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Review of The Narratology of Comic Art

By Jean Braithwaite

Mikkonen, Kai. The Narratology of Comic Art. Routledge, 2017.

Kai Mikkonen has been working toward The Narratology of Comic Art more than a decade, judging by the publication dates of technical articles which prefigured some of its chapters. In this monograph, Mikkonen aims to bring together comics studies and narratology, using each field to inspire advances in the other: “while narrative theory is brought to bear on comics, comics are equally brought to bear on narrative theory” (2). To that end, Mikkonen has read everything pertaining to comics narratology/comics studies, also delving deeply into literary narratology (classical and post-) and film studies. He puts this scholarship into active service for his readers. There are also forays in directions outside the usual sphere of an academic scholar of comics—for instance the academic literature on picture books. Mikkonen reads both French and English (he has published in both languages, also Finnish), which is a decided plus. His German, I’m guessing, is perhaps not quite on a par with his other languages, since Schüwer’s Wie comics erzählen is the only German entry in the bibliography. But still! Mikkonen is very well positioned to assess the international state of the field in comics narratology.

For me, and I think for anyone else with a professional stake in comics studies or narratology, this book is an indispensable resource. It’s not easy reading, however. The book is dense and requires close study. Almost any reader with a less than Mikkonen level of erudition (which certainly includes me) is going to find at least certain parts of it hard slogging. But I urge you to persist: the insights are worth it, and so is the confidence that Mikkonen won’t let you miss any important references relevant to comics storytelling.

Mikkonen has divided his text into five parts: “Time in Comics,” “Graphic Showing and Style,” “Narrative Transmission,” “Speech and Thought in Narrative Comics,” and “Narrative Form and Publication Content.” Parts I and V consist of only one chapter each and Part IV of only two chapters—one on dialogue and one on mind presentation. The arrangement of topics is neither completely modular, with self-contained chapters, nor completely progressive, as in a textbook that frontloads the most straightforward material. Everything you want is in this book, but it might not all be in the same chapter, and I, at least, needed two full close readthroughs before I understood how its parts related to each other. I believe if the book were mine, I might have tried to portion out the pie differently, eliminating Part IV by moving the dialogue chapter forward to section I and assimilating the material on mind presentation into the other chapters touching on character or subjectivity. But I don’t mean to be over-critical: Mikkonen is dealing with cutting-edge material and he has made every effort to be methodical in laying it out; the ideas are large, the debates wide-ranging, and everything is connected to everything else. There is no perfect order of presentation.

Time makes a good starting place; Mikkonen chose well there. The time chapter is Genettian in its organization of subtopics (order, duration, frequency) but has very broad implications regarding how comics are knit together at various structural levels: panel, sequence, and page layout. In this chapter, as in subsequent ones, Mikkonen deftly fulfills the promise to bring narratological concepts into dialogue with existing theories of comics (major reference points include but are not limited to McCloud, Marion, Peeters, Schüwer, Groensteen, Miller, Baetens and Frey), and well-chosen examples from artist-writers include but are not limited to Ware (Building Stories), Vivès (A Taste of Chlorine), and Fred.

The final chapter is a diachronic analysis of early 19th-century British comics and related forms (e.g. caricature, the illustrated press), prior to the ascendancy of sequential action as the predominant mode of picture stories. For readers with a strong preference for synchronic analysis, or who confine their attention to the intellectually ambitious long-form comics of the most recent decades, this final chapter will be a tangential afterthought. For others, it will be the capstone. Either way, it is possible to connect Mikkonen’s diachronic analysis to issues that should be of foundational interest to all comics theorists. What date do we assign to the emergence of narrative comics? Are their features intrinsic and inevitable or are they historically contingent? Mikkonen has already made his philosophy plain much earlier—“Narratological concepts are not timeless universals but developed on the basis of particular corpora” (9)—and he is extremely comfortable in historical territory, expansively detailed as always. This is also one of the few places where Mikkonen introduces new terminology in which to couch his ideas. He taxonomizes the narrative (or narrative-ish) strategies seen in satirical illustrated magazines during this period as “juxtaposition, sequentiality, and simultaneity” (252), one genus of which he subdivides into “two basic forms of sequentiality: the episodic sequential form and the narrative continuity sequence” (260), the latter of which is, so to speak, further along a continuum of narrativity. Characteristically, though, he assures us that that the distinction is not always that clear cut and that pure forms of the types are rare. (The dude never met a dichotomy or a binary opposition that he liked!)

In the middle chapters belonging to Part II and Part III, the material is especially difficult to disentangle, as Mikkonen takes up some of the most technically challenging topics, and, not coincidentally, some of the longest-standing and most contentious theoretical debates in comics/narratology. The title of Chapter 2, “Narration as Showing,” encapsulates one of the most important conceptual themes that runs through TNOCA: since (at least some) comics present stories largely or even exclusively in the form of images, traditional narratological theories must be revised to take account of the fact that a story can be “told” by showing. Without such adjustments, no comics-specific narratology, or transmedial narratology for that matter, is possible. The closely related matters of narration and focalization are taken up in Part III. Or perhaps both these topics are actually just different aspects of the same fundamental issue of showing-as-telling: Must every narrative have a narrator? What kinds of narrators (or narrator-alternatives) are there in comics, and by what cues do we identify handoffs between one type of narrative mediacy and another (e.g. go from an objective/external perspective to a subjective/internal one)? NB: these are my words, not a summary of Mikkonen’s account; I’m just trying to be clear about the issues that anyone’s theory would need to handle.

According to Mikkonen, to begin to answer such questions it is necessary to extend Genette’s canonical distinction between narrator and focal character—who sees and who says—into another dimension: what is shown? This formulation is one of Mikkonen’s most important theoretical contributions. It appears first in Chapter 2 (87) and a subsection is devoted to it in Chapter 6 (152-155). It deserves, in my view, even more emphasis and discussion than he has given it, and this will surely be a site of future give and take in the field.

In Chapter 5, “Narrative Agency,” Mikkonen spends much time methodically reviewing concepts invented by scholars of film regarding a putative “agency or agent that is responsible for the selection, arranging, and distribution of the story material” (129). But this concept is ambiguous, he says, since such an agent can refer to either an “extratextual source” or “implied author” imagined by the reader, “or an instrument or a structural principle within ‘the text itself’ that functions as a kind of reading instructions.” Nicely put. Mikkonen’s “intention is to combine these two views” (129)—another characteristic move; where there are two opposed schools of thought, Mikkonen frequently chooses both-and, not either-or. He then fully describes the concepts of “fundamental narrator” and “monstration” first introduced by Gaudreault in film theory, modified by Marion for comics with the concept of graphiation, and recast again by Groensteen, whose fundamental narrator delegates functions to both a monstrator in the image track of comics and a “reciter” in the verbal track.

At the tail end of the “Fundamental Narrator” subsection, but without making a big deal about it, Mikkonen mentions “false assumptions about symmetric organization between narratives in different media, for instance, that all narratives would make use of narrators” (134). The fact that Mikkonen says we shouldn’t assume every narrative must have a narrator doesn’t mean he’s assuming the opposite, though. He is in general reluctant to make unequivocal proclamations, not even, say, “It is not the case that every narrative must have a narrator.” But he seems to lean in that direction. The spectrum of theoretical possibilities he lays out for graphic show-ers (narrators or narrator-substitutes) ends with the one he appears to favor, “impersonal narration”; two subsequent sections are titled “Wordless Impersonal Perspectives” and “Impersonal Visual Imagining.” Once again, Mikkonen does not much emphasize his “impersonal narration” concept, nor does he ever loudly and clearly say “comics don’t have to have narrators,” though I think it’s there between the lines. I’m not sure whether he’s hedging his bets, just being modest about his conclusions, or whether he thought his understated argument was plenty forceful enough for a well-informed, alert reader. In any case, he’s leaving room for future discussion.

Another place where Mikkonen arguably underemphasizes his own theoretical positions is Chapter 3, “Character as a Means of Narrative Continuity.” Here Mikkonen unfolds what I regard as a thrillingly original insight. Since he devoted a chapter to it, he must have considered it important, but the significance of his concept could have been underlined—and in my view should have—by giving it a name. Let me explain. By the end of Chapter 1, Mikkonen has already pointed out the “most obvious feature” of comics, its “discontinuous spatial form” (64), and discussed panel transitions and connectivity in terms and concepts invented by other people, with particular emphasis on McCloud and his critics. Chapter 2 then notes that there are “[a]t least two” possible approaches to accounting for how comics tell by showing: one might “revisit” the concept of monstration (through the Gaudreault-Marion-Groensteen line of descent, excuse the oversimplification), or else “analyse the synthetic role of the continuing character as a means of connectivity and coherence” (81). Mikkonen proceeds to devote one chapter to each approach without emphasizing that the second one is his own brand-new, original contribution to comics narratology. But it appears to be; all the other people he cites either have not said quite the same thing or else have only fleetingly mentioned the connective-cohesive role of repeated images of what is recognizably the same character. In fact, though, it’s really worth making a big deal about this idea, so much so that I am going to take the liberty of proposing new terminology for it myself.

Here is how I see it. In Groensteen’s influential and much-cited theory, “iconic solidarity” is that which ties together the separate images in the separate panels. But this concept is extremely abstract. Mikkonen’s notion that a character which is displayed and referred to primarily graphically, in the image track, constitutes the main narrative glue that holds the typical comic together can be used to invest Groensteen’s prior concept with some real explanatory bite. Visually represented characters are how comics achieve iconic solidarity, usually anyway: the same entity is repeated across panel boundaries, establishing a felt ongoing presence. I’m not saying nobody has ever noticed this fact before; au contraire, everyone who makes or reads comics has noticed it, though perhaps only subliminally. There’s a relevant joke in Chris Ware’s “A Short History of Cartooning: Our New Altarpiece™.” One nun says about the artist’s rendering of the stations of the cross, “Why do you paint twelve Christs, when we know there is only one?” (Ware, ACME Report, 24).

Sometimes vital things surround us so completely that they don’t even seem to need naming or discussion. Have you heard the one about the old grandpa fish trying to make conversation with a couple of youngsters? “How’s the water, boys?” he says. They nod and smile politely but as soon as the geezer moves on, one turns to the other: “What the heck is ‘water’?”

It’s easy to disregard the water—if one even perceives it in the first place—but the fish couldn’t swim or breathe without it, and any half-decent theoretical account of the affordances of their environment had better mention water. Mikkonen appears to have been the first to realize that what I now want to call “figural iconic solidarity” needs and deserves to have a whole chapter devoted to it in a truly medium-specific narratological analysis of comics: “the repetition of the same character in a panel sequence creates a visual bridge between the images” (92) and the “impression of a continuing character … is a dominant convention” in narrative comics (99). In a later chapter on characterization, while contrasting the affordances of comics to those of words-only prose literature, Mikkonen comes back again to the power of figural iconic solidarity: “The character’s [graphic] continuing presence in the panels serves as a point of reference that helps the reader to construe an entity as a person-like character” (183). This is potentially a major line of inquiry.

And, yes, Mikkonen realizes that figural iconic solidarity is not the only type there can be: in Chapter 3 he mentions and in Chapter 7 discusses important examples of comics whose narrativity and/or thematic interest relies on something other than characters (e.g. McGuire’s Here and Crumb’s “A Short History of America”).

I have by no means covered everything of importance in this jam-packed volume, but I will mention just one more early detail that I liked. Mikkonen notes that “some of the most popular theories of meaning-making in comics focus on gaps in information between the panels in a sequence” (38), as though the gutter, or maybe the panel boundary, were the essence of comics. Pushing back against this idea are Baetens and Frey who “point out that the diegetic function of the gutter can vary widely” (40), and Neil Cohn who notes that closure only happens after you’ve read past the gap (68n10). Mikkonen takes a satisfyingly firm position on the matter: “we must recognize the importance of the panel relation, not the space in between” (40).

The Narratology of Comic Art is a work of deep and thorough scholarship. Mikkonen is generous in citing and giving credit to previous scholars. He includes examples from comics from a variety of traditions, sometimes discussing them extensively, in nuanced, narratologically-informed readings. I appreciate his precision and clarity in detailing current narratological debates and historical threads, as well as his collaborative enthusiasm for the future of comics studies. He has given careful consideration to the commonalities and differences between comics and literature on the one hand, film on the other. His suggestions for tweaking transmedial and multi-modal narratological thinking in light of the medium-specific affordances of comics include some insights which could have been highlighted more than they were, but in any case, I am sure this volume will fuel much ongoing debate and discussion.

Posted in Volume 10, Issue 3: Comics and Fine Art Forum