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Comics as Literature? Reading Graphic Narrative

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 October 2020


Comics—A form once considered pure junk—Is sparking interest in literary studies. I'm as amazed as anybody else by the comics boom—despite the fact that I wrote an English department dissertation that makes the passionate case that we should not ignore this innovative narrative form. Yet if there's promoting of comics, there's also confusion about categories and terms. Those of us in literary studies may think the moves obvious: making claims in the name of popular culture or in the rich tradition of word-and-image inquiry (bringing us back to the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages). But comics presents problems we're still figuring out (the term doesn't settle comfortably into our grammar; nomenclature remains tricky and open to debate). The field hasn't yet grasped its object or properly posed its project. To explore today's comics we need to go beyond preestablished rubrics: we have to reexamine the categories of fiction, narrative, and historicity. Scholarship on comics—and specifically on what I will call graphic narrative—is gaining traction in the humanities. Comics might be defined as a hybrid word-and-image form in which two narrative tracks, one verbal and one visual, register temporality spatially. Comics moves forward in time through the space of the page, through its progressive counterpoint of presence and absence: packed panels (also called frames) alternating with gutters (empty space). Highly textured in its narrative scaffolding, comics doesn't blend the visual and the verbal—or use one simply to illustrate the other—but is rather prone to present the two nonsynchronously; a reader of comics not only fills in the gaps between panels but also works with the often disjunctive back-and-forth of reading and looking for meaning. Throughout this essay, I treat comics as a medium—not as a lowbrow genre, which is how it is usually understood. However, I will end by focusing attention on the strongest genre in the field: nonfiction comics.

The Changing Profession
Copyright © 2008 by The Modern Language Association of America

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