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Review of Gothic in Comics and Graphic Novels

By Jaquelin Elliott

Round, Julia. Gothic in Comics and Graphic Novels. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2014.

“Horror and comics are old friends” – so begins Julia Round’s Gothic in Comics and Graphic Novels, an impressive and refreshing work that explores this longstanding “friendship.” From the illustrated covers of pulp horror magazines like Weird Tales to the “Brit invasion” of the 1980s and 90s when writers like Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman infused American comics with English Gothic sensibility, the connection between comics and the Gothic tradition is indeed an intricate one, but one largely lacking in scholarship. For those with an interest in the Gothic and/or horror comics, Round’s book is a much-welcome work and one thorough enough to begin filling this startling gap in scholarship on the subject. Responding directly to media scholar Henry Jenkins’ argument that comics must become a more diverse and robust discipline, Round examines not only Gothic graphic texts such as DC’s House of Mystery, but also the potential of Gothic criticism in the analysis of all comics and graphic novels. Deeming the Gothic mode “that has absorbed and subverted so many genres” (8) a powerful critical lens, Round sets about re-examining multiple aspects of comics studies: the cultural, the aesthetic, the structural, the thematic, the historical, and even the transmedial and intertextual.

Rightly noting the Gothic to be an ever-changing response to social trauma and, thus, a literary “tendency,” not a historical genre, Round maps out the many similarities between comics and the Gothic, including their intellectual marginalization (each having always been branded by some to be literary junk food), their concerns about the alienation of youth, and their elements of social critique that have often centralized the excluded Other. Most key to Round’s study and, arguably, the strongest connection between the two is the way in which each has addressed social trauma, with comics, like the Gothic, frequently belying cultural anxieties. For example, Round points to the case of 1950s American horror comics where apprehension about the United States’ emergence as a superpower, the threat of nuclear fallout, and the ghosts of the Holocaust loom large.

While Round notes that “this book is not intended to be a detailed survey of horror comics or their history, but instead aims to use Gothic criticism to re-approach and reconsider comics theory” (5), Part One of her study nevertheless offers a comprehensive, but concise history of both the Gothic tradition and the history of British and American comics and criticism. Round makes it clear that her book is aimed at “any scholar with an interest in comics or Gothic who wants to find their way into the other” (5) and indeed does an effective job of outlining the history and key theoretical concepts needed to engage critically with each field. Round’s clear, lively prose shines here, as it does throughout the book, keeping her ambitious project grounded as she addresses the discourses of publishing and distribution, mass media, audience and fandom, romantic authorship, literary illusion, and graphic novel rebranding in turn.

Part Two provides a synthesis, utilizing Gothic critical theory to reinterpret formal approaches to comics. Round argues for “a holistic analytical approach to the comics medium that uses three main Gothic tropes (haunting, seeing and decomposition) to identify the idiosyncratic workings of an individual text” (9). Indeed, this is the structure that Part Two follows with each chapter respectively elaborating upon these tropes. Chapter 3 utilizes the concept of haunting to discuss the manipulations of time and space inherent to the layout (or architecture if one is feeling especially Gothic) of a comic’s pages. Round examines texts like Hellblazer: Tainted Love and Batman: A Death in the Family to explore this temporal/spatial interplay with special attention paid to repetition/echoes, the tension between sequence and panorama, and Gothic concepts like haunting and doubling. Chapter 4 is concerned with “seeing,” analyzing the multiple perspectives at play in comics to argue that a “self-consciously inauthentic narrative is created in comics through an excess of perspective“ (9). Round argues that comics, like the Gothic, offer an “excess of style” (76) and examines the stylization of the comics page through an application of Gothic understandings of excess, materiality, authenticity, and perspective. Finally, Chapter 5 re-scripts the gutter as a kind of crypt. Drawing upon Foucault’s conception of the archive and Derrida’s definition of the crypt as a symbol for the “artificial unconscious,” this re-scripting is particularly intriguing, analyzing the unique work performed by every comics reader in interpreting the “shown and unshown content of the page” (8). The gutter, then, serves as an absent space of temporal disruption that both highlights the negative capability of the comics medium and forces readers to move forward and backward in time like ghosts.

Round then reiterates her desire for a more holistic approach to comics analysis that focuses more on comics’ strategies than on their compositional elements. She presents a Gothic model for analyzing comics composed of the concepts discussed in Chapters 3 through 5, arguing that comics can/should be considered on the following terms: the presence of haunting; the excess and use of (dis)embodied perspectives; and the role of the revenant reader in the gutter/crypt/archive. Part Two concludes with a series of case studies, including pages from House of MysteryiZombieThe New Deadwardians, and Sandman #1.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, the “Brit invasion” and launching of DC’s Vertigo imprint serve as the bulk of Round’s study with particular attention paid to Vertigo’s roots in the horror tradition under the direction of fresh-off-of-House of Mystery editor Karen Berger. It is here that Round’s Gothic analysis is at both its most novel and its most convincing. If horror comics are a response to social trauma, Round argues, then the Vertigo line itself could be read as a kind of response to social trauma. That is, that the launching of the Vertigo imprint can be read as a response to the stagnation in modern comics at the time, tapping into a postmodern anxiety with the “resulting reworkings of bland superheroics and the creation of the ‘Bergerverse’” (48) serving as an alternative to mainstream publications.

Round takes this analysis of Vertigo further, deeming the imprint not only structurally inventive, but also thematically based around an ethos that is inherently Gothic if one considers the four key components of Gothic texts, per Jerrold Hogle’s Gothic matrix: (1) antiquated spaces, (2) a hidden secret from the past, (3) a physical or psychological haunting, and (4) an oscillation between earthly reality and the supernatural. Round argues that Vertigo follows this matrix, taking antiquated literary spaces (old/mainstream comics) that it often adapted by revealing a “hidden secret” (retconning). According to Round, “the old texts ‘haunt’ the new in their rewritten form and in so doing, these comics’ use of themes such as psychological horror frequently interrogate notions of reality and invoke the supernatural” (49). Having thoroughly interrogated comics’ forms and strategies, Round then moves on to a more expanded examination of culture and content.

Part 3, the concluding section of the book, combines cultural and textual approaches to the medium, discussing the subcultural status of both comics and Gothic texts. Chapter 6 examines Goth subculture and comics fandom, employing ethnographic research and critical theory to explore parallels between the two, including their eventual incorporation into the mainstream. Chapter 7 turns focus onto the comics industry, again honing in on the DC Vertigo imprint, and Gothic absorption (that is, the inter-textual absorption of the Gothic novel by other genres that has been so widespread that it has earned the Gothic the designation of a mode, not a genre). Round rightly notes that this absorption not merely alludes to/appropriates the Gothic, but also transforms/reconfigures all involved texts. The publishing practices of mainstream American comics, Round argues, follow a similarly bidirectional pattern with tensions existing between continuity and new writers’ desire to put their own stamp on characters, resulting in “retroactive continuity.” Chapters 8 and 9 offer cultural case studies on two of comics’ most popular Gothic archetypes: the vampire and the zombie. These final two chapters apply Round’s new Gothic critical approach to several contemporary texts, including The Walking DeadiZombie, and American Vampire, demonstrating the ways these texts enhance postmodern iterations of these archetypal figures and bringing this well-organized book to a strong close.

While Round is adept at describing the images she is analyzing, the book would have benefitted from the inclusion of more illustrations, particularly in the sections on the history of comics. This is one of the admittedly few ways the text fails readers coming from a non-comics background (Gothic scholars looking to get into comics whom the text is partially meant to address). For example, at one point Round discusses the recurring image of the injured eye so popular in EC Comics, a motif she calls “infamous.” To readers unfamiliar with EC, or with the history of horror comics in general, though, this motif is not “infamous” and requires more illustration. This need for illustration is doubly important in the case of the injured eye, as description and references to specific covers largely displace analysis of the motif and this intriguing topic is abandoned too soon.

Overall, however, Gothic in Comics and Graphic Novels remains both a thorough critical analysis and an engaging read for anyone interested in the Gothic, comics, horror, or the points where these largely marginalized traditions intersect. Round masterfully maps out the critical histories and structural similarities of both comics and the Gothic until their intricate intertwining seems so painfully obvious that the lack of scholarship on the subject feels all the more criminal. Thankfully, Round has proven more than capable of dragging this topic out from that dark space where it has lain dormant and into the light.

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