Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
A Comics Studies Reader

A Comics Studies Reader

Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 304
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    A Comics Studies Reader
    Book Description:

    A Comics Studies Readeroffers the best of the new comics scholarship in nearly thirty essays on a wide variety of such comics forms as gag cartoons, editorial cartoons, comic strips, comic books, manga, and graphic novels.

    The anthology covers the pioneering work of Rodolphe Töpffer, the Disney comics of Carl Barks, and the graphic novels of Art Spiegelman and Chris Ware, as well asPeanuts, romance comics, and superheroes. It explores the stylistic achievements of manga, the international anti-comics campaign, and power and class in Mexican comic books and English illustrated stories.

    A Comics Studies Readerintroduces readers to the major debates and points of reference that continue to shape the field. It will interest anyone who wants to delve deeper into the world of comics and is ideal for classroom use.

    eISBN: 978-1-61703-550-0
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-IV)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. V-VIII)
    (pp. IX-X)
    (pp. XI-2)
    JH and KW

    Over the past two decades, intelligent and informed writing about comics, hitherto an endeavor with a long but often marginal history at the periphery of scholarly and intellectual worlds, has flourished as never before. Both the quantity and quality of scholarly writing on comics has increased enormously. More importantly, there is a sufficient accumulation of well-crafted work to inspire a sense of shared purpose and momentum among comics-minded scholars, essayists, and critics. The study of comics has become a lively field of inquiry and is no longer merely a topic area.

    The burgeoning of comics studies is testified to by...

  5. Why Are Comics Still in Search of Cultural Legitimization?
    (pp. 3-12)

    Although comics have been in existence for over a century and a half, they suffer from a considerable lack of legitimacy.

    To those who know and love it, the art that has given us Rodolphe Töpffer and Wilhelm Busch, Hergé and Tardi, Winsor McCay and George Herriman, Barks and Gottfredson, Franquin and Moebius, Segar and Spiegelman, Gotlib and Bretécher, Crumb and Mattotti, Hugo Pratt and Alberto Breccia, not to mentionThe Spirit,PeanutsorAsterix. . . in short, comic art, has nothing left to prove. If its validity as an art form appears self-evident, it is curious that...


    • [Introduction]
      (pp. 13-16)

      The writing of the history of comics has been plagued by questions of definition and continuity: what constitutes a comic and what is the relationship between the proto-comics of the past (everything from Egyptian hieroglyphics and the Bayeux Tapestry to the sequential prints of William Hogarth) and subsequent comics. In this section, as through the rest of the book, the selected essays emphasize the diversity of both the scholarly literature and also the comics being studied. “Comics,” as these essays make clear is very much an umbrella term which brings together a cluster of related forms: nineteenth-century illustrated stories, gag...

    • Rodolphe Töpffer’s Aesthetic Revolution
      (pp. 17-24)

      The graphic and aesthetic revolution that Rodolphe Töpffer (1766–1847) pioneered and argued for was to be won in the twentieth century. HisEssai de physiognomonieand his numerous essays on art, written serially over a dozen years beginning in the 1830s and gathered by Dubochet under the titleReflexions et menus-pro pos d’un peintre genevois(Reflections and Small Talk of a Genevan Painter, first edition 1848, constantly republished since), contain many of the seeds of aesthetic theory that have flowered in our own times. A modern critic has called them “the finest essays on aesthetics in French.”¹ Charles Baudelaire,...

    • How Comics Came to Be: Through the Juncture of Word and Image from Magazine Gag Cartoons to Newspaper Strips, Tools for Critical Appreciation plus Rare Seldom Witnessed Historical Facts
      (pp. 25-45)

      In our stampede to elevate Scott McCloud’s definition of comics to the status of holy writ, we may have overlooked the most conspicuous shortcoming of his concoction. While “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence” can include verbiage (those “other images” can be written words), McCloud maintains that comics do not have to contain words to be comics (McCloud, 8). But words are clearly an integral part of what we think of when we think of comics: words as well as pictures. McCloud’s definition is simply too broad to be useful as anything except as a springboard to discussion...

    • The “Vulgar” Comic Strip
      (pp. 46-52)

      Of all the lively arts the comic strip is the most despised, and with the exception of the movies it is the most popular. Some twenty million people follow with interest, curiosity, and amusement the daily fortunes of five or ten heroes of the comic strip, and that they do this is considered by all those who have any pretentions to taste and culture as a symptom of crass vulgarity, of dullness, and, for all I know, of defeated and inhibited lives. I need hardly add that those who feel so about the comic strip only infrequently regard the object...

    • Excerpt from Seduction of the Innocent
      (pp. 53-57)

      The Superman group of comic books is superendorsed. A random sample shows on the inside cover the endorsement of two psychiatrists, one educator, one English professor and a child-study consultant. On the page facing this array is depicted a man dressed as a boy shooting a policeman in the mouth (with a toy pistol). This is a prank—“Prankster’s second childhood.” In the story there is a variant of the comic-book theme of a girl being thrown into the fire: “Her dress will be afire in one split second! She’ll need Superman’s help!”

      In another story a tenement building is...

    • William Gaines and the Battle over EC Comics
      (pp. 58-68)

      Comic book publishers, when investigated by the Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency in 1954, eagerly embraced the committee’s recommendation that the industry “clean house” and adopt a self-regulatory code. For them, the code represented an immediate solution to the bad publicity being generated about comics. The lone dissenting voice was William M. Gaines, who never believed that EC horror comics harmed their young fans. This chapter chronicles his battle against government and industry forces that sought to regulate comic books in the mid-1950s.

      William Gaines, best known for publishing a line of horror comics in the 1950s and for...

    • The Comics Debates Internationally
      (pp. 69-76)
      JOHN A. LENT

      There are a number of ancestors of the comic book, including nineteenth-century penny dreadfuls in England and the pulps about the same time in the United States. Almost from the beginning of American comic strips, before the turn of the twentieth century, the funnies were reprinted as books. They continued in this form through the 1930s, although some significant changes came about during that decade.

      First, some new comics of the 1930s were done as magazines rather than books, running about thirty-two pages and fronted with a soft cover. In 1933, Eastern Color Printing Company of New York, at the...

    • The Definition of the Superhero
      (pp. 77-93)

      In his 1952 ruling that Wonder Man copied and infringed upon Superman, Judge Learned Hand provided a succinct definition for the superhero. The characteristics of mission, powers, and identity are central to Hand’s determination that Wonder Man copied Superman.

      Judge Learned Hand referred to both Superman and Wonder Man as “champion[s] of the oppressed” who combat “evil and injustice,” thus summing up the heart of the superhero’s mission. The superhero’s mission is pro-social and selfless, which means that his fight against evil must fit in with the existing, professed mores of society and must not be intended to benefit or...

    • Two Boys from the Twin Cities
      (pp. 94-100)

      While F. Scott Fitzgerald and Charles M. Schulz grew up in distinctively different parts of the Twin Cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, their experiences as children were not dissimilar. The older Fitzgerald was the product of recent immigrant families of common Irish stock. The maternal grandfather had begun as a bookkeeper and small businessman and became a prosperous grocery wholesaler after the Civil War in St. Paul. His daughter, Mollie, therefore was well educated and traveled and had some standing in the community. The paternal grandfather had kept a general store in Maryland but died when his son was...


    • [Introduction]
      (pp. 101-104)

      The previous section offered a broad overview of the history of comics from a variety of perspectives but one of the contributors, R. C. Harvey, also raised the issue of form, which has increasingly come to the fore in comics scholarship. While early writings on comics were mainly focused on questions of content, either decried for its vulgarity or praised for its vitality, scholars are increasingly interested in the formal properties of comics. The formal turn has led to an increased attention to comics-as-a-language: what are the constituent elements that make up comics, how is the demarcation line separating comics...

    • Caricature
      (pp. 105-115)

      While working in my third-floor study, I can sometimes see the postman coming along my quiet dead-end street. And when then I run downstairs, I view the mail coming through the slot and hear my daughter’s dog, Brigston, rushing barking to defend the house. I understand what is happening at any given moment by relation to what happens earlier or later. The mail appears in the door because the postman has arrived; Brigston awakens because he hears the postman. I infer, as Hume noted, causal connections between those pairs of events.

      This everyday experience tells something about how to look...

    • Beyond Comparison
      (pp. 116-123)
      W. J. T. MITCHELL

      The best preventive to comparative methods is an insistence on literalness and materiality. That is why, rather than comparing this novel or poem with that painting or statue, I find it more helpful to begin with actual conjunctions of words and images in illustrated texts, or mixed media such as film, television, and theatrical performance. With these media, one encounters a concrete set of empirical givens, an image-text structure responsive to prevailing conventions (or resistance to conventions) governing the relation of visual and verbal experience. Some plays (taking their cue from Aristotle) privilegelexisoveropsis, speech over scenery, dialogue...

    • The Impossible Definition
      (pp. 124-131)

      The definitions of comics that can be found in dictionaries and encyclopedias, and also in the more specialized literature, are, as a general rule, unsatisfactory. It is easy to understand the reasons.

      These definitions are of two sorts. The first, often concise, participates in an essentialist approach and looks to lock up some synthetic form of the “essence” of comics. This enterprise is no doubt doomed to failure if one considers that, far from verifying the long assumed poverty of expression and intrinsic infantilism, comics rest on a group of coordinating mechanisms that participate in the representation and the language,...

    • An Art of Tensions
      (pp. 132-148)

      Comics raise many questions about reading and its effects, yet the persistent claims for the form’s simplicity and transparency make it impossible to address these questions productively. Criticism, whether formalist or sociocultural in emphasis, will remain at an impasse as long as comics are seen this way—that is, as long as they are rhetorically constructed as “easy.” In fact, comics can be a complex means of communication and are always characterized by a plurality of messages. They are heterogeneous in form, involving the co-presence and interaction of various codes. To the already daunting (and controversial) issue of reading, then,...

    • The Arrow and the Grid
      (pp. 149-156)

      Formalist analyses of comics often begin with an attempt to establish a comprehensive definition of comics by isolating a set of textual features that will constitute the irreducible essence of “comicsness.” Like parallel historical efforts to unearth an originary “first comic,” however, the search for some innate characteristics that will distinguish comics from other all visual and verbal forms has generated much more semantic quibbling than productive critical inquiry. Since visual narratives and word/picture combinations of various kinds are so plentiful throughout the history of human communication, and since the category of “comics” as ordinarily used contains such an array...

    • The Construction of Space in Comics
      (pp. 157-162)

      This chapter seeks to give a concise theoretical overview of the various types of “space” a reader encounters in a comic: diegetic space (the fictive space in which the characters live and act) versus extradiegetic space, visualized versus non-visualized space, etc. Furthermore the aim is to describe briefly how a flat medium can suggest a three-dimensional space and how readers (re)construct the diegetic space of a story. This approach is clearly inspired by research in other domains as visual perception, art history, and film theory.¹

      Before dealing with the various aspects of construction of space, let us recall the several...

    • The Acoustics of Manga
      (pp. 163-172)

      Sound in comics is not a stylistic trait or a feature of a particular genre of comics, but is endemic to all comics due to the multimodal way words and pictures are formed and combined. Some comics exploit the dimensions of sound more effectively than others, and none is more effective than the Japanese manga. The reasons for the exuberant nature of sounds in Japanese manga are in part due to the features of the Japanese language and script that make it ideally suited to explore the aesthetic possibilities of sound in comics. Another important factor is the cultural history...


    • [Introduction]
      (pp. 173-176)

      Comics were born in the age of mass culture. Without modern printing technology and the distribution networks that allow for mass dissemination, comics as we know them would not exist. As an offshoot of mass culture, comics are a rich source for social analysis. Using comics for social analysis can take the form of looking at how comics portray issues of identity (including issues of race, nationality, generational location, and gender). Equally fruitful is to examine not just the content of comics but also how readers interpreted the comics they read. As we saw in the second section, elements of...

    • Ally Sloper: The First Comics Superstar?
      (pp. 177-189)

      The extraordinary Ally Sloper appeared in British “funny papers” and comics between 1867 and 1916 and periodically thereafter.¹ Today, few people have heard of him outside of comics scholarship, but a century ago it is no exaggeration to say that his visibility in U.K. popular culture would have been comparable to that of any blockbuster Hollywood creation. He was a Victorian hero—or anti-hero—and entered the public consciousness to the point where he set the template for a new kind of comedy. There has never been a British fictional character like him since.

      My intention is not to emphasize...

    • Jackie and the Problem of Romance
      (pp. 190-206)

      On the U.K. alternative comedy showSaturday Livein 1987 a comedian stepped to the microphone. She launched into a series of jokes about how women are led to look at their own bodies, how terrified they can be about getting overweight. But of course, she laughed (and the audience laughed with her), we all know why—we all readJackie, didn’t we? That explains everything. “Everyone knows” that magazines likeJackie, but perhaps that one especially, have done long-term damage to girls’ psyches. These magazines have subtly preached at girls about boys, romance, beauty, boys, fashion, their bodies, their...

    • Home Loving and Without Vices
      (pp. 207-225)

      What is Mexico’s national culture?This question has been at the center of political and scholarly debate for most of the twentieth century. Indeed, beginning in the 1920s, it was the explicit project of at least some of Mexico’s leaders to create a modern national culture by supporting mass media and high culture, controlling education, constructing a revolutionary mythos, and intervening into aspects of everyday life from cuisine to transportation. Although proponents emphasized the newness of such revolutionary enterprises, these projects also continued late-nineteenth-century positivist efforts to bring progress and order to Mexico—through urban planning, hygiene, architecture, and state...

    • Autobiography as Authenticity
      (pp. 226-235)

      A three-page short story by Lewis Trondheim published inLapin#26 outlines the stakes at play in contemporary autobiographical comics. Trondheim’s autobiographical essay, “Journal du journal du journal,” is a peculiarmise-en-abyme. Trondheim begins by depicting himself reading Fabrice Neaud’s autobiographical novelJournal (III)(1999). On that page, Neaud depicts himself reading Dupuy and Berberian’s autobiographical noveljournal d’un album(1994). At that point inJournal d’un album, Philippe Dupuy depicts a momentous intersection in his personal and professional life. Having chosen, with his partner Charles Berberian, to undertake an autobiographical comic book detailing the creation of the third book in...

    • Manga versus Kibyōshi
      (pp. 236-243)
      ADAM L. KERN

      Thekibyōshiand the manga share much in common. They certainly seem to be similar media, which is to say they bear certain resemblances in format, modes of production, and reception. In terms of the first of these, thekibyōshiand the modern manga are inherently visual-verbal narratives. Both employ a number of similar pictorial conventions, and both seem visually associated with other forms of culture by virtue of their role as meta-media, parts of a larger network of closely aligned genres, commercial goods, and advertising mechanisms comprising virtual industries unto themselves.

      In terms of production, thekibyōshiand the...

    • Beyond Shoujo, Blending Gender
      (pp. 244-252)

      Shoujo(girls) manga (Japanese comics) was at first a gender-specific category that assumed a female world for both readers and authors. Onceshoujomanga began to incorporate male homosexuality as a subject in the 1970s, however, this female world was subverted in several ways. When male characters made their appearance, they introduced a new vision of sexuality by givingshoujoa vantage point through which to explore female desires without overtly acknowledging them. This essay begins by exploring the construction of a sexual subjectivity forshoujothrough manga’s representation of male homosexuality. It then explores the waysshoujomanga have...


    • [Introduction]
      (pp. 253-256)

      While previous sections treated comics in terms of their historical evolution, their formalist properties, or their social role, this section is devoted to analysts who give more detailed attention to particular cartoonists and stories. If comics are a language, as formalist critics suggest, it remains true that different artists deploy this language with varying degrees of skill and aesthetic agendas. The essays in this section use many of the analytical tools we have seen in earlier parts of the book: Ariel Dorfman certainly places Chilean comics in their social and historical context and Gene Kannenberg is attentive to the formalist...

    • The Innocents March into History
      (pp. 257-269)

      In Santiago de Chile, every Wednesday on my way home, I used to buy a children’s magazine calledMampato, and each evening, before putting my six-year-old son Rodrigo to bed, I would read it to him. It was 1973. The Allende government was fighting for its life. We were fighting for ours. There wasn’t an instant to spare. Nonetheless, I always managed to keep that Wednesday appointment.

      In the repetition of this act there was undoubtedly a sense of despair. To cling to a pattern or a schedule, some landscape untouched by violence, when things are falling apart, is to...

    • The Garden in the Machine
      (pp. 270-287)

      To heighten his critique of modernity, the Disney artist Carl Barks (1901–2000) invoked an imaginary world of lost races and societies. These tales encompass both satirical portraits of urban civilization and a longing for a utopian transcendence of modern life. They reflect Barks’s upbringing on the rural Oregon frontier and portray isolated, agricultural communities uncontaminated by modern life and inhabited by lost races, most typically of elfin little people, who resist the ducks’ encroachment into their sanctum sanctorum. These creatures tend to be insular and pacifistic, living in harmony with nature and each other. As such, they offer a...

    • An Examination of “Master Race”
      (pp. 288-305)

      Bernard Krigstein’s “Master Race” is one of the finest stories ever to appear in the comics form. It is a comic book rarity; a story with such density and breadth of technique that it merits a detailed and exhaustive examination on the part of the reader. Partly because of the nature of the industry most comic book stories, even the good ones, contain nothing beyond that which is immediately apparent to the casual reader. But “Master Race” has layers of meaning and detail both in its form and visual content which will yield the alert reader new enjoyment beyond the...

    • The Comics of Chris Ware
      (pp. 306-324)

      Chris Ware stands as a leading contemporary cartoonist, garnering numerous industry awards and receiving glowing reviews in trade publications and popular magazines alike. With work appearing in various comics anthologies, magazines, and his own comic book series,Acme Novelty Library, Ware has worked in a variety of comics genres, from stand-alone gag cartoons to his serialized novel of multi-generational ennui, “Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth.” Critics have praised Ware’s work for its formal complexity, characterized by dizzyingly intricate pages, while marveling at how deftly Ware manipulates traditional comic-book characters (superheroes, cowboys, spacemen) to tell darkly humorous stories that...

    • Transcending Comics: Crossing the Boundaries of the Medium
      (pp. 325-339)

      The aim of this chapter is to discuss some aspects and recent developments in the work of Alan Moore. These involve in particular his mixed media performance works, two of which—The Birth Caul(1995) andSnakes and Ladders(1999)—have been released on CD, and additionally interpreted and turned into comic books by Eddie Campbell. While Moore’s “magical” and performative turn has been widely investigated in review articles and interviews, in relation to his overall opinion on the creative process, to the well-known seriesPromethea, or to the general ideas underpinning his live acts, the comic book adaptations of...

    • History and Graphic Representation in Maus
      (pp. 340-362)

      InIn the Shadow of No Towers, his most recent book of comic strips, Art Spiegelman draws connections between his experience of 9/11 and his survivor parents’ experience of World War II, suggesting that the horrors of the Holocaust do not feel far removed from his present-day experience in the twenty-first century.¹ “The killer apes learned nothing from the twin towers of Auschwitz and Hiroshima,” Spiegelman writes; 9/11 is the “same old deadly business as usual.” Produced serially, Spiegelman’sNo Towerscomic strips were too politically incendiary to find wide release in the United States; they were largely published abroad...

    (pp. 363-368)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 369-380)