Reading Autobiographical Comics: A Framework for Educational Settings
Table Of Contents
- About the author
- About the book
- This eBook can be cited
- 1 Reader-Response Criticism
- 1.1 Reading as a Journey
- 1.2 Rosenblatt’s Transactional Theory
- 1.3 Frames
- 1.4 Iser’s Model of Meaning-Making
- 1.5 The Overdetermination of Literary Texts
- 2 Transaction in Educational Settings
- 2.1 The Ease of Reading
- 2.2 The Teacher of Literature as a Facilitator
- 2.3 Reading in Stages
- Stage 1: Framing
- Stage 2: Reading
- Stage 3: Think-Tank
- Stage 4: Lockstep
- Stage 5: Rereading
- Stage 6: Conclusions
- Stage 7: Closure
- 2.4 Learner Texts & Activities
- 3 Cognitive (Literary) Studies
- 3.1 The Return of the Reader
- 3.2 Mental Models
- 3.3 Emotions & Empathy
- 3.3.1 The Feeling of What Happens
- 3.3.2 Types of Reading-Related Feelings
- 3.3.3 Transportation
- 3.3.4 Empathy
- 3.4 Embodied Cognition & Enactivism
- 3.5 Conceptual Metaphors & Blending
- 3.5.1 Basic Principles
- 3.5.2 Metaphors
- 3.5.3 Metonymies
- 3.5.4 Blending
- 3.6 Blending & Literary Studies
- 4 Cognitive Approaches to Comics
- 4.1 Synopsis
- 4.2 Definitions
- 4.3 Cartooning
- 4.4 An Art of Tensions
- 4.4.1 Words vs. Images
- 4.4.2 Image vs. Series/Sequence
- 4.4.3 Sequence vs. Page
- 4.4.4 Experience vs. Object
- 4.5 A Cognitive Reading of Craig Thompson’s Blankets (Chapter I)
- 5 Autobiographical Comics
- 5.1 The Conceptual Ambiguity of Autobiography
- 5.1.1 A Struggle with Definitions
- 5.1.2 A Brief History of Autographics
- 5.1.3 Autographical Challenges to Autobiographical Genre Theory
- 5.2 Life Writing & Blending
- 5.2.1 The Autobiographical Act as Blending
- 5.2.2 Developing Autobiographical Reasoning
- 5.2.3 Autobiographical Memory
- 5.2.4 Photographic Evidence
- 5.3 Authenticity & Emotional Truth
- 5.4 Autobiographical Selves
- 5.5 Embodiment & Enaction
- 5.6 Types of Autobiographical Comics
- List of Illustrations
- Series index
Bibliographic Information published by the Deutsche
The Deutsche Nationalbibliothek lists this publication in the Deutsche
Nationalbibliografie; detailed bibliographic data is available in the
internet at http://dnb.d-nb.de.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
A CIP catalog record for this book has been applied for
at the Library of Congress.
Printed with the support of the Department of English and American Studies and
the Stiftungs- und Förderungsgesellschaft of the University of Salzburg.
Open Access Funding was provided by the University of Salzburg.
ISBN 978-3-631-81088-0 (Print)
E-ISBN 978-3-631-82338-5 (E-PDF)
E-ISBN 978-3-631-82339-2 (EPUB)
E-ISBN 978-3-631-82340-8 (MOBI)
Open Access: This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution
CC-BY 4.0 license. To view a copy of this license, visit
© Markus Oppolzer, 2020
Peter Lang – Berlin · Bern · Bruxelles · New York · Oxford · Warszawa · Wien
This publication has been peer reviewed.
About the author
Markus Oppolzer is an associate professor of teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL) and English literary studies at the University of Salzburg, Austria. His main research areas are autobiographical comics, visual narrative media in the classroom and multiliteracies.
About the book
This book updates reader-response criticism as the foundation of aesthetic reading in the classroom by bringing it in line with cognitive theories in literary studies and linguistics. With the help of Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner‘s conceptual integration theory, which shares a surprising number of correspondences with Wolfgang Iser‘s The Act of Reading, it is possible to flesh out the latter‘s model of narrative meaning-making. In turn, this allows for a consistent reader-response approach to the medium of comics and auto/biography as one of its dominant genres. The fragmentation of comics narratives, but also of human lives and identities, requires such a theory that can explain how different perspectives and experiences can be blended into an experiential whole.
This eBook can be cited
This edition of the eBook can be cited. To enable this we have marked the start and end of a page. In cases where a word straddles a page break, the marker is placed inside the word at exactly the same position as in the physical book. This means that occasionally a word might be bifurcated by this marker.
Without the generous support of the University of Salzburg this publication would not have been possible in its present form. Most of all, I appreciate the opportunity to make my book available via Open Access, which means that anyone who is interested in teaching literature, comics and auto/biography can download it for free. I had access to all the (re)sources I could ask for through our library service and I was able to attend all the conferences I was interested in, especially those of the German Society for Comics Studies (ComFor), whose fellow members I want to thank for all their support throughout the years. The Department of English and American Studies was instrumental in co-funding the print publication. Extensive feedback from students has helped me to test and clarify the stages of reading that I present in the second part, but also to evaluate existing theories and to question concepts I took for granted. I am especially grateful to Craig Thompson for allowing me to reproduce so many panels and pages from Blankets (2003). Finally, I extend my gratitude to my family and especially to my wife Eva, who has been incredibly patient and supportive throughout the whole process.
My original intention for this book was to provide a practical guide to teaching comics in the English as a Foreign Language (EFL) classroom, based on a series of university courses on visual literacy, comics and picture books. However, this hands-on approach soon required major adjustments and made me reconsider a number of basic premises that I had taken for granted. The main challenge was not so much a lack of interesting ideas or useful activities, which are widely available (cf. e.g. Cary 2004: 70–156), but a concept of how to frame teaching sequences and integrate tasks in such a way that they serve a particular purpose, depending on the stage of transaction with a literary text. Reader-response approaches, which are introduced in part 1, require such a gradual transition from first, subjective impressions to a more profound (personal) understanding of a narrative, for which the usual pre-reading, while-reading and post-reading phases did not provide enough overall structure. Therefore, I adapted existing multi-step approaches to reading and developed a procedure in seven stages, which is introduced in part 2 of this thesis. It combines extensive reading in between lessons with intensive reading tasks for the classroom that encourage an ongoing dialogue with the text, but especially amongst students.
Another important adjustment was a greater focus on genre. The ubiquity of autobiographical material in alternative comics is undeniable, as evidenced by the most widely discussed and popular texts, such as Art Spiegelman’s MAUS, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis or Craig Thompson’s Blankets. It seemed inappropriate to merely highlight the medium’s unique narrative features without addressing the key concerns of its two major genres, superheroes and autobiography, which are singled out in Randy Duncan, Matthew J. Smith and Paul Levitz’s The Power of Comics as requiring special attention (cf. 2015: 191–227; 229–62). Both have histories, influence creative choices and shape readers’ expectations. Accordingly, the last part of this study is dedicated to ‘autographics’, Gillian Whitlock’s term for autobiographical work in the comics medium (cf. 2006), which is ideally suited to address questions of authenticity, representation and fluid identities.
Over the years, it has become feasible to base a reader-response approach to graphic literature on related theories in comics studies (cf. e.g. McCloud 1994; Hatfield 2005; Groensteen 2007; Kukkonen 2013b; Duncan, Smith & Levitz 2015), but this necessitates a patchwork ot texts that lacks overall coherence. Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics seems to deliver all the key elements in ←11 | 12→a neat package, but students tend to mistake his ideas and classifications for iron rules. While there are traces of a cognitive approach based on gestalt psychology (cf. 1994: 62–4), including his famous concept of ‘closure’ (cf. 1994: 66–9), his classification of panel transitions (cf. 1994: 70–4) is simply inadequate as an explanation of how readers make sense of comics. The biggest misconception is his insistence on a strictly linear reading path, which he associates with the arrangement of panels on the page (1994: 106/1–2). Thierry Groensteen’s The System of Comics, which is much more compatible with a cognitive approach, confuses students with its highly idiosyncratic terminology, which makes Karin Kukkonen’s Studying Comics and Graphic Novels (2013b) the best compromise between accessibility and a reader-response orientation. Thus, part 4 of this thesis developed out of the necessity to integrate these diverse strands into a more consistent theory.
Since the canon of suitable literary texts for the classroom has been substantially extended (cf. e.g. Nünning & Surkamp 2010: 39–50), there is the promise of transferable skills and competences that students acquire in one context and apply to another. While comics literacy involves a lot more than a transfer of concepts from prose or film studies, many of the practical questions that teachers have to face appear to be the same, such as the selection of texts, their meaningful integration into (thematic) lessons, general curricular aims, basic types of activities or reader-response criticism as the foundation of student-centred interactions with literary texts. Yet, students are genuinely surprised when they read Louise M. Rosenblatt’s “The Literary Transaction: Evocation and Response” (1982) for the first time and discover that there is a difference between reading comprehension as a skill, aesthetic reading as an experience and narratological analysis as a largely formalist approach to literature. Certainly, they have heard about reader-response criticism, but they have never made a connection to their future profession. So ingrained is their conviction that reading is a language skill that has to be trained and tested, that a focus on the personal responses of readers is met with a healthy amount of scepticism at first. Years of academic training have put an end to their natural inclination to share their subjective experiences, which is clearly an asset for the composition of literary essays, but may turn into an obstacle when asked to inspire students to read.
Reading, it turns out, can be a misleading term, almost as multifaceted as the personal pronoun ‘I’ in autobiography, as it encompasses very different experiences and circumstances. A small child looking at picture books for fun engages in a different activity than a teenager reading young adult fiction for its themes, a university student studying Shakespeare for class, a parent reading to a child in the evening, a patient looking at magazines at the dentist’s, or a university professor perusing a literary classic in preparation for a lecture. Reading ←12 | 13→is strongly contextualised and purpose-driven, but in this thesis it is treated as an experience above all else. When Werner Delanoy reminds his readers that he considers “Reader-Response Criticism (RRC) as a Starting Position” (2015: 21) for an engagement with literature in the classroom, I interpret this as a clarion call rather than a declaration of the obvious. Louise M. Rosenblatt, Wolfgang Iser, Michael Benton or even Lothar Bredella may become outdated or even forgotten rather sooner than later, as their ideas are insufficiently compatible with testable skills and competences. What does reading as an experience and a process mean then for contemporary teaching?
I had to go back to the roots and rediscover reader-response criticism and its pedagogical implications for myself, especially to clarify how the different forms of reading interact in the classroom. Accordingly, the first part of this book is dedicated to an exploration of Rosenblatt’s transactional theory and Iser’s reading model. Yet, the roots run deeper than the 1970s, which required a contextualisation of their books in view of John Dewey’s Art as Experience. Instead of historicising and particularising national schools of reader-response criticism, my main focus is going to be on the overarching principles. At first, it seemed counterintuitive to explore aesthetic reading in such broad terms when the title of this book suggests a narrow focus on autobiographical comics, but, fortunately, there is a deep connection between Iser’s model of reading and comics studies. At one point in The Act of Reading he describes the gaps in a narrative in the following way: “Between segments and cuts there is an empty space, giving rise to a whole network of possible connections which will endow each segment or picture with its determinate meaning” (1980: 196). What may seem overtly metaphorical and elusive in the context of prose, is directly visible in comics. Even staunch defenders of classical narratology have to explain how readers make sense of what looks like a series of fragments on the page. Approaching existing comics scholarship with a potential link to reader-response criticism in mind produces more than just circumstantial evidence. In The System of Comics Groensteen directly credits Iser (cf. 2007: 114), which is only fair, as ‘iconic solidarity’ and ‘braiding’ are applications of Iser’s reading model to comics. Charles Hatfield’s ‘art of tensions’ (cf. 2005: 32–67) is equally inspired by Iser, whose The Act of Reading forms the conceptual basis of Alternative Comics (cf. 2005: xiii–xiv). Last but not least, Scott McCloud’s ‘closure’ and his typology of panel transitions reveal certain commonalities with Iser’s theory through gestalt psychology. Thus, it became necessary to ‘update’ reader-response criticism and build a bridge between Iser and comics studies via cognitive approaches to literature, especially Theory of Mind. This undertaking became the basis for the third part.←13 | 14→
However, it was not Theory of Mind that provided the necessary building blocks, but cognitive linguistics and especially Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner’s The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities. As I shall argue throughout, Iser’s gestalt-forming and conceptual integration theory are uncannily similar in their basic tenets. Working on an integrated theory was facilitated by Catherine Emmott’s Narrative Comprehension and Barbara Dancygier’s The Language of Stories, which directly applies blending theory to the study of literature. Thus, I discovered a more productive application of a reader-response approach to comics in cognitive linguistics than in Theory of Mind, which is hampered by a computational model of cognition and seems too entangled with classical narratology. Most cognitive linguists, however, have fully embraced embodied cognition and their theories remain unburdened by the heritage of literary studies. In the context of comics, this can be a good thing, as transmedial narratologists are tempted to rely too closely on concepts familiar from prose or film. To couch my claim in more precise terms: for a meaningful approach to comics as a narrative medium, cognitive linguistics and multimodal analysis are more productive than classical narratology. I develop this argument further in part 4.
As The Way We Think offers such a substantial contribution to reader-response criticism and comics studies on a conceptual level, I noticed a rapid integration of more and more theories into what Dancygier would call a “mega-blend” (2012: 56). This might provoke resistance from colleagues who would like to keep these theories neatly apart. I found an unlikely ally in Herbert Grabes, whose article “Encountering People through Literature” draws parallels between reader-response criticism and recent offerings in cognitive (literary) studies. Commenting on the latter in a somewhat polemical manner he observes that “the novelty seems to consist foremost in the change of vocabulary” (2008: 131) and that Alan Palmer’s claim to a new approach to reading characters “shows that he was not sufficiently aware of the research that had already been done” (2008: 133). Indeed, there is a tendency in cognitive approaches to literature to add a passing reference to reader-response criticism, but then present some of its key tenets as supposedly new discoveries. Still, cognitive approaches have made substantial progress, such as conceptual integration theory in direct comparison to Iser’s gestalt-forming, which warrants a detailed comparison in itself. Since some of the central concerns in teaching literature and culture are also cognitive in nature, such as empathy and perspective-taking, I include a discussion of these concepts in part 3, which is meant to produce greater coherence across the entire book and strengthen the close ties between (cognitive) literary theories and the practical teaching of literature in educational settings.
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- Publication date
- 2020 (May)
- aesthetic reading comics autobiography teaching literature conceptual integration theory blending cognitive literary studies Wolfgang Iser experientiality
- Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 504 pp., 27 fig. b/w