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Review of More Critical Approaches to Comics: Theories and Methods

By Ryan Kerr

More Critical Approaches to Comics: Theories and Methods, edited by Matthew J. Smith, et al., Routledge, 2019.

In the introduction to their new edited volume, More Critical Approaches to Comics: Theories and Methods, editors Matthew J. Smith, Matthew Brown, and Randy Duncan describe their intentions to move beyond their previous edited collection’s organizational approach, organizing their new collection around key theoretical perspectives on comics. While Critical Approaches to Comics: Theories and Methods devoted significant space to older models of criticism such as auteur theory and genre theory, as well as politically engaged critical categories, this new overview of critical methods is an attempt to investigate new theoretical approaches. In particular, the editors explore concepts belonging to the contemporary landscape of post-Frankfurt School Critical Theory that are more nuanced and complex than those outlined in the preceding book. Smith, Brown, and Duncan explain that this volume attempts to align itself with “an activist strain of scholarship that seeks to have a liberating influence by calling attention to the power structures that stand in the way of a more just and equitable society” (2). A quick glance at the table of contents shows that this volume is decidedly more political than its predecessor.

The book is divided into three sections—viewpoints, expressions, and relationships—which correspond to issues of content, form, and intertextuality respectively. Each chapter includes the following: an “Introduction,” an explanation of the “Underlying Assumptions of the Approach” in question, a suggestion for “Appropriate Artifacts for Analysis,” a summary of the “Artifact Selected for Sample Analysis,” and finally a “Sample Analysis.” The “Viewpoints” portion of the book begins with “Celebrating the Rich, Individualistic Superhero,” a chapter on Critical Theory by Matthew P. McAllister and Joe Cruz that seeks to analyze the pro-capitalist billionaire superheroes Batman and Iron Man through a Marxist lens. Each chapter’s “Underlying Assumptions of the Approach” section exemplifies the book’s greatest strength, namely its authors’ ability to break down difficult theories into easily understandable terms. McAllister and Cruz for instance preface their analysis with a useful historical overview of the Frankfurt School and its methods. The authors’ deep dive into the Frankfurt School’s context and methodology is matched by their own insightful case study of Batman and Iron Man. These superheroes are compared to billionaires like Donald Trump and Elon Musk due to their individualistic personas which are bolstered by capitalistic exploitation of the masses. 

Christophe Dony builds on McAllister’s and Cruz’s radical political stance, providing an overview of postcolonial theory in “Writing and Drawing Back (and Beyond) in Pappa in Afrika and Pappa in Doubt.” Dony discusses the work of Anton Kannemeyer, whose comics critique the lasting effects of the white Afrikaner presence in South Africa. The postcolonial framework Dony chooses to examine is the “writing back” approach as Bill Ashcroft et al. describes the term in The Empire Writes Back and as Salman Rushdie outlines it in “The Empire Writes Back with a Vengeance.” It is puzzling, however, that there is no mention of Frantz Fanon, since his work was foundational for the field. The works of Kannemeyer fit into the “writing back” paradigm, Dony successfully argues, because the complexity of Kannemeyer’s narrative is “at odds with the general tone and the rather linear and non-evolving model of seriality characterizing The Adventures of Tintin” (28).

It is impressive that the book also contains a chapter on critical race theory that exists separately from the postcolonial theory chapter since these two schools of thought are often conflated in discussions of Critical Theory. Phillip Lamarr Cunningham’s chapter on critical race theory explores Black Panther: World of Wakanda, written by feminist Roxane Gay. Cunningham provides a detailed exploration of this comic within the context of Gay’s “penchant for telling stories of ‘difficult women’” (43). Unfortunately, the chapter’s preliminary sections are too short; each of Cunningham’s sections leading up to the “Sample Analysis” portion are less comprehensive than these sections tend to be in other chapters. It lacks a concise definition of intersectionality and it makes no mention of Kimberle Crenshaw’s seminal article on the topic. Cunningham does make mention of other important works, however, such as Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (misspelled in the book’s index as Playing in the Deck [sic.]).

Valentino L. Zullo follows up with another critical method concerned with the oppressed, taking on comics and queer theory for the book’s fourth chapter, “Queer Comics Queering Continuity: The Unstoppable Wasp and the Fight for a Queer Future.” Zullo correctly defines queer theory as not merely the practice of theorizing about LGBTQ+ issues but rather as a poststructuralist field that “upends our assumptions that serve to undergird oppressive structures of power” (49).1 Zullo concisely sums up this mission by stating, “Reading with queer theory does not mean imposing a queer reading onto the text, but asking what is queer about the text or what it is queering” (52). Zullo’s overview fits nicely with his analysis of The Unstoppable Wasp by Jeremy Whitley and Elsa Charretier, which, Zullo argues, queers issues of continuity and canonicity by providing an alternative origin narrative for the Avengers character Nadia Pym.

Krista Quesenberry is interested in a similar form of upending tradition and subverting normative standards in her chapter “Disrupting Representation, Representing Disruption,” which examines issues in disability studies. After providing an overview of different definitions and conceptions of disability, Quesenberry shows that Karrie Fransman’s macabre boarding-house comic The House that Groaned uses metaphors of space, confinement, and visibility to complicate traditional perceptions of disability and to show how, in a society that stigmatizes and marginalizes the differently abled, the internalization of social stigmas becomes a damaging force that shapes both the mental and physical realms that disabled people inhabit.

Quesenberry’s study of disability studies and space transitions well into “Brotherman and Big City: A Commentary on Superhero Geography” by Julian C. Chambliss, a discussion of critical geography studies that takes the ongoing critical conversations in this collection in an interesting and refreshingly unique direction. Chambliss finds that “comic book representations of space contribute to and reinforce identity attached to placemaking” (78). Questions of race (as they appear in Black Panther’s Wakanda) and questions of capitalism (as they appear in Batman’s Gotham City) are examined through concepts of spatial hierarchization by way of Henri Lefebvre and Michel Foucault. The inclusion of chapters such as these is a major strength of this book, since these moments address new and exciting theoretical frameworks that are not given adequate space in a lot of overviews of theory and criticism.

The “Viewpoints” section ends with a study of utopianism by Graham J. Murphy. Murphy’s overview of utopian studies as it relates to science fiction serves as a useful primer (although Fredric Jameson is conspicuously absent from the reference list). Moreover, Murphy includes a due amount of nuance in his examination of what he calls “the utopia conundrum,” asking how utopia can be implemented if the individual’s livelihood and autonomy are sacrificed at the expense of collectivity (89). Murphy explores this question in the context of Matt Hawkins’s and Raffaele Ienco’s Symmetry. The amount of depth present in his analysis and his questions for consideration is unmatched by many of the other writers in the book, perhaps due to the considerable length of this analysis. The chapter uses a significant level of detail when examining various definitions of utopia before delving into an analysis of Symmetry that ends with a set of problems to consider, diverging radically from the neatly packaged conclusions that the book’s other authors bring to the table. The insights found in this chapter are likely to provide conducive avenues for further academic conversation.

Alongside Chambliss’s chapter, “The Utopia Conundrum in Matt Hawkins and Raffaele Ienco’s Symmetry” further demonstrates the editors’ interest in including frameworks that are relevant to understanding new shifts in Critical Theory’s ongoing evolution. With that in mind, it is especially unexpected to see that the next section, “Expressions,” begin with chapters on New Criticism and psychoanalytic criticism. One wonders what the editors’ motivation is in including these significantly older—and arguably less relevant—schools of thought, especially considering that the editors intend to engage with political and social aspects of Critical Theory, aspects that are fundamentally at odds with the old-fashioned and, in the case of the New Critics, bourgeois modes of criticism.

Fortunately, Rocco Versaci’s chapter on New Criticism notes that “New Criticism is not without its faults, the most significant relating to its impact on the canon” (106). Versaci’s overview of the theme of “order vs. disorder” in his analysis of a story from Jaime Hernandez’s Love and Rockets is consistent with the New Critical aims even if the analysis inevitably neglects the larger social context of Hernandez’s work, a fact that Versaci acknowledges. Readers unfamiliar with the basics of New Criticism’s history should find Versaci’s chapter extremely useful even though the inclusion of this chapter in a book about studying comics post-Critical Theory seems redundant. Versaci’s overview of New Criticism might have been better suited for a historical overview in the book’s introduction rather than as a chapter of its own.

Another chapter that appears to be out of step with the collection’s analytical focus is the book’s chapter on psychoanalytic criticism by Evita Lykou, which uses David Small’s Stitches as the artifact for analysis (spelled “artefact” here, which is inconsistent with the spelling of the term throughout the rest of the book). Lykou thoroughly discusses the assumptions of psychoanalytic criticism, but her reading of Stitches is so heavy on summary that it does not make clear the connections between the main character’s difficulties with his parents and the tenets of Freudian psychoanalysis, making this chapter feel somewhat incomplete despite its considerable length.

The “Expressions” section goes in an interesting direction following these two chapters, representing a variety of slightly unconventional theoretical frameworks. Andrew J. Kunka writes about autographics (the medium-specific study of comics as autobiographical works) in relation to trauma narratives. Kunka identifies aspects of graphic memoirs that tell one’s autobiography from a unique perspective that other types of texts cannot articulate, most notably the symbolic representation of the penning of the graphic memoir itself as demonstrated by Art Spiegleman’s authorial presence in Maus. In a chapter on linguistics, Kristy Beers Fägersten discusses comics as a medium for language and uses conversation analysis to argue that comics use a combination of conversational images and text to “depict both verbal and non-verbal details of conversation” (148). Fägersten’s description of how speech bubbles in comics and the spaces between them represent the minutiae of conversation—especially by way of depicting conversational turn-taking—helpfully builds on previous discussions of storytelling outlined in Scott McCloud’s foundational Understanding Comics.

In fact, McCloud’s work is the subject of the next chapter on philosophical aesthetics by Aaron Meskin and Roy T. Cook. This field is certainly an unusual subject to tackle for comics studies but not an unfitting one. After an overview of analytic philosophy that should be useful for scholars unfamiliar with the field, Meskin and Cook contend that Understanding Comics shows that comics have the capacity to be philosophical meditations of their own, not in spite of but rather because of the form’s uniqueness. McCloud’s explanation of the way comics use time and space differently from other media, Meskin and Cook argue, can allow for new forms of aesthetics to build philosophical arguments. The use of counterexamples in philosophical argumentation, for instance, can be rendered in a new way because of “correlations between written text and image, panel layout, closure, emanata, and the representation of motion by still images” (169, italics Meskin’s and Cook’s).

“Expressions” ends with a chapter that also focuses on philosophical aesthetics, namely the aesthetic theories of dramatist Kenneth Burke. The author, A. Cheree Carlson, selects Daredevil: Vision Quest as the object of her Burkean analysis, which features the blind Daredevil and the deaf character Quesada. This particular example demonstrates the potential for intersectional analyses of disability studies through a Burkean framework.

The book’s final section on intertextual and paratextual studies, “Relationships,” is perhaps the most ambitious. While the first two sections are interdisciplinary in focus and occasionally center on well-established and sometimes antiquated theories, this section shows comics lend themselves not merely to interdisciplinarity but to multimodal analysis as well. David Coughlan’s excellent chapter on adaptation, which studies Leopold Maurer’s hypertextual adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s masterpiece Mason and Dixon entitled Miller and Pynchon, begins with an interesting comparison between adaptations and shapeshifting. He focuses on the Skrull characters from Marvel comics, which take the form of other people. Coughlan asks us how “real” or “unreal” a copy of a person’s characteristics might be, providing the reader with an interesting question about adaptation and an enjoyable rhetorical technique not seen in the other chapters. In his examination of the adaptation of Pynchon’s novel, Coughlan catalogues the differences in narrative elements between Pynchon’s book and Maurer’s comic. He also includes the important insight that the adaptation, given the dynamic trajectory of the character’s lives, is itself about adapting to change and difficulty. Coughlan arrives at the fundamental conclusion that is at the heart of adaptation studies, namely that an adaptation’s significance lies in its differences from rather than its similarities to the original text.

Like Coughlan’s focus, William Proctor is interested in the relationship between a companion text and its source material. Proctor’s chapter on transmedia storytelling centers on the vast canon of different incarnations of Star Wars media. He analyzes how one large universe of hyperdiegesis—like that of Star Wars, which revolves around a variety of different interconnecting narratives—can benefit from narrative braiding (a term for narratives that overlap canonically) because it can allow gaps in an overarching narrative to be filled. An expanded hyperdiegetic universe, Proctor argues, allows for fans to act as “puzzle-solvers and code-breakers” when experiencing the different outlets of their favorite media (208). Star Wars is perhaps the most infamous case of an expanded fictional universe being continuously mined for profit,2 but Proctor only briefly notes the commodification and consumerism inherent in this production model and instead mostly differentiates between fans who are interested or uninterested in learning more about expanded universes. Proctor does not emphasize the fact that some fans who are disadvantaged economically might not be able to buy or read the countless spinoffs available.

Proctor’s concluding insight that “[w]hether or not Star Wars fans accept the comic book extension as truly canonical is, however, another thing entirely” serves as a nice segue into Randy Duncan’s chapter on fandom studies and parasocial relationships (219). Duncan demarcates the differences between empathizing, identifying, and interacting with comic book characters. The chapter has a detailed summary of the procedures for conducting a parasocial relationship analysis, since a new branch of theory such as this one necessitates a lengthy explanation. Duncan puts forth several suggestions as to how scholars might gather information, and he notes the difficulty one might encounter when polling fans while also stressing the need for ethical research procedures. Duncan briefly comments on the toxicity of conservative fan communities on the internet, but a bit more commentary on these reactionary groups would have been interesting to see. Like Proctor, Duncan also neglects to mention the inevitable capitalist and consumerist underpinnings of the comics industry and how these concerns affect interactions with fan communities. The case study in the chapter, surrounding the new persona of the formerly disabled character Oracle, might have mentioned how the capitalist comic books industry is often insufficient in its understanding of the importance of representation and diversity when it comes to appealing to fans.

In the same way that Proctor and Duncan are interested in the relationship between comics and their fan communities, Adam Sherif’s chapter on historiography examines early Wonder Woman comics and how these works were responses to historical external forces. Sherif’s explanation of historiography’s goals and methods could stand to be more lucid, but the chapter nonetheless tracks an impressive and detailed historical parallel between the beginning of the Wonder Woman narrative and the beginning of the United States’ involvement in World War II, culminating in a comparison between the early Wonder Woman comics’ aggressive racism against Japanese villains and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s executive order to relocate and imprison Asian-Americans.

Like the other chapters in this section, Daniel Pinti’s chapter on Bakhtinian dialogics addresses concerns beyond the scope of static reading practices. He provides an exploration of the polygraphic nature of comics—moving beyond the mere “polyphony” of written text—and uses Marvel’s The Vision to explore the dialogical differences between Vision and his human neighbors. The book ends with Matthew J. Brown’s chapter on scientific humanities and features a reading of early Wonder Woman comics as an allegory for different aspects of the psyche that were believed to have been accurate during the time of the comic’s composition.

The collection overall contains some structural flaws and a lack of consistent focus that makes some chapters feel uneven alongside others, with some chapters devoting much more space and detail to their subject matter than others do. Moreover, there are some oversights in terms of which major theoretical texts are listed as recommended reading for each framework (to say nothing of the editing errors, which are distracting). More Critical Approaches to Comics: Theories and Methods, despite these shortcomings, provides a fascinating glimpse into a variety of critical perspectives, some of them contemporary and very relevant for the future of the field. Overall, this volume should prove very useful for comics scholars who wish to engage with burgeoning new types of theoretical approaches.


[1] It is worth noting here that both Phillip Lamarr Cunningham’s chapter on critical race theory and Valentino L. Zullo’s chapter on queer theory cite andré carrington but incorrectly list him as “carrington, André” [sic.] in the bibliography sections. Such a typo is of note because this inconsistency in citation downplays and potentially delegitimizes the importance of carrington’s decision to use a lowercase name.

[2] See Mark Fisher, “Star Wars was a Sell-Out from the Start,” K-punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher, 2004-2016 (London: Repeater, 2018), 219-220.

Posted in Volume 12, Issue 3