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Review of Critical Approaches to Comics: Theories and Methods

By Jeremy Stoll

In Critical Approaches to Comics: Theories and Methods, editors Matthew J. Smith and Randy Duncan have collected twenty-one articles on the primary methods for contemporary comics scholarship. Each chapter is roughly structured around appropriate artifact(s) selected, procedures, assumptions, and sample analysis. In the Introduction, Henry Jenkins brings this diverse group of authors together around “…arguing for—and performing the work of—creating a discipline called Comics Studies” (1). With the example of Kim Deitch’s The Search for Smilin’ Ed (2010), Jenkins makes sense of contributors’ differing terms, histories, and approaches by framing the discipline as multidisciplinary, echoing Charles Hatfield’s points in “Indiscipline, or, The Condition of Comics Studies.”1 Overall, then, Critical Approaches succeeds in simultaneously illustrating the many possibilities and difficulties of disciplining the field of Comics Studies.

The volume begins with contributors’ biographies, followed by five sections, starting with “Form.” In this section, contributors like David A. Beronä and Randy Duncan tease out hidden meanings within their respective narratives, namely Peter Kuper’s wordless comic The System (1997) and David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp (2009). Meanwhile, Joseph Witek and Marc Singer demonstrate the unique qualities of the comics medium. While Singer highlights how comics allow creators to uniquely manipulate the narrative representation of time, as in Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles (1994), Witek illustrates the different traditions and roles that creators like Aline Kominsky and R. Crumb take on via different representational modes. Finally, Pascal Lefèvre and Andrei Molotiu focus on what particular authors’ graphic styles reveal about form. Lefèvre demonstrates that creators’ formal choices are always related to the narrative itself, as in the framing and mise-en-scène of Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima’s Lone Wolf and Cub (1995). Similarly, Andrei Molotiu highlights the formal tensions of abstract story structure in Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s Amazing Spider-Man (1965), noting the need to investigate the sequential pleasure of reading comics. The authors in this first section thus provide a toolbox for formal comics analysis, albeit one largely grounded in literary theory, that grounds the volume as a whole in arguing for Comics Studies as a discipline that is more than the pleasure of reading comics narratives.

The second section, “Content,” adds to this toolbox mainly with considerations of thematic meaning, continuing a literary slant. In particular, Jeff McLaughlin investigates what the “Dark Phoenix Saga” (1980) of the X-men series reveals about the ethics of pleasure, while Amy Kiste Nyberg highlights how the comics journalism genre, via Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Gorazde (2000), reveals that journalistic storytelling is always interpretive. Although Nyberg simultaneously notes that the comics medium is particularly suited to illuminating creative process, both she and McLaughlin seem more invested in what comics reveal about other kinds of narratives. However, Christopher Murray concludes the section by reading Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s Captain America (1941) for political context and thus echoes Molotiu by calling for critical analysis of the pleasure of reading comics. Despite the diverse backgrounds, methods, and insights of these pieces, though, by the end of this second section, together they have demonstrated the importance of approaching comics as a medium that is more than the fun and ease of reading visual narratives.

Still, Critical Approaches finds its clearest focus in the third section on “Production,” which deals with perspectives of comics as material objects created in a historical and cultural context. This begins with Mark Rogers’ analysis of economic influences on an issue of Dan Jurgens’ “The Death of Superman” (1993), wherein he contrasts industrial and artisan models of creativity. Ian Gordon then discerns how comics’ status as a commodity creates values in peoples’ everyday lives, with a focus on Joe Case et. al.’s Superman: Return to Krypton (2004). In one of the strongest pieces in the collection, Stanford W. Carpenter provides a fieldwork narrative that reveals the everyday lives and experiences of Marvel Comics creators. Similarly, Matthew J. Smith cites Rogers in demonstrating the importance of approaching creators like Alan Moore as artisans, based on the auteur criticism of film studies. Lastly, Brad J. Ricca reads Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s early comics for insight into their public and personal histories; in noting that the divide between fiction and autobiography is often fluid, Ricca recalls accounts by comics creators as well, such as graphic novelist Phoebe Gloeckner.2 While each author sheds light on production, together they demonstrate how Comics Studies can unite multiple disciplinary approaches in understanding comics as living narratives.

Within Part IV on “Context,” several authors take a closer look at comics’ context, although certain pieces seem too narrowly focused on legitimizing the medium. In particular, Peter Coogan uses genre analysis to uncover the grander meanings behind superheroic themes in Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman (2008), and Ana Merino, as translated by Elizabeth Polli, uses Max Bardin’s Superrealist Intertextualities (2006) to show that ‘comic artists’ can reach educated readers and craft ‘new aesthetic philosophies.’ Both Coogan and Merino risk reaffirming high-low hierarchies by making unclear judgments about which comics should be considered ‘richer,’ ‘more interesting,’ or ‘sophisticated.’ Such judgments are not uncommon in media studies, as Jenkins even notes in the Introduction that the tendency for academics to research narratives they enjoy may leave holes in scholarship (4). Yet, in illustrating genre and intertextual analysis, these authors have demonstrated the need to more clearly engage with the question of what makes for a worthwhile subject of analysis. In contrast, in analyzing how Hergé’s Tintin in the Congo (1946) reveals real-world power relations, Leonard Rifas helpfully notes that comics analysis is, at best, interpretation that cannot reveal any one ‘correct meaning.’ Similarly, through a feminist analysis of Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane (1972), Jennifer K. Stuller demonstrates the importance of media literacy and recognizing how comics characters and stories embody cultural values. The pieces in this section thus illustrate the importance of recognizing comics as one medium among many whose stories exist in the larger context of the world. Furthermore, both Stuller and Rifas suggest the relative value of comics narratives and individual interpretations of them, and, in the process, point to the need to choose comics for analysis for being representative of certain contexts, patterns, or phenomena.

The final section on “Reception” continues to explore both the importance of considering the context for comics narratives and this concern with what makes for quality comics. Specifically, Mel Gibson’s exploration of British girls’ comics, their fans, and their reading practices from a Cultural Studies perspective highlights how readers use mass media to fulfill individual needs in their everyday lives. Jeffrey A. Brown emphasizes this as well in his ethnographic account of fans who regularly wear superhero T-shirts when he argues that fans connect their everyday life to personal and communal ideals in linking themselves with certain characters. For both Gibson and Brown, the value of comics narratives lies in their role in everyday life, rather than within scholarly hierarchies of value. Brown’s ethnographic approach, in particular, echoes Carpenter’s earlier piece on Marvel Comics creators, but stands in contrast to the concluding article of this section and the book, wherein Brian Swafford focuses on the power relations embodied in comics shops. Swafford, too, turns to lived experience, in this case through a critical ethnography of a Midwestern comics shop. Yet Swafford approaches the shop as ‘a clubhouse’ that ostracizes outsiders and, furthermore, chooses to anonymously interact with readers, despite pointing out the importance of engaging in dialogue with community members. As a result, this final article and section demonstrates the importance of engaging with comics communities by illustrating the dangers of scholarly assumptions and the need to not value critical perspectives over others when crafting ways of knowing about comics.

Critical Approaches thus concludes by pointing out the next, and perhaps biggest, step for Comics Studies as a discipline: coming to terms with competing visions of the field. As Henry Jenkins notes in the Introduction, this volume is strikingly different from The Best American Comics Criticism collection (2010) of pieces by comics creators, fans, journalists, and various men and women of letters. In so doing, Critical Approaches illustrates the difficulties of shaping a field of research into a discipline, especially in terms of the continuing tendency to justify comics. One of the main ways that scholarship has done this work has been through associating comics with literature and language, and many of the contributions here rely on semiotics and literary analysis, such that even ethnographic approaches seem obliged to conclude that comics communities are fundamentally grounded in the semiotics of the text-reader dialogue. However, remaining mired in justifying comics to other scholars likely leads to the reaffirmation of existing hierarchies of narrative quality, high/low culture, children’s/adult literature, or the divide between critical scholars and creative authors/artists. The varying opinions of creators’ perspectives among contributors to this work thus seems troubling, with descriptions of creators as difficult to consult, irrelevant, or simply wrong about their own work. At the same time, several contributors do focus on creators or on contesting simplistic understandings of comics as fitting within existing cultural binaries or hierarchies, and other scholars have directly addressed the importance of dealing with these issues.3 Still, and especially without a concluding chapter, Critical Approaches leaves the future of Comics Studies somewhat unclear.

However, the focus of Critical Approaches is not so much to take up these problems as to draw out the production of comics scholarship, and, indeed, this volume provides a helpful collection of insightful essays on the wide variety of approaches, methods, and tools for engaging with comics, creators, and their communities. Although additional introductions to each section and an overall conclusion would have helped each of the pieces to cohere into a larger vision of the field, the sum of the parts of this volume is an ambitious and comprehensive resource for instructors and students of comics analysis. Further, despite some pieces that verge on wordiness or some changing uses of terms like ethnography and genre, the shift from formal considerations of comics to recognizing their importance in peoples’ daily lives suggests a potential means for linking together the aforementioned competing strains of Comics Studies: namely, understanding comics as living narratives. Indeed, rather than working to directly discipline the field, Critical Approaches succeeds in vibrantly illustrating the scholarly community around comics through demonstrations of some of the many possible methods for analyzing them. To that end, and insofar as few previous volumes have taken on this ambitious goal, Smith, Duncan, and their many contributors have created a fun and nigh-essential work for comics scholars, students, creators, and fans alike.


[1] Charles Hatfield, “Indiscipline, or, The Condition of Comics Studies,” Transatlantica 1 (2010), accessed August 29, 2012,

[2] Phoebe Gloeckner, “Autobiography: The Process Negates the Term,” In Graphic Subjects: Critical Essays on Autobiography and Graphic Novels, Ed. Michael A. Chaney, Madison: University of Wisconsin press, 2011: 178-9.

[3] See, especially, Thierry Groensteen’s “Why Are Comics Still In Search of Cultural Legitimization?” (In A Comics Studies Reader, eds. Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester, Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2008: 3-11) and Comics Versus Art by Bart Beaty (Toronto: University of Toronto Press: 2012).

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