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Review of Crossing Boundaries in Graphic Narrative

By Will Moore

Jakaitis, Jake, and James F. Wurtz. Crossing Boundaries in Graphic Narrative. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2012.

Crossing Boundaries opens with what seems the mandatory (and tired) introduction to all comic scholarship: the acknowledgement that the status of comics as literature is still contested: “Relatively speaking, the scholarship of comics is a nascent field, and the idea that graphic narrative is an important literary form worthy of study at the highest levels is still capable of engendering debate” (1). Refreshingly, the editors raise the point specifically not to address it. The introduction claims that the collection aims to move beyond that conversation, to take for granted that graphic narratives are worthy of serious scholarship and delve right into said scholarship. The result is a collection of essays that, rather than attempting to prove graphic narratives can be read as novels (and thus treat them as such), instead examines the unique affordances of the medium. Specifically, the collection attempts to explore how graphic narrative is a medium that inherently pushes the boundaries of form, genre, art, and narrative space. While some essays deal with the “crossing boundaries” theme loosely, the collection as a whole is successful, containing insightful analyses that do exactly what the introduction promises: “a careful reading of the ways in which graphic narratives achieve political effects through their crossovers” (2).

The first part of the introduction lays out the goals of the volume. The second half of the introduction, weirdly, acts as the first essay. It’s unclear why Jakaitis and Wurtz didn’t make this its own chapter. In any case, in this essay, Jakaitis and Wurtz examine the political effects of crossover in Marvel’s Civil War series and in Charley’s War. Of more interest than the political commentaries described (regarding post-9/11 America and the ethics of war, respectively), are the particular boundaries crossed by Civil War: narrative boundaries. A vast number of Marvel heroes were written into the series and meanwhile, each hero has his/her own stories (being published simultaneously) written by different authors and reaching different audiences: “[T]he Marvel event encompasses one hundred and seven individual comics spanning no fewer than twenty three Marvel titles in addition to the Civil War (May 2006—Febuary [sic] 2007) and Front Line (August 2006—April 2007) stand-alone series” (4). I think this has more to do with the industry models surrounding these comics rather than anything inherent to the medium itself, but is nonetheless a part of what comics are today (at least in the case of this particular genre). This allows crafting a story that necessarily impacts the world outside its own narrative. Comics readers that didn’t follow Civil War or Front Line, but read other Marvel titles, still felt these stories’ impact, as they effected changes in narratives throughout the Marvel Universe.

The rest of the collection is divided into three sections, titled “Ways of Reading,” “Reading Ethnicity,” and “Reading the Hero.” These section divisions don’t entirely make sense, given that the first two regard the sort of analysis performed and the third is based on the genre of the narrative being analyzed. I suspect they were chosen as the categories that could encompass every essay, rather than a logical progression that enhances the collection as a whole. This, however, is a minor issue.

Part I contains four essays. The first essay focuses, ironically, on a work that is not a graphic narrative: Michael Chabon’s words-only novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. The essay, written by John Hess, explores “the emerging ‘Comic-Book’ genre of literary fiction” (25). Of note is that Chabon pairs with Dark Horse to actually create the fictional comic he invents in his novel. Hess points to this as an example of the fluidity of comic narratives, even to extend beyond comics themselves. The second essay describes how George Herriman’s Krazy Kat acts as an early modernist critique of American culture, often intentionally crossing linguistic, gender, and racial boundaries (in this sense, it might have fit better in the second section, rather than the first). The third essay posits that the comics medium is ideal for constructions of the fantastic, using Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman as a case study. The ideas in this essay become somewhat convoluted by jargon, but conclude that the combined graphic and textual nature of comics is ideal for creating contradicting realities, and such contradiction is the basis of the fantastic.

The last, and most compelling, essay of the first section examines the use of space in Alan Moore’s “How Things Work Out.” Comics are a medium in which manipulations of both space and time can occur (and uniquely so). Rikke Cortsen, the essay’s author, uses Moore’s story as a case study. “How Things Work Out” unfolds entirely inside of one building. That building simultaneously represents space and time, as each floor represents a different decade in the characters’ lives. While the characters are slaves to the chronology already written for them, the reader is easily able to jump throughout time depending on which order they choose to read the comic (top to bottom, or from the earliest timeframe to the latest).

Part II also contains four essays. The first covers Howard Cruse’s Stuck Rubber Baby, a graphic novel that explores the meaning of reading and learning by visually incorporating examples of print culture (books, periodicals, etc.) and exploring their cultural value. The essay argues that Stuck Rubber Baby, as a graphic narrative, is able to more subtly—and therefore more effectively—insert other types of print culture into its narrative than a words-only novel possibly could. The next essay, by Pamela Rader, is about Persepolis and Persepolis 2, arguing that the two novels have helped redefine American views of both comics and prose autobiography. Rader seems primarily concerned with the “comics as literature” argument the introduction promises to avoid. Still, in her analysis, Rader does account for Persepolis‘s uniquely graphic features. The third essay of Part II deals with choices of representation in Art Spiegelman’s Maus. The author explores the reasons and outcomes for using non-human creatures to represent human characters in Maus. She claims the various animal species represent difference between the Jewish and non-Jewish Germans, mirroring the way Nazi ideology claimed a biological basis for its intolerance. While well argued, this essay lacks the freshness of concept that can be found in the other essays. Maus might be the most critically studied graphic text and its use of animals is commonly examined. Certainly, there is always new ground to explore in any work, but the insights presented in this essay felt a little stale.

As with the first section, the second section ends with its strongest essay. Written by Ellen Gil-Gomez, the essay examines Ilan Stavans’s and Lalo Alcaraz’s Latino USA: A Cartoon History. Gomez explains comics are a hybrid form, and therefore a perfect cultural tool for representing Chicano/a culture—which Gomez describes as a hybrid culture, citing the philosophical condition of the “new mestiza” (la mestiza is an Atzec word meaning “torn between ways”) as described by Gloria Anzaldúa. A particularly interesting point Gomez describes in her essay is the contention between writer and illustrator (in the cases of comics where those jobs are done by separate people). In Latino USA, this contention plays out in the page. The illustrator, Lalo Alcaraz, was able to include his own reactions to Stavans’s script in the way he drew the expressions on the characters’ faces, or even in dialogue he sometimes inserted himself.

The third and final section contains three essays. The first, “3X2(9YZ)4A” by Martyn Pedler, regards superhero comics as a particular brand of story that can only work in comic form. Pedler’s primary example is The Flash, which he argues cannot properly be represented without the unique combination of pictures and words available only to comics. Describing The Flash in prose necessarily fails because “[i]n comic books, words aren’t just words—they’re pictures, too, lettered to create a visual onomatopoeia, crushing, zapping, whooshing, spelling out their power” (178).

The next essay, the penultimate of the collection, is the strongest. In it, Andrew Friedenthal explores the various manifestations of Wonder Woman. What is most fascinating about this essay is how it distinguishes Wonder Woman as a concept from Wonder Woman as a character. Friedenthal tracks Wonder Woman’s status as a symbol used by early feminist movements. He compares this with the Wonder Woman character as she evolves in the comics put out regularly by DC. The two are shown to have diverging paths. At a time when the Wonder Woman narrative was dealing with feminist issues most strongly, she had lost her powers. Those who regarded her as a symbol (namely, the people at Ms. magazine) were upset because Wonder Woman the symbol had changed. At that time, she was just a regular woman with above-average Karate skills—a female James Bond. Later, Wonder Woman’s powers and traditional costume were restored, but the stories were bland hokum. The essay ends by suggesting that the two Wonder Women may have finally converged in present day. The Wonder Woman series has a woman editor (the second in the history of the comic), and is tackling feminist issues with complex plots.

The book’s final essay explains how Brian K. Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man is changed (for the worse) when the novel is converted from serials to trade paperback. This essay doesn’t belong in the final section given that it doesn’t deal with superhero comics. It baffles me that it wasn’t put in the first section, “Ways of Reading,” where it fits perfectly. Nonetheless, it is a strong essay. The author, Michael P. Millington, traces how the conversion to paperback alters certain panel layouts and eliminates the advertisements that were integral to the way the story is paced. Millington supposes that Y: The Last Man was written with advertisements in mind, and the author incorporated the placement of ads to delay when the reader saw certain images. Without the ads, certain elements of surprise are removed that change the way the story is understood. At the very least, it alters the reader’s emotional response to certain scenes.

Crossing Boundaries may seem a random collection of essays about graphic narratives, and in part it is. The volume’s greatest weakness is a lack of strong unity among the essays. The editors intend to present a series of essays that together demonstrate that graphic narratives “cross boundaries,” but as I mentioned earlier, some of the essays fit this criteria but loosely (and it is a broad umbrella to begin with).

Where Crossing Boundaries shines is in its earnest attempt at dedicated comics scholarship, especially by intentionally disregarding the “comics as literature” question. Comics scholarship can (and I think should) develop its own unique hermeneutic methods regardless of whether comics are termed “literature” or not. Crossing Boundaries takes a firm step in that direction. Scholars interested in exploring or developing theories of interpretation specific to the study of comics will find the collection worthwhile (particularly essays 4, 8, 10, and 11).

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