smashing image against image

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Just going through a recent – and very interesting – issue of Children’s Literature Association Quarterly (37(4)Winter 2012), which looks at comics and picture books. There is a great deal of interesting stuff about genre in these articles – as well, of course, as thought about comics and picture books. In their editorial, Charles Hatfield and Craig Svonkin write:

“Sergei …Eisenstein argued that meaning was created in montage not as Pudovkin thought, by linking image to image in a coherent, deliberate chain, but rather by violently smashing image against image, so that images juxtaposed in opposition to each other create a new dialectical meaning each image separately could never evoke. Eisenstein’s model fits our project, given that comics and picture books likewise perform dialectically. Of course, the dialectic of images in cinema is not the same as that of image and written text in static form; nonetheless, Eisenstein’s dialectical theory resonates with our work here, which focuses on the intermedial space between two types of literature—and on the ways the literature itself uses dialectics to evoke meaning in the intermedial spaces between text and picture, or between picture and picture, or among text, picture, text, and picture.”[1]

“Pursuing questions of ideology…, Michael Joseph focuses his attention on the power of genres to construct their audience. Specifically, he posits the graphic novel as a liminal object that has a special relationship with its readers—“liminal” in Victor Turner’s sense of something “in between” marked by the disturbance of established social structures. Comics, Joseph asserts, particularly alternative comics, have this power to disturb, because they resist the norms of book culture and thus subvert the very category of children’s literature. The graphic novel, in his view, is neither a book nor an art object in the usual sense, but rather deconstructs the form, utility, and cultural authority of the book itself. The genre invites an embodied and material reading practice, one that refuses the transparency which convention dictates is essential to reading, and thus encourages a critical and subversive reading attitude. The effect is to cede interpretive agency to the reader (an empowerment perhaps especially important to readers in the liminal state of adolescence). Analyzing a key page from Kim Deitch’s graphic novel Alias the Cat, Joseph shows how comics refuse transparency, call attention to their own framing, and playfully exploit “bookness.”” p.433 Hatfield and Svonkin

“Thomas, Jr. [shows…] how expectations of genre determine and limit the kinds of meaning we can make of a text—that is, how genre concepts work to shape and foreclose interpretive possibilities.” p.434 Hatfield and Svonkin

“Genres are essentially literary institutions, or social contracts between a writer and a specific public, whose function is to specify the proper use of a particular cultural artifact” (Political Unconscious 92).” ~ Frederic Jameson cited p.435 Hatfield and Svonkin


[1] 432 Charles Hatfield and Craig Svonkin (2012) Why Comics Are and Are Not Picture Books: Introduction Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 37(4)Winter: 429-435

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Philip Nel: Comics and Picture Books

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An interesting discussion about the two from Philip Nel… he begins:

“If in comics the gutters between panels enlist the reader’s imagination to create closure, in picture books it is the turning of the page that prompts the act of closure. If comics rely on juxtapositions between “pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence” (to quote Scott McCloud [9]), picture books more commonly rely on juxtapositions between text and image. If comics ordinarily depict movement in time within a single page, in picture books time tends to unfold over many pages.
These three “generic differences” apply broadly to comics and picture books, yet so many exceptions permeate the two genres that any boundary between them has to be highly porous. Picture books and comics are kin: adjacent branches of the same literary-artistic family tree, cousins with slightly different expectations of their readers. They are not fundamentally different genres. To put this in terms of the biological taxonomy we learned back in grade school (kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species), the distinctions between the two rank down at the end of smallest differentiation—the “species” end. Comics and picture books differ in degree, rather than in kind. As this essay will show, the accepted “truths” about differences between picture books and comics mark little more than different emphases, or tendencies, not absolute divisions. The kinship between them calls into question the fitness of the term “genre.” At the least, it requires that we consciously reflect on what we mean by this term—the full significance of which may go beyond form to embrace context, readership, and even material modes of production.” (p.445)

Ref: Philip Nel ‘Same Genus, Different Species?: Comics and Picture Books’ Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 37.4 (Winter 2012): 445-453.

The study of comics/graphic novels

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Tidying up my computer… found an article that looks interesting and has obvious relevance to the study of genre fiction: P.L. Thomas writes:

“While some argue about classifying comic books/graphic novels as genre or medium, the impact of comic books/graphic novels on students’ and all readers’ perceptions of what counts as reading, what counts as text, and what counts as genre (or medium) is a key reason to embrace comic books/graphic novels as powerful texts and as powerful entry
points for critical literacy.” (p.187)

“Comics/graphic novels as a medium are much more than superhero comic books, the type of work most people associate with the medium. And, while I remain convinced that sequential art is a valuable medium for its own reasons, many educators and scholars balk at the medium still. Using connections between what has already been established as quality text […] and comics allows both teachers and students the opportunity to examine comics as a medium while not straying too far from recognized works and traditional views of ‘text’. I am hard pressed to imagine a more powerful experience for students than a challenging look at Blake, Moore, Amos and Gaiman as an adventure in genre/text that rivals the adventures we tend to associate with the world of the comic book.” (p.198)

“Reconsidering text, reading and genre through comic books and graphic novels – texts often associated with those children’s worlds – is a step toward honouring more nuanced and sophisticated perceptions of text – perceptions that children and adults alike have already embraced beyond the walls of school.” (p.199)

ABSTRACT: “Historically, comics and graphic novels have been marginalized as quality texts and significant mediums for study. However, in the past decade comics have found their place in educational establishments. This essay offers a brief literature review of attitudes toward comics/graphic novels as a medium and then explores the use of comics/graphic novels within multigenre units of study that challenge student’s assumptions about genre and text. These unit examples include interrelated works by William Blake and Alan Moore and by Tori Amos and Neil Gaiman. The piece ends by examining the range of subgenres within comics/graphic novels, including traditional views of genre literature (mystery, western, etc.) and considerations of text as adaptation (graphic novel adaptations of traditional literature, film adaptations, etc.).” (p.187)

Ref: P.L. Thomas (2011): Adventures in genre!: rethinking genre through comics/graphic novels , Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, 2:2, 187-201

Time, space and storyworlds – how comics function differently

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I need to read this article properly, but at a scan, there’s quite a bit there that looks very interesting… Karin Kukkonen explores the way comic books support more imaginative models of the world in which we live through both their textuality and the traditions they have developed around their serialization and production.

“In a recent study of multiple worlds in physics, philosophy, and narrative, Marie-Laure Ryan argues that our “private encyclopedia” is deeply rooted in the classical notion that there is one world in which we live and through which we think—rather than many such worlds. As Ryan puts it, “[f]or most of us, the idea of parallel realities is not yet solidly established in our private encyclopedias and the text must give strong cues for us to suspend momentarily our intuitive belief in classical cosmology” (Ryan 2006: 671). Cognitive-psychological research on mental models, that is, scenarios we mentally develop in order to reason, also stresses that situations triggering the creation of multiple mental models are difficult to process (see Jarvella, Lundquist, and Hyönä 1995), and that we construct mental models in order to eliminate alternatives and create coherence (Johnson-Laird 1983; Garnham [-p.40] and Oakhill 1994). Thus, when reading fiction, interpreters construct “a three-dimensional model akin to an actual model of the scene” (Johnson-Laird 2006: 37) in order to locate the characters in a story, monitor the events and project the narrative’s progress (see Herman 2002). In such contexts readers’ mental model is called a “storyworld,” and it relies on the same one-world ontology that Ryan associates with “our intuitive belief in classical cosmology.

“Readers of contemporary superhero comics, however, seem to be less fully invested than others in this classical cosmology—a cosmology that favors singular over multiple realities, in narrative texts as well as everyday life. The stories of heroes like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman have been published for decades on a weekly or biweekly basis, written by ever-changing authors. As a result, inconsistencies emerged in the different storylines and encounters involving these characters, and continuity, or the coherent and consistent development of the characters and their storyworlds, became a problem. In response, superhero comics made a virtue out of necessity and presented their storyworlds as part of a larger “multiverse,” in which a variety of mutually incompatible narrative worlds existed as parallel realities. Villains aim to turn the entire multiverse into their dominion, and superheroes unite to maintain the status quo across storyworlds.” (pp.39-40)

Comics are a medium employing three modes of expression: words, images, and sequence. On the level of meaning making in the reading process, that is, for understanding what the story is about, these three modes of expression work together. Because a cognitive approach to narrative is not tied to one mode of expression, it promises to be a particularly useful paradigm for comics studies. However, research on storyworlds in narrative, and mental models more generally, has been developed largely on the basis of verbal narratives or propositions. Thus, in order to move from the comics text to the level of storyworlds, we need to explore in some detail how the components of comics narratives prompt the construction of mental models.
Time and space are the basic categories in terms of which we conceptualize our world as human beings. In his Critique of Pure Reason Immanuel Kant describes time and space as “pure forms of intuition” (1986: 44) that precede and structure our experience, and Kant’s contemporary Gotthold Ephraim Lessing details in his essay Laokoon how the various arts engage with time and space. Lessing holds that there are “arts of time,” such as prose and poetry, and “arts of space,” such as painting and sculpture. Arts of time unfold through the reading process of a written text; arts of space attempt to capture a “pregnant moment” and provide us with a holistic but punctual impression that does not itself unfold through time (Lessing 2003: 23)—even though it may evoke or connote a temporal sequence. Thus, suggesting that the arts of time and arts of space differently engage with our “pure forms of intuition,” Lessing provides in Laokoon an early account of what media studies today calls “media affordances” (see Kress 2003): that is, how different means of expression, different semiotic channels such as words and images, enable us to communicate different things or, for that matter, the same thing in different ways.” (p.43)

“Images seem to provide an analogue mode of representation, depicting the world and its spatial extension “directly.” Does this mean that what we see in an image in comics translates directly into the mental models we construct when engaging with the narrative? Most likely it does not. For one thing, even in the case of photographs in newspapers and films, images do not depict the world through pure analogy or iconicity but are deliberate means of communication, anchored in particular discourse contexts and imbued with rhetorical purposes (see Aumont 1997).” (p.44)

“…whereas the images of graphic narratives such as comics provide cues for constructing both the spatial and the temporal dimensions of the storyworld, they are more like blueprints than photo-ready copies of the mental models that inform the design of the storyworld. Significantly, it is not obligatory for storyworlds to follow the principles of Euclidean space; for example, the distances between characters and objects in a room that figures in a narrative do not always correspond to our construction of the room in the mental model (see Langston, Kramer, and Glenberg 1998). Storyworlds, in this sense, are not representations of the content of the text, but representations of content that we take to be important or especially worthy of notice. Driven by the requirements of text comprehension, our primary goal is not to process spatial information accurately, as we might if the spatial details were presented on the flat, two-dimensional plane of Euclidean geometry, but rather to process the information thematically and according to the forms of embodiment such information enables.” (p.44)

Ref: Karin Kukkonen (2010) Navigating Infinite Earths: Readers, Mental Models, and the Multiverse of Superhero Comics StoryWorlds: A Journal of Narrative Studies, Volume 2, pp. 39-58