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Review of From Comic Strips to Graphic Novels

By Jeff Thoss

Stein, Daniel, and Jan-Noël Thon, eds. From Comic Strips to Graphic Novels: Contributions to the Theory and History of Graphic Narrative. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2013. Narratologia 37. Print. 416 pp. 99,95 € / $140.00

Ever since the late 1990s, narrative theory has begun to re-invent itself and move beyond its structuralist roots, revising core concepts and entering into extended dialogues with other disciplines, all the while abandoning its traditional restriction to prose fiction in order to encompass narrative in all its forms. It was thus only a question of time before comics entered the expanded scope of so-called post-classical narratology. In the beginning, narratological studies of comics were mostly to be found in isolated book chapters and articles, yet recent years have also seen the publication of monographs such as Martin Schüwer’s Wie Comics erzählen (2008) and edited collections such as Jared Gardner and David Herman’s Graphic Narratives and Narrative Theory (2011). With From Comic Strips to Graphic Novels: Contributions to the Theory and History of Graphic Narrative, editors Daniel Stein and Jan-Noël Thon evidently continue this trend, engaging in the typological as well as terminological debates that have emerged in the last decade whilst also reclaiming a more historically informed and oriented comics narratology.

The collection is divided into four parts comprising sixteen essays, along with an extended introduction that not only contextualizes and sets forth the aims of the volume but also presents a strong case for graphic narrative as a relatively neutral umbrella term to be adopted by scholars. The opening section deals with classic narratological concepts such as narrators and focalizers, the (for comics narration seemingly essential) notion of sequentiality, as well as the representation of time and space. In the second part, entitled “Graphic Narrative beyond the ‘Single Work,'” one finds essays on a variety of topics, from fictionality in memoirs, to the authorizing function of paratexts, to comics’ relationship to other media and place within media history. The penultimate section treats the history of various genres and formats (narrative comic strips, Flemish adventure comics, graphic novels), while the final four contributions examine the traditional geographic hotspots (North America and Great Britain, continental Europe, Asia) of graphic narratives before turning to their status in or as world literature.

Narrative theory has become increasingly wary of simply grafting concepts and models developed in the analysis of prose fiction onto other media while paying little heed to their specific make-up. This is nowhere more evident than with its central category of voice, where critics have time and again struggled with the fact that, in the case of film or comics, narrators not only take more complex shapes but are also perhaps less decisive in the overall transmission of information. As such, Jan-Noël Thon’s chapter “Who’s Telling The Tale?” finds a neat way of adapting Gérard Genette’s traditional typology to narration in comics (be it in the form of captions or character-narrators) while acknowledging that the “verbal-pictorial representation” fundamental to the medium is “non-narratorial.” That the author argues that this form of narratorless representation nevertheless has to be attributed to a source, which he dubs “hypothetical author collectives” (93), is likely to be a point of contention, but also characteristic of narratology’s general unwillingness to conceive of representations without origins. Kai Mikkonen offers to do for focalization what Thon did for narration, stating in particular that in graphic narrative one has to distinguish between visual and cognitive perspective and attend to the interaction between these two. While theoretically sound, his essay suffers from only analyzing a few, arguably eccentric examples. In contrast, Karin Kukkonen offers a close reading of a well-chosen example from Winsor McKay’s Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, drawing upon the cognitive sciences to show how the strip’s time, space and causality are constructed through embodiment, through readers’ perception of, and reaction to, the character’s bodies on the page. Kukkonen’s case is compelling; though, as happens so often with cognitive narratology, one may wonder if it really provides more than straightforward mimetic interpretation dressed up in scientific language. In a similar vein, Silke Horstkotte presents a persuasive if somewhat self-evident argument, criticizing what she perceives as too strict a focus on sequentiality in comics studies and pleading for a multi-layered, dynamic and non-linear understanding of graphic narrative.

Few genres have received more attention in the past years, both within and outside of academia, than autobiographies and superhero comics. Nancy Pedri’s chapter on “Graphic Memoir Neither Fact Nor Fiction” deals with the former and addresses the unavoidable issue of their truth status. Pedri expertly demonstrates how the credibility of such narratives is paradoxically enforced by their self-scrutiny, the doubts they raise regarding the relationship between fact, memory and representation. Her conclusion that graphic memoirs “dismantle factual/fictional divisions” and put forward a purely “diegetic self” (148) for readers to believe in appears less convincing, though, since this would rather tip the scale in favor of classifying them as fictions rather than as “neither fact nor fiction.” In “Superhero Comics and the Authorizing Functions of the Comic Book Paratext,” Daniel Stein covers the other genre in the limelight, although he does so via a detour. Stein examines how the question of authorship and authority in relation to Batman has been negotiated from the 1940s to the 1960s, first in author profiles, then in letter pages, and finally in fanzines. He meticulously traces the shifting relations between authors and readers or fans in this time period and vividly discusses their implications, even though his claim that these changes “propelled […] superhero comics towards longer storylines, sprawling character constellations, increasingly complex narrative universes, and interacting trajectories among different series” (177) is not fully substantiated. Moreover, one would wish that Stein had distinguished between writers and artists in his discussion of authorship, especially when the first two examples he discusses explicitly portray Bob Kane as the one who draws rather than writes Batman.

In opposition to this, the difference between drawing and writing, or between the visual and the verbal medium, is at the very heart of Gabriele Rippl and Lukas Etter’s essay on inter- and transmediality. Unfortunately these two authors, who have published more original material elsewhere, here mostly content themselves with representing the current state of affairs in intermediality studies, as if they primarily intended to introduce comics scholars to that field. In doing so, Rippl and Etter take up their previous typology of text-image relations in comics and connect it to narrative, yet this amounts to little more than assessing a graphic narrative’s narrativity on a panel-by-panel basis. This appears as a questionable activity, since the authors do not present compelling reasons why, considering that the tenor of scholarship has been that comics’s narrativity resides in-between or in the interaction of panels, narratologists should study panels in isolation. Greg M. Smith’s take on comics’ (inter)mediality fares better here. He takes readers on a trip through media history, tracing the concepts of window and frame that finally merge in graphic narrative’s panel, which combines the “two-dimensional logic of the frame” with the “three-dimensional aspects of the window”. In addition, Smith forcefully argues that comics represent the “theoretical and historical ‘road not taken’ by […] more popular narrative media” such as film. In this, he is met by Jared Gardner, whose “History of the Narrative Comic Strip” discusses graphic narrative’s relation to cinema, radio and television over the course of the 20th century. Gardner tells the—perhaps too simplistic—story of the rise and fall of the narrative comic strip, locating its golden age in the 1910s and 30s while (prematurely?) lamenting that serial storytelling does not stand a chance in webcomics. Smith’s and Gardner’s chapters are, in turn, nicely complemented by Jan Baetens and Steven Surdiacourt’s, which outlines the development of European graphic narratives from Töpffer and Busch to the present, taking care to analyze their medial and cultural reconfigurations.

Surely, constructing long-term histories within the space afforded by an essay is no easy task, and it has to be said that especially Gardner and Baetens/Surdiacourt tend to be heavily descriptive and cursory. Presumably to counteract this, From Comic Strips to Graphic Novels also contains a few more narrowly-focused historiographical contributions. This includes the already-mentioned chapter by Stein as well as Pascal Lefèvre’s analysis of Flemish humoristic adventure comics. Lefèvre lucidly shows the effects that Flanders’s dual publication system and format constraints have had on this particular genre of graphic narratives. However, he is also very much on the descriptive rather than analytical side. This is not the case in Henry Jenkins’s fine treatment of In the Shadow of No Towers, which distinguishes between the functions of the “archival, ephemeral and residual” that early comics have in Art Spiegelman’s treatment of 9/11 and vividly shows how the past continues to haunt and influence the present. The relationship between present and historical graphic narratives is also dealt with in broader terms by Christina Meyer’s “Un/Tame the Beast, or Graphic Novels (Re)Considered,” whose slightly convoluted argument aims at characterizing the graphic novel as a form that is particularly aware of its own history and conventions, exemplifying this via a reading of Mike Carey and Peter Gross’s The Unwritten. Meyer certainly has a point here, yet her conclusion constitutes a bit of a letdown as it seems to concern itself more with how one could or should study graphic novels rather than with what the author has actually done.

For a collection that wishes to examine graphic narrative also historically, it must be conceded that history is not really its strong suit. Regrettably, it is only in a handful of essays that well-researched historiography meets the refined theoretical models of narrative theory. Moreover, some contributors proffer a rather simplistic, teleological view of comics history. For instance, Horstkotte notes a “vast gulf separating these early examples of pictorial storytelling [the Bayeux tapestry, Hogarth] from the highly sophisticated graphic novels by authors such as Art Spiegelman, Neil Gaiman or Alan Moore that have emerged from the broader tradition of comics since the mid-1980s” (27). One might wish that the commonplace division between “highly sophisticated” post-1986 graphic novels and more or less “primitive” earlier comics were by now rather questioned than upheld in comics scholarship. Similarly, Julia Round, in her chapter on “Anglo-American Graphic Narrative,” that deals exclusively with the graphic novels resulting from the “British Invasion” of superhero comics, tends to credit these works with an enormous amount of storytelling innovations: “the depiction of time-as-space, the creation of the hyperreal through an excess of perspectives, the active involvement of the reader between panels” (328). With all due respect to Moore, Gaiman, Morrison & co., they did not invent the medium. Counterpoising what runs the danger of being a distorted and myopic view on the history of graphic narrative, the volume’s last two essays offer a welcome change of perspective. Jacqueline Berndt’s analysis of Asian graphic narratives not only uses these to challenge Eurocentric assumptions about graphic narrative but also a Western understanding of manga. Her contrasting of the archetypal Japanese plot structure of ki-sho-ten-ketsu with Western models is particularly enlightening in this regard. Finally, Monika Schmitz-Emans’s “Graphic Narrative as World Literature” also invites us to broaden our horizon—though from a different, more traditional perspective—by placing comics within a macro-frame of global storytelling activities.

As edited collections go, From Comic Strips to Graphic Novels varies in the quality of its contributions. After reading this book, there can be little doubt that comics, manga, or bandes dessinées are narratives and that there is much to be gained by analyzing them with the toolbox developed by (transmedial) narratology. The essays dealing with some of the core terms and topics of narrative theory certainly benefit our further understanding of how this medium works. When it comes to the history of graphic narrative, the volume is less consistent, and its occasional bias towards graphic novels does not do the project of a diachronic comics narratology much favor. Still, graphic narrative theory is but in its pioneering days; for any interested in the intersection and cross-pollination of comics studies and narratology, this is essential reading destined to be a foundational work for future research.

Works Cited

Gardner, Jared, and David Herman, eds. Graphic Narratives and Narrative Theory. Special issue of SubStance 40.1 (2011). Print.

Schüwer, Martin. Wie Comics erzählen: Grundriss einer intermedialen Erzähltheorie der grafischen Literatur. Trier: WVT, 2008. Print.

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