound effects

an aside about sound effects + oil painting

2000ad 902 - durham red - mark harrison
the example above is of artwork by mark harrison who has been selected because putting sound into comic strips was his speciality: he even had a habit of writing the music playing over the scene in the margin.  hiiisssk! thuk! + sic! are all custom built onomatopoeic words, written in his trademark transparent lettering, usually to be found overhanging the edge of the panel

anyone reading this article already knew what comic book sound effects look like but this is an opportunity to ask the world in general whatever happened to mark harrison

harrison’s strip also works as an example of mid 1990s fully painted artwork to compare with smith’s hybrid style.  in the large panel the girl is the only figure with any major amount of black + white on her (note there is no outline round her hair – smith would have put one) – this is a technique from landscape painting for denoting relative distance from the viewer: the crowd are further back behind her (smith would have used a thinner line – see beguiling frame 1).  the other characters are constructed more like the blocks of colour you would expect in an oil painting

note also as is traditional in comics the first of the smaller panels shows close up detail of the larger establishing shot as opposed to smith’s unusual techniques discussed above

returning to the question of the influence of prince valiant again

smith may well have selected the silence of foster’s sequential art to go with the stillness of the pre raphaelites’ paintings – which would fit the hypothesis being examined neatly – but the obvious response to that would be: there’s no sound in 19th century oil paintings either.  the lack of sound may already be explained by the influence of the pre raphaelites, let go of this hal foster idea

nevertheless, from the above analysis perhaps there are enough similarities between the two strips to infer they were intended by the author.  and, even if authorial intention has not been conclusively proven, much of epic illustrated’s readership is certain to have noticed the similarities + differences to + from prince valiant + the beguiling + understood the strip as situated in / subverting that tradition.  barry windsor smith is not the sort of author who underestimates the intelligence of his readers + is highly likely to have expected them to do that

a few last points about the rest of the strip in no particular order

   the technique of splitting a panel occurs twice more in the beguiling, in the scene with the rose.  the protagonist’s hand passes through it as if it were an optical illusion of some sort.  this lends weight to the reading of the lovers’ status as not really being there with him, although in the scene with the rose which object passes through the other (illusory hand / real rose or illusory rose / real hand) is open to question as well

the split frames in this scene clearly delineate different times + do not represent a double take – the technique is used here to recall the effect of disorientation established on page 2 + cause the reader to focus his or her attention in the same way as they did there on the event depicted here

   the story told by the artwork is slightly at odds with the narration

ignoring the words + just reading the images: the visual information given to the readers tells one (simple) story, apparently in the present tense.  the words undermine this, rendering it complex.  having seen what happens in the end, virtually the whole of what the reader is shown by the narrator is memory, but it isn’t all explicitly told in the past tense, that only starts with the last frame of page 1.  this has the effect of wrong footing the reader – he or she is led to make the assumption that the tale (of the past) starts when the protagonist gets up + wanders into the maze, after having been anchored in the present on the first page.  if anyone was wondering where the dreamlike feel of the strip was coming from this slight dissonance between word + image looks like a major contributing factor

it is not impossible for smith to have finished the artwork before he started to think about the narration, which would account for the two iterations of the same story which make perfect sense seperately but do not quite cohere when they are read simultaneously

3    the way of writing the middle ages in the beguiling – as marvel comics shakespeare (eg ‘afraid?!!  what meaning hath such a word to volstagg?’ – volstagg, thor 155) plus archaic spellings (ryband for ribbon) + vocabulary – is unnecessarily difficult to read.  barry windsor smith does not get everything right


addendum dec 2015


to read the beguiling there is not necessarily any need to plough through back issues of epic illustrated: bws has put the whole strip up on his own website

with an afterword implying a substantially simpler reading was intended than the one discussed above:

although it looks odd for a reader to disagree with an author when he makes a clear statement about the way one of his texts is supposed to be interpreted, the view of the author of this article (who was the reader mentioned in the first half of the sentence) is that the author’s (bws’s) reading looks odd: basically because it’s simple, + the beguiling is complex

to paraphrase lou reed when he was asked what one his songs was about: ‘just cause I wrote it doesn’t mean I know what it’s about’ – ie all of us are readers, some of us are also authors, none of us necessarily knows what things are about.  bws’s interpretation is one option of several possible ones (see below for another)


the pre raphaelite artwork reproduced in this article (barry windsor smith v raphaelites) features on the right hand side venus verticordia (dante gabriel rossetti 1864-8) + acrasia (john melhuish strudwick c. 1888)


on the subject of following the story presented by the images + ignoring the words (point 2 above) there is a french language article about the beguiling whose author (raymond) does exactly that

NB spoiler alert it gives away the ending

‘Le texte, rédigé dans un vieil anglais classique, n’est pas vraiment nécessaire pour comprendre cette histoire, mais il complète de façon juste cette ambiance féerique’

the text, written in classical old english, is not really necessary to understand the story, but it somehow rounds off the fairytale atmosphere

ie the pictures are the story, the words help to set the mood: a perfectly valid interpretation for a foreign language reader for whom the text would be obscure even if he managed to work out the vocabulary, because it’s still obscure in english

this article also includes a description of raymond’s experience of reading the split panel with the lovers in it: he stops suddenly when he gets to it then moves on.  he does not mention the text being cut off at all + seems genuinely to be interested only in the pictorial narrative.  he states during a discussion of the layouts (which definitely translates thus):

‘the artist uses three classic bands at the beginning, but he puts few illustrations in them and does not use more than six panels per page.  when drawing a larger number of images he disguises this by merging their borders and this technique surprised me (I was not able to see the point of it).  I now think he just wants to slow the eyes of the reader and not allow them to run quickly over these panels. Barry W. Smith is performing a visual poem, and this is a series of illustrations one must think about before following the story.’  [raymond]

as per the point about disagreeing with the author (made in firstly above), raymond also disagrees with bws’s interpretation of the angel + the ending, the sense of which view hopefully comes across in the following translation:

[bws] guesses that behind an angelic appearance, this dream woman could ultimately really be Medusa.  

the perfect love of the knight would then be an illusion, and [the end of the strip] a tragic joke. I feel bad about accepting this interpretation, because the enchanting artwork and the poetic ambition of the text seem to me to contradict this pessimistic interpretation.

this medieval poem eulogises the quest for an absolute ideal and, unlike Barry W. Smith, I think the young knight finds an unusual form of eternal love.’  [raymond]

lastly, raymond says something about the storytelling of the last few pages which would be easier to understand if someone else could translate the text (note anyone reading this current paragraph ought really to read the strip first + decide if they concur with the following statements).  the act of passing through the wall is cut into four panels.  the panel borders have been established to represent time passing earlier in the strip, using this technique for a single event puts it into slow motion for the reader

raymond’s points about this rendered into english may come out as follows (google translate has always been crap):

‘Sur la fin du récit, le dessinateur multiplie les longues cases étirées et élégantes, qui prennent parfois toute la hauteur de la page.’

at the end of the story, the artist multiplies the long stretched and elegant panels, which sometimes take the entire height of the page.

‘Il y a là une recherche esthétique que l’on pourrait considérer comme un maniérisme, mais certaines de ses «trouvailles» restent totalement appropriées au climat fantastique qu’il veut créer.’

there is here a refined aesthetic one could consider [merely] as an affectation, but some of his «discoveries» [inventions?] are completely relevant to the fantastical atmosphere he wants to create.

‘Ainsi, les quatre images à décor unique montrant le chevalier traversant le mur … sont un chef d’œuvre narratif qui n’a rien de gratuit.’

thus, the four seperate images showing the knight passing through the wall … constitute a narrative masterpiece which doesn’t have anything gratuitous about it.

‘On pourrait les qualifier de “productives” car elles illustrent de façon ingénieuse un phénomène surnaturel.’

they could be described as “fertiliser” [what the hell does he mean by “productives” – utilitarian / useful?] because they illustrate a supernatural phenomenon in an ingenious way.

‘Elles créent de plus un petit suspense dont la résolution apparaît dans la grande illustration de la page suivante’

They create a little suspense as well the resolution of which appears in the large illustration on the following page

which last point is definitely correct + well made

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