Comics Studies


Comics studies is an academic field that focuses on comics and graphic novels. Formerly dismissed as less relevant pop culture texts, scholars in fields such as Semiotics and Composition Studies are now re-considering comics and graphic novels as complex texts deserving of serious scholarly study.

‘How to Read Nancy’ is a 1988 essay by underground cartoonists Mark Newgarden and Paul Karasik. The piece examines the comic strip ‘Nancy,’ focusing on creator Ernie Bushmiller’s use of the comics language in to deliver a gag. Finding correspondences to the minimalist architecture of Mies Van Der Rohe, the essay calls ‘Nancy’ ‘a complex amalgam of formal rules laid out by [its] designer.’

The first investigations of comics as a valid area of study are attributed to Marxist/social historian-style scholar of popular arts David Kunzle’s ‘The Early Comic Strip; Narrative Strips and Picture Stories in the European Broadsheet from c.1450 to 1825,’ American cultural critic Gilbert Seldes’ ‘The 7 Lively Arts,’ and Martin Sheridan’s ‘Classic Comics and Their Creators.’ Contemporary anglophone Comics Studies were popularized in the academic scene with both Will Eisner’s ‘Comics and Sequential Art’ in 1985 and cartoonist and comics theorist Scott McCloud’s ‘Understanding Comics’ in 1993. Comics studies also can trace its roots back to the work of post-structuralist semioticians such as Roland Barthes, particularly his ‘Image—Music—Text.’

More recently, analysis of comics have begun to be undertaken by cognitive scientists, the most prominent being Neil Cohn, who has used tools from linguistics to detail the theoretical structure of comics’ underlying ‘visual language,’ and has also used psychological experimentation from cognitive neuroscience to test these theories in actual comprehension. This work has suggested similarities between the way that the brain processes language and the way it processes sequential images.

There are many definitions of ‘comics.’ Will Eisner defined comics simply as ‘sequential art.’ Scott McCloud, using Eisner’s definition as a starting point, defines comics as ‘juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.’ Graphic novelist Dylan Horrocks, in his essay ‘Inventing Comics,’ noticing how ‘hostile most cartoonists are to suggestions that comics are illustrated texts,’ criticized McCloud’s definition for his de-emphasizing of some elements on a continuum from word-only texts to picture-only texts, such as ‘cultural idiom,’ a ‘publishing genre,’ a ‘set of narrative conventions,’ a ‘kind of writing that uses words and pictures,’ a ‘literary genre’ and as simply ‘texts.’

He asks where on that spectrum should we draw the border between comics and illustrated texts? Neil Cohn triangulates this debate, arguing that the contributions of juxtaposed images and text are only some of the many factors that go into how we define comics, which also includes aspects of their genres, cultural contexts, and the social groups that read and create them. He argues that sequential images actually constitute their own ‘visual language’ which comics are written in (along with text), just like novels are written in English. Dylan Horrocks, Neil Cohn, and R.C. Harvey all challenge McCloud’s definition, confronting McCloud to consider other texts such as children’s books, which also use sequential images and text, yet belong to a different cultural context.

In the field of Composition Studies, an interest in comics and graphic novels is growing, partially due to the work of comics theorists but also due to a growing focus on multimodality and visual rhetoric. Composition studies theorists are looking at comics as sophisticated texts, and sites of complex literacy. Professor of semiotics Gunther Kress defines multimodality as ‘the use of several semiotic modes in the design of a semiotic product or event, together with the particular way in which these mode are combined.’

English professor Kristie S. Fleckenstein sees the relationship between image and text as ‘mutually constitutive, mutually infused’—a relationship she names ‘imageword.’ Fleckenstein sees ‘imageword’ as offering ‘a double vision of writing-reading based on [the] fusion of image and word, a double vision of literacy.’ Professor Dale Jacobs sees the reading of comics as a form of ‘multimodal literacy or multiliteracy, rather than as a debased form of print literacy.’ According to Jacobs, comics can help educators to move ‘toward attending to multimodal literacies’ that ‘shift our focus from print only to multiple modalities.’ He encourages educators to embrace a pedagogy that will give students skills to effectively negotiate these multiple modalities.

Scholarly publications dedicated to comics studies are growing both online and in print. ‘ImageTexT’ is a peer reviewed, open access journal that began in the spring of 2004 and is based at the University of Florida. There are many others in circulation, such as ‘European Comic Art,’ ‘Image and Narrative,’ and the ‘International Journal of Comic Art.’

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