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Editorial pictographic sequential A. Bachmann Verlag.

language Academic publishing on
ROBERTO BARTUAL comics in Germany
107–125 The graphic novel as 173–175 Underground Classics:
Articles The Transformation
7–33 The winding, pot-holed PAUL ATKINSON of Comics into Comix,
road of comic art edited by James Danky
127–147 The limits of time and and Denis Kitchen;
scholarship transitions: challenges
JOHN A. LENT introduction by Jay Lynch;
to theories of sequential essays by James Danky
35–52 Intertwining verbal and image comprehension and Dennis Kitchen;
visual elements in printed NEIL COHN Patrick Rosenkranz; Trina
narratives for adults Robbins; Paul Buhle (2009)
176–178 Alan Moore: Comics as
53–70 Discerning pictures: how 149–158 Harry Morgan: the Performance, Fiction as
we look at and understand twenty-first century Scalpel, Annalisa Di Liddo
images in comics Renaissance man of (2009)
STUART MEDLEY graphic novels
179–181 The Power of Comics:
71–81 The shape of comic book History, Form and Culture,
reading Reviews Randy Duncan and
A. DAVID LEWIS Matthew J. Smith (2009)
159–168 Diary Drawings by Bobby
83–105 William Hogarth’s Baker 182–183 Reading Comics: How
A Harlot’s Progress: the They Work and What
169–172 ‘Yellow Series’ Christian A. They Mean, Douglas Wolk
beginnings of a purely
Bachmann (ed.), Bochum (2008)
and Essen: Christian

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STIC 1 (1) pp. 3–5 Intellect Limited 2010

Studies in Comics
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Editorial. English language. doi: 10.1386/stic.1.1.3/2


These are exciting times in comics scholarship. A year ago the critical mass that many felt had been
slowly building for years finally reached a peak with the announcement of three new international
peer-reviewed journals dedicated to comics: European Comic Art (Liverpool University Press) hit the
ground running in Spring 2008, and The Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics (Routledge) is set to
appear in 2010. With Studies in Comics we are excited to be a part of this revolution, and leading the
way in this new era of academic debate about sequential art. Our aim is to make available articles of
an exceptional academic standard with a strong theoretical focus.
In Studies in Comics we want to promote research that describes the nature of comics, to identify
the medium as a distinct art form, and to address the medium’s formal properties. Of course, there
have been forerunners, notably The Comics Journal (Fantagraphics Books), a magazine dedicated to
the criticism of comics, as well as the more academically orientated International Journal of Comic Art,
published by John Lent. However, the emergence of peer-reviewed journals dedicated to comics
indicates that research in comics is becoming increasingly recognized as an important emerging field
of academia.
This recognition has been a long time coming. In the twentieth century, while European comics
gained respect, and Asian comics enjoyed ongoing popularity, western comics endured censorship,
witch-hunts, mockery and ridicule. Grudging acceptance led to what could be described as a com-
plete rebranding in Britain and North America in the 1980s, when ‘graphic novel’ quickly became a
buzzword for booksellers, film-makers, writers, artists and adaptors of all types. Of course, we always
knew that sophisticated comics and graphic novels existed, and that there was great cultural and
creative capital in comics of all types, but now the rest of the world seems to be catching on, and
comics are appearing everywhere.

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While comics have always attracted attention from scholars working in different disciplines, the
study of comics has been slow to emerge in its own right. This is partly because, like film studies
before it, in the initial stages there was a lack of an institutional ‘home base’: with comics research
coming from art colleges, English and history departments, language departments, and so on, and
with opportunities to teach comics being similarly diffuse. This meant that comics scholars have
sometimes struggled to see themselves as part of a viable academic community, and have acted as
smugglers, fitting in comics where they could, a masquerade of secret identities and hidden treas-
ures. However, as universities have adopted buzzwords like ‘interdisciplinarity’ and ‘convergence’
new principles have started to emerge, and once again, as in the 1960s, there is a direct challenge to
the orthodoxies and elitist hierarchies that operate within academia. Popular culture, including mass
entertainment such as television and film, is now studied at many universities alongside more tradi-
tional subjects. In spite of this, comics scholarship still lurks on the fringes of academia when it
should be marketing itself as the embodiment of interdisciplinary research. Studies in Comics aims to
change this.
Having been smugglers, comic scholars often find themselves with unusual career paths,
working in English departments, libraries, and art colleges, trying to ply their unfashionable
wares. We are therefore perhaps less inhibited by institutional boundaries or the horizons tradi-
tionally imposed by disciplines. While everyone has been looking at the stars, comics scholars
have been in the gutters and are all the better for it. This field is a model of interdisciplinarity and
stands at the threshold of becoming a vibrant new area of teaching and research activity. Bridging
popular culture, literature and fine art, to name just a few perspectives, comics scholarship is
well-placed to make an impact on the thinking of scholars in many adjacent fields, as well as on
the general public, demonstrating the potential of comics to stimulate ideas, provoke emotions,
and challenge convention. This is not to say that there are not challenges to face. While Studies in
Comics aims to promote comics studies as a model for interdisciplinary research, it is also about
expanding the debates surrounding what makes comics distinct from other art forms: it will aim
to balance the exploration of interdisciplinary approaches with the equally important attempt to
define a critical vocabulary for the study of comics.
Comics scholarship is now exploring the possibilities of the medium as never before, but in many
cases this has revealed that we lack the vocabulary to describe its specific workings, and have often
fallen back on the language of other visual or literary arts. By encouraging interdisciplinary readings
of comics from as wide a range of critical perspectives as possible we hope to expand the terminology
and critical skills available to both the student and the casual reader of comics, and build upon schol-
arship from all disciplines in the hope that this debate might allow a more precise lexis to emerge. In
this spirit the journal is international in scope, and provides an inclusive space in which researchers
from all backgrounds can present new thinking on comics to a global audience. Key to this approach

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is a desire to cultivate close analysis of the comics page/text using a variety of methodologies, and to
explore a range of perspectives and approaches that aim to reveal and articulate, through world-class
research, a ‘theory of comics’. It is also our goal to offer reviews of new comics, criticism, and exhibi-
tions, and to occasionally offer space for cutting edge and emergent creative work.
Our inaugural issue focuses on the basic workings of comics. Each of the articles herein explores
a different perspective, discussing comics’ cultural status, cognitive requirements, fictional capabili-
ties, narratological workings, aesthetic qualities, performative symbolism, and historical context. Our
next issue will consider autobiography, a growing trend in comics, and will contain articles approach-
ing this subject from a similarly wide range of perspectives. Future issues will be focused around
themes such as historicism and audience.
It should be said we are deeply grateful to Chris Ware for providing us with an image for the
cover for this first volume, and to the board of editors and reviewers, to our contributors, and to
Intellect for this valuable opportunity.
The study of comics has come a long way over the last half century, but it has done so rather
more slowly than many of us would have liked. We are picking up the pace.

Julia Round and Chris Murray

April 2010

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STIC 1 (1) pp. 7–33 Intellect Limited 2010

Studies in Comics
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/stic.1.1.7/1

Founder, Publisher, Editor-in-Chief, International Journal of Comic Art

The winding, pot-holed road of comic

art scholarship

Keywords Abstract
comic art scholarship Comic art scholarship has finally gotten a foothold in the academy, after decades of individual and short-term
pioneers efforts. A number of reasons can be ventured for this hesitancy to study comic art, including academic snob-
comics history bery and protection of disciplinary turfs, and lack of grants, organized research collections, and other
pre-1980s resources.
comics research Those who pioneered comic art scholarship were often fans, collectors, aficionados, and cartoonists, who
Europe researched from their personal collections. A substantial amount of the early research in the 1960s and 1970s
China was done in France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Sweden, England, Japan, and, to a lesser extent, China and the
Japan United States. A few individuals also recorded the histories of Australian and Canadian comic books. The
Australia stories of these pioneering efforts are full of interesting anecdotes.
Canada More organized academic research has resulted since the 1990s. Reasons for this were that the academy
United States could not continue to ignore popular culture (and comics) because of its importance; comics were reinvented
as a more sophisticated medium; a theoretical framework evolved, and graduate students felt ‘safer’ embark-
ing on the writing of dissertations based on comic art.

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John A. Lent

The study of comic art was an evolutionary process that grew from a diversity of circumstances
exploited by a group of serendipitous pioneers, labouring under Sisyphean conditions. The field owed
just as much to fans, cartoonists, and collectors as to academics for its beginnings, and, in many
cases, originated in an atmosphere that was less than cordial.
To piece together the origins of comic art scholarship, an attempt is made in this article to discover
the reasons for the hesitancy to study comics and highlight some of the individuals who wandered,
by chance, into this field and the difficulties they encountered. The perspective is global, both schol-
arly and anecdotal, and wide-ranging in coverage of the communities (fans, cartoonists, academics,
and others) responsible for the development of comics scholarship. No pretence at comprehensive-
ness is claimed because of the nature of history, ever changing because of new findings and interpre-
tations, and the space limitations of this article.

The hesitancy to study comic art

Given their high readership and the vast reservoir of researchable topics identified with them, it is dif-
ficult to fathom why comics and cartoons remained unstudied (or at least, under-studied) for so long.
Before the 1940s, occasional biographies of American comic strip and political cartoonists appeared, as
did a few MA theses on children and comic strips, series of magazine articles on US caricaturists, occa-
sional book chapters, such as Gilbert Seldes’ (1924) well-known analysis of ‘Krazy Kat’ in his Seven
Lively Arts, and journalistic articles. In the West, not much more seemed to be published.
Japan, however, was exceptional, both in its study of popular culture, dating to the nineteenth
century, and comics. Katayori Mitsugu (1921–), a cartoonist/researcher, claimed that there were one
or two manga critics writing in the Taisho (1912–26) era, and many more in Showa (1926–89). Among
them was early comic strip artist Okamoto Ippei, who published books on manga (in this case, comic
strips). Katayori said that before World War II, the mainstreams for manga study were bourgeois (the
so-called nonsense manga) and proletarian. Other forerunners of Japanese comics criticism and his-
tory, according to Katayori, were Tokyo Manga Kai, the first Japanese association of cartoonists
whose member, Ikebe Hitoshi (1886–1969), wrote manga criticism; the political cartoons magazine
Karikare (1938–1941), and painter/cartoonist/critic Suyama Keiichi (1905–1975), who wrote the book
Gendai sekai manga shu/A Collection of Modern World Manga in 1936. A later book (1956) by Suyama
looked at comics globally (Ogi 2005: 49–51).
Articles and lectures about comics in the United States and at least 20 other countries during the
late 1940s and 1950s, and extending beyond, focused primarily on the anti-comic book campaigns
waged then (Lent 1999). Engaging a maximum effects approach, educationalists, psychologists, and
sociologists treated the comic book as a pariah, a danger to youth, to morals, to reading, and to the
very fabric of society. In the US and England, Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent (1954) and

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The winding, pot-holed road of comic art scholarship

George Pumphrey’s Children’s Comics: A Guide for Parents and Teachers (1955), respectively, led the
Why then the slowness in recognizing the merits of studying comic art? Six possible answers
stated rather bluntly might be:

1. Social science and humanities researchers burrowed in their comfortable academic holes did not
dare to venture outside the boundaries of what would get them tenured, promoted, or otherwise
accepted and recognized. In some instances, scholars were warned against entering comics schol-
arship; Donald Ault, of the US, said in the 1970s colleagues told him that drawing attention to his
interest in studying Donald Duck would jeopardize his teaching position (Ault 2003: 241). Perhaps
this explains, in part, why so very few of the pioneering scholars came from an academic setting.
Instead, they included a salaryman (as in the case of Shimizu Isao of Japan), the sales manager of
an industrial rubber factory (John Ryan of Australia), a State Department interpreter (Maurice
Horn of the US), cartoonists (Suyama, Okamoto, Coulton Waugh, Jerry Robinson, Alvaro de
Moya), and fans/collectors.
2. Very few grants for comic art scholarship exist, and though we may be reluctant to admit it, acad-
emicians are no different from other professional people in that they often follow the money.
3. Researchers had difficulties finding resources; scholarly books and articles on comic art were
scarce, as were library comics collections, and access to cartoonists was not easy, as usually they
were not organized professionally and had few networking possibilities before the Internet. A few
scholars have commented on the lack of original resources and the hesitancy of libraries to collect
comic art materials. British scholar Martin Barker said his university library had only two comics-
related items in the late 1970s (Barker 2002: 65); Alvaro de Moya of Brazil told of offering his
original drawings collection to the São Paulo Museum of Art, only to be rebuffed because its staff
was ‘against comics’ (Alvaro de Moya 2002: 24), and Harold Hinds and Charles Tatum found,
while doing their book on Mexican comics in the 1970s, that Mexican libraries would not admit to
having comic books, out of shame (Hinds and Tatum 1992: ix). They said, when they were finally
located, the comics were uncatalogued and in storage.
In a number of instances, in Australia, Canada, England, Japan, Taiwan, the US, and elsewhere,
private collectors and fans who used their own troves of books wrote much of the earliest comics
scholarship. American collector/researcher Bill Blackbeard did future scholars an invaluable service
when he rented trucks to criss-cross the country to save tons of newspapers and their strips, which
had been discarded by libraries and were destined for recycling or landfills; Japanese comics historian
Shimizu Isao actually rented a second house in his neighbourhood to hold his vast collection, which
had overwhelmed his living quarters. Pioneering comics research by Hoong Tei-lin of Taiwan, Denis
Gifford of UK, and John Ryan of Australia benefited from these individuals’ huge collections.

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John A. Lent

At this point, it is necessary to say that considerable literature in the form of journalistic and
fan-based articles existed in the post-World War II era (particularly in the 1960s); however, it was
scattered and not easily accessible. For example, Wolfgang Kempkes (1974) listed 4,697 sources in
an international bibliography he first published in 1969. A large number of these articles appeared
in Rantanplan (Belgium); Phénix, Giff-Wiff, and Cahiers Universitaires (France), and Linus, Il
Lavoro, Comics, Sgt. Kirk, Comics Club, and Eureka (Italy). Topics varied in these and other peri-
odicals, but, proportionately, profiles and discussions of individual cartoonists and/or their strips
were most frequent. More often than not, US comic strips were discussed.
4. The comics’ links to popular culture made them unimportant in the eyes of critics and the general
public, who continued to make distinctions between high culture and low (popular) culture, to the
benefit of the former. Already, a decade after American comic strips appeared in 1895, there was
a public uproar in some places about the violence and lack of respect for authority they included,
prompting some newspapers to cancel them. In his The Seven Lively Arts, Seldes wrote that, ‘Of
all the lively arts, the comic strip is the most despised, and with the exception of the movies, the
most popular’ (Seldes 1924: 193). Fortunately, the debate over high and low culture has dimin-
ished in volume and frequency, as it has been recognized that much of what is considered fine art
now was not held in such high esteem at its time of creation, and that globalization has blurred
the lines between the two.
5. Until very recently, there has been an inbred snobbishness, a tendency to protect one’s own turf,
in academe. Mass communication generally, and journalism, film, and television specifically, faced
this snobbery early on: popular culture and comics more recently. The principal founder of popu-
lar culture studies, Ray Browne (1989), delighted in telling how, in the 1960s, his English depart-
ment colleagues voted him out of their ranks because of his interests but had to keep him because,
as his provost at the time said, no other department would take him. American author and
researcher Arthur Asa Berger gave an example about comics from the 1960s, when faculty and
students at his university of study were ‘outraged – that I would do a [Ph. D.] dissertation on
something as trivial and moronic as a comic strip’ (Berger 2002: 42); he said the audience at his
graduation laughed when his dissertation title was announced. With tongue in cheek, comics-
scholarship pioneer David Kunzle reacted to the slighting by art history’s ‘scientific literature’ of
the first volume of his monumental history of the comic strip (1973) by proposing for the title of
volume II: ‘The Acquisition and Manipulation of New Sites of Comedic Narrative Discourses and
Significations by Volatility-prone Social Sectors’. His justification for the facetious title: ‘a big book
should have a big title anyway’ (Kunzle 1990: xix). Others, writing about the 1970s, expressed the
widely-held aversion to comics scholarship: Ault called it a ‘deeply entrenched ideological opposi-
tion to making comics a central focus of academic study’ (Ault 2003: 250); Maurice Horn, in his
best-selling The World Encyclopedia of Comics, lamented ‘… the a priori judgment that this is an


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The winding, pot-holed road of comic art scholarship

1. I am well aware that inferior form only deserving of inferior scholarship, is an especially galling piece of tortuous rea-
the selection of pioneers
is not complete. In
soning’ (Horn 1976: 59). Reacting to the frequently asked question why, as an English professor,
addition to reading he reads and writes about comics, M. Thomas Inge said there is no easy answer to ‘those who
the scant writings on automatically assume a cultural interiority inherent in comic art’ (Inge 2003: 21).
the history of comics
scholarship, I have 6. Because comic art is a relatively new field of inquiry, it may have appeared that a theoretical base
depended on what or handy framework, a set of approaches and techniques, did not exist for its study. But nothing
some of the early could be further from the truth. Similar to other new fields of study, some theory and the tech-
researchers wrote
about their roles in the niques are borrowed from older disciplines such as literature and mass communications, from
creation of this field of which comic art has been spun. Thus, perspectives that can and have been applied to comics are:
study in their books and
in a series of 24 articles
sociology, psychology, philosophy, art and aesthetics, and history. As for techniques, researchers
published in the can examine the content and form of comic art using textual methods such as semiotic, discourse,
International Journal of literary, rhetorical, content, and historical analyses, case study, survey research, interviews, and
Comic Art, issues 4: 1,
5: 1, 5: 2, 7: 2, and 10: 2. the experiment (see Lombard, Lent, Greenwood and Tunç 1999).
Attempts were Probably more than that of any other region, European scholarship early on recognized the
unsuccessfully made to applicability of these perspectives and techniques to comic art. This is apparent in how the German
solicit remembrances
from other researchers bibliographer Wolfgang Kempkes (1969, 1974) organized his Bibliographie der Internationalen
(e.g., Pierre Fresnault- Literatur über Comics/International Bibliography of Comics Literature, which included sections on his-
Deruelle, Claude
Moliterni, Thierry
tory, the structure of comics, commercial aspects, readership, effects, educational use, and judicial
Groensteen, Draper and other limiting measures.
Hill, Paul Gravett,
Kees Kousemaker,
and others). Pioneering individuals and their works and institutions1
Early post-war
American writers Martin Sheridan and Coulton Waugh stood out in the 1940s, partly because of their
personal approach to their topic and the fact that their books were the first to deal with comics, as
opposed to cartoons. Sheridan’s Comics and their Creators … ([1942] 1972) defined comics solely as
syndicated newspaper strips, which is understandable in that comic books appeared as a ‘variant’ of
strips in 1942 (Witek 1999: 5). Sheridan’s incentive to write the book emanated from his intrigue with
how the strip ‘Tillie the Toiler’ began. He knew the 75 cartoonists about whom he wrote, in many
cases having been in their homes and studios, and accordingly, he included anecdotes and sections
authored by the creators themselves. Besides an introduction that describes comics censorship around
the world, the book surveys about 78 strips, categorized as ‘old stand-bys’, ‘married strips’, ‘adven-
ture’, ‘girl strips’, ‘potpourri’, ‘fantastic’, ‘panel comics’, and ‘animated cartoon’. In an otherwise crit-
ical essay, Witek acknowledged Sheridan’s treatment of the artists/writers at a time in comics
discourse when ‘the role of the artist in the creation of the strip is often so subordinated to the
autonomy of the strip itself as to amount to a form of critical erasure’ (Witek 1999: 7). He criticized


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John A. Lent

Sheridan for his ‘implicit assumption’ that the essential elements of comics are characters, genres,
and themes, rather than formal attributes or storytelling conventions (Witek 1999: 5), and his
ambivalence about comics as art, which, Witek said, remained as a ‘hallmark’ of later commentators
(Witek 1999: 7).
Waugh, himself a cartoonist, provided a history primarily of newspaper strips, allowing just 22 of
the total 360 pages for comic books. To gather his data, Waugh pored through thousands of newspa-
per pages at the New York Public Library, limiting himself mainly to New York City dailies. As a
result, dates of origin are incorrect when strips started elsewhere and moved to New York. Waugh’s
work, the first comprehensive history and evaluative study, placed comics in social, cultural, and
artistic contexts, comparing them to works by masters such as Monet, Michelangelo, Renoir, Kipling,
Whitman, Twain, and others. Unlike other writers, Waugh did not distinguish between high and
popular culture. As he had with Sheridan, Witek took exception to how Waugh defined comics, say-
ing it was of ‘dubious formal utility’ (Witek 1999: 9, 11) failing to distinguish comics from other
related forms and to take on a strong ideological charge.
A lot of Witek’s criticism of the discourse dealt with not placing comics in aesthetic and intellec-
tually interesting contexts. To support his point, Witek quoted Seldes (1924), who said ‘Krazy Kat’
and other popular culture forms are ‘superior aesthetic products to the official high culture of the
intelligentsia and their middlebrow imitators – superior in energy, superior in their more vital con-
nections to their audiences, and superior in the quality of their intellectual stimulation’ (Witek 1999:
13). Witek credited Kunzle’s later two volumes on the history of comic strips (1973, 1990) with plac-
ing comics in the context of ‘aesthetics in general and of visual narrative in particular’ (13).
The third of the pioneer volumes on American comics was Stephen Becker’s Comic Art in America:
Social History of the Funnies, the Political Cartoons, Magazine Humor, Sporting Cartoons and Animated
Cartoons, which, as its title shows, rendered it probably the first attempt to cover all dimensions of
comic art. Published in 1959, the book required two years to write, during the last six months of
which, Becker was hospitalized – initially fatally ill, followed by complete paralysis, and then slow
recovery. His wife, Mary, worked full time finishing the book during that half year.
Others writing on comics in the 1950s included Wertham, E. H. Gombrich, and Ernst Kris. The
latter two collaborated on a chapter that analysed caricature in Kris’s Psychoanalytic Explorations in
Art (1952). Among other propositions, Gombrich and Kris tried to figure out why caricature did not
exist in western art until the end of the sixteenth century, venturing it may have been because of ‘fear
of image magic, the reluctance to do as a joke what the unconscious means very much in earnest’
(Kris 1952: 244). Gombrich included ‘The Experiment of Caricature’ among seven lectures he gave at
the National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C., 1956), later compiled in the book Art & Illusion
(1960). A few doctoral dissertations were written in the 1950s, including those by Leinweber (1958)
in Austria and Sol M. Davidson (1959) in the US. Davidson said he researched and wrote his


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The winding, pot-holed road of comic art scholarship

1,013-page ‘Culture and the Comic Strip’ unhindered; his New York University supervisory commit-
tee decided ‘that that “bastard” art form of comics was worth serious study’ (Davidson 2003: 234)
and he was allowed to do what he wished.
Unheralded as one of the innovators of comics scholarship in the 1950s was Brazilian cartoonist
Alvaro de Moya, who organized probably the first comics exhibition in the world, ‘I Exposição de
Histórias em Quadrinhos,’ 18 June 1951. A year earlier, he began writing to US cartoonists, asking for
their originals so that he and others who had formed a club could learn from them. It was that collec-
tion that he unsuccessfully offered to the Museum de Arte de S. Paulo. De Moya said the intention of
the exhibition was ‘to say that comics was an art and the Brazilian culture must be shown in the
newspapers and magazines’ (de Moya 2002: 25). But some Brazilians suspected the aims of the exhi-
bition: press owners thought de Moya’s team wanted to ban syndicated US strips and replace them
with their own; the communists called the organizers, ‘young innocents fantoches of the decadent
imperialist American culture!’ (de Moya 2002: 24). De Moya and his collaborators lost their cartoon-
ing jobs because of the show. In 1970, his book-length contributions to comics scholarship began
with Shazam! followed by his other titles História em Quadrinhos, O Mundo de Disney, and Anos 50,
50 Anos [2001].
Comics scholarship grew in Brazil with increasing publications and, by the 1970s, a university
comics programme was introduced. In 1963 Herman Lima’s four-volume História da Caricatura no
Brasil was also published: it was a monumental undertaking, laying down a definitive chronology
for future historians. The first part, in two volumes, provided the history and status of political,
satirical cartooning; at the end of the second volume of part one, and continuing through the sec-
ond part of two volumes, caricaturists and cartoonists were profiled. The books were enhanced by
910 illustrations.

The 1960s and 1970s

The 1960s were a time of ferment for the recognition of comics. This was especially true in Western
Europe, and, to a certain extent, the US fans, collectors, intellectuals, and other aficionados began
collections that sometimes ended up in libraries, organized into clubs, published fanzines and other
periodicals, mounted exhibitions (some in prestigious venues), and wrote books. Hesitantly, spillover
into academia followed with doctoral and masters’ dissertations, lecture series, and a few courses.

On the continent, France and Italy were forerunners in bringing intellectual and aesthetic approaches
to comic art. Dozens of intellectuals, artists, and writers in those countries became involved in com-
ics, particularly esteemed among them being filmmaker Alain Resnais and writer Umberto Eco.


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John A. Lent

The French founded two associations that fostered comics study – Club des Bande Dessinée 2. Moliterni was also a
major figure in comic
(CBD) in 1961 and Societe civile d’etudes et de recherches des litteratures dessinées (SOCERLID; book publishing and
Organization for the Study and Research of Pictorial Literatures) in 1964. The spearhead of Club des exhibition. He is
Bande Dessinée was Francis Lacassin (1931–2008), a TV/film scriptwriter and film producer with credited with putting
together more than
‘intellectual passion’ for popular literature and cinema (Miller 2008: 201). Credited with coining, or at 200 comics shows
least, popularizing, the term ‘neuvième art’ (‘9th Art’), Lacassin made massive contributions to comic over a 37-year period.
His books included
art, among them, helping start Giff-Wiff, a quarterly of CBD that brought prestige to comics by a history of world
attracting collaborators such as Eco; giving a series of lectures on the history and aesthetics of bande comics, a two-volume
dessinée at Sorbonne (and so ensuring their ‘increased visibility in academe’ (Miller 2008: 201)), and encyclopaedia, and an
analysis of French BD.
writing Pour une neuvième art, la bande dessinée/For a Ninth Art, Comic Strip in 1971, a volume on US,
French, and Belgian comic artists, with a groundbreaking section that compared cinema and comics’
Heavily involved with SOCERLID was Claude Moliterni (1932–2009), who presided over the
organization in 1964. A writer of spy and crime novels, editor, and critic, Moliterni did much to
advance comics as a key cultural and artistic medium; he founded the periodical Phenix in 1966, ‘La
convention de la bande dessinée a Paris’ in 1969, and later, the Angoulême comics festival, with Jean
Mardikian and Francis Groux. In 1967, Moliterni and Pierre Couperie organized the ‘Bande dessinée
et figuration narrative’ exhibition in the Louvre’s Musée des Arts Décorifs.2 That exhibition spawned
one of the first comprehensive books on comics, Bande Dessinée et Figuration Narrative, written by
Couperie and Maurice Horn, and published by SOCERLID. Besides five chapters on comics history,
others dealt with production/distribution, audience, ‘The World of the Comic Strip,’ narrative tech-
nique, aesthetics and signification, and narrative figuration. The purpose of the book, as stated in the
‘Foreword,’ was to place the comic strip in the ‘widest context, but only as a set of working hypoth-
eses; we have avoided fashionable eccentricities and journalistic “psychoanalyses” and
“Psychopathologies”’ (Couperie and Horn 1968: 4). Reprinted in the US as A History of the Comic
Strip, the book went through seven printings between 1968 and 1974 (Horn 2002: 15).
As stated earlier, fanzines and prozines supported French comics scholarship, as did the periodi-
cal Cahiers de la bande dessinée (1969–1990), named after Cahiers du Cínema. Cahiers de la bande dess-
inée was important because it ‘facilitated interaction between scholars and producers of comics’
(McKinney 2008: 12). Similar to the earlier situation in Brazil, factions in France opposed this scholar-
ship and fandom, the right terming it cultural imperialism; the left labelling it as a cold war, western
plot to stupefy the masses (Horn 2002: 15).
The Italians were no less active advancing comics in the 1960s. At the beginning of the decade,
historical and critical analyses of comics did not exist in Italy, save for some works associating them
with harmful effects. Comics were tolerated as a medium to satisfy children. A prevalent cultural
belief held that because comics were for children, and children were not able to express true aesthetic


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The winding, pot-holed road of comic art scholarship

3. Bertieri also published appreciation, they were not worthy of study (Cuccolini 2002: 32). Again, it was the collectors who
Citizen Caniff and AZ
Comics (both 1969), the
helped change that mentality by providing material not easy to find by those social scientists and
latter an encyclopaedia mass communication researchers beginning to study comics. The collectors did this by reprinting
of 600 comics characters old US and Italian comics and starting fanzines and prozines tied to collectors’ clubs (Cuccolini
2002: 32). Festivals/congresses grew ‘out of the collectors’ ghetto’ (Cuccolini 2002: 32), first at
Bordighera in 1965 and then Lucca (1966). Speakers of the calibre of Umberto Eco and film director
Federico Fellini lent credibility not just to the Lucca international comics festival, but also to the
promotion of comics as a serious field of study. Catalogues from these events published articles; out
of the Lucca congress came a yearly periodical, Comics, beginning in 1966. Other zines appeared,
offering outlets for comics researchers, including Alfredo Castelli’s Comics Club (April–May 1967),
the monthly Linus, Sgt. Kirk (July 1967), and Eureka (November 1967). Also lending support to the
recognition of comics was the founding of the Gli Amici del Fumetto (Friends of Comics) group in
1967 by Gianni Bono and Nino Bernazzali. Nevertheless, Cuccolini thought research on comics was
peripheral in Italy, never earning the institutional and academic status it acquired in Belgium and
France (Cuccolini 2002: 33). This seems a problematic conclusion, since it was at the Lucca congress
in 1966 that the Féderation Internationale des Centres de Recherches sur les Bande Dessinée was
founded (Hegerfors 2003: 10). The number of books published in Italy during the 1960s also does
not support Cuccolini’s premise. Among them were I fumetti (1961), the first concise,
well-documented, and critical history of comic art by Carlo della Corte, a Venice journalist who
greatly appreciated comics; I primi eroi (1962), François Caradec’s treatment of comics characters
worldwide; a 1964 mass communication book by Umberto Eco, with three chapters on Superman,
Charlie Brown, and Steve Canyon, and Gli eroi di carta (1965) by Gioacchino Forte, a psychological
treatment of the features of dozens of characters.
A few others included ‘Stampa a fumetti, cultura di massa, società contemporaneo,’ a special
issue of Quaderni di comunicazione di massa (1965), which consisted of papers from the international
panels at that year’s Bordighera festival, edited by Romano Calisi; I miei fumetti (1967), by Sergio
Trinchero, a previously-published compilation of heroes from the golden age of comics; Gli eroi del
tempo libero (1968), edited by Claudio Bertieri,3 which explored comics and other mass media rela-
tionships through comics, and Enciclopedia del fumetto (1969), Oreste del Buono’s compilation of
articles from Linus (Cuccolini 2002: 38–39). Besides those mentioned above, other compilations
included Enzo Natta’s Radiografia del fumetto (1969), made up of articles previously published in
magazines and journals, and a special number of I problemi della pedagogia (No. 9, 1967), consisting
of Lucca conference papers. Quaderni di IKON devoted issue 1 (1968) to psychology and the reading
of comics, and issue 8 (1969) to eroticism in comics, music, and film. As many of the titles of these
books and compilations suggest, American superhero comics were the main concern of Italian
researchers in the 1960s.


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Study and writing about comics gained strength in parts of northern Europe in the 1960s, mainly
because of the efforts of Wolfgang Fuchs and Reinhold Reitberger in Germany and Sture Hegerfors
in Sweden. Earlier on in Germany, the few existing books dealt with the anti-comics campaign there
(see Jovanovic and Koch 1999: 93–128). In her study, Marietheres Doetsch (1958) found that, con-
trary to popular opinion, comics’ language was not detrimental to children. In contrast, Alfred
Clemens Baumgärtner’s (1965) thesis was that comics had a brutalizing effect on children. Günter
Metken’s Comics (1970) was also critical of the medium.
Reitberger and Fuchs’ collaboration began in 1970 while at Munich University, where they were
asked to do a colloquy on comics that summer. During the seminar, they used a two to three page
introduction for each weekly meeting and a collection of comic books and strips. Because of the amount
of preparatory work they had done, a professor suggested they write a book. Fuchs explains how they
casually went about conceptualizing the book: ‘So, one hot summer afternoon, Reinhold Reitberger
and I went swimming and took along paper and pens to create the outline for the book and to start
writing the chapter on superheroes in between taking dips in the water’ (Fuchs 2002: 52). The result
was Comics. Anatomie eines Massenmediums (1971), which initially had a 10,000-copy print run, one-
half of which included a ‘flexi record’ to document crossovers between comics and radio. Dutch,
Spanish, and English editions followed, and a paperback version in 1973. The book was updated in
1982 with the new title Das Groõe Buch der Comics. Eventually selling 150,000 copies, Fuchs and
Reitberger’s volume helped to change the mood concerning comics in Germany. Fuchs and Reitburger
continued their partnership with the very popular Comics Handbuch (1978) and the aforementioned
bibliography published in 1969 and 1974. In the latter edition, Fuchs wrote, ‘the number of publica-
tions on Comics has increased enormously,’ attributable to some European exhibitions and con-
gresses, and an increase of public interest (Fuchs 1974: 15). He added that the reading of comics by
European adults had become acceptable, ‘no longer criticized with disapproval’ and ‘raised to an
object of research of the advanced classes at the universities and were acceptable as theme for exam-
inations at the Educational Universities’ (Fuchs 1974: 15).
Sture Hegerfors in Sweden had similar hopes of changing the intellectual community’s negative
impressions about comics when, in 1965–1966, he finished Svish! Pow! Sock! Seriernas Fantastiska
Värld/The Fantastic World of Comics, a book he had planned for years. Recounting his long career in
comics, Hegerfors said that with this publication, ‘Now I saw my chance to convince sceptic teachers,
culture journalists, librarians about the excellence of comics’ (Hegerfors 2003: 8). While finishing his
book, Hegerfors associated with other comics aficionados at the first Bordighera and Lucca congresses,
and Féderation Internationale des Centres de Recherches sur les Bande Dessinées, of which he was a
member. In 1965, he founded the Swedish Academy of Comic Art, and, in 1976, the Swedish Museum
of Comic Art in Goteborg. He also wrote other books, including a study of the popular Swedish strip
‘Adamson’ and Pratbubblan/The Balloon, a 1978 volume that sold a respectable 35,000 copies.


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The winding, pot-holed road of comic art scholarship

Also gearing up to enter comics scholarship in the late 1960s and early 1970s was Denis Gifford
of England, whose vast collection served as his research materials. Gifford started out as a cartoonist
at age fourteen in 1942; after creating a number of characters, he switched to writing television com-
edy, radio panel games, and books on film, etc. His began collecting comics in 1940, and by 1975 he
had amassed 20,000 ‘comics papers’, including the only known complete runs of all 1940s’ UK com-
ics in the world. Gifford’s publications on comics were important because the information they con-
tained was based on primary documents; however, they often defied the definition of comics
scholarship, and even book organization itself. His first, Discovering Comics (1971a), resembled a
booklet because of its small format and limited number of pages (64). In a half page ‘Introduction:
The Editor’s Chat’, Gifford explained that comics were already studied in France, the US, and Italy,
but, ‘Curiously, only Great Britain, where the comic paper was born, takes its comics for what they
superficially seem – ephemera to be discarded as soon as read’ (1971a). He said of Discovering Comics,
‘This concise but comprehensive history of the comics concentrates on the comparatively unknown
evolution of the British picture paper …’ (Gifford 1971a). Stap me! The British Newspaper Strip (1971b)
contained no preface or table of contents among its 96 pages; in fact, it had only seven pages of text
on ‘The British Newspaper Strip’. The remaining sections consisted of cartoons divided into eight
categories (e.g., ‘Jokers’, ‘The Heroes’, ‘The Girls’, etc.). Two later books contained very little text, but
mostly pages of comics. Happy Days. One Hundred Years of Comics (1975) devoted only four of its 128
pages to text, and The International Book of Comics (1984) was visuals heavy and, at times, strangely
organized (probably to show off his collectibles). The latter concentrated on American, British, and
Canadian comics; some images of Belgian-French, German, Japanese, and Spanish comics were pro-
vided sans textual description.
Earlier than Gifford, George Perry and Alan Aldridge published The Penguin Book of Comics: A
Slight History (1967), which, by its title, indicated less than a full treatment. The six chapters of
this text dealt primarily with US and British comics. Taking a different approach to comics schol-
arship in the 1970s and 1980s was British academic Martin Barker, who said his main role was a
‘series of conscious revisitings of other people’s claims about comics. I was the debunker, the
sceptic within. My interest in comics was primarily that other people were interested in them, for
the wrong reasons’ (Barker 2002: 71). Stating that it is ‘weird combinations of accident and neces-
sity that can characterize real research histories’ (Barker 2002: 70), Barker told how his discovery
of a book about the anti-horror comics campaign of the 1950s – one of only two books on comics
in his university’s library – led to his writing A Haunt of Fears (1984) and Ideology, Power and the
Critics (1989).
A Britisher who preceded both Gifford and Barker in comics research was David Kunzle,
although his writings were not Britain-specific. In 1960, he was fortunate to meet Ernst Gombrich
who advised him to shift his Ph.D. research interests from Milton illustrations to ‘the development of


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John A. Lent

the picture story, antecedent to the modern comic strips, from Hogarth to Töpffer’ (Kunzle 2003: 4).
Kunzle took his advice but ‘never got to Töpffer at all, in my dissertation (1964), finding worthy
ancestry stretching back to the beginning of printing’ (Kunzle 2003: 4). The two huge, richly illus-
trated volumes that came out of that University of London dissertation have not been rivalled
since, in thoroughness of research or analysis. Besides possessing a solid grounding in art history,
facility in a half-dozen languages (translations of texts in French, German, Italian, and Dutch were
his own), and dogged determination, Kunzle had the ‘great, unrepeatable, today unthinkable,
privilege of access’ (Kunzle 2003: 4) in the British Museum, Paris Cabinet des Estampes, and other
prestigious European libraries and museums.
In both volumes (1973, 1990), Kunzle addressed the hesitancy of the scholarly community to
study the comic strip. In The Early Comic Strip … 1450 to 1825, he wrote:

Critics and scholars by and large ignored the comic strip and its history. I do not think many
sociologists or critics of the mass media have denied the social importance of the comic strip,
but neither do they regret the lack of a history of the subject. The academic historian of art or
literature apparently prefers to ignore the pre-twentieth century strips as a factor in the develop-
ment of the popular media. It is customary to defend the publication of volumes as large as this
one with the claim that they fulfill a long-felt, much declared scholarly need; I do not make such
a claim.
Compilers of books on the twentieth-century comic strip, far from regretting the absence
of a survey on the earlier period, are content to provide, in a few paragraphs or a few pages,
their own potted history which dips haphazardly into the general history of art, comic and
narrative; or else the reader is left with the impression that there simply is no history to the
comic strip before the 1890s.
(Kunzle 1973: 1–2)

Kunzle also took issue with how picture stories had been reproduced in the past, ‘the too-common
habit of reproducing selected scenes, with no indication that they are part of a longer, interconnected
sequence’ (Kunzle 1973: 6). He added:

One can hardly imagine the literary world tolerating so cavalier a treatment of, say, Henry
Fielding, and allowing the integral text of one of his important novels to be hidden away. Yet
even the most famous of picture stories has not been treated as an indivisible whole.
(Kunzle 1973: 6)


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The winding, pot-holed road of comic art scholarship

In The History of the Comic Strip. The Nineteenth Century, Kunzle said he saw a difference in the
academy’s attitude between the first and second volumes in that historians had moved

from the narrowly political-military-diplomatic to broader social and cultural arenas. Even art
history, that most recalcitrant of disciplines, has begun to engage in the ‘social history of art’
and to become tainted with questions of ideology and sociopolitical contexts of production
and reception.

As a respectable academic I have, I suppose, sought to give the comic strip academic respect-
ability. I doubt that I have succeeded yet.
(Kunzle 1990: xix)

After completing his dissertation, Kunzle moved to the US where he continued to research, write,
and teach. Primarily a pre-twentieth century art historian, he ventured into modern comic art on
occasion, for example, when he translated into English and wrote an introduction to How to Read
Donald Duck (1975), by Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart. Some discussion about this hugely
successful book is called for here. Dorfman and Mattelart contended that Donald Duck comic books
had a facade of innocence, but, in reality, preached a type of imperialism to children, especially out-
side the US. The book eventually sold more than one million copies and was published in at least
fifteen languages. It first appeared in December 1971, in Chile, where the authors were working, but
rather quickly ‘had the fate of a duck, because, just after the coup d’etat, the military drowned the last
Chilean edition in the bay of that port city (Valparaiso)’ (Dorfman and Mattelart 1975: 45). Mattelart
has given the background of the tumultuous life of the book (Mattelart 2005: 46), suggesting that in
the early 1970s the opposition to Allende’s popular government used Donald Duck comics as part of
their propaganda efforts, ‘to inflect the meanings to put them in the service of their cause. Specifically,
images of tyrants or imposters became caricatures of the President of Chile’ (Mattelart 2005: 45).
Added to the difficulties Dorfman and Mattelart faced with political factions in Chile was a copyright
legal suit filed by Disney against the US publisher.
In other European countries, such as Belgium, Netherlands, and Spain, comics scholarship evolved
during the 1960s–1980s. In Amsterdam, Kees Kousemaker made immense contributions to comics
appreciation and scholarship. He opened Lambiek, a comics shop, in 1967 as a retail sales store and
added a publishing arm a year later. Over the years, the shop also served as a meeting and lecture place
for famous local and foreign cartoonists and as an archive of original works (not publicly accessible
when I talked with Kousemaker in 1997). In 1970, Kousemaker, with Maria Willems, wrote and pub-
lished a 152-page book on comics, Strip voor Strip, the first of his major writings, including historical
accounts. Kousemaker said of this volume: ‘I made up my first book – did the layout, gluing, etc. There


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John A. Lent

was no other book here before mine. When I tried to sell it to the bookstores, there was snobbishness
as bookstore owners here think they are intellectuals’ (personal interview, 8 October 1997).
In Spain, Luis Gasca was a major writer about comics, often American ones; his articles appeared in
newspapers and magazines, often in one called Cuto. Among his important early writings was a 45-page
worldwide comics bibliography in Revista española de la opinion publica (1969), and books such as Los
comics en la pantilla (1965), Tebeo y cultura de massas (1966), and Los comics en España (1969).

Japan and China

Other parts of the world witnessed the birth or reawakening of comics scholarship. In Japan, some of
the main researchers and writers from the 1960s and 1970s (and beyond) were Ishiko Junzo- (1929–
1977), Ishiko Jun (1935– ), Shimizu Isao (1939– ), and Katayori Mitsugu (1921– ). Since the early
1960s, Ishiko Junzo-, a literary theorist, used manga ‘as a site of investigation for issues such as
humour, high and low arts, and kitsch …, locating manga within larger discourses of literature and
cultural studies’ (Powers 2009: 14). Among his early works were Manga geijutsuron/An Essay on the
Art of the Comics (1967), the co-authored Gendai manga ronshu-/Essays on Modern Comics (1969),
Gendai manga no shiso-/Intellectual Currents in Modern Comics (1970), and Shengo mangashi no-to/Notes
on the Post-war History of Comics (1975). Literary and film critic Ishiko Jun thought of manga as chil-
dren’s literature, and as such, useful or harmful in elementary education. In the mid-1970s, he advo-
cated for a censoring of children’s manga. Powers wrote:

Though the value of Ishiko Jun’s work as ‘scholarship’ has been questioned in recent years, his
writings during the early 1970s function as valuable primary texts: they give a glimpse into the
moment in history when manga transcended its status as a unanimously ‘low’ entertainment.
(Powers 2009: 14)

Perhaps slighted were Ishiko Jun’s contributions to manga history (1978, 1979, 1985, 1988).

The giant among manga historians is salaryman-editor Shimizu Isao, whose writings make up a
library of their own. Shimizu devoted much attention to cartooning in late nineteenth-century Japan,
particularly the works of Georges Bigot, a Frenchman who started the cartoon periodical Toba-e. His
first book in 1970 was Bigot ga-shu/Collected Drawings of Georges Ferdinand Bigot, which he pub-
lished privately and distributed to newspapers for review. The 500 copies sold and Shimizu was on
his way to launching a career of collecting, researching, and writing unrivalled virtually anywhere. By
2003, he had written more than sixty books (many multi-volumed) and hundreds of articles on
manga (see much of his scholarship listed in Lent 1996; 2004), started a quarterly (Fuushi-ga kenkyu/


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The winding, pot-holed road of comic art scholarship

Cartoon Study) in 1992, and made parts of his collection available for many exhibitions. Shimizu’s
books often opened up new avenues of research, such as those on Bigot, the manga of the Edo
period, and how manga viewed the war year of 1945. When he started his research, resources were
very scarce, so he built his own in-home library, spending his lunch hours in second-hand shops
buying manga-related books and periodicals. By 2003, his collection had grown to 11,000 manga
magazines, 1,000 newspaper supplements, 300 manga books, 4,000 manga postcards, 500 giga and
ukiyo-e, 500,000 newspaper comic strip clippings, and 1.5 million other items on manga history (Ogi
2003: 216). Many are rare works. Shimizu’s house is stacked full of books, necessitating him to rent
another nearby house for storage. He said he knows roughly where each book is, ‘the map in my
mind is useful’ (Ogi 2003: 225). Because insects have attacked some of his rare books (‘they eat the
good books, the interesting books first’, Shimizu said), he puts them in the refrigerator, and in sum-
mer exposes them to the sun (Ogi 2003: 226).
Katayori Mitsugu, already discussed, continued his research after World War II. Beginning in
1971, he edited some of the earliest journals on manga – Rodo manga kenkyuu/Labour Cartoon Studies,
Manga geijutsu kenkyuu/Manga Art Studies, and others. His book Sengo manga shiso shi/A History of
Thought in Post-war Manga traced the history of manga from the 1940s up to 1970. Katayori’s motive
for the latter, he said, was his perception that after the war cartoonists were living ‘for profit, not for
good’ (Ogi 2005: 61).
An important comment on manga studies – which have grown tremendously, including univer-
sity departments, museums, libraries, journals (Manga Studies), and the Japan Society for Studies in
Cartoons and Comics – was offered by Powers:

It is important to note here that artistic practice of manga is closely interdependent with its
scholarship. Scholarly and popular writings on manga have profoundly influenced, and con-
tinue to influence, the trends of manga since the 1960s. Even a most densely written research
project finds popular readership and may have an impact on consumption and distribution. It
is common for cartoonists to also function as critics.
(Powers 2009: 14)

Chinese comics scholarship owes a large debt to cartoonist Bi Keguan, who not only collected his
own and other cartoonists’ works into books, but later also wrote the earliest theoretical and histori-
cal works, such as Zhong guo man hua shi hua/Chinese Cartoon History Talk (2005), Zhong guo man
hua shi/Chinese Cartoon History (1986), Guo qu de zhi hui – man hua dian ping 1908–1939/Wisdom of
the Past – Cartoon Comments 1908–1939 (1980), and Man hua de hua yu hua – bai nian man hua jian
wen lu/ Cartoons Talk and Drawing – Record of Hundred Year Cartoon Information (2002). A number of
things came together that made Bi decide to write the histories: (1) he thought the Chinese knew


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John A. Lent

more about foreign culture than their own culture; (2) he tired of being an ‘archivist’ for foreign
researchers writing on Chinese cartooning; (3) he knew both the ‘dead’ and ‘alive’ materials, the
former being library materials, the latter, cartoonists to be interviewed; (4) after leaving cadres’ school
(a ‘Cultural Revolution’ indoctrination centre) in 1974, he worked at the Chinese Art Research
Academy, which provided him time and some travel funds to carry out comics research (Bi and Xu
2008: 421–423). His books provide an excellent foundation for Chinese cartooning history, because Bi
carefully read many of the library primary resources, interviewed forty cartoonists (who were pio-
neering masters), amended parts later when new findings and interpretations surfaced, and solicited
the help of Huang Yuanlin, who went on to become an important cartoon historian. Another promi-
nent cartoonist, Fang Cheng, has also contributed immensely to comics scholarship during the past
couple of decades through regular volumes and periodical columns on humour and cartoon theory.

Australia and Canada

Australian and Canadian comics research, like that of other countries, was spurred on by fans and
collectors, John Ryan in Australia and Michael Hirsh and Patrick Loubert in Canada. A sales man-
ager, Ryan started Australia’s first comics fanzine in 1964. After realizing no book existed on his
country’s comics (while preparing entries for Maurice Horn’s 1976 The World Encyclopedia of Comics),
Ryan decided to write one. He had been collecting examples and information about locally drawn
comics since the early 1960s and decided it was time to compile this data into a book. As he said, ‘I
would rather read a book than write one [and it] seemed that, if I wanted to read books on this sub-
ject, I should do the spade-work in providing some kind of reference’ (Ryan 1979: 7). That goal was
realized in Panel by Panel: An Illustrated History of Australian Comics, with its emphasis on names,
titles, and dates, mainly a ‘historical progression’ (Ryan 1979: 7), or a chronology. Ryan gathered
additional information ‘poring through thousands of old newspapers and magazines’ in libraries in
Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide, and interviewing cartoonists. In the book’s introduction, Ryan
criticized the meanings that academics ascribe to comics, suggesting that one should pay attention to
what ‘strips are, in fact, saying’ (Ryan 1979: 8, emphasis in the original). His definition of the comic
strip predated that of Robert C. Harvey, Scott McCloud, and others by about fifteen years: a narrative
told by a sequence of pictures with continuing character(s) and with text or dialogue; a ‘narrative of
words and pictures, both verbal and visual, in which neither words nor pictures are quite satisfactory by
themselves’ (Ryan 1979: 10, original emphasis).
Early comics study in Canada differed from that of Australia and much of the rest of the world in
that it came out of an academic setting, primarily the University of Sherbrooke. There, in 1970,
Richard Langlois, a former high school teacher, started a course on American and British comics,
with particular attention to Hergé and his work. In 1973, the Ministry of Education ‘made the course


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The winding, pot-holed road of comic art scholarship

official for all the colleges of Québec Province’; consequently, the course found a place in literature,
art history, and education curricula (Langlois 2005: 82). Langlois said he chose comics as an academic
specialty based on questions such as

What makes something literature? How many words do you have to read for it to be litera-
ture? The visual code permits reading in the same sense as the linguistic code, hence the per-
tinent expression “figuration narrative” (narrative art) used to designate comics in the context
of my course.

In the early 1970s, articles about comics appeared in various journals and magazines in Quebec. The
‘Winter 1975’ number of the literature review, La Barre du Jour, devoted about 270 pages to the theme,
‘Le bande dessinée Kébécoise’, with short articles on history, research areas, graphics, onomatopeia,
aesthetics, genres, and semiotics. Their authors were the key comics researchers André Carpentier,
Gilles Thibault, Georges Raby, Gleason Théborge, Jacques Samson, Langlois, and others.
English-speaking Canada yielded an amateurish effort at documenting comics history in 1971
when The Great Canadian Comic Books by Michael Hirsh and Patrick Loubert was published. Made
up of twelve chapters, each defined by a genre, the book fails to put its contents in a context and
explain its purposes or boundaries; there is no preface, authors’ information, and no table of con-
tents. The reader is told that it was difficult to ‘assemble a precise chronicle of Canadian comic books’
because, in the 1940s, Canadian comics were considered ‘trivial, and even a little embarrassing by
creators’ (Hirsh and Loubert 1971: 7); however, it is useful in that the authors probably interviewed
the publisher of the first Canadian comic book, Cy Bell, and others, and made use of a huge collec-
tion of the country’s comics they had purchased from the man who bankrolled Bell.

United States
What Becker, Waugh, Sheridan, and others accomplished for US comics scholarship in the 1940s and
1950s was enhanced in the succeeding two decades by fans, collectors, and other independent
researchers, such as Jerry Bails, Roy Thomas, Dick and Pat Lupoff, Don and Maggie Thompson, Bill
Blackbeard, and Maurice Horn; university-based researchers, including David Manning White and
Robert Abel, Donald Ault, and M. Thomas Inge; and cartoonists Jim Steranko, Jerry Robinson, and
Draper Hill.
Though considered less rigorous and scholarly by some purists in the academy, the worth of the
research by early fans and collectors has been grossly understated. Without the fanzines and books of
indices, encyclopaedic entries, chronologies, and other compilations done by fans and collectors, as
well as their preservation of comics, the field of study would be much weaker. The US fandom began


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John A. Lent

to organize in 1961–1962, around the publication of fanzines Alter-Ego, by university and high school
teachers Jerry Bails and Roy Thomas; Xero, the product of science-fiction fans Dick and Pat Lupoff;
and Comic Art, by another science-fiction team, Don Thompson and Maggie Curtis (Maggie
Thompson after 1962) – the first issue of which appeared in fifty mimeographed pages. A column in
Xero, ‘All in Color for a Dime’, became a book of the same title by Don Thompson and Dick Lupoff
in 1970. In the introduction, the authors said their book was only the second book about comic books
‘that did not strive to condemn and destroy its topic’ (Thompson and Lupoff 1970: 14). Two other
useful books that helped establish comics chronology appeared in 1970: The Comic Book Price Guide,
an annual published by Robert Overstreet that provides a nearly complete index of comics published
since 1933; and The Steranko History of Comics, the first of two volumes (exploring the late 1940s,
though six volumes covering the entire history of comics had been planned) written by cartoonist Jim
Steranko (for history of fandom, see Coogan 2010: 50–69).
Two comics fans who gave yeoman service to library collection and preservation of comic strips
and comic books were Bill Blackbeard and Randall W. Scott. Exasperated with libraries discarding
printed versions of newspapers and their strips in favour of microfilm, in the early 1960s Blackbeard
decided to act. He let it be known in the San Francisco, California area that he was willing to remove
unwanted, bound newspapers that libraries no longer wanted. He sidestepped a regulation that said
city libraries could pass on these materials only to other libraries and educational institutions by
applying to the state and Internal Revenue Service to establish a non-profit research library dedicated
to preservation of newspaper print files; this became the San Francisco Academy of Comic Art. Soon,
he was inundated with offers from libraries to donate their bound newspaper volumes. With the help
of two friends he commissioned to drive rental trucks, he picked up discarded newspaper collections
from across the US (Blackbeard 2003: 209). From these files, Blackbeard compiled books on US strips.
Blackbeard’s repository has been added to the massive Ohio State University comics library, created
by another important contributor to comics preservation and scholarship, Lucy Caswell.
Randall W. Scott almost single-handedly built the 200,000-item collection at Michigan State
University. In the early 1970s, he thought that comics were not studied often because of lack of avail-
able collections and ‘the more central reason … that one couldn’t expect to get tenure in a university
by writing about comic books’ (Scott 2005: 70). He set out not only to collect comics for the library
but also to index their stories for scholars’ reference. After visiting Blackbeard, Scott said he realized:
‘It really is possible to make a difference by getting down and working 20 hours per day on some-
thing for years. It doesn’t hurt if it’s something nobody else is doing, and that most people think it is
a little odd’ (Scott 2005: 72).
Independent scholar Maurice Horn, a native of Paris, became more seriously involved in comics
when he was asked to be the New York correspondent for Club des Bandes Dessinées in 1963. At the
time an interpreter for the US State Department, he soon became a prolific writer of articles on


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The winding, pot-holed road of comic art scholarship

comics for various European and US magazines and fanzines, and, in 1967, collaborated with Pierre
Couperie in writing Bande Dessinée et Figuration Narrative. His most popular book, The World
Encyclopedia of Comics, followed in 1976. Horn wrote the majority of the 1,200 detailed entries,
assisted by a team of fifteen other scholars and fans from eleven countries. The original English edi-
tion sold more than 100,000 copies; other translated editions added to the sales. In ‘An Analytical
Summary’, Horn described the prejudice traditionally associated with comics scholarship, but held
out hope that changes were occurring:

It is a peculiar form of intellectual perversity which suggests in doggedly trying to berate the
comics in the name of art or literature, in the face of overwhelming evidence that the comics
do not answer to either. This is no easy task, hardly easier than it has been with the movies.
A thorough knowledge of the field must be obtained, with the same assiduity as is required of
any other discipline …
(Horn 1976: 59)

It is the fate of all new art forms to be greeted with derision. Attic tragedy was decried as
sacrilegious; Italian opera put down as unseemly cacophony, and the cinema termed (not so
long ago) ‘an art for drunken ilotes.’ Against the comics the laughter has been longest and
loudest. For the major part of their 80-year existence the comics have everywhere been held
up to public scorn, censure and ridicule.

This is no longer so; scholarship and analysis have replaced prejudice and ignorance. Yet the
comics’ growing cultural acceptance has brought with it the added burden of responsibility.
(Horn 1976: 62)

In the foreword, Horn claimed the encyclopaedia was the ‘first book to cover the entire field of comic
art in all of its aspects – artistic, cultural, sociological and commercial – on a global scale’ [62]. Horn
did a similar encyclopaedia on cartoons (both encyclopaedias appeared in updated editions) and
books on comics about the West, women and comics, graphic artists, etc.
Some comic art scholarship was jelling in the university setting during the early 1960s. In 1963,
mass communication researcher and ‘inventor’ of the gatekeeper theory David Manning White and
his co-author Robert H. Abel published The Funnies: An American Idiom, which had as its main ques-
tion, ‘What do the comic strips tell us about American culture?’ White and Abel had looked at the
comic strips in their earlier book, Mass Culture: The Popular Arts in America. In The Funnies, they
called for ‘study, examination, testing of the raison d’etat of the comics’ (White and Abel 1963: 2). The
book was an anthology of essays by prominent figures in criticism, literature, journalism, academia,


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John A. Lent

and comic art, including historians, poets, sociologists, literary critics, psychologists, psychiatrists, and
cartoonists (such as Al Capp and Walt Kelly). Other well-known authors included Leo Bogart,
Heywood Broun, Gilbert Seldes, and Robert Warshow. The articles were scholarly in approach and
methodology, and dealt with Sunday comics, male/female relationships in strips, adult readers, the
mental health of youth (as influenced by strips), and readership/uses and gratifications of comics. As
far as I can determine, there had not been a compilation of such erudite writing on comics in one place
previously in the US. The book impressed me as unique as I began my own research about comics in
1963–1964 – trying to determine, through an experimental design, their possible effects on children. I
met David Manning White at that time and recall he did not have much to say to me about effects, but
instead proudly boasted about a new book he had compiled of Al Capp’s cartoons.

After these early efforts to advance comics as a field of study, a more sustained drive surfaced in the
late 1980s, when various factors coalesced to change still prevailing negative attitudes about comics.
First, the academy could no longer ignore the broad discipline of popular culture (which embraced
comics), given its immense importance to the global economy and individuals’ lifestyles. Second,
comics themselves were reinvented, moving away from the Pow! Wham! Bang! stage to a style more
acceptable to better-educated, adult audiences. Third, thanks to globalization, the world of comics,
particularly Japanese and European, became familiar to the US, stimulating reader interest and a bit
of cross-fertilizing research. Fourth, as more young researchers hailing from all corners of academia
embarked on comics scholarship, a theoretical framework (mostly borrowed) began to emerge. Fifth,
after the mid-1990s, increasing numbers of graduate students felt safe approaching their professors
with ideas for dissertations and theses on comic art, some of which were later published as books.
Whether resulting from those attitude changes, or helping to stimulate them, an infrastructure for the
study of comic art was established. Universities began collecting and preserving comics for future study;
conferences sprouted, first affiliated with fan conventions and then as separate entities, and English, com-
munication, art, and other academic departments launched courses on comics-related subjects.
In recent decades, a number of university libraries, centres, and museums have started or
expanded comics collections. Chief among them in the US are collections at Michigan State University,
Bowling Green State University, Library of Congress, and Ohio State University; other strong collec-
tions can be found in universities such as Florida, Kansas, Pennsylvania, and Syracuse. In Europe,
institutions in Brussels, Kent (UK), Angoulême (France), Malmö and Stockholm (Sweden), Warsaw,
Alcalá (Spain), and other places, carry extensive lists of comics and comics-related materials. Asian
collections exist in many places, including hometown libraries/museums dedicated to Chinese and
Japanese master cartoonists, comic art centres, and university and government lending libraries.


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The winding, pot-holed road of comic art scholarship

Academic organizations devoted to the study of comic art have done much to advance the field of
study through their networking, periodicals, and conferences. Among these are Observatorio
Permanente sobre la Historieta Latinoamericana, located in Havana; the Japan Society for Studies in
Cartoon and Comics; the Korea Society of Cartoon and Animation Studies, and the International
Comic Art Forum in the US.
The burgeoning research generated by these centres and associations resulted in a sharp
increase in the number of books and journals published on comic art. Whereas a generation or
more ago, a researcher interested in comics would have been hard-pressed to find much of sub-
stance in the way of literature, the situation since the late 1990s is that serious scholars cannot
keep up with the vast numbers of books and articles published. Perhaps too many of the books
still concentrate on the tired subject of US superheroes; however, considerable numbers of others
have taken up aspects of comics such as theory, audiences, political economy, psychology, phi-
losophy, history, cartoonists’ biographies and interviews, graphic novels, ideology, aesthetics, and
so on. In recent years, full-fledged bibliographies, indices, encyclopaedias, Internet databases,
anthologies, and other handy guides have enhanced comics scholarship. Trade and university
presses now have series of titles on comic art. What is especially encouraging is that some US
researchers have broken the previously held parochialism of the field, writing books about other
regions and countries.
The outcry in the academy concerning comics and cartoons has dwindled to a whimper in light of
these advances made during about two decades. An ever-growing group of researchers, many having
recently finished doctoral dissertations on comics, have joined university faculties where they have
started courses, published books and articles, and presented papers related to comics at all types of
academic conferences, activity which cannot go unnoticed by those resistant to change. In the proc-
ess, comics scholarship is gaining a theoretical base and a body of credible and systemic research,
and, by and large, the respect of the arbiters of academic standards.
The winding, bumpy road of comics scholarship, travelled for so long, has finally turned into
something closer to a smooth superhighway.

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Barker, Martin (1984), A Haunt of Fears. The Strange History of the British Horror Comics Campaign,
London: Pluto Press.
Barker, Martin (1989), Comics: Ideology, Power and the Critics, Manchester: University of Manchester


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John A. Lent

Barker, Martin (2002), ‘Kicked into the Gutters: or, “My Dad Doesn’t Read Comics, He Studies
Them”’, International Journal of Comic Art, 4:1 (Spring), pp. 64–77.
Baumgärtner, Alfred C. (1965), Die Welt der Comics, Bochum: Kamp.
Becker, Stephen (1959), Comic Art in America: Social History of the Funnies, the Political Cartoons,
Magazine Humor; Sporting Cartoons and Animated Cartoons, New York: Simon & Schuster.
Berger, Arthur Asa (1970), Li’l Abner: A Study in American Satire, New York: Twayne Publishers.
Berger, Arthur Asa (2002), ‘Is This the Kind of Thing that Serious Academics Do?’ International
Journal of Comic Art, 4:1 (Spring), pp. 40–47.
Bertieri, Claudio (ed.) (1968), Gli eroi del tempo libero, Padova: Radar.
Bi Keguan (1980), Guo qu de zhi hui – man hua dian ping 1908–1939 (Wisdom of the Past – Cartoon
Comments 1908–1939), N.P.
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Bi Keguan and Huang Yuanlin (1986), Zhong guo man hua shi (A History of Chinese Cartoon),
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Blackbeard, Bill (2003), ‘The Four Color Paper Trail: A look Back’, International Journal of Comic
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Couperie, Pierre and Horn, Maurice (1968), A History of the Comic Strip, New York: Crown.
Cuccolini, Giulio C. (2002), ‘In Search of Lost Time or Time Regained’, International Journal of
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Forte, Gioacchio (1965), Gli eroi di carta, Naples: ESI.
Fuchs, Wolfgang J. and Reitberger, Reinhold (1978), Comics Handbuch, Hamburg: Rowohlt
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Gasca, Luis (1969), Los comics en España, Madrid: Editional Lumen.
Gifford, Denis (1971a), Discovering Comics, Tring: Shire Publications.
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Gifford, Denis (1975), Happy Days. One Hundred Years of Comics, London: Jupiter Books.
Gifford, Denis (1984), The International Book of Comics, London: Crescent Books.
Gombrich, Ernst (1960), Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation, New
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Crazed Fanatic about Cartooning, Its History and Lore’, International Journal of Comic Art, 7:2
(Fall), pp. 3–42.


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John A. Lent

Hegerfors, Sture (1966), Svish! Pow! Sock! Seriernas Fantastika Värld, Lund: Verlag Corona.
Hegerfors, Sture (1978), Pratbubblan!: en Bok om Serier, Stockholm: Trevi.
Hegerfors, Sture (2003), ‘Sture Hegerfors and Swedish Comics Scholarship’, International Journal
of Comic Art, 5:1 (Spring), pp. 8–20.
Hinds, Harold E., Jnr and Tatum, Charles M. (1992), Not Just for Children: The Mexican Comic Book
in the Late 1960s and 1970s, Westport, CT: Greenwood.
Hirsh, Michael and Loubert, Patrick (1971), The Great Canadian Comic Books, Toronto: P. Martin
Horn, Maurice (1976), The World Encyclopedia of Comics, New York: Chelsea House.
Horn, Maurice (2002), ‘How It All Began, or Present at the Creation’, International Journal of Comic
Art, 4:1 (Spring), pp. 6–22.
Inge, M. Thomas (2003), ‘Portrait of the Professor as a Failed Cartoonist’, International Journal of
Comic Art, 5:1 (Spring), pp. 21–30.
Ishiko, Jun (1978), Shim Mangagaku (A New Comicology), Tokyo: Mainichi Shimbunsha.
Ishiko, Jun (1979), Nihon Mangashi (A History of Japanese Comics), Tokyo: Otsuki Shoten.
Ishiko, Jun (1985), Sho-wa no senso- karikathua (War Caricature in the Sho-wa Era), Tokyo: Horupu
Ishiko, Jun (1988), Nihon mangashi (A History of Japanese Comics), Tokyo: Shakaishiso-sha.
Ishiko, Junzo- (1967), Manga geijutsuron, Tokyo: Fuji Shoin.
Ishiko, Junzo-, et al. (1969), Gendai manga rash, Tokyo: Seirindo.
Ishiko, Junzo- (1970), Gendai manga no shiso-, Tokyo: Taihei Shuppan.
Jovanovic, Goran and Koch, Ulrich (1999), ‘The Comics Debate in Germany. Against Dirt and
Rubbish, Pictorial Idiotism, and Cultural Analphabetism’, in John A. Lent (ed.), Pulp Demons:
International Dimensions of the Postwar Anti–Comics Campaign, London: Associated University
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Kunzle, David (1973), The Early Comic Strip. Narrative Strips and Picture Stories in the European
Broadsheet from c. 1450 to 1825, Berkeley: University of California Press.


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Kunzle, David (1990), History of the Comic Strip: The Nineteenth Century, Berkeley: University of
California Press.
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in Canada’, International Journal of Comic Art, 7:2 (Fall), pp. 78–88.
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Suggested citation
Lent, J. A. (2010), ‘The winding, pot-holed road of comic art scholarship’, Studies in Comics 1: 1,
pp. 7–33, doi: 10.1386/stic.1.1.7/1

Contributor details
Professor John A. Lent, Ph.D., is founder-publisher-editor-in-chief of the International Journal of
Comic Art and Asian Cinema. Author or editor of seventy books, he has studied comic art for decades,
interviewing 600 plus cartoonists worldwide. He has promoted comic art in many venues, including
two sections of two international associations. With Wang Liuyi, he founded the annual Asian Youth
Animation & Comics Contest, Asian-Pacific Association of Cartoonists and Animators (APACA),
and APACA’s huge centre (located in Guiyang, China) to consist of archives, a library, museum,
auditorium, studios, exhibition galleries, screening rooms, a hotel, and more.


STIC_1.1_art Lent_07-034.indd 33 3/29/10 8:07:42 PM




Lgna]ogmj[YlYdg_m]gjgj\]jgmjZggckYf\bgmjfYdknakalooo&afl]dd][lZggck&[getAfl]dd][l$L`]Eadd$HYjfYddJgY\$>ak`hgf\k$:jaklgd$:K).+B?&tL]d2#,, (!))/1-011)(

STIC_1.1_art Lent_07-034.indd 34 3/29/10 8:08:00 PM

STIC 1 (1) pp. 35–52 Intellect Limited 2010

Studies in Comics
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/stic.1.1.35/1

Media & Design Academy (Genk) & University of Leuven (K.U. Leuven)

Intertwining verbal and visual

elements in printed narratives
for adults

Keywords Abstract
image and word- In the course of print history only a few successful models of image and word-alliances (e.g., comics, picture
narratives books) developed, while other types remained rather marginal. This article tries to argue why such different
print culture and experimental works as What a Life! (Lucas and Morrow, 1911), La Prose du Transsibérien et de la
artists’ books petite Jehanne de France/Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of Little Jehanne of France (Cendars and
picture books Delaunay, 1913), Dynamik der Gross-Stadt/Dynamics of a Metropolis (Moholy-Nagy, 1925), La
novelty books Cantatrice Chauve/The Bold Soprano (Ionesco and Massin, 1964), La Toilette/The Cleaning (Charras,
marked typography Robial and Montellier, 1983) or Narratology (Drucker, 1994) in fact belong to a separate but cohesive body
of works. Though individual works of this newly defined group of image and word-narratives may share
some characteristics with better known models (as those of comics or picture books for children), as a group
they use far more extensively typographic manipulations and special layouts, they experiment more freely


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Pascal Lefèvre

with varying styles and they can redesign the object of the book itself. The image and word prototype books 1. Bazarnik & Fajfer (2009)
propose the term
created in a workshop at a Flemish art school will serve here as a case study. ‘liberature’ for the
literary genre that
integrates text and its
material foundation into
The possible combinations of images and words may be endless, but their alliance is far from a meaningful whole, but
evident, because they inevitably become implicated in a ‘war of signs’ (Mitchell 1986: 47). In the they emphasize the
visual side less.
field of ‘high literature’ a purist’s distrust of images seems to linger on, because images are seen
as diverting attention away from the essential, namely the text itself (Darricau 2004: 51,
Groensteen 2006: 25). In the past, pictures were sometimes considered dangerous for children
(de Bodt 2003: 10, 24) and even in present times pictures are often associated with many evils –
such as limiting the imagination of the reader. However many objections do not hold any rational
ground and as picture-book researcher Nodelman has frankly put it: ‘If pictures limit our imagi-
nation, then so do words, and the only safe alternative is utterly blank pages. In fact, both words
and pictures exercise our imaginations by giving us something definite and new to think about’
(Nodelman 1996: 245).
In the course of print history only a few successful models of image and word-alliances devel-
oped: an early model was that of the illustrated broadsheet, but the real breakthrough came in the
late nineteenth century and early twentieth century when comics, picture books (for children) and
illustrated magazines were produced on a massive scale. By contrast, other kinds of image and
word-alliances did not develop into a recognizable model, for instance there are only a very few –
what I call – printed image and word-narratives for adults that differ both from the illustrated novel
and from the comics medium.1 These works do not systematically use the characteristic devices of
the medium of comics (such as balloons, page layouts with tiers, coherent drawing style etc.) to tell
a story by words and pictures. On the contrary they use their own characteristic devices such as
typographic manipulations, often page-filling pictures, experiments with the material carrier (the
broadsheet, the book) and many more. Examples are not only limited editions of artists’ books
such as La Prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France (Cendars and Delaunay, 1913) or,
more recently, Johanna Drucker’s postmodernist Narratology (1994), but also, on a somewhat larger
scale, distributed books such as What a Life! (Lucas and Morrow, 1911), The Cage (Vaughn-James,
1975) and La Toilette (Charras, Robial and Montellier, 1983) (see figure 1). These are not illustrated
books in the ordinary sense of the term, because the visual side does far more than just illustrate,
decorate, document or comment on a verbal story. This article will try to define this peculiar cate-
gory of works, give a brief overview of their artistic potentialities and speculate on the reasons why
this group has not yet evolved into a recognizable model such as comics or children’s picture


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Intertwining verbal and visual elements in printed narratives for adults

Figure 1: Charras, P., Robial, E. and Montellier, Ch. (1983), La Toilette, Paris: Futuropolis.


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Pascal Lefèvre

Defining the field 2. Although there is

seemingly an enormous
While individual works of this image and word-narratives category may share some characteristics variety in comics
published in different
with comics, picture books for children, artists’ books or visual poetry, these terms do not suffice to countries, there are
define them properly (see figure 2). Though there is not one undisputed scholarly definition of all nevertheless a lot of
these terms, and though styles, themes, publication formats and consumption of these models may striking similarities on
various levels: recurring
vary in time and place, most people will easily identify a particular group of cultural products associ- dominant techniques
ated with these terms.2 Graphic novels is the term commonly used nowadays for the so-called more (such as line drawing,
artistic one-shot comic books; picture books has been rather exclusively associated with illustrated use of balloons and
tiers), recurring
children’s books. The term artists’ books comprises a large body of works which are primarily associ- dominant types
ated with a visual artist. An average consumer will not confuse different models of publications, even of narratives and
characters (funny
if they are available in the same bookstore. In fact, these publications will generally be placed on dif- animals, superheroes,
ferent tables and bookshelves, reviewed by different types of critics, and awarded distinct prizes. So mischief gags…), similar
within a particular culture people are only familiar with a limited number of prototypical publication ways of creation and
distribution (small team
models such as that of the novel with only text, that of the children’s picture book (whereby a text is of creators, specialized
accompanied by large, colourful drawings), or that of the comic with balloons and tiers. Each of these publishing houses,
large categories can be further subdivided into subcategories: in the English language one will further publications in periodicals
and in book form).
differentiate comics between mainstream comic books, comic strips, manga and graphic novels. All Comics may have
these various publication models have a long and complex history, but nowadays they have a more evolved greatly over
time, but comics from
or less distinct profile among publishers, distributors, critics, and consumers (Lefèvre 2000). various different time
Importantly these publication models are not neutral containers, but they are associated with certain periods still share some
ideas, emotions and judgments. A publication is inevitably a product of human activity within a com- main identifiable
plex and changeable context (McKenzie 1999).
From the moment a certain creation does no longer affirm its exclusive allegiance to one of these
models problems start to emerge, because the catalogues of the publishers, the bookshelves in the
bookstores, the review sections in the journals, the literary prizes or subsidy schemes, are developed
only for a limited number of models. In the course of print history only a few particular publication
models have become institutionalized and widespread. In the case of narratives in book form that use
both words and images, it is foremost the models of the comics medium and of the children’s picture
book that have gained an important share of the market. Though each model has fostered a rich
catalogue of creations, on the other hand, such models force creators to remain within a particular set
of imposed restrictions. Nevertheless, even within these traditions and restrictions, quite distinct
products can be made and some kind of evolution is possible. Within the field of comics one can
choose, for instance, a traditional superhero comic book, an experimental work by Chris Ware or a
shojo manga (Japanese comics for girls). Though these are all rather different products with varying
styles, themes, and publication formats, and probably aiming at different kinds of readers as well, on


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Intertwining verbal and visual elements in printed narratives for adults

Figure 2: Vendiagrams comics, picture books, artist’s books, illustrated novels, image and word narratives.


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Pascal Lefèvre

a more basic level they all use very similar techniques: for instance, they all combine distinct scenes 3. For instance publica-
tions such as Mark Waid
(often in panels) on a page, use speech balloons, and are rendered in quite a coherent drawing style. and Alex Ross’ Kingdom
Arguably one of the most striking symbols of the comics medium is the speech balloon and it is no Come, Hermann’s On a
coincidence that this device is mostly used in various other media such as painting (paintings of Roy tué Wild Bill/Wild Bill is
Dead or Shaun Tan’s
Lichtenstein) or in advertising (Lefèvre 2008a) when these domains want to refer to the comics The Arrival use – instead
medium. On the other hand there are scores of drawn sequences without balloons that still function of the habitual line
as a comic and are identified as such. Of course there are also products that do not conform to all the drawing – an optical
denotation system
traditional expectations, but their partly deviational approach does not hinder their identification as (Willats 1997), but they
belonging to the model of the comics medium.3 The back cover text of the recent anthology of Abstract are all labelled comics.
Comics even stretches the classic definitions of comics by arguing that comics

do not need to be confined to illustrating stories, but that a certain story component is inher-
ent in the medium’s most basic structure of sequential narration. Panel rhythm, page layout,
the sequential potential of colour and the panel-to-panel play of abstract shapes have all been
exploited to create potent formal dramas and narrative arcs.
(Molotiu 2009)

For all these reasons, one has to argue for a rather prototypical definition of publication models
instead of a componential definition, which splits the meaning of the term into parts to construct a
definition of everything included therein (Lefèvre and Dierick 1998: 12).
A prototypical definition for the category of image and word-narratives is therefore required:
features such as typographic and material manipulations, and page-filling pictures seem to form
the core of this group of publications. Despite this theoretical delineation, in reality the works
remain quite different: La Toilette tells a ‘story’ simultaneously on three distinct levels (by printed
video stills, drawings and texts); Moholy-Nagy’s designed storyboard Dynamik der Gross-Stadt (in
Malerei Photographie Film, Albert Langen Verlag, 1925) uses a compartmentalization of pages by
means of texts and images but in a rather unusual way; Massin’s visualization of a theatre text by
Ionesco in La Cantatrice Chauve (Gallimard, 1964); Tom Phillips’ A Humument (1970), which is in
fact the altered Victorian novel A Human Document by W.H. Mallock (1892); postmodernist works,
such as Paul Zelevansky’s The Case for the Burial of Ancestors, Book 1 (1981); or Johanna Drucker’s
Narratology (1994).
Despite their apparent differences, they are all more than just illustrated texts, because the images
form a crucial part in the creation of meanings and sensations. In an illustrated text the presence of
illustrations can influence the interpretation of the work considerably. This is evident in various visual
treatments of the same fairytale, as Schwarcz (1982) has demonstrated. What is visually represented
and the way it is rendered will give a text a certain feeling and invite another interpretation; as


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Intertwining verbal and visual elements in printed narratives for adults

4. A recent exception is Rawson (1987: 5) and Teissig (1988: 7) stress, drawings are, in the first place, artistic creations with
Mark Z. Danielewski’s
House of Leaves
their own visual ontology, which is inherently different from our daily perception. A spectator is
(Pantheon Books, 2007). invited to share the figurative perspective of the maker of an image (Peters 1977: 31). While the use
of pictures in books for children is now widely accepted, their use in narratives for adults remains
quite problematic – in spite of a long but diverse tradition of predecessors that combine images and
words in an innovative way. Examples include the visual poetry of Simmias of Rhodos during the
antiquity, the illustrated manuscripts in the Middle Ages, William Blake’s self-published book of
illustrated poems Songs of Innocence (1794) or Laurence Sterne’s formally experimental novel The Life
and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759–1767). Though the coming of the printing press
stimulated the distribution of books enormously, it implied also – and paradoxically – some setbacks.
While in manuscripts images and words could be fluently combined, with the printing press both
needed (for centuries) a separate printing process (Darricau 2004: 51). On the other hand the porta-
ble nature of the printing plate or block fostered the international mobility of images (McKitterick
2003: 66). The invention of the printing press also meant a distinction between marked and unmarked
typography (Drucker 1994: 94–96). In the Gutenberg bibles with their uniform grey pages, and unin-
terrupted blocks of text without (sub)headings, the printed text had to speak for itself without the
visible intervention of author or printer: ‘Such a text appears to possess an authority which tran-
scends the mere material presence of words on a page, ink impressions on parchment’ (Drucker
1994: 95). On the other hand there were the publications – also printed by Gutenberg – that used
various sizes of type to hierarchize information. The authority of the unmarked text has also pro-
ceeded in literature: most advocates of ‘serious’ literature seem to believe only a ‘neutral’ container
can properly communicate the literary text.4 However, even in the digital age with the spread of
e-books, the old tradition of the unmarked text is still surviving. Most e-books are just digital versions
of traditional books: the carrier has changed but not the work itself (Stoicheff and Taylor 2004: 15) – in
spite of the enormous possibilities for experimentation that the digital techniques offer (texts can be
animated, hypertexts can be introduced, unusual page formats etc.).
So, even today such neutral, unmarked typography is still characteristic for the bulk of both dig-
ital and printing work that aims to look serious, while the marked text has become typical for adver-
tising and illustrated magazines. According to Drucker (1994: 96), there was no technical printing
reason that marked typography developed so late in history; it was rather the consequence of a
changed attitude towards the existing techniques. Typographical experiments were, contrary to wide-
spread belief, first carried out in advertising, until the art world saw their possibilities and started
challenging the old conventions. Amongst others the French symbolist Stéphane Mallarmé’s visual
poetry Un coup de dés/A Throw of the Dice (1897) and Marinetti’s Futuristic manifesto of February
1909 called explicitly for rejecting harmony by playing with various sizes of types, and using unusual
placing of words. The impact on narrative literature was rather limited, because most novels kept


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Pascal Lefèvre

using unmarked typography and rejected pictures. Even the less intrusive use of pictures in novels for 5. As explained earlier
(Lefèvre 2006) it took
adults, namely illustrated novels, remain a rather limited phenomenon – except maybe in France, several decades before
which fostered this important tradition from the nineteenth century onwards. Marked typography the Europeans adopted
and pictures are, on the contrary, used predominantly in illustrated magazines and picture books for the so-called American
technique of the balloon
children. In the field of printed fiction for adults the intertwining of images and words is not at all a in comics. This was also
standard or a popular practice – except for the special category of graphic novels in the field of part of the progress
comics.5 As stated above traditional prejudices about serious literature play a crucial role herein, but from a culture that privi-
leged the written word
we have also to investigate to what extent image and word-narratives can be an effective medium for to a more visually
telling stories and entertaining adult readers. oriented mass culture
in the second part of
the twentieth century.
While the captions of
A workshop and reception study the nineteenth century
were predominantly
Hybrid works that are built on the intertwining of words and images demand the mastery of writ- typographical unmarked
ing and visualization by one artist, or at least an intensive collaboration between writer and visual texts, in balloons of
artist. An interesting experiment in this regard was conducted in 2008 at the Belgian art school the twentieth century
usually ‘script’ has
Media and Design Academy of Genk (MDA), where Masters students in graphic design were been used. Script is
linked with novelists from Flanders and the Netherlands.6 Though each of the nine mixed teams handwritten letters that
imitate typographical
started with the basis of an unfinished outline by the writers, which often included the first lines of signs (Baetens and
a short story, the aim was that the designers should not illustrate a pre-existing story but become Lefèvre 1993: 7).
as responsible as the writers for the final image and word narrative. The graphic designer had to 6. I was, at a later stage,
propose a visual response to this short synopsis and the writer could react to the images created in involved in this project
the process of the collaboration. A dialogue or dialectic between the verbal and the visual artist for researching the
historical and theoretical
was central to the experiment. The graphic artist could leave out parts of the text and insert a visual context. So I was
alternative. Moreover the text itself became strongly typographically marked, which was some- not present at the
times provoking for the writers since they were used to seeing their texts published in a rather workshops, but I
screened the videotapes
neutral, unmarked typography. The graphic designer could not only visualize parts of the text or of these sessions.
leave out fragments from the text, he/she could also add their own ideas, suggest new directions in
the plot and so on. This resulted in narratives whereby words and images were strongly interlinked
and which looked quite different from illustrated novels or comics. These experimental image and
word-narratives mostly leave out the usual comics techniques such as speech balloons or page
layouts with tiers. On the contrary, they experiment far more with typography and the organiza-
tion of the text on the page (see figures 3–6).
The image and word prototype books created at the MDA-workshops experiment, to a limited
degree, with the carrier by sometimes including fold-outs or flaps (see figure 3), but many more pos-
sibilities are open: pages can be quite inventively folded, cut and bound, various types of pages
(transparency, thickness, texture …) can be chosen, etc. Furthermore, the traditional format of the


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Intertwining verbal and visual elements in printed narratives for adults

Figure 3: Example of the unfolded four-page spread. Some parts of the texts follow the labyrinth. Terrin, P. and Galiani, M. (2008), De aanval, Genk: MDA.


STIC_1.1_lefevre_035-052.indd 43 3/26/10 1:28:06 PM

Pascal Lefèvre

book can be replaced by alternative forms such as the scroll, the fan, the concertina, the venetian 7. Even before the book,
many other carriers
blind, a bundle of loose items in a box, etc. (for examples see Smith 2003, Fawcett-Tang 2005, and were used to fix texts:
Hubert and Hubert 1999).7 As Carothers remarked, such ‘novelty devices’ involve more than just the ceramics, tapestry,
physical manipulation of turning the pages of a normal book: ‘Immediately attracting a viewer’s scrolls, wall paintings
attention, the device invites the reader to become involved in its special presentation of the visual
and the verbal’ (Carothers 2000: 319). Such alternative conceptions of the book interrupt the normal
reading rhythm, sometimes the reader may have to turn the book in order to read the texts (see figure 3).
Readers become consequently more aware of the materiality of the book. Such manipulations are
also often used in children’s picture books, even to the extent that the book becomes a toy rather
than a reading book. In a reception study of the MDA publications conducted by Vandoninck (2010)
the participants expressed that they did not particularly like these devices. Vandoninck tested the
prototype copies on 31 adult persons, ranging from light to heavy readers of novels. After having
read the experimental books the participants could formulate their ideas and feelings in a few focus
groups. In contrast to the easy reading process of an average comic or novel (illustrated or not), the
participants encountered various problems digesting these books. For them a pleasant reading
rhythm was an essential condition for relaxation during reading (as was being carried away by the
story). The MDA works are, on the contrary, built on some important tensions, such as between
words and images, or between imagery that is rather accessible and imagery that is quite complex.
Firstly, we learn the meaning of a text in a linear progression, but images confront the reader with a
complete space that has to be ‘scanned’ by the eye and the mind to construct meaning. While words
urge us forward, every picture interrupts this progressive reading process and requires us to consider
the scene (Nodelman 1996: 247). Also, in a comic one has a lot of pictures, but the jumps from one
panel to the next panel are usually much smaller. Moreover, the page of a traditional comic consists
of many panels, which gives the impression that there is some kind of sequential progression, because
the reader does not have to pause too long on one panel. The experimental picture books often have
only one big image on a page or a continuous spread over two adjacent pages, which strengthens the
unity of the page(s), and so both the visual breakdown of a story and the page layout are quite differ-
ent from a comic. Secondly there is also an important tension between the rather accessible aspects
of the form and the more difficult ones. Contrary to the visually easily accessible text of a novel or of
a comic, the striking typography and layout designs of these word and image-narratives can put up
important barriers for the reader: the typographic variations can be extreme, sentences can be cut up
and their components can be scattered over the space of the complete page surface (see figures 4 and 5).
Much more than in a novel or a comic the reader of such an experimental work has to search for the
places where text appears and to figure out the reading order of the scattered textual elements. The
more the organization deviates from habitual reading schemes (from left to right, from above to
below), the more difficult the reading process becomes. Hubert and Hubert called this ‘skilful


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Intertwining verbal and visual elements in printed narratives for adults

Figure 4: The text is not only dispersed and set in various types, but some words (‘voie’, ‘destination’, ‘train’) are quite transparent and placed above each
other – to suggest the impact of the sounds in the railway station on the main character. De Wit, J. and Vanstiphout, K. (2008), Transit, Genk: MDA.


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Pascal Lefèvre

Figure 5: The placing of the separate words on the page suggests the idea of a bouncing ping-pong ball. Van Hassel, S. and Vaes, I. (2008), De Chinese bruilloft, Genk: MDA.


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Intertwining verbal and visual elements in printed narratives for adults

8. There seem to exist juggling’ of the reader because he or she ‘has to operate on several tracks and several levels at the
some canonical
perspectives that offer
same time’ (Hubert and Hubert 1999: 182).
a faster recognition Readability does not only concern the visual representation of the text, but also the communica-
(Palmer 1999: 421). tive level of the images. Some types of images are more easily processed and interpreted than others.
And figures that are
repeatedly presented From perception studies we know that the chosen perspective and repeated presentation are impor-
will be more easily tant factors in the recognition of objects, persons and scenes.8 In a comic, film or children’s picture
recognized – the book the main characters are generally clearly represented repeatedly.9 In all the books created at the
so-called priming
effect (Palmer MDA workshop the reader never gets a glimpse of the faces of the main characters, at most a silhou-
1999: 425). ette or another part of their body is presented. Furthermore, in contrast to mainstream comics
9. There are, of course, (Lefèvre 2008b), films or picture books, the representation of the space is far more abstract and frag-
also exceptions, such mented; the mental construction by the reader of the characters and the space is consequently a lot
as Martine Van’s and
François Mutter’s
more problematic. Furthermore, images and texts are not by necessity redundant, in the MDA books
Carpets’ Bazaar parts of the text were replaced by images. The reader consequently has to pay a lot of attention to the
(Futuropolis, 1983). images – if he or she does not want to miss some crucial elements to the story. Actually, this caused
problems for some members of the focus groups, because they were not at all used to such an
approach. A lot of the participants in the reception study did not like having to make the effort to
figure out the rather complex meaning of texts and images combined, because they considered read-
ing as an effortless and entertaining activity. Complex word and image-relations were thus found to
disturb their reading rhythm and caused some frustration among the participants (see figure 6). On the
other hand this reception study also showed some learning effects over time; after being exposed to
several such books, readers said that they became more accustomed and gave growing attention
to the visual part.
This article has tried to argue why such seemingly different works as La Prose du Transsibérien et de
la petite Jehanne de France (Cendars and Delaunay), What a Life! (Lucas and Morrow), Dynamik der
Gross-Stadt (Moholy-Nagy), La Cantatrice Chauve (Ionesco and Massin), La Toilette (Charras, Robial
and Montellier), Narratology (Drucker) and the MDA creations belong to a separate but cohesive cat-
egory of works that has not been defined before. Negatively speaking these kinds of word and image-
combinations cannot be called comics or illustrated novels in the ordinary sense of these terms,
because this group of publications use some rather different devices for intertwining words and
images, such as typographic manipulations and special layouts (often including page-filling pictures).
In principle they do not have to stick to a certain style (as in most comics or illustrated novels), but
they can try out varying styles in typography and imagery. Furthermore, like artists’ books and picture
books, they can experiment with the material carrier, namely the publication itself. One can find refer-
ences scattered in books on graphic design, artists’ books, experimental literature, bibliographical
history and the like. In previous literature some of these works were occasionally called artists’ books,
but this term is in fact too wide to define this category properly. Other terms such as graphic novel or


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Pascal Lefèvre

Figure 6: An example of a visual element that was not remarked on consciously by the participants of Vandoninck’s reception study: the clock standing at two to twelve to signal a sense of impending doom.
Timmerije, A. and Geerts, K. (2008), Het verhaal, Genk: MDA.


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Intertwining verbal and visual elements in printed narratives for adults

picture book would also have been possible, it they were not already used for some other well-known
categories of publications. While this category of image and word-narratives may share some features
with related categories such as comics, picture books for children, illustrated novels or visual poetry, it
nevertheless has its own prototypical characteristics such as experimenting with the carrier or the
material (redesigning the object of the book itself) and freely combining typography and imagery.
From a quantitative point of view the category of image and word-narratives remains a rather
marginal phenomenon today, and there are various reasons for this. Firstly, such hybrid works
demand an intense collaboration between visual artist and writer (or a complete artist who masters
both aspects), which reduces possible creators; secondly, publications with lots of novelty devices
need advanced or complex production techniques, which can present difficulties; and finally, these
texts often invite readers to deal with unusual stylistic or narrative techniques, which can meet with
resistance. There are therefore a lot of barriers that need to be negotiated before the publication
model of image and word-narratives becomes as prominent as that of contemporary comics.

The research for this article was funded by the Media and Design Academy (Genk) and The Institute
for Practice-based Research in the Arts of the K. U. Leuven Association. Thanks also to the initiators
of the project, Kris de Tollenaere and Jeanine Eerdekens (of MDA), and to Professor Hugo Brems and
Sofie Vandoninck of the K. U. Leuven and to the editors of Studies in Comics.

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Intertwining verbal and visual elements in printed narratives for adults

Marinetti, F. T. (1909), ‘Manifeste du futurisme’, Figaro, February 1909.

McKenzie, D. F. (1999), Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts, Cambridge: Cambridge University
McKitterick, D. (2003), Print, manuscript, and the search for order, 1450–1830, New York: Cambridge
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Meggs, P. B. and Purvis, A. W. (2006), Meggs’ History of Graphic Design, fourth edition, Hoboken:
Mitchell, W. J. T. (1994), Picture Theory, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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Langen Verlag.
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(eds), Only Connect. Readings on Children’s Literature, Ontario: Oxford University Press,
pp. 242–253.
Palmer, E. S. (1999), Vision science. Photons to phenomenology, Cambridge: MIT Press.
de Paris, D. and Nijssen, W. (2008), Sympathy, Genk: MDA.
Peters, J. M. (1977), Kijken naar beelden, Leuven: Centrum voor Communicatiewetenschappen.
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Vandoninck, S. (2010 forthcoming), ‘Leeservaringsonderzoek experimentele woord&beeld verhalen’/

Reception study of experimental image & word-narratives, in K. De Tollenaere, J. Eerdekens, P. Lefèvre
and S. Vandoninck, IvOK Cahier 18: Woord&Beeld Verhalen/Image and word narratives, Leuven:
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Studies Workshop Press.

Suggested citation
Lefèvre, P. (2010), ‘Intertwining verbal and visual elements in printed narratives for adults’, Studies in
Comics 1: 1, pp. 35–52, doi: 10.1386/stic.1.1.35/1

Contributor details
Pascal Lefèvre first studied social sciences and American studies at the university of Leuven (K. U.
Leuven). While working as a researcher at the Belgian national broadcasting corporation (BRTN), he
started publishing and organizing conferences. From 1996 till 1999 he was attached (part time) as a
scientific advisor to the Belgian Centre of Comic Strip Art in Brussels. Since 1998 he has been lectur-
ing on comics and visual media at various Flemish university colleges of art (in Antwerp, Brussels and
Genk). In October 2003 he completed his Ph.D. in social sciences (Communications) at the university
of Leuven. Since 2008 he has been an affiliated researcher at the University of Leuven.
For a list of his publications (in eight languages) see his webpage: http://sites.google.com/site/
lefevrepascal/. Currently he is researching early visual narratives, experimental books, contemporary
manga and anime.
Contact: Pascal Lefèvre, Vital Decosterstraat 66 A bus 4, 3000 Leuven, Belgium.
E-mail: lefevre.pascal@gmail.com


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STIC 1 (1) pp. 53–70 Intellect Limited 2010

Studies in Comics
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/stic.1.1.53/1

Edith Cowan University

Discerning pictures: how

we look at and understand
images in comics

Keywords Abstract
less-real-than-real Scott McCloud (1993) has used a ‘realism continuum’ to classify comics characters between the points of real-
silhouettes ism and iconic abstraction. Before him, other theorists (Gropper 1963; Knowlton 1966; Dwyer 1972; Wileman
perceptual constancy 1993) have used this continuum as a means to judge the communicative and instructional potential of pic-
visual closure tures as they become more distant from the realistic.
visual system At the same time, all comic artists employ at least some level of distillation or abstraction, some removal
realism of realistic detail. This approach can allow for other design aspects to be emphasized in or imposed upon the
abstraction comics’ panels: such as line, shape, colour, orientation and composition. These attributes in turn accentuate
connections or relationships that are less apparent in realistic images.
But what are the psychological mechanisms by which we understand images abstracted away from
realism, and how might knowledge of these help to build an understanding of comics’ formal properties and


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Stuart Medley

contribute to the theory of comics? This article explores some important faculties of the human visual sys-
tem, labelled by psychologists as perceptual constancies. Examples from comics are used to illustrate these
faculties put to work by visually literate artists. The mechanics of caricature are also explained in terms of
their importance to how the mind remembers images. Caricature, and not realism, is a mechanism for
visual memory.
There is a difference in the way images communicate depending on their realism quotient and this differ-
ence is key to the way that comics communicate, whether their artists are aware of this fact or not. Distillation
and exaggeration can actually communicate more powerfully to the psyche than ‘the real thing’. This article
explains why this knowledge should be central to an understanding of comics.


Nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination,
by emphasis that we get at the real meaning of things.
Georgia O’Keeffe (cited in Stremmel 2006: 98)

Comics criticism might reasonably be expected to address combinations of words and pictures. In
fact, since a comic may consist of a sequence of pictures only, but not a sequence of words only, the
expected primary focus of comics theory might easily be pictures. Instead, as comics author, artist
and critic Dylan Horrocks has observed, it tends to ‘focus on such elements as plot, characterization,
narrative structure, the use of language, and so on’ (Horrocks 2004). Perhaps we should not be sur-
prised that its theory has focused on words and storytelling. Pictures are difficult. In her Visual
Literacy White Paper, Bamford (2003) says we should abandon any notion of classifying imagery pre-
cisely because it is not as quantifiable as text. Difficulty with images is noted elsewhere. Goldsmith,
for example, in her Research into Illustration, seems to despair of finding a way to evaluate pictures:

Every illustration produced is different in an infinite number of ways from every other illustra-
tion […] Terms most commonly used to describe the grosser aspects of pictures, such as ‘line
drawing’ or ‘colour photograph’ may give some idea of the cost of reproduction, but say noth-
ing about their likely communication value.
(Goldsmith 1984: 123)

Exacerbating the problem of this textual focus is the academic location of comics studies. The
push to have comics recognized as a medium worthy of academic discourse has inevitably led to


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Discerning pictures: how we look at and understand images in comics

the application of metrics which allow its comparison with literature. Accordingly, an adjustment
to existing analytical methods has been suggested as a way forward. Gene Kannenberg Jnr for
example, says: ‘interpretive strategies for text/image relationships already in use by the academy
can be augmented and refined by a willingness to examine, critically, the medium of comics’
(Kannenberg 2003). For him comics worthy of analysis are those that develop ‘complex narratives
through the strategic juxtaposition of text and image in sequential form’ (Kannenberg 2003). The
work of such critics is vital in an understanding of comics, since the relationship between text and
image is central to most work in the field. However, comics such as Shaun Tan’s The Arrival, the
wordless winner of the Angoulême 2008 ‘comic of the year’ award, would not fit such analytical
criteria. What is needed to balance out these literary approaches is a theory that can easily empha-
size the role of image.
I aim to show here that the way things are represented, how realistically or otherwise they are
depicted, affects how we read images, and therefore the meaning we gain from them. Clues to this
implication can be found in art history; for example that, ‘the first prejudice teachers of art apprecia-
tion usually try to combat is the belief that artistic excellence is identical with photographic accuracy’
(Gombrich 2002: 4). In this article, I use this sense of realism – photographic accuracy – as a yardstick
against which to measure pictures.
A more promising route ahead then, for those interested in how images communicate, is to sus-
pend discussion of narrative. Some theorists have done similar in order to look at alternative ways of
appreciating what is unique in comics. Kochalka (1999) sees the role of the comic creator as provid-
ing an environment rather than a plot. Horrocks has developed this concept and named it ‘world-
building’ (2004); he asks, what if the author’s primary task is not to build a story; but a world – a kind
of elaborate experiment which will foment when replete with its own particular settings and peopled
with characters. How might we measure what images do in setting up this world? If the ‘look’ is
important, how might we assess this ‘look’?
Scott McCloud (1993) has used a ‘realism continuum’ to classify comics characters between
the points of realism and iconic abstraction. Before him, other theorists (Gropper 1963; Knowlton
1966; Dwyer 1972; Wileman 1993) have used this continuum – with photographs at one end and
abstracted or distilled images at the other – as a means to judge the communicative and instruc-
tional potential of pictures as they become more distant from the realistic. Indeed, in experiments
intended to determine what kinds of images allow for easy identification of objects, the most real-
istic image has been persistently demonstrated not to be the most communicative. Line drawings
perform better in this regard than photographs of the same things (Fussel and Haaland 1978).
This is surprising. If the human visual system has evolved among the real visual world, it should
stand to reason that any means that can replicate that world accurately is the best means to com-
municate visual information to the reading or viewing audience. Yet we can see and understand


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Stuart Medley

the typical visual styles of comics: reduced detail, outlines drawn around objects, flat colours,
caricature, and so on. This raises the issue of learned versus innate visual understandings, which
there is not the space to explore here. Suffice to say, some abstract visual understanding seems to
pre-exist any acculturation: even babies shown a couple of dots and a line in the configuration of
a face, tend to spend more time viewing such an image than they would a ‘non-face’ configura-
tion of the same marks, suggesting that such an image is understood as a face (Fantz 1961; Morton
and Johnson 1991). I will explain some mechanisms of the human visual system (the eyes and
brain) that are at work to enable identification of less realistic images than those found away from
the page in the real world. Further, I will try to demonstrate that these mechanisms allow that the
visual system prefers less-than-realistic images.

The distant image

One reason we can see and understand the less-real-than-real pictures in comics’ panels might be
that we have evolved having to deal with images presented to us at a distance. Such images are
reduced in detail from the ideal required for recognition. An image is focused on to the retina, and
converted into a language the brain can read – chains of electrical impulses (Gregory 1977). This
retinal mosaic, however, is a finite number of components arranged across a finite area. The lim-
ited resolution that the retina provides means that only limited detail can ever be supplied to the
brain. We look at different visual stimuli in different ways and, importantly, at different distances
from them. The image presented to us from long distance is less than the ideal needed for recogni-
tion: some of the details that would be apparent close-up are literally missing because of this lim-
ited capacity. In a sense the image of the person at this distance is less representational than when
they are within six metres of us: the ideal viewing limit for human stereopsis (Eden 1978: 205). The
possibilities regarding who we are looking at become greater at a distance. In such a circumstance,
we must call on other visual criteria for recognition. We can best judge the identity of this person
now, not on the recognition of their face but upon their actions; in other words, by what they do.
We are behaving differently because of the level of representation of the image; the image now
means something different.
Interestingly, Hergé never once drew more than a medium close-up of Tintin. We judge Tintin by
what he says and what he does, not on his looks, which, apart from the famous quiff, are an assem-
blage of anti-caricature features. Tintin’s travelling companions, Captain Haddock, Professor Calculus
and company are, by contrast, strong caricatures which may be judged by their appearance as much
as their deeds. Tintin displays his traits – loyalty, bravery and intelligence – through action and
speech. The distance the artist kept from his creation in each panel and the distilled drawing of this
character are ideal to present these attributes.


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Discerning pictures: how we look at and understand images in comics

The silhouette
Another aspect of the visible world allows that the visual system might have evolved to understand
less-real-than-real images: the silhouette. Depending on conditions of ambient light, the naturally
occurring image of some person, creature or aspect of the landscape may appear as a more graphic
shape than it would under conditions of, say, midday sunlight. Not only will this lighting diminish
recognition of the specific person or thing, information regarding its three-dimensional shape will be
lost to the eyes and must be made up where possible, presumably from memory. With regard to a
hypothesis about a silhouetted person, this may not be too difficult. Stance, gait, profile, relative size
of head to body and so on should give good clues as to age and sex and build, if not specific identity.
The silhouette of an unfamiliar object will result in a greater range of hypotheses, and lengthen the
odds of one of these being the correct one. A silhouette may indicate then what kind of object we are
looking at but not easily allow us to solve what psychologists call the homogeneity problem, or which
particular object we are looking at.
Typically, pictures drawn as silhouettes can be seen in instructional graphics for tasks ranging
from assembling furniture to self-defence messages: these often comprise comics that are largely
image-driven, as they need to work across linguistic barriers. Generally speaking, such comics depict
accurately scaled figures and aspects of the appropriate environment in outline, but disregard most of
the interior detail of these. This approach, exemplified at figure 1, achieves a number of objectives. As
Rick Poynor suggests of this style of graphic in his essay ‘Blank Look’:

If it has an aesthetic character it is one that has arisen from the modest aim of giving only
as much visual information as is needed to convey the basic facts. Anything more elaborate
would slow down a potentially urgent message.
(Poynor 2001: 78)

The absence of accurate colour and the uniformity of outline in the human figures might also defuse
any heightened emotion that would be attached to such situations in reality. In the example given,
issues such as ethnicity can be sidestepped in a way that would be difficult to achieve through pho-
tographic means. At the same time the realistic proportions suggest a serious and matter-of-fact
directness for the message.

Simplest is best
So, even in nature there seem to be some images available to the eyes that communicate information
without being typically ‘realistic’. Things viewed from a distance and things viewed in silhouette pro-
vide a less-real-than-real version of what they would stand for at an ideal viewing distance in ideal


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Stuart Medley

Figure 1: Medley, after Juan Calle. Instructional design can present anonymity of character through distilled detail. This, in turn, allows pertinent aspects of the information to be easily highlighted, in this instance
through the use of colour.


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Discerning pictures: how we look at and understand images in comics

light. However, this is a satisfactory explanation of how we link the abstraction to its realistic other
only if the viewer knows what kinds of things s/he is looking at. Otherwise these ‘less real’ looking
things would potentially be regarded as novel to the viewer, presenting, as they do, differently on the
retina than would a closer and more ideally lit version of those same things. Thanks to a group of
faculties of the visual system, under the name of ‘perceptual constancies’, the brain knows what the
eye does not. These mental faculties override the purely visual sensation, and prevent us from mis-
taking novel presentations on the retina as novel objects because these faculties are unconcerned
with specific information. These mechanisms are not present to acknowledge reality but rather to
help us avoid being fooled by it. Which is to say that the visual system, even when abroad in the real
world, is not merely accepting of what is presented on the retina, but in fact is measuring that pres-
entation against what the brain knows of objects in the world. Gombrich uses a perfectly simple but
surprising example to explain,

It is a fascinating exercise in illusionist representation to trace one’s own head on the surface
of [a steamed-up bathroom] mirror and to clear the area enclosed by the outline. For only
when we have actually done this do we realize how small the image is which gives us the illu-
sion of seeing ourselves ‘face to face’. To be exact it must be precisely half the size of our head
[…] since the mirror will always appear to be halfway between me and my reflection, the size
on its surface will always be one half of the apparent size.
(Gombrich 2002: 5)

The image on the retina is not taken at face value: it is mediated and interpreted by the brain. How
then, does the brain, or visual perception, decide that when the eyes present it with something it has
never seen before, it may have seen that thing before but from another angle or at a different dis-
tance? Gombrich says:

to probe the visible world we use the assumption that things are simple until they prove to be
otherwise […] A world in which all our expectations were constantly belied would be a lethal
world. Now in looking for regularities, for a framework or schema on which we can at least
provisionally rely (though we may have to modify it for ever), the only strategy is to proceed
from simple assumptions.
(Gombrich 2002: 222)

Similarly, Popper (1959) maintains that the mind is likely to select the simple proposition not because
it is most likely to be right but because it is the easiest to refute and therefore to modify.


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Stuart Medley

Figure 2: Medley after Glaser. The flat colour typical of most comics plays to the perceptual faculty of colour constancy. Colour constancy allows that subtleties of shading are unimportant for recognition.


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Discerning pictures: how we look at and understand images in comics

Psychologists place these mechanisms under the heading of ‘perceptual constancy’. Shape,
size and colour constancies are aspects of this mental faculty (Walsh and Kulikowski 1998: 492).
Size constancy means that a given object is perceived as having the same size regardless of its
distance from us. In other words, our knowledge of its size will override its presentation on the
retina (as per Gombrich’s face in the mirror experiment above). Shape constancy means that an
object is seen to have the same shape regardless of orientation. Thus we see things ‘as they really
are’ and are not taken in by variations in the information presented to the retina. Colour con-
stancy means that an object is perceived as having the same colour in spite of changes in lighting
conditions. This connection between the two visual versions of the same thing is what allows us
to see the less realistic as having a relationship to the more realistic. Or rather, the less detailed
can stand for the more detailed but perhaps in a more general way: the detailed version may be
someone we recognize, a singular, specific person; the less detailed, distant version we may sim-
ply regard as ‘a person’. The same would apply for the ideally lit figure and the silhouetted figure
respectively. These faculties tell us that the real visual presentation of an object upon our retinas
must be matched against existing information about these, or similar, objects in our memory in
order for us to identify them. Implicit in this is that the knowledge already gained of the world
exists in some kind of visual form. This form does not precisely match any ‘real’ visual version of
such an object since the memory will contain a range of information from different viewpoints
and under different lighting conditions.
Comics artists, knowingly or otherwise, help solve these visual problems on behalf of their read-
ers. In the world of comics, colour, for example, is less likely to change due to ambient lighting condi-
tions than it might in the real world. This may be a result of the artist simply being consistent with
ink colours from frame to frame, but it is a colour consistency that is rare in nature and helps the
reader establish, among other things, character identity. It is not a realistic use of colour but it com-
municates more directly than a realistic application of colour.

Visual closure
Perceptual constancy, as a set of psychological faculties, is enough to allow that the visual system
understands less visible versions of things as being the same as ideally visible versions of those things.
Along with ‘closure’ (Rauschenberger and Yantis 2001), the gestalt ability to group things, to assume
patterns and finish in the mind objects half-glimpsed by the eyes, this understanding of abstracted
images becomes an even more compelling argument. Closure is, Kepes tells us, ‘Certain latent inter-
connections of points, lines, shapes, colours and values [which are] closed psychologically into bi-
dimensional or tri-dimensional wholes’ (Kepes 1944: 51), where the viewer will ‘fill in the gaps’
(figure 3). The faculty of closure does not have to reside in an ability to complete objects in the mind


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Stuart Medley

Figure 3: George Hardie’s two-panel cat comic draws attention to visual closure. The second panel is designed to show that the closure provoked in the first is the wrong conclusion.


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Discerning pictures: how we look at and understand images in comics

only when they are occluded. It also manifests itself in an ability to complete objects whose detail is
only partly drawn, as if occluded but by some invisible artefact that merely removes some details
from the object being viewed. This would seem to allow that the ‘invisible occlusion’, which may
exist in a drawing where detail is absent, be written off by the visual system as something not being
focused upon. It is the object of attention that is important in order that the object constancy problem
may be solved.
Together, these faculties of perceptual constancy and closure show that we can communi-
cate visually with images that are less realistic than the real aspects of the visual world. However,
they do not prove that distillation – the act of reducing realism – is a more effective means by
which to communicate or that humans may have a preference for the distilled image. Two fairly
recent findings of the psychology of vision need to be examined to allow that the visual system
might prefer less realism and less detail. The first of these will show that less realism is what
the eye sees and the second will show that less realism is, rather perversely, what the brain

Seizing and exciting the eye

Certain brain cells are stimulated by certain patterns and by certain orientations of line, while others
are stimulated by different orientations (Hubel and Wiesel 1962: 106). More recent research (Roska
and Werblin 2001) suggests the eye only gives basic information to the brain, which then fills in the
detail. Some of the electrical messages sent to the brain by the retina are given only when the edge of
an object is detected. Others are sent only when something is moving, and so on. What the eye
sends to the brain, according to this research, are mere outlines of the visual world, sketchy impres-
sions that make our vivid visual experience all the more amazing. Another study (Geisler and Diehl
2002) found that the visual system ‘is more sensitive to vertical and horizontal contours than to
diagonal contours, perhaps reflecting the natural distribution of contour orientations’ (Geisler and
Diehl 2002: 421). Any picture which plays to these bigger, hard-wired visual themes is perhaps
more likely to ‘score a hit’ on the visual system. Pictures designed as distilled images might better fit
this model than the real world, giving the eye and brain, in effect, a higher-impact version of the
visual world. On the one hand pursuing illustrations that remove some of the visual details found in
the real world might better allow closure, and on the other create scenes that can powerfully seize
the attention of the eye and literally excite it. Comics appear in a vast range of visual styles but
nearly all have in common that they reduce the detail of the visible world in terms of texture and
colour, and they typically employ outlines to describe objects. Each of these techniques would seem
to play to the predilections of the eye and brain, and explain at least some of the appeal of comics’
visual environments.


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Stuart Medley

Figure 4: Medley, Floraphobe. Outlines, though non-existent in nature, are typical in comics and drawing in general. The appeal of these outlines demonstrates that edge-detection of objects is a basic function
of the eye.


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Discerning pictures: how we look at and understand images in comics

Caricature, evolutionary psychology, and the visual system

None of these hypotheses however, explains a more bizarre faculty of the visual system: its ability to
recognize people from a picture, not necessarily reduced in detail, but a picture whose important
details have been exaggerated. This kind of image, best known as the province of the political car-
toonist, is the caricature. Brennan defines caricature as:

a graphical coding of facial features that seeks paradoxically to be more like a face than the
face itself. It […] amplifies perceptually significant information while reducing less relevant
details. The resulting distortion satisfies the beholder’s mental model of what is unique about
a particular face.
(Brennan 1985: 170)

To recognize an object, for example to distinguish a chair from a table, we must be able to map a
potentially infinite set of images onto a single object representation: that is, we must solve what psy-
chologists know as the ‘object constancy problem’. However, to delineate one type of chair from
another, or, more importantly, to delineate one face from another is a different problem for the visual
system. Psychologist and face-recognition expert Gillian Rhodes explains how the visual system, in
concert with cognitive apparatus in the mind, allows the brain to map new visual input against stored
‘norms’ (Rhodes 1996: 2–3). These norms exist for whole ranges of visual information and are expanded
upon with further experience of the visual world. Where the new visual information differs from the
norm, the mind appears to store these differences in a form exaggerated beyond their actual appearance.
For example, if a person appears different from the norm because their eyes are closer together than is
normal (‘normal’ being defined by the different visual experience of each viewer) the brain will exagger-
ate this difference further still by pushing the eyes closer together in the stored memory of that person.
In addition to this mental exaggeration of ‘trends away from the norm’, Rhodes explains that the
visual system and the ‘psychological landscape’ to which it is linked are actually predisposed towards
and on the lookout for extreme visual signals. She argues that:

Stimuli that exaggerate some critical property of the natural stimulus, such as its size, contrast
or number, often produce an enhanced response [...] This preference for extremes seems to be
a fundamental feature of recognition systems, and one that imposes important constraints on
the design of signals.
(Rhodes 1996: 10)

Here Rhodes means ‘design’ in the sense of natural selection but the same might hold true for the
human activity of drawing: exaggerated signals (those that do not naturally occur and are therefore


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Stuart Medley

Figure 5: Olivier Kugler, Palermo detail. Any object may be caricatured if the artist can conceive of a norm for such an object. The differences between the object and its norm are then exaggerated away
from the norm.


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Discerning pictures: how we look at and understand images in comics

not easily reproducible through photography) might actually communicate more immediately to a
visual system predisposed to look for them: ‘If drawings can be interpreted as externalizations of
mental representations, then […] those representations might themselves be caricatured. If so, then
caricatures would be effective because they match the memory representations better than undis-
torted images!’ (Rhodes 1996: 11). Annibale Carracci, the sixteenth-century artist, believed that, ‘A
good caricature, like every work of art, is more true to life than reality itself’ (Geipel 1972: 56). As
Gibson has said, a caricature:

may be faithful to those features of the man that distinguish him from all other men and thus
may truly represent him in a higher sense of the term. It may correspond to him in the sense
of being uniquely specific to him – more so than a projected drawing or photographic portrait
would be.
(Gibson 1971: 29)

Rhodes and Gibson both suggest that specialist visual expertise can extend to recognition of any
objects that may be discriminated by difference from a norm; that, in theory, any object can be cari-
catured. The criterion seems to be that such a group of objects has a norm – real or imagined. To each
of us these norms will be different. For those of us that work in specialist areas it might be easier than
for others to conceive of a norm for, say, nuts and bolts, dresses, cars, buildings or landscapes. At
figure 5 is an example where the setting and the vehicle are caricatured: where these differ from a
‘normal’ urban landscape (walls less straight than the typical rectilinearity of the illustrator’s home
environs) and a ‘normal’ car (the wheels of a Fiat 500 are smaller than average): these aspects have
been exaggerated by the illustrator.

Coincidental conclusions
How does this information help the comics creator or critic? I do not argue that this kind of visual
appreciation is completely innate. Certainly our experience and acculturation in the world will deter-
mine substantial visual understandings, but certain innate abilities allow us to make sense of the new
things we see, including drawings and comics. It is clear through even this brief application of cogni-
tive theories to comics that there is a rich vein of discussion to be had outside of the bounds of liter-
ary analysis about how comics communicate. There is a growing appreciation of the visual in comics
that centres on this notion of realism and its drawn alternatives. There is a sense among some comics
critics, and many creators, that, as Gombrich conjectured, realism is not the pictorial ideal. Chris Ware
has said: ‘ “Fundamentally you’re better off using ideograms rather than realistic drawings,” […]
Ware kept his pictolinguistic strips simple because his goal was not to depict emotion, but to create


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Stuart Medley

it’ (Raeburn 2004: 19). A focus on the psychology of seeing can be one way of explaining the effec-
tiveness of abstracted images.
Beyond plot, narrative structure, and the use of language, lies the visual realm of world creation.
The degree of distillation or abstraction, the removal of realistic detail that all comics artists must
address, is important to the way comics are perceived. It may explain the unique appeal of the visual-
ity of comics. It may border on coldly scientific to invoke psychophysics in a discussion of the often-
playful realm of comics, however, at least part of comics’ appeal must be visceral and immediately
visual. The coincidences between the way the visual system apprehends the world and the way that
most comics artists tend to draw and ink their worlds – some degree of abstraction away from real-
ism, clear outlines, flat colours, reliance on closure, a tendency towards caricature – seem too numer-
ous and precise to be merely accidental. Images that build upon the simple propositions that the
mind prefers seem to populate the worlds of most comics.
The analysis presented here suggests that an understanding of these psychological mecha-
nisms should be at least as important to the comics artist and theorist as an understanding of the
roles of written language. It is seeing, while reading, that makes comics a unique experience for
the reader. An understanding of the special ways of seeing applied by readers is a necessary start-
ing point for a theory of comics’ formal properties. For the comic creator, the removal of realistic
detail allows for other aspects to be emphasized or imposed upon the images, such as line, shape,
colour, orientation and composition. These attributes in turn accentuate connections or relation-
ships that are less apparent in realistic images. An understanding of this allows the comics creator
to bring visual harmony or deliberate chaos to the world so created, and to visually echo or refute
any accompanying text. An important next step will be to determine how levels of pictorial real-
ism within a comic’s world impact upon the way narratives are perceived by the reader. Studying
comics in such a way might also spread its academic uptake into other disciplines such as design,
itself a newcomer to the academy but a place where text/image relationships are central to prac-
tice and theory.

Bamford, A. (2003), The Visual Literacy White Paper, Sydney: Adobe Systems.
Barker, M. (1989), Comics: Ideology, Power and the Critics, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Brennan, S. E. (1985), The caricature generator, Leonardo, 18:3, pp. 170–178.
Dwyer, F. M. (1972), A Guide for Improving Visualized Instruction, Pennsylvania: Learning Services,
State College, PA.
Eden, J. (1978), The Eye Book, Middlesex: Penguin.
Fantz, R. (1961), ‘The origin of form perception’, Scientific American, 1961, 204, pp. 66–72.


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Discerning pictures: how we look at and understand images in comics

Fussel, D. and Haaland, A. (1978), ‘Communicating with pictures in Nepal: results of practical study
used in visual education’, Educational Broadcasting International, 11:1, pp. 25–31.
Geipel, J. (1972), The Cartoon: A Short History of Graphic Comedy and Satire, Newton Abbot: David
and Charles.
Geisler, W. S. and Diehl, R. L. (2002), ‘Bayesian natural selection and the evolution of perceptual sys-
tems’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of Biological Sciences, 357: 1420, pp. 419–448.
Gibson, J. J. (1971), ‘The information available in pictures’, Viewpoints, 47: 4, pp. 73–95.
Goldsmith, E. (1984), Research into Illustration: an Approach and a Review, Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.
Gombrich, E. (1982), The Image and the Eye, Oxford: Phaidon.
Gombrich, E. (2002), Art and Illusion, Oxford: Phaidon.
Gregory, R. L. (1970), The Intelligent Eye, London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson.
Gregory, R. L. (1977), Eye and Brain: The Psychology of Seeing, New York: McGraw-Hill.
Gropper, G. L. (1963), ‘Why is a picture worth a thousand words?’ AV Communication Review, 11,
pp. 75–79.
Hochberg, J. and Brooks, V. (1962), ‘Pictorial recognition as an unlearned ability’, American
Journal of Psychology, vol. 75, pp. 624–628.
Horrocks, D. (2004), The Perfect Planet: Comics, Games and World-Building, http://www.hicksville.
co.nz/PerfectPlanet.htm. Accessed 14 October 2009.
Hubel, D. and Wiesel, T. N. (1962), ‘Receptive fields, binocular interaction and functional architecture
in the cat’s visual cortex’, Journal of Physiology, vol. 160, no. 1, pp. 106–154.
Kannenberg, G. Jnr (2003), Form, Function, Fiction: Text and Image in the Comics Narratives of Winsor
McCay, Art Spiegelman, and Chris Ware, http://gator.dt.uh.edu/~kannenbg/fff.html. Accessed 10
December 2009.
Kepes, G. (1944), Language of Vision, Chicago: Paul Theobald and Company.
Knowlton, J. (1966), ‘On the definition of a picture’, AV Communication Review, vol. 14, pp. 147–183.
Kochalka, J. (1999), The Horrible Truth About Comics, Gainsville, Florida: Alternative Comics.
McCloud, S. (1993), Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, New York: HarperCollins.
Morton, J. and Johnson, M. H. (1991), ‘CONSPEC and CONLEARN: A two-process theory of infant
face recognition’, Psychology Review, vol. 98, pp. 164–181.
Popper, K. R. (1959), The Logic of Scientific Discovery, New York: Basic Books.
Poynor, R. (2001), Obey the Giant: Life in the Image World, London: August Media Ltd.
Raeburn, D. (2004), Chris Ware: Monographics, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Rhodes, G. (1996), Superportraits: Caricatures and Recognition, East Sussex: Psychology Press.
Roska, B. and Werblin, F. (2001), ‘Vertical interactions across ten parallel, stacked representations in
the mammalian retina’, Nature, vol. 410, pp. 583–587.


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Stuart Medley

Rauschenberger, R. and Yantis, S. (2001), ‘Masking unveils pre-amodal completion representation in

visual search’, Nature, vol. 410, pp. 369–372.
Stremmel, K. (2006), Realism. Köln: Taschen.
Walsh, V. and Kulikowski, J. (eds) (1998), Perceptual Constancy: Why Things Look as They Do,
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wileman, R. E. (1993), Visual Communication, New Jersey: Educational Technology Publications.

Suggested citation
Medley, S. (2010), ‘Discerning pictures: how we look at and understand images in comics’, Studies
in Comics 1: 1, pp. 53–70, doi: 10.1386/stic.1.1.53/1

Contributor details
Stuart Medley’s comics have been published in Deanne Cheuk’s Mu and Neomu magazines. In addi-
tion, Medley was the editor of SiC BAG comics, now in the Michael Hill Collection at the Australian
National Library.
He currently lectures in graphic design in Australia and New Zealand. He has spoken at vari-
ous conferences including TypoGraphic2005, Lebanon, and the NewViews2 2008 conference at the
LCC in London. His writing about design has been published by the Australasian Medical Journal.
Medley’s work on information design was selected as research excellence by the Australian Council
of University Art and Design Schools, 2009.
He is the designer for Hidden Shoal Recordings, a critically acclaimed record label with a roster
of international artists.
He has a Ph.D based on the paradox that less realism allows more accurate communication. His
examiners included Professor George Hardie, who described the research as bringing image into the
fold of graphic-design theory.
Contact: Stuart Medley, School of Communications & Arts, Edith Cowan University, Bradford Street,
Mt Lawley WA 6050, Australia.
E-mail: s.medley@ecu.edu.au


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STIC 1 (1) pp. 71–81 Intellect Limited 2010

Studies in Comics
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/stic.1.1.71/1

Boston University

The shape of comic book reading

Keywords Abstract
hermeneutics In most comics, the art and the text – the visual and the verbal channels – seem to be telling the same story.
narrative polyphony But, to be technical narratologically, it is actually the same fabula, not the same story which requires uniform
narratology perspective. That is, both art and text present events from the same general plot but not necessarily at the
J. Espen Aarseth same time, in the same order, or from the same viewpoint. The captions may be disclosing a character’s inner
Alan Moore monologue, for instance, while the panels show that character leaping to safety. Or, as a reverse example, word
Chris Ware balloons could be vocalizing a fight between two off-panel parents while the panel focalizes on a tearful child
Scott McCloud trying to sleep. It is the dreadfully boring and narrow comic that has the visual and verbal reflect exactly the
Wolfgang Iser same thing in each and every panel. There would be no point and, ultimately, no reason for doing this narra-
tive in comic form. Since the visual and the verbal narratives may be telling different parts of the same fabula
simultaneously, it stands to reason that there may also be two different narrators for a given panel as well.
This distinction becomes particularly important when it is taken advantage of by a savvy creator (e.g., Art
Spiegelman in MAUS, Alan Moore in Watchmen, Chris Ware in ACME Novelty Library) to create an
intentional schism between the two narratives; that is, the visual and verbal narratives may actually be spin-
ning different yarns. This narrative polyphony, though not unique to comics, affects the hermeneutic model for


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A. David Lewis

the medium to such a degree that a revised tetrahedral hybrid of Wolfgang Iser, J. Espen Aarseth, and Scott 1. Admittedly, he does
temper this position
McCloud’s theories bears implementation. somewhat is his later
book Making Comics
(2006), but McCloud
does not overturn
There are five shelves for each of the hexagon’s walls; each shelf contains thirty-five books of outright the distinction
uniform format; each book is of four hundred and ten pages; each page, of forty lines, each previously made in
Understanding Comics.
line, of some eighty letters which are black in colour. [… A librarian determined that these
books,] no matter how diverse they might be, are made up of the same elements: the space,
the period, the comma, the twenty-two letters of the alphabet. He also alleged a fact which
travellers have confirmed: In the vast Library there are no two identical books. From these
two incontrovertible premises he deduced that the Library is total and that its shelves register
all the possible combinations of the twenty-odd orthographical symbols (a number which,
though extremely vast, is not infinite).
(Borges 1999: 113–114)

In terms of defining comics, there appears a struggle between the dual channels of word and
image that affects the role of the narrator. Text is art and words are images, claims Scott McCloud;
letters of any language, he says, are just a fixed number of shapes, ‘the twenty-odd orthographi-
cal symbols’, amongst a limitless number of graphical options. Dylan Horrocks, the comic creator
of Hicksville, says McCloud may suffer from a ‘logophobia’ where ‘comics must not only contain
pictorial narrative; they must be dominated by it’ or else ‘the very presence of words – any
words – in a comic is a potential threat to its identity as a comic’ (Horrocks 2001: 36). McCloud’s
definition of comics wipes out the importance or need for words from its essence.1 As comic book
creators themselves, neither McCloud nor Horrocks likely desires a sharp divide between words
and images; the latter concedes that ‘any borders we may draw along that spectrum are arbitrary
and depend more on what relationship we wish to see between words and pictures’ (Horrocks
2001: 36). The distinction/dichotomy, wherever its boundaries may lie, between the two cannot
be erased nor should it be ignored: one must attend here to the chords of narrative polyphony.
Perhaps McCloud’s definition is a response to the dominance of the verbal sign that saturates
large portions of narrative theory. For instance, in his book on the interactive creation of meaning
and its relationship to humankind’s origins, Wolfgang Iser fashions a model of reading that turns a
surprisingly blind eye to visual signs. Though this book, Prospecting: From Reader Response to Literary
Anthropology, both addresses other media like theatre and explores the evolution of literature in
human culture, Iser deals only in words. For Iser, a trio of elements creates narrative meaning: the
author’s inscrutable intent and choice of expressive medium are only two cogs in the machine that
makes meaning. In addition to ‘author’ and ‘text’, the ‘reader’ completes an interconnected


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The shape of comic book reading

‘relationship that is the ongoing process of producing something that did not previously exist’ (Iser
1989: 249), a meaning space. Through interplay between the three, not only is a personal under-
standing of the material created for the reader, so is his/her own unique world.
‘If we take the result […] to be meaning, then this can only arise of arresting the play-movement
that […] will entail decision-making’, since each person will have her own reaction to any given
word based on their personal experience (Iser 1989: 252). A reader is required to make meaning, and
the meaning of a work will depend on each reader’s particular interpretation. This is Iser’s ‘way of
worldmaking’ – not unlike the sense one can get when absorbed in a book, lost in his/her own world
(Iser 1989: 249). It also bears a resemblance to Borges’ ‘Universe (which some call the Library)’
(Borges 1999: 19); according to Iser, the ‘Library of Babel’ could multiply in size for every reader/
librarian within it finding his/her own significance for any given book. Unfortunately, both Iser and
Borges’ worlds lack pictures of any kind.
A bias for the verbal sign system can also be easily identified in scholarship on digital media,
an area with the unfulfilled promise of casting off this yoke. Here, the language of icons generally
rules side-by-side with words. There are a number of real-life examples of everyday icons: an
octagon can mean ‘stop’ when coloured red, and a triangle can mean gay when combined with
pink. (And a hexagon, for Borges, can represent a near-endless number of books.) But only in the
abstract world of the desktop does a bomb mean ‘error,’ a recycling bin mean ‘delete,’ and a sim-
ple running man equate to instant messaging. The very nature of the graphic-user interface (GUI)
pioneered by Apple Computers – then made a global phenomenon by Microsoft’s Windows oper-
ating systems – makes one equate image with program or function rather than having to utilize
lengthy, verbal DOS strings: a program becomes as well known by its icon as its actual name.
Sadly, the precocious study of digital media often does little better than literature’s narrative the-
ory in bucking the trend. Take, for instance, Espen J. Aarseth’s Cybertext: one of the key premises of
the book is the notion that western society is full of cyborgs. That is, one can view ‘texts as a kind of
machine’ that is one part verbal sign, one part medium, and one part human (Aarseth 1997: 55).
While Aarseth has a different meaning for ‘text’ than Iser, their trio of points is congruently the same
(see figure 1). ‘Difference between texts can be described in terms of differences along these three
dimensions,’ says Aarseth: ‘The Textual Machine’ composed of ‘verbal sign’, ‘medium’ and ‘operator’
(Aarseth 1997: 55, 21).
In the same way that Iser’s reader plays with a text, Aarseth’s operator creates one by enter-
ing into a system with words placed in a medium (e.g., a computer screen, a book page, a bill-
board, etc.). More accurately, that system creates a ‘cyber-text,’ a unique product brought about
by the personal meaning gained by a back-and-forth with the verbal sign and medium (Aarseth
1997: 1). Unfortunately, for a book that goes so far to explore the semiotic value of images in
pioneering video games like Lemmings, Dark Castle and Brickles Plus, Cybertext remains fairly


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A. David Lewis

Figure 1: Iser and Aarseth’s congruent points for systems of meaning-making. Figure 2: McCloud’s model of complete pictorial vocabulary, from Understanding Comics (1994: 51).


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The shape of comic book reading

2. Theories of narrative closed off to actually considering the role of visual signs in creating a text. By definition, ‘a text,
construction certainly then, is any object with the primary function to relay verbal information’ (Aarseth 1997: 62,
extend into the fields of
film studies and theatre, emphasis added).
though the outright To find a narrative ‘world’ model that does include visual signs, the discussion returns to
obligation for the
interaction between
McCloud.2 In his Understanding Comics, he suggests two directions, two vectors, in which comic art-
word and image is ists can take their works (see figure 2). An artist can represent visual ‘reality’ iconically, moving from
greatly reduced. Just the simple representations of it all the way over to purely verbal symbols, which McCloud flatly calls
same, while the
tetrahedral model could ‘language’ (McCloud 1994: 51). Or, one can move away from both reality and its representation, and
be applied to them too, proceed instead towards an abstract ‘realm of the art object, the Picture Plane, where shapes, lines
neither necessarily and colours can be themselves’ (McCloud 1994: 51). The three together – ‘reality’, ‘language’, and the
employs static images/
elements, and their ‘picture plane’ – form the triangular area of what McCloud calls an artist’s ‘pictorial vocabulary’
requisite bridging, in an (McCloud 1994: 51). This is a somewhat confusing term, since ‘language’ only means verbal signs for
Iserian or reader-reliant
McCloud, yet his ‘vocabulary’ is meant to include every sign. There may also be one other oversight:
in giving the artist/author a complete toolbox, McCloud omitted the viewer/reader entirely.
3. And it is, in the most
deliberately abstract
All of this provides critics with more than three points by which to shape a two-dimensional,
sense, a shape – a triangular model for eliciting comic-book narrative meaning – it gives them four points, taking the
rectangular book or model of comic narrative into a third dimension. Iser and Aarseth’s models overlap, providing the
circular film canister,
for example – on initial trio, and then McCloud introduces the fourth, graphical point. Iser and Aarseth both try to
McCloud’s picture explain how the reader/operator is involved in the creation of a text’s meaning. McCloud strives to
plane; in fact, it is show the full toolbox open to comic book storytellers. Taken all together, this four-point tetrahedral
probably the highest
level to which that model displays how narrative meaning is constructed specifically in the comic book medium. Taking
plane can ascend: the a quick inventory, the four points in question are the ‘medium’, the ‘reader’, the ‘verbal narrative’,
shape of the medium
and the ‘visual narrative’ (see figure 3).
The first of these points, the ‘medium’, seems the most straightforward and self-explanatory. The
4. Why ‘reader’ and not
‘operator’, ‘viewer’, or
medium is the tangible comic book itself, the real print (or online) product that consumers purchase.
even something more Again, it is only a product, with no assumptions about story, epics of good versus evil, or access into
broadly cognitive like another world.3 Add a ‘reader’4 to that medium, and it immediately starts to become something more.
‘interpreter’? This is not
surrendering to the Without even one mark on the page, a reader can find meaning from a presumably blank medium. A
dominant verbal sign, white page, which would generally convey the absence of any story, could mean the eradication of the
as mentioned previously. universe (as it does in DC Comics’ Zero Hour #0), a blinding snowstorm (as it does in Greg Rucka and
Instead, it is an
acknowledgement Steve Lieber’s Whiteout), or a painted-over mural (as it does in Craig Thompson’s Blankets).
of the skill involved in ‘Verbal narrative’ is not a term that either Iser or Aarseth uses, but it arises from this new four-
deciphering visual signs
and acknowledgement
point tetrahedron model capturing Iser’s ‘author,’ Aarseth’s ‘verbal sign’ and McCloud’s ‘language’
that pictures are just as all in one. The last two are easy to combine: what McCloud regards as ‘language’ is not the all-pur-
much a language – a pose ‘sign system’ term, but rather ‘verbal signs’ or, simply, words. Further, these are not just any
sign system – as words.
The reader is there to random words – not permutated ‘Library of Babel’ selections. They have been deliberately chosen by


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A. David Lewis

Figure 3: McCloud’s triangular model combined with Iser/Aarseth’s, with the four collective points then renamed as ‘medium’, ‘reader’,
‘visual narrative’ and ‘verbal narrative’ across three axes.


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The shape of comic book reading

take all of the comics’ the ‘author’, 5 strung into sentences, paragraphs, chapters, and, in total, a story. When one holds the
content and imbue it
with meaning.
tangible product of the medium, though, the author is absent – he/she/they cannot stand over each
reader’s shoulder and explain what was meant – and the verbal narrative becomes the only evidence
5. Author, being a word
that should also include
of his/her/their existence.
the concepts of ‘Narrative’ itself is a very flexible yet appropriate term in place of ‘Sign’ on the tetrahedron, imply-
ghostwriter, editor, and ing that, instead of just displaying unconnected random or partial samples of sequential art, some
other direct influences
on the word selection form of story or plot will be told. Even for those comic series whose plotlines continue monthly and
for the text. In fact, this seem never-ending, narrative still very much exists. There are embedded narratives, mirror-texts – to
author bears a closer use two terms presented by narratologist Mieke Bal – and a host of other mid-/stopping-points at
resemblance to the
author-function of which to conclude something still-unfolding as a narrative.6 To summarize Bal, a narrative is when
Michel Foucault than someone/something tells (through some medium) of someone/something undergoing a change.
perhaps a traditional
flesh-and-blood author.
‘Change’ here is being used in the most intentionally vague, encompassing way, since it can be a
change in location, shape, opinion, dimension, emotion, etc. Though Bal is as dominated by the
6. In fact, Bal gives the
following definition for
verbal sign as Iser and Aarseth were, narrative by her definition can be communicated in words,
‘narrative’: motion, images, or any other communicative medium. A ballet can be a narrative. A hospital chart
A narrative text is a
can be a narrative. A stock-market report can be a narrative. Even this article – where the ‘actors’ are
text in which an agent Iser, Aarseth, and McCloud’s models that are changing into the tetrahedron – can be a narrative.7
relates (‘tells’) a story So, if narrative is so flexible and all encompassing, why divide it into ‘verbal narrative’ and ‘visual
in a particular medium,
such as language, narrative’? If we solely existed in Borges’ all-verbal library, there would be no reason for these labels; that
imagery, sound, is, if this was a medium where the verbal sign exclusively dominated, then there would be no ‘visual nar-
buildings or a rative’ point and Iser and Aarseth’s models would be wholly correct. If Borges’ alphabet contained only
combination thereof. A
story is a fabula that is a pair of characters, for instance, there would be over 21,000,000 books, a continent-sized library, if not a
presented in a certain planetary one. However, if every one of the library’s books each contained a single illustration, how
manner. A fabula is a
series of logically and
many shelves, walls, and rooms would be needed now? The number jumps immediately from a vast
chronologically related finite amount to the infinite. Therefore, to distinguish between the finite verbal narratives and the infinite
events that are caused visual narratives, even if they intersect or amalgamate, we need at least two narrative vectors.
or experienced by
actors. An event is the In comics, where images are at least half the language, pictures can form valid narrative as easily
transition from one state and functionally as words – and, at times, without them. Mainstream comics have dabbled in pseudo-
to another state. Actors pantomime, narratives without words, such as the lauded GI. Joe “Silent Interlude” #21 in 1984, the
are agents that perform
actions. They are not September 11 tribute stories of Moment of Silence, and the December 2002 company-wide Nuff Said
necessarily human. event (all from Marvel Comics). It may be an interesting challenge for some creators; generally
(Bal 1999: 5, original
speaking, though, it is just as often a limitation. It does at least prove, as if there were any doubt, the
viability of visual narrative.
7. Though, admittedly, it
too falls victim to the
In most comics, the visual and the verbal narratives seem to be telling much the same story,8 but,
‘dominance of the to be technical, it is actually the same fabula – Bal’s tricky designation – not the same story. To draw
verbal sign’. Perhaps examples from outside the world of comics or cybertext, consider that both The Lion King and Hamlet


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A. David Lewis

share the same fabula but each have a different story; the key events and actants can – and likely staging a play on this
tetrahedron model, or
should – be presented in a divergent manner. The closer the fabulae, of course, the more similar the story. using semaphore to
The play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead have a story much closer to Hamlet’s with shared communicate its
characters, setting, and chronology. Therefore, visual and verbal narrative likely have a shared fabula concepts, would be
more apt but certainly
and two similar stories. Unless panel-for-panel the visual and verbal narratives depict the same mate- less accessible.
rial, the visual narrator and verbal narrator must be distinctive points – it is the distance separating
8. Even when employing
these points that is negotiable.9 juxtaposition or ironic
Since the visual and the verbal narratives may be telling different parts of the same fabula simul- contrast, the respective
taneously, it stands to reason that there may also be two different narrators for a given panel as well. ‘goals’ of the two
channels are frequently
Take, for instance, an example from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, Chapter II ‘Absent the same; they often –
Friends’. Over the final pages of this issue, the vigilante Rorschach recounts a joke about the clown though not always –
share narrative
Pagliacci in the caption boxes above a series of images from the late Comedian’s life. The punchline trajectories.
hits just as the Comedian is thrown out the window. Rorschach says, ‘Good joke. Everybody laughs.
9. Likewise, unless one is
Roll on snare drum’, as the Comedian is seen plummeting to the pavement, adding ‘Curtains’ as the discussing tattooing and
panel goes blood red (Moore and Gibbons 1987: II.28). body art, the reader
Certainly, there is an obvious, fitting irony – not to mention dark gallows humour – both to cannot share the same
point as the medium.
the life of the brutal Comedian being compared to the Pagliacci joke and to the alternative So, too, the reader can
meaning for ‘curtains’ as death rather than the close of a show. Yet Rorschach was present for be neither the visual
none of these events in the Comedian’s life, especially not his demise, which is the central narrator nor verbal
narrator unless the
mystery to the story. This is focalized through a variety of other individuals: the Comedian’s reader was involved in
old enemy Moloch, the Comedian’s unknown murderer, the Comedian himself, and Nite Owl. the creation of the work
somehow (a possibility
Thus, Rorschach may be the verbal narrator for this portion of the issue, but he could not be for jam-comics,
one of its visual narrators. Mapped on to the tetrahedron, the visual narrator and verbal narra- anthologies, or
tor would have to be two distinct points separated by some distinct amount of distance. If the interactive storytelling,
presumably). The real
default model is a regular tetrahedron, one composed of four equilateral triangles, then it questions are how one
might be altered here to push the visual narrator and verbal narrator further apart, particularly should represent the
as the reliability of one or the other grows more suspect.10 distance between these
points relative to each
This distinction between narrators becomes particularly important when taken advantage of by a other, and through what
savvy creator to create a schism between the two narratives; that is, the threads of the visual and unit of measurement,
which affects the shape
verbal narratives may actually be spinning different yarns. Pulitzer Prize-winning comic auteur Art of the tetrahedral model
Spiegelman makes excellent use of this technique to emphasize the discord between Holocaust- for a work’s meaning.
surviving father and comic book-writing son in MAUS and MAUS II. In his article for The Graphic 10. Perhaps, too, the
Novel, Ole Frahm catches one of these moments: medium and either the
visual narrative or verbal
narrative might be
[Art Spiegelman] represents the memories of the witness and by necessity alters them. stretched further apart if
For example, he corrects them in detail: … the father does not mention [Doctor] Mengele the creative work is not


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The shape of comic book reading

appearing in either its [in the concentration camps]. He remembers that ‘Eichman’ selected him on two occasions.
native format (e.g., a
web-comic collected as
But the chronicler has consulted other sources and knows that this statement cannot be cor-
a print trade paperback) rect. He thus interferes with the recollections of the witness to provide the correct name of
or its native language his perpetrator.
(e.g., a translated
American edition of (Frahm 67)
a European work).
Medium could stretch Despite his father’s testimony (as the verbal narrator) to the contrary, the chronicling son offers a
from Reader if there is
an intermediary separate, corrected visual narrative of Mengele being present.
between the two A second, similar instance takes place just prior to that scene where the survivor-father dis-
(e.g., advertisements,
a translator, etc.).
cusses marching in Auschwitz. At first, an orchestra is portrayed in the background, since his son
‘read about the camp orchestra that played’ (Spiegelman 1991: 54). The father corrects him by say-
ing that there were ‘not any orchestras’, and yet the top of the musicians’ instruments can still be
seen in the partially obscured background even as the father is verbally denying it; the son’s belief
in the ‘well documented’ performers visually trumps his belief in his father’s less reliable, personal
memories (Spiegelman 1991: 54). The distance between verbal narrator and visual narrator is wider
here than in the Watchmen example: whereas Moore’s narrators were clearly separate, Spiegelman’s
are conflicting.
Chris Ware’s Quimby the Mouse collection contains its own marvellous example of duelling visual
and verbal narrators in a piece presumably entitled, ‘I Guess’. In it, a Golden Age superhero story
looks to be taking place, except all of the verbal text – from caption box to word balloon to sound
effect – is a presumably unrelated, childhood account. The combination is not only jarring but also
compellingly evocative, urging the reader not only to make some connection between the two (or
more) narratives, but also to question the customary ease that one has with blurring the two systems
together. The gap widens further here, almost to the point of breaking or totally flattening the tetra-
hedron; whether the two narrators even share a fabula becomes the key question for how the tetra-
hedron should be depicted. It is worth noting, though, that since the verbal narrator’s account extends
into the word balloons, captions, and sound effects, this point is perhaps closer to the Medium than
might be shown in the default regular tetrahedron model.
This sort of narrative duplicity and duality, what we might call narrative polyphony, can therefore
be employed to amplify the themes and messages of the shared fabula. Further, it also allows for the
role of intertextuality – the effect of outside verbal narrators, visual narrators, media, and readers –
in nudging and influencing the points of our own tetrahedron; this, in turn, alters the shape of a
work’s meaning, as they all interact in a sea of tetrahedral particles. Returning the discussion to
Watchmen, for instance, Stuart Moulthrop articulates how the ‘overlapping, tangled, and intersecting
narrative lines, including double lives, nefarious plots, stories within stories, and texts within texts’
actually suggests a fitting architecture (‘Misadventure’). As a near-omnipotent character, Doctor


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A. David Lewis

Manhattan perceives the sea of existence as a complex jewel rather than a straight, chronological
line. He

is frustrated by [Laurie] his wife’s inability to perceive more than a single facet of the “jewel” …
The architecture of the work [Watchmen] seems very close to Dr. Manhattan’s image of time, “an
intricately structured jewel” – though like Laurie we are unable to perceive the design as a whole
until the final chapter.
(Moulthrop ‘Misadventure’)

Aarseth, Iser, and perhaps even McCloud are in positions similar to Laurie’s; they see only ‘one facet’
rather than the full structure before them. They see one way meaning is created but not the multi-
plicity of ways, not its dimensionality. By considering comic narrative through this tetrahedron model,
we can not only take into better account the functions of both the verbal and visual components to
the medium but also highlight the lesser-considered techniques exemplified by Moore, Spiegelman,
and Ware in contributing to the overall meaning derived from a work. Meaning can be given shape;
hermeneutics can be graphically compared. One can show – rather than exclusively write – the
polyphony of comics. New shelves of debate, new rooms of analysis are built by including the tetra-
hedron amidst the halls of Borges’ near-endless hexagons.

Aarseth, E. (1997), Cybertext, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Bal, M. (1999), Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative, second edition, Buffalo: UTP.
Borges, J. (1999), ‘The Library of Babel’, Collected Fictions (trans. A. Hurley), New York: Penguin,
pp. 112–118.
Frahm, O. (2001), ‘“These Papers Had Too Many Memories. So I Burned Them.” Genealogical
Remembrance in Art Spiegelman’s MAUS: A Survivor’s Tale’, in J. Baetens (ed.), The Graphic
Novel, Belgium: Leuven UP, pp. 61–78.
Giral, A. (2000), ‘A Library of Two Inventions’, in J. Borges, The Library of Babel, Godine: Boston,
pp. 8–12.
Horrocks, D. (2001), ‘Inventing Comics: Scott McCloud Defines the Form in Understanding Comics’,
The Comics Journal, 234, pp. 29–39.
Iser, W. (1989), Prospecting: From Reader Response to Literary Anthropology, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins
University Press.
McCloud, S. (1994), Understanding Comics, New York: Harper Perennial.
Moore, A., and Gibbons, D. (1987), Watchmen, 1–12, New York: DC Comics.


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The shape of comic book reading

Moulthrop, S. (1999), ‘Misadventure: Future Fiction and the New Networks’, http://iat.ubalt.edu/
moulthrop/essays/misadventure/. Accessed 18 October 2009.
Spiegelman, A. (1991), MAUS: A Survivor’s Tale II – And Here My Troubles Began, New York:
Ware, C. (2003), Quimby the Mouse, Seattle: Fantagraphics.

Suggested citation
Lewis, A. D. (2010), ‘The shape of comic book reading’, Studies in Comics 1: 1, pp. 71–81, doi: 10.1386/

Contributor details
A. David Lewis is a Boston educator earning degrees from Brandeis University, Georgetown
University, and Boston University. In his academic capacity, he lectures nationally on comics studies,
serves as an editorial board member for the International Journal of Comic Art, founded the Religion
and Graphica Collection at Boston University, and co-edited Graven Images: Religion in Comic Books
and Graphic Novels for Continuum International Publishing. Lewis also self-published the award-
winning Mortal Coils series, and The Lone and Level Sands and Some New Kind of Slaughter graphic
novels, the latter both produced by Archaia.
Contact: A. David Lewis, 396 Meridian Street #3, Boston MA 02128, USA.
E-mail: adl@bu.edu


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STIC 1 (1) pp. 83–105 Intellect Limited 2010

Studies in Comics
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/stic.1.1.83/1

Universidad Autónoma de Madrid

William Hogarth’s A Harlot’s

Progress : the beginnings of
a purely pictographic sequential

Keywords Abstract
William Hogarth There have been numerous attempts to draw attention to the role of William Hogarth in the history of sequen-
A Harlot’s Progress tial art. Scott McCloud has cited Hogarth as one of the precursors of pictographic narratives, and Robert
engraving Crumb acknowledged the influence that the English engraver and painter has had in his work. But in spite of
sequential art constant homage, it still remains unclear in which ways the language of comics is indebted to the narrative
broadsheet techniques Hogarth applied in sequential groups of engravings such as A Harlot’s Progress, The Rake’s
Progress, Marriage à-la-Mode or Industry and Idleness.
Hogarth’s scholars have thoroughly studied the aesthetic aspects of his work but generally dismissed its
sequential devices, with the fortunate exception of David Kunzle, who placed Hogarth’s sequential prints in


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Roberto Bartual

the much wider context of the European broadsheet and the narrative strip. The purpose of this article is to 1. This statement must, of
course, be taken in a
analyse in a systematic manner Hogarth’s sequential devices using his first long narration, A Harlot’s figurative sense, for, as
Progress (1732), as a paradigm of his narrative style. It will use C. S. Peirce’s terminology to distinguish we will see later, there
between two types of pictographic signs: symbols, which are systematically inserted in the dramatic setting in are ways in which an
image can work that no
order to give metaphoric clues to the personality and background of the characters; and indexes, which func- word can.
tion in a metonymic manner as causal clues to the events not depicted in the image. This distinction will allow
us to defend our central thesis in this article: these two types of visual signs, metaphoric and metonymic,
which allowed Hogarth to evoke unrepresented events in the blank space between images, are the starting
point of a purely pictographic sequential language that, after undergoing many transformations, eventually
led to what we call ‘comics’ today.

In a text presenting a recent exhibition of original art by some of the best-known American comic-book
artists, John Carlin regarded William Hogarth as ‘one of the founding fathers’ (Carlin 2005: 12) of this
art form. Although it may be an anachronism to use the term ‘comics’ in relation to Hogarth’s narra-
tions in prints, it is quite certain that Hogarth was one of the first artists who tried to tell stories ‘in a
sequence of related images centred on a recognizable cast of characters’ (Carlin 2005: 13). ‘Characters’
is an important keyword in any discussion of Hogarth’s role in the history of sequential art. Pictographic
narrations have been quite common in the field of European engraving since its very beginnings in the
fifteenth century. Panel by panel accounts of the tortures of St. Erasmus (Kunzle 1973: 15), the assassi-
nation of Henri III by Jacques Clément (Kunzle 1973: 47), or Guy Fawkes’ Gunpowder Plot (Kunzle
1973: 123, 133–135), were some of the typical picture stories printed in broadsheet before Hogarth was
born. However, none of the engravers of these picture stories attempted a dramatic characterization of
their protagonists. A Harlot’s Progress, William Hogarth’s first moral narration, was a turning point in
sequential art because it was the first time an engraver consistently used dramatic devices like gesture,
facial expression and characteristic settings to infuse life into his actors.
However, his dramatic portrayal of characters was not the only innovation Hogarth introduced.
He also developed a good number of narrative techniques that allowed the reader to make an
‘imaginative leap between each print to construct the tale’ (Talbot 2007: 195), or putting it into dif-
ferent words, he made use of pictographic signs to make the reader imagine what happened before
and after the moment depicted in each print. Before Hogarth, narrative transitions depended heav-
ily on the words printed below or above the panels of the strips, and more often than not the images
were mere illustrations. Hogarth’s pivotal role in the tradition of picture stories has to do with the
fact that he paved the way for his successors by developing a purely visual language to establish a
narrative discourse. Unlike the broadsheet strips, his images did not depend anymore on words, but
worked the way words do.1 In an article published in The Reflector, Charles Lamb felt that Hogarth’s


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William Hogarth’s A Harlot’s Progress

2. The original quote is importance had less to do with the purely aesthetic aspects of his work than with his ability to
from The Reflector, II
(1811), p. 61.
weave a story by means of pictures:

I was pleased with the reply of a gentleman, who, being asked which book he esteemed most
in his library, answered: ‘Shakespeare’; being asked which he esteemed next best, replied:
‘Hogarth’. His graphic representations are indeed books; they have the teeming, fruitful, sug-
gestive meaning of words. Other pictures we look at – his prints we read.2
(Moore 1948: 19, original emphasis)

The aim of this article is to define precisely in what manner Hogarth’s narrative sequences entail the
beginning of a purely pictographic narrative language in print, as opposed to the previous modes of
graphic narration of the broadsheet. In order to do that, it will be necessary to describe with accuracy
the graphic mechanisms that Hogarth brought into play to articulate his images and give them a
narrative meaning. In sum, to describe the nature of the pictographic signs he used to evoke unrep-
resented events that are supposed to happen between each image.
Some of Hogarth’s narrative techniques have already been described, whether being analysed in
the context of historic painting (Antal 1962) or in the context of the broadsheet (Kunzle 1973: 298–
339). This article will attempt a systematic analysis of these techniques on the basis of a clear distinc-
tion: whether they are founded on signs that affect each print taken on its own, or whether they are
founded on visual mechanisms of repetition and variation that affect the sequential articulation of the
whole. The first group of techniques, which Hogarth takes from the tradition of historic and mytho-
logical painting (narrative modes of painting), involves the use of non-sequential signs that, para-
doxically, play a part in the representation of what I have called elsewhere an implicit sequence
(Bartual 2008): that is when a single image implies a sequence of events that the reader cannot see
materially represented in print, but must imagine by himself. On the other hand, the second group of
techniques involves the repetition of signs from one print to the next, which leads to causal and
metaphoric implications depending on the type of sign that articulates the connection.
In order to achieve a precise description of these techniques and the pictorial signs they involve,
my intention is to apply C. S. Peirce’s semiotic terminology, with its triadic categorization of iconic,
indexical and symbolic signs (Peirce [1904] 1974). This terminology has never been taken advantage
of in the study of Hogarth’s moral narrations and it should be particularly productive because, as we
will see, Hogarth made an extensive and very specific use of these three particular types of signs. In
his settings, he included objects that worked like clues in a modern detective story with the purpose
of establishing causal implications (indices), whereas some other objects, such as pictures hanging
on the walls, are symbols used to represent the character of his actors in an elliptical manner. This
terminology will allow us to study Hogarth not only in the context of narration, but also in the more


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Roberto Bartual

general context of language. Moreover, Peirce’s theories have been extremely useful in the study of 3. The previous six moral
narrations also exist in
cinema (Deleuze 1985) proving their particular adequacy to visual narrative discourses – sequential the form of paintings,
art being one of these. with the exception of
Hogarth’s sequential work comprises as follows. Six moral narrations in prints: A Harlot’s A Harlot’s Progress.
Progress, 1732; The Rake’s Progress, 1735; Before and After, 1736; Marriage à-la-Mode, 1745; Industry 4. I do not completely
and Idleness, 1747; and The Four Stages of Cruelty, 1751. One satirical narration in prints: The Election, agree with Thierry
Groensteen when he
1755–8. One moral narration in paintings: an outdoor version of Before and After, 1730.3 Finally, three asserts that every
non-narrative sequences in prints: The Four Times of the Day, 1738; Beer Street and Gin Lane, 1751; sequence involves
and France and England, 1756.4 Since a complete analysis of all these works is inadvisable, the study some sort of narration
(Groensteen 1988: 65);
of only one of them, A Harlot’s Progress, will suffice to give an accurate description of Hogarth’s nar- the order of the
rative techniques. The conclusions derived from this study can be easily extrapolated to the rest of the elements in a sequence
determines the relations
sequences. of these elements,
A number of commentaries on A Harlot’s Progress, explaining its narration in minute detail, have and thus involves a
been published since 1732 (Lichtenberg [1794–1799] 1966; Trusler 1833). In consequence, it would be discourse, but there are
many discourses other
redundant to cover every aspect, subplot or descriptive element of the narration, which furthermore, than the narrative,
could also complicate the aim of describing Hogarth’s basic narrative techniques. However, a brief such as the poetic, the
narrative ecphrasis and some historical context data will be useful before proceeding with the formal abstract, the chronologi-
cal (though not
analysis. narrative) discourse (The
The narration deals with the life of a prostitute named Moll Hackabout. Her first name is, prob- Four Times of the Day)
or the comparative
ably, homage to Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, published in 1724 (Defoe [1724] 2004). She represents discourse (Beer Street
many of the girls of her kind who, in Hogarth’s time, were victims of John Gonson’s professional and Gin Lane; France and
zeal, a Westminster magistrate whose fight against moral corruption consisted in ‘harassing gam- England).
blers and prostitutes, whom he sent to Bridewell Prison in Tothill Fields to beat hemp’ (Paulson 1971:
248). A Harlot’s Progress is, in part, a satire about Gonson’s methods, but in part it is also a sincere
attempt to expose the social wrongs that made prostitution possible in eighteenth-century London.
In order to do that, Hogarth follows the progress of Moll, a prototypical character whose pivotal
moments in life may have been very similar to those of any other girl of her condition. In fact, some
of the secondary characters that are decisive in Moll’s progress were real and very well known in
public life.
Moll Hackabout arrives in London in a York wagon (figure 1). She is a country girl looking for a
job in the capital, probably as a maid or a seamstress: this is immediately perceived by an old woman
in the street who bears a striking resemblance to the notorious bawd Elisabeth Needham (Paulson
1971: 252). She takes advantage of the situation and convinces her to enter the service of the tall man
who is standing at the door, Colonel Francis Charteris, whom the newspapers gave the nickname of
‘the rape-master general of Britain’ (Riding 2006: 74). Obviously, the service she has to pay Charteris
is not the one she thought. Eventually, Charteris gets tired of Moll and she finds other ‘employment’


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William Hogarth’s A Harlot’s Progress

Figure 1: Hogarth, W. (1732), A Harlot’s Progress, Plate 1, London.


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Roberto Bartual

as the lover of a rich Jew (Quennell 1955: 94), or maybe Charteris just sells Moll to this man after 5. Hogarth would print
texts in The Rake’s
having used her (Kunzle 1973: 304). In spite of this, Moll prefers younger men, like the soldier in the Progress and Marriage
second plate (figure 2). She sometimes brings her lovers home, undergoing great difficulty to hide à-la-Mode, but even
them from her benefactor. Sooner or later, Moll’s protector discovers her infidelities and expels her. in these cases they
bore little narrative
Moll’s income has dramatically decreased and she can only afford to live in a dingy room in Drury information, as they
Lane, which does not prevent her from keeping the privilege of having her own maid (figure 3). As are mostly moralistic
soon as John Gonson enters the scene, both Moll and her maid are sent to Bridewell Prison (figure 4), verses.

where she is committed to hard labour beating hemp. She is eventually set free, but the stay in prison 6. Peirce established other
has worsened her frail health (figure 5) and she dies after a few years. In the last plate of the sequence typologies of the sign
according to the relation
we become spectators at Moll’s funeral (figure 6), attended by all kinds of individuals. of the sign with itself
In the process of translating this sequence of images into narrative prose (the one above being (Peirce [1904] 1974:
142–143), or the relation
only one of the possible translations), I have made several assumptions about events not explicitly of the sign with its
represented in the prints. These assumptions are entirely based on pictographic signs, since Hogarth interpretant (Peirce
printed no explicative texts to help the reader understand the narration.5 In order to apply Peirce’s [1904] 1974: 144–145).
I do not take them into
terminology to Hogarth’s narrative use of pictographic signs, the starting point should be, of course, consideration in this
Peirce’s definitions of the three possible types of signs according to the relation of the sign with its article, since my focus
object.6 A sign can be an icon, an index or a symbol (Peirce [1904] 1974: 143–144, emphasis added). on narrative is more
concerned with the
In the first place, an icon ‘is a sign which refers to the Object that it denotes merely by virtue of char- classic sign/object
acters of its own, and which it possesses just the same’ (Peirce [1904] 1974: 143). Thus, a pictographic relation.
icon is related to its object by means of a resemblance: they share some physical characteristics – colour,
form, relations between its different parts regarding to the whole, etc. For example, we could say that a
caricature is an icon of the person it represents. Although there are some arbitrary aspects to caricatured
expression, we could say, in general terms, that we recognize a Woody Allen caricature because of the
presence of his glasses and the inverted pear-shape of his head.
Secondly, an index ‘is a sign which refers to the Object that it denotes by virtue of being really
affected by that Object’ (Peirce [1904] 1974: 143). An index does not refer to an object because they
resemble each other, but because there is some sort of causal relation between both of them; they are
metonymically related. Peirce provides the example of a weathercock, which is an index of the direc-
tion of the wind (Peirce [1904] 1974: 161). He also points out that indices always ‘involve a sort of
Icon’ (Peirce [1904] 1974: 143). The weathercock is also an icon of a rooster, whose capacity to point
at the direction of the wind with its beak is also involved in the meaning process.
Finally, a symbol ‘is a sign which refers to the Object that it denotes by virtue of a law, usually an
association of general ideas’ (Peirce [1904] 1974: 146). In Medieval art, a sculpture of a man with a
key in his hand is a symbol of St Peter, who is in turn a symbol of the Christian church. These mean-
ings are possible because of an arbitrary association based on metaphor: St Peter holds the keys that
open the door of Heaven. The reader will not be able to decode a symbol if he is not familiar with the


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William Hogarth’s A Harlot’s Progress

Figure 2: Hogarth, W. (1732), A Harlot’s Progress, Plate 2, London.


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Roberto Bartual

Figure 3: Hogarth, W. (1732), A Harlot’s Progress, Plate 3, London.


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William Hogarth’s A Harlot’s Progress

Figure 4: Hogarth, W. (1732), A Harlot’s Progress, Plate 4, London.


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Roberto Bartual

Figure 5: Hogarth, W. (1732), A Harlot’s Progress, Plate 5, London.


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William Hogarth’s A Harlot’s Progress

Figure 6: Hogarth, W. (1732), A Harlot’s Progress, Plate 6, London.


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Roberto Bartual

arbitrary association that governs it. In addition to this, Peirce says that ‘the symbol will involve a sort
of Index’ (Peirce [1904] 1974: 144). If the key is a sign of accessing Heaven, it is because there is a
causal relation between a key and the opening of a door.
In A Harlot’s Progress, Hogarth weaves the narration by making a very distinctive and consistent
narrative use of these three kinds of signs. He uses icons to contextualize; indices to provide causal
inference; and symbols to characterize his actors and underline the themes of the narration.
To a certain extent, the commercial success of A Harlot’s Progress had to do with the iconic
nature of some of its characters. Hogarth used his talent for caricature to reinforce the resemblance
of the rake and the old woman in the first plate with George Charteris and Elisabeth Needham; the
same applies to John Gonson in the third. Hogarth subscribers were, of course, very familiar with
these characters. Peter Quennell reminds us that the Lords of Treasury themselves were so anxious
to acquire the prints and discover what role Gonson played in A Harlot’s Progress that ‘they cut
short the day’s business and abandoned their official parts’ (Quennell 1955: 97). No doubt Hogarth
also took advantage of the iconicity of his secondary characters in narrative terms: in his story they
would play the same roles they played in their real lives, thus providing a well-known context in
which the readers could fit their expectations. The purpose of the iconic sign was, thus, not only
characterization but also contextualization. The use of iconic similes for the purpose of moral judg-
ment is common too. For example, there is a striking resemblance between Moll’s lover and the
pet monkey in the second plate. In order to make this resemblance more obvious, Hogarth etches
their faces in profile (both are turning to the right) so that we can appreciate they have the same
pointy nose and a half-opened mouth with an expression of inanity.
However, the most important pictographic signs for the narration are indices and symbols; in
particular the first category, which allows logical, metonymical connections between different events.
How do we know that Moll is ‘a country girl looking for a job’, as we have assumed in our ecphrasis?
An index on the left of the first plate tells us so; it is the York wagon, which was used by country
people of the north to go to London (Kunzle 1973: 304). Quennell mentions other motifs that denote
her origin: the plain kerchief round her neck covering her shoulders, the rose pinned to her bodice
and the scissors hanging from her bag (Quennell 1955: 92) – an index of her profession, a seamstress.
Hogarth sometimes uses an index to create a causal connection between two incidents depicted
simultaneously, which Kunzle terms ‘linking incidents’ (Kunzle 1973: 306). For example, in the third
plate it is possible to see the name of a notorious highwayman, James Dalton, written on a wig box;
the watch that Moll is holding is probably the fruit of Dalton’s efforts the previous night, allowing us
to understand Gonson’s entrance: he has probably followed the evidences Dalton left behind, lead-
ing him to the room where he lives with Moll.
The most relevant narrative function of the index emerges when it is used in such a way that
‘although a single composition is limited to depicting a single moment in time’ (in the words of the


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William Hogarth’s A Harlot’s Progress

7. The original quote is Earl of Shaftesbury, as quoted by David Kunzle), they ‘suggest an immediately preceding, and an
from Cooper, Anthony
Ashley, 3rd Earl of
immediately succeeding emotion or action’7 (Kunzle 1973: 304). This is precisely what the mask on
Shaftesbury (1713), top of the table in the second plate suggests. The mask is necessarily an index of an event that took
Essay on Painting. place the previous night: Moll attended a masquerade where she met a new lover (in the background,
trying to escape). We can also easily imagine what will happen next: even if the diversion that Moll is
trying to create by kicking the table is successful and her official lover does not see the other one, the
presence of the mask will denounce her infidelity. The image of Moll’s expulsion is evoked with the
same clarity as the scene of the masquerade, even though they remain invisible: these two images
that Hogarth leaves to the reader’s imagination are an implicit sequence that emanates from the
mask index.
Hogarth’s most eminent use of symbols assumes the form of paintings hanging on the wall,
which, like the indices, can also suggest preceding and succeeding events. There are two paintings in
the second plate; the one on the left represents ‘Jonah sitting next to a withered gourd with the sun
beating down on his head’ (Paulson 1971: 236); the one on the right depicts ‘Uzzah rashly touching
the Ark of the Covenant, much as the merchant [Moll’s official lover] took the forbidden object, a
Christian girl’ (Paulson 1971: 235). These are symbolic signs in the sense that they must be inter-
preted by virtue of an association of general ideas: in this case, by virtue of the arbitrary emblematic
tradition of Catholicism. Both paintings represent transgression and the subsequent punishment of
the ‘chosen people’ in such a way that they become evidence of the racial origin of the owner of the
house. Furthermore, they announce a possible outcome for the scene; since a priest in the picture
stabs Uzzah in the back (Paulson 1971: 236), we could assume that Moll’s new lover is going to do
the same if he is discovered (note the position of his sword).
Hogarth also used symbols to ascribe certain qualities to his characters. The Jewish origin of the
merchant is an example, but there is a more ironic instance of this (or we should say, sarcastic) in the
first plate. Above Elisabeth Needham’s head there is a sign with a bell, which obviously resembles
the old woman’s body – again, a caricatured iconic device. But there is also wordplay with the homo-
phones ‘bell’ and ‘belle’ (an instance of symbolism), and this constitutes a malignant reference to a
time when Needham was as attractive as the girl she is now trying to lure.
Hogarth’s technique of narration by means of indexical and symbolic allusion to events in the
past and the future was, however, not a novelty: he adopted it from mythological and historic paint-
ing and applied it for his own purposes. Botticelli’s Venus and Mars (c. 1483) shares with Hogarth a
metonymical approach to narration: the image in the picture actually stands for something else, an
event that happened a moment before. Mars is lying indolently as Venus’ longing gaze is lost out of
the frame: obvious indexical signs of sexual intercourse. On the other hand, Antal traces Hogarth’s
use of symbolic paintings back to Dutch art, ‘particularly in [Jan] Steen and Brueghel’s engravings’
(Antal 1962: 126). In addition to their narrative purposes, pictures hanging on walls were also


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Roberto Bartual

instrumental in the characterization of the interior where they belonged; ‘yet, compared with
Hogarth’s varied settings, how monotonous are those recurrent interiors [by Vermeer and Pieter de
Hooch] with a single, select picture on the wall, always an Italianizing, mythological one’ (Antal
1962: 99). Unlike them, Hogarth varies the origin and theme of the paintings according to the owner
of the interior; for instance, hanging a Dutch painting if he is a merchant like the Jew in A Harlot’s
Progress; or choosing an Italian painting if the owner is a decadent aristocrat, as is the case of the
first plate of Marriage à-la-Mode.
Hogarth’s foremost departure from Dutch and Italian narrative tradition involves his sequential
use of indices and symbols, by means of repetition or variation throughout successive plates. Most
noticeable among these repetitions are the black spots on Moll’s face, which are visible in plates 2, 3
and 4. They are the symptoms (and thus, an index) of a venereal disease derived from her profession:
in the first plate, the bawd bears the same symptoms on her face, although her disease is in a more
advanced phase. Aside from some rare exceptions discussed later, the articulation of causality through
indexical repetition is a definite innovation introduced by Hogarth in the field of graphic narration.
Hogarth’s indexical repetitions are not always literal, he allows himself some variations as an invi-
tation to the reader to ‘participate actively in the picture’ (Paulson 1971: 488), or, in this case, in the
narration. Medicine, as another indexical sign of Moll’s disease, is present in plate 3 and plate 5, but
there is an interesting gradation of the remedies involved. In plate 3 there are only several unguents
on the toilet table (Kunzle 1973: 306) making us think that Moll’s disease is not very serious at this
stage. However, in plate 5, the references to medicines are multiplied. The two doctors are discussing
the best way to cure the disease (bottle or pill) but another index is lying on the ground: an advertise-
ment of ‘anodyne necklaces’ (Lichtenberg [1794–1799] 1966: 58) which makes us suspect that Moll’s
disease, maybe syphilis, is going to be fatal. These necklaces were some sort of ‘mystical amulet’ meant
‘to take away pain’ (Lichtenberg [1794–1799] 1966: 58), a desperate recourse when every other medi-
cine has failed. A similar gradation of indexical connectors can be found in Moll’s dresses, whose
changes must be attributed to her variable economic position: an inexpensive but clean country dress
in plate 1, a rich bourgeois dress in plate 2, an old nightgown in plate 3, etc. We can easily fill the nar-
rative gaps between the plates by following this sequence of variations in the garments.
These chains of causal connectors (there are many other remarkable ones in Hogarth’s engrav-
ings: the ring in Marriage à-la-Mode, or the dog in The Four Stages of Cruelty, though these two are
not indexical but symbolic) are linked in such a manner that each sign can modify another, making
the reader go back through the narrative in order to reinterpret previous visual information.
As noted above, Peirce underlines the fact that symbols always involve indices; contrariwise, a
sequence of causal connectors can also sometimes work as symbols, bearing a metaphoric, extra-
narrative meaning. Moll’s fancy shoes, which appear in the last three plates, are both an index and a
symbol. In Bridewell, the maid is wearing Moll’s embroidered shoes, which can be clearly seen as she


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William Hogarth’s A Harlot’s Progress

8. The lapse between plate pulls her stockings up. Some years later,8 another woman is ransacking Moll’s trunk and stealing a
4 and 5 must be of five
years at least, since that
second pair of shoes – we know about her intentions because she is putting them aside on the floor.
is more or less the age In the last plate, this same woman is sitting in the lower-right corner and grieving in quite a hypo-
of the child sitting by critical manner considering she is already wearing Moll’s shoes. This narrative line, secondary to the
the fire, Moll’s son.
principal one (Moll’s imprisonment and death), is construed on the basis of causal inferences, but it
is also relevant in a metaphoric and ironic sense, because the shoes are a symbol of Moll’s past times
of prosperity (plate 2). Moll has not only been stripped of a simple pair of shoes (indexical meaning)
but also of the only thing she had left: her best memories (symbolic meaning).
Hogarth is pointing here to a subtext of social criticism that another chain of symbolic connec-
tors underlines in an even more straightforward manner. Moll is symbolically rejected by instances
of power two times: by the priest riding the horse, who turns his back to her in the first plate, and
by the quack doctors in plate 5, who are more interested in their professional discussion than in
saving Moll’s life. Unlike the causal/metaphoric chain of connectors derived from the repetition of
the sign ‘shoe’, this chain is purely symbolic in the sense that these two events are totally unre-
lated; their presence is only justified by the satiric discourse Hogarth is trying to articulate: the
people who have the power to help the social outcasts are actually the people who are most likely
to ignore them. The irony is even greater if we consider that Moll’s peers, the maid and the sec-
ond thief, are no better than their social superiors. While the latter try to hide the social injustice
with their hypocrisy, the former try to make profit from it. Hogarth uses the symbolic potential of
sequential connectors to elevate the discourse from the purely narrative to the social. In moments
like this, the true purpose of A Harlot’s Progress emerges: ‘shifting the accent from Harlot to har-
lots’ impelling the reader to ‘condemn all the more readily those who pervert, exploit and batten
them’ (Kunzle 1973: 307).
Hogarth’s articulation of causality and metaphor by means of indexical and symbolic signs
is quite common in pictographic narrations and comics nowadays, but we can rarely find them
in any sequence of images published before A Harlot’s Progress, or at least not to the extent
Hogarth used them. In the traditional broadsheet strip, causality was expressed not so much
by means of the image but by means of the text. In many of these strips, it would be difficult
to understand the full extent of the details of the narration if words did not provide the neces-
sary information. David Kunzle’s The Early Comic Strip provides some revealing examples: one
of them is the German strip titled Mirror of Chastity, or a Hallowed Prescription for the Cure of
Carnal Desire (figure 7): a moralistic strip depicting the reasons and the consequences of infi-
delity. In the first panel, a husband departs on a long voyage, leaving his wife at home. In the
second plate, we can see the wife indulging herself with a copious meal, but it would be hard
to understand the aim of this scene if the text did not explain that ‘with all these gastronomic
delicacies on the table to console me, I am still itching, especially at nights’ (Kunzle 1973: 242).


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Roberto Bartual

Figure 7: Anonymous (c. 1650), Spiegel der

Keuschheit, oder Ein bewherte Artzney
die Fleischliche Lust zwertreiben, Köln:

Figure 7: Anonymous (c. 1650), Spiegel der Keuschheit, oder Ein bewherte Artzney die Fleischliche Lust zwertreiben, Köln: Stadtbibliotek.


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William Hogarth’s A Harlot’s Progress

9. The quotes in the article There is no pictographic sign to make it explicit that the man in panels 3, 4 and 5 is a doctor;
are from a summary of
the text by D. Kunzle
it is the text that says so. The resolution of the conflict is also signified by means of the verbal
(Kunzle 1973: 229). element. The doctor has a remedy for her itching, making love to her, but he has promised
that ‘before I can show my love to any pretty young lady, [I must] fast for sixty days’ (Kunzle
1973: 242). She helps him by taking on half of that time for him, but in panel 5 ‘I no longer
desire your love at all, for my belly is quite hollow’ (Kunzle 1973: 242). The indexical connec-
tors are, thus, verbal signs: whereas the only symbolic pictographic sign, the mirror in the last
panel, stands as an isolated element that has not been incorporated into the causal chain of
events. Unlike Hogarth’s symbols, the mirror acts the part of a moral epilogue, detached from
the narration, asking the reader to ‘Look into this mirror printed here, with which I bid you
good night’ (Kunzle 1973: 242).
There are, however, some interesting formal precedents in the field of engraving of the tech-
niques Hogarth used in A Harlot’s Progress. A Dutch sequence of four engravings, Boerenverdriet
(Peasant Woe, 1610), by B. A. Bolswert after paintings by David Vinckboons, relied heavily on
pictographic indices to narrate the upheaval produced by a group of Spanish soldiers and their
wives when they occupy a peasant’s house (Kunzle 2002: 288–289). We can also find a complex
use of indices and connectors in a German strip by Paul Fürst of Nürnberg, in which he proposes
a ruthless solution to the marital problems caused by ‘the evil disease of disobedient wives’, as
the title reads (figure 8). In this print, the causality of some events is made explicit by means of
pictographic signs, even though the panels are supposed to be illustrations of a somewhat long
literary text:9 for example, as the house is filled with children, the wife becomes more violent with
her husband (her gestures and the spilled water over the table in panel 3 are indices of her tem-
per). The reader, however, still needs the help of the verbal element to understand the meaning
of some other images; for instance, panel 5 is not part of the main narrative, but a personal anec-
dote a friend tells to the husband as a piece of advice: ‘He took an old rattletrap, and drove with
much screeching of wife and wheels to the nearest wood. “And don’t bother to return”, was her
parting wish’ (Kunzle 1973: 229). The husband’s friend returns from the woods ‘laden with sticks’
and beats his wife to death (Kunzle 1973: 229). It should be noted that in spite of the partial
dependence on the text, Paul Fürst forestalls Hogarth’s use of sequential connectors: two sym-
bolic funeral processions appear on the background of panel 1 and 6 as a prophecy and a confir-
mation of the fate of the wife (we can identify them as funeral processions because there are
wreaths on the wall of the inns where the wakes are going to be held). Hogarth used symbolic
connectors in many different ways, as we have already seen in A Harlot’s Progress, but at least
once, in The Four Stages of Cruelty, he would use them, like Fürst, to underline the circularity of
the narration, by making the protagonist kill a dog in plate 1 and letting another dog eat his heart
in plate 4.


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Roberto Bartual

Figure 8: Fürst of Nürnberg, P. (c. 1650), Offt Probiertes und Bewährtes Recept oder Artzney für die bösse Kranckheit der unartigen Weiber, London: British Museum.


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William Hogarth’s A Harlot’s Progress

10. As we follow the In spite of these rare precedents to Hogarth’s sequential techniques, he was certainly the first
adventures of Monsieur
Vieux Bois, a panel is
engraver that made a consistent and extensive use of indexical and symbolic connectors. Although
inserted in each page, the pictographic element was typically subordinate to the verbal element in the broadsheet tradi-
showing the misfor- tion, the abundant literary commentary engendered by A Harlot’s Progress (and Hogarth’s subse-
tunes of his rival,
suddenly trapped in a quent sequential work) reversed that relationship. This fact became even more evident when
waterwheel. Thomas Rowlandson published his ‘Dr. Syntax’ series in the first two decades of the 1800s. ‘The
popular journalist William Combe wrote up verses to accompany Rowlandson’s designs’, asserts
Kunzle. ‘The designs, however, always came first, and there was no personal communication
between artist and writer’ (Kunzle 1990: 18). Like Hogarth, Rowlandson’s narrations are sus-
tained by indexical clues pointing towards events not depicted in the image and an overall dram-
atization of the scene. However, Rowlandson would not be the only artist who adopted Hogarth’s
techniques: Cruikshank, Gustave Doré and Cham are also among his successors. Rodolphe
Töpffer, who introduced the novelty of breaking up a single scene into a variable number of pan-
els (thereby making possible the illusion of movement and fragmentation of space in the field of
sequential art), relied too on some of Hogarth’s techniques. In L’Histoire d’Albert we can find
ritualistic and symbolic repetitions, even of entire panels (Töpffer 1845: 9–12); whereas, in M.
Vieux Bois, there is an instance of alternating panels that represent actions taking place at the
same time10 (Töpffer 1837: 61–68); this was a technique Hogarth introduced in Industry and
Idleness, probably the first occurrence of parallel montage. Finally, we could also mention
Daumier’s ability to evoke an implicit sequence in his cartoons, which should also be traced back
to Hogarth’s use of indices. The power to suggest ‘what is going to come next’ with a single
image has always been vital for classic cartoonists like Edward Gorey, as it still is for Gary Larson
or Nicholas Gurewitz – who often make the comic-tragic effect of their panels depend on an
invisible and elliptical outcome.
Now more than ever, there is a growing number of authors who are trying to assimilate in their
works Hogarthian and pre-Hogarthian narrative modes. Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary
Gentlemen: The Black Dossier (2007) and Lost Girls ([1989–2006] 2006), as well as Robert Crumb’s
Book of Genesis (2009) present a typical comic-book narration that occasionally gives place to pas-
sages in which the narration follows the same technique of the broadsheet: that is, passages in which
every scene is represented only by one panel (transition between panels implying transition between
scenes). Some of Crumb’s one-panel scenes are connected by Hogarthian indices that reveal mean-
ings not explicit in the biblical text. For example, when Noah gets drunk and his son Ham sees him
naked, the text explains that Ham is expelled for not turning away his face, but what it does not
explain is why Noah curses Canaan too. Crumb gives his own interpretation of this passage by means
of an index in panel 1 and 2: Canaan in the one who gives Noah the jug of wine that caused his
nakedness (figure 9).


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Roberto Bartual

Figure 9: Crumb, R. (2009), The Book of Genesis, New York and London: Norton & Company, p. 31.


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William Hogarth’s A Harlot’s Progress

As we can see, Hogarth’s narrative solutions are still as valid today as they were in his time.
Certainly, it would be going too far if we said that A Harlot’s Progress and Hogarth’s other works
have had a direct influence in modern-day comics, but it is certain that they were an important
turning point in the formal evolution of the language of graphic narration that would eventually
lead to what we call ‘comics’ today. Hogarth proved that graphic narration is more than a simple
accumulation of images, because each panel is subordinated to the others in a complex way by
means of pictographic signs Peirce called indices and symbols. Thanks to Hogarth’s first basic nar-
rative techniques, he combined images in such a manner they were able to express a story by them-
selves. His followers used these same visual techniques frequently in combination with text, which
led to an emancipation of words from their original narrative function in the broadsheet. This
allowed them to cooperate with the image in the creation of meaning in the complex and subtle
manner that is common today in modern comics (figure 9). Therefore, the study of works like A
Harlot’s Progress can help us not only understand the origins of graphic narration but also how
modern comics work nowadays.

The author would like to thank Dr David Kunzle at UCLA for his support and shared passion for

Antal, F. (1962), Hogarth and His Place in European Art, New York: Basic Books.
Bartual, R. (2008) ‘Es el comic el único arte secuencial? Ecos de la secuencia en el arte pictórico’,
http://www.revista.unam.mx/vol.9/num6/art34/int34.htm. Accesed 10 June 2008.
Bowen, M. (1936), William Hogarth: The Cockney’s Mirror, New York and London: Appleton-
Carlin, J. (2005), ‘Art History of Twentieth Century American Comics’, in J. Carlin, P. Karasik and
B. Walker (eds), Masters of American Comics, Los Angeles and New Haven: Hammer Museum
and Yale University Press.
Crumb, R. (2009), The Book of Genesis, New York: W. W. Norton & Co.
Defoe, D. ([1724] 2004), Moll Flanders, New York: W. W. Norton & Co.
Deleuze, G. (1985), Cinéma 2: L’Image-temps, Paris: Minuit.
Groensteen, T. (1988), ‘La narration comme supplément’, in T. Groensteen (ed.), Bande dessinée, récit
et modernité, Paris and Angoulême: Colloque de Cerisy, Futuropolis-CNBDI, pp. 60–80.
Hogarth, W. (1753), Analysis of Beauty, London: J. Reeves.


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Roberto Bartual

Kunzle, D. (1973), The History of the Comic Strip, volume 1: The Early Comic Strip: Narrative Strips and
Picture Stories in the European Broadsheet from c. 1450 to 1825, Berkeley: University of California
Kunzle, D. (1990), The History of the Comic Strip, volume 2: The Nineteenth Century, Berkeley:
University of California Press.
Kunzle, D. (2002), From Criminal to Courtier: The Soldier in Netherlandish Art 1550–1672, Leiden and
Boston: Brill.
Lichtenberg, G. C. ([1794–1799] 1966), The World of Hogarth: Lichtenberg’s Commentaries on Hogarth’s
Engravings (trans. I. and G. Herdan), Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Moore, A. and Gebbie, M. ([1989–2006] 2006), Lost Girls, Marietta: Top Shelf.
Moore, A., O’Neill, K. and Klein, T. (2007), The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier,
La Jolla, California: Wildstorm.
Moore, R. E. (1948), Hogarth’s Literary Relationships, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Paulson, R. (1971), Hogarth: His Life, Art and Times, volume 1, New Haven and London: Yale
University Press.
Peirce, C. S. ([1904] 1974), Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, volume 2. Elements of Logic,
Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Quennell, P. (1955), Hogarth’s Progress, New York: Viking Press.
Riding, C. (2006), ‘The Harlot and the Rake’, in M. Hallet and C. Riding (eds), Hogarth, London: Tate
Publishing, pp. 72–93.
Talbot, B. (2007), Alice in Sunderland, or a Night at the Empire, Milwaukie: Dark Horse.
Töpffer, R. (1837), M. Vieux Bois, Geneva: Schmidt.
Töpffer, R. (1845), L’Histoire d’Albert, Geneva: Schmidt.
Trusler, J. (1833), The Works of William Hogarth; in a Series of Engravings: with Descriptions, and a
Comment on their Moral Tendency, Londres: Jones and Co.

Suggested citation
Bartual, R. (2010), ‘William Hogarth’s A Harlot’s Progress: the beginnings of a purely pictographic
sequential language’, Studies in Comics 1: 1, pp. 83–105, doi: 10.1386/stic.1.1.83/1

Contributor details
Roberto Bartual was born in Madrid in 1976. He is a translator, writer and scholar. He is the author
of numerous articles on popular literature published in Diario El Sur, República de las Letras and
Despalabro, dealing with authors such as Alan Moore, Robert L. Stevenson, and Jim Thompson and
the hard-boiled genre. He translated an edition of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights illustrated by


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William Hogarth’s A Harlot’s Progress

Balthus (Artemisa, 2007) and the Spanish version of Alan Moore and José Villarubia’s The Mirror
of Love (Kraken, 2008). Also a fiction writer, his short stories can be found in diverse anthologies,
including Ficciones (Edaf, 2005). He is the co-author of the postmodern revisiting of Lorca’s classic
La Casa de Bernarda Alba Zombi (Cátedra, 2009). He is currently working as an investigator in the
field of comics and sequential art at Universidad Autónoma de Madrid. His articles on the origins
of sequential art and its relationship with sculpture, painting, engraving and cinema can be found in
Revista Digital Universitaria de la Universidad Autónoma de México.
Contact: Roberto Bartual, c. Vinca, 4. 3ºA. 28029 Madrid, Spain.
E-mail: roberto_bartual@hotmail.com


STIC_1.1_Bartual_083-106.indd 105 3/26/10 1:40:11 PM

Journal of
Graphic Novels
and Comics
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ReÁecting interdisciplinary research in comics, the journal aims to establish a dialogue between academics,
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STIC_1.1_Bartual_083-106.indd 106 3/26/10 1:40:11 PM

STIC 1 (1) pp. 107–125 Intellect Limited 2010

Studies in Comics
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/stic.1.1.107/1

Monash University

The graphic novel as metafiction

Keywords Abstract
graphic novels This article takes as its object of analysis the graphic novel adaptation of Paul Auster’s novel City of Glass
metafiction (1985) by Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli (2004). The adaptation serves as the ground upon which to
Paul Auster analyse the differences between novels and graphic novels with respect to how they employ metafictional
Paul Karasik and David devices.
Mazzucchelli Metafiction involves the use of strategies, in most cases peculiar to the medium, which force the reader to
adaptation reflect on the fictionality of the text and, consequently, the nature of writing. One of the main targets of such
strategies is the reader’s perception of the unity of the narrative voice and its role in establishing a coherent
ontology. One of the strengths of Auster’s novel is its capacity to establish and then subvert the narrative
voice through a series of unexplained ontological shifts in the plot and repeated contraventions of the rules
separating the author, character and narrator. The reader is continually seduced into thinking that the preci-
sion of the narration will lead to a coherent account of the relationship between the various plot strands, but
this assumption is repeatedly challenged, as is the reliability of the authorial voice. Karasik and Mazzucchelli
endeavour to reproduce the ontological uncertainty of Auster’s text but they are presented with a difficulty
that arises from the duality of narration in the graphic novel, as each thought, description and passage of
dialogue is accompanied by a sequence of images. The structure of the graphic novel is such that the verbal


STIC_1.1_art_Atkins_107-126.indd 107 3/29/10 8:48:49 AM

Paul Atkinson

narrative is always incorporated into the spatial field, which, I will argue, is accorded ontological priority.
The visual narration includes details that are not present in Auster’s novel, and this sometimes confirms or
supports a particular narrative thread that remains only a latent possibility in the novel. At the same time,
the visual narration is imbued with a consistency not found in the shifting narrative voice of the novel.
The article will draw on theorists working within the various sub-disciplines (Philippe Marion (1993),
Thierry Groensteen (2007) and Brian McHale (1987)). The theory of metafiction is used to develop some of
the questions concerning adaptation and to explore further the role that the image plays in delineating the
comic book’s fictional world.

The adaptation of Paul Auster’s City of Glass – the first of The New York Trilogy – into a ‘graphic novel’
of the same name by Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli raises a number of issues relating to the
adaptation of prose forms into image-based sequential narratives – graphic novels, bande dessinées and
comic books. Rather than proffer an evaluation of the particular adaptation, the focus of this article is
on the narrative and formal properties of the texts. The problem with an evaluative approach is that it
asserts a fundamental difference between the original and the copy, or between the thing-in-itself
and a derivative. The adaptation, in this case the graphic novel, is always secondary and is judged
according to what it contains or lacks; in the case of a well-received original, such as Auster’s City of
Glass, it is easy to fall into a prejudgement that any adaptation will only ever be a diminution of the
original. Instead, this analysis of the adaptation of City of Glass examines the metafictional aspects of
the novel and how these are manifest in the graphic form, with emphasis on the way the text is read
and how this is specific to each medium. It is common for metafiction to question the reader’s concep-
tion of the relationship between the author, character and narrator, in particular the conception of a
consistent story world and its separation from the world occupied by the author. In the graphic novel
there should be a similar process of questioning but it is built on a different foundation that must take
into account the structure of the page and a much more diffuse notion of an authorial voice.
The novel City of Glass (1985) is the first novel in the trilogy and shares with the other two texts,
Ghosts (1986) and The Locked Room (1986), a number of themes, names of characters, places and events,
but unlike most trilogies it is difficult to plot a chronology or even a consistent field of action that links
together the texts. It is, ostensibly, a detective novel insofar as the protagonist, Daniel Quinn, is employed
to protect a man, Peter Stillman Jnr, from his father, Peter Stillman Snr, and this involves following and
observing the latter. However, the role of the detective segues into that of a literary detective and much
of the novel is a meditation on the relationship between writing and observation, which, by extension,
questions the relationship between language and objects. This reflection on the nature of writing leads to
many intertextual excursions, where the reader is asked to ponder the limits of the fictional world and its


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The graphic novel as metafiction

relationship to a non-fictional world occupied by the author. In doing so, the book has one of the key
features of what Brian McHale calls postmodern fiction, and which also applies to metafiction: there is a
questioning of fictional boundaries and the condensation into a single fictional text of ontologies that
logically should not co-exist, or be allowed to interpenetrate (McHale 1987: 10). This is a feature of both
film and literature. For example in David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (1999), the protagonists constantly
move back and forwards through different layers of a virtual reality game such that the viewer finds it
almost impossible to establish a frame of reference. In literature, there are also shifts in the frame of ref-
erence, which are dependent on different functions of the narrative voice. In Italo Calvino’s If on a
Winter’s Night a Traveller, a description of an encounter between two characters abruptly changes into a
statement directly addressing the reader: ‘One thing is immediately clear to you: namely that this book
has nothing in common with the one you had begun’ (Calvino 1981: 53), which brings the act of reading
the book – something the narrator should have no knowledge of – into the book itself.
This uncertainty as to who is speaking and from where they are speaking is central to metafiction,
which, like ‘surfiction’, leads the reader to reflect upon the text’s artificiality and, in doing so, question the
structure of referentiality and the boundary that separates fictional and non-fictional worlds. According
to Patricia Waugh, metafiction ‘self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an
artefact in order to pose questions about fiction and reality’ (Waugh 1995: 40). To draw attention is not
only to ask the reader to attend to one aspect of a text – in the case of the City of Glass, the architecture
of reading – but also to draw attention away from an ostensibly transparent storyline. The metafictional
text is only an artefact if the reader is able to step out of the story, that is, remove themselves from the
flow of events in the story and recognize that the text (novel, poem, play, graphic novel) is an object of
human construction. This is a re-cognition because the reader knows that it is a work of fiction before
they read it but, unlike most novels, the metafictional reader is then constantly reminded of the fictional
status of the text. What is of particular importance to this article is that the means of drawing attention
depends on the medium itself, and that the comic book, with its reliance on the particularity of spatial
organization, must utilize different metafictional techniques to prose-based texts.
There are two types of reading that are invoked by metafiction: the reading of the story as story,
and the critical reflection on the nature of storytelling. The pleasure and/or the frustration of reading
metafictional texts relates to the requirement that the reader maintain both stances. For Mark Currie,
metafiction constantly invokes the critic in the act of telling the story and, in this juxtaposition of criti-
cism and fiction, there is dissolution of many of the ‘illusions’ that sustain the story: in particular
through ‘the dramatisation of the external communication between author and reader’ (Currie 1995: 4).
This critical function stands above and outside for it places the text in relation to other texts – to a real
world that is ontologically distinct from the fictional world, and to the various functions of writing that
are not restricted to any one story. Metafiction, therefore, depends on the coexistence of a frame of
reference that is both outside the story and yet is somehow invoked or referred to from inside the


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story, such that the boundary between inside and outside is blurred. In the City of Glass, the reader is
asked to participate as a critic because the changes in narratorial and authorial position make it diffi-
cult to locate a narrative field that logically contains all the other stories. The reader is given models for
how the text should be read, including an elaborate explanation of the novel Don Quixote given by a
writer called Paul Auster in the text. Auster (the character) argues that Quixote orchestrated his mad-
ness in order to achieve literary notoriety and fame. In this version of the story, Sancho Panza becomes
Quixote’s witness; although Sancho himself mistakenly believes that he is retelling Quixote’s story in
order to cure the latter of his folly, in truth he is being manipulated by Quixote (Auster 1985: 99). The
reader is later asked to associate Don Quixote with Daniel Quinn because, as Quinn himself notes,
both share ‘the same initials’ (Auster 1985: 129) and with this as a link the minor story acts as a mirror
to the main story and complicates the relationship between inside and outside.
In City of Glass this mirroring of one story within another is largely enacted through the use of
the detective fiction format, where Quinn is not only a writer but also acts as a private investigator.
Mark Currie states that one of the most important devices in metafiction is the foregrounding of nar-
ration, where a narratee stands in for the reader and encourages the reader to critically reflect upon
how they are addressed by the text. This can take the form of a detective who is essentially a ‘surro-
gate reader’ and ‘whose role in the narrative is to make sense of unintelligible events or to grapple
with a mystery’ (Currie 1995: 4). The figure of Daniel Quinn certainly fits this image for he not only
acts as a detective, he also reflects upon his reading of detective fiction and his role as a crime writer.
The capacity for the ‘reader to critically reflect’ is opened up through Quinn’s musing on the nature
of fiction: for example, early in the novel Quinn describes his appreciation of the genre due to its
‘economy’ of expression:

What he liked about these books was their sense of plenitude and economy. In the good mys-
tery there is nothing wasted, no sentence, no word that is not significant. And even if it is not
significant, it has the potential to be so – which amounts to the same thing.
(Auster 1985: 8)

The reader is cautioned that they should attend to every detail because each could be a clue and, as
such, has the potential to fundamentally change the direction of the plot (Auster 1985: 8). This soon
becomes a spatial metaphor where, in the detective novel:

Everything becomes essence; the centre of the book shifts with each event that propels it for-
ward. The centre, then, is everywhere, and no circumference can be drawn until the book has
come to an end.
(Auster 1985: 8)


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The graphic novel as metafiction

1. The graphic novel It is only at the narrative’s end that the reader will have a coherent account of the whole. Until then
quotes accurately from
the novel except that, in
the reader must follow the plot which ebbs and flows with each word and each event. The metafic-
most extended passages tional text also initiates this constant movement, where the reader searches for clues but, unlike the
such as this one, some detective novel, there is no denouement or ‘circumference’ that will draw all the threads together;
phrases and sentences
are omitted to that is, there is no coherent ontology. In each of the novels of The New York Trilogy there is no
accommodate the denouement because the desired object disappears – in City of Glass, it is the disappearance of
structure of the page. Stillman Snr – which leads to the protagonist’s loss of identity or purpose (Zilcosky 1998: 196). In
The graphic novel must
not overburden the removing this purpose, the book also raises metaphysical questions concerning the relativity of
image with too much meaning due to the futility of the protagonists’ search for truth.
text as this does not
allow sufficient room
In the use of a spatial metaphor, the novel compares writing to creating a map, where in the ini-
for the eye to move tial stages there is a degree of uncertainty but eventually the various threads will be brought together
across the image, and to create a coherent whole. This is also a ground upon which to analyse the differences between
this can often also give
the impression that the novels and graphic novels, in particular, when it comes to metafiction. How does writing as a move-
movement of the ment, with the potential to take any direction, compare to writing in a comic book? In an early pas-
characters is severely sage in the novel, one which is reproduced on the back cover of Karasik and Mazzucchelli’s graphic
novel adaptation, the protagonist reflects on what it means to walk randomly through the city, in a
manner reminiscent of the French situationists of the 1960s:

New York was an inexhaustible space, a labyrinth of endless steps, and no matter how far
he walked, no matter how well he came to know its neighbourhoods and streets, it always
left him with the feeling of being lost. Lost, not only in the city, but within himself as well.
Each time he took a walk, he felt as though he were leaving himself behind […] By wander-
ing aimlessly, all places became equal and it no longer mattered where he was. On his best
walks, he was able to feel that he was nowhere. And this, finally, was all he ever asked of
things: to be nowhere.
(Karasik, Mazzucchelli and Auster 2004: 4)1

In Quinn’s walks through the city ‘All places become equal’ because there is no pre-given organ-
izing principle or formal cause that can contain the whole. Likewise, readers of fiction can find
themselves lost at any point because a single sentence has the capacity to completely transform
the field of action. This is possible because the content of a subsequent passage or sentence is
not foreseeable unless this is somehow prefigured in the existing text – in what is being read or
has been read. When we glance at the page we are about to read, there is no clear indication of
what will happen as the content of the succeeding sentence is not visible. In a novel, the text
remains mute until it is read and this allows metafictional texts to continually dumbfound the
reader with sudden shifts in mode or context – like following a meandering melody line in a jazz


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Paul Atkinson

piece, where each note has the capacity to begin a new riff. The narrative voice of the novel is 2. This pre-visualization of
the narrative can also be
coincident with the present time of reading, with the future unforeseeable and the past con- related to a conceit
structed retroactively. in the novel where
In the comic book, however, there is a sense in which the past, present and future coexist. Benoit Quinn traces the daily
walks of Stillman Snr
Peeters states in his book on how to read the bande dessinée, that there is an opportunity in the bande on paper in search of an
dessinée, unlike cinema, for the viewer to preview the whole page and, as such, no image, except for explanation for his
those at the turn of a page, are ‘inattendu’ (Peeters 1991: 34) or unexpected. The reader can look actions. He realizes that
each walk corresponds
ahead because any object on the page can be glimpsed before it is read and this also applies to the to a letter and from this
compositional whole of the page, which serves as a formal cause that coordinates all the utterances discerns the phrase ‘The
Tower of Babel’ (Auster
that are contained within it. For example, in Karasik and Mazzucchelli’s adaptation, this above quoted 1985: 66–69; Karasik,
passage from Auster’s text is reproduced on the back page, where we see an image of Quinn walking Mazzucchelli and Auster
against the backdrop of the New York skyline at night. The page is further divided by a series of gut- 2004: 62–64). This
overall explanation
ters in waffle format that regulate and frame the reading of the text. The image of the city as a whole mimics the reader’s
is invoked through the metonym of the skyline and is conceptualized prior to the act of walking. In own search for a
other words, there is a centralized and visualizable conception of New York, before the act of walk- meta-narrative, which
is, in essence, a word
ing.2 In the graphic novel, the character’s desire to be ‘nowhere’ is rendered impossible by the visual from the author or God.
structure that frames his action. A similar structure is adopted on page 101 where Quinn walks across In the text, however, the
meta-narrative is never
a map of New York, which is used to represent the uncertainty of his movement across the city, but confirmed. The phrase is
again the panel borders contain the movement – the movement is never seen independently of a another false lead that
visual context. ultimately does not
provide the reader with
The notion of spatial containment is one of the primary conditions of the comic book, and in the an explanation that can
adaptation of a novel it serves as an empty stage that limits and shapes those words and events that reconcile character
are taken from the original. Thierry Groensteen, in The System of Comics, argues that it is possible to action with narrative
structure. In other
imagine a comic book without speech balloons, narrative serialization, etc., but it will always have words, this detective
what he calls ‘iconic solidarity’, referring to the situation where the images form part of a series, novel has no object to
be discovered.
where each image is part of a structural logic; they are connected and yet remain separated
(Groensteen 2007: 18). This organization also presumes that the comic book involves the reader
‘travers[ing]’ the page (Groensteen 2007: 19) as a means of assuring the images’ interdependence. In
producing a comic book, it is not primarily the narrative that drives the separation and organization
of images:

From the moment of sketching the first panel of a comic, the author has already taken […]
some large strategic options (evidently modifiable by what follows), which concern the distri-
bution of spaces and the occupation of places.
(Groensteen 2007: 21)


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The graphic novel as metafiction

The most important aspect of the discourse of comic books is the spatio-topical organization of the
panels and, to a lesser degree, the linear sequence of the narrative (Groensteen 2007: 22). Each image
must conform to the ‘geometric’ whole of the comic book, for this serves as the ‘physical support’ for
any narrative articulation (Groensteen 2007: 25). To understand what a comic book is, we have to
imagine it as a ‘multi-frame’ – note that Groensteen abstains from using the word ‘page’ because the
word multi-frame can refer to a greater number of cases of panel organization including newspaper
comic strips – is imagined before the act of organizing the narrative. This can be seen in many self-
reflexive comics, where the blank page is already separated into panels (Groensteen 2007: 28).
This bringing together and separation of images that comprises the ‘multi-frame’ of all comic
books guides the adaptation. This can be seen most clearly in those sections of City of Glass where
the narrative is composed of direct speech. When Quinn first meets Peter Stillman Jnr, who has
employed him to find and watch his father, the latter presents a long monologue describing his rela-
tionship to his father and how he suffered as a child due to his father’s unusual ideas about child
rearing and the acquisition of language. This is a very important speech because it provides the con-
text for Quinn’s employment as a detective, and brings into question the relationship between lan-
guage and objects, a theme of the novel. Consequently it cannot be omitted in the adaptation, but it
does pose a problem insofar as the long monologue does not sit easily with the ‘multi-frame’ struc-
ture of the comic book, and consideration must be given as to whether the speech should be distrib-
uted across a number of panels or restricted to a single panel. Each solution has its own problems: a
long monologue cannot fit into a single panel, as this would leave no room for the image. If it is dis-
tributed, the question then turns to what visual content should fill the panels. In this particular exam-
ple, Peter Stillman does not move from his chair as he delivers the speech: the question then is
should the artist, to be faithful to the original, simply show repeated images of Peter speaking in
speech balloons across a number of pages? However, here the repetition of the image would actually
serve as a distraction from the monologue, because such a repetition is uncommon in comic books.
In most comic books the images are visually distinct and if they do not change, then the viewer
would look for minor differences between the panels.
The solution posed by Mazzucchelli and Karasik is quite ingenious. The monologue begins with
an image of Stillman speaking and in the successive panels, which are all of equal size and presented
in a 3X3 format, the shot distance decreases in a comic book equivalent of a zoom (figure 1). At the
end of the page, all the reader can see is a mouth with a speech balloon issuing from it (Mazzucchelli,
Karasik and Auster 2004: 15). The eye follows the tail of the speech balloon into the mouth of Stillman
and metaphorically into the interiority of the subject (and possibly Stillman’s visual subconscious). In
the subsequent pages, the speech balloon issues from a range of other subjects (the panel organiza-
tion remains the same), which do not seem to bear any relationship to the spoken words (figure 2).
This solution is interesting in that it incorporates a notion of identity, in the form of the character


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Paul Atkinson

Figure 1: City of Glass, Mazzucchelli and Karasik, p. 15.


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Figure 2: City of Glass, Mazzucchelli and Karasik, p. 19.


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Paul Atkinson

speaking, and of difference, in the change of the object speaking in each panel. It also confirms 3. Oulipo is an abbrevia-
tion of Ouvroir de
Groensteen’s point that the comic book is not driven strictly by the narrative, but rather by the Littérature Potentielle, a
requirement that there must be a division of the spatial field at the same time that the medium’s largely French
identity is established as a series. movement that arose in
the 1960s and which
This raises another question, to what degree is the ‘iconic solidarity’ of the multi-frame structure used language games in
coincident with the speaking voice of the novel? If it is not coincident, then many of the metafictional the production of
devices used in the novel cannot be translated directly into the comic book. It is impossible to com- literature. These games
include generative chess
pletely separate writing from voice, whether in the form of dialogue, various levels and types of nar- moves and others that
ration or indeed the authorial voice. It is this notion of an authorial voice that exists as one of the allowed the reader to
recombine sentences to
conditions of writing, for it is difficult to rid oneself of the idea of a speaker while reading a text. Even create an almost infinite
if there are multiple authors or even if the text is automatically generated – one need only think of number of new works.
the various language generators used by members of Oulipo3 – the reader still imagines an overall
guiding voice, an ‘implied author’ who, as Wayne Booth argues, is an axis through which the reader
can conceptualize the ‘total form’ of the text (Booth 1961: 74). The voice of the author is understood
to encompass all other voices in the text and serves as a limit point for any speculation about the
meaning of the text.
Auster’s novel is, however, written after, and mindful of, the highly influential essay ‘The Death
of the Author’ ([1967] 1977) by Roland Barthes and toys with the reader’s expectation as to the role
the author plays in the production of meaning in the text. This includes the appearance in the diegesis
of a character called Paul Auster who is also an author, which works to circumvent the accepted
boundary in fictional texts separating the process of writing a text from the world that is contained in
the text (Zilcosky 1998: 196). The only way to kill the author is to create a fictional double in the text,
which undermines the author’s position as an invisible, guiding principle for the text as a whole.
How can the author speak both from within the text as a character and yet fail to acknowledge this at
the level of narration? It is in this gap between the different voices that the reader’s concept of a sta-
ble authorial voice is undermined. The death of the author, however, is not an absolute as the reader
continually shifts their attention between narrator, empirical Auster and the character Auster.
There are other correlations between the real-life Auster and the Auster doubles, Quinn and
Fanshawe as well as the character Auster, in the City of Glass. Both Quinn and Fanshawe are writers
(Zilcosky 1998: 200). Fanshawe and the empirical Auster ‘are exactly the same age’ (Zilcosky 1998:
en 9) while Quinn once worked as a translator, as did the real-life Auster. To further destabilize the
link between the voice of the author and narrator, the character Auster is even accused (by an
unknown narrator in the last section of the novel) of failing to assist Quinn in his attempt to protect
the Stillmans (Auster 1985: 131). The fact that another narrator is posited in counterpose to a char-
acter called Auster displaces the narrative voice and further weakens the reader’s assumptions con-
cerning the authorial voice’s capacity to always contain all other narrative voices. Zilcosky suggests


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4. This is of particular that this act erases the reader’s image of the empirical author as the voice of the text, with Auster
importance in
autobiographies and
displaced into the position of an ‘implied author’ (Auster 1985: 199). All this serves to denaturalize
autobiographical novels the relationship between narration and authorship and, in doing so, highlight the artificiality of the
where the reader text and turn the focus to writing itself.
assumes that the author
is speaking autobio- In the graphic novel adaptation of City of Glass, these metafictional games with the readers’
graphically even when expectations concerning authorship are complicated by the narrative conventions of the graphic
the name of the author novel. In the novel, the voice of the narrator is present even without any explicit indication of who is
is not mentioned in
the text, and especially speaking, as is the case in most third-person narration, and such a voice can always be aligned by the
if the story contains reader to a speaker including the novelist (whether rightly or wrongly). In the absence of an explicit
details that are
commensurate with
statement in the text to identify the narrator, this voice tends to devolve to the author or implied
those in the author’s author.4 In other words, the author is the external limit of the text, the point of enunciation, until
life. Philippe Lejeune other voices are specified, that is, other limits to the voice (narrators) are posited. However, in the
examines this issue in
his On Autobiography graphic novel, the multi-frame structure and the coexistence of text and image temper those metafic-
and argues that the tional shifts that are dependent on the consistency of the authorial voice.
autobiography differs The voice in literature serves as a form of limit to the text, defining the border between inside
from other ‘literary’
works in that there is an and outside the text. In literature the upper limit is the implied authorial voice within which many
autobiographical pact other voices – of characters, narrators, indirect speech, etc. – are heard. The implied authorial voice
that assumes some
degree of fidelity on the
can be conceived as a container with no outside or the outermost boundary of enunciation. In
part of the author other words, there is no point at which the reader can stand outside this voice while reading the
(Lejeune 1988: 12–13). text. In the graphic novel, however, another container always frames the voice: that of the panel
and page, which are visible borders limiting both the image and text. For example in Peter Milligan
and Duncan Fegredo’s Enigma, the reader discovers on the final page of the graphic novel that the
whole story is told from the perspective of a sentient lizard when the lizard addresses the reader
directly: ‘Look, let me start again. And try to concentrate this time … You could say it all started in
Arizona. … Twenty-five years ago on a farm’ (Milligan and Fegredo 1995). This act of making the
reader aware of the fictionality of the story – for the story suddenly becomes one retelling among
many retellings – does not disrupt the narrative structure of the whole because the voice at the
point of revelation is thoroughly contained within the visual structure of the page, panel, and cap-
tion. It is a voice that is in the story world and the multi-frame structure that underpins it, rather
than one that stands as a limit of the text, as does the implied authorial voice in literature. The
reader does not identify with the disembodied voice of the author in a graphic novel, because this
voice is subordinate to the visual structure. There is always a conceptualization of the whole before
an examination of the particular. It could be argued that the page of the novel has a similar
function – it is viewed before the first word is read – but the page of a novel does not structurally
underpin the reader’s understanding of the narrative, it is simply a vehicle for the text, and in the
process of reading it is largely ignored: the internal limits are attended to but the external form is


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Paul Atkinson

disregarded. This is confirmed by the fact that a novel could easily be repaginated without any 5. The image (panel, page)
is always a plenitude
change in the narration. and asserts itself before
The New York Trilogy repeatedly attests to its own fictionality and is governed by the maxim that the examination of its
there is nothing outside or before the text – there are multiple stories about books and how they detail. The voice in a
novel, by comparison, is
relate to other books and to authors masquerading as other authors. The metafictional text is capable always, to some degree,
of playing with the limits of its fictional world and can undermine its narrative scaffolding in a single an abstraction: a deictic
word. In City of Glass, a single word, usually a name, can refer to one of many objects that exist at sign that coordinates the
text and, in the case of
different metafictional levels. For example, in investigating the literary philosophical life of Peter autobiography, one that
Stillman Snr, Quinn notes a coincidence between the date when Henry Dark’s pamphlet was released is gradually filled with
each enunciation.
(1690) and the year ‘that Stillman had locked up his son’, (1960) (Auster 1985: 49). This coincidence
is contained within the story world occupied by Quinn, but in the City of Glass there is always the
possibility that coincidences will extend to the level of narration and, a page later, it is noteworthy
that Quinn considers going to the Stillman house on 69th Street (Auster 1985: 50). Here the reader is
alerted to the possibility that the text itself is a fabrication and that a game is being played on the
level of the authorial voice. This is possible in the novel because there is no overall fictional structure
that contains and acts as a ground for the ontological shifts; at any moment the narrator can speak
directly to the reader and disrupt the neutrality of the third-person voice. The adaptation of the novel
to the graphic novel is hampered by the impossibility of retaining the metafictional framework of the
original text, which is built around the narrative voice. It is only when the graphic novel explores its
own structural possibilities outside of the notion of a narrative speaking voice that the ontology of
the narrative can be fractured. There has to be some type of breaking of the frame and the status of
the image, if there is to be a metafictional undermining of ontological differences akin to that of a
disruption to the authorial voice.
Karasik and Mazzucchelli explore the impossibility of positing an ultimate point of reference in
City of Glass but they are beset by a fundamental difficulty: the visual whole of the page always func-
tions as an ontological ground.5 There is no point at which the story is ‘nowhere’ because every
image is always framed by a level of narration that can never be breached – the organization of the
panels as an interdependent visual form. One solution proffered in the opening section of the graphic
novel is an attempted erasure of the image and the panel. Rather than the customary division of the
page into panels, the reader is presented with a black rectangle on which is printed in white text: ‘It
was a wrong number that started it’ (Karasik, Mazzucchelli and Auster 2004: 1). The image is not
strictly a panel because there is no definite gutter and, unlike the subsequent pages, no drawn bor-
der. It is posited as a space before the story and resembles the opening page of Michael Straczynski
and John Romita Jnr’s Amazing Spider-Man #36, which is totally black except for the following mes-
sage printed in its centre: ‘We interrupt our regularly scheduled program to bring you the following
Special Bulletin’ (Straczynski and Romita 2001: 1). In Spider-Man, the device serves as a prelude to an


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image of the still-smouldering Ground Zero in New York and, in so doing, attests to the singularity
of the event. In City of Glass, by comparison, the black page isolates the voice of the narrator from the
series of images that are to follow and is a means of crossing out or barring the image – the image
must appear first before it can be disavowed. Karasik and Mazzucchelli’s projection of the
non-referential image is only imagined against the structural form of the graphic novel as a whole,
and consequently the blackness is never neutral. It describes a space that must be filled and on the
following page the pure black image is transformed, through a process analogous to a cinematic
zoom- out, into the shape of a telephone. The black image is only erased with regard to what the
reader expects should fill a comic book frame. It performs an action similar to Magritte’s injunction
‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ in La Trahison des images – this is not a pipe but a representation – where it
is the text, rather than the expected structure of the medium, which allows the image and its object,
to be present and not present at the same time. A similar attempt at erasing the medium’s ‘voice’ is
used by Jessica Abel in an untitled short graphic story about 9/11, where we see a group of friends
chatting on a city street corner in a series of panels that are eventually consumed by flames (Abel
2002: 13–14). The burning of the fictional apparatus signals the probable fate of those chatting in the
diegesis and as such the story world is transformed into a physical image; that is, an object that can
be consumed. However, even in an example such as this, the structure of the graphic whole still
asserts itself as the ground for representation, regardless of any shift in the status of the images; they
still exist as objects to be presented on the multi-frame. The burning images are still presented on the
page like photographs on a table.
In the penultimate section of the book, Quinn is writing in his notebook in an attempt to make
sense of the Stillman case; a task that is ultimately futile. To visually describe this narrative trajectory,
Karasik and Mazzucchelli gradually widen the gutters and change the position of the panels, which
up until this point have had a waffle format. This process increases until pages 130–131, where there
is a splash page that has the images spread out against the backdrop of a rocky chasm to indicate the
futility of Quinn’s task as he searches for an absolute reference point. In the novel there is uncer-
tainty as to how we should respond to Quinn’s musings and there is no clear indication as to whether
the state of growing darkness is metaphorical or actual (Auster 1985: 130). In the graphic novel, how-
ever, Quinn’s perception of the world is overdetermined by the visual structure of the whole, which,
in this scene, takes the form of a chasm that frames the panels, the voice of the narrator and indi-
rectly Quinn’s voice (figure 3). There is a prerogative in the construction of the page to fill all the
spaces that are created by the gradual expansion of the panels. This is a function of comic-book dis-
course and an acknowledgement that empty spaces have the capacity to signify if they extend beyond
commonly used gutter sizes.
The requirement that a graphic novel contains a sequence of images means that there is often a
doubling of the narration, which has the effect of confirming Quinn’s numerous observations. For


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Figure 3: City of Glass, Mazzucchelli and Karasik, p. 131.


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The graphic novel as metafiction

6. This claim that the example, when he sees two Stillmans leave the train station, the images attest to their similarity and
comic book is founded
upon visual organization
this is further confirmed by the use of the photograph – a tripling of the relationship of identity (Karasik,
should not be confused Mazzucchelli and Auster 2004: 53). The text itself does not confirm this because to state that two things
with the separation of look alike is different to providing an actual comparison. Generally in graphic novels the image is
text and image that
reduces the image to marked by a plenitude of detail, which means that it often confirms identity even if this is left unstated
a largely denotative in the text. In City of Glass for example, the author-character Auster actually physically resembles the
function. In this article real-world author in the text (Auster 1985: 88–92). The graphic narration cannot construct a possible
visuality includes the
abstract organization visual resemblance between objects – unless of course it has recourse to words – unless there is an
of the whole that actual resemblance. The result is that the graphic novel is forced to close down the ontological instabil-
surrounds and
coordinates specific
ity in the novel by confirming the visual resemblance between characters.
images and panels. The visual primacy of the graphic novel is such that any text is always framed either by the page,
In doing so, it accepts a speech balloon or, in the case of a caption, a separate border attached to the panel.6 One cannot
Charles Hatfield’s
argument that the attend to the voice as the utmost limit of discourse but it is always placed in relation to the sequence
comic book, from the of images and the page. Jan Baetens argues that this separation and contestation of text and image is
interplay of panels to a defining feature of bande dessinée narration, which is always a ‘média mixte’ (Baetens 2004: para
the organization of
text and image, has 18). Baetens states that recognizing this basic difference between verbal and visual narration in bande
a complexity that dessinée, and particularly in autobiography, serves to direct the critical faculties of the reader away
undermines the many
pedagogical evaluations
from the story (récit) to the formal properties of the medium (Baetens 2004: para 20). This is an inter-
of the medium that esting argument for it seems to suggest that the bande dessinée or comic book automatically involves
assume the ‘reading’ a critical awareness of the medium’s structure, and one could then say that it is better suited to the
of images is facile and
should be reserved examination of metafictional themes. However, the opposite is probably true for many of the most
for the semi-literate successful metafictional turns in novels, those that clearly unsettle the reader, occur because the
(Hatfield 2005: 34–37). reader is suddenly drawn to the fictional apparatus, and this means that for the most part the atten-
tion is commanded by the story (récit). The reader of a comic book is less likely to be surprised by a
metafictional device because the récit shares equal space on the page with the organizational ele-
ments, such as the gutter and various apparatuses for spatially arranging the text, the speech bal-
loons and captions. Of course, the written page also employs conventional forms such as letters,
words, and the separation of sentences and paragraphs, but written language is so familiar that we
tend to ignore the symbols in reading it and this is what underpins the illusion of transparency.
For the greater part of City of Glass, a narrator (who is not given a name and as such is not dif-
ferentiated from the authorial voice) tells the story in the third person. However, at the beginning of
Chapter 12, the neutral voice of the implied author gives way to an internal narrator, that is, to a nar-
rator who participates in the story:

A LONG TIME PASSED. Exactly how long it is impossible to say. Weeks certainly, but per-
haps even months. The account of this period is less full than the author would have liked. But


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Paul Atkinson

information is scarce, and he has preferred to pass over in silence what could not be definitely
confirmed. Since this story is based entirely on facts, the author feels it is his duty not to over-
step the bounds of the verifiable, to resist at all costs the perils of invention.
(Auster 1985: 113)

The reader is suddenly asked to accept that the story up until this point was actually narrated by a per-
son who occupied the same story world as Quinn and who could have met Quinn, if the circumstances
were favourable. This is not strictly logical because many of the events occurred before Quinn was
recording his activities in the red notebook. The issue is further complicated by the anonymous author’s
claim that he has spoken to Paul Auster about Daniel Quinn, which means that the expected author,
Auster, is barred from occupying the position of the anonymous author.
In the graphic novel, the narrator’s voice, except for those sections containing reported speech, is
generally found in captions that are similar in many respects to the cinematic voice-over. The captions
are essentially added to the panel borders and mediate the reader’s relationship to the image but as an
addition they remain separate to the image. So even when there is a fundamental change in voice, as is
indicated by the paragraph above cited from Chapter 12, the images could continue to tell the story
such that the change in authorial voice would not present a significant shift in the narrative. In the
novel the narrative structure is undermined by simply stating that ‘[t]he account of this period is less
full than the author would have liked’. In the graphic novel a change of visual style is required to give
effect to the textual claim. Consequently Karasik and Mazzucchelli thoroughly change the style of the
final pages with watercolour-shaded images and soft-edged panels without drawn borders that are in
marked contrast with the heavy inking of the main story, whose style suits the detective, film noir,
story. Furthermore, the first image is of a typewriter (figure 4) – an image that metonymically invokes
the writer – containing a single sheet of paper on which is written in courier font: ‘At this point the
information has run out’ (Karasik, Mazzucchelli and Auster 2004: 136). The subsequent panels also
contain non-bordered captions in courier font, continuing the association of the written text with an
internal narrator, who also happens to work as an author. Of course, the image of the author is not
given. What is interesting about this section is that the metafictional shift in narration must be indicated
by a change in all aspects of the page, and not the simple addition of the direct references to Auster and
the mysterious author. This seems to confirm Philippe Marion’s argument, in Traces en cases, that we
should consider the style of the comic book (bande dessinée) as a whole, its ‘singulière impulsion graph-
ique’, when examining authorship in comic books (Marion 1993: 9). The voice in comic books is not
directly comparable to speech or writing but should be considered rather as a graphical ‘grain’ or
tenor which cannot be reduced to what is shown or said (Marion 1993: 33). The text itself should be
treated in terms of its visual style and Marion notes that most comic books use drawn lettering in order
to create a visual balance between text and image (Marion 1993: 86). In other words, it is not the style


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The graphic novel as metafiction

Figure 4: City of Glass, Mazzucchelli and Karasik, p. 136.


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Paul Atkinson

of the writing so much as the visual style that defines authorship in comic books: for this reason, he 7. Coincidently Marion
argues that typewriter
argues that we should call the implied authorial voice of a comic book a graphiateur (graphic author) fonts carry with them
(Marion 1993: 36). In the final pages of the adaptation of City of Glass, there is a new overall visual style the authority and
that corresponds to the shift in perceived authorship and this is evident at all levels of enunciation.7 ‘objectivité’ that is often
associated with the
The adaptation into graphic novel form of Auster’s City of Glass is instructive about the different instrument (Marion
kinds of devices available to the novel and the graphic novel for drawing attention to its fictional status 1993: 44). In the final
and the limits of its fictional world and, in particular, the role played by the structure of the page and by section of the graphic
novel, the courier font
the authorial or narrative voice. In the novel, the page offers a compositional whole that allows the invokes this authority
future to remain unforeseen until the words are read. The narrative voice of the novel is coincident with and, in doing so, puts
into question all that
the present time of reading, with the future unforeseeable and the past constructed retroactively, which had occurred before.
also allows for sudden changes in the narrative. In contrast, the multi-frame structure of the graphic
novel spatially contains all the narrative elements – a character or a sentence is always placed within a
large visual whole – and allows the reader to look forward such that there is a sense in which the past,
present and future coexist. To understand metafictional and authorial shifts in the graphic novel, it is
important to recognize the different qualities of the authorial voice, if indeed this term can be used, and
look how this is linked to an overall graphic form. Further studies of visuality and metafiction would
prove useful in understanding the fictional limits of the graphic novel because fiction is grounded in the
reader’s expectation, and metafiction provides a means of rupturing that expectation.

Abel, J. (2002), ‘Untitled’, in J. Mason (ed.), 9–11: Emergency Relief, Gainesville, Fl.: Alternative
Comics, pp. 13–14.
Auster, P. (1985), The New York Trilogy, London: Faber and Faber.
Baetens, J. (2004), ‘Autobiographies et Bandes Dessinées’, Belphégor: Littérature populaire et culture
médiatique, 4:1.
Barthes, R. ([1967] 1977), ‘The Death of the Author’, in R. Williams (ed.), Image, Music, Text, William
Collins, Glasgow, pp. 142–48.
Booth, W. C. (1961), The Rhetoric of Fiction, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Currie, M. (1995), ‘Introduction’, in M. Currie (ed.), Metafiction, Harlow: Longman, pp. 1–18.
Calvino, I. (1981), If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, London: Minerva.
Cronenberg, D. (1999), eXistenZ, Ontario: Alliance Atlantis Communications.
Groensteen, T. (2007), The System of Comics (trans. Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen), Jackson: University
Press of Mississippi.


STIC_1.1_art_Atkins_107-126.indd 124 3/27/10 9:08:33 AM

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Hatfield, C. (2005), Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature, Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.
Karasik, P., Mazzucchelli, D. and Auster, P. (2004), City of Glass, New York: Picador/Henry Holt.
Lejeune, P. (1988), On Autobiography, ‘Theory and History of Literature’ volume 52, Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press.
Marion, P. (1993), Traces en cases: Travail graphique, figuration narrative et participation du lecteur:
Essai sur la bande dessinée, Academia: Université Catholique de Louvain.
McHale, B. (1987), Postmodernist Fiction, London: Routledge.
Milligan, P., Fegredo, D., van Valkenburgh, S. and Costanza, J. (1995), Enigma, New York: DC
Peeters, B. (1991), Case, planche, récit: Comment lire une bande dessinée, Paris: Casterman.
Straczynski, J. M. and Romita Jnr, J. (2001), ‘Stand Tall’, Amazing Spider-Man #36, New York: Marvel
Waugh, P. (1995), ‘What is metafiction and why are they saying such awful things about it?’, in
M. Currie (ed.), Metafiction, Harlow: Longman, pp. 39–54.
Zilcosky, J. (1998), ‘The revenge of the Author: Paul Auster’s Challenge to Theory’, Critique: Studies
in Contemporary Fiction, 39:3, pp. 195–206.

Suggested citation
Atkinson, P. (2010), ‘The graphic novel as metafiction’, Studies in Comics 1: 1, pp. 107–125, doi: 10.1386/

Contributor details
Paul Atkinson lectures for the Communications and Writing programme at Monash University. His
research is broadly informed by the work of the fin-de-siècle French philosopher Henri Bergson and
his writings on movement and time. Published articles explore a range of topics including Bergson’s
vitalism, comic books after 9/11, movement and recognition, time in superhero comics, affect theory
and temporal aesthetics. He is currently working on a series of articles that explore the relationship
between processual theories of time, aesthetics and narrative.

Contact: Paul Atkinson, School of Humanities, Communications & Social Sciences, Monash
University, Gippsland Campus, Churchill, VIC 3842, Australia.
E-mail: paul.atkinson@arts.monash.edu.au


STIC_1.1_art_Atkins_107-126.indd 125 3/26/10 1:44:41 PM



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STIC 1 (1) pp. 127–147 Intellect Limited 2010

Studies in Comics
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/stic.1.1.127/1

Tufts University

The limits of time and transitions:

challenges to theories of sequential
image comprehension

Keywords Abstract
visual language The juxtaposition of two images often produces the illusory sense of time passing, as found in the visual lan-
panels guage used in modern comic books, which creates the sense that this linear sequence presents a succession of
time moments or temporal units. Author and theorist Scott McCloud took this view to an extreme, proposing that
temporal map sequential images are guided by a notion that ‘time = space’ (McCloud 2000), because this temporal passage
occurs on a spatial surface. To McCloud, this ‘temporal mapping’ results in a movement of time with a move-
ment of space. This sense of temporality, then, is the ‘essence’ of comics, which is manifested in McCloud’s
taxonomy of transitions of panel-to-panel relationships (McCloud 1993). While less specific, this same type of
‘essence’ of connection can be reflected in Groensteen’s types of ‘arthrology’ across a linear sequence or disparate
panels in a broader text (Groensteen 1999).


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Neil Cohn

However, numerous problems arise with McCloud and Groensteen’s approaches to graphic narrative.
This article will explore how the linearity of reading panels and the iconicity of images create various false
assumptions about the conveyance of meaning across sequential images’ depictions of space and time. With
numerous examples, it will argue that any linear panel-to-panel analysis (such as McCloud’s (1993) panel
transitions) or loosely defined principles of connection (such as Groensteen’s (1999) ‘arthrology’) between
sequential images are inadequate to account for their understanding. The conclusion is that sequential image
comprehension must be thought of as the union of conceptual information that is grouped via unconscious
hierarchic structures in the mind. As such, the study of the comprehension of the visual language used in com-
ics must be placed in the cognitive sciences.

Any discussion of structure and meaning in the visual language used in comics must contend with
the central issue of the comprehension of sequential images. Popular research on this issue has taken
a viewpoint similar to the phenomenological experience of reading – since each panel is read (or
drawn) in succession, they must be understood in succession. This perspective has been formalized
in theories of ‘transitions’ between panels (e.g., McCloud 1993), while a strong version proposes that
each of these images represents some successive temporality, and spatial mapping to a progression
in time (e.g., McCloud 1995; 2000). Finally, a third variation on this theme takes the position that
individual panels do not just connect with their linear neighbours, but are multiple to other panels
throughout a physical document (i.e., a strip, page, book, etc.) (e.g., Groensteen 1999). This article
will argue that all of these orientations are ultimately unable to describe how meaning is created in
sequential images, and that any theory aiming at such a goal needs to take into account complex
groupings of panels motivated by principles in the human mind.

In exploring meaning in sequential images, we first ask ‘where does meaning come from?’ Since
comic author/theorist Scott McCloud (1993) and scholar Thierry Groensteen (1999) have become the
most popular voices on this topic, and both compare the structure of comics to language, it is perhaps
worth comparing their views to the linguistic treatment of meaning. Groensteen largely treats the
meaning of sequential images as a product of culture – a ‘system’ out in the world that readers
access, lining up with his semiological roots in European comics scholarship (e.g., Gubern 1972,
Hünig 1974, Koch 1971, Krafft 1978). However, these ‘structuralist’ views pointing to the origin of
meaning as a product of culture have been largely dismissed by mainstream linguistics for the past
fifty years (Harris 1993).


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The limits of time and transitions

1. Languages ‘out in the Rather, since the ‘cognitive revolution’ in psychology and linguistics in the middle of the twenti-
world’ in this cognitive
view merely become an
eth century, meaning has been recognized as stemming wholly from the mind (Jackendoff 1983;
idealized average across 1987). Following this view, any discussion of the structure of sequential images’ meaning is really a
mutually intelligible discussion about the mechanisms in the mind/brain that guide comprehension of such outwardly
patterns in individuals’
heads. In other words, manifested phenomena.1 McCloud quite admirably taps into this insight, with much of his theories
a language out in the directly invoking a ‘reader’s involvement’ in comprehension. This terminology leaves some (possibly
world (i.e., ‘English’ or appealing) ambiguity to the issue though: it is unclear when he talks about ‘reader participation’ or
‘Swahili’) refers to an
‘idealized average’ of ‘involvement’ whether he means to say that these mental processes are conscious or unconscious.
the patterns that are This article will argue that the processes guiding sequential image comprehension remain inaccessible
shared in the minds/
brains of a particular
to conscious awareness. To this point, the sense in which ‘meaning’ is explored has no concern with any
population of people conscious sense of ‘artistic interpretation’. Instead it is about the basic comprehension of sequential
(Chomsky 1986). Such a images – comparable to the creation of meaning by words in sentences. While we are consciously aware of
view is easily transfer-
able to sequential (sometimes various) meanings of sentences, the unconscious processes that motivate these understandings
images, as found in remain inaccessible. The comprehension of sequential images is taken to work in the same way.
comics (Cohn 2003; Furthermore, this ability appears not to be transparent and universally accessible, and requires a
degree of expertise. Studies have shown that while all Japanese 6 year olds (who have high exposure to
manga) can draw sequential narratives, less than half of 12 year olds in other countries (who have low
exposure to comics) could create a coherent pairing of juxtaposed panels (Wilson 1999, Wilson and Wilson
1987). Other studies have indicated that comprehension ability for sequential images correlates with age
and expertise (Nakazawa 2005, Pallenik 1986). This ‘expertise’ must be affecting something in the
mind – not just conscious awareness, and it is those mechanisms that this piece will explore.

Sequential images
The most prevalent belief about the understanding of sequential images – or ‘panels’ – holds
that comprehension progresses in a linear fashion, similar to the reading process itself. Like
approaches to syntax of spoken languages prior to the 1950s, this linear approach has been cod-
ified in taxonomies of ‘transitions’, which specify the nature of the shift from one panel to
another. While other breakdowns have been offered (Christiansen 2000), McCloud’s analysis
( McCloud 1993: 70–72) gained popularity and influence beyond most others, including expan-
sions building from McCloud’s own work (such as Cohn 2003, Dean 2000, Saraceni 2000; 2003,
Stainbrook 2003). McCloud identified six transitions to characterize the relations of one panel to

1. Moment-to-moment – between small increments of time

2. Action-to-action – between full ranges of actions


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Neil Cohn

3. Subject-to-subject – between characters or objects in a scene

4. Aspect-to-aspect – between aspects of a scene or an environment
5. Scene-to-scene – between different scenes
6. Non-sequitur – have no apparent meaningful relation

To enable these transitions, McCloud invokes the process of ‘closure’, where the mind ‘fills in the
gap’ between images. McCloud states

Comics panels fracture both time and space, offering a jagged staccato rhythm of unconnected
moments. But closure allows us to connect these moments and mentally construct a continuous
unified reality.
(McCloud 1993: 67)

With closure, McCloud seeks out a cognitive mechanism to explain his theory of transitions. He
astutely senses the insufficiency of simply saying that a transition is there – it must be facilitated by
something in a reader’s mind. For McCloud, this heralds an interaction between the meaning ‘on the
page’ and the invisible meaning created in the mind between panels.
McCloud later refined his approach to what he called the ‘essence of comics’ – the ‘temporal
map’. He argues that by physically moving from one panel moment to another, space equals time
(McCloud 1995; 2000). With this underlying equation, factors such as panel sizes and the distance
between panels provide modifications on the understanding of time in visual form: the longer the
panel or gap between panels, the longer the progression of time (McCloud 1993). Temporal map-
ping is a more radical version of transitions, since instead of panels just making meaningful con-
nections of various types, there is a presumed temporality overarching across all meaning. It also
washes over previous distinctions in transitions that differentiated between temporally progres-
sive and temporally ambiguous panel relationships (as subcategorized in Cohn 2003). For exam-
ple, subject-to-subject and aspect-to-aspect transitions do not inherently make a temporal
distinction – they are largely about shifts in space within an environment – which McCloud him-
self attributes to their narrative advantage. However, with temporal mapping in place, all transi-
tions show shifts in time, no matter what additional distinctions in content are highlighted.
Panel transitions and temporal mapping as theoretical concepts can make a lot of sense.
Experientially, when reading a comic page, we engage the sequence one panel at a time. And,
after all, we feel as though we live our lives through a series of moments, one after another. Why
would juxtaposed images not mirror this experience of time?


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The limits of time and transitions

Temporality and sequential images

An initial problem with the temporal mapping thesis is that the properties of space and time being
compared exist on two entirely separate planes of analysis. While the space McCloud refers to is
based on physical distance, the sense of time he refers to is entirely a mental construct garnered from
the contents of the panels. This mapping of physical reading to time is confirmable because of his
instruction for the reader to run their finger along the page to get a sense of space (McCloud 2000:
206), and further revealed as he observes,

Wherever your eyes are focused, that’s now. But at the same time your eyes take in the surround-
ing landscape of past and future! Like a storm front, the eye moves over the comics page, pushing
the warm, high-pressure future ahead of it, leaving the cool low-pressure past in its wake.
(McCloud 1993: 104)

As he describes the act of reading (eyes moving along a page), he equates it to the comprehension
that there is no future or past tense within the images, only the sense of those states in surrounding
panels. However, this meaning is fictive time, not ‘real’ experiential time. The time it takes to read
something and the mental abstraction of time within the fictitious narrative are not comparable, and
exist on totally different levels of analysis and experience. This is why fictive time is unaffected by
different arrangements of the same panels in varying layouts, though layout might affect the physical
rhythmic pace in which those panels are read (though this has not been tested empirically either).
Though ill formed, the idea of temporal mapping is merely symptomatic of a much more perni-
cious issue: the belief that panels equal moments. McCloud himself acknowledges the duplicity of
believing that a single panel equals a single moment in time, citing the problems created when inte-
grating text into an image through the use of speech balloons (McCloud 1993: 96–97). Because text
relates to speech – which must be experienced temporally – McCloud notes that balloons spoken by
two separate people in the same panel must represent different instances in fictive time, insinuating
its progression. Thus, a panel can contain the duration of time beyond just a single moment.
A similar phenomenon occurs when an entire event is represented in a single panel. These ‘poly-
morphic’ panels (Cohn 2007) – also known as ‘stroboscopic’ (Cutting 2002) – show a single entity
repeated in multiple positions of an action while remaining in a single encapsulated frame (as in the
final panel of figure 3). Again, matching McCloud’s observation, these panels seemingly represent
the duration of time, rather than a single instance where the entity would seem to be in multiple
positions at the same moment.
However, there are distinct differences between McCloud’s duration panels and polymorphic
panels. McCloud’s examples rely on the introduction of written language, which through association


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to sound must take up time, while the sense of interval in polymorphic panels comes directly from
the content of the images. This difference is significant, particularly because of the entailment that
McCloud makes from his example. The reading of balloons generally mimics the reading pattern of
the whole composition, roughly reflecting the path of writing systems. In the case of English, a bal-
loon that is further left in a panel is read first – thereby insinuating that it comes before those balloons
following it to the right in fictive time (generally speaking, reading order mimics text to follow a pref-
erence hierarchy: higher > left > right > lower). In a polymorphic panel, this compositional restriction
does not affect the representations of entities at different states.
Why is this difference important? McCloud’s examples retain a sense of fictive temporal movement
that matches the physical order of reading, thereby allowing him to uphold his equivalence of time and
space. Under this interpretation, spatial shift still acceptably indicates temporal shift. Indeed, McCloud’s
temporal mapping hypothesis can be clarified further, making the equation not ‘physical space = fictive
time’, but rather ‘physical space = physical reading motion = fictive time’. McCloud must then reconcile
these elements, stating, ‘As readers, we’re left with only a vague sense that as our eyes are moving through
space, they’re also moving through time – we just don’t know by how much!’ (McCloud 1993: 100).
Polymorphic panels contrast the temporal mapping equation because they allow for duration that
is not attached to any sense of spatial progression. They purely show the passage of fictive time –
regardless of their internal composition or how one might need to engage them physically in the act
of reading. Figure 1 shows the final three panels of a strip by Kazu Kibiushi (2005), where the final
polymorphic panel disallows strict temporal mapping, since it does not rely on left-to-right reading
to understand the path of motion of the dog chasing his tail.

Figure 1: Polymorphic panel in Copper by Kazu Kibiushi (2005).


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The limits of time and transitions

In fact, because of the dog’s circular motion, the determination of a starting and ending point of
motion becomes ambiguous, imbuing it with a recursive quality. Technically, this depiction has no start
and has no end, and its duration of ‘time’ never stops, regardless of how the eye interacts with it as a
panel on a page. Truly, this image does not depict a dog engaged in a temporally bound event that a
reader’s mind decides upon a start and ending for at all. Rather, it conveys the durative concept of a dog
running in circles – no matter what temporal boundaries might be involved for that to take place.
A similar phenomenon occurs with the ‘smoke-veiled fight’, which conveys the concept of a fight
without actually showing it, as in figure 2.

Figure 2: Smoke veiled fight.

The smoke-veiled fight is interesting in terms of temporality because we know that the event of
fighting depicted has to be some duration of time. The representation does not allow it to be inter-
preted as a single instance of a punch or kick – it has to mean a series of combative actions.
Nevertheless, the physical drawing never shows multiple actions or even any actions at all. Because
of this, finding the start or end points of this duration is impossible, since the actions are not depicted.
This meaning is entirely conceptual.
Finally, temporal mapping faces the problem that it implies that all spatial relations must then
have temporal consequences. If this were true, how would it be quantified? If larger gaps between
panels mean larger spaces of time, should all panels with large gaps in time be expected to have large
physical gaps between them? Does more ‘time’ occur when needing to move diagonally between


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Neil Cohn

panels in separate layout rows than those within a row? Is there thus even more time between panels
when a page needs to be turned?
McCloud himself would acknowledge that such a rigid equation of physical time and fictive time
is ridiculous. However, where is the line drawn? At what point does temporal mapping become
active or not? How valid can temporal mapping be as a theory of comprehension if the boundaries
of its application cannot be quantified? Does it only apply to explicitly temporal transitions like
action-to-action or moment-to-moment panels, and if so, what need is there for an additional
notion of temporal mapping? Such concerns necessarily turn us away from carrying a presumption
that the passage of time is an overarching constraint on all sequential image meaning.

From time to concepts

All of these issues are related to a deeper problem: the notion that fictive time passes in or between
images. Most likely, the pervasive belief in ‘time’ stems from a lack of acknowledgement that graphic
images represent conceptual information. By and large, the images in the visual language of comics
follow an iconic form of semiotic reference, because they resemble their meaning (Peirce 1931).
Because we experience ‘reality’ on the same terms that we engage iconic images, we forget that they
are indeed representations that come from – and must be processed by – a human mind: an observa-
tion harder to ignore with symbolic phenomena like spoken words.
Panels as units do not stand for moments or durations in fictive time, but direct attention to
depictions of ‘event states’ (Cohn 2007) from which a sense of ‘time’ is derived. Images are just signi-
fications made meaningful through cognitively based concepts, while ‘time’ is a mental extraction
from the causation/change between them. Indeed, nothing about two images next to each other
demands that each represents a moment in ‘time’. The entire sense of ‘time’ is pulled from the con-
tent of what the panels have in them. In other words, because two panels might depict states of an
event – and because our knowledge of events is that they occur in the context of our perceived linear
notion of time – we assume that ‘time passes’ between the two panels. However, there is no ‘time’
there, nor can any be assumed to be ‘filled into the gaps’ in any real semantic sense, unless informa-
tion in the representation is presented to us. The binding assumption that each panel represents a
moment or duration in time is merely an illusion, cast by the (unconscious) understanding of events
and their parts.
Neither of the ‘durations of time’ discussed above need be analysed in temporal terms. The
enclosure of speech balloons into panels does not mean that the time of ‘real-life’ speech content
passes within the bounds of the image, but only that the conceptual content of the text is unified with
that of the images. Meanwhile, polymorphic panels merely show the event states of a full action
enclosed into a single bounded attention unit. As demonstrated with the polymorphic and


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smoke-veiled fight examples, this does not have to be a sense of ‘time’ that ends or starts in a certain
place, but can simply depict the conception of a durative action.
While it might seem like splitting hairs, the distinction between representation of time and event
states remains important because it distinguishes which leads the dance in cognitive understanding
of panels in sequence. While the theory of panel transitions does not stand in opposition to such
conceptualism, the acknowledgment of this difference can lead to multiple advances beyond the
linear analyses. First off, it shifts the focus from the unseen to the seen. Because McCloud’s approach
equates space and time, it assumes that only slices of an action are shown, the rest of which falls
mysteriously between the panels. This ‘gutter’ between the panels thereby becomes the primary
processing point for mental unification. McCloud states that

The gutter plays host to much of the magic and mystery that are at the very heart of comics
… in the limbo of the gutter, human imagination takes two separate images and transforms
them into a single idea.
(McCloud 1993: 66)

The ‘mental’ properties provided by linear transitions are, in part, just rhetorical hand waving. If clo-
sure occurs ‘in the gaps between panels’ then how does it work if a reader cannot make such a con-
nection until the second panel is reached? That is, the gap cannot be filled unless it has already been
passed over, making closure an additive inference that occurs at panels, not between them. Nowhere
is this duplicity more apparent than in figure 3 and the text that accompanies it, which serves as
McCloud’s primary example for the process of closure between panels.

Figure 3: McCloud’s primary example for closure.


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I may have drawn an axe being raised … but I’m not the one who let it drop or decided how
hard the blow, or who screamed, or why. That, dear reader, was your special crime, each of
you committing it in your own style. All of you participated in the murder.
(McCloud 1993: 68)

Here, McCloud pulls a deft trick, since the ambiguous ‘reader-created outcome’ of the event
cannot be attributed to the gutter, but to the indexical quality of the second panel’s scream. It
only implies that an event occurs through the indexical knowledge that speech functionally con-
nects to a speaker, without demonstrating the assumed action (axe chopping), thereby making
the outcome ambiguous. Thus, McCloud actually does control the depiction of the crime by not
showing it. Really though, the gutter does not provide any meaning – the content of the panels
and their union does. In this case, the conceptual basis of the images becomes even more salient,
since the second panel does not even show the action it references, thereby heightening its
inferential processes.
By accepting the conceptual basis of representations, the important focus for processing
becomes the content of the panels. Indeed, individual panels must also derive their meanings
from the mind of the reader, and, in some cases, that meaning relies on other panels in the
sequence. Like in the metonymic example above, this allows for relational aspects of panels to be
explored without the presumption of time restrictions, which begets discoveries that further
invalidate any linear approach to understanding.

Beyond juxtaposition
Without the assumption that a linear flow of time dictates understanding, the very idea of lin-
earity itself can be questioned. Take for example the sequence in figure 4. The final two panels
are assumed to take place within the house depicted in the first panel. No indicators within
those panels give us this information – it comes purely from the juxtaposition of the house as a
locative in the preceding panel. There is no reason that this first panel should be considered as
a ‘moment’ in time at all, since it functions entirely as a semantic locative. Moreover, that loca-
tive must hold scope over all of the panels it affects, not simply the panel immediately following
it. That is, the second two panels must be grouped in a way to allow the first panel to apply to
both of them.
Tapping into this idea of multiple connections, Barber (2002) proposed an intersection of transi-
tions with page layouts. For him, panel transitions could extend across multiple panels and pages are
read as a whole. However, there are problems with tying layout to meaning. First, so long as they are


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The limits of time and transitions

Figure 4: Locative panel with no temporal relationship.

read in the same order, panels can be rearranged in different designs without changing meaning. The
sequence of three panels in figure 4 could be read horizontally, vertically, diagonally, etc. However,
changing those physical orders would make little alteration to meaning. Indeed, this is done fre-
quently in newspaper comic strips, where editors might alter the layouts of strips to better fit their
desired page layouts. The result then is that navigation of layout (i.e., deciding which panel to read
next, usually glossed as ‘left-to-right and down’) is a separate system to the comprehension of
sequential images. These components are no doubt interfaced, since layout may have various ways of
influencing meaning (and possibly vice-versa), but they are not the same system.
Groensteen (1999) also accepts that panels interact not only with linear relations but also with rela-
tions to all other panels on a page. His principle of ‘arthrology’ extends this to include the connections
between physical compositions of panels in a page or across pages. Arthrology is a broad concept,
which on the one hand refers to aspects of physical composition – like ‘visual rhyming’ or a thematic
leitmotif, as well as to his principle of ‘braiding’, which refers to ‘threads’ of meaning. Groensteen has
stated that not only should one panel connect to another in a linear way, but that ‘every panel exists,
potentially if not actually, in relation with each of the others’ (Groensteen 2007: 146).
However, if braiding serves as a model of comprehension, such unrestrained transitions (semantic
relations between individual panels) between every possible panel in a document would overload the
working memory of the human mind. To push this to an extreme: for an average book that has six
panels per page for 24 pages, the 144 panels would potentially warrant connections between any two


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Neil Cohn

panels, calculable as 144!/(2!•142!). This would yield 10,296 possible transitions for every combina-
tion possible, and the mind would have to retain each of these in memory additively with each suc-
cessive panel read. Though not all relations may need to establish a connection, all transitions would
be necessary to at least confirm or deny the need for an explicit transition. As Cohn (2003) argued,
while exploring a more restrained view of multiply-engaged transitions, without any explicit underly-
ing structure to guide such connections, this would be overwhelming for human memory to handle.
Indeed, an assumption implicit in all theories of transitions is that there is no end point for the
progressive reading process. Most works have no notation for ends of a sequence the way that peri-
ods (full points) do for sentences in written language, and they (and transitions) simply end when
the strip, chapter, or book itself concludes. Because of this, no limits on transitions seem to be expe-
rienced. However, experimentation has shown that readers are sensitive to chunks of scenes in
sequential narratives. Gernsbacher (1985) presented readers with a series of sequential images, and
found consistent agreement for where they chose to draw lines marking the boundaries of various
sub-episodes. This means that people’s minds are creating segments of sequential images that are
not physically manifested as parts of a book, page, or layout, suggesting that comprehension does
not rely on non-stop continuous linear transitions.

Structure in sequential images

If segments can be found for whole sub-episodes of sequential images, perhaps segmentation appears
on a small scale as well. Take for example the sequence in figure 5.

Figure 5: Zoom as a modifier.


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The limits of time and transitions

Here, the second panel merely represents a modified view of the event state in the first panel by
zooming in on the flower held by the child. Nothing about this second panel indicates that any sense
of fictive time has passed, because no change has occurred to the event previously shown. If both of
these initial panels represent the same state, then the progression to the third panel must take into
account the unification of their contents. Indeed, by the third panel we do not forget the content of
the first panel. We can confirm the single-state nature of these initial panels by observing an alter-
nate arrangement with comparable meaning, as in figure 6.

Figure 6: Inset panel serving to focus attention, like a zoom.

With the inset panel demarcating the same information as the second panel from figure 5, the
spatial qualities of the panels’ relations become highlighted, with no apparent time shift. Figures 5
and 6 are equal in the information they depict – only the panels serve to focus the reader’s attention
in different ways.

Figure 7: Temporally ambiguous initial panels.


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Neil Cohn

Figure 7 shows another type of non-temporal relationship. Given its content, the second panel of
this string is ambiguous as to whether it is at the same or a different state to the first panel. We know
that the first and second panels represent different event states from the last panel, but the only appar-
ent relationship between the first two panels is one of environment. We have no reason to assume that
the first two panels of different people belong to a similar location. Yet, without the knowledge that
those two panels belong to a singular environment, the representation of the two entities in the final
panel would come as a shocking surprise. Thus, we must take into account that the union of the first
two panels together must be involved in the progression to the final panel. Again, this can be con-
firmed by showing the exact same information through a singular panel, as in figure 8.

Figure 8: A single panel outset for what is accomplished in two panels in figure 7.

Because the two panels from above can equate to this singular panel, they are equivalent in their
‘chunking’ of information. The ‘pacing’ or ‘narrative’ might be different in two panels versus one, but
they convey the same conceptual information. This means that the two-panel version must combine
the initial disparate characters into a singular unit that then connects to the final panel – no matter
whether they belong to the same or different states. Despite the linear reading order, this type of
understanding is not linear, but hierarchic, and shows clearly why those panels cannot be equated to
moments. Moreover, this need for grouping panels to connect to later parts shows that panel
progressions do not always mimic the iconic movement of experienced events, because some sort of
mental activity beyond knowledge of event states must connect non-temporal relationships.


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The limits of time and transitions

Even more dramatically, the grouping of spatial information can work against temporal informa-
tion in complex and interesting ways that undermine any viewpoint that linear relations alone guide
the comprehension of sequential images. Take, for example, the sequence in figure 9 (Cohn 2003).

Figure 9: A structurally ambiguous sequence.

This sequence features a man lying in bed as a clock ticks away until he gets up and makes a
phone call. Because the second and fourth panels both feature clocks, they must be connected some-
2. The middle panel is fully
ambiguous and could be how, as should the first and last panels that both feature a man in different stages of an action. With
grouped into any a transitional approach that attends to such distance connections, we would be forced to say that
number of ways with transitions occur between nearly every panel in this sequence, both juxtaposed and at a distance.
the other panels. Other
groupings of panels are In fact, this sequence is ambiguous in its meaning since panels can be grouped into chunks of
also possible, such as a spatial environments as well as temporal sequences. Under one interpretation, each panel represents
right-branching tree
structure of successive
a separate moment in ‘time’, and the temporal connection of the clocks is embedded within the tem-
moments, though not a poral shift between the outer panels of the man. However, a second interpretation can be created
left-branching pattern. with groupings of spatial information into common environments. The first and second panels could
happen in the same place at the same time – sharing a common environment – as could the final two
panels. These groupings then connect in a singular shift in time.2 These different groupings can be
seen below in figure 10 using tree-structure diagrams.

Figure 10: Varying groupings for structures of an ambiguous sequence.


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Neil Cohn

Both McCloud’s transitions and Groensteen’s arthrology would be unable to capture the ambiguity
in the sequence above. Panel transitions would merely be able to express the ‘surface structure’ that
these panels follow (a series of subject-to-subject and aspect-to-aspect transitions), without being able
to capture the differences in groupings between those panels. Arthrology would simply be able to make
a statement of connection between the panels of the clocks – since they are graphically similar – but
like transitions, braiding and arthrology would fail to recognize the structural ambiguity of this sequence
and be unable to describe its various interpretations in any systematic way. Groensteen’s approach, like
McCloud’s, is thus rendered insufficient for explaining the comprehension of sequential images.
These examples further demonstrate that immediately juxtaposed panels do not always represent
the progression of moments of time. In all cases, panels seem to functionally divide up a conceptual
space – that is additively built throughout the sequence – into units of attention (Cohn 2007). Those
windowed units could narratively be whole actions, individual event states, or aspects of a spatial
environment. Important to this, the meaning garnered for that ‘chunking’ emerges from the concep-
tual content of the representation itself – not from some overarching default principle like ‘space =
time’, ‘panels = moments’, ‘closure’, or ‘arthrology’.
A sequence like the ambiguous one above runs not just against the time = space views, but to any
views that do not take into account deeper hierarchic connections between panels of a sequence. Much
of the problem with Groensteen’s theories is that they have no substantial processes to describe other
than a vague sense of ‘connectedness’ – they make no predictions and provide no methods for mean-
ingful analysis. Though they may allow for both local and distant relationships of graphic similarity, like
panel transitions they have no notion of a hierarchic grouping of panels into chunks of a sequence.
In order for hierarchic connections to be made, they must feature an explicit set of rules and con-
straints for how those groupings occur. In the ambiguous sequence above in figure 9, a grouping
cannot occur between panels 1 and 4 while 2 connects with 5. Such an interpretation is impossible,
and there must be specific constraints – what in linguistics would be called a ‘grammar’ – that dif-
ferentiate the acceptable groupings from the unacceptable ones. As described in Cohn (2003), the
preferences for such groupings run along a scale of:

Different times >

Same time and different space/character (whole environment) >
Same time and space/character

This states that panels representing the same time and character should be grouped first, followed by
panels at the same time but different characters, then finally with panels in other times. The highest
nodes of a tree structure should belong to different times, the lowest to the same times. This can be
made clearer by expanding the previous punching example to include a zoom as well, as in figure 11.


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The limits of time and transitions

Figure 11: Allowable and disallowable groupings of time and space in sequential images.

Following the preference rules, the zoom of the second character’s eye must group first with the
character it modifies. From here, the grouping of this second character can unite with the first char-
acter to form a common environment, which as a whole can then unite in a shift of time. Limited by
the constraints stated, the grouping in the second option would not be allowed (the asterisk indicat-
ing the problematic grouping). The common environment cannot be built first, then forced to unite
with the zoom. The zoom does not modify the whole environment – it only shows a part of the sec-
ond character, meaning that such a grouping would be unacceptable. This shows that the mental
structures built do not have to follow the linear order to be grouped additively, since panels 2 and 3
here must come together before joining panel 1.


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Neil Cohn

Where must these preferences belong? They cannot exist simply in the sequence itself, because
the surface sequence (1) does not contain any overt markers of these groupings and (2) may be inter-
preted in a variety of ways, as in the ambiguous example above. Indeed, these preferences cannot be
a part of the medium ‘out in the world’, but instead lie within the minds of readers and producers of
sequential images.
The ramifications of such an observation are important, because they imply that the mind is
actively engaged in operations directing comprehension that are completely unseen and unconscious
to the reader (or author). Truly, panel transitions and arthrology are appealing as notions because the
reader (or author) can directly experience them. However, the processes described here are not ‘invis-
ible meaning’ in the way that McCloud talks about closure as ‘filling in the gaps’ (which essentially
casts ‘inference’ as the de facto process for all juxtaposed relations). Rather, the unseen elements
here are hierarchic principles of grouping provided by explicit constraints in the mind, not spontane-
ously emerging on the fly. These principles feature the conceptualization of time and space not in a
linear sequence, but in underlying hierarchic groupings.

Despite its iconic nature, graphic representation does not directly mimic our naïve perceptions of
temporal reality, nor are its underlying processes transparent and simple. Given that graphic repre-
sentation emerges from the minds and actions of humans, it must be understood in the context of
cognition – especially sequences of images, since creating a meaningful union of juxtaposed panels
must involve mental processing beyond simple one-to-one juxtapositions. Such processing must be
guided by explicit rules and constraints that involve hierarchic structures beyond linear and/or vague
thematic relationships between panels. Since the 1950s, these types of hierarchic groupings have
been the norm for understanding aspects of cognition for many human behaviours, from language
(Chomsky 1957; 1965) and music (Lerdahl and Jackendoff 1982) to social relationships (Jackendoff
2007), vision (Marr 1982), and drawing (Willats 2005). Given such precedents, that we should find
such constituencies in sequences of images should be unsurprising. As such, the study of sequential
image comprehension becomes less about analysing what is ‘out there’ in the sequence or our con-
scious experience of it, but more what is inside of our own minds.

Barber, J. (2002), ‘The Phenomenon of Multiple Dialectics in Comics Layout’, Masters thesis, London:
London College of Printing.
Chomsky, N. (1957), Syntactic Structures, The Hague: Mouton.


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Chomsky, N. (1965), Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Chomsky, N. (1986), Knowledge of Language: Its Nature, Origin, and Use, New York, NY: Praeger.
Christiansen, H.-C. (2000), ‘Comics and Film: A Narrative Perspective’, in A. Magnussen and
H.-C. Christiansen (eds), Comics and Culture: Analytical and Theoretical Approaches to Comics,
Copenhagen: Museum of Tusculanum Press, pp. 107–121.
Cohn, N. (2003), Early Writings on Visual Language, Carlsbad, CA: Emaki Productions.
Cohn, N. (2005), ‘Un-Defining “Comics”’, International Journal of Comic Art, 7:2.
Cohn, N. (2007), ‘A Visual Lexicon’, Public Journal of Semiotics, 1:1, pp. 53–84.
Cutting, J. E. (2002), ‘Representing motion in a static image: Constraints and parallels in art, science,
and popular culture’, Perception, 31, pp. 1165–1194.
Dean, M. (2000), ‘The Ninth Art: Traversing the Cultural Space of the American Comic Book’, dis-
sertation, Milwaukee, WI: University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Gernsbacher, M. A. (1985), ‘Surface Information Loss in Comprehension’, Cognitive Psychology, 17,
pp. 324–363.
Groensteen, T. (1999), Systeme de la bande dessinée, France: Presses Universitaires de France.
Groensteen, T. (2007), The System of Comics (trans. B. Beaty and N. Nguyen), Mississippi: University
of Mississippi Press.
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Accessed 22 April 2005.
Koch, W. A. (1971), Varia Semiotica, Hildensheim: Olms.
Krafft, U. (1978), Comics lessen, Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta.
Lerdahl, F. and Jackendoff, R. (1982), A Generative Theory of Tonal Music, Cambridge, MA: MIT


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Marr, D. (1982), Vision, San Francisco, CA: Freeman.

McCloud, S. (1993), Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, New York, NY: Harper Collins.
McCloud, S. (1995), ‘Round and Round with Scott McCloud: Interview by R.C. Harvey’, The Comics
Journal, 179, pp. 52–81.
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Comics Medium’, dissertation, Pennsylvania: Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
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Suggested citation
Cohn, N. (2010), ‘The limits of time and transitions: challenges to theories of sequential image
comprehension’, Studies in Comics 1: 1, pp. 127–147, doi: 10.1386/stic.1.1.127/1

Contributor details
Neil Cohn researches the relationship of graphic expression – particularly the visual language used in
‘comics’ – with language and cognition. He has spoken on this topic internationally, and has authored


STIC_1.1_Cohn_127-148.indd 146 3/27/10 9:12:19 AM

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numerous articles and a book, Early Writings on Visual Language (Emaki Productions, 2003). As an
illustrator, his graphic book (with author Thom Hartmann) We the People: A Call to Take Back
America (CoreWay Media, 2004), addresses the pervasive influence of corporations on American
Neil is currently a graduate student in psychology at Tufts University, where he has taught courses
on the relationship of comics to language and the mind. He received a B.A. in Asian studies from the
University of California, Berkeley, studied in Japan at Tsuru University, and holds an M.A. in social
science from the University of Chicago. His work can be found online at www.emaki.net.
Contact: Neil Cohn, Tufts University, Psychology Department, 490 Boston Avenue, Medford,
MA 02155, USA.
E-mail: neil.cohn@tufts.edu


STIC_1.1_Cohn_127-148.indd 147 3/29/10 8:35:51 AM




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STIC_1.1_Cohn_127-148.indd 148 3/26/10 1:57:15 PM

STIC 1 (1) pp. 149–158 Intellect Limited 2010

Studies in Comics
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Interview. English language. doi: 10.1386/stic.1.1.149/7


University of Glasgow

Harry Morgan: the twenty-first

century Renaissance man of
graphic novels

Like the graphic novel itself, Harry Morgan (born 1961, pen name of Christian Marc Wahl) crosses
disciplines and mixes theory with practice. He is a well-established novelist (La Reine du ciel [The
Queen of Heaven]; Paris: Rivages, 1997) and artist, but is probably best known to readers of Studies
in Comics for his analysis of the historical and theoretical context of ‘drawn literatures’: his Principes
des littératures dessinées [Principles of Drawn Litteratures] (Angoulême: Éditions de l’An 2, 2003)
explores the structure and development of the graphic novel in terms of literary antecedents, leaning
particularly on examples taken from the Victorian era.


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Laurence Grove

Le Petit Critique illustré, co-authored with Manuel Hirtz and now in its second edition (Paris:
PLG, 2005; first edition 1997), provides the definitive bibliography of secondary sources on the bande
dessinée in particular and comics in general. Regular updates are added on Morgan’s site, ‘The
Adamantine’ (www.theadamantine.free.fr), which provides a quirky and often forthright exploration
of critical approaches to the genre.
In 2009 Morgan received a doctorate from the Université de Paris VII for his monumental work
contrasting techniques in European and North American traditions, drawing specifically on the crea-
tions of Jack Kirby, Alain Saint-Ogan and Jean-Claude Forest. In spanning the boundaries of conti-
nents, time and language, Morgan’s analysis is unique amongst the scholarship of comics.
The following interview was conducted by e-mail in December 2009.

How would your own description of yourself differ from that given above?
L’ensemble de la description est beaucoup trop flatteur.

On the whole the description is far too flattering.

Do you see yourself primarily as a creator or a critic?

Mon talent n’est pas dans le dessin et mes quelques griffonnages (my meagre scratchings) ont surtout
l’intérêt de me faire toucher du doigt les contraintes de la création en bande dessinée. Dans ce sens, je suis
un critique, à condition de situer le mot dans une certaine tradition pragmatique, où le critique fréquente
l’atelier de l’artiste et a une connaissance concrète du ‘métier’.
En généralisant, j’ai peut-être une intuition de ce qu’en français on appellerait le ‘génie’ du médium,
une compréhension de sa logique et de ses possibilités. En ce sens aussi, je réfléchis sans doute comme un
critique à l’ancienne mode, ou comme un créateur.
La combinaison d’une approche théoricienne et de cette intuition des contraintes techniques et du
‘génie’ du médium m’amène naturellement vers une poétique de la bande dessinée. Je m’intéresse donc
particulièrement à la discrétisation du contenu narratif, constitutif de la séquence, à la gestion du temps
dans le dispositif, à laquelle j’ai donné le nom de chronoscope, à des questions narratologiques, en par-
ticulier celle de la perspective et celle du réflecteur. Quant au ‘génie’ propre des littératures dessinées,
il débouche sur la constitution d’un univers spécifique, du fait des contraintes propres au médium.
Décrire les lois sous-jacentes qui donnent leur physionomie aux univers dessinés est évidemment une
idée de créateur.

Drawing is not where my talent lies and my meagre scratchings are above all of interest in that they
allow me to keep contact with the constraints involved in the creation of bande dessinée. In that sense


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1. Insertions in square I am a critic insofar as I place what I write within a certain pragmatic tradition, one in which the critic
brackets are clarifica-
tions for linguistic
is often present in the artist’s studio and boasts concrete understanding of the ‘tricks of the trade’.
purposes. In all other In general terms, I perhaps have a sort of intuition regarding what in French might be called the
cases additions and ‘spirit’ [génie] of the medium,1 an understanding of its logic and of its possibilities. In that respect as
emphasis in the French
text are those of Harry well I probably think as would an old-fashioned critic, or as would a creator.
Morgan. Sidenotes are The combination of a theoretical approach to both that intuition regarding technical constraints and
my own. to the ‘spirit’ of the medium naturally draws me to construct a literary theory [poétique] for the bande
dessinée (BD). I am therefore particularly interested in the discrete nature of narrative content that makes
up sequentiality, in the handling of time in the way the BD functions, something I have labelled as
chronoscope, in questions of narratology, in particular that of perspective and of the reflector-character
[réflecteur]. As for the specific ‘spirit’ of drawn literatures, it opens the way to the setting-up of a specific
universe as a result of the constraints that are specific to the medium. To describe the underlying laws
that give their physiognomy to drawn universes is obviously a creator’s notion.

Is it possible to imagine a graphic novel without narrative?

Donner une séquence imagière qui ne soit pas un récit, qui ne ‘raconte’ rien, c’est ce qu’a fait Martin
Vaughn-James dans La Cage. Mais l’exercice me paraît un peu vain du fait que la réaction spontanée du
lecteur devant une image est qu’elle ‘raconte quelque chose’, en dépit de toutes les polémiques antimimé-
tiques entretenues par la littérature savante. De même, devant la suite imagière, le lecteur tisse naturelle-
ment des relations d’ordre séquentiel.
À cet égard, tout le courant théorique qui postule une déficience soit de l’image soit de la séquence
imagière en matière de narration me paraît peu pertinent. Il est parfaitement exact que le lecteur
reconstitue le récit, qu’il déduit les relations de causalité et de consécution à partir d’indices, mais cette
reconstitution ne pose aucun problème particulier si tant est qu’on ait appris à ‘lire’ une image ou une
bande dessinée. Il est donc inutile de nous expliquer continuellement que le récit se trouve en amont ou en
aval, mais pas dans la séquence imagière proprement dite, que, pour raconter, la BD doit tricher à la fois
avec le texte et avec l’image, etc.
Je laisse de côté la question du narrateur (narrator), c’est-à-dire de la présence autoriale dans le récit
dessiné, qui est un problème complexe. Pour me borner à des remarques très générales, le récit dessiné
d’un Töpffer, d’un Wilhelm Busch ou d’un Christophe, est clairement autorial, exactement comme le
roman de cette époque. Au contraire, les grands strips des années 1920 et 1930 sont des récits sans nar-
rateurs, relevant de la narration scénique. Je brosse ici à grands traits une évolution qui demande à être
analysée de façon plus fine. Mais la distinction me semble expliquer le statut du texte sous l’image et
l’utilisation de la bulle de façon beaucoup plus convaincante que l’analyse en termes de ‘rapports du texte
et de l’image’.


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In The Cage Martin Vaughn-James created a sequence of images that was not a narrative, in which no
story was told. But I find the exercise somewhat stilted in that the reader’s spontaneous reaction
when faced with an image is that it must ‘tell some story’, whatever the anti-mimetic polemics put
forward by learned criticism. In the same way, when faced with a sequence of images it is second
nature for the reader to sew things together in terms of sequential order.
In that respect I take issue with the theoretical school that, in terms of narration, sees some sort
of shortcoming in the image or in the image-based sequence. We cannot deny that the reader
reconstitutes the story, that he or she draws upon clues to put together the relationship that exists
with respect to causality and consequence, but this type of reconstitution does not pose any problem
if this is the way in which one has learnt to ‘read’ an image or a bande dessinée. It makes no sense
therefore to suggest continually that the narration must be situated further up or lower down but not
within the image sequence properly speaking, and that in order to tell a story the BD has to cheat
both in terms of the text and of the image, etc.
Dare I broach the subject of authorial presence in the récit dessinée? If I can limit myself to a
few very general comments, the récit dessinée by someone like Töpffer, Wilhelm Busch or Christophe
is clearly authorial, exactly as was the novel of that time. On the other hand, the dominant mode
in the great strips of the 1920s and 1930s is the récit without narrator drawing upon scenic narra-
tion. Of course I am giving a very broad picture of an evolution that deserves much closer analysis.
But I believe the distinction accounts in a much more convincing way for the status of the text
beneath the image, and the use of the speech bubble, than does analysis in terms of ‘text/image

Can you explain what you mean by the term ‘littératures dessinées’ and why do you
place such importance upon it?
Dans l’état actuel du débat scientifique, la définition de la bande dessinée (of what constitutes bande dess-
inée) pose un problème inextricable car toute définition repose sur des postulats préalables. Toute défini-
tion est donc normative, pour ne pas dire performative. Historiquement, ce débat s’est d’ailleurs signalé
par des fermetures successives. Par exemple, en France, les premiers exégètes réunis dans les années 1960
autour de la revue Giff Wiff ne reconnaissent comme bande dessinée que le newspaper strip, et considèrent
les comic books comme une dégénérescence du médium. Aux États-Unis, la parution des volumes de David
Kunzle sur la bande dessinée des siècles passés, amène une protestation de Bill Blackbeard contre
l’utilisation même du titre History of the Comic Strip (‘mislabelled books’). Pour couper court à toute
contestation, j’ai donc rajeuni l’expression ‘littératures dessinées’ (elle était déjà utilisée par la SOCERLID,
transfuge du CELEG, dans les années 1960) pour tous les récits en images adoptant le support du livre ou
de ses équivalents.


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Harry Morgan

2. Société Civile d’Études et In the current state of scholarly debate the definition of what constitutes a bande dessinée poses an
de Recherches des
Littératures Dessinées or
inextricable problem in that any definition depends on predetermined givens. Any definition is there-
Civil Society for the fore normative, or even performative. Historically this debate has been marked by successive clo-
Study of and for sures. For example, in France the first critics who came together in the 1960s, in the context of the
Research into Drawn
Literatures. fanzine Giff-Wiff, only recognized newspaper strips as bande dessinée and saw comic books as a
degeneration of the medium. In the United States the publication of David Kunzle’s volumes on
3. Centre d’Étude des
Littératures d’Expression bande dessinée in past centuries lead to a protest from Bill Blackbeard against the very use of the title
Graphique or Centre for ‘History of the Comic Strip’, which he referred to as ‘mislabelled books’. So as to cut short any argu-
the Study of Literatures ment, I therefore rejuvenated the expression ‘drawn literatures’ [littératures dessinées] (it had already
of Graphic Expression,
publisher of Giff-Wiff. been used by SOCERLID2, the spin-off of CELEG,3 in the 1960s) for all image-based récits that drew
upon the book format or its equivalents.

Did Rodolphe Töpffer invent the comic strip?

La question de l’invention n’a pas de sens pour moi puisque la forme n’est pas figée. Les arguments de Thierry
Groensteen et Benoît Peeters (Töpffer: L’Invention de la bande dessinée, Hermann, 1994) donnant à Töpffer
la primauté de l’invention de ce que nous appelons aujourd’hui bande dessinée sont convaincants à condition
de privilégier les critères de nos théoriciens: le support (l’album), le procédé (l’autographie), le dispositif (la
mise en page rhétorique), la centralité du personnage et la conception de ce personnage, à la fois typée et flexi-
ble. Tous ces traits rapprochent naturellement les récits de Töpffer de la bande dessinée actuelle, mais leur mise
en avant révèle des choix esthétiques, voire idéologiques, préalables de nos éminents théoriciens.
Pour ne donner qu’un seul exemple, l’autographie töpfferienne est, entre autres, censée favoriser la liberté
inventive du dessinateur, dans une sorte d’écriture graphique, où l’élément clé serait la rapidité d’exécution, et
qui serait à la source d’une nouvelle forme de dessin-récit (L’Invention de la bande dessinée, pp. 88–93).
Mais ce spontanéisme me semble une position assez fragile. Les dessins de Wilhelm Busch, qui sont plus
poussés que ceux de Töpffer, car ils sont destinés à une gravure sur bois, manifestent-ils une moindre liberté
inventive ? Inversement, quels sont les dessinateurs modernes qui se placent dans cette liberté complète et cette
maladresse assumée du tracé de Töpffer ? Il me semble que, dans l’aire culturelle francophone du moins, on les
trouve plutôt en marge du médium, du côté du dessin de presse, de la satire politique ou sociale (par exemple
dans les publications des Èditions du Square, l’hebdo Hara-Kiri, Charlie Hebdo, ou chez une Claire
Bretécher). Ce que fait Töpffer sur son papier lithographique s’assimile à un griffonnage libre, directement à
l’encre. Mais ce tracé direct, assumant sa laideur (pour lequel j’ai proposé récemment le terme de cacography)
me paraît encore une fois, correspondre plus à la tradition du dessin satirique qu’à la bande dessinée.

The question of invention has no sense for me because the form is not fixed. The arguments put
forward by Thierry Groensteen and Benoît Peeters in Töpffer: L’Invention de la bande dessinée (Paris:


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Laurence Grove

Hermann, 1994) that give Töpffer the leading role in the invention of what we now call bande dess-
inée are convincing only as long as we accept their criteria: the format (the album), the process
(lithographic reproduction of handwritten text [autographie]), the set-up (rhetorical mise en page),
the centrality of the character and the conception of that character that is both stereotyped and flex-
ible. All of these features naturally link Töpffer’s récits with today’s bande dessinée, but the emphasis
laid upon them reveals the aesthetic, or indeed ideological, choices made by Groensteen and
If I can limit myself to a single example, Töpffer’s method of autographie is, amongst other things,
supposed to favour the artist’s inventive freedom via a sort of graphic writing whereby the key ele-
ment is swiftness of execution: one that is meant to be the base for a new form of drawing-based
récit (Groensteen and Peeters 1994: 88–93). But I see this emphasis on spontaneity as a fairly weak
stance. Do the drawings of Wilhelm Busch, which are deeper than those of Töpffer since they were
intended for woodcut engravings, show any less freedom of invention? Conversely, which modern
artists can be categorized in terms of the complete freedom and assumed awkwardness we associate
with Töpffer’s stroke? It seems to me that at least in the domain of French-language culture they are
most likely to be found in the margins of the medium, in the fields of newspaper cartoons, and
political and social satire (for example in works published by Les Éditions du Square, weekly in Hara-
Kiri, Charlie Hebdo, or by the likes of Claire Bretécher). What Töpffer does on his lithographic paper
can be compared to free scribblings directly in ink. But this direct stroke, of which ugliness is a part (I
recently suggested the term cacography for it) seems once again to correspond to the tradition of
satirical drawing rather than to bande dessinée.

How do you see the role of women in comics, both in terms of subject matter and as
Je déplore que des corpus entiers soient centrés sur un lectorat masculin [‘male-centric’?], par exemple la
bande dessinée franco-belge ou les comic books, dominés par les super-héros. Je suis très heureux de m’être
complètement trompé il y a une quinzaine d’années en déclarant impossible le succès en Occident du shôjo
manga. Non seulement le shôjo manga est traduit, mais le manga est une forme qui intéresse autant les
filles que les garçons.
Une conséquence de cette culture bédéique centrée sur le mâle est le courant de sexisme qu’on
décèle dans la bande dessinée d’expression française. Le summum de l’humour dans certaines bandes
humoristiques de l’école belge semble être l’allusion graveleuse ou méprisante, qui ramène la femme à
son infériorité constitutionnelle. Même le fait pour les dessinateurs de représenter des personnages de
petites-bourgeoises tout à fait banales comme des sortes de pin-ups me paraît contenir une nuance de
sexisme. Et je ne parle pas de séries comme Les Blondes, centrées sur les ‘blagues de blondes’


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Harry Morgan

(featuring the prototypical dumb blond), de Gaby et Dzack, chez Soleil. Onze volumes de gags dont
pas un n’est drôle, et qui ne sont là que pour permettre au lecteur de se sentir supérieur à cette pauvre
cruche au sourire jusqu’aux oreilles et aux yeux en bille de loto (with a Pepsodent smile and google
On a l’habitude en France de déplorer le manque d’auteurs féminins, mais j’admire beaucoup les
femmes qui se risquent dans un milieu pareil.
Ironiquement, la situation de la bande dessinée féminine était peut-être meilleure quand la bande dess-
inée n’était pas structurée en microculture. Les revues françaises pour filles, en particulier celles des édi-
teurs catholiques (Âmes Vaillantes, aux éditions Fleurus), et aussi celles destinées à la petite enfance
(Perlin et Pinpin, aux mêmes éditions), employaient énormément de dessinatrices. L’éditeur populaire
Marijac pouvait donner libre cours à son goût pour le mélodrame à grands sentiments dans son heb-
domadaire pour filles, Mireille. Cette bande dessinée destinée aux filles est morte avec les derniers petits
formats des éditions Aredit, qui publiaient d’ailleurs du matériel anglais.

I deplore the fact that entire corpuses can be based upon a male-centric readership, for example
Franco-Belgian bande dessinée or comic books, dominated by superheroes. I am very happy to have
been proven completely wrong when, fifteen years ago or so, I said that it would be impossible for
shôjo manga to be successful in the West. Not only is shôjo manga translated, it a form that interests
girls as much as boys.
One consequence of the existence of this male-centred BD culture is the sexist undercurrent to be
found in French-language bande dessinée. The height of humour in certain humorous strips of the
Belgian school seems to be smutty or disdainful allusions bringing women down to their constitu-
tional inferiority. Even the fact that artists represent completely anodyne bourgeois women charac-
ters as some sort of pin-up seems to me to contain a nuance of sexism. And that is without broaching
series such as Les Blondes by Gaby and Dzack, published by Soleil, that feature the prototypical dumb
blonde: eleven volumes of gags of which not one is funny, and which only exist so as to allow the
reader to feel superior to the poor bimbos with Pepsodent smiles and google-eyes.
In France the lack of female authors is often bemoaned, but I admire greatly the women who do
venture into such a world.
Ironically the situation for female bande dessinée was possibly better when the bande dessinée was
not structured as a micro-culture. French magazines for girls, in particular those from the Catholic
publishing houses (Âmes Vaillantes from Fleurus), as well as those aimed at younger children (Perlin
et Pinpin, also from Fleurus), would employ vast numbers of female artists. Marijac, a particularly
popular editor, was able to give free rein to his penchant for highly sentimental melodrama in
Mireille, his weekly for girls. In France, comics for girls died with the last small-format publications
from Aredit, who also used to publish English material.


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Laurence Grove

How useful is it to apply critical theory to the graphic novel? I am thinking in

particular of the works of Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida?
Barthes comprenait admirablement l’image unique, par exemple la photographie, et manifestait une extraor-
dinaire difficulté à appréhender l’image séquentielle, par exemple le cinéma. Je pense qu’il est dangereux de
vouloir s’appuyer sur lui en matière de bande dessinée. Ses positions apparemment scientifiques (les
Éléments de sémiologie) sont, comme on sait, considérées aujourd’hui comme les intuitions d’un écrivain.
J’ai lu les grands livres de Michel Foucault. J’en pense pis que pendre. Je n’ai jamais beaucoup lu Derrida.

Barthes had a wonderful understanding of the single image, for example the photograph, and showed
enormous difficulty in grasping the sequential image, for example cinema. I feel it is dangerous to
want to draw upon him as far as the bande dessinée is concerned. His supposedly scholarly treatises
(Elements of Semiology) are, as we know, seen today as writer’s intuition. I have read Michel Foucault’s
main works. I do not have a very high opinion of them. I have never read much of Derrida.

Apart from your own, which critical analyses of comics would you recommend?
Pour me borner aux auteurs francophones, les travaux de Thierry Groensteen, de Benoît Peeters, de Thierry
Smolderen, de Jan Baetens, de Pascal Lef èvre, me paraissent incontournables. J’ajouterai le pionnier de la
sémiologie de la bande dessinée, Pierre Fresnault-Deruelle, qui a progressivement affiné son analyse en la
débarrassant des idées un peu trop séduisantes du structuralisme.

Limiting myself to critics writing in French, I would say the works of Thierry Groensteen, Benoît
Peeters, Thierry Smolderen, Jan Baetens and Pascal Lefèvre are indispensable. To these I would add
the first pioneer of the semiology of bande dessinée, Pierre Fresnault-Deruelle, who progressively
refined his criticism by getting rid of notions that had fallen to the temptation of structuralism.

Gilles Deleuze famously provided a ‘Abécédaire’ of himself, an alphabetical description.

Could you please provide a mini ‘Abécédaire’ based on any five letters of your choice.
‘A’ stands for animals. Mes meilleurs amis et mes plus proches compagnons ont toujours été des chats. De
façon générale, je préfère les bêtes aux hommes, raison pour laquelle je vis aujourd’hui à la campagne.
L’une des raisons que j’ai d’aimer les littératures dessinées est que les animaux y tiennent une grande
place et sont mis en général à égalité avec les hommes.

‘A’ stands for animals. My best friends and my closest companions have always been cats. On the
whole I prefer animals to humans, which is the reason why I now live in the countryside. One of my


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Harry Morgan

reasons for loving drawn literatures is that animals have a major role in them and are, in general,
placed on an equal footing with humans.

‘B’ stands for books. La passion presque exclusive de toute mon existence. J’en ai rempli ma maison.

‘B’ stands for books. My lifetime’s almost unique passion. My house is full of them.

‘L’ stands for ‘left’. J’ai toujours cru que j’étais de gauche, par contagion des idées intellectuelles de
mon temps, et par entraînement générationnel (j’étais adolescent pendant les années 1970, où tout le
monde en France était devenu un peu fou). Mais des lecteurs intelligents m’ont fait remarquer que
j’étais, dans mon style, dans mes idées, dans mes goûts, fondamentalement et incontestablement

‘L’ stands for left. I have always believed that I was left wing, due to the influence of the intellectual
ideas of my time, and through generational upbringing (I was an adolescent during the 1970s, a time
when everyone in France had become slightly mad). But readers of intelligence have pointed out that
as far as my style, my ideas and my tastes are concerned I am fundamentally and indubitably

‘M’ stands for music. De toutes les choses que je sais faire plus ou moins bien (écrire, dessiner, enseigner,
etc.), celle que je fais de très loin le moins bien c’est jouer du piano. Ma cervelle et mon corps ne sont pas
adaptés à la production de musique. Assis au piano, je suis comme une machine qui se détraque. De plus
l’idée même d’être écouté (ou de m’enregistrer) me fait perdre tous mes moyens. J’observe cela avec une
grande curiosité et aussi une certaine désolation.

‘M’ stands for music. Of all the things that I can more or less manage (writing, drawing, teaching,
etc.), the one that I do by far the least well is playing the piano. My brain and my body are not
adapted to the production of music. When sitting at the piano I am like a machine that is breaking
down. Furthermore the very idea of having people listen to me (or being recorded) sends me to
pieces. It is something I observe with great curiosity but also a certain amount of sadness.

‘O’ stands for occultism. Plus personne ne s’intéresse au gnosticisme, au néoplatonisme, à la sorcellerie, à
la magie, au spiritisme. C’est une grande perte. La dernière idée ‘occulte’ qui perdure, c’est celle de la vie
extraterrestre. Mais le mythe du vampire, par exemple, a été tellement vidé de son contenu qu’il n’a plus
rien d’occulte.


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Laurence Grove

‘O’ stands for occultism. Nobody is interested any more in Gnosticism, in Neoplatonism, in witch-
craft, in magic, in Spiritism. That is a great loss. The last surviving ‘occult’ notion is that of extrater-
restrial life. But the myth of the vampire, for example, has been so emptied of its content that is has
nothing occultist left about it.

Groensteen, Thierry and Benoît Peeters. Töpffer: L’Invention de la bande dessinée. Paris: Hermann,
Morgan, Harry. La Reine du ciel [The Queen of Heaven]. Paris: Rivages, 1997.
——. Principes des littératures dessinées [Principles of Drawn Litteratures]. Angoulême: Éditions de
l’An 2, 2003.
Morgan, Harry and Manuel Hirtz. Le Petit Critique illustré. Paris: PLG, 2005; first edition 1997.
Harry Morgan’s website: ‘The Adamantine’: www.theadamantine.free.fr


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STIC 1 (1) pp. 159–183 Intellect Limited 2010

Studies in Comics
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Reviews. English language. doi: 10.1386/stic.1.1.159/4


Diary Drawings by Bobby Baker

19 March–2 August 2009, Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, London NW1 2BE

Reviewed by Sarah Lightman, University of Glasgow

I made a strict rule, to do a diary drawing every single day I was there.
(Baker 2009)

The first panel of the exhibition introduces ‘there’ as the Pine Street Day Centre, one of a number
of mental health institutions used by Bobby Baker during a time when ‘things started to unravel’
(Baker 2009). Bobby Baker is an internationally renowned performance artist, and Creative Fellow
at Queen Mary, University of London, but in 1996 she was diagnosed with borderline personality
disorder, and as a result was treated by psychiatrists and psychotherapists, and attended crisis
centres and group therapy. In an extraordinarily touching, yet also humorous exhibition at the
Wellcome Collection, her story was told through 158 exquisite works, forming a graphic narrative
painted in ink and watercolour. In charting her journey of recovery through extreme anguish,
self-harm, weeping, breast cancer and family bereavement, Baker resonates with other seminal
works of self-portraiture and visual autobiography by Michelangelo and Charlotte Salomon. In
Diary Drawings, the artist’s work can also be seen to situate itself in the realm of comics, and not
solely through the technical processes of drawing and inking, but also Baker arguably shares the
tradition (begun by Justin Green) of creating image after painful image that forms an extended


STIC_1.1_Reviws_159-183.indd 159 3/29/10 8:37:57 AM


autobiographical narrative: ‘I didn’t ever think of them as cartoon-like, yet quite a lot of people
have described them like that’ (Lightman 2009).
Bobby Baker’s work engages within the tradition of comics both technically and conceptually.
Justin Green’s Binky Brown meets the Holy Virgin Mary first appeared in 1972, and includes the
reminiscences of a difficult childhood caught up with elements of obsessive compulsive disorder that
manifest in self-harm and continuous feelings of guilt and religious anxiety. Art Spiegelman, creator
of Pulitzer-winning Holocaust autobiography Maus, recognized Green’s maverick approach to comic
making. Binky Brown was ahead of its time not just in content, but also in display. In his introduction
to the republished version Spiegelman describes how ‘I first saw the pages that became Binky Brown
meets the Holy Virgin Mary flapping from a clothesline that hung above Justin’s drawing table and
seemed to stretch all around his living room.’ (Spiegelman 2009)
Notably these works were hung as a sequence of narrative drawings in a domestic setting, on
‘a clothes line’, in ‘his living room’, and not in book form. This personalized presentation paral-
lels the content. Spiegelman articulates clearly the debts that autobiographical comics have to

It now seems obvious that the form can achieve great intimacy, but before he came along
cartoonists were expected to keep a lid on their psyches and personal histories – or at least to
disguise and sublimate them into diverting entertainments.
(Spiegelman 2009)

Bobby Baker studied at St Martin’s School of Art, London, only minutes up the road from the
Wellcome Trust, from 1968–1972. Similarly to Green and comics’ expectations ‘to keep a lid on psy-
ches and personal histories’ (Spiegelman 2009), Baker remembers feeling distinctly uncomfortable
with her college’s approach to art-making which: ‘Encouraged me to believe that the only valuable
work was that of a painter, and that a painter was necessarily divorced from normal life and consid-
erations’ (Barrett 2007: 8).
This navigation of the boundaries between life and art continues to be a consideration through-
out her working life, frequently paralleling Green. Baker’s performances transform and subvert
domestic scenarios (frequently using foodstuffs) and have toured worldwide, including Europe,
Canada, New Zealand and the United States. The works are often autobiographically-based: in 1976
she recreated her family from meringue, garibaldi biscuits and coconut cake, and then served them to
her audience for tea in An Edible Family in a Mobile Home. Photographs of her performances intro-
duce this aspect of her work, and line the corridor leading up to the Wellcome Gallery, including her
Daily Life Series, described by Baker, as ‘a quintet of performance pieces, exploring the universal
humdrum of everyday life’ (Baker 2009). Appropriately for Diary Drawings (a show of watercolour


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paintings), this includes Cook Dems, where she painted a partially dressed man in a variety of kitchen
Yet the boundaries of art and art, as well as life, were being reconfigured in these projects between
the difficult years of 1997–2008, and there are some contradictions. Baker’s diary drawings were a
vital psychological counterbalance to her performances, returning ironically towards the art school
premise and process she rejected:

It’s more private, [than] performing. Talking and doing things, [is] utterly different [but it is]
so brilliant to be able to paint. Because it was so private, and all the work I had been doing for
years was so public, [and] definitively needed an audience. That is another thing I loved about
the drawings, the feeling I didn’t have to show them to people.
(Lightman 2009)

Diary Drawings marks a return to an art form that was ‘so private’ and which did not ‘need[ed] an
audience’, reminiscent of painting that was ‘divorced from life’ (Barrett 2007: 8). As a result the
conflicting premises of wariness and deliberate exposure are maintained within the exhibition at the
Wellcome Trust. Displayed but inaccessible, the original art remains intact, private and protected:
with page after page modestly housed in their green ring-bound sketchbooks, remaining closed in
glass cabinets. The metaphor of a closed book serves the exhibition well, reminding the viewer not
only of their privileged intimate position – these are diary drawings after all – but also the chasm
between inside and out. This suggests the discrepancies between how a person appears to others,
how they see themselves, and how they feel about their life. It reminds the viewer of the acting that
happens not just on the stage, but is relied on in order to function in everyday life. A panel reads:
‘During this stage, extraordinary developments took place in my work and life … a three week
season … at the Barbican became a sell out … and How to Live, a major Wellcome Trust-funded
project was met with capacity audiences and critical and public acclaim’. However simultaneously
Bobby was producing works such as Day 480 (figure 1), a weeping self-portrait. Bobby acknowl-
edges there are other works she has chosen not to show: ‘[It is] a sort of dilemma. There are 711 of
them, [it is] hard, I don’t think I would destroy any, [but] there are some I would rather people
didn’t see’ (Lightman 2009).
How else can these diary drawings be considered as part of the canon of comics? Baker’s produc-
tion of an extensive series of narrative drawings parallels the techniques of comic artists. The diary
drawings exude a vivacious enjoyment of colour, which might seem contradictory to the unsettling
content. Yet in examining her working process it becomes evident how she could make work that is
a painful delight. Within comic production there are often two stages, pencilling in the image, and
then inking (and in this case also using watercolour paint) and, often, different people can do this. It


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Figure 1: Day 480, © Bobby Baker 2008, photograph © Andrew Whittuck.


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could be argued that Baker was, in effect, two very different people when she made the work, since
she was in very differing frames of mind:

Because of this immense pressure of work, [I] very rarely painted them at the time and the
painting of them could be just extraordinary and completely changed an image … From the
beginning, from the first, second day when I was painting them they became objects of beauty.
I do love painting. I just had an enormous pleasure of drawing and painting … just like draw-
ing a life drawing and you just become absorbed in the making and the beauty of it. You cap-
ture something, but maybe [it] doesn’t always work … that addictive quality.
(Lightman 2009)

The positive and vibrant colour jars with the anguish of the narratives, and humour replacing the
anger that may have initially inspired the image.
In addition the act of making marks can be related to the genre of ‘autographics’ with its empha-
sis on the physicality of the artwork. In their introduction to Autographics in Self-Regarding Art,
Gillian Whitlock and Ann Poletti ask:

How does the self-portrait draw upon the textures of gouache to represent trauma? ... Autographics
implies an interpretation of self-portraiture that deliberately attends to textuality and texture.
(Whitlock and Poletti 2008: v–vii)

The physical manifestation of the work contributes to the viewer’s experience. Charlotte Salomon’s
Life or Theatre? is an extended visual narrative, with many similarities to Baker’s Diary Drawings. It is
made up of over 780 paintings that fictionalize her life, charting the protagonist, Charlotte Kann,
coming to terms with her family’s history of suicide during a dangerous time for Jews. Unlike
Salomon, who was deported and killed, the artwork, and thus Kann, survived. In Carolyn F.
Austin’s essay ‘The Endurance of Ash: Melancholia and the Persistance of the Material in Charlotte
Salomon’s Leben? Oder Theatre?’ the author opens with the discovering of a hair,
presumed to belong to Salomon, found painted onto the gouache on one page (Austin 2009: 102).
Salomon has left a part of herself, as a relic, in her work. The autographic nature of Diary Drawings
is subtler: Baker’s work incorporates trauma in the rich, loose, yet also precise paintwork which is
both controlled, and soars outside of the inked lines. Although her performances use foodstuffs,
which are more innately textural, it is in her paintings that Baker’s visual language has to extend
to express her experience. Watercolour, accompanied by the paper’s absorbency, exploits this type
of paint’s potential to ‘spill’, and ‘leak’: it aptly and accurately portrays the tensions of a public
and professional façade being maintained, throughout a time of private, intense, and emotional


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upset. Watercolour, with its tendency to merge, is apposite to ‘divorcing’ (graphically-speaking) from
life and line.
Baker’s work can further be compared to comics with each drawing/photograph being considered
a panel. These images are framed, literally, with a glass picture frame. Below each image is a small
panel that gives the date, Day 25, and often the text from the image. There is also an additional
external panel, which introduces each sequence, and where it fits within the whole story. When
asked about comics Baker remarks:

I suppose I don’t read comics now but I used to read comics obsessively, in the early years,
[those were] girls comics. I didn’t associate myself with doing that, it never occurred to me to
do that. The paintings I was passionate about were much more fine art background, so when
I was doing these, I didn’t ever think of them as cartoon-like, yet quite a lot of people have
described them like that. They are sequential, almost like a strip, and drawings are all the
same size. It was interesting I hadn’t thought about that.
(Lightman 2009)

Unfettered by gutters and borders the drawings are on a wall, in a gallery, and not in a book, so
require the viewer to negotiate them face on, one to one. The viewer in this engagement is totally
absorbed in the experience of looking. This is particularly apt with the self-portraits, when displayed
at head height, since this leads to an appropriate equivalence:

Whenever the look that originates in the mirror stays live and direct in the final image then
the viewer should have a vicarious experience of being the artist – standing in the same rela-
tion he or she stood in the mirror and the picture.
(Cummings 2009: 27)

The process of looking at a self-portrait and the artist’s own experience has other parallels: ‘Self-
portraits raise the question of their [the artist’s] own existence, but also of our common mortality’
(Cummings 2009: 27).
Furthermore, in a show where pictures are covered in glass, there is always the slight possibility of
seeing just a glimpse of oneself, transposed onto Baker’s face and body. In Day 25 (figure 2), the top
layer of skin with the facial feature is ripping off, revealing a wide-eyed skeleton, with wild blond hair:
‘The gap created by the severing of the body and mind is a terrible gap, a nothing’ (Pollock 2007: 254).
This image is reminiscent of Michelangelo’s self-portrait (figure 3) at the centre of The Last
Judgement in the Sistine Chapel, where ‘He shows himself a ragged epidermis, limp as chamois
leather, an empty overcoat hitched to a rubber mask … he is not so much portrayed as disembow-
elled’ (Cummings 2009: 60–61).


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Figure 2: Day 25, © Bobby Baker 2008, photograph © Andrew Whittuck.


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Figure 3: Detail of The Last Judgement (c.1538–1541), Michelangelo Buonarroti.


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The work questions the essence of self-portraiture – is it the public or private face that is painted?
Skin is only what is seen, the superficial layer, the pink resigned countenance of the individual features:
it is passive to the ‘disembowelled’ eyes that hold the power, ghoulish and terrifyingly cruel in the uni-
versal skull. This marks the movement between the artists’ ‘own existence’ and the shared ‘common
mortality’. Baker has ripped apart her painted self-portrait and touches upon the crisis of autobiographi-
cal art, its limits of representation and claims to veracity – a truth felt (privately) but not seen (publicly).
Another link to comics within the exhibition of Diary Drawings is that the original images
themselves are not presented, thus paralleling the production of multiples within comics manufac-
turing. Instead of the original paintings being displayed, the exhibition is formed of photographs
taken by Baker’s husband, photographer Andrew Whittuck. The distances and limitations are pre-
cipitated, recalled and exploited as aspects of performance are incorporated. These photographs
‘protect’ the originals, both metaphorically and physically. The additional level of editing and the
enhancing of the colours produce images that are luminescent and clear. These are carefully
cropped to include the edge of the sketchbooks and the kitchen table behind (the spot where many
of the works were made). All are touching reminders of the domestic setting and a drama happen-
ing in real time, in a family home; by involving family members the show’s production, like Baker’s
performances, makes reference to ‘the universal humdrum of everyday life’ (Baker 2009). Similarly
to Justin Green’s work in his living room, they reinstate the distinctly personal aspect of the project.
Yet by the time the work is exhibited it has become distanced and externalized. Baker even recog-
nizes this link to her performances in the curation of drawings and her approach to the show:

It’s just like theatre I hadn’t really realized about the light, [and] light conservation issue, [it]
had to be low because … those were standards of preserving pictures. With ours, you could
put them on full blast. It is unusual [that] it is so bright in the gallery.
(Lightman 2009)

Thus the white lightness of the room, allied with the numbered panelled stages of the narrative,
intimates a sense of progress and recovery. It is a narrative to be directly and indirectly experienced:

Baker herself has said recently that her images of her own mental suffering, some of them very
painful to look at, are made more bearable for the viewer through the distance of their being
photographed, framed and exhibited as art.
(Barrett 2007: 5)

Diary Drawings is ‘theatre’ with a pastoral sensibility. This again links Baker to Justin Green, who
explains his comics were ‘Not intended solely for your entertainment, but also to purge myself of the


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compulsive neurosis which I have served ... many others are slaves to their neuroses … these tor-
mented souls will no longer see themselves … in isolation’ (Green 2009).
Both artists seek to create a community and heal themselves; for Baker her Diary Drawings make
her experiences ‘bearable’ to herself, and simultaneously she ensures they are bearable to her audi-
ence too. Of one drawing of her self-harming she says: ‘Possibly I drew that one with the tiny beau-
tiful cuts as a way of making it bearable, making it beautiful’ (Lightman 2009).
The artist, and Baker’s daughter, Dora Whittuck has curated a show that could have been very dark,
into one about hope, ‘it is so bright in the gallery’ (Lightman 2009), and healing. There are leaflets on
where to get help, numbers for phone lines and, in keeping with the private/public tension of the show, a
book for comments, and a box for more private comments, both of which are checked regularly. Bobby
explained: ‘I had such a feeling of safety because of Dora – she is a practising professional in the NHS’.
SANE, a charity established in 1986 to improve the quality of life for people affected by mental illness,
estimates one in four of us could become affected at some point in our lives; in making work about a health
problem that is often kept hidden and displaying it in a public, free exhibition, Baker is again re-engaging
with boundaries of privacy, and opposing art-making being ‘divorced from normal life’ (my emphasis):

Mental illness is that bad ... The mission I am on is not to hide that – because it is innately
invisible people assume you are weak, assume you are malingering, they make so many judge-
ments and assumptions, and I did myself until I got immersed in such a big degree of suffer-
ing, and it is that bad … [but] you can move on.
(Lightman 2009)
Austin, C. F. (2008), ‘The Endurance of Ash: Melancholia and the Persistance of the Material in
Charlotte Salomon’s Leben? Oder Theatre?’ Autographics, 31:1, pp. 102–132.
Baker, B. (2009), Diary Drawings, London: The Wellcome Trust Exhibition Guide.
Barrett, M. (2007), ‘The Armature of Reason’, Bobby Baker – Redeeming Features of Daily Life, London:
Borzello, F. (1998), Seeing Ourselves, Women’s Self-Portraits, London: Thames and Hudson.
Cummings, L. (2009), A Face To The World, London: Harper Press.
Green, J. (2009), Binky Brown meets the Virgin Mary, San Francisco: McSweeney’s Books.
Lightman, S. (2009), personal interview conducted with Bobby Baker in her London studio, 30 July.
Pollock, G. (2007), ‘Diary Drawing’, Bobby Baker – Redeeming Features of Daily Life, London: Routledge.
Salomon, C. (2006), Life or Theatre? Zwolle: Waanders Publishing.
Spiegelman, A. (2009), ‘Introduction’, Binky Brown meets the Virgin Mary, San Francisco:
McSweeney’s Books.
Whitlock, G. and Poletti, A. (2008), ‘Biography’, Autographics, 31:1, pp. v–xxiii.


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‘Yellow Series’ Christian A. Bachmann (ed.), Bochum and Essen: Christian A.

Bachmann Verlag. Academic publishing on comics in Germany

Reviewed by Daniel Wüllner

The appreciation of comics as an integral part of our culture has been growing in the course of the
last few years. Promising graphic novels such as Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi and Rutu Modan’s
Exit Wounds questioned the political situation in their respective countries, and thus re-adjusted the
value of graphic storytelling in the public view. Unlike general debates on comics, scholarly examina-
tions of comics follow, sadly, rather slowly, and yet they are constantly pushed forward by prominent
European and American academics like Thierry Groensteen, Pascal Lefèvre, or Gene Kannenberg Jr.
Putting their ideas and theories into print is still a rather difficult undertaking, because these books
have to obey the rules of the market and they also have to satisfy an academic audience that is quite
often hard to please. While academic books on comics have tended to turn up more often in the last
couple of years, brave publishing houses such as Mississippi University Press are the exception.
But not all comics scholars are blessed with the advantages of our American colleagues. Only
recently, a small publisher, Christian A. Bachmann, started to change the situation in Germany.
While the valuation of comics in Germany has slowly begun to regain what it had lost since the
times of Wilhelm Busch, father of Max and Moritz, scholarly attention followed at first only slowly,
yet good omens are visible on the horizon: German comic magazines such as the anniversary issue
of the Reddition and a special edition of the Text+Kritik address the current situation and offer a
wide range of socio-cultural and formalistic approaches to comics. Additionally, the annual publica-
tion, Deutsche Comicforschung, is engaged in historical research on German comics and their authors.
New books on the topic were also published in 2009: while general books on comics scholarship
such as Comic-Analyse by Jakob F. Dittmar (UVK Verlagsgesellschaft mbH, 2008) or Wie Comics
erzählen by Martin Schüwer (Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 2008) were not that convincing, spe-
cialty books on Prince Valiant or thoughts on contemporary manga by Andreas Seifert are more
pleasing. Comics scholar Ole Frahm, member of ArGL, a comics scholar-group financially sup-
ported by Hamburg University, recently reviewed the current scholarly situation in Germany and
described comics as ‘concepts of historical drifts’, which need to be analysed by comic scholars. His
upcoming monograph on the language of comics, Die Sprache des Comics (Philo Fine Arts, 2010),
might further enlighten his position.
Additionally to these publications, scholarly meetings are important pillars for the study of comics –
whether these are lectures on, seminars about, or conferences on comics. In 2005, ComFor, a German


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group of scholars interested in the comics medium, was established. At universities conferences on
the use of the cityscape in comics and seminars on the history of American comics took place; these
strengthened the ties between scholars and students, left enough room for discussion, and planted
new ideas in the minds of listeners and lecturers alike. Yet such meetings are doomed to perpetuate
never-ending quarrels about a consistent definition of comics. Similar to every kind of learning com-
ics scholars are dependent on new ideas and young scholars. Instead of publishing the tenth coffee-
table book on the history of the comic book, scholarship is needed to pass on the torch to younger
generations and make their ideas public. A great step in that direction took place in 2008: the
Abendzeitung introduced a 26 year old doctoral student as ‘Germany’s leading Batman-expert’.
Whether Lars Banhold actually deserves such credit is not the question. More interesting is that
he was actually invited to answer questions about Batman. Certainly Christopher Nolan’s block-
buster movie was the cause, but how did Banhold’s name reach the press? At the end of 2007 the
young academic, who is currently writing his dissertation on Afro-American literature, published his
bachelor thesis, entitled ‘Batman: Konstruktion eines Helden’/‘Batman: Construction of a Hero’.
Which publishing house has been bold enough to publish an intermediate examination of a niche
subject during a recession? Searching the small yellow book for clues as to which house decided a
cultural examination of Bruce Wayne’s alter ego was needed, no lead to a large corporation turns up,
instead you find the name of a fellow student of Banhold, Christian A. Bachmann.
The two young students, both enrolled at the Ruhr University in Bochum, shared a common
interest in comics. While Banhold was interested in American superheroes, his friend Bachmann
found his way to the ninth art via Paul Karasik’s and David Mazzucchelli’s adaptation of Paul Auster’s
City of Glass (Avon Books, 1994). Bachmann had already worked on some layouts and text format-
ting for his professors and for a discontinued academic journal. He also published, previously to
Banhold’s work, promising theses of other students entitled ‘Schwarze Reihe’/‘Black Series’. While
the ‘Schwarze Reihe’ lacked a continuous topic to arouse interest, Bachmann decided to focus on a
single topic which was dear to him: the scholarly examination of comics. The decision to publish a
book on comics scholarship was the logical next step for both. Another important event was
Bachmann’s lecture at the first annual conference of the ComFor in 2006.
In January 2008, Bachmann launched his own publishing house, the Christian A. Bachmann
Verlag. Convinced by his topic of choice and the work of his fellow student Banhold, Bachmann
single-handedly worked as layouter and production manager on the project from the computer in his
bedroom. Three months later a hundred issues of Batman: Konstruktion eines Helden (Christian A.
Bachmann Verlag, 2008) were printed. Although the rising interest helped to produce a third print-
ing, Bachmann felt confident about turning the idea into a series with the title ‘yellow: Schriften zur
Comicforschung’/‘yellow: Texts on comics scholarship’. As his intended audience consists mostly of
scholarly personnel, the print runs and the interior of the books are both limited, due to the small


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amount of German-speaking comic scholars. Their small spines, in bright yellow, might not look that
good on the shelf, but are quite accessible on the other hand.
Asked about other comic scholars and about Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, Bachmann
proves, quite fortunately, that he is not only interested in publishing books about comics, but that he
himself is also quite capable of talking about the subject. While he applauds McCloud for his achieve-
ments in the field, he thinks that comics scholars can use the material which McCloud has offered
but need to refine or even alter his formalist criteria. The ‘yellow’ series is to be understood as a new
publishing platform for German comics scholarship. In order to act as a catalyst for comics research,
Bachmann will add further historical and formal investigations of comics to his rank of publications.
His early success with the Batman book has been met with applause, new material, and constructive
critique regarding the production of his books. An in-depth analysis of Marc-Antoine Mathieu’s self-
reflexive humour in his bande dessinées (by Rolf Lohse in 2009) and the origins of comics in Richard
F. Outcault’s The Yellow Kid (by Jens Balzer and Lambert Wiesing in 2010) were the second and third
publications of the yellow series.
Bachmann moved his office from his bedroom to the inner city of Essen only recently, where he
joined forces with scholar Beatrice Beckmann, who is as motivated as the publisher himself. The
future of Bachmann’s series on comics scholarship seems bright yellow and two new titles are already
in production. In the fourth book Hans-Joachim Backe (Bochum/Saarbrücken) will encounter Alan
Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen, while the fifth book will centre on a yet unnamed Belgian
comic. While a lack of a thematic focus may seem negative, Bachmann actually draws his strength
from his belief in the diversity of comics scholarship and plans a book that stresses exactly this
multiplicity. In ‘What is a comic?’ leading scholars such as German professor Dietrich Grünewald
and scholar David Carrier will be given the opportunity to have their say, get into contact with each
other, and open a continuing dialogue on the form of comics. In addition, Bachmann’s ongoing con-
tribution to the Deutsche Comicforschung consists of his annual Beiträge zur Comicforschung
(Contributions to comics scholarship), a printed collection of lectures given at the respective confer-
ences of the ComFor.
Sadly, Bachmann suggests that English translations of the ‘yellow’ series are not planned at the
moment, but a growing appreciation, extending beyond the German borders, might soon change
that. What distinguishes Bachmann’s publishing efforts from other scholarly publications? Instead of
bringing out one monumental coffee-table book, Bachmann publishes small specialty books which
are affordable and which are easily introduced into a seminar room. By focusing on one single topic,
with a limited amount of pages, authors are forced to push aside general discussion on comics and
have to face the primary texts, their analysis and their possible interpretations. As comics scholarship
in Germany is rapidly evolving and quarrels between its protagonists start to surface, the Christian A.
Bachmann Verlag could be a deciding institution. By giving voice to both parties, it could soothe or


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maybe even settle current academic disputes between the classical historical research undertaken by
the Deutsche Comicforschung and Frahm’s socio-cultural approach to comics.

Batman: Konstruktion eines Helden, Lars Banhold, (2008), 1st edition, yellow. Schriften zur
Comicforschung vol. 1, Bochum: Christian A. Bachmann Verlag, 100 pages, ISBN 978-3-941030-
02-2, Softcover, 10, 90 Euro.
Ingenieur der Träume: Medienreflexive Komik bei Marc-Antoine Mathieu, Rolf Lohse, (2008), 2nd
edition, yellow. Schriften zur Comicforschung vol. 2, Bochum: Christian A. Bachmann Verlag, 132
pages, ISBN 978-3-941030-09-1, Softcover, 12,00 Euro.
Outcault: Die Erfindung des Comics, Jens Balzer and Lambert Wiesing, (2009), 1st edition, yellow.
Schriften zur Comicforschung, vol. 3, Bochum and Essen: Christian A. Bachmann Verlag, 104
pages, ISBN 978-3-941030-07-7, Softcover 16,00 Euro.
Christian A. Bachmann Verlag. (2009), ‘Christian A. Bachmann Verlag’, http://www.christian-
bachmann.de/. Accessed 10 August 2009.
ComFor. (2009), ‘Gesellschaft für Comicforschung’, http://www.comicforschung.de/gesellschaft.html.
Accessed 10 August 2009.
Deutsche Comicforschung. (2009), ‘Deutsche Comicforschung’, http://www.comicforschung.de/.
Accessed 10 August 2009.
Frahm, Ole. (2009), ‘Unsäglich: Zum Stand der deutschen Comic-Forschung 2009’, http://www.
orang-magazin.net/?p=451. Accessed 20 November 2009.


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Underground Classics: The Transformation of Comics into Comix, edited by James

Danky and Denis Kitchen; introduction by Jay Lynch; essays by James Danky and
Dennis Kitchen; Patrick Rosenkranz; Trina Robbins; Paul Buhle (2009)
New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 143 pp., 978 0 8109 0598 6, Hardback, £14.99

Reviewed by Tony Venezia, Birkbeck, University of London

This lovingly compiled, oversize anthology of underground comix arose from an exhibition of the
same name recently held this summer at the Chazen Museum of Art in Madison, Wisconsin curated
by James Danky from the University of Madison-Wisconsin and well-known comix publisher Denis
Kitchen. As well as the usual suspects (Crumb, Spiegelman, Jaxon, Shelton) the work of proto-comix
pioneers Will Eisner, Will Elder and Harvey Kurtzman, and post-comix alternatives from Charles
Burns and Howard Cruse, is represented in a commendably catholic selection. An introduction from
Jay Lynch, and short essays from the curators, as well as Patrick Rosenkranz, Trina Robbins and Paul
Buhle, attempt to contextualize the collected art, examples of which are reproduced as glossy photo-
graphic plates. Underground Classics contributes to a growing stack of coffee table collections and
exhibition tie-ins on underground and alternative comix. Patrick Rosenkranz’s interview- based Rebel
Visions (2003), Dez Skinn’s anecdotal Comix: The Underground Revolution (2004), and Paul Gravett’s
Cult Fiction (2007), from an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, are the most recent examples.
A common thread that runs through the contextual material here is the debatable legacy of comix.
Underground cartoonist Jay Lynch (creator of Bijou Funnies) provides a nostalgic and melancholy
introduction in which he makes the exaggerated claim that ‘underground comix were the most
important art movement of the twentieth century’ (2009: 15), before concluding that the transforma-
tion of comix into collectables ended up turning rebellion into money. Patrick Rosenkranz, author of
the celebrated Rebel Visions, itself an important bibliographic resource, turns in a baby boomer jere-
miad lamenting the perceived loss of libertarian ideals that comix represented. This is belied by an
engagingly polemical essay from the ever-reliable Trina Robbins, instrumental in getting It Ain’t Me
Babe and Wimmin’s Comix published, who stresses the contributions of female artists who were bat-
tling the misogynistic boys’ club of comix publishing as well as the prevailing patriarchal culture. The
best essay is from radical historian Paul Buhle, who contributes a thoughtful and synoptic overview
of comix in relation to social and aesthetic contexts.
The plates manage to capture the artisanal, scrappy qualities of the undergrounds, and it is to the
curators’ credit that Crumb and Spiegelman’s work does not overwhelm the collection, while the
inclusion of Eisner et al., along with Burns and Cruse, places comix within a historical continuum.


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The importance of Justin Green and Frank Stack, whose work preceded Crumb, is registered more
than once. Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor is an important crossover from one generation to
another, anticipating autobiographical comics, although Pekar is something of an oddity here as he
is a writer who does not draw his stories. Generally speaking comix traded in images rather than
stories, narrative not being an important consideration (there were of course exceptions to this such
as Spain Rodriguez’s Trashman and Jack Jackson’s graphic histories of Native Americans). The
explosive visuals constituted a kind of scattershot iconographic terrorism that drew on a cultural
unconscious colonized by the optical language of cartoons and adverts. Leslie Cabaga’s Dope Comix,
Grass Green’s Wild Man Meets Rubberoy, and the ubiquitous Crumb all referenced older visual
forms from early comics and animation. Air Pirate Funnies by Gary Hallgren et al. resulted in a
lawsuit brought by Disney, who were unhappy at the appropriation and recontextualization of
Mickey and Minnie Mouse. The explicit sex and violence that put the ‘x’ into comix often converged
to produce puerile rape fantasies as the social rebellion craved by male cartoonists was displaced
onto the female body. The startling juxtapositions, dialectical images and engagements with mass
culture recall the surrealists at their height. Shock value was a common currency, not so much a
shock of the new as the recontextualization and refunctioning of the uncannily familiar into shock-
ing conjunctions.
The true successors to the aesthetic revolution of surrealism were the approximate European
contemporaries of American counter-culture, the situationists: contemporary social reality became
increasingly defined by the circulation of images in the West during the post-war period, so much so
that for situationists like Guy Debord visuality became a site of struggle. One solution to break this
oppressive circuit of image-manipulation was détournement, a derailing of a message’s intended
meaning. This chimed with the comix tactic of drastic reconfigurations. Meanwhile, science fiction
staked out a claim as the literature of the twentieth century as a new wave of writers – centred on the
New Worlds journal in Britain and the Dangerous Visions anthologies in the United States – turned
the traditions of pulp inside out. J.G Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition (Jonathan Cape, 1970) anato-
mized the invasion of the psyche by viral mass media imagery. Comix and the new wave mirrored
each other in their trans-valuations of high and low culture. Debord’s theories and Ballard’s fiction
proved hugely influential on Fredric Jameson and Jean Baudrillard and their own uneasy formula-
tions of postmodernism as cultural logic and historical period. The comix never constituted anything
like a movement or critical revolutionary outlook like the situationists, nor could they be said to have
cohered into a recognizable aesthetic like the new wave. Nonetheless, it should be evident that there
are correspondences and connections to be made with comix that are ignored here.
Collections like those embodied by Underground Classics and others self-consciously mark the
transition of comix, and indeed comics, from low to high culture. However, such a transition is by no
means unproblematic as Danky and Kitchen acknowledge in their introduction, pointing out that


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canonization and cultural legitimation inevitably involves processes of inclusion and exclusion.
Unfortunately, this insight is never really developed, and is arguably a more interesting theme on
which to collate an extremely diverse spectrum of work. The title itself illustrates the complicity
involved in this process. Also, comix would clearly benefit from being considered as part of a cultural
and media ecology including new-wave science fiction and situationism. What Underground Classics
and similar books inadvertently reveal is the lack of a thorough critical historical analysis of the
underground along the lines of Bart Beaty’s recent Unpopular Culture (2007), which focused on
European art comics. The challenge is for exhibitions and anthologies to articulate comix within a
wider cultural history located in the specific conjuncture of the 1960s/1970s.

Beaty, Bart (2007), Unpopular Culture; Transforming the European Comic Book in the 1990s, Toronto:
University of Toronto Press.
Gravett, Paul (with Emma Mahoney and Kim Pace) (2007), Cult Fiction: Art and Comics, London:
Hayward Gallery.
Rosenkranz, Patrick (2002), Rebel Visions: The Underground Comix Revolution 1963-1975, Seattle:
Skinn, Dez (2004), Comix: The Underground Revolution, London: Collins & Brown.
E-mail: a.venezia@english.bbk.ac.uk


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Alan Moore: Comics as Performance, Fiction as Scalpel, Annalisa Di Liddo (2009)

Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 211 pp., ISBN 9781604732139, Paperback, £21.99

Reviewed by Maggie Gray, University College London

Annalisa Di Liddo’s Alan Moore: Comics as Performance, Fiction as Scalpel is the first book-length
scholarly publication exclusively concerned with the renowned UK writer of comics. It is primarily
drawn from a Ph.D. in English literature she undertook at the University of Milan, although an addi-
tional chapter on Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s Lost Girls has been included.
While Di Liddo admits that an exhaustive bibliographic overview of Moore’s work is both unfea-
sible and undesirable, she succeeds in addressing an impressive proportion of his oeuvre. Significantly¸
this includes insightful analyses of more obscure and academically disregarded comics, such as The
Ballad of Halo Jones and Big Numbers, as well as his prose work Voice of the Fire. Moreover¸ while
attesting that hers is only one of many critical approaches to which the diversity of Moore’s output
lends itself, she also derives a theoretical and contextual framework from a broad range of sources.
The opening chapter, which deals with Moore’s approach to scriptwriting and formal technique,
aligns his use of intertextuality and re-elaboration of fictional genres with Gérard Genette’s transtex-
tuality and Mikhail Bakhtin’s heteroglossia and dialogism. The second chapter engages with another
of Bakhtin’s concepts from The Dialogic Imagination, the ‘chronotope’, which Di Liddo relates to
Scott McCloud’s discussion of comics’ spatial representation of time. This chapter most successfully
demonstrates the author’s ability, identified by Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester in their recently pub-
lished Comics Studies Reader, to engage in a close reading of comics ‘that can move beyond rigid
formalist boundaries’ (Heer and Worcester 2009: 255). She applies the Bakhtinian concept in a dis-
cussion of the alienating and cyclical space-time of Halo Jones, the similarly concentric psycho-geo-
graphic cityscape of From Hell, and the more liberated chronotope of the imagination found in
Promethea. Her perceptive analysis reveals nuanced interconnections of narrative structure, visual
appearance and thematic content in these works, but crucially also suggests their relation to issues of
gender, historiography, ideology and ontology. That Di Liddo’s approach is not purely based on lin-
guistics or literature studies, or restricted to formal analysis, is made manifest in the third chapter,
which draws on a cultural studies perspective and particularly the figure of Raymond Williams. She
insists that Moore’s self-reflexive formal strategies should not be seen as ends in themselves, but
means to raise crucial and relevant issues of culture, politics and identity. She therefore situates his
work in relation to discourse on Englishness and the legacy of imperialism, and specifically discusses
the critique of Thatcherism found in many of his earlier comics. The final chapter brings these


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elements together in a discussion of the pervasive intertextuality, chronotope of sex, and sex-positive
utopian politics found in Lost Girls. Di Liddo makes a convincing argument that Moore and Gebbie’s
comic is marred by an excessive and schematic formalism that threatens to reduce it to a ‘compen-
dium of the authors’ technical ability’; a sacrifice of narrative to an inert and suspended space-time of
The major contribution made by Di Liddo’s book to academic analysis of Alan Moore’s comics is
encapsulated in her use of the central metaphor of fiction as scalpel. Despite the fact that the publica-
tion’s blurb repeats the clichéd classification of Moore as a ‘distinctly postmodern comics creator’, Di
Liddo actually contests the postmodernist paradigm that has dominated scholarship on Moore. Unlike
James R. Keller, whose recent book V for Vendetta as Cultural Pastiche (2008), about both the comic
and the James McTeigue film, remains firmly within this established framework, Di Liddo refutes any
equation of Moore’s deconstructive intertextuality with postmodernist pastiche, as defined by figures
such as Frederic Jameson. She is emphatic that ‘Moore’s narrative, despite being overtly metafictional,
resists withdrawal into itself and opens out onto precise historical, social and cultural issues’. This is a
welcome challenge not only to the preponderance of implicitly poststructuralist approaches to Moore’s
work but also to the ascendance of a new formalism in comics scholarship in general.
However, beyond a few factual errors (most notably the neglect of the original Mick Anglo
Marvelman of the 1950s), there are problems with the structure and focus of Di Liddo’s book. In parts
it reads as if sections of her original thesis have suffered a substantial editorial cut, resulting in a sense
of fragmentation, and the impression that certain points have not been adequately pursued. For exam-
ple, the discussion of Bakhtinian heteroglossia – which appears to be a pertinent way of going beyond
the postmodernist construction of meta-textuality as pastiche (as intimated by a reference to Linda
Hutcheon) – is left hanging at the end of the first chapter and not really subsequently developed.
Di Liddo’s introduction is dominated by an overview of scholarly exchanges regarding the defini-
tion and particularity of the ‘graphic novel’. Not only does this debate now seem a little tired her
discussion of it is inconclusive, making the reason for its prominence unclear. Despite her insistence
that the application of the term to some of Moore’s works is not motivated by the perennial status
anxiety that haunts comics scholarship, she does appear overly keen to cast Moore as essentially a
novelist, as also evident by frequent analogies with the work of prose authors like Angela Carter and
Iain Sinclair. It is difficult to shrug off a sense that this emphasis on Moore as a writer is being
included to make the case for the legitimate inclusion of comics in literature studies – an argument
for legitimacy which, with the increasing development of comics scholarship, I would hope is some-
what redundant. However, the insistence on Moore as novelist leads to a number of further prob-
lems. It downplays the visual sensibility he gained in his early years as an artist-writer, as well as the
importance of his comics as collaborations with distinctive artists. This auteurism results in a lack of
attention to the significance of visual style and artistic technique in all but the last chapter, as well as


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unsubstantiated claims about the ‘immediate, all-pervasive power of the image’. While Di Liddo’s
move away from a constrictive formalism is refreshing, her prioritization of the word (rather than the
more conventional idea of narrative) implicitly aligns with R. C. Harvey’s theory of the verbal-visual
blend – a characterization of comics that has been highly contested, making her failure to even
acknowledge key formalist debates somewhat conspicuous. Ultimately, it is the discussion of the
graphic novel that opens and therefore determines her book as a whole, rather than the notion of
Moore as a ‘performing writer’, which is only introduced in the conclusion. This means that her
interesting ideas about Moore’s self-reflexive theatricality, and comics and performance, as articu-
lated in her article on Snakes and Ladders that appeared in The International Journal of Comic Art, are
given only cursory treatment.
Furthermore, while a discussion of the politics of Moore’s work is particularly welcome, the focus
on Englishness seems too insubstantial as a frame. Di Liddo situates her approach in relation to a
wider body of work within cultural studies that engages with English cultural identity as arbitrarily
detached from British national identity, but nevertheless she herself then slips between the two
terms, particularly in relation to imperialism. The absence of any mention of Moore and Alan Davis’
Captain Britain seems odd at this point, given the body of comics scholarship dealing with the super-
hero genre and national identity and geopolitics; while Di Liddo’s assertion that the importance of
place in works such as Voice of the Fire and Big Numbers is tied to an English perspective and region-
alism seems tenuous, especially given Moore’s similarly attentive invocation of other locations in
works such as the Louisiana Bayou of Swamp Thing. However, most obviously, the ahistorical and
vague nature of the discussion of Moore and Englishness contradicts the very specificity and contem-
porary realism she identifies in his sustained critique of Thatcherist social policy, as well as neglecting
his openly anarchist political perspective.
Overall, in my opinion Di Liddo’s book is a significant contribution to comics scholarship, and an
ambitious attempt to rescue Moore’s work from a postmodern conventionalist epistemology, and to
combine critical approaches from both literary and cultural studies. However, some of its strengths are
also weaknesses – its broad scope, in terms of both the range of works considered and eclectic points of
theoretical reference, results in a somewhat patchwork structure, a lack of sustained attention to comics
as visual narrative, and a tendency to generalize over the historical particularity of Moore’s practice.

Heer, J. and Worcester, K. (eds) (2009), A Comics Studies Reader, Jackson: University Press of
Keller, J. R. (2008), V for Vendetta as Cultural Pastiche: a critical study of the graphic novel and film,
Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co.


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The Power of Comics: History, Form and Culture, Randy Duncan and Matthew
J. Smith (2009)
First Edition, New York and London: Continuum International Publishing, 346 pp.,
082642936X, Paperback, $24.95

Reviewed by Bart Beaty, University of Calgary

Not all areas of study require textbooks. Textbooks are most frequently required in fields where infor-
mation is highly codified, and where courses build upon each other in such a way that common ter-
minologies and core competencies are expected of all students as they move on to more specialized
senior classes. Textbooks, in other words, are expected to lay the foundations upon which future
learning can take place, and areas of study as diverse as art history and computer engineering have
been well-served by utilizing well-regarded textbooks in their areas.
Even across extremely diverse areas of study, the best textbooks have a lot in common. Hallmarks
of outstanding textbooks would be clarity and concision in the writing, organizational flexibility to
allow the book to be taught in a variety of ways by a variety of professors (and to a wide range of
students with diverse backgrounds), and inclusiveness in order to demonstrate the breadth of the
field of study. The best textbooks in the human sciences include a clearly articulated point of view
and can lead the field in new directions. For example, David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s
exceedingly teachable introductory textbook, Film Art: An Introduction (originally published in 1979
and now in its ninth edition), is largely responsible for the rise in neo-formalist film analysis in North
America over the past three decades. Finally, although junior scholars frequently write textbooks,
outstanding examples of the form generally tend to be published by senior figures with strong repu-
tations in the field. The nascent field of comics studies could benefit from such a textbook.
Unfortunately, The Power of Comics is not that book.
The Power of Comics is an introduction to the medium aimed at high school students or possibly
new undergraduates. It is organized as thirteen relatively brief chapters covering the definition of
comics as a medium, the history of (American) comic books, the (American) comic book industry,
(American) comic book creators, comic book storytelling, (American) comic book fandom, comic
book genres, the superhero genre, ideology in comics, researching comic books and a token chapter
on global comics culture. The overall structure is highly prescriptive. Not only does it exclude comic
strips to focus solely on comic books, but it also imposes an emphasis on superhero comics that are
privileged well beyond any other genre. While the creators acknowledge ‘our approach is focused
principally on American comic books’ (2009: vii), the one chapter on ‘global’ comics only underscores


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their bias and does scholarly disservice to important national genres such as Japanese manga and the
Franco-Belgian album tradition. Finally, the book proceeds from a largely defunct and dated model
within communications studies, outlined in Chapter 1: a school of thought which has little signifi-
cance in other disciplines where comics studies takes place (i.e., languages and literature programmes,
art history, cultural studies etc.) and is in fact rarely employed even in communication studies today.
Aside from these organizational and conceptual limitations, the text has six related problems.

1. Many of its arguments seem illogical. As early as page four it offers a formal definition of comic
books (‘a volume in which all aspects of the narrative are represented by pictorial and linguistic
images encapsulated in a sequence of juxtaposed panels and pages’). Rather than offering a com-
prehensive survey of the competing conceptions of comics and comic books, the authors offer
their own idiosyncratic take on the issue, resulting in a definition that obscures much more than
it illuminates.
2. The tone of the book is far too casual. This is the first textbook that I have encountered that uses
exclamation marks to add emphasis to its points. Highly debatable aesthetic judgments are pre-
sented bluntly in illustration captions. EC Comics are termed ‘as gory as hell’ (2009: 38). The
authors offer that ‘it is likely that …’ with regard to a question of historical fact rather than pre-
senting well-researched data.
3. Despite including two chapters on comic book history, the book is highly presentist in its under-
standing. Wizard Magazine is given almost as much attention as the question of drawing styles,
and Malibu Comics receives more space than Dell. The superhero orientation of the book leads
the authors to over-emphasize minor players in the development of that genre, at the expense of
much more significant figures in other areas. In general, the book lacks a solid sense of historical
weight, with more recent developments in the field consistently over-described.
4. Although described by the authors as a ‘synthesis’ of ideas (2009: vii), the book lacks a strong
point of view. More than any textbook I have ever read, The Power of Comics defers to the opin-
ions of others and is constantly affirming what other writers and critics have already written,
often irrespective of the merits of the argument. For instance, several pages are devoted to Mike
Benton’s argument that Plastic Man and Captain Marvel are among the most important superhe-
roes ever created. Too often the book reads like a compendium of fan knowledge and common
cultural assumptions rather than a scholarly work.
5. The scholarship is frequently out of date. The two chapters on genre rely on very outdated and
simplistic conceptions of genre as a formal rather than social or economic system. The communi-
cation model used is derived from the cybernetic theory of Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver,
who were writing in 1949. Duncan and Smith must be among the last scholars to be using this
model unproblematically.


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6. The book is filled with factual and analytical errors. On page 40, for example, we learn that Dell
Comics used the ‘comics code’ to put their competitors out of business, which bypasses the real-
ity that Dell never joined the code. We learn that the Air Pirates case went all the way to the
Supreme Court, but in actuality that court refused to hear it. We are told that the ‘Marvel Method’,
whereby pencillers produce pages from a rough outline, is the ‘predominant’ method of comic
book production at present (2009: 114), with no evidence to justify such a statement. Spirou is
identified as an example of the ligne claire style (2009: 297) rather than of the Marcinelle style that
was a direct rival to it.

One final example may serve to illuminate the limitations of The Power of Comics. On page 177 a
paragraph is dedicated to the subject of EC fans, set off with its own sub-heading. The first sentence
concerns the work of Julius Schwartz, who, of course, did not work for EC. The second outlines the
launch of EC horror titles, and the third describes them. The fourth gets to the point, EC fandom, and
reads: ‘By 1953, a handful of the older EC “fan-addicts” were producing mimeographed fanzines’.
None of these fans is named (although Bhob Stewart is named in an accompanying timeline), nor are
any of their fanzines. No mention is made of the EC Fan-Addict Club. No suggestion as to the size
or composition of EC fandom is made, nor any claim to its significance in developing an early net-
work of organized fans and contributing to the rise of a secondary market for comic books as col-
lectibles. In fact, it would be fair to say that in the section on EC fandom, the reader learns very little
about EC fans. Further, this paragraph contains an astounding historical inaccuracy. The authors
state that the ‘comics code’ prohibited the word ‘weird’ in the title of comic books. This is patently
untrue, as any reading of the code itself demonstrates.
Obviously, errors occur in scholarly works all the time (that is what second editions are for). Yet
The Power of Comics is so rife with errors and analytic misjudgements that it is difficult to imagine
what is worth salvaging from it. The book seems targeted at narrowly shaped classes in the American
comic book, but its presentation is so idiosyncratic and factually unreliable that I cannot recommend
it. With luck, a more encompassing and persuasive textbook will be produced in the future.


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Reading Comics: How They Work and What They Mean, Douglas Wolk (2008)
First Edition, Cambridge, MA, USA: Da Capo Press, 416 pp., 0306815095, Hardback,
£13.99 , 0306816164, Paperback, £9.99

Reviewed by Andrew Edwards

Douglas Wolk has established himself as an arts critic writing primarily about music and comics in
both print and electronic media. Reading Comics is his second book, and follows his short, evocative
guide to James Brown’s Live at the Apollo album (Continuum, 2004). Reading Comics is a much longer
work, and it allows Wolk much more space to delve into his passion for comics. He writes from the
perspective of a knowledgeable enthusiast, and this is one of his great strengths as a writer. His prose
is clear, understandable and jargon-free, and his arguments never become bogged down in impene-
trable prose (something which mars some of the more ‘academic’ books in the field). If he can be
likened to anyone in his approach to arts criticism, it is perhaps Pauline Kael, the movie critic.
Puncturing inflated, pseudo-intellectual affectations is a feature of work by both writers: Kael dis-
missed the use of the term ‘film’ as being too elitist, and used ‘movie’ instead; Wolk’s decision to
stick with the term ‘comic’ and its sensible variant ‘art comic’ illustrates a refreshing, common sense
approach to the medium, as opposed to the use of newer, questionable terms that have come into
vogue in recent years, such as ‘graphica’.
Wolk’s book is divided into two main sections. Part one is entitled ‘Theory and History’. The
theory section in the book is not as detailed as works by theorists like Eisner, McCloud and
Groensteen, and this can be viewed as a major failure of the book only because it fails to offer what
it promises in the title – we do not get a sufficiently detailed theoretical explanation of ‘how comics
work’ which would compete with other theorists’ efforts. Without this broken promise, I think that
potential reader disappointment would have been averted. What Wolk does achieve is the effective
communication of what it means to be a fan and enthusiast, and these sections are addictive reading.
They redeem this part of the book to a great extent.
In part two, ‘Reviews and Commentary’, Wolk focuses on specific artists and works. He says
he has deliberately avoided some canonical works and people, such as Jack Kirby, and in doing
so he has given us his own idiosyncratic choices and perspective as an arts critic. As a result we
get reviews and commentaries that focus on a varied crop of artists from mainstream and art
comics, including Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Dave Sim, Chris Ware and Carla Speed McNeil.


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Along with McCloud’s Understanding Comics, Reading Comics could open the eyes of newcomers
as to what the medium is capable of. It is also an engaging and thought-provoking read for fans and
scholars. Wolk’s clear prose style is engaging and easy to understand, unlike some critics’ work, which
is obtuse by comparison. Wolk affords mainstream superhero comics the same respect and attention to
detail as work by artists such as Chris Ware, and this is a positive step. He shows that arts criticism can
be valuable and relevant, and demonstrates that all comics, be they mainstream or art, are valuable.


STIC_1.1_Reviws_159-183.indd 183 3/26/10 2:02:34 PM

Notes for Contributors 2010
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Any matters concerning the format and presentation of
articles not covered by the above notes should be Single issue comics should be referenced as follows:
addressed to the Editor. Delano, J., Case, R., Vozzo, D. and Klein, T. (1995),
‘First Tremor’, Ghostdancing #1, New York: DC Comics.
Quotations Reference in text: (Delano 1995: 10).
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used for a second quotation contained within the first. Moore, A., Bolland, B., Higgins, J. and Starkings,
All long quotations (over 40 words) should be ‘dis- S. 1988), The Killing Joke, London: Titan Books.
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When referencing comics, please use the Harvard sys- most common types of reference:
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STIC_ 1.1_Notes for contributor_184-186.indd 185 3/26/10 2:03:58 PM

Brown, J. (2005), ‘Evaluating surveys of transparent gov- Reinventing Government: Towards Participatory and
ernance’, in UNDESA (United Nations Department of Transparent Governance, Seoul, Republic of Korea,
Economic and Social Affairs), 6th Global Forum on 24–27 May, United Nations: New York.
Reinventing Government: Towards Participatory and Woolley, E. and Muncey, T. (in press), ‘Demons or dia-
Transparent Governance, Seoul, Republic of Korea, monds: a study to ascertain the range of attitudes
24–27 May, United Nations: New York. present in health professionals to children with con-
Denis, Claire (1987), Chocolat, Paris: Les Films du duct disorder’, Journal of Adolescent Psychiatric
Paradoxe. Nursing. (Accepted for publication December 2002).
Flitterman-Lewis, S. (1990), To Desire Differently:
Feminism and the French Cinema, Urbana and Personal communications
Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Personal communications are what the informant said
Grande, M. (1998), ‘Les Images non-dérivées’, in directly to the author, e.g. ‘Pam loved the drums (per-
O. Fahle, (ed.), Le Cinéma selon Gilles Deleuze, Paris: sonal communication)’. This needs no citation in the
Presse de la Sorbonne Nouvelle, pp. 284–302. references list. Equally the use of personal communica-
Gibson, R., Nixon, P. and Ward, S. (eds) (2003), tions need not refer back to a named informant.
Political Parties and the Internet: Net Gain?, London: However, a more formal research interview can be
Routledge. cited in the text (Jamieson 12 August 2004 interview)
Gottfried, M. (1999), ‘Sleeve notes to “Gypsy”’, and in the references list.
[Original Broadway Cast Album] [CD], Columbia
Broadway Masterworks, SMK 60848. Website references
Hottel, R. (1999), ‘Including Ourselves: The Role of Website references are similar to other references.
Female Spectators in Agnès Varda’s Le bonheur and There is no need to decipher any place of publication
L’une chante, l’autre pas’, Cinema Journal, 38: 2, or a specific publisher, but the reference must have an
pp. 52–72. author, and the author must be referenced Harvard-
Johnson, C. (1998), ‘The Secret Diary of Catherine style within the text. Unlike paper references, however,
Johnson’, programme notes to Mamma Mia! web pages can change, so there needs to be a date of
[Original West End Production], dir. Phyllida Lloyd. access as well as the full web reference. In the list of
Richmond, J. (2005), ‘Customer expectations in the references at the end of your article, the item should
world of electronic banking: a case study of the Bank read something like this:
of Britain’, Ph.D. thesis, Chelmsford: Anglia Ruskin Bondebjerg, K. (2005), ‘Web Communication and the
University. Public Sphere in a European Perspective’, http://
Rodgers, Richard and Hammerstein II, Oscar (n.d.), www.media.ku.dk. Accessed 15 February 2005.
Carousel: A Musical Play (vocal score ed. Dr Albert
Submission Procedures
Sirmay), Williamson Music.
Articles submitted to this journal should be original
Roussel, R. ([1914] 1996), Locus Solus, Paris: Gallimard.
and not under consideration by any other publication.
Stroöter-Bender, J. (1995), L’Art contemporain dans les
Contributions should be submitted electronically as an
pays du ‘Tiers Monde’ (trans. O. Barlet), Paris:
email attachment. Please contact the journal’s editors
for further details.
UNDESA (United Nations Department of Economic
and Social Affairs) (2005), 6th Global Forum on


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