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Review of Comics and the Senses: A Multisensory Approach to Comics and Graphic Novels

By Brian Bates

Hague, Ian. Comics and the Senses: A Multisensory Approach to Comics and Graphic Novels. NY: Routledge, 2014. pp. 199. $125.00. ISBN: 978-0-415-71397-9.

Comics and the Senses investigates how the five senses—sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste—can inform our understanding of how comics work. Hague’s introduction and six subsequent chapters keep readers in the company of the most salient comics’ theorists in the last thirty years—from Will Eisner, Scott McCloud and Thierry Groensteen to Martin Barker, Joseph Witek, Ernesto Priego, Mel Gibson, Roger Sabin, Charles Hatfield, David Mack, Hillary Chute and several others. The book closely scrutinizes and partially disagrees with the well-established notion—based largely on McCloud’s definitions in Understanding Comics (1993)—that comics are a singular, visual medium. Against what Hague describes as the predominating “ocularcentric” definition, which largely sees comics on the page as conceptual ideas, he argues for a performative definition of comics that treats them as three-dimensional, social objects existing in time and involving readers through the five senses.

Hague lays out this argument clearly and succinctly in the introduction and provides a reasonable explanation of why the book’s chapters progress from sight (chapters one and two) to hearing (chapter three), touch (chapter four), smell and taste (chapter five). Building on these chapters, chapter six analyzes several of Alan Moore’s comics as material objects that engage readers through multisensory stimuli. With varying degrees of success, Comics and the Senses intertwines theories about the senses with a wide range of literary and cultural theories, including those of Karl Marx, Georg Lukacs, Ferdinand Saussure, Roland Barthes, George Poulet, Walter Benjamin, Gerard Genette, Gilles Deleuze, Fredric Jameson, Theodore Adorno, and Jacques Lacan. Through these interdisciplinary lenses, which are often loosely applied, the book carries out a multimodal inquiry into comics that also posits connections with film, sculpture, painting, music, and digital representations.

Of the first five chapters, “Touch, or, The Taboo/Fetish Character of Comics and Tactile Performance” is the most compelling and useful for considering how comics work through and upon the senses. Hague bases his examination of texture, paper quality, plasticity, hardness, flexibility, weight, page turning, and temperature on exemplary comics, including Art Spiegelman’s Jack Cole and Plastic and In The Shadow of No Towers, Jordan Crane’s Keep Our Secrets, Frank King’s Gasoline Alley, and Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles. Hague’s examples incisively demonstrate how touch “is capable of expressing complex types of meaning that work with and perhaps even exceed comics’ visual components, without simply replicating them” (117).

Chapter six, “Multisensory Aspects of Moore’s Comics,” is the most insightful chapter in the book. Hague examines how sight, hearing and touch inform V for VendettaA Disease of LanguagePrometheaThe League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Watchmen. The chapter does not, however, offer an analysis of smell/taste, which was the focus of the previous chapter. Notwithstanding this seeming omission, Hague’s exposition and analysis are sharp as he considers how “Moore’s multimodal works can provide us with useful insights into the various possibilities for communication that arise from a mixing of forms” (151). Particularly in his example from V for Vendetta, which focuses on the music foregrounded in the much discussed “This Vicious Cabaret” section, Hague proves and expands on his sometimes vague claims in earlier chapters about how comics stage and invite intra- and extra-textual performance acts. This case study deftly demonstrates how audience/reader performance can bring out the physically transformative qualities in comics.

Much of Comics and the Senses lacks the acuteness of analysis that chapters four and six demonstrate. While Hague makes strong statements about what he is arguing against—”[t]he overall effect of the ocularcentric and synaesthetic approach to comics is to render the comic as an object immaterial and transparent”—he is too often preoccupied with the parameters and limitations of his argument and spends a great deal of time quibbling with the value and specificity of his endeavors (21). Moreover, his descriptions of his own approach vacillate. Sometimes Hague explains his project as a necessary correction to the “ocularcentric” view, at other times as a possible supplement, and occasionally as an underdetermined investigation. For example, in chapter three, which is about sound, he cautions: “We must be wary of expecting too much of the sounds produced by comics. Seeking to remedy visual bias by constructing a structured epistemological understanding of comics’ audible qualities will not necessarily yield many new insights” (68).

As much as Hague carries out a multimodal, interdisciplinary inquiry into comics, the structure of the book tends to flatten his efforts. Comics and the Senses only has five visual illustrations—two of which are anatomical images of the eye and ear, while another is Ernesto Priego’s materiality concept chart. On the two occasions that comics are reproduced visually (pages fifty-five and one-hundred and fifty-nine), the written analyses and insights are fascinating. Beyond these visual disappointments, chapters one through five develop slowly and at times repetitively. The methodical manner in which Hague deals with one sense in each chapter, headed with descriptions of how each sense functions physiologically, often sheds artificial light on how readers engage with comics. As chapter six demonstrates, more often than not, comics present multiple sensory stimuli at the same time. The book’s chapters could have been condensed and combined so that multiple senses were dealt with in each chapter. For example, sight and touch could have been examined in one chapter while hearing, smell and taste could have been detailed in another chapter. With this structure, Hague could have included one or two other enriching case study chapters that add to the keen insights and close readings in the Alan Moore chapter.

Notwithstanding these criticisms, Comics and the Senses succeeds in providing “a starting point, a catalogue, of the multisensory elements of comics,” and it details several exciting ways in which comics have moved into 21st-century electronic media (172). Although digital comics are not central to Hague’s argument, he smartly develops throughout the book a productive tension between print and digital comics. The final chapter’s brief consideration of “the roles of publishers, printers and others in determining the material forms that comics take” also offers helpful suggestions for how to move beyond “the trap of assuming authorial intent” (166). Comics and the Senses is an admirable resource for accessing scholarly theories about comics and for considering directions that future scholarship could take in relation to a rapidly expanding comics industry.

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