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Comics, Materiality, and the Limits of Media Combinations

By Kieron Brown


Intermediality, defined broadly as “any transgression of boundaries between conventionally distinct media” (Wolf “Intermediality” 17), begins with the notion that it is not possible to view individual media as “isolated monads” (Müller 18). It is thus the task of theorists within the field of intermediality to identify the ways and means by which media may be found between borders. However, various approaches and myriad overlapping critical terms, drawn largely from media and literary studies, complicate this pursuit1.

In the article “Intermediality, Intertextuality, and Remediation,” Irina O. Rajewsky suggests that within discourse surrounding intermediality, a distinction can be made between broad and narrow approaches. Broad approaches concentrate on intermediality as a “fundamental condition or category” (47), while narrow approaches consider it as a “critical category for the concrete analysis of specific individual media products or configurations” (47).

Approaches in the former category largely consider intermediality to be a prerequisite for the conception of individual media, which are only identified through difference. Examples of this type offered by Rajewsky generally elucidate on how media are intrinsically interrelated. These include Jens Schröter’s “ontological intermediality,” where divisions into individual media are always politically motivated; André Gaudreault & Philippe Marion’s “double birth” of media, where a medium is first subservient to the established practices of other media and later finds specificity through institutionalization; and W. J. T. Mitchell’s assertion that “all media are mixed media” in sensory terms (qtd. in Rajewsky “Intermediality” 48).

Rajewsky’s own approach2 is of the narrow variety, although it arises by means of consolidating commonalties between a range of specific intermedial phenomena including the following:

“transposition d’art, filmic writing, ekphrasis, musicalization of literature, as well as such phenomena as film adaptations of literary works, “novelizations,” visual poetry, illuminated manuscripts, Sound Art, opera, comics, multimedia shows, hyperfiction, multimedial computer “texts” or installations, etc.” (Rajewsky “Intermediality” 50)

Rajewsky offers three workable sub-categories of intermediality, which are not considered to be mutually exclusive. The first category, “medial transposition,” refers to the adaptation or translation of an artifact from one medium to another. The second category, “media combination,” is the result or process of combining at least two distinct media. Rajewsky notes that the media that constitute combinations should “each be present in their own materiality” and suggests that “this category runs from a mere contiguity of two or more material manifestations of different media to a ‘genuine’ integration” (51-52). The final category, “intermedial references,” entails instances in which a medium uses its own specific means to refer to another conventionally distinct medium. These references vary in the extent to which they emulate the appearance of the medium being referenced. As such, intermedial references often display an “as if” or “illusion-forming” quality (54).

Rajewsky seems to grant that materiality is key to distinguishing between intermedial categories, yet purposefully refrains from providing a definition of medium itself. Addressing this omission in the article “Border Talks,” Rajewsky suggests that we only encounter specific manifestations of media, never a medium itself, which renders the concept an abstraction. Discussions of intermediality anticipate the perception of media borders. These borders are referred to as “enabling structures” (55), as their crossing is said to be the driving force behind media combinations. These combinations may then lead to new forms of conventional media if propagated.

The emphasis on the conventional nature of all media conveniently allows the above categories to remain productive, side-stepping definitions of “medium” to get the effects produced by specific border-crossing strategies. However, use of the term materiality does limit the extent to which such transgressions may take place. This is particularly evident in the case of media combinations, as comics are well positioned to demonstrate. Rajewsky suggests that comics serve as an example of this category, yet consideration of the factors contributing to the materiality of comics limits its application. If materiality is viewed as the product of interaction with and between an artifact’s physical characteristics and its signifying strategies (à la N. Katherine Hayles), a combination where more than one form of materiality is present is impossible.

Drawing on the concept of play as a movement or allowance within a larger structure (Salen and Zimmerman 304), I aim to demonstrate that attempts to combine media always represent play within conventional conceptions of medial configurations, as manifested by the specific materialities of media that feed into those conceptions. Thus, media may only combine at the level of specific combinative features, physical and/or semiotic, which always represent a transformative aspect. Using comics as the basis of this assertion, I largely draw upon the factors that Jan Baetens and Hugo Frey suggest differentiate comics from graphic novels: form, content, and publication format (including production processes and distribution vehicles). I look at the ways in which these aspects of comics may be viewed to contain elements drawn from other conventional media, in this case, maps and musical notation3. Like comics, these are umbrella categories of media which refer to a range of diverse physical artifacts that largely share signifying practices. Both media traditionally employ paper-based spatial configurations of signifiers to articulate notions of space and time that differ significantly from those of comics.

A functional distinction is adopted to identify combinative features at the semiotic level, which are suggested to always be dialogic in nature. These features are also impacted by considerations of style, which may obscure a given function, point to the presence of other media (such as photography) in the production process, or draw on the contributions of paratextual elements that underpin a work. It is suggested that the transformative potential of these features is tied to the wider makeup of a given artifact, and, ultimately, play in other established structures.

Material and Semiotic Combinations

As previously noted, Irina Rajewsky classifies comics as examples of media combinations. I would like to unpack this assertion, as I believe to do so will reveal some ambiguities with the term itself. It is not suggested which media compose comics, which themselves exist in multiple material guises. To start with the comic strip, the classification as combinative may refer to its placement within the newspaper. This would imply that it is the newspaper itself that is a combination. Alternatively, the classification might allude to the frequent combination of image and word in the comic strip. Yet, one may question which physical forms of image and word are present.

Gabriele Rippl and Lukas Etter have suggested that in cases where the approach to media is not purely semiotic (“cultural, material and technical approaches”) the use of word and image in comics is based on that of the printed book (Rippl and Etter 194). If this idea were to be taken as the origin of comics, it would see the graphic novel as a kind of homecoming. This may seem like a curious suggestion if not for the significance bestowed upon the picture stories of Rodolphe Töpffer. Many comics theorists are of the view that comics originated with Töpffer, whose books represented “a new hybridization of literature and drawing” (Smolderen 50). Yet, as Thierry Smolderen notes, Töpffer’s work undermined systematic and mass-produced forms of representation. As such, the picture stories of Töpffer are a far cry from the newspaper-bound form which comics would later take. Any further articulations of combinations thereafter would have to involve the newspaper, the host from which the strip was extrapolated, and the presence of which resounds in the term comics itself.

Starting with the comic strip, one may plot a rough progression whereby the strip was reprinted in single-issue format, which, given favourable conditions, was divorced of the necessity of reprinting previously published material. This was a development that then repeated itself with the graphic novel, which largely progressed from collections of previously published single-issue comics, to also encompassing “native” graphic novels, once the variant became socially, technologically, and commercially viable.

While these developments are otherwise in keeping with a notion of media as mutative, the combinative nature of comics since the strip might be viewed as self-sustaining and one-sided. These combinations are typified by the merging of comics signifiers with different material vehicles and practices more commonly associated with other media. This notion goes against the idea of media combinations as composed of distinct media present in their own materialities. As Jürgen Müller has suggested, the concept of intermediality should concern the interaction between materials themselves as well as the materiality of media, but, nevertheless, media “cannot and should not be reduced only to their material aspects” (26). However, while the combination of comics signifiers and other material vehicles may only be considered partly combinative, this is not to suggest that comics have not made use of the publishing strategies of other media via the adoption of aspects of their physical characteristics and practices. Examples include the magazine format for comic books and the codex in the case of the graphic novel.

Jan Baetens and Hugo Frey position the graphic novel specifically as a medial form in itself, but also as a “publishing phenomenon” (2). They suggest that graphic novels can be distinguished from the comic book on the grounds of form, content, and publication format, the concerns of which are largely production processes and distribution vehicles. On these grounds, one might argue that the graphic novel does not simply adopt the novel’s physical characteristics but also adopts elements of its signifying strategies. It may also be argued that the intent to assimilate comics and novels has led to the use of literary themes and formal experimentation, thus also implicating the novel’s signifiers. In this case, I think it is telling that Baetens and Frey adopt an open definition of the graphic novel, suggesting that it “represents at least some level of self-knowing ‘play with a purpose’ of the traditional comic book form” (19). This basis for the graphic novel, defined in relation to the comic book, acknowledges the difficulty in attempting to distinguish the two variants in formal or content-related terms.

Any deviations on the part of the graphic novel from the comic book in these areas may just as easily be viewed as a reflection on, and a mutation of, comics signifiers themselves rather than the adoption of other medial systems of signification. The graphic novel’s stated literary themes and formal experimentation, for example, may well be adopted in on-going serialized comics as well. There is thus little to distinguish the notion that graphic novels are a combination of comic books and the novel from the idea that comics may heavily reference novels (autobiographical examples such as Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home spring to mind) or reference them intrinsically in cases where novels are transposed or adapted into comics.

Furthermore, if we take an example like the trade paperback version of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, which combines traditional elements of comics with pages of text, it would seem to represent the “contiguity” of media noted by Rajewsky. However, when the original context of publication is taken into account, a 12-issue series, such a combination is revealed to be more convoluted than anticipated. The specific combination of physical and semiotic features of the novel cannot be present in Watchmen‘s original format. We might say then that if comics are inherently combinative, they represent something far more complex than a simple merging of media in any of their variations.

If it is untenable to view comics as combinations of distinct medial forms, it is because the notion of combinative materialities itself is contradictory. It should be noted here that contemporary accounts of materiality such as those of media theorists N. Katherine Hayles, and Johanna Drucker consider the concept to be an emergent phenomenon, generated by interaction with both an artifact’s physical and signifying features. In this case, materiality is dynamic and cannot be predicted, necessarily negating the possibility of media combinations on this basis from the offset. A certain level of abstraction is thus necessary when discussing the concept in order for it to remain productive in terms of identifying border-crossing strategies.

We may assume that correspondences will exist between examples of media that largely make use of a given semiotic system and a specific physical form. We may also assume that to change either of these elements is to alter materiality overall. Such a concession still renders the concept of media combinations problematic. Each medium involved can only retain its conventional configurations in the form of a contiguity or relationship of mere proximity. Yet, perceptions of those configurations will necessarily change as a result of their presentation as one object, as the Watchmen example above demonstrates.

I thus think it is useful to consider the notion of play in the context of media more widely in order to identify the limits of media combinations. Play is a wide-ranging and discipline-spanning concept. Wolfgang Iser notably used the term, in the context of literary theory, as a description of an oscillation of meaning arising in the spaces inherent in the structure of a text, as laid out by an author. While Iser’s usage of the term may lend a level of nuance to the ways in which examples of media may be interpreted, it is useful to step back and consider the concept in a more general sense when considering conceptions of media. In The Rules of Play, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman characterize play broadly as “free movement within a more rigid structure” (Salen and Zimmerman 304). They note that “play is an expression of the system, one that takes advantage of the space of possibility created from the system’s structure.” (304). The authors also introduce the notion of “transformative play,” which occurs “when the free movement of play alters the more rigid structure in which it takes shape. The play doesn’t just occupy and oppose the interstices of the system, but actually transforms the space as a whole” (305).

When considered in terms of media, the language used by Salen and Zimmerman describing play and the transformations it may engender is remarkably similar to that of Rajewsky’s description of media borders as enabling structures. It was noted that experimental border-crossing strategies may lead to new forms of media. We may view any new form of media emerging in this way as representing play within the ‘structures’ of conceptions of individual media. Yet, these conceptions are tied to specific material examples of media. The sum of an artifact’s physical and signifying characteristics, the experience of which might be called its materiality, is where play first manifests. This means that at the level of the individual artifact, media combinations necessarily imply a transformative aspect. Identifying the combinative qualities of media then becomes an exercise in gauging the extent of this medial play.

If considering examples of comics, play may take place in each of the areas that Baetens and Frey provide as potential areas of difference between the comic book and graphic novel: form, content, and publication format, including consideration of production processes and distribution vehicles. Yet, the play represented by attempts to combine media must always apply to both the physical and semiotic conventions of each of the involved media to varying degrees, meaning that the resulting product of play will always be distinct from each of the implicated media.

It thus becomes necessary to speak at the level of combinative features, physical and/or semiotic, rather than wholesale combinations of media. It also becomes necessary to distinguish between the materialities of media and physical commonalities between media that may enable their distinct signifying conventions to interact. For example, in the case of print media, it is a shared reliance on two-dimensional spatial configurations that enables the interaction of semiotic elements, elements that must necessarily exist in a new context.

Once it is acknowledged that the presence of the multiple systems of signification and some shared physical attributes is the closest a combination may come to displaying the presence of multiple materialities, we may ask how combinative features of the semiotic variety may be identified. In order to provide a means of distinguishing the effects of semiotic combinations of media from those that comics may produce alone, we may return to consideration of the physical circumstances under which the signifiers meet.

In terms of print, the combination of static elements is reliant on the reader to make connections between those elements, thus opening up what Wolfgang Iser called “the virtual dimension of the text” (“Reading Process” 54). Johanna Drucker has referred to this virtual aspect of texts as a “program,” arising from the various instructional codes offered to the reader (221). For an analog in comics studies, one might look to the work of theorists such as Charles Hatfield, and Thierry Groensteen in which comics are viewed in terms of instructive, non-mutually exclusive codes that make up a larger system.

I suggest that a given phenomenon may be viewed as combinative in the semiotic sense if a comic is met with an added system, or added codes, drawn from other conventional media. These additions will introduce new instructions to the reader and may also introduce new structures. It is necessary to note that at the level of print everything found in a comic might be considered a reproduction, which may lead one to view the instructive contributions of other media as mere images, which comics are known to feature in various varieties. This would lead all evocations of other media in comics to be classified as simply references, and, as such, would be insufficient. Thus, an approach taking the functional value added by new codes must be adopted. If the added codes retain some of their prior functions when introduced to comics, the result often goes beyond a mere approximation of another medium. In these cases, the resulting features are necessarily dialogic, in that the codes combine to create effects that neither could alone, thus also implying a transformation of their original functions.

Two examples of conventional media where this may be demonstrated are maps and musical notation. Like comics, both serve as umbrella terms for a range of physically distinct artifacts that largely share semiotic conventions, conventions by which articulations of notions of space and time differ significantly to those of comics. The remainder of this article will be devoted to discussing the possibilities and limitations of combinations of these features.

To begin with a map-based example, Lars Arrhenius’ A-Z (Figure 1) features 18 interlinking vignettes interspersed throughout the maps of London found in the London A–Z Street Atlas (Street Atlas hereafter). Released in tandem with displays in London’s PEER gallery and the London Underground, the atlas version of A-Z emulates the appearance of the original Street Atlas down to its logo and ring-bound spine. As in its predecessor, the map of London is fragmented and transposed on to successive pages, this time met by overlaid circular panels, featuring characters and close-ups of locations. In order to navigate these narratives, the reader must traverse multiple pages in a nonlinear fashion, as the stories unfold on both a vertical and horizontal axis.

Figure 1: Arrhenius, A-Z (39)

The prolonged use of panels over the maps represents an alternative form of navigation. This navigation is determined not simply by what Thierry Groensteen refers to as “spatiotopical coordinates,” the relative position of comic panels on the page, but by a new system of coordinates: geographical ones. These coordinates make use of a grid distinct from that associated with the regular panel arrangement of comics. The use of the grid also ties A-Z back to one of its predecessor’s core functions, to serve as an aid to the navigation of urban space.

The inset panels also refer back to this function, reminding the reader that use of the Street Atlas was always tied to experiences of space. Through the use of insets, the maps do not simply represent areas where readers may potentially find themselves, they also function as a diegetic space for the characters and the reader to virtually explore. The map elements thus dramatically extend the diegetic space to that of London itself, becoming a form of microcosm, of which the panels magnify specific—and necessarily brief—parts.

Yet, this experiment does not come without its ambiguities; there is significant tension between the depiction of space and time in A-Z. To begin with, the addition of panels obscures large areas of the maps. While it is generally possible to typify comics by their fragmentation, the same cannot be said of maps, barring the breakdown into pages that display continuity. Bridging gaps between locations, which in comics is aided by visual redundancy and repetition, generally becomes problematic. In A-Z, a location may also be repeated in various panels at different points on the map. Given the scale of the map (6.71cm to 1km), the different positioning of panels may imply great distances have been traversed while the location inside the panels remains the same. Furthermore, the diameter of the insets themselves is 7.5cm, meaning that any correspondences between the panels and locations can be, at best, approximate. As the panels depict hyper-localized scenes, they may often cover the sites to which they refer. This lends an uncertainty to any actual correspondences between the contents of the panels and the maps.

Combining these systems also leads to temporal ambiguities. A-Z reads as hypertext. There is no beginning and no end, making the task of interpreting temporality difficult. As the varying positions of the map do not inherently represent variations in time, we can only perceive its passing via the movements of the characters, the repetition of scenes with varying passers-by, and the points at which the characters’ vignettes intersect. These fallacies of space and time may prompt the reader to question the efficacy of the maps with regards to representation. In this sense, A-Z would seemingly point to a similar conclusion to that of John Krygier and Denis Wood’s Ce n’est pas le monde (This is not the worldCe n’est pas le monde hereafter) which is, appropriately, an essay in comic form. Krygier and Wood assert that maps are only ever “propositions” as opposed to direct representations.

V for Vendetta‘s “This Vicious Cabaret” prelude, (Figure 2) has become something of a standard example of musical notation in comics4. In this example, the page is turned on its axis as streams of functional vocal notation, accompanied by lyrics, run alongside pairs of panels. These panels, also contain a version of the lyrics, in both speech balloons, when the character V is shown as the producer of the music, and in caption boxes when the panels display the characters and events to which the lyrics make reference.

Many theorists and critics have tied V for Vendetta to the idea of cultural resistance through performance, or the notion of “V as a user of culture as a form of resistance.” (Hague 155) Theorists such as Ian Hague and Maggie Gray have noted that the use of notation and various other formal concerns throughout the comic serve as a means of making the comic form itself, and the reader by extension, “perform” in a similar way. When considering the example in terms of combinative qualities, one may indeed consider the functional, productive value of the notation to be intact. Yet, beyond this, these elements when mixed with those of comics, coalesce in an extended reference to musical theatre. The noted reciprocity of combinative features lends the overarching musical notation a performer (in addition to the reader), while the character of V becomes the lead in a politically-charged music hall-style performance.

Figure 2: Moore and Lloyd, V for Vendetta (89)

Yet, the combination of notational and comic elements does not blend as smoothly as might first be thought. The notation offers specific temporal cues, but if attempting to consolidate the notation with the other elements the following of these cues is continuously thwarted by the arrangement of panels. For example, the lyrical content of the notation and corresponding pictorial content of the panels, while rarely far from one another in terms of proximity (barring necessary page turns), are frequently out of step with each other.

There is a notable tension, then, between the spatial requirements of the notation, in order to maintain its functions, and those of the comic-based elements that surround it. It is, however, notable that, in a quite subtle way, the panels do force the notation to take a shape that it usually would not. The lines of notation fit comfortably above and below the panels. In this case, the reader may assume that the panels only cover blank space as the bars display continuity.

It stands to reason, then, as both examples imply, that the adopted codes must be granted some degree of autonomy, while still being able to integrate with comics’ traditional signifiers. This is not to suggest that to grant this autonomy is to subordinate features of comics to the added systematic codes, but merely that in order for an elaborate iteration of a system to be recognized as such, interruptions must be minimized. As seen above, one way of establishing this autonomy is to use inset panels (or slightly offset panels in V for Vendetta‘s case), and to house the additional systems within the page. This endows the housed insets with the logic of the added media and vice versa. It is also worth noting that the adopted systems are placed in the enveloping panel of the page as opposed to the insets. This is to be expected, as both of these added systems stand for pervasive phenomena, space and sound, that encompass the content of the insets.

While the inset is a viable option for combining medial codes, combinations need not entail their use. These examples display clear combinative strategies with their inclusion of elaborate systematic iterations, but they are exceptions rather than the rule. Simpler variants of these features may require less autonomy and integrate with the other elements of a comics page in a less invasive manner than the above examples. It is in these instances that the distinction between combinative features including map and notational elements, and intermedial references simply alluding to them may become more difficult to discern.

The Question of Abstraction

Jan Baetens has suggested that in the context of comics, abstraction can be defined as “the process of challenging normally dominant features of comics by putting those features to other, less orthodox uses” (104). Although it might seem contrary to Baetens’ use of the term, a broad definition like this allows the examples discussed to be viewed as abstractions of comics signifiers, owing to the dialogic nature mentioned previously. The maps in A-Z do not simply extend the diegetic space of the comic; they are grounded by the experience of the characters in the panels. The notation in V for Vendetta gains a performer and helps to detail a performance. It is, however, the abstraction of the added systems that primarily concerns me, and the manner in which it may challenge the proposed functional distinction between combinative features and intermedial references. The more these systematic codes themselves are abstracted, or freed from the perceived functions they usually possess, the more likely the play they represent will be interpreted as that of conventional comics vocabulary. As such, we may also assume that the higher the degree of abstraction in terms of the borrowed systematic codes, the less relative autonomy those codes will require in terms of their traditional functions. Thus, while the placement of elements of other medial codes within the structural units of comics is generally indicative of what Rajewsky calls a “genuine integration” (as the alliance goes beyond a simple contiguity), combinative features must still be viewed as a matter of degree, and must be articulated by the wider contexts in which they appear.

Figure 3: Muth, M
Krygier and Wood, “Ce n’est pas le monde” (193)

Perhaps the least ambiguous form of abstraction with regards to map-based and musically notational features is fragmentation or the presence of parts of a wider signifying system. In these instances, the included codes maintain their functions but exist in a limited capacity. For an example, we may turn to Jon J. Muth’s M (Figure 3), an adaptation, or transposition, of the 1933 Fritz Lang film of the same name. While the notation in V for Vendetta displays significant structural changes to comics, examples of functional notation need not be so ostentatious. M includes short fragments of notation, as a whistled tune is recognized by a balloon-selling street vendor. Readers may recognize the notation as a somewhat distorted version of the quietly sinister whistling of Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King from Lang’s film. In this way, the comic is able to imply the oscillating presence of the tune in the film. Another example of this fragmentation is the already mentioned Ce n’est pas le monde (Figure 4). We may first say that this example is part of a larger combinative whole, as the comic section is inserted in an otherwise standard academic textbook. In terms of combinations of codes drawn from comics and maps, the multiple fragments of maps inherently propose spatial configurations. Yet, the isolation of these elements within the framework of comics challenges the idea that those configurations can objectively depict space, denying the perceived representational function of maps. Ce n’est pas le monde‘s use of features of comics makes a similar point to that of A-Z. As the crudely edited images of the scholars involved testify, comics and maps may both be viewed as propositions.

Figure 5: McKean, Cages (353)

Dave McKean’s Cages similarly questions the efficacy of medial codes with regards to representation, but it does so via their absence. Chapter nine of Cages, titled “Chromatic Scale” (Figure 5), sees otherwise regular panel arrangements featuring the jazz musician Angel alternating in presence over faded and hand-marked manuscript paper. The handmade markings on this paper never amount to an actual representation of performable music that one might recreate. Thus, as an example of the other pole of abstraction, the combinative quality is forgone.

Via this reference to musical notation, Cages may be read to highlight the inadequacy of notation with regards to jazz. McKean could have included complex streams of accurate notation, but this would have gone against the wider thematic aspects of the work. In Cages the paper support is another artistic cage, the material nature of which blocks the transference of virtuosity from one medial form to another. It is also notable that it isn’t simply notation’s signifiers that are abstracted throughout this section of the comic but the images as well. If notation is incapable of faithfully representing the improvised essence of jazz, so too are the other paper-based elements.

Often examples of abstraction of map-based and notational codes may fall somewhere in between those discussed above. This is the case in instances in which a given system is invoked by a form of shorthand. Simple added codes may seem to blend quite seamlessly with more traditional aspects of comics. In such cases, it is necessary to gauge the context of a given code’s use. In Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life (Figure 6), one double page spread sees guitar chords and lyrics occupy the space between panels, while a caption box with guitar chord diagrams instructs the reader to play along at home. With the exception of the chord diagrams, the added instructive codes are made up of alphanumeric characters similar to other text-based elements found within the comic. Yet, the set of codes used in combination not only instruct a vague musical performance but provide rhythm and timing cues that, although intentionally imprecise, the comic elements would be unable to do alone.

Figure 6: O’Malley, Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life

In Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Goražde (Figure 7) simple maps are encamped firmly within the panels and are divided into imprecise sections that the captions surrounding the maps serve to expand upon. While this may be thought of as an example of shorthand, as suggested above, once abstraction reaches a certain point it may be difficult to gauge whether codes are from the realm of comics or other involved media. In this case, the uncertainty is the result of an overlap in function: maps, like comics, use space to depict space. In these instances, one might question the value of such judgements and instead attempt to gauge the intent behind a feature’s use. In Safe Area Goražde, the maps are effectively extended by Sacco’s drawn experiences. Edward C. Holland suggests that the maps in Safe Area Goražde serve to contextualize “mappings,” or Sacco’s active interpretation of space. This example may thus also be compared to A-Z, although the maps and drawn elements are less elaborately entwined in the formal sense.

Figure 7: Sacco, Safe Area Gorazde: The Special Edition (19)

While far from comprehensive, the abstracted examples above demonstrate the degree to which the use of added codes may be subtle and subject to context. We may view this phenomenon as part of the wider category of “style” in comics. Style may also allude to the use of other media in the production process, as two of the previous examples, M and Ce n’est pas le monde, which both appear to bear traces of photography, testify. Style is thus another space where play may occur, and, as such, the overarching effects of style on any combinations of comics and other medial codes must be considered.

The Allowance of Style

Style is a phenomenon that is difficult to classify, because as with most aspects of comics, it is hard to isolate. Baetens and Frey suggest that style falls somewhere between form, content, and the processes involved in a comic’s production. We may thus think of style as both a space for play and the product of play, an allowance within the idea of what constitutes a comic. Style is also another way in which combinative features may be implicated and, like the abstracted examples before, often in a less aggressive way than those that elaborately mix systematic codes. The inclusion of photography, in relation to the map-based and notational examples already discussed, serves as apt demonstration.

Photographs have been incorporated into comics relatively unproblematically, perhaps most notably in autobiographical comics such as Art Speigelman’s Maus or journalistic works like Emmanuel Guibert and Didier Lefèvre’s The Photographer. In examples such as these, the use of photographs draws “on the mythical status of photography as a particularly authentic medium” (El Refaie 138). We may thus view this sense of indexicality as a perceived function of photography that often translates into its appearance in comics.

Lisa El Rafaie has suggested that “the crucial difference between analog photography and all forms of mark-making…is that the former lays claim to indexicality, whereas the latter involve adding to the likeness an explicit element of transformation” (165). These transformations, however, link to another form of indexicality: style is thought to be an index of subjectivity, implying the presence of the author(s). As Johanna Drucker notes, these forms of mark-making often invoke modes of production, “bearing traces of hand, gesture, mechanical and photographic means, or digital techniques” (Drucker 13-14).

This draws us to an ambiguity raised when attempting to identify combinative features from the perspective of a comic’s reception in published form, or from the view of the production process, which may make use of any number of technologies and media. Werner Wolf, whose approach to intermedial categories is primarily semiotic, suggests that the “intermedial [combinative] quality of the artifact is immediately discernable on its surface…and makes the work under consideration appear as a medial hybrid” (Musicalization 40). The words appear as are telling here: in comics, appearances may only reveal a portion of the intermedial processes behind a given example.

Returning to the example of M, the images are based on reference photographs and appear almost photorealistic. These images, the paratext tells us, were created with silverpoint, charcoal, and oil paints. It is thus worth asking what separates the use of photography in comics from images that have simply been modelled on photographs. In the case of autobiographical comics, it is common to see drawn versions of photographs that attempt to tap into the perceived indexical function of photography. In such cases, it may be hard to gauge the presence of photography itself. It is, however, common that paratextual photographs be used to underpin an ‘authentically subjective’ style. The use of photography points to a wider combinative strategy, one that may underpin the more overt combinative features. Paratextual elements may thus prompt recognition of border crossing strategies, often by alluding to the production process.

The special edition of Safe Area Goražde serves as a good example of these strategies. The paratextual foregrounding employs the use of various photographs which serve to add to its documentary quality. Sacco reveals the photographic references used to draw his images. These include specific locations, various people met on his travels, and photographic evidence of the journals he kept. Sacco also includes a reproduction of a finger-marked military map of the area, further reinforcing the mappings found throughout the comic (Figure 8).

Figure 8: Sacco, Safe Area Gorazde: The Special Edition (xviii)

Contrary to what A-Z and Ce n’est pas le monde may lead one to conclude about the representational capacity of maps, maps themselves have been described as a kind of authenticating strategy, because they “seem to provide clear, unambiguous links between locations in a narrative and actual places in the real world” (El Rafaie 158). These photographs thus serve to further authenticate the maps and mappings that appear throughout the comic. Thus, as combinative features in paratextual elements may inform or change the perception of a wider work, the contributions of these elements must not be ignored, serving as a reminder that combinative features must always be articulated at the level of the artifact as a whole.

The Wider Factors at Play

Considerations of style point to the idea that a given combinative feature must be considered in terms of the wider context in which it appears. It is only through consideration of an artifact overall and its own context of publication that we may gauge the potential of these features to transform conceptions of media at a higher level. For the graphic novel, the adoption of physical features of the novel, in tandem with the adoption of literary themes and self-conscious formal experimentation, has led to the perception of a distinct new medial form in itself. The play represented by the graphic novel is also a testament to movement in other established structures. It has found itself in literary prize and university reading lists, in high street bookshops, and is sold by large online retailers. It should go without saying, however, that these movements are not autonomous and are the result of multiple interacting actors and agendas.

For the most part, the combinative features adopted in the examples of notation and maps only account for brief sections of the wider works in question. In these cases, additions to comics signifiers may be bridged by the wider properties of a comic. In Werner Wolf’s terms, comics may maintain “medial dominance” via the quantity or duration of their parts (Musicalization 38). Given that the wider properties of each of the discussed examples (barring A-Z) are largely conventional of comics, the transformations engendered by play may not equate to that of a new medial product but to a transformation and extension of comics’ conventional vocabulary. It is only A-Z that potentially represents a burgeoning new medial form, in that the comics and map elements are consistently intertwined throughout its duration. It is also only in A-Z that the form, content, publication format, and distribution vehicles employed are consistently at odds with what is considered typical of comics. Its first distributive channel, before being sold in comic shops, was PEER, an institution belonging more to the realm of art in the traditional sense5. As noted, A-Z emulates the appearance of the original Street Atlas down to its logo and ring binding. The outlying aspect is the panels, which are simply superimposed on top of the maps. Yet, A-Z has been referenced as an example of hypertext comics by Daniel Merlin Goodbrey, and finds itself featured in Paul Gravett’s 1000 Comics to Read Before You Die. It would thus seem that comics signifiers may, for those claiming it, bridge the discrepancies, as narrative-endowed panels are a firmly entrenched feature of comics. It is also not negligible that Arrhenius, the author of A-Z, has historically been affiliated with comics.

This reinforces the idea that the transformative play of combinative features is reliant on factors outside of a work itself, or, in other terms, much like the graphic novel, the transformative potential of these features ultimately depends on play in other established structures. It goes without saying, however, that detailing the range of hypothetical movements in such structures is beyond the scope of this article.

It is possible to suggest that movement in other structures may rest heavily on the physical guise that a given example takes. Every one of the examples discussed exists in multiple material formats that may create space for play in other structures. This includes collected versions of previously serialized comics (V for VendettaCages, and M), multiple editions (Safe Area Goražde and Scott Pilgrim), different publishing locations (Ce n’est pas le monde), and diverse material variants in the case of A-Z. As a final aside, A-Z may once more be used to demonstrate the range of interpretations and relationships that may be produced through consideration of these differences.

In an essay accompanying A-Z, art historian Andrew Wilson6 suggests that the original Street Atlas acquired a “very particular identity” (Wilson 98) by means of its fragmented structure. In its display versions, in the PEER Gallery and on the London Underground, the fragmented nature of the maps in A-Z was flouted. Instead, these versions more resembled traditional paper-based maps. In the gallery setting, A-Z may more overtly be read as a statement on the porous nature of borders between arts. The display on the London Underground may take this a step further, prompting observers to make connections between the design of A-Z and the tube maps that adorn most walls in each station. Here, the notion of map extends beyond the map of London to that of the London Underground as well, representing another London-based form of time and space compression.

The atlas version allows for paratextual elements, such as the previously mentioned essay, that the other forms do not. For example, a reference guide is provided at the beginning to aid readers. A “key to map pages,” echoing that in the Street Atlas, offers a miniaturized (and unreadable) version of the work in its totality, demonstrating its cohesion despite its fragmentation. There is also an index at the conclusion provided by hypertext author Geoff Ryman. Ryman uses the rigid grid structure of the map to refer to specific sections, where he playfully poses questions regarding the characters, the maps, and combinations of both. In material terms, the diversity of these variations is irreconcilable, yet aspects of each version may inform each of the others.

Combinative features, like comics themselves, exist as complex networks of interacting factors and practices. It is clear through consideration of the play of medial elements on display that a conception of media combinations implicating more than one form of materiality is not possible. Rather, it is only possible to identify features that represent relative combinations of aspects of different media. Play may be present in any factor contributing to the makeup of a given artifact. Combinative features and their wider implications must be articulated in terms of factors such as physical and semiotic form, content, style, quantity, and the impact of each of these areas on the work as a whole. In short, if conceptions of intermediality are to concern themselves with materiality, such conceptions must take into account the play of elements which materiality entails.


[1] For overviews of intermediality and its various strands of thought see Muller, Rajewsky, Schröter.

[2] There is a lot of overlap between Rajewsky’s intermedial categories and those of Werner Wolf. However, Wolf’s typology leans less heavily on notions of materiality.

[3] Some of the observations made here with regards to musical notation draw on those made in a previous article, while placing them within the context of intermediality. See Brown.

[4] See Brown, Hague, Summers.

[5] The PEER website refers to A-Z as an “artbook”.

[6] Wilson also links A-Z to comics, in an allusion to Hergé’s The Castafiore Emerald.

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