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Review of From Comic Strips to Graphic Novels: Contributions to the Theory and History of Graphic Narrative

By Orion Ussner Kidder

Stein, Daniel and Jan-Noël Thon eds. From Comic Strips to Graphic Novels: Contributions to the Theory and History of Graphic Narrative. De Gruyter: Berlin/Boston. 2013.

Stein and Thon’s collection is a welcome addition to a growing body of literature that details theory and methodology for comics criticism; while every chapter uses at least one published comic book or strip as its working example, they are largely case studies that help to demonstrate a particular theoretical approach. The chapter writers are from around the world, from St. John’s to Kytoto, and the book makes that global perspective explicit by listing their cities of origin under each chapter title. The subject matter of the book roughly reflects an Anglo-American/Franco-Belgian distinction, but the book is much more deeply bound together by a focus on critical method, specifically phenomenology: reader- and audience-oriented criticism. It is divided into four parts with four chapters in each part. It must be said that the writing in this book is miraculously free of the kind of obfuscating language that often plagues literary theory; the chapters all cover complex phenomenological ideas in clear, understandable, and above all, practical language. There are no flights of esoteric fancy, here, and any scholar who actually wants to get good work down will be grateful for it.

Part 1, “Graphic Narrative and Narratological Concepts,” largely focuses on formalism, specifically the ostensible presence of narrators in comics and the various kinds of narration that are possible: textual, visual/spacial, framing devices, etc. For example, Thon’s “Who’s Telling the Tale?” addresses narration directly by cataloguing and describing several types of comic-book narration as defined by who’s implicitly speaking/representing the story and what his/her/their/its relationship is to the story world, if any. Thon emphasizes that these types are not categorical but rather exist in relation to each other (93), and he makes the very important point that “it is not necessary to attribute non-narrational representation to a narrator […] a ‘source’ ” (87) even though, as he points out, we generally do. Similarly, Silke Horstkotte’s “Zooming In and Out” rejects the notion that comics are by definition linear and/or grammatical, counter to the received wisdom of our field. She argues that sequences of panels are not sentences, and they are not read in linear order. Instead, comics reference up to four levels of simultaneous framing at any given time: the panel, the scene (what she calls a “sequence” [45]), the narrative as a whole, and within the narrative but across chapters (Thierry Groensteen’s concept of “braiding” from La Systéme de la Bande Desinée1). The other two papers in the section address embodied reading/viewing and focalization vs. narration: Karin Kukkonen’s “Space, Time and Causality in Graphic Narratives” (Oxford) and Kai Mikkonen’s “Subjectivity and Style in Graphic Narratives” (Helsinki), respectively.

Part 2, “Graphic Narrative Beyond the ‘Single Work,'” is a bit of a catch-all section. Two chapters discuss comics as part of a larger media industry: Stein’s “Superhero Comics and the Authorizing Function of the Comic Book Paratext” and Rippl and Etter’s “Intermediality, Transmediality, and Graphic Narrative.” The other two discuss memoir, a genre of comics, and framing in pre-comics art: Pedri’s “Graphic Memoir” and Smith’s “Comics in the Intersecting History of the Window, the Frame, and the Panel.” Pedri interrogates the “fidelity constraint” (127) of comic-book memoir—how it is expected to depict events that actually occurred but also take on the structure of fiction. She argues that implying doubt in the fidelity of a story can confirm its authenticity, describes how verbal and visual narration play off of each other, and finally, details the different sorts of implied truth claims that photography and stylized drawing can make in comics. Pedri ultimately argues that graphic memoir is suited to, and has tended to, emphasize subjective truths over objective ones. Stein, on the other hand, uses Batman as a case study of authorship and authority in serialized, corporate publishing. He describes it as an attempt to stabilize the inherently unstable. Specifically, corporate publishers outwardly insist on a singular author while employing a stable of creators, and they encourage fans to organize into coherent groups that often make demands of those creators as well as reveal the lie of the singular creator. Stein’s text implies a self-defeating quality to the profit motive of such corporations; they chase money in multiple directions, often at cross purposes.

Part 3, “Genre and Format History of Graphic Narrative,” picks up some of the threads of Part 2, specifically the discussion of, as the title implies, genre and format. Jared Gardner’s “History of the Narrative Comic Strip” places comics into the context of other mass media: newspapers, film, radio, and eventually the Web. The paper describes how the format of newspaper strips lent itself to open-ended narratives rather than one-shot comics, and how audiences and newspapers interacted with them as if they were, to an extent, real. He also details comics’ interaction with film, how film borrowed from comics, because they were an already established form, and then how film overtook them in profits and popularity, thus forcing comics to emulate the slightly younger medium. Pascal Lefévre’s “Narration in the Flemish Dual Publication System” describes the forces that lead to “humoristic [sic] adventure” (255) comics in Flanders, as opposed to the more earnest, French-language comics in Belgium, the most famous of which being Tintin. He separates these forces into three groups: first, “material aspects (size, paper quality, etc.)”; second, “temporal (daily, weekly, monthly, one-shot)”; third, “editorial parameters (length of an episode, regulations regarding content or the public)” (267). He argues that the dual-publication system, under which Flemish strips were first published in newspapers and then collected into books, created compressed storytelling and a rigid structure (e.g., set numbers of panels per episode, set numbers of pages per book), including an omniscient narrator and almost exclusively linear narrative structure. That structure, however, was ideal for containing a farcical and anarchic genre of comic-strip storytelling. Christina Meyer’s “Un/Taming the Beast” (Hannover) formally defines what it is we mean by the term “graphic novel” using The Unwritten as a case study, and Henry Jenkins’ “Archival, Ephemeral, and Residual” defines Art Spiegelman’s use of early comics in In the Shadow of No Towers as what American cultural studies calls “stuff” (301).

Part 4, “Graphic Narrative Across Cultures,” contains large-scale analyses of national/cultural traditions in comics as well as critiques of the practice of grouping comics into cultural categories to begin with. Thus, Jan Baetens and Steven Surdiacourt’s “European Graphic Narratives” presents a history of comics from the continent that puts aside the desire to differentiate European from American or Japanese comics, the interminable definition debate, and instead concentrates on an internal history. Jaqueline Berndt’s “Asian Graphic Narratives” starts from a very similar premise from an Asian perspective; she exposes several processes by which Western audiences and scholars orientalize manga. Julia Round’s “Anglo-American Graphic Narrative” recounts the story of British writers storming American comics in the eighties, which resulted, she argues, from fifties censorship in the US and UK that sanitized the mainstream and drove everything else underground in the sixties and seventies. SF comics in Britain in the eighties reacted against Thatcherism, and those writers used that same mode to appeal to American audiences who were living under Reaganomics, but they did so by self-consciously revising the superhero and directly addressing readers through metafictional devices. Monika Schmitz-Emans’s “Graphic Narratives as World Literature” describes how comics live within world literature. She briefly describes what a global comics theory might look like (formally grounded, open to cultural variation), and then defines world literature in three ways: “world class,” an assessment of quality; “literature of the world,” a statement of origin; and in terms of “mutual literary influence,” a critical assessment (388). She then describes several types of world-literature comics: realistic genres (auto/biography, history, reports), critical reports/travelogues, and historical novels. She then inverts those groupings by surveying comics that are based on so-called world literature: adaptations and parodies, portraits of authors, and comics that affirm pre-existing canons. Schmitz-Emans’s paper, the last one in the collection, gestures towards a larger world for phenomenological theories of comics scholarship in a way that very much embraces the whole book’s transnational theme.

From Comic Strips to Graphic Novels is a rich, complex book. It looks at comics from a phenomenological and transnational perspective and creates an internal dialogue, positing as many ideas as it deconstructs, with individual chapters sitting in tension with one another. This unsettled feeling permeates the book, reflecting the present state of comics scholarship: no longer just finding its feet, constructing canons and deconstructing them in almost the same breath, produced by a wide variety of voices from all over the world, and firmly embedded in a variety of scholarly traditions.


[1] She cites the original French text (1999) rather than the English translation (2007), so I use the French title as well.

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