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Burke in the Gutter: Dramatistic Criticism of Comics

By A. Cheree Carlson

“The main ideal of criticism, as I conceive it, is to use all there is to use.”
(Burke, 1973, 23)

As an integral part of American popular culture for over a century, comics have been examined and critiqued from a number of academic perspectives, including semiotics (Eco and Chilton), cultural studies (Wright), and art (Carrier). Attempts by communication scholars to examine comics using traditional rhetorical concepts are relatively recent, and published works still spend nearly as much time legitimizing this approach to their home disciplines as applying it (Kuechenmeister; Smith and Duncan; Duncan). As a result, we miss an opportunity to appreciate the manner in which these tools can show us new avenues and techniques of symbolic manipulation in comics.

That gap also hinders the robust development of comic criticism that moves from textual interpretation to practical application. Rhetorical critics have long recognized that a well-crafted narrative serves as much more than a literary device or a way to introduce interest into an otherwise dull topic. Narratives are also powerful persuasive tools that invite audiences to share a point of view or pursue a common goal. Thus, many rhetorical theories of narrative reach beyond the interpretation of a text in search of the narrative strategies and tools of persuasion (Fisher; Kirkwood; White). Although criticism of comics has a robust tradition of exploring the persuasive effects of comics, especially as propaganda, there is less examination of how a creator might actively craft such persuasive tools (Dubose; Murray; Scott; Wright).

One of the principle advantages of rhetorical theories of narrative persuasion is their applicability to every possible form of storytelling—even those which do not consider themselves “stories.” Critical interest ranges from political discourse (Fisher), to editorial cartoons (Bostdorff; Sewell), to law (Weisberg). A particular benefit of such wide ranging investigation is that each new kind of text is a new opportunity to expand our understanding of the range of rhetorical tools available for both the creation and criticism of powerful narratives that frame our perception of the world and modify our relationships to it. Each new medium has different potentials and different constraints: “we must bear in mind how the medium itself offers unique possibilities for storytelling, even as it imposes limitations on how the story can be told” (Lefèvre 31). One of the exciting features of comics is that they utilize the largest symbolic arsenal possible (Eisner; McCloud). Comics exploit the potentials of a wide range of media such as visuals, text, pacing, and shifting perspectives. The overlapping of textual modes creates a sort of critical dialectic: fertile ground for discovering underlying commonalities across forms of symbolizing used by humans to define their social worlds. Each new text adds another opportunity for the critic to appreciate, and potentially utilize, a new transformative element. Thus, the field of narrative techniques is perhaps larger in comics than any other single medium. Comics layer elements in combinations of images, sequences, position, word balloons, and even font styles. And there is no guarantee that all the elements are telling the same story. The words might communicate one idea while the images might communicate something else altogether. These manipulations of terms are ideal sites for the kind of manipulations that Kenneth Burke places at the heart of rhetoric:

At every point where the field covered by any one of these terms overlaps upon the field covered by any other, there is an alchemic opportunity, whereby we can put one philosophy or doctrine of motivation into the alembic, make the appropriate passes, and take out another. (Burke, A Grammar of Motives, xix)

This essay will demonstrate the application of the dramatistic theory of persuasion to comics. In so doing, dramatism can also expand the role of comics as consciously persuasive. One of the central elements of influence championed by Burke is the use of symbols to challenge preconceived notions and open the mind to new possibilities of action. Dramatism could eventually help critics appreciate the possibilities of comics as “equipment for living;” texts whose effects “should apply beyond literature to life in general” (Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form, 256).

This essay is an investigation of how dramatistic analysis of comics attempts to expand our understanding of the complexities of influence available in an as yet under-appreciated rhetorical avenue. It offers a few beginning examples of Burkean tools that could be applied to comics. An analysis of pages from two texts will combine an examination of narrative creation with appreciation of the myriad of devices that can manipulate the mind of the audience as it co-creates. Each analysis will be “framed” by dramatism, to demonstrate how its tools can generate critical insights that move beyond the limits of literary analysis.

These tools include the pentad, which allows us to see the manipulations of the “expected” formal structure of the narrative, and perspective by incongruity, which reveals how a violation of such expectations can move the audience to question habits of thought or at least recognize them for the artificial structures they are. From there it will be easier to see how the potentialities of comics allow each to challenge those expectations in innovative and unique ways.

Since my purpose is to reveal the rich possibilities of these concepts on an entire medium, it is important to be wide ranging in my demonstration. Thus, for the sake of demonstrating the ubiquitous potential of these tools, I have chosen these examples from two poles of comic genres. The one important criterion is that each comic pursues a sustained narrative, so that each example can be analyzed as part of a coherent context. The first text is an avowed work of narrative excellence in comic form: Watchmen (Moore and Gibbons). Since such a canonized work might be considered somehow exceptional, the next example is drawn from a mass market, regularly produced action comic: Scarlett: Declassified from the G.I. Joe series (O’Sullivan).

Dramatism, Narrative, and Comics

Burke is arguably one of the most influential theorists of the twentieth century (Coupe; Duncan; Kimberling; White and Brose), yet his concepts have rarely been applied to comics. In the recent Routledge Companion to Comics, Duncan’s discussion of rhetoric and comics names only one dramatistic study: a plot-driven analysis of Iron Man (Duncan; Thomas). Dramatism’s potential as a critical perspective on comics therefore remains relatively unexplored well into the twenty-first century.

This lacuna is especially unfortunate, because the theory is so intimately concerned with the effect of symbols, in whatever form, upon human identity and social order. As noted earlier, comics draw upon the tools and techniques of several media, and then combine and transform them in unique ways. Dramatistic theory is equally wide ranging: Burke himself explored everything from popular culture to politics and religion in forms as disparate as advertising, classical literature, and musical theater. Dramatism acknowledges intertextuality and celebrates the combining of multiple techniques of manipulating symbols. The insights it provides to other symbol-laden mediums can add new depths to the medium of comics.

There is special potential in the exploration of those tools of comics that are unique to the medium. Comics layer their texts within a visual code of panels, frames, “visible words” and “hyperframes” (Groensteen). Multiple levels of complexity are manipulated so as to dictate a number of things to the reader. The process is vital to directing the reader’s interpretation. Dramatism also recognizes a form of “framing” as a central concept. A dramatistic frame is a “more or less organized system of meanings” that humans use as a shorthand for situations (Burke, Permanence and Change, 5). They allow us to efficiently assess situations and then draw from a set of defined responses. There is a similarity between the two ideas of “frame” because, broadly speaking, both direct our focus to certain cues that dictate interpretation. Dramatistic frames are composed mainly through linguistic symbols. Comic frames are visual. The two constructs should have much to “say” to each other.

Of course, in comics some of the most complicated manipulations involve what is not shown, in that empty space full of meaning: the gutter. This tool is unavailable to rhetors in any other medium: the ability to use “nothing” to direct the timing and interpretation of the narrative. The blank canvas of a work of art, or the moment of stasis in a film can allow or encourage an audience response, but the creator can consciously arrange the empty space on the comic page in an attempt to dictate what the audience thinks about, shape what the audience thought about, and set the amount of time the audience spends thinking it.

The gutter is essentially a blank canvas for the mind. “Here in the limbo of the gutter, human imagination takes two separate images and transforms them into a single idea” (McCloud 66-67). The comic creator can use the gutter as a rhetorical device by “framing” the empty space with words and/or images that prompt and constrain the direction of readers’ thoughts. Images that draw attention to certain clues, or evoke traditional narrative patterns, potentially predispose readers’ to imagine specific outcomes. On any given page, the deliberate configuration of empty white space asks the reader to fill in the missing pieces by interpreting what they believe should happen next, based on what they are primed to believe. That interpretation, in turn, can provide clues as to how the next set of panels and gutters should be interpreted (Groensteen). For example, the comics alchemist might frame several panels of an action to direct the perceived rhythm of events. In the gutter lies the alembic that transforms this rhythm into message. Hence, what happens between the frames is often just as important as what happens inside the panels.

The gutter also serves an important enthymematic purpose in the overall narrative. Reading comics is an extremely interactive process. The author lays down a path, but the reader must actively cooperate in the process of transforming the sequence into a narrative. It is the job of the reader to “fill in the blanks.” Those empty spaces then become full of possible interpretations from readers, each with their individual expectations of form and content. Comics artists can take advantage of this in the same fashion that arguers take advantage of pre-existing beliefs in their audience. One can establish symbolic premises that create expectations in the viewer, then fulfill, or possibly dismantle them. The ability to “trick” audiences through simultaneous multiple manipulations of both visual and verbal elements provides comics creators with yet another tool in their narrative arsenal. And these tools get used in sophisticated ways across all manner of comics art.


Perhaps the best way to spot sophisticated symbolic manipulation operating in a comic is to begin with a class of work recognized as a “masterpiece.” Watchmen (1986), was one of the first comics to be publically labeled as such by the literary establishment. It is recognized as a great narrative work, regardless of genre (Barnes; Berlatsky; Prince). It serves as an exemplar of the kind of symbolic manipulation celebrated in dramatistic theory.

Watchmen, created by Alan Moore (script) and Dave Gibbons (art), presents an alternate universe where costumed crime fighters exist as ordinary people who have no super powers (with one exception). They lose their edge—and their relevance—as they age, become criminalized as vigilantes, and deal with forced retirement as best they can. Some do not deal well at all.

This premise is more than a simple twist on a generic form; it is a clear violation of the entire established superhero narrative trope of the costumed crusader who fights crime using only his/her human strength, knowledge, and wits. This orientation sprang full-blown from one of its earliest narratives—one that encapsulated all the formal elements of this kind of superhero: Batman. In Burkean terms, Batman serves as a “representative anecdote”—the narrative touchstone against which all other similar stories must be measured (Burke A Grammar of Motives). Watchmen deliberately reminds us of those traditional standards by including a “typical” character. Nite Owl bears a striking resemblance to Batman, which ties the narrative directly to the superhero narrative. As the story unfolds, however, that pattern is subverted. By the time he rebels against the ban on vigilantism, Nite Owl is passé. His forays into crime fighting are immaterial to the larger threat. It becomes clear that there is very little that a traditional hero can accomplish in a corrupt totalitarian society. Watchmen evokes and deconstructs the narrative simultaneously; the resulting tension resists structural norms.

Because Watchmen is embedded in a fully developed narrative form, one of the largest constraints upon the authors is that all the expected elements of the story are already rigidly defined. Their masterful response to this challenge reveals the way in which multiple narrative tools can be used to generate new meanings from old forms. Burke supplies an equally powerful critical tool aimed precisely at narrative transformation; the pentad. Burke developed the pentad to serve as a “grammar” from which a critic can build tools to examine all kinds of rhetoric (A Grammar of Motives). He contends that all narratives are composed of permutations of five key terms: Act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose. The generic nature of these elements means that the basics of form and content are a universal framework from which to examine the relationship between a text and the expectations of its audience. As Burke continually emphasized, the five key terms are not merely plot elements; rather, they serve as shorthand for all the possible ways to create emphasis upon a particular interpretation of reality. The exact same elements can be taken up by different hands and worked into radically different texts.

One key focus of the pentad, agency, has historically attracted much rhetorical attention, mainly because it deals with generating possibilities of actions that a narrative’s actors can take. Agency focuses our attention on the agent’s response to the material (scenic) elements of a situation, emphasizing the power of human choice to alter subsequent events. Watchmen plays with and upon the agent/agency relationship established in the superhero narrative.

One appeal of the superhero form is that heroic agency is portrayed as attainable by ordinary human agents. One needn’t be born on another planet, possess mutant genes, or be struck by fortuitous radiation in order to identify oneself as an agent. This narrative identification can be extremely compelling. For an example, one need only visit “The Super Hero Registry,” which proudly proclaims “This website deals with the actual incorporation of the superhero archetype into daily life.” It is literally a support site for vigilante heroes, on every subject from costuming to legal ramifications. It maintains a registry of those who have actively adopted the superhero role, and those doing so can submit photos of themselves in costume. What sets this site apart from an ordinary fan page is that the registry checks submissions. One’s activities have to be documented, mainly through media coverage. One actually has to have enacted the role in order to be a member (Kevlex).

Given the appeal and longevity of the narrative, Moore and Gibbon’s attempt to translate these characters from superheroes into ordinary, aging, and possibly not-quite-sane individuals is an extreme violation of the formal expectations of the audience. This was much more radical in the 1980s than it might appear to be now, partly because Watchmen so successfully altered the standard formula. The creators’ first task in that endeavor was to find a way to prepare the audience for the narrative to come, so as to avoid immediate rejection. They began that work on the first page of the first issue.

Watchmen‘s style is overtly cinematic and makes use of several formal conventions related to film. The panels do not merely progress through the story, they move around it like a camera, sometimes focusing on the same spot for an extended period, merely changing an angle of view or drawing the eye to specific details. There is one important difference, however, between this and an actual camera. Were this a film, the audience would be constrained to watch the images in sequence, and there would be no opportunity for them pause or think actively about what they see. In comics, all the panels on a page are available at once. Only a tacit contract between writer and reader guarantees that the reader won’t jump to the ending first. To further prevent that possibility, the authors must go to extra lengths to make the audience read the page as if it were film, yet still utilize the narrative structure of sequential art (Groensteen, 45).

The very first page of the novel translates cinematic techniques into reading cues. The opening panels compose an extended take with a dolly camera. The perspective begins tightly, continuing the image from the original cover, now repurposed as a chapter cover, focused on a smiley face badge spattered with blood, then pulls out, but stays aimed at approximately the same spot on the street. The cinematic illusion is furthered through framing. The page (and nearly every page in the work) is set up with tidy rectangles in ordered rows of three per tier, making each line resemble a film strip. The reader is thus informed symbolically that these panels ought to be viewed as a dolly shot. Despite this long slow take, it actually takes quite a while for the reader to actually “see” what is going on. This delay allows Moore and Gibbons to deliberately create misunderstandings and false assumptions—all the better to jolt the reader when the truth is revealed.

Figure 1: Moore, Alan and Dave Gibbons. Watchmen. NY: DC Comics, 1986, rpt 1995): 1.

This process relies upon a tension between the verbal component and its accompanying visual component. In each frame, the view changes slightly, while the voice of the unseen Rorschach (via his journal) rolls on in a steady stream. The reader quickly suspects that the diarist is one of the titular characters. The writer is disgusted by the decay of the city and dwells upon its rot from frame one. This scenario creates an even closer tie between comic and cinema, for the use of a diary to rant about city scum and vermin echoes the same technique used in Taxi Driver to establish mood. The intentional resemblance between Rorschach and Travis Bickle also serves as a technique for quickly conveying a wealth of information about Rorschach’s character in the space of a page.

When the voiceover begins, there is no apparent incongruity between the scene and the narration. The line “Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach” accompanies a tight close up of blood spattered on the street. The only odd note is the stylized yellow “happy face” button apparently floating on top of the blood. As the voiceover continues, the writer shifts to condemnation of the city itself. He describes the city as being so evil that blood runs into the sewers until they vomit it all back. The metaphorical camera pulls back until the reader can see there is no dog, just blood on a street grate, and the smiley button is lying on the drain. At this point, the audience is meant to experience confusion—where is the blood from? Is the city literally vomiting blood from the grate? That moment of disorientation partially passes with the very next panel. As Rorschach continues to lay blame at the feet of “politicians …. lechers and communists,” the “camera” rises and we see people standing in a large puddle of blood running down the drain. One man, dressed as a restaurant worker, is trying to hose the blood from the street, none too successfully. The scene depicts agents, of sorts, but no one seems to have agency. The pairing of the words and images sets up a pentadic pattern that infuses the city itself with its own trouble. The scene is repellant. The people who live in the city are merely extensions of the rot. No one is taking action of any sort to stop the decline. There is apparently nowhere to go, no one to trust. Expecting the conventional “hero comic” form, the reader is quite ready for the revolutionary “No” with which Rorschach rejects the evil of the city and sets it all aside. This is the quintessential moment of resistance. In the expected hero tale, this would be the moment when the dark knight dons his hood. In this case, however, the scene is too far gone to ameliorate. Rorschach doesn’t reject the evil; he rejects the entire notion of heroism. He not only refuses to help, he also immediately rejects the possibility that there is anybody left who can say anything to save the world. The rant stops, rendering the power of human agency totally moot. Nobody can do anything. This is the first moment where the story completely rejects agency. Watchmen is a superhero story that begins by denying the possibility of heroism.

It is at that precise moment that the camera has reached the level of a window, rimmed by broken glass. The camera has pulled up until we can see that all along we have been looking at the aftermath of a fall. The camera shot is no longer tight; indeed, the last panel of the page takes up an entire tier, which is equal in size to the other two tiers of three panels each, providing a clear panoramic view of the scene. The dolly shot is over. A person leaning out a smashed window looks down at the sidewalk below, which stretches into the distance. We suddenly see that what has happened here is definitely not an accident involving a dead dog. The turnabout is complete. The blood came not from an animal but a human; it came not from below but from above. And one person, at least, has found the perfect thing to say: “Hmm. That’s quite a drop” (emphasis in original).

Utilizing the conventions of film allows Moore and Gibbons to make several definitive changes to the traditional form of comics. Comic narrative is traditionally straightforward and direct. Images are used to develop and reinforce the central message of the text. As long as the reader pays attention, the text will lead them along the expected trajectory. The frame-by-frame shots that draw the eye along to scenes that almost complement what the words are saying, give the reader no time to fully resolve their confusion before encountering the final twist. The last shot of the street is therefore dizzying in more ways than one. For a short time, the reader is still reeling from the first disorientation when at the expected moment the hero does not take up the task. But in the very moment that the story implies that human action is futile, the focus of the last panel shifts from scene to act. A human agent has done something in response to the scene, restoring the agentic orientation that was momentarily lost. We do not know yet what kind of action—murder, suicide, or rescue—nor do we know whether it has helped or harmed the city. Thus, in the space of a single page, the reader is disoriented twice. The first time is the realization that the classic superhero form does not hold true across all narratives. But as soon as the reader buys into the bleak dystopian narrative, they are immediately pulled again into the realm of human action, where for better or worse, something can be done. At the end, all expectations shattered, the reader is prepared for the unconventional take on life, narratives, and heroism.

In additional service to the narrative, the pairing of the sudden pull from scene to act, the words of Rorschach develop his character and tie him directly to the reader’s discomfort. The boxes containing the narration are variously shaped and rough edged. The color evokes a very faded sheet of paper. These torn and faded “scraps” of narrative evoke fragile fragments of the past even as they tell us about the present day. Rorschach is a “throwback,” constrained by the past into habits of thought that will define his choices. Although he seems on the whole to be right about the symptoms of evil in the city, the accompanying images serve to prove that he is wrong about the import of those symptoms, and too quick to accept their inevitability—as perhaps was the reader.

Scarlett: Declassified

Naturally, it is not difficult to find clever framing and multilayered meaning in an avowed masterpiece like Watchmen. But what about the more mundane world of a regular monthly comic, meant to entertain the masses and develop an economically profitable franchise? Even in that effort, there are frequent moments when audiences are challenged to rethink established beliefs; they might even be tricked into it. As an example, we will now take a look at a classic workhorse of popular comics, the G.I. Joe series. G.I. Joe is arguably one of the most successful marketing tie-ins in advertising history. It is also possibly the venue where one would least expect to find persuasive appeals (besides the obvious toy sales).

It might come as a surprise to some readers that the classic 1960s Hasbro G.I. Joe was a lone male soldier. Since the 1980s, the “Joes” have been an elite paramilitary fighting force, composed of a variety of characters who use high-tech weapons and advanced fighting skills. In addition to their incarnation as plastic action figures, the Joes have appeared in a variety of media formats: traditional comics, paperback novels, animated television series, live action films, and video games. Generations of young people grew up reading and recreating the saga of the Joes in their endless battle against the terrorist organization COBRA.

Hasbro initially licensed the Joes concept to Marvel comics, but since then the franchise has changed hands several times.1 In 2006 the latest owner of the franchise began an effort to provide more complex biographies for the characters in order to add more depth to the overall narrative. They created the Declassified series—one shot comics each focusing on the origins of a particular Joe. The Declassified comics added insights into why and how each member was there. Among these was O’Sullivan & Noto’s 2006 Scarlett: Declassified, which used an extended flashback to tell the backstory of the first female Joe.

The difficulty of inserting a woman into the violent world of the Joes extends well beyond any formal expectations of a narrative and reaches into the gendered nature of American culture itself. Gender norms are embedded so deeply that they appear to be “natural,” and hence, unquestioned. An additional factor here is that the industry itself has not historically granted agency to women as creators in the medium. Early publishers pushed women into the sub-genre of “women’s comics” and rarely allowed then into the mainstream. As a result, “the best-known creators of comics are men pretty much all the way down” (Wolk 70), and “they’ve assumed most of their readers were, too” (Anders). The result of this imbalance has been that on the whole, by the turn of the twenty-first century there had been few challenges to the standard image of women as ancillary figures; there to provide someone for the hero to rescue, to serve as sex object, or to assist the “real” hero.

The pedant tool is once again useful in understanding this gender transition for the Joes. In order to establish that Scarlett is as much a “real American hero” as the male Joes, O’Sullivan and Noto must overcome more than a preexisting narrative expectation within comics—they must challenge stereotypes deeply entrenched in American culture. “Soldier” and “Female” are still mutually exclusive categories. “The soldier must be masculine but to be masculine the soldier cannot be female” (Howard III and Prividera). In response to this challenge, the authors use the skillful combination of elements that result in one of the central tools of influence championed by Burke; “perspective by incongruity” (Attitudes Toward History). Burke’s overall claim is that in order to interpret and organize their experiences in the world, humans construct complex symbolic structures that serve to “orient” their interpretation in specific directions. We all have our “orientations” and we defend them vigorously. When conditions change and the orientation does not, one might literally be blind to new social problems and potential solutions. Therefore, perspective by incongruity is an important tool for addressing the rigidity of orientations. One makes use of established habits of thought by pulling the associated symbols into a new context that throws those habits into stark relief. The anticipated result is that the contrast will force the audience to question those habits, or at least recognize them for the artificial structures they are. The goal of this is to “[re-moralize] by accurately naming a situation already demoralized by inaccuracy” (Burke Attitudes Toward History 309).

The character of Scarlett had existed since 1982, so for regular readers of the series, at least, the idea of a female soldier (albeit in a skin-tight suit) was not alien. But in 2006, the franchise was picked up by a new publisher who released the origin series—an excellent opportunity for recreating the characters and modifying the Joe “universe.” Deepening the characters was also a good way to attract new readers to the series by adding some narrative substance. O’Sullivan and Noto, then, had two audiences, readers embedded in the prior narrative, and readers who as yet had no impression. Although these groups would come in with different expectations of Scarlett, it was a good bet that all would bring the same expectations of women as a class. This was an orientation that was long overdue for some shaking up.

Master Sergeant Shana O’Hara (codename Scarlett) is an expert in the martial arts and has a deadly aim with a high tech crossbow. Scarlett: Declassified is an extended flashback, set in a time before the main events of the series, when Scarlett is traveling to join the Joes for the first time. Her fellow passenger is also a new recruit and throughout the comic she addresses this person. As she tells her story, the narrative moves to a flashback within a flashback. The story itself contains a dizzying array of time jumps, as it moves between her childhood, her army career and her training as an F.B.I. agent—but not always in chronological order. The page in question for this analysis, however, is the earliest in terms of “real” time. It introduces us to Shana O’Hara at around nine years old.

Figure 2: O’Sullivan, Mike and Phil Noto. Scarlett: Declassified. Chicago: Devils Due Publishing, July 2006: 14.

The previous pages had been filled with action, color, and violence—not to mention that COBRA villain who is about to attack Scarlett. The narrative voice suddenly takes a turn: “I guess I really should start at the beginning.” When the reader turns the page, everything literally comes to a stop. From movement, we are jerked to stasis. The individual panels are set up in a solid vertical stack on the page. Each tier is a single rectangle stretching across the page. The color scheme shifts into a cool pale green, so that the red of young Shana’s ponytail draws the eye. The top panel contains an abundance of empty space, filled in the center only by a girl’s face surrounded by softly shaded word balloons. The overall effect is to calm the eye, slow down the reading, and focus on the series of centered images that proceed downward. These images are purely agent oriented. We see Shana, and a small yellow caption declares that this is Atlanta, Georgia, but nothing else gives us a clue to context, or even what she might be doing. The reader is forced to make assumptions about what is occurring outside the frame in order to fill in the remainder of the pentadic elements.

The first four panels remain focused on Shana’s face. In the first she stares at the reader looking serious, almost sullen. The captions introduce us to small facts: She lives in Atlanta, and is the youngest of five children. It is the second panel that shocks, however. That same close up is now shattered when a fist enters the panel and smacks her hard enough to turn her head. There is no text, just an impact “star” highlighting the blow to illustrate that it was a hard hit (Cohn). The next two panels proceed with moment-to-moment transitions, stretching out time and allowing the reader to slowly follow the recoil and recovery of her head. The narration continues, “And like all O’Hara kids … my childhood was spent fighting.” As she bites her lip and faces the unseen opponent, the reader has now spent three panels engaged in filling in the blanks with all the stereotypical baggage they have about females. Someone hit a little girl. All O’Hara kids have to fight, does that mean her family is outcast? Or worse, does father beat the children? In every particular, we are set to see Shana as a victim, perhaps learning to fight so well because she had to in order to survive—either because of neighborhood bullying or an abusive (and given the Irish context, possibly alcoholic) father. It is the perfect stereotype of what forces it would take to turn a female into a military machine. It is scene/agent, with the scene operating entirely within the mind of the audience. The long, slow, progress of the blow gives the reader plenty of leisure to imagine the worst.

Then, suddenly the imaginary camera pulls back the focus of the panels. By the twenty-first century the use of cinematic tools in comics has become naturalized; the steady measured revelation of contextual details that can redefine a scene are less surprising. But the technique still has the power to create an uncomfortable shift in the readers’ interpretation. In the bottom panel the entire context of the blow is provided in multiple forms. We can now see that the girl is wearing a martial arts uniform, that the scene is a dojo, and that she is sparring with another youngster—”I suppose growing up in a dojo that was only natural.” The girl is not a passive victim; she is a participant in training and is holding her own. The only hint of discord is the tears of pain that form in the final panel along with her admission that she sometimes she wishes that she could just do “normal kid things.” As the story develops, it turns out that many of the hardships she does face come from other characters who judge her according to feminine norms. After the trick that is played on the readers, there is a realization that those norms do not apply to Scarlett. In other words, the reader is warned, from the beginning of her story, to leave their gender expectations at the door. Perspective by incongruity—a young girl struck in the face who is not a victim and who is actively participating in a traditionally masculine realm demonstrates forcibly that gender is not an issue for her. Others who think it should be, including any stubborn readers, will have to take sides with the fools who will eventually have the notion (sometimes literally) beaten out of them.


Comics are excellent examples of how any medium has the potential to challenge our assumptions about how we encounter narrative. The medium demanded that comic creators bring together traditional tools from several other media, each with its own rules of form and expectations. Those tools were melded, transformed and sometimes repurposed as comics demanded. The result is a new form that is quite different from any other form, even though some elements seem the same on the surface. Comics demands to be evaluated on its own terms if we are to fully appreciate the rhetorical implications of this unique medium.

Although promising, traditional rhetorical methods still have their limitations. They are currently constrained by assumptions drawn from experience with other media—assumptions that fall short or fall apart. In comics, for example, one cannot make the Western assumption of the direction in which one reads for granted. Graphic novels may be set up to be read vertically, left to right, right to left (as in the case of most manga) or circularly. Static images mimic the lens of a movie camera, yet function differently. Empty spaces speak volumes. These juxtapositions allow comics narratives to operate on multiple simultaneous levels, and it is perfectly possible to create the two conflicting sides of a dialectical argument simultaneously through two different channels before bringing them together in a definitive/ambiguous conclusion. Moreover, the narrative can even persuade the reader to cooperate by providing instants of nothingness; good places for them to come to conclusions while remaining unaware that they are being guided to them.

Not only does a dramatistic perspective enable us to better appreciate the sophistication of these synthesized texts, but the analysis also serves the cause of criticism in both practical and theoretical ways. For critics, this approach may provide critics a tool synthesizing visual and verbal symbols in a new and productive manner. Currently, the rhetorical impetus in comics seems to be suffering from a dialectic of verbal and visual, as though they are mutually exclusive. One consequence is that analyses tend to be long on discussions of either plot or image, and short on the synthesis of plot and image. As Coogan complains about comics criticism, “Too often critics focus on the literary aspects of the storytelling—character portrayals, thematics, point of view—and fail to address the way the sequential artistry—the comics-specific aspects of the storytelling—is used in telling the story and conveying the themes” (Coogan 208). Even the specific tools of dramatism derived from the theory have become so normalized that the critic can all too easily ignore its emphasis on “symbolic” writ large and stay in the “comfort zone” of the verbal manipulation of symbols and still complete an analysis.2 The pentad has for decades been used to discuss the verbal symbols and elements of a narrative. That makes it very easy for the critic to “orient” to the verbal and bypass any other symbols systems that might be operating. Even the one explicitly dramatistic criticism of a comic discovered by Duncan remained solidly focused on plot and theme (Thomas).

This dichotomy is exactly what a more fully rounded dramatistic analysis would combat. Dramatism provides a perspective from which to step back from the text to deconstruct the multiplicity of techniques that combine with the manipulation of words. By alerting us to the usefulness of both everything and nothing, comics may provide the “perspective by incongruity” that will help stretch criticism of all manner of texts in new directions. Dramatism celebrates the intergeneric techniques that must go into the creation of a truly intertextual message. We certainly need to fully understand what tools are out there, before we can begin to use “all there is to use.”


[1] The comic has been produced in turn by Marvel Comics, Blackthorn Publishing, Dark Horse Comics, Image, Devil’s Due, and a host of one shots and limited runs. The characters are currently leased to IDW publishing.

[2] The utility of rhetorical criticism is obviously not limited to dramatism. For example, there is a very good rhetorical criticism of Daddy’s Girl that brings the visual elements into play (Micciche 2004).

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