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Reading Autobiographical Comics: A Framework for Educational Settings


Markus Oppolzer

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.

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4 Cognitive Approaches to Comics

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4 Cognitive Approaches to Comics

4.1 Synopsis

In part 1 I used the term ‘synopsis’ to refer to Wolfgang Iser’s notion that readers generate meaning by ‘seeing things together’, which is guided by textual structures that activate previous themes or gestalten that have become part of the horizon. I developed this idea further by adding conceptual integration theory in part 3, which elaborates on the possible mappings between spaces. Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner identify at least fifteen vital relations (cf. 2003: 101) that become compressed in the blend. In both cases ‘synopsis’ is a metaphor for cognitive operations that are happening in front of the mind’s eye. If we now turn to the architecture of a typical comics page, we find a conceptual illustration and materialisation of this reading model: the fragmented pieces of the narrative – the panels – are separated from each other by a blank space in between – the gutter – that requires readers to cognitively bridge the gulf. Even without any knowledge of gestalt psychology or blending, all comics scholars are challenged to explain how readers are supposed to make sense of this “mosaic art” (Nodelman 2012: 438). As a visualisation of an otherwise cognitive process the medium’s layout also illustrates Iser’s theme and horizon structure, in the sense that the panel(s) attended to by the readers form the present theme and the others around it the horizon. As the ‘wandering viewpoint’ of readers moves on to the next panel, the previous one becomes part of the background: the “theme of one moment becomes the horizon against which the next segment takes on its actuality” (1980: 198; see also Dewey 2005: 199, 211). The figure-ground relationship is very strong in comics and we shall return to this idea again later in this part.

One has to be careful, though, not to take this comparison too literally. Iser’s idea of reading is clearly not concerned with the integration of one sentence – or panel, for that matter – after the other into the ongoing story, but with the question of how the foregrounded elements and revelations of the present moment or scene relate to what individual readers have experienced so far as central to their understanding of the narrative. Iser’s approach is holistic and his theory of gestalt-forming rests on translinear integration, which is going to be an important argument against the existing linear conceptualisations of reading comics. Strictly speaking, meaning is not based on a correspondence between textual elements, but mappings between mental spaces that have been activated and set up for mutual illumination by these narrative structures. One could also say that ←229 | 230→readers relate their current impressions, experiences and ideas to previous ones and begin to see larger patterns. At the same time, the panels on a double page of a comic are physically present as material/narrative anchors and remain so until readers turn the page.

A focus on cognitive approaches is not meant to discredit the “response-inviting structures, which impel the reader to grasp the text” (Iser 1980: 34), since they are central to reader-response criticism’s understanding of narratives as blueprints or musical scores. The same principle is foundational to a number of cognitive (literary) theories. Catherine Emmott speaks of “long-distance links” (2004: 11) that connect contextual frames across entire narratives and Barbara Dancygier explains the role of narrative anchors as prompts for blending (cf. 2012: 42, 50). These are metonymic links that may evoke entire frames with a single word or image, sometimes using no more than a pronoun or a symbol. There is a whole spectrum of possibilities for blending in comics that ranges from literal synopsis – studying the section of the mosaic that a double page has to offer as a narrative unit, to the more elaborate conceptual integration of mental spaces that is triggered by textual structures. In comics these prompts take the form of verbal and/or visual signs, often in combination.

Comics studies already has two widely established concepts that resemble aspects of conceptual integration, which are Scott McCloud’s ‘closure’ (cf. 1994: 63–74) and Thierry Groensteen’s ‘braiding’ (cf. 2007: 145–9, 158). The first covers meaning-making processes on the micro-structural level of consecutive panels, while the second looks at translinear relations. Groensteen argues that the ‘iconic solidarity’ (cf. 2007: 17–20) between panels establishes links across the entire network and helps to activate and foreground stored memories of previous scenes that are scrutinised and re-contextualised in light of new revelations. It seems that he based his key concept of iconic solidarity and the polysyntactic function of the gutter on Iser’s The Act of Reading (cf. 2007: 114, 175). Importantly, the “moving viewpoint” (Iser 1980: 16) does not coincide with any of the textual structures or perspectives that are presented sequentially – but also concurrently, in the case of comics – to the readers (cf. Iser 1980: 35; see also 21, 47, 96).

Groensteen’s concept of ‘overdetermination’ (cf. 2007: 29) resembles Iser’s notion of foregrounding, as it ascribes a privileged spot to an element of the composition, which may result from the position of the panel on the page, its salience (e.g. size, shape), or its importance to the scene or the entire network (iconic solidarity). The gaps have a grammatical function in the narrative and invite both sequential and translinear blending, for which the groundwork can be found in Iser’s theory: “an ‘overdetermined text’ causes the reader to engage in an active ←230 | 231→process of composition, because it is he who has to structure the meaning potential arising out of the multifarious connections between the semantic levels of the text” (Iser 1980: 49). This process relies on a silent understanding between creators and readers that narratives can be meaningfully reconstructed (cf. Groensteen 2013: 19). At the same time, this does not mean that readers have to detect and actively pursue every single possible connection while reading, but to pick up the most important drift of a scene, based on its foregrounded and repeated elements.

Iser’s retroactive effect, the process by which previously formed gestalten are “constantly evoked in a new context and so modified by new correlates that instigate a restructuring of past syntheses” (1980: 111), is a purely cognitive operation. In this case, a character may appear in a very different light in the present scene, which challenges readers to reconcile this realisation with his or her previous behaviour. Contrary to computational models of cognition, this does not involve filling the slots of mental models and thus updating files, but holding two specific social interactions involving the same character in working memory, exploring potential correspondences and obvious differences and actively working on a reconciliation of the two on a higher level of understanding (cf. Pfister 2000: 172). This can result in a tentative new gestalt or blend, but it could also mean that readers have to operate with two competing explanations for a certain amount of time. The fragmentation of a single character into several versions of itself is not unusual in autobiographical writing, where we usually encounter different younger selves that may resist easy blending or what Dancygier calls ‘viewpoint compression’. Chapter 4 is concerned with the question of how these two theories of reading comics – McCloud’s and Groensteen’s – compare to the cognitive approaches I introduced in the third part. The fragmentation of the comics narrative and the tensions between the disparate elements have to be extended, however, to the relation between words and images, which also become blended into a unified perceptual whole.

Comics scholars, who – judging from their bibliographies – have never heard of conceptual integration theory, use very similar terms and concepts to describe how reading takes place in this medium. Here is an example from Randy Duncan, Matthew J. Smith and Paul Levitz’s The Power of Comics: “The chief task of comic book creators is to reduce the imagined story to images encapsulated in panels. The reader must then work at blending those panels into a narrative experience” (2015: 153). In most cases, panels are not snapshots, single moments or atomistic building blocks of comics narratives, but already blends themselves. They contain compressed vital relations for which Duncan, Smith and Levitz, following Will Eisner, use the term “encapsulation” (2015: 108; see ←231 | 232→also Eisner 2006: 39). Readers, then, have to find ways to further re-blend them into larger units – a process that Iser calls gestalt-forming. However, the blends within single panels may be intricately layered and highly compressed, which means that readers have to ‘unpack’ them first. In this sense, compression and decompression are both creative and receptive processes. Political cartoons, for example, often showcase a high degree of compression that challenges readers to identify and understand the whole network of mappings.

Charles Hatfield, to name a second example, describes the work of Jack Kirby in the following manner: “The power of drawings […] stems from the tension between reading the image as a single moment and reading it as a synchronous compression of an extended length of time” (2012: 47; see also Baetens & Frey 2015: 166). According to Hatfield and other scholars (cf. e.g. Mikkonen 2017: 55), there is a fundamental ambiguity about the intensity of temporal compression in comics panels. Hatfield introduces the term ‘synchronism’ for the compression of time in Alternative Comics (cf. 2005: 54), where he discusses so-called ‘splash pages’. These are panels that cover entire pages and are typical of superhero comics. They foreground epic confrontations between the eponymous heroes and their arch enemies. Again referring to Kirby, he states that, although his “crowded spreads seem to capture discrete and explosive moments of action, in fact they represent extended spans of time in synoptic fashion” (2005: 54). Not surprisingly, many comics scholars, but especially the narratologists among them, are fascinated by the representation of time in the medium, which results in exceptionally long chapters on temporal structures (cf. e.g. McCloud 1994: 94–117; Schüwer 2008: 209–302; Mikkonen 2017: 33–70). In the context of reader-response criticism, however, the technicalities of representing and measuring time and space play a less significant role, as an exact reconstruction of events is not required for a successful transaction with a narrative. Yet, the ambiguity of comics panels as temporal blends is not the only challenge that narratologists have to face.

Not only does the direct transfer of analytical categories and procedures from film studies and other narrative media pose a problem (cf. Mikkonen 2017: 2), but the medium itself ostentatiously foregrounds the need for active readers’ participation. Martin Schüwer is an interesting case in point, as he sees a clear connection between time, memory and readers’ reception of a narrative text (cf. 2008: 242, 244), but he is reluctant to compromise his narratological approach. Therefore, he has to circumvent readers’ involvement by introducing a ‘memory of the comic’ that resembles what Iser calls ‘textual structures’, Dancygier ‘narrative anchors’ and Groensteen ‘braiding’ (cf. 2008: 241). These prompts are so specific, Schüwer claims, that readers only have to follow the given instructions (cf. ←232 | 233→2008: 242), which encourage them to become analysts of the narrative and verify what the text strongly suggests (cf. 2008: 244). Acknowledging that McCloud’s theory of closure has a strong cognitive orientation (cf. 2008: 275), he comments that blending in these cases is straightforward, as the textual structures only allow for a single resolution (cf. 2008: 276).

Kai Mikkonen seems to be more sceptical about the power of narratology to explain how reading works. He distinguishes narratology from “the proper interpretation of narrative texts and works” and demotes it to a specific stage in the reading process, especially when “the aim of analysis is to relate the narrative text to particular contexts of meaning” (2017: 9). Even within the narrow field of academic studies, he only grants it limited usefulness: “As a heuristic tool in comics scholarship, narratology can be conceptualised as a kind of preliminary stage of interpretation that directs our attention to the narrative features in a given work and helps to analyse and clarify the significance of those features” (2007: 11). He attributes its limited relevance to its predominantly generic orientation: “It is in the nature of narratology to seek what is most universal, conventional, and general about narratives, and attempt to describe and analyse these features as effectively as possible” (2017: 277). Having put narratology in its place, he then follows a traditional path, largely naming his chapters after such classical categories as time, narration, focalisation or characterisation (cf. 2017: v-vi). From a cognitive studies point of view, the most interesting chapter seems to be “Character as a Means of Narrative Continuity” (cf. 2017: 90–108), as it is concerned with characters as narrative anchors to counteract the fragmentation of comics narration. At first, Mikkonen stresses their importance as centres of attention and even refers to Alan Palmer’s concept of ‘aspectuality’ later in the book (cf. e.g. 2017: 120). Since Palmer’s well-founded criticism of classical narratology (cf. e.g. 2004: 28) is incompatible with Mikkonen’s approach, the latter has to defend the particularisation of textual analysis as being motivated by the medium’s multimodality:

The point in thus focusing on and isolating the question of the synthetic role of the character, i.e. their continuity-building function, from other considerations pertaining to characters, such as focalisation, characterisation (characters’ person-like qualities), or the representation of speech and thought, is to better cover the visual and multimodal means of connectivity employed in comics … (2017: 91)

In the end, Mikkonen simply claims that characters are easy to identify and they propel the action, which he needs for an explanation of ‘continuity editing’, especially “match on action”, in the comics medium: “Thus, the character’s (or characters’) activity creates a visual bridge between the gaps – that is, the ←233 | 234→shots – and conveys a sense of continuity in the scene. The effectiveness of this technique relies on its ability to suggest a simultaneous sense of temporal and spatial coherence” (2017: 93). This unites three of (comics) narratology’s fundamental shortcomings: characters are made to serve a function in (visual) plot development; narratological categories from other media (e.g. editing, shots) are directly imported without sufficiently discussing whether this is appropriate or not and the readers’ role is reduced to the passive acceptance of continuity editing’s supreme capacity for presenting action in a transparent way. Concerning the last point: I cannot shake the impression that many comics theories are still heavily invested in the superhero genre, for which continuous action plays a much larger role than in autobiographical work.

Mikkonen uses the very first scene of Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’s epic science fiction tale Saga (2012) as his main example, which he begins to describe in the following way:

The first panels of the first scene, which depict the birth of the couple’s daughter Hazel, then confirm that the story is about these two characters [they are also on the cover]. Both Alana and Marko are shown in close-up images that focus on their emotional states and intimate relationship. The first panel is an extreme close-up of Alana, who is clearly suffering, while the second panel, an establishing image, shows her lying on a table with someone between her legs, helping in what is evidently a childbirth scene. The two characters’ emotional engagement with one another is then portrayed by an image and reverse image sequence where we first see the horned man Marko looking tenderly at Alana and commending the winged woman for her beauty, and then see Alana, suffering labour pains, looking less fondly back at him and responding with a sarcastic comment … (2017: 92)

What does not become sufficiently clear in all of this is that they are a mixed-race couple on the run who are persecuted for miscegenation. Marko has to assist in the birth of his daughter Hazel as they cannot go to a hospital without being imprisoned or worse. Mikkonen, however, uses the scene to explain ‘continuity editing’ in comics, which is fine in a study on comics narratology, but it also illustrates the limitations he addresses at the beginning of the book. Both monographs, Schüwer’s and Mikkonen’s, are excellent in what they set out to do, contributing to transmedial narratology in significant ways and revising concepts from classical narratology and film studies for this hybrid medium, but they also showcase how little they have to say about the cognitive processes that lead readers from textual prompts via tentative gestalt-forming to a complete reading (cf. Mikkonen 2017: 34–5).

My understanding of a cognitive approach to comics is broad and inclusive. In Contemporary Comics Storytelling (2013) Karin Kukkonen claims that “cognitive ←234 | 235→approaches […] are virtually nonexistent in comics studies” (2013a: 5), but this has to be seen from the perspective of cognitive literary studies and Theory of Mind in particular. From a reader-response or cognitive linguistics point of view there have been quite a number of attempts to apply cognitive approaches to comics (cf. Stamenković & Tasić 2014: 157). As I am going to demonstrate in greater detail, the link between McCloud’s ‘closure’ and Iser’s model is gestalt psychology, whereas the conceptual foundation of braiding in Groensteen’s The System of Comics seems to come directly from Iser (cf. 2007: 114). In this sense, and despite the otherwise semiotic orientation of Groensteen’s books (cf. 2013: 30, 55), I consider comics studies as already permeated by a cognitive orientation, even if the links have not been made sufficiently clear and the theories are not based directly on cognitive sciences.

Kukkonen acknowledges this common ground later in her book (cf. 2013a: 14, 27–8, 36–8) and traces her cognitive approach back to “hermeneutics, close reading, and rhetoric” (2013a: 7). Like Iser and Rosenblatt she conceptualises reading as a back and forth between the clues that the text provides (cf. 2013a: 13) and the readers’ “processes of meaning-making” (2013a: 7; see also 14, 27), thus opposing the idea of the inherent meaning of signs (cf. 2013a: 23). All the widely used textbooks and theories in comics studies propose some form of aesthetic reading or cognitive approach to comics, even though the connections are not always made explicit. Duncan, Smith and Levitz dedicate a whole chapter to “Experiencing the Story” (2015: 137–62), in which they emphasise the active role of the reader, who is faced with a fragmented narrative that has to be puzzled together. They are among the few who also acknowledge the affective responses of readers alongside their cognitive involvement (cf. 2015: 140).

A necessary qualification to my sweeping claim that the popular approaches to comics are essentially cognitive, has to be that they frequently single out aspects of the theories I have presented thus far without looking at the larger picture. They may contain passing references to reader-response criticism or Wolfgang Iser (cf. Groensteen 2007: 114; Hatfield 2005: xiii-xiv), a traditional schema approach to comics (cf. Lefèvre 2000), a grounding in Theory of Mind (cf. Kukkonen 2013a; 2013b), a focus on embodiment (cf. Kukkonen 2013a; 2013b; Baetens & Frey 2015: 174–6) or the suggestion that blending theory may be a suitable approach to comics (cf. Forceville 2016; Stamenković & Tasić 2014; Oakley 1998). In addition to that, comics scholars sometimes describe the reading process in such a way that it closely resembles blending theory. Dietrich Grünewald’s concept of ‘reading synthetically’ (cf. Grünewald 2000: 41) is a good example. This correspondence is probably due to Wolfgang Kemp’s application of gestalt psychology and reader-response criticism to art history (cf. Grünewald ←235 | 236→2000: 42, 101–2; Kemp 1989). A number of teaching materials and academic studies in the Anglophone world directly reference Louise M. Rosenblatt in the context of reading picture books or comics in the classroom (cf. e.g. Arizpe et al. 2014: 37, Bakis 2014: 4), but this is not further explored in light of recent developments in cognitive studies.

In this study I have persistently highlighted the links that connect John Dewey with Louise M. Rosenblatt, Wolfgang Iser, the tradition of teaching literature in the classroom, experiential approaches within cognitive literary studies, such as Monika Fludernik’s natural narratology and Caracciolo’s enactivism, and ultimately cognitive linguistics and blending. What connects most these seemingly diverse theories is a commitment to experientiality and embodied cognition, which is mirrored in Kukkonen’s reading of comics (cf. 2013a: 7). Therefore, the experiential basis of blending phenomena needs to be addressed again. This serves to connect cognitive linguistics with the visual depiction of characters in specific scenes (contextual frames) and anticipates the centrality of embodiment in autobiographical studies (cf. Smith & Watson 2010: 49–54). Kukkonen argues that “a lot of the meaning readers get from textual elements does not depend on their competence in a code, but on more basic cognitive processes” (2013a: 18; see also 13, 20–1), by which she means “that a good part of our meaning-making is indeed grounded in our bodily experience of the world” (2013b: 9). I am less sure about the notion of “embodied simulations” (Kukkonen 2015: 54) and more inclined to believe that we learn to read social contexts, body postures and facial expressions based on personal experiences and social interactions in the enactivist sense (cf. Kukkonen 2013b: 15–16).

I am going to combine an exploration of embodiment in comics with a study of cartooning and Rodolphe Töpffer’s views on his craft to arrive at a more differentiated understanding which aspects of comics narration are easily recognisable and which require readers’ active involvement. In many situations characters’ experiences are transparent and easily accessible, which means that we can read them ‘like a book’. Foregrounding, repetition and especially contextualisation grant readers access to characters’ thoughts and feelings without requiring a degree in psychology. Still, there are always nuances, ambiguous emotional states and larger thematic concerns that are easily overlooked or dismissed in a quick read-through, which is why the opportunity to return to the text, reread parts of it and negotiate its meaning in groups is so central to educational settings. The experiences of characters in specific contexts and the readers’ aesthetic responses take precedence over efferent reading. In a similar fashion, Groensteen criticises the reduction of reading to the extraction of facts, and of narratives to plot points: it is not enough, he argues, “to find the intelligibility of ←236 | 237→the story in order to follow the episodes”, as it “constitutes a formidable reduction of the work to the sphere of the action and of the event, a mutilation that retains only the actantial chain, which is only interested in what happens to the protagonists” (2007: 137).

Yet, before any of these aspects can be duly addressed, a basic clarification of terms is required to counteract a certain confusion over what comics are (cf. e.g. Pointner 2013: 27–9, 32–3, 39; Ludwig 2015: 299; Kuty 2015: 173). This has been provoked by the intrusion of so-called ‘graphic novels’ into the institutions of book culture (cf. Ditschke 2009; Hausmanninger 2013) and aggravated by misguided academic attempts to drive a wedge between comics with an ISBN number and those without (cf. Baetens & Frey 2015; Hescher 2016; for the distinction: de Vos 2005: 30). Since then, graphic novels have dominated the discourse about comics in educational settings (cf. e.g. Hallet 2012a; Elsner 2013), with the notable exception of Christian Ludwig and Frank Erik Pointner’s Teaching Comics in the Foreign Language Classroom (2013). In the next chapter I want to elaborate on the claim that graphic novels are a separate genre or medium and mark the next evolutionary step in the transformation of pulp fiction into respectable literature. These considerations may seem unnecessarily cerebral; yet, without clarifying the subject matter of this study, all other observations would lose some of their relevance.

For most of this part I follow Charles Hatfield’s concept of four structural tensions that readers have to face and overcome when engaging with comic books (cf. 2005: 32–67). Not only does Hatfield reference Iser’s The Act of Reading directly (cf. 2005: xiii), but he also makes a strong case in favour of reader-response criticism: “The reader’s responsibility for negotiating meaning can never be forgotten” (2005: xiv). He or she is faced with a “patchwork of different images, shapes, and symbols”, which “presents the reader with a surfeit of interpretative options” (2005: xiv). Thus, Hatfield’s tensions can be brought in line with Iser’s basic mechanism of meaning-making: “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). Both Iser’s concept of mutual illumination as well as Fauconnier and Turner’s global insight are predicated on the idea that we can reach a higher level of understanding through the integration of frames whose structures are not easily compatible. In this sense, Hatfield’s tensions can be said to show a certain resemblance to John Dewey’s notion of defamiliarisation:

Without internal tension there would be a fluid rush to a straightaway mark; there would be nothing that could be called development and fulfillment. The existence of ←237 | 238→resistance defines the place of intelligence in the production of an object of fine art. The difficulties to be overcome in bringing about the proper reciprocal adaptation of parts constitute what in intellectual work are problems. As in activity dealing with predominantly intellectual matters, the material that constitutes a problem has to be converted into a means for its solution. It cannot be sidestepped. (2005: 143)

Hatfield’s tensions provide a helpful and sufficiently systematic approach to comics, which foregrounds the contrast between words and images, panels and series/sequences, panels and networks (braiding) as well as the meaning and the materiality of books. This covers all the essential elements or building blocks of comics, but, more significantly, they are introduced as relations rather than isolated features. I am going to integrate my arguments concerning a cognitive approach to comics within these four sub-sections.

Since cartooning represents the most prominent visual element of comics, it plays a significant role in all four tensions. To establish the necessary groundwork for a discussion of Hatfield, a separate chapter is dedicated to the most popular drawing style in comics. Here I want to highlight two important connections: the one is the close tie between comics and political cartooning in terms of “amplification through simplification” (McCloud 1994: 30/4). The other concerns the art of blending, which is central to newspaper cartoons, where double-scope networks are a widespread phenomenon. This provides a useful background when discussing the narrativity of images and the potential to compress a story into a single picture. Other important aspects of comics narratology, such as narration, focalisation, characterisation, or empathy, are addressed in the immediate context of understanding autobiographical comics. This also includes the more specific aspects of Dancygier’s theory that I introduced in part 3. Instead of discussing all the individual problems comics narratology is still facing (cf. e.g. Mikkonen 2017: 9, 11), I prefer to limit myself to one genre only and explore how narratological theories can or cannot help to elucidate its specific structures.

The final chapter is dedicated to a case study of the first chapter of Blankets, which serves to establish an integrated approach that combines all the relevant elements I present piecemeal throughout this part. It should become obvious how the textual structures set up a network of clues that invite certain types of blends. I chose Craig Thompson’s Blankets (2003) as my prime example and source of illustrations for a number of reasons. The first is my ultimate concern with autobiographical writing in the comics medium, so it makes sense to stay within that premise and not expand the discussion to other genres. Up to this point I have tried to keep the arguments as universally applicable as possible to literary studies and the teaching of literary texts in the classroom. However, it is time to become more specific and lay the groundwork for the final part. ←238 | 239→Secondly, Blankets is a modern classic and widely available. Despite their spectacular rise as the new darlings of book culture, comics are still prone to go out of print and may no longer be available. Thirdly, this autobiography introduces a variety of interesting tensions. It combines easy accessibility and sophisticated storytelling. It has a mostly covert verbal narrator, which automatically leads to a strong focus on visual storytelling. Many passages rely on an exaggerated cartoon style and others on a more restrained form of self-expression. The book presents an almost generic coming-of-age story against a very specific cultural background of religious fundamentalism and combines a simple, relatable narrative of falling in love for the first time with a more complex meditation on art, love/sexuality and religion. Blankets can be both brutally honest and “outrageously beautiful” (Wolk 2007: 209) in its renderings of the past. It weds self-indulgent, seemingly unreflected nostalgia for a particular time in Thompson’s life with a new orientation towards the future. For better or worse, it tells a very personal, autobiographical story with a creative license that is made possible by the label ‘illustrated novel’. Furthermore, the narrative represents an interesting merger of two sub-genres of autobiographical writing, the coming-of-age narrative and the portrait-of-the-artist-as-a-young-man. Fourthly, it highlights the often problematic, but unavoidable practice of suggesting layers of complexity for the protagonist, while reducing other characters to stereotypes. In Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and Art Spiegelman’s MAUS fathers play an essential role, so they are granted more space and complexity than is usually the case in autobiographical writing. Douglas Wolk, who is otherwise highly appreciative of Thompson’s work (cf. 2007: 208), cannot help but observe that “he barely gives anyone else in the book credit for being a whole person” (2007: 208). It is therefore necessary to read against the grain and develop enough critical distance to notice how Blankets manipulates readers into accepting the victimisation of the protagonist as a grave injustice and siding with him for the rest of the narrative. Thompson reduces the verbal narrator, who is predestined to comment on the events from a distance, to a bare minimum and lets the scenes play out as they supposedly happened, thus foregrounding the experiences of his teenage selves. Wolk even diagnoses a lack of empathy (cf. 2007: 209), but I would explain Craig’s myopic view as a faithful rendering of adolescent self-absorption. His love interest Raina is rarely depicted as a real person, but very much as the target of his juvenile adoration:

Blankets is almost as starry-eyed and self-important as Thompson apparently was at the time. He never gives her anything like interiority or suggests that she might have had any significance other than being a perfect, stainless Celia for his work. That lack of empathy extends to almost all the other characters in the book, who tend to be either ←239 | 240→saintly or despicable – the latter category includes a long list of hard-line Christians who terrorized Thompson in his youth and adolescence. (Wolk 2007: 209)

This may sound unfair, but there is a grain of truth in Wolk’s observations that cannot be easily dismissed. Consequently, a reading of this text requires a complimentary focus on Raina’s situation in life. Chapters III-VII of Blankets provide readers with enough information on her chaotic family life to establish a different perspective, but this has to be actively encouraged, as students are tempted to side with Craig. Many other characters are more or less silenced and rarely get a chance to demonstrate their basic humanity. They play roles in Thompson’s re-enactment of his childhood and teenage years, but the director/playwright decides what these roles are. Craig’s father, for example, is reduced to a monstrous antagonist in chapter I and rarely reaches more complexity than that of a Christian fundamentalist. Only towards the end of the narrative does he show some redeeming qualities. Accordingly, Craig’s salvation is predicated on transcending his upbringing instead of attempting any form of reconciliation. Again, Wolk is very astute in his commentary: “In Blankets, he casts himself as a confused young hero, achieving his solipsistic victory by casting off the people and ideology that threaten to bring him down” (2007: 213).

I have frequently referred to Werner Delanoy’s essay on teaching Dead Poets Society in the classroom (cf. 1996), which is a great illustration of how hard it is to read against the grain of a powerful narrative. I have to address this point again in part 5, but for the moment it is enough to realise that there is an ethical issue concerning the biographical writing that autobiographies automatically entail. Very often even the closest friends and relatives become secondary characters in order to stress the protagonist’s uniqueness, pitiful isolation and heroic struggle against all odds. These tensions turn Blankets into an interesting reading text for older students, as the basic storyline that everyone manages to follow can then be complemented with activities that take the students back to specific scenes and invite a more detailed reading of the text. And, arriving at my final argument, readers of this study, who are introduced to comics for the very first time, may find it easier to have a single text as the main point of reference instead of being confronted with a mass of widely different styles and sub-genres, which become more relevant in the final part.

4.2 Definitions

Throughout this study I have referred to comics as a narrative medium, despite the fact that both of these terms have been contested. While there may be a widely established consensus that comics tell stories (cf. Stein & Thon 2015: 6–8; ←240 | 241→Thon 2015: 67; Baetens & Frey 2015: 7–8; Duncan, Smith & Levitz 2015: xi-xiii; Eisner 2006: 5, 127; Kukkonen 2013b: 49; Groensteen 2013: 5; 2007: 8–12; Wolk 2007: 11; Hatfield 2005: x, xiv), Stephan Packard is correct in pointing out that this may not always be the case (cf. 2013; 2016). Groensteen, for example, discusses “abstract comics” (2013: 9–10), named after an anthology published by Fantagraphics, but one could also add visual poems to this category of non-narrative comics (cf. 2013: 30–3). Within the context of a philological subject and for the purposes of teaching comics in the classroom this simplification is still warranted, as comics are specifically chosen as narrative texts. However, reading comics as literature comes with its own problems, as classical, post-classical and transmedial narratologists have turned their attention to the medium, often applying concepts, terminologies and analytical tools that do not quite fit (cf. Mikkonen 2017: 2). Mikkonen’s monograph (cf. 2017), but also Jan-Noël Thon’s publications (cf. e.g. 2014; 2015) bear witness to this ongoing struggle with and negotiation of existing concepts and tools for the purposes of narratological enquiry.

Concerning the second term, it is essential to differentiate between comics as a medium and different artistic forms or formats of publishing content, which are comic strips, comic books and graphic novels in most cases (cf. Fingeroth 2008: 4), but one could also include (Franco-Belgian) albums and web comics. While the choice of medium is concerned with the (multi)modality of the narrative, the semiotic codes that are used and their conventionalised combinations and potential tensions, the form(at) is closely associated with questions of mediality and materiality, the artistic ambition of creator(s), the practises of cultural industries and the established publishing formats that dominate the market place. This affects everything from length (four panels vs. 400 pages) via creative possibilities to the limitations set by editors, publishers and readers’ expectations, just to name a few obvious factors.

Karin Kukkonen’s definition of comics acknowledges the institutional contexts of creation, production, distribution and reception that play an important role in establishing and naturalising a medium: “comics are a medium that communicates through images, words, and sequence. A medium is constituted in three ways: (i) it is a mode of communication, (ii) it relies on a particular set of technologies, and (iii) it is anchored in society through a number of institutions” (2013b: 4). From my point of view, ‘medium’ is a conventionalised and widely recognised type of storytelling, which privileges the mode of communication (i) over technologies (ii) and institutions (iii). For other academic disciplines, such as media studies, these priorities may vary. Since the focus of this book is on educational settings, the classification of comics as a ←241 | 242→narrative medium – alongside prose, film, (stage) performance, radio plays etc. (cf. Nünning & Surkamp 2010: 49) – is justifiable, as these are experienced as distinct ways of telling stories. At the same time, comics literacy can and should be expanded to include concerns that are usually associated with critical media literacy, as the business side of comics creation has a major impact on the types of narratives students are likely to encounter.

Genre, in contradistinction, constitutes a framework that affects content more than anything else. I use the term to refer to autobiography, which can take many forms (e.g. comic strip, comic book, graphic novel) and find expression in different media (e.g. comics, paintings, prose, film, installation art). These three terms – medium, form(at) and genre – are often used interchangeably or become redefined with every new publication. In Reading Graphic Novels: Genre and Narration, for example, Achim Hescher sets out to clarify the terminology:

… the basic terms ‘format,’ ‘medium,’ and ‘mode,’ which have been so heterogeneously employed, need to be (re)defined. First, I take comics to signify a medium rather than a genre. As a second step, I shall set up a general, prototypical, genre classification in which graphic novels figure as a (twice removed) subgroup of graphic narratives, the counterpart to verbal narratives […]. With this, I shall consolidate the graphic novel as a genre, that is a historical text group. (2016: 4)

Hescher is eager to promote the ‘graphic novel’ as a more sophisticated way of storytelling, for which he employs the term ‘genre’ to set it apart as an evolutionary step: “All things reconsidered, it is impossible to ignore the ties of what was sold as graphic novels with the comics and book market, but this is only one side to the coin. On the other side, I see art works that differ absolutely or by degrees from traditional or merely lengthy comic books” (2016: 18). He is willing to acknowledge that ‘comics’ as a medium is a neutral term (cf. McCloud 1994: 6) and that all forms belong to it, but then he favours one publication format – the graphic novel – over another – the comic book. He seems to identify what I would call a genre – superheroes – with a specific form of publication, which may, in fact, contain any kind of content. Hescher goes on to list the ‘superhero novel’ as a subgenre of the graphic novel (cf. 2016: 51), which introduces two further complications: while the ‘graphic novel’ is defined via formal criteria, the subgenres are based on their content. This makes the term too imprecise for the kind of systematic classification he aspires to. Furthermore, when comic books are republished as graphic novels, their content does not change. Many of the classics from the 1980s, like Art Spiegelman’s MAUS, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen or Frank Miller, Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley’s The Dark Knight Returns, were serialised at first. This runs counter to the establishment ←242 | 243→of a canon based on seven levels of complexity that are supposed to distinguish graphic novels from comic books (cf. Hescher 2016: 56).

According to Danny Fingeroth’s classification of American comics (cf. 2008: 4), there are three major types or publication formats, which are comic strip, comic book and graphic novel (cf. Duncan, Smith & Levitz 2015: xiii-xv; Groensteen 2013: 5; Kukkonen 2013a: 10; Stein & Thon 2015: 12). In the Franco-Belgian tradition, the main format is the ‘album’, while the internet provides completely new possibilities in terms of digital production, digital delivery and digital comics (cf. McCloud 2000: 22). McCloud associates the last type with ‘the infinite canvas’ (cf. 2000: 200–42), a liberation from the restrictions of the page, and technological innovations in terms of storytelling, which may then constitute a different format altogether. For a general readership, however, the most noticeable change has been the appearance of graphic novels in regular book shops.

The alleged inventor of the term ‘graphic novel’, Will Eisner, calls it “a form of comic book” (2006: 141), while Gail de Vos succinctly defines it as a comic narrative with an ISBN number (cf. de Vos 2005: 30). According to this logic, neither the medium nor the format determines the quality of the outcome. Since the days when comics first entered book culture in the form of ‘graphic novels’, with Art Spiegelman’s MAUS as a trailblazer, they have witnessed a steady rise in appreciation, often at the price of concealing their lowly background. Hescher has to ennoble MAUS retrospectively as being “among the first graphic novels, avant la lettre” (2016: 81) to fit his narrative of steady progress. For this type of enculturation to work, it was easier for some ‘Guardians of the Gutenberg Galaxy’ – teachers, librarians, journalists, publishers, academics etc. – to conceive of the development as an evolutionary step that now separates graphic novels from their primitive ancestors:

Readers, reviewers, publishers, and booksellers (in store and online) have maintained the currency of the graphic novel and continue to use the concept as useful shorthand for either adult readership comic books or single volume comics the qualities (content or artwork) of which distinguish them as exceptional when compared to regularly serialized titles or more generic material (superheroes, sci-fi, or fantasy). (Baetens & Frey 2015: 3)

I would like to explore this transition from fandom to book culture a little further by turning to Jan Baetens and Hugo Frey’s The Graphic Novel: An Introduction, which is a prominent attempt to establish the graphic novel’s unique status against a background of comics production. A first important strategy is to use the singular ‘the graphic novel’, as if it were a clearly identifiable entity, and then ascribe human-like characteristics and a will of its own to it: “the graphic novel has a ←243 | 244→strong preference for the book format” (Baetens & Frey 2015: 13) and “the one-shot formula” (2015: 14). When Baetens and Frey observe that “the graphic novel can appear in different print formats” (2015: 154), they seem to acknowledge the fact that many artists publish their books in instalments first, for example to garner some compensation for their work, which may take years to complete. However, what they ultimately attempt to do is to sever the graphic novel as a separate art form from any material restrictions. This claim is made explicit when they call it “a medium” (2015: 7), which suggests that it also constitutes a different mode of communication, relies on different technologies than comics and is produced, distributed and reviewed in different institutional settings, if we follow Kukkonen’s criteria again. While the third point is a valid observation from within book culture, the first two are impossible to argue.

The ‘graphic novel’ was – first of all – a marketing term and – due to its enormous success – has led to a “publishing phenomenon” (Baetens & Frey 2015: 2) that has transformed the business. There is no doubt that the successful re-branding of comics has opened the door for many artists to risk longer, more sophisticated titles, reach a broader audience, experiment with the form and even find a home at one of the major book-publishing houses, but Baetens and Frey propose essentialist differences that do not exist. It is not the graphic novel as an independent art form that shapes book publication, but book culture that offers new possibilities to comics creators.

I have traced the publication history of David Hine’s Strange Embrace in an article on remediation (cf. 2016) to highlight the close ties between creation, production, marketing, distribution and reception, but also the transformation of a somewhat obscure comic into a graphic novel. Its most recent republication materialised on Russell Willis’s digital comics store Sequential. It is interesting to observe how closely Willis ties artistic achievement to the marketability of graphic novels: “We see an opportunity to create an app that brings together material designed for adult sensibilities and through that creates a sophisticated brand for graphic novels and sequential art that is separate from the geek market” (Gravett 2013, n. p.). Willis deliberately contrasts his curated canon of exceptional works of art with the alleged rubbish of mainstream superhero comics, thus appealing to a readership that would feel uncomfortable with this type of association: “The brand image for graphic novels that a Persepolis or a Maus creates is damaged every time those titles are stood next to a man with his underpants over his trousers” (Gravett 2013, n.g.). The graphic novel is branded as a hot commodity and its cultural capital is increased by erasing its roots and natural affiliation, elevating it to the status of ‘proper’ literature.

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Baetens and Frey persistently ascribe their own ideas and predilections to the supposedly independent agency of a publication format: “the graphic novel has tried to distinguish itself from comics, more specifically from the superhero comics” (2015: 10) by turning to “autobiography, reportage, and historical narrative” (2015: 20). This close association of the graphic novel with a dominant genre, in this case autobiography (cf. 2015: 12), leads to an unwarranted transfer of narrative characteristics from the dominant genre to the publication format, which mirrors the uneasy relationship between the medium of comics and superhero adventures. They observe that, in a graphic novel, “the narrator is much more present, both verbally and visually, than in the case of a comic book” (2015: 10) and that it is more “disposed toward realism” (2015: 10). Both claims may apply to autobiographical texts, but not to graphic novels in general.

Baetens and Frey’s attempts to establish the graphic novel as a separate medium often sound like a sales pitch to literary snobs: “the graphic novel has escaped the cultural exclusion of much of the comics universe and has gained great respect” (2015: 2). At the same time, they make half-hearted attempts to assure their readers that they “do not take an elitist stance against the comic book tradition, including the underground comix” (2015: 3). Yet, when they praise the graphic novel’s artistic superiority, it is difficult to believe them:

The difference between comic books and graphic novels is often (it would be silly to deny it) but not always the difference between the collective and Taylorized way of working in the cultural industry […] on the one hand, and the personal and subjective mode of the individual artist who manages to pervade all possible aspects of his/her creation, on the other hand. (2015: 18)

The problem is not that Baetens and Frey notice differences in quality between comics, which clearly exist, but that they tie the debate to publication formats and cultural capital. They are not deterred by the fact that leading artists, such as Art Spiegelman (cf. 2015: 1–2), or eminent critics, such as Charles Hatfield (cf. 2015: 18–19), find fault with this simplistic distinction: “Hatfield represents, in a very convincing and coherent way, the suspicion toward any too strong or sharp division between comics and the graphic novel” (2015: 18). However, they judge it “a little counterintuitive for a critical community (comics scholarship, visual studies, and cultural studies) to reject a concept and an idea that is being so widely used” (2015: 19). Their dismissal of academic reservations seems to be driven by the fear of “being left behind by practice and letting journalists, publishers, and booksellers make all the running” (2015: 19). This is an astonishing argument coming from an Oxford University Press title directed at undergraduate students.

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Having established a working definition and categorisation of comics, it is now time to look at approaches that include this narrative medium within larger frameworks. In his book Comics and Sequential Art Will Eisner addresses “the unique aesthetics of Sequential Art as a means of creative expression, a distinct discipline, an art and literary form that deals with the arrangement of pictures or images and words to narrate a story or dramatize an idea” (2006: 5). Unfortunately, Eisner uses the terms ‘comics’ and ‘sequential art’ interchangeably, despite the fact that his title suggests otherwise. When he describes comic books as “a successful cross-breeding of illustration and prose” (2006: 8), this definition may not even apply to all comics, not to mention sequential art in general. However, for a history of comics and a plausible separation from related art forms, it becomes necessary to draw a clear line between picture stories or sequential art, on the one hand, and the unique features of comics, on the other.

Robert S. Petersen’s Comics, Manga, and Graphic Novels: A History of Graphic Narratives (2011) is based on a distinction between what he calls ‘graphic narratives’ and comics as a particular type within this family of related art forms. While narrative paintings, woodcut novels or picture books compress scenes into distinct images, comics decompress and dramatise them across several panels. This is how Petersen describes Trajan’s Column: “As in the Parthenon frieze, the long composition contains clear visual nuclei that define units of action that make it possible to identify distinct narrative scenes, but the overall effect is of the unstoppable march of Roman armies toward victory” (2011: 15). By condensing whole battles into single ‘visual nuclei’ and then stringing moments of triumph together, Trajan’s Column offers a (clearly biased) summary of events, but it lacks all the necessary details and human interactions of drama that I consider to be typical of narrative comics. Using McCloud’s terminology (cf. 1994: 70–4), which is much better suited to distinguish comics from related art forms, the vital difference lies in the exclusive focus on scene-to-scene transitions in picture stories, whereas comics also require action-to-action transitions. For this reason I find all definitions of comics that are based on Eisner’s imprecise, as they equally confuse ‘comics’ with ‘sequential art’ (cf. Duncan, Smith & Levitz 2015: xiii; McCloud 1994: 9/5). An unfortunate consequence of this widespread confusion is that the history of comics is supposed to begin thousands of years ago (cf. McCloud 1994: 10–21), while, strictly speaking, this can only be true of ‘sequential art’. I find Amy Spaulding’s argument convincing that the increasing hybridisation between picture books and comics in the second half of the twentieth century was accompanied by a development away from double spreads as self-enclosed narrative units towards a dramatisation of scenes (cf. 1995: 5, 15). Like Spaulding and Dietrich Grünewald (cf. 2000: 17–27), Groensteen ←246 | 247→foregrounds similarities between comics and the performing arts (cf. 2013: 84), which is again mirrored in Eisner’s observation that writing for comics is “closest in requirements to playwriting” (2006: 122). Surprisingly, this is a very different definition compared to the one he offers earlier in his book, “a successful cross-breeding of illustration and prose” (2006: 8). My preferred umbrella term for comics, films and stage performances is visual narrative media, in which a story is ‘acted out’ through a sequence of scenes in which characters develop on a personal level through interactions with their social environments.

To sum up, all graphic novels are comics. Since they are published in book form, they tend to be longer, more involved and self-contained narratives. In most cases they are neither ‘graphic’, in the sense of violent or sexually explicit, nor novels (cf. Chaney 2011: 4–5). When comics entered book culture, some stakeholders in the business, such as publishers, journalists, librarians, teachers and academics, chose to classify these ‘graphic novels’ as a completely new phenomenon. This was largely motivated by mistaking the medium for its most prominent genre – superhero comics. As a consequence, graphic novels were conceptualised as an evolved ‘genre’ that had surpassed its primitive ancestry in every conceivable way. This led to further complications by confusing media (e.g. comics), formats (e.g. graphic novel), genres (e.g. life writing) and sub-genres (e.g. cancer memoir). My claim is that the great divide between comics and graphic novels has more to do with cultural capital, marketing strategies and – in some cases – a lack of historical awareness. I return to these questions at the beginning of part 5.

4.3 Cartooning

The standard representational style of drawing in comics is called “cartooning” (McCloud 1994: 42/1; see also Wolk 2007: 118–25). It resembles a minimalist approach to representation that builds on the principle of “amplification through simplification” (McCloud 1994: 30/4). The cartoonist removes all the details that are not absolutely necessary, which is often the background (cf. Duncan, Smith & Levitz 2015: 122) once it has been established, and emphasises – or even exaggerates – those elements that are deemed vital (cf. Petersen 2011: xxi). This art of reduction foregrounds the key characteristics that are meant to be noticed by readers (cf. Töpffer 1965: 6–7). Duncan, Smith and Levitz argue that comics are “reductive in creation and additive in reading” (2015: 112; see also 138; McCloud 1994: 85), as artists strongly rely on readers’ ability to perceive holistically – as a gestalt – what only exists in a fragmentary fashion on the page.

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Conceptual metonymy is not only a key aspect of cognitive linguistics, but one of the core principles of cartooning (cf. Duncan, Smith & Levitz 2015: 112–3; Eisner 2006: 42–3). Duncan, Smith and Levitz highlight the fact that comics as a medium relies entirely on the readers’ ability to reconstruct complete images from mere fragments: “The comic book form cannot truly show the world of the story, but can only suggest it by employing the device of synecdoche, using a part of something to represent the whole of the thing. All images on the comic book page stand for more reality than they can depict” (2015: 144). In the case of emotions, comics artists use conceptual metonymies in the sense that “gestures, postures, and facial expressions associated with an emotion can be used to represent that emotion” (2015: 113). Thus, for every close-up on a character’s body – head, hand, leg etc. – we imagine an entire body interacting with the environment and for every facial expression, body posture and gesture we are able to tentatively ascribe an inner life to a character. Pascal Lefèvre describes the principle of cartooning in the following manner:

… efficient handmade pictures will leave out unnecessary details and capture salient characteristics of represented objects in ways that reflect general perceptual mechanisms and processes – e.g., through simplicity of shape, orderly grouping, clear overlapping, distinction between figure and ground, and strategic deformations of objects […]. Stylized images may be less visually analogous to reality than filmed images, but they can very effectively capture the essence of an object or a person. Each image delivers a specific view on reality, in the process expressing a philosophy or visual ontology … (2011: 15–16)

Ray Morris argues that this foregrounding is not limited to physical features, but includes the revelation of characters’ personalities. Although he refers to political cartoons and caricature, there is a clear connection in terms of underlying principles:

Caricaturists are often representational artists, although only in a broad sense; they do not seek to show politicians literally, as the camera claims to show them. They sometimes claim to substitute inner for outer appearance, revealing by exaggeration and distortion the “true” character of the person portrayed. In doing so, they implicitly claim access to inside knowledge and a position that the person skimming their cartoons in the daily paper lacks. (1993: 196)

This compression, condensation and amplification equally affects the political context, which has to be represented and commented upon in a single image. Cartooning necessitates different types of blending, for which Ernst Gombrich uses two different concepts: ‘condensation’ and ‘combination’ (cf. Morris 1993: 200; Gombrich 1963: 130). These are so essential to an understanding of ←248 | 249→how blending and cartooning interact that I quote Ray Morris’s explanations of the terms at some length.

Gombrich’s (1978) study of “The Cartoonist’s Armoury” emphasized two key processes that characterized this kind of art. Condensation involved the compression of a complex phenomenon into a single image that is purported to capture its essence graphically. Inflation has many aspects and causes; in cartoons it may be condensed into a huge and threatening monster that towers over the President or Prime Minister. […] Cartoons, thus, condense the complex to the simple, the unique to the archetype, the enduring to the climactic.

Combination refers to the blending of elements and ideas from different domains into a new composite that remains clearly identifiable as something that contains each of its constituents. Such a dual, or even multiple, signifier belongs simultaneously to two or more distinct worlds: a particular politician’s face grafted onto the body of a pig or a pair of political opponents with their faces inserted onto the bodies of a cat and a mouse. The cartoonist may blend the real with the mythical, material with moral elements, or may associate politics with another field of activity such as war, courtship, sports, or housekeeping. Combination does not simply present another activity as a metaphor for politics, however, by pointing out how the relationship between two politicians parallels that between a cat and a dog. It also adds a strong element of metonymy, identifying each politician with the respective animal beyond that particular relationship and context. (1993: 200)

Condensation stays within the same domain and offers a stereotype that compresses, for example, the public persona of a politician into a single caricature, or employs a symbol that captures the essential qualities of something. Combination, however, sets up different domains as potential input spaces for blending, especially in the form of visual metaphor. Although Morris’s explanation is not ideal, he seems to realise that there is more to these blends than a traditional metaphor: the new signifier clearly belongs to two separate worlds, which produces contradictions and inconsistencies, but at the same time the blend generates emergent structures that provide new and startling insights. Otherwise, the cartoon would not work as a powerful commentary on contemporary politics. What Morris describes here are double-scope networks (cf. Fauconnier & Turner 2003: 131–5). This is not surprising as the logic of blending and the circumstances of political cartooning cannot produce anything else, provided that Fauconnier and Turner’s theory is correct. Based on Erving Goffman’s work Morris adds ‘domestication’ as a third principle: “abstract ideas and distant, unfamiliar persons or events are converted into something close, familiar, and concrete. It translates what is novel and hard to understand into the commonplace by highlighting mutual elements and masking unique ones and by focusing on repetitive patterns to minimize novelty and mental adjustment” ←249 | 250→(Morris 1993: 201). By blending Saddam Hussein and Hitler, US propaganda made the political agenda of Iraq’s former leader both equally recognizable and horrific (cf. 1993: 201). Fauconnier and Turner’s concern is more with human scale (cf. 2003: 322–4) than with domestication, but the same principles are at work in both cases.

The relevance of political cartooning to the study of comics is easily explained: due to a limitation to a single image and the necessity to allude to and comment upon complex political circumstances, cartoonists have to refrain from any pretence to realism. Cartoons transcend time and space, set up complex input spaces and blends (cf. Fludernik 2015) and demand a high degree of active involvement. When Elisabeth El Refaie describes one of the political cartoons she analysed for her study, she realises that there is more involved than a simple visual metaphor, which is the emergent meaning of a blend:

Rather than being produced by a simple replacement of an expected visual element with an unexpected one, the metaphor seems to emerge from the composition of several verbal and visual signs, which, through their particular relation to one another, together produce the idea of Kurdish refugees as a foreign army ‘occupying’ Europe. (2003: 80)

In another article she describes a depiction of George W. Bush as a toddler with a box of matches as a visual metaphor in which target and source have become fused: “In formal terms, this can be described as a monomodal metaphor of the pictorial variety, or, more specifically, as a hybrid […] or fusion […] metaphor, where the target and the source are visually amalgamated into one spatially bounded object” (2009: 177–8). Visual metaphors of this type are clearly double-scope blends that are ubiquitous in political cartooning, where widely diverging fields of experience are often fused to create startling effects.

Political cartoons rely almost exclusively on caricature, conceptual metonymy, metaphor, symbolism and the conceptual integration of otherwise incompatible domains. They are a test case of how much information can be condensed into a single representation without confusing the average reader. El Refaie conducted a study on cartoon reading amongst teenagers, for which she interviewed “25 young people between the ages of sixteen and nineteen in Bradford, a city with a large British Asian population” (2009: 183). Regarding her test subjects, she comments that “the young people’s readings of the cartoons and the multimodal metaphors they contained reflected their very different interests and preoccupations, as well as perhaps a degree of unfamiliarity with cartoon conventions” (2009: 185; see also 192). These readers obviously did not match the usual target group for political cartoons, which have to rely on extensive political knowledge and active participation on the readers’ part. You have to be ‘in the know’ to ←250 | 251→recognise the more subtle details. El Refaie comments that “this lack of political background knowledge and familiarity with common cultural symbols did not prevent the vast majority of […] respondents from understanding that the fork in the road represented a choice of future actions according to the ‘source-path-goal’ schema” (2009: 187). Thus, image schemas based on direct bodily experience of the world are more intuitively accessible than mental models exclusively shaped through education. This returns us to the question of embodied cognition, enactivism and experientiality.

In “How to Do Things with Words and Gestures in Comics” Ofer Fein and Asa Kasher argue that readers not only have a type of ‘folk psychology’ at their disposal, but also something along the lines of a “folk pragmatics” (1996: 794), which allows them to handle everyday social encounters, but also to make sense of characters’ interactions in fiction. Since the conventions differ somewhat between narrative media, they prefer the term “comics pragmatics” (1996: 794) to capture the complex interplay of visual and verbal clues: “comics most often show a speech act in a relatively rich context of utterance. In the pictures of a comic strip, one sees a character, an utterance, an immediate setting and the broader context of the short story” (1996: 794). In their study Fein and Kasher show interest in how comics allow locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary acts to be performed as a combination of speech and gestures, with a special focus on the potential of gestures to communicate these functions independently. They try to confirm their impression that “in figurative art a gesture that accompanies a speech act is related to the force and not to the propositional content of the speech act” (1996: 796), which means that the dialogue and the context establish the communicative function, but that the gestures modulate the intensity of the proposition. As a first step, they identified the meanings of several recurring gestures and their prototypical realisations by looking at their use in a number of Asterix comics. Then they isolated prototypical gestures by taking out the context, the words in the speech balloons and the backgrounds. They also recreated the gestures with actors and then showed a mixture of photos and comics panels to test subjects, who had to write some possible accompanying lines and identify the meaning by picking a word from a list. The results were conclusive:

Most people had no difficulty in interpreting the comics gestures, and their interpretation was close to the original meaning of those gestures, as identified in the first part of this study of examining Asterix books. This finding becomes even more impressive when one takes into account the fact that the utterance and the background were erased from the comics drawings, and no contextual information (like the plot, character’s personality, etc.) was given to the subjects. (1996: 806)

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This suggests that the postures of comics narration – independent of any other clues – either are close enough to real life to be immediately recognisable or they have reached a level of standardisation that they function as easily identifiable signs. While test subjects proposed a variety of utterances for each example, which can be explained through the absence of context and reflects the ability of gestures to reinforce different speech acts, the level of accuracy was still high. This study suggests that readers do not need elaborate simulations to read the emotions of characters, as the postures and gestures of cartoon characters – even without contextual clues – are sufficient for readers to recognise how they feel. Yet, the controversy within Theory of Mind between theory theory and simulation theory cannot be solved that easily by looking at some Asterix albums. We have to extend the exploration of how emotions are depicted in a wider range of comics and ultimately turn to Rodolphe Töpffer’s approach to cartooning for more clarification.

In “The Telling Face in Comic Strip and Graphic Novel” Ed Tan relies on Paul Ekman’s research on basic emotions and the metonymic relation between emotions and facial expressions to begin a discussion of how we determine the inner lives of characters based on their outward appearance (cf. 2001: 32–3). Tan argues that facial expressions tend to be exaggerated and stereotypical in comic strips – he uses Hergé’s The Calculus Affair as his prime example – which makes them “relatively clear-cut and straightforward” (2001: 35). He even claims that “comic strip characters look like personifications of the basic emotions, comparable to emblematic personifications of the passions of the soul in seventeenth century literature and art” (2001: 37). Contrary to real life, where we rarely find basic emotions in their purest forms, comic strips operate with prototypical, stereotypical or ‘idealised’ forms, which “condense subjective experience into readily recognisable highlights”:

This exaggeration of feeling, together with a complete absence of awareness and control, also lends a quality of childishness to characters. Emotionality, quick shifts of one emotion to another, e.g. from joy to utter sadness, and a lack of moderation through display rules are characteristic of infants and young children. In addition, readers may associate uncontrolled emotional expression with moral purity. It is the villains that feign emotions that they do not have, or try to transform ones they do have. (2001: 38)

One of the essential questions in this context is what Tan means by ‘basic emotions’ and ‘real life’. He insinuates that the characters have a childlike quality in the sense that small children have not internalised display rules yet and are more prone to express their feelings in an uncontrolled manner as ‘pure emotions’. When Tan speaks of ‘highlights’ he means that what the comics depict ←252 | 253→in terms of facial expressions are fleeting, exaggerated forms at the height of emotional impact. In this sense, comic strips rely on the most easily recognisable expressions of emotions in real life, not the most realistic ones. This also has to do with the fact that emotions are processes with distinct phases that are difficult to capture in a single frame. Bart Eerden has shown that the emotions of characters in animated films are easier to read, as filmmakers can work with a gradual development and intensification (cf. 2009: 253). That is why comics artists often choose fleeting moments of intense emotional outbursts as a standard way of metonymically evoking specific feelings in a reliable way. They are also more likely to use coloured backgrounds to signal characters’ emotional states (cf. 2009: 259).

Tan goes on to compare his findings to Art Spiegelman’s handling of facial expressions in MAUS. Following Ekman (cf. 2007: 13), he conceives of emotions as processes, so the interesting question arises which moment the artist chooses to metonymically stand for the feeling. Spiegelman refrains from the pure display of excessive emotion in favour of a more subdued after-effect, e.g. when Vladek gets really angry when Françoise, Art’s wife, picks up a hitch hiker: “It is indignation or rather sulking that we witness, instead of anger” (Tan 2001: 39). In MAUS Spiegelman’s deliberate choice of a “loose drawing style with its coarse lines” leads to an “ambiguity of facial expression” that “invites the readers to use their imagination and delve deeper into the character’s appraisal of the situation” (2001: 40). The characters’ mask-like faces also prohibit excessive displays of raw emotions, which challenges readers to rely more on contextual clues. Tan’s conclusion is the following:

Most importantly for our present concerns, in Maus the characters’ emotions are not basic emotions in the first place, at least in comparison to the ones in Tintin, but perhaps also in a more absolute sense. To be sure, the novel does portray fear, anger, surprise, sadness, and some happiness too. But the emotions that matter most for the theme of the novel Vladek, Anja, Art and others seem to have, may be related to basic emotions, but not as blends [here: combining primary into secondary emotions]. It would be more accurate to say that they are much more specific than basic emotions. There is no ready-made action tendency, an affect program as in a basic emotion. In defeat, we can be numb or apathetic, we may withdraw or deny what happened, and more. Moreover, the appraisal is more spun out, complex, and specific. It seems we face a remarkable paradox: the subjectivity of the characters that the picture lends limited access to is much more profound, intricate and multi-faceted than that of the character who’s [sic] – emotional – thoughts can be read from the drawn face. (2001: 44)

This takes us back over 150 years to ‘the father of modern comics’, Rodolphe Töpffer, who forwarded exactly this theory. Ellen P. Wiese credits Töpffer as ←253 | 254→the person who began to dramatise visual narratives, which marked “the transition from illustration in the Hogarthian sense to composition of an entire story in pictorial terms” (1965: xvii; see also Gombrich 2014: 284–9; McCloud 1994: 17/3; Duncan, Smith & Levitz 2015: 8–10). In defence of Hogarth it has to be said that he turned the gaps in between the pictures of a series into productive sites of inferencing and meaning-making (cf. Kemp 1989: 64), which represents an important step in the development of visual narratives. Still, the images are highly compressed and have to capture whole contexts or stages of a development in just one composition (cf. 1989: 65), which means that the gaps in between the scenes are still substantial. Wolfgang Kemp introduces an important distinction between serial visual narratives that string together highlights or turning points of a narrative (cf. 1989: 66) and those that show the aftermath of dramatic changes that take place in between the panels (cf. 1989: 67, 72–3, 76–7). The second type actively draws attention to the gaps, as the narrative sequence does not work at all without the viewer’s active gestalt-forming. Kemp uses Hogarth’s Before and After (cf. 1989: 68–9) to illustrate this point, as the ill-advised sexual encounter takes place ‘off-stage’.

Töpffer referred to his picture-stories as “drama-in-sketches” (1965: 10), which is a significant departure from previous visual narratives, as the scenes had to be ‘acted out’ over several panels instead of condensed into a single image. This decompression of the essence of a scene into an ongoing development in which the turning points become embedded in a continuous narrative is an important step in the evolution of storytelling in pictures. It introduces more context, the mundane and everyday, just like the novel did in its infancy, which makes character development possible and allows for a less teleological drive towards fixed points, maybe even allowing for doubts, failures and alternative routes not taken. The necessity to narrativise his characters’ pedestrian adventures and to make their emotions and experiences visually accessible came with its own challenges. Wiese explains Töpffer’s ambitions as an attempt to develop an “intelligible grammar of physiognomic expression” that managed to “convey precise information to the observer” (1965: xviii). However, Töpffer was not interested in the minute details of facial expressions, but rather in a holistic approach that would manage to capture a whole message in one easily recognisable general impression. Wiese summarises Töpffer’s artistic vision in the following manner:

It is a great waste of time, says Töpffer, to polish up a vocabulary of classic noses, foreheads, and ears, all drawn after the plaster casts on the shelves of art schools. We do not read a set of features by itemizing them: we note the pattern of their relationships. Begin by conceiving a face in its entirety and dash it down as fast as possible; put another ←254 | 255→beside it and perhaps a third; then ask yourself which one you would care to invite to dinner. (1965: xviii)

Thus, the essential qualities of characters were to be communicated through configurations of facial features and poses (cf. 1965: 33) that gained their meaning from the contrast with other configurations rather than their intrinsic meaning (cf. 1965: xix-xx). This Saussurean notion avant la lettre was necessary to differentiate his own approach from the widespread physiognomic theories that attached precise meanings to specific traits (cf. 1965: xx). Töpffer’s signs are not arbitrary, though, because they appear as involuntary “symptoms” or “reflexes” (1965: xxii) on people’s faces in concrete situations and tied to specific emotional states. This corresponds to the legibility of basic emotions.

The most important distinction that Töpffer makes, however, is between permanent and non-permanent signs. Since he rejects traditional physiognomy and phrenology (cf. Töpffer 1965: 15–17), he believes that permanent signs, the bodily features of people, do not signify anything. They are just genetic variations without meaning. The non-permanent signs, however, facial expressions and body postures during brief moments of intense emotions, are both systematic and easily recognisable: “Non-permanent signs depict all the soul’s evanescent or accidental emotions and anxieties, like laughter, rage, melancholy, scorn, surprise, etc. – all that we include in the general term feelings” (1965: 17; see also 22). These have a strong physiological and metonymic tie to the emotions that produce them and are thus reliable signs of the inner lives of humans that would otherwise be very hard to capture in visual terms.

This focus on moments of intense emotions makes Töpffer’s sign language melodramatic, but more accessible, as it is based on human experience. He claims that it “possesses extreme clarity” (1965: 3), which allows us to link Töpffer’s approach to the concept of embodiment, cartooning and Tan’s discussion of Tintin. Combined with a specific context – the single sign within a configuration of signs and the entire configuration within a specific situation – Töpffer’s visualised body language is intended to be instantly recognisable. Readers do not have to learn this code, as it is a more systematic elaboration of what is already out there in the social sphere. Since certain configurations consistently appear together, the single sign can evoke metonymically both the other signs and the emotional state associated with it. In other words, a particular posture of a character may invite readers to expect a particular facial expression, a certain mood and maybe even a reason for the state the character is in. In contrast to this artful arrangement, we often struggle to read the more subdued signs in everyday social encounters: “every minute of the day we are obliged to correct mistakes in ←255 | 256→our interpretation of faces, mistakes which result from the unreliable nature of the permanent expressive signs” (1965: 19). It should be apparent how Töpffer’s alternative to the stereotypes of traditional physiognomy runs the risk of turning into a fairly stereotypical and rigid system itself (cf. Wiese 1965: xxvii). Töpffer’s approach invites a direct connection to present-day research in conceptual visual and multimodal metaphors, which raise the question whether stereotypical depictions of emotions are directly grounded in embodied experiences or have become purely symbolic and a rudimentary language on their own (cf. Forceville 2005: 71).

A visual or multimodal metaphor (cf. Forceville & Urios-Aparisi 2009) often combines target and source within the same frame, in most cases in the form of a blend. In Charles Forceville’s contribution to the volume Multimodal Metaphor, entitled “Non-Verbal and Multimodal Metaphor in a Cognitivist Framework: Agendas for Research”, he lists nine basic modes that can be combined in multiple ways: “(1) pictorial signs; (2) written signs; (3) spoken signs; (4) gestures; (5) sounds; (6) music (7) smells; (8) tastes; (9) touch” (2009: 23; see also Forceville & Urios-Aparisi 2009: 4). This could suggest that we have to interpret these modes independently and then combine them to understand the underlying meaning, but Francisco Yus suggests the exact opposite in his own contribution to the same volume:

In this chapter, on the contrary, it is claimed that the comprehension of verbal, visual and multimodal metaphors involves similar mental procedures. Although the perception of images differs from linguistic decoding, reaching an interpretation of metaphors entails similar adjustments of conceptual information of texts and images and multimodal combinations, regardless of the modal quality of the input. (2009: 147)

In other words, we recognise the conceptual metaphor holistically without analysing the contributing modes and their interrelations in detail. For example, we can rely on the redundancy of the text to grant us access to a metaphor through a single mode or on our familiarity with the metaphor itself to which we have already metonymically attached various entailments in different modes. Our mental network of the conceptual metaphor anger is a hot fluid in a container, to which we shall return presently, may already come with representations in different modes.

For an analysis of comics, the most obvious combination is pictorial with written signs, for which Miloš Tasić and Dušan Stamenković propose an equally obvious typology, involving “image-dominant” (2015: 119), “text-dominant” (2015: 120) and “complementary” (2015: 121) combinations. They even present an example from Thompson’s Blankets (2007: 360/4 → Fig. 1):

←256 | 257→

Here, we find monomodal metaphors for both the verbal and the visual track and then a combination of the two in which the text is integrated in such a way that it becomes spatially meaningful to the multimodal metaphor as a whole.

The depiction of anger often includes literal rendering of the cognitive metaphor anger is a hot fluid in a container (cf. Forceville 2005: 71; Kövecses 2010: 123–6). Since specific conceptual metaphors are incapable of covering every aspect of an emotion, there have to be more source domains that allow for very different mappings: fire, insanity, a caged animal, wild animal behaviour, trespassing etc. (cf. Forceville 2005: 72). The more important observation concerning the present circumstances is the metonymic principle that “the physiological and expressive responses of an emotion stand for the emotion” (2005: 72). What has to be explored is whether these signs form a language that is precise and stereotypical enough to immediately indicate the corresponding emotions.

Charles Forceville analysed the depiction of anger in an Asterix album (cf. 2005) to see whether the visual indicators could be grouped and systematically studied as “pertinent signs” (2005: 75) that reliably and directly indicated this particular emotion. This work was continued by Bart Eerden, who offers a comparison between depictions of anger in Asterix comics and their animated film adaptations (cf. 2009), and Forceville himself in the more specific context of pictorial runes (cf. 2011). These are indexical signs that point towards an inner state to which they are metonymically linked: “Since anger is an abstract concept, it by definition defies iconic representation, and can hence only be rendered by means of indexical and symbolic signs” (2005: 73). He sets out to demonstrate “that pictorial runes denoting anger in comics are not arbitrary signs, but ←257 | 258→signs metonymically motivated by one or more anger ICMs, just as, according to Kövecses, verbal manifestations are motivated by these models” (2005: 74). However, Forceville starts on a much broader scale that includes postures, gestures and facial expressions as pictorial signals. Since anger is conceptualised as hot liquid contained in or coming out of a pressure cooker, closed eyes and mouths, clenched fists or limbs pressed tightly against the body can be read as attempts to contain anger. Bulging eyes, red faces and shaking bodies signal to readers that the character is about to explode. Open mouths plus steam, spit, spirals or elongated droplets emanating from characters’ heads, but also pointing at other characters, signal that the pressure is being forcefully released in a particular direction (cf. 2005: 75–7, 80–2). This is usually accompanied by typographical signs for shouting in speech balloons – large fonts, capital letters, bold face type, exclamation marks – and lightning-like connectors to the characters’ mouths (cf. 2005: 77). Forceville concludes “first of all that the pictorial runes signaling anger appear indeed to be Peircean indexes rather than Peircean symbols, since they are motivated rather than arbitrary signs” (2005: 82). He shows that the entailments or surface realisations of both verbal and visual expressions can be traced back to an underlying conceptual metaphor: anger is a hot fluid in a (pressurised) container. Forceville observes that frequently “panels in this Asterix album depict anger effects before and after an outburst takes place” (2005: 83). Judging from the evidence he provides, I would argue that most images are easy to read as they capture direct outbursts or moments close to the peak, which is in line with Töpffer’s approach and contrasts with Tan’s observations about alternative comics or art comics that are more subtle in this respect. The only exception is smoke rising from Asterix’s head (cf. 2005: 79), which is indicative of a cooling-off phase rather than heightened emotions. As some of the pictorial signals could easily indicate very different emotions on their own – e.g. a red face as a sign of being in love (cf. 2005: 84) – visual clues usually produce redundancy by appearing in combinations: “It is important to emphasize that no pictorial sign single-handedly cues anger: signs combine to suggest anger, and the more signs are used, the more clear-cut and/or the more intense the anger is” (2005: 84). As a final comment it has to be added that signs that appear completely independent of the expressive powers of the characters’ anatomy – such as background colours, setting or weather (cf. 2005: 86) – are equally capable of signalling characters’ emotions.

In Blankets Thompson does not shy away from basic emotions, especially in the sequences depicting his childhood. He raises the bar in later chapters, when the simple love story of two teenagers is complicated by circumstances, such as Raina’s turbulent family life. When we look at various expressions of ←258 | 259→Craig’s anger (12/4; 21/8; 58/2), they may vary in their expressiveness, but they are equally easy to read. The same applies to the following example (16 → Fig. 2), where we find ‘voice-over’ narration by the older self and narrating I, combined with a ‘perception shot’ (cf. Mikkonen 2015: 103), which is a combination of a third-person visual point of view with a metaphorical rendering by Thompson of his brother’s thoughts and feelings at the time, in this case horror, which is visualised through spiders, monsters and demons. We see Phil’s bulging eyes staring in disbelief at his father’s horrendous preparations of the cubby hole as a spare bedroom, bracing himself with arms crossed in front of his slender body. The mattress’s teeth are again a simple way of turning an everyday object into a devouring monstrosity. Phil’s father puts a lot of effort into expanding the bed and his close-knit eyes capture that strain perfectly. The demons are just outlines whose limbs are literally twisted to illustrate their perverted nature. All of this makes the image more legible by foregrounding the essential elements and leaving out anything else.

It has to be accepted that cartooning as an art form automatically and unavoidably leads to exaggeration and stereotypes (cf. Kukkonen 2013a: 16; Duncan, Smith & Levitz 2015: 114). This general deviation from any naturalistic claim is usually exploited to establish a level of metaphoric distortions that would not be possible in other, more realistic or highbrow media. In Blankets Craig’s cartoon father is disproportionately large, based on the conceptual metaphor that power is size. There are several examples of this to be found in the book (Thompson 2007: 13/4; 203/4; 206/2). Emotions are often represented as so powerful that they distort the established physical features of a character to such an extent that they are hardly recognisable any longer (e.g. 2007: 12/2; 12/4).

Returning to the example (→ Fig. 2), Thompson blends two perspectives into one. This leads to a mismatch, as the standard distance for a reaction shot in film is at least a medium close-up; the horrific scene, however, calls for a wide shot to present the overwhelming horror of the dark hole. Thompson’s composition has to accommodate both. A first step is to make the panel larger, so that we can see the details, especially Phil’s facial expression. Thompson removed the background, placed the character in the middle and framed him inside the door to draw our attention to him. The white space behind Phil contrasts sharply with the cluttered space of the panel, draws the character closer to the ‘camera’ and the immanent threats, which is achieved through a lack of depth cues, and reminds readers that Phil’s attention is completely focused on the horror in front of his eyes. This compression of depth simulates the effect of a telephoto lens. The world outside the room has ceased to exist, which metaphorically emphasises the claustrophobia and isolation he feels. Mr. Thompson, the monstrous folding bed ←259 | 260→ ←260 | 261→and the demons are significantly larger than Phil and, thus, threatening, but their marginality keeps readers’ attention firmly in the middle. Both the monster’s tongue and one of its teeth overlap with Phil’s body, signifying imminent danger. Thompson also employs what resembles a ‘canted shot’ or ‘Dutch angle’, which is typical of thrillers, and adds distortions to make the scene even more foreboding.

I stop the analysis at this point, although it would be possible to add further details, such as an interpretation of the narrator’s verbal framing of the scene. Despite this attempt to clarify how exactly Thompson managed to build redundancy into this image and convey the same idea in a multiplicity of ways, the carefully arranged clues all point in a single direction: that Phil is struck with fear. Cartooning allows Thompson to foreground and amplify what is important to notice: Phil’s eyes, light vs. dark, twisted monsters and an overbearing, pitiless father who is about to crush his younger son. All of this is instantly recognisable, whereas a detailed analysis of narration and focalisation would add layers of complexity without contributing anything significant to readers’ interpretations of the scene. Surprisingly, this argument comes directly from Mikkonen, a leading comics narratologist, who states “that it may not always matter that much to the reader or viewer of comics who is responsible for the showing or organising of the images, or indeed if ‘anyone’ is showing or seeing at all. The authority behind particular choices in the images, or their perspective, may remain indeterminate without blocking our understanding of the story” (2017: 136). Thompson can simply rely on readers’ embodied cognition, their intuitive understanding of body language and image schemas, but also a whole range of conceptual metaphors that have been derived from them. As Fein and Kasher demonstrate, we could isolate a medium close-up of Phil and show the image to random test subjects without any context and without all the redundancy built into the image. Still, many of them would be able to read Phil’s body language, even if they had to construe scenarios that match their interpretations. For a comics “narratology in action” (Benton 1992: 51), such a reading of characters’ physical and emotional entanglements in particular scenes has to play a more important role. At the same time, the presented perspectives do play a role. How are we supposed to read Phil’s emotions in Thompson’s autobiographical fiction? No matter if we look at it from the angle of Iser’s coordination of perspectives (cf. 1980: 35, 169), Keen’s empathy (cf. 2010) or Dancygier’s viewpoint compression (cf. 2012: 112), readers have to understand Phil’s predicament as part of a larger picture. In the next chapter we look at four basic tensions that readers have to mitigate in their transactions with comics.

←261 | 262→

4.4 An Art of Tensions

I borrow this chapter title from Charles Hatfield (cf. 2005: v), who believes that a comics theory that does not acknowledge “a reader’s active engagement and collaboration in making meaning” (Hatfield 2005: 33) misses the point. Like other proponents of a reader-response approach he embraces potentially diverse readings that comics may prompt: “Comics are challenging (and highly teachable) because they offer a form of reading that resists coherence, a form at once seductively visual and radically fragmented. Comic art is a mixed form, and reading comics a tension-filled experience” (2005: xiii). He resents the fact that they are considered “either useful as stepping-stones” for proper/linguistic literacy or even “worse than useless” as a medium in their own right (2005: 36). The aim of his book is to demonstrate the unique literary qualities of comics that only become apparent when they are read as a medium different from prose.

Accordingly, he introduces his theory as a series of four tensions that readers have to negotiate and bridge to make sense of a comics narrative. Hatfield argues that “the possibility of generating meaning” is predicated on “the manipulation of tensions inherent in the reading experience” (2005: 39). Artists can use these gaps productively, which is also one of Iser’s central tenets. Hatfield classifies the four tensions in the following way: “between codes of signification; between the single image and the image-in-series; between narrative sequence and page surface; and, more broadly, between reading-as-experience and the text as material object” (2005: 36). I follow this structure and highlight in each case how a reader-response approach based on cognitive theories can be brought in line with seminal publications in comics studies.

4.4.1 Words vs. Images

For many critics “the co-presence and interplay of image and written text” (Hatfield 2005: 36) is a conditio sine qua non for their definitions of the medium. Despite Will Eisner’s observation that comics narratives rely on “a visual experience common to both creator and audience” (2006: 7), thus foregrounding the importance of embodied cognition, he also describes them as a “successful cross-breeding of illustration and prose” (2006: 8). As the title of Hatfield’s study Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature reveals, he intends to demonstrate the narrative sophistication of comics and promotes the medium as a suitable art form for longer, more intricate, adult-oriented and literary narratives. Hescher identifies Hatfield’s ‘alternative comics’ of the 1990s as an important phase in the evolution of graphic novels (cf. 2016: 15), while Baetens and Frey take this one step further and declare that “the narrator is much more present, both ←262 | 263→verbally and visually, than in the case of a comic book” (2015: 10). Their close association of the graphic novel with documentary genres – and autobiography in particular – draws attention to such concepts as eye-witnessing and testimony. According to this logic, sustained verbal narration has become a much more acceptable and widespread phenomenon in graphic novels, which is arguably true, as long as we look at bestsellers in life writing, such as Art Spiegelman’s MAUS, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home or Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. This trend has a number of important consequences: prose readers find it easier to transition into comics, literary adaptations become more viable, there seem to be more continuities with the established literary canon and the ‘Guardians of the Gutenberg Galaxy’ are more inclined to embrace genres and formats that sound familiar: autobiography and the novel. While ‘graphic literature’ may represent a successful blend between a popular art form and high culture, underestimating the visual mode may lead to complications.

While Groensteen acknowledges “that comics are essentially a mixture of text and images” (2007: 3), he is eager “to demonstrate the primacy of the image” (2007: 3). Next to the wider acceptance of literary, narration-focused graphic novels, there has always been a strong tendency in comics criticism to foreground commonalities with film rather than with prose. This is not without its own problems (cf. e.g. Mikkonen 2017: 2), but it shifts the focus towards a shared visual language that is explored in transmedial narratology (cf. e.g. Thon 2014; 2015), multimodal analysis (cf. Kress & van Leeuwen 2006; Machin 2011), the more education-focused concepts of visual literacy, multiliteracies (cf. Serafini 2014; Elsner 2013; Stafford 2011; Hecke & Surkamp 2010; Cazden et al. 1996) and critical media literacy (cf. Janks et al. 2014; Baker 2012; Scheibe & Rogow 2012; Seidl 2007). Kai Mikkonen’s more recent monograph on comics narration explicitly excludes words as essential features:

When the pictorial or the verbal character of comics (or the idea of images in succession) has been deemed to be too prominent, the corrective move has shifted the theoretical perspective in favour of the visual component and graphic art, or vice versa. However, there is just so much variety in comics – that is, in works that are produced, recognised as and called ‘comics’ – in their blendings of images and words, or their emphasis on one or the other, that the interplay between words and images does not provide us with any self-evident starting point for a comprehensive theory of narrative comics. The rich tradition of wordless comics will also always be hard to accommodate within such definitions. (2017: 15)

Mikkonen’s argument is caught in between his acknowledgement of readers’ independent meaning-making processes and his background in narratological theory, which takes the intense study of texts by academic specialists as the ←263 | 264→standard way of looking at the material. Transmedial narratology has to overcome the trap of combining classical narratology with film studies and applying these theories to comics. Researchers are primed to look at panels as if they were shots or stills, which are both imperfect analogies at best. From an educational perspective, narratological approaches would have to change in two significant ways to become more widely applicable: a reorientation towards the needs of general readers and their meaning-making processes as well as a sustained attention to scenes instead of hand-picked, highly unusual examples. This mediation between theory and practical application has to come from educators instead.

A simple activity for the classroom is to isolate the verbal track of a comics scene, such as verbal narration or dialogues, and study them first. This provides students with an entry point that they are familiar with, but the real aim is to illustrate the disadvantages of an exclusive focus on the words, which is the most widespread beginner’s mistake. I have already highlighted why sustained verbal narration is both a blessing and a curse: it makes comics more accessible to readers of prose, but it takes more effort to wean them away from words. Suitable examples should contain enough information to be decipherable on their own and enable students to arrive at a general understanding. However, since comics dramatise situations and show characters interacting in very specific contexts, we find a plethora of paralinguistic signs that provide important information about the ongoing conversation. As with stage performances or films, all aspects of mise-en-scène contribute to a holistic impression in their own unique ways. I have extracted a complete verbal exchange from Craig Thompson’s Blankets (2007: 54–5), which is both a self-contained scene and a turning point in chapter 1 that introduces Craig to the idea of dedicating his life to God in a much more serious fashion:

Pastor:Hello, Craig.

Craig:Hey, Pastor. Thanks for the sermon.

Pastor:School’s started up again, isn’t it?


Pastor:Ha ha ha So is this your senior year?


Pastor:Well, do you have any plans concerning what you’ll do after high school?

Craig:You mean like career plans? Uh … no … um, go with the flow, I guess?

Pastor:Have you considered going into the ministry?

Craig:uh …

I want to do what God wants me to do.

Pastor:I think God wants you to go into the ministry.

←264 | 265→

This exchange sets in motion a complex dynamic of shifting allegiances that have Craig dedicate his life to his faith, his love interest Raina and his art at different stages of his development and often in conflict with each other. A direct consequence of this conversation is a renewed interest in reading the Bible and Craig’s need “to burn everything I’d ever drawn” (2007: 57/3). What students take away from this scene during a first reading may be nothing more than Craig’s hesitation concerning his future life, which is almost a cliché for older teens during their senior year in secondary school and an experience that is quite relatable. More unusual, however, is the potential career choice of pastor, which illustrates how students identify with characters in degrees rather than in absolute terms.

Since Blankets relies almost exclusively on visuals, it was hard to find an ‘elaborate’ dialogue that contained enough details to make sense on its own. In the present scene, there is no voice-over narration, which is typical of Blankets and Thompson’s strategy to make past experiences vicariously available to readers as if they were taking place right in front of their eyes, independent of the narrator’s framing. The aim of the suggested activity is to intentionally withhold essential information at first, which naturally invites elaboration. What remains is an impoverished, slightly boring verbal exchange. It may be worthwhile to have students read the scene in a dramatic manner – or even act it out – after determining the beats of the exchange and adapting intonation and tone of voice to fit the intentions of the two characters. According to Robert McKee’s Story (1997), a manual for screenwriting, beat is “the smallest element of structure” within a scene, “an exchange of behavior in action/reaction” (1997: 37). Generally speaking, beats are essential to pacing, rhythm and movement, which are marked by changing speech acts and emotional states (cf. 1997: 258). The suggested activity requires some imagination, as the ‘embodied dialogue’ has been deliberately removed, but it is still possible to guess the speech acts and potential reactions from the verbal track alone. Consider now how this scene is presented in the book (2007: 54–5 → Fig. 3 & 4):

We find an ‘establishing shot’ at the beginning (Community Bible Church; 54/1) and a large transitional panel at the end (55/5) that indicates the passing of time, the season of the year, the kind of landscape in which Craig grew up and/or potentially his mood. It is not framed. The second panel on the same page (55/2) also lacks a frame, whereas the last one on the previous page has two (54/6). Seven panels show the Pastor and Craig within the same frame (54/2–5; 55/1, 3–4), but only two Craig on his own (54/6; 55/2), which correspond directly to the one with two borders (54/6) and the one without (55/2). Two panels have a black background (54/4; 55/1), one is grey (54/6) and six are white (54/2–3, 5; 55/2–4). Only one panel (54/3) shows the physical backdrop to the scene and the ←265 | 266→ ←266 | 267→ ←267 | 268→two characters in context; all the others range from a medium distance to close-ups. Every panel contains very explicit gestures (e.g. a handshake, Craig’s left hand scratching his head, the Pastor’s hand on Craig’s shoulder), body postures (e.g. hunched, hands in trouser pockets, arms crossed in front of chest, arms spread out wide), gazes (e.g. eye contact vs. looking away or towards the floor) and facial expressions (e.g. initial smile, hesitation, slight trepidation). Craig is consistently shown to face left, which is the past in visual design (cf. Machin 2011: 139–41).

As with Mikkonen’s discussion of Saga (cf. 2017: 92), these visual features are largely meaningless without the dialogue/conversation to which they belong, the specific sequence of the panels in which they appear and the overall context of the scene. Students can easily identify Craig’s overall hesitation throughout, which is repeatedly and thus redundantly suggested, both verbally (e.g. ‘Uh’, ‘um’, ‘I guess?’) and visually (e.g. scratching his head, shrugging his shoulders). What they may not sufficiently notice at first is how Craig’s various reactions to the Pastor’s questions are distinct enough to warrant a closer look. These are the beats that are mostly initiated by the pastor’s speech acts and responded to by Craig: greeting, asking for his future plans in the form of three increasingly more specific questions and finally making a suggestion twice – first presented as a question (55/1) and then as God’s will (55/4), which offers an answer to Craig’s embodied question what he is supposed to do with his life (55/3). There may be an overall strategy on the Pastor’s part to corner Craig and influence his career in a specific way, while Craig hesitates and attempts to avoid a conversation about his lack of orientation in life.

It is helpful to contrast and compare the dramatisation in the comic with the students’ predictions, their first read-through in pairs or an enactment that, as a learner text, serves the meaning-making process and leads to a further exploration of the comic. Naturally, students compress beats into scenes, but Thompson decided to decompress this memory (assuming that this actually happened) and have it develop over two pages, so there may be more to it than meets the eye during a first reading. The most important realisation has to be that the verbal and visual signs are only meaningful together and that they come in multimodal configurations tied to specific beats in the scene. In literature such moves are carefully orchestrated and designed. I have already suggested that the Pastor may be trying to win Craig over and that the latter is hesitant, but how exactly does this conversation progress?

Comics do not only have panels and pages, but also tiers, which are all the panels in one horizontal line from the left to the right margin of a page. In this scene we almost have a direct correspondence between beats and tiers: greeting ←268 | 269→(54/2); asking for Craig’s future plans (54/3–6); suggesting service in the ministry (55/1–2); and Craig’s ‘question’ what to do, answered by the Pastor (55/3–4). The ‘embodied dialogue’ is more nuanced than the verbal exchange and we find significantly different expressions in every panel. These facial expressions and body postures allow us to ‘read’ Craig’s emotional states, which may leave some room for interpretation. In contrast to the ostentatious display of basic emotions that we find in the childhood memories, this scene presents more subdued emotions as processes that develop over several panels. Yet, this dialogue takes place within a contextual frame that we experience as an integrated whole and foregrounds themes that we have encountered before. Apart from the verbal and embodied dialogue we detect additional markers that provide punctuation and emphasis. In my formal analysis above I chose to highlight two strategies – background colours and framing – to move beyond film terminology, which also provides some valuable orientation (e.g. the ‘establishing shot’ in the first panel; 54/1). Our distance to the characters plays a role, as we notice a ‘long shot’ (54/3) followed by an extreme ‘close-up’ (54/4). The final panel on page 54 (54/6) looks like a ‘subjective shot’ from the Pastor’s literal point of view that is also a ‘high-angle shot’. However, I want to draw attention to the panels with a black background that mark the two turning points in the conversation: What are your plans for the future? Have you considered going into the ministry? In both cases we find an immediate emotional reaction that is rendered as lines under Craig’s eyes (54/4; 55/1). These are diffuse, pre-conscious emotions that are hard to read, but seem to signal general embarrassment (cf. 185/4; 186/2). Thompson adds a panel in each case that allows Craig to rationalise and appraise his emotions and thus provides more subtlety of expression.

In the first case (54/6) we find a panel that is framed twice. In addition to that, a change in orientation from landscape (54/5) to portrait (54/66) signals entrapment. There is not a lot of space left within which Craig could operate – both mentally and physically, which is already anticipated in panels 54/4–5. Frames are often used like this in a metaphorical sense, relying on our embodied experience of how it feels to be trapped. Based on Craig’s religious upbringing and the setting of the scene, shame could play a significant role. This is made more explicit in the following sequence (2007: 56–61), where he is overcome with a strong feeling that he has wasted his life with trivial matters – especially in the form of drawing/cartooning. In the second instance (55/1) we see an enormous Pastor hovering above Craig, who seems to feel intimidated. Yet, on second thoughts, the Pastor’s suggestion appears to be a way out of his misery (55/2). In contrast to the previous exchange, we now have a panel without any border. While Craig cannot verbalise yet how he feels about the proposal, we can see ←269 | 270→some change: from having nowhere to go (54/6) to new possibilities (55/2). There is some ‘headspace’ now, which was previously taken up by his own confused excuses (54/6). The background has changed accordingly: we find grey for Craig’s undecided drifting through life (54/6), black for emotional impact and seriousness (55/1) and then white for a clean slate and new possibilities (55/2). Craig regains some agency – an interpretation that depends on whether one reads this scene as the Pastor’s ploy or a real perspective for Craig – and initiates the fourth move in the conversation: Craig’s open arms signal an indirect question and an invitation to the Pastor to provide guidance. What does all of this mean for reading and teaching?

First of all, this is my interpretation based on some of the textual clues, but there are many more details to discover: there are two panels in which Craig does not have a mouth (54/4; 55/4), though he utters a ‘yup’ in the first case; Craig turns away from the Pastor (54/5) to escape questions about his future (54/4–5); the Pastor and Craig hold on to their bibles in a strikingly similar fashion (55/1); the pastor’s height and proximity to Craig vary from panel to panel to fit the specific moment; the way the pastor reinforces his declaration of God’s will by putting his left hand on Craig’s shoulder etc. There is no point in forcing one’s own interpretation onto the students, nor does it make sense to engage in a narratological analysis in twelve distinct categories that would dissolve a contextual frame into its constituent parts that tell readers little about the overall meaning. Students should work on their own interpretations by going into some more depth and pick those clues that they find significant. Panels are foregrounded by framing them in numerous ways (e.g. 54/4; 54/6; 55/1; 55/2), so students are likely to find some support for their ideas. There is also no need to over-interpret sequences as long as students signal that they have a more differentiated view than the most blatantly obvious. This can easily be achieved through a stage 5 rereading task.

Projecting page 54 as a starting point for a classroom discussion and asking students what the double frame means in panel 54/6 would be the exact opposite of what I have proposed so far in this thesis: students do not have any time to refamiliarise themselves with the scene; they cannot share and negotiate their own interpretations; only one student gets to speak instead of several at the same time in pair or group work; the person who volunteers feels the pressure to get the answer right in front of the whole group; and it picks out a random visual element without discussing the context first. The question also implies that there is a correct answer and that the teacher knows what it is. Instead, global understanding has to come first, with students working on and comparing their own ←270 | 271→readings, so that the interpretation of textual features results from such meaning-making processes in pairs and groups.

Having established the close ties between words and visuals, it has to be stressed that they may be employed to contradict each other strategically and tell very different stories. McCloud introduces seven types of word and picture relations (cf. 1994: 152–5), which have to be seen on scale (cf. 1994: 155). The most important one – and thus a part of many definitions of comics – is interdependence (cf. 1994: 155), which we have just encountered in the conversation about Craig’s future plans. While McCloud offers some unusual choices (e.g. duo-specific, parallel), he forgets about ‘counterpoint’, which is a staple of picture book studies (cf. Nikolajeva & Scott 2006: 17–26). In fact, the concept is so central to this field of research that Maria Nikolajeva and Carole Scott discuss it at great length and introduce eight major subcategories (cf. 2006: 24–6). For the following scene (cf. Thompson 2007: 51–2) “Counterpoint in genre or modality” (Nikolajeva & Scott 2006: 24) is the most appropriate description: while the verbal track captures Craig’s childhood aspirations, the visuals depict a fall from grace during his teenage years. On pages 51–2 we read: “At that moment [after hearing about eternal life in Sunday School in contrast to the insignificant physical existence on Earth], I knew what I wanted … I wanted Heaven. And I grew up STRIVING for that world - - an ETERNAL world - - that would wash away my TEMPORARY misery” (2007: 51–2 → Fig. 5 & 6):

While the narrator keeps talking about his childhood dream of ascending to heaven, we see various incarnations of teenage Craig falling – from heaven – into the dark world of physical existence – all naked, a flesh and blood human being, with his penis visible in two of the panels. Through compression two parallel movements are blended together: while his aspiration takes him upwards, his body in full puberty drags him downwards towards earthly existence. We first see Craig as a child, probing the clouds with his toes to find out whether they would carry him, but then he falls through, his developing body twisting and turning uncontrollably. Every single panel skips a few years and Craig hits the ground as a 17-year-old young man who has no idea how to reconcile the physical and the spiritual. Page 52 is a paradigmatic example of double-scope blending, as it literalises the ‘fall of man’, uses Craig as a stand-in for all mankind, associates it with puberty/sexuality and, more specifically, with Craig’s teenage years, and compresses time and identity into singularity in the blended space. Craig’s fall from grace becomes a single literal fall representing countless real-life events of failing to live up to his aspirations. While Craig’s specific life contributes a concrete example of how the fall of man could be understood in a ←271 | 272→present-day context, the Biblical story provides a specific framing of Craig’s life and dramatises his experiences as going beyond the usual teenage trepidations.

It is an interesting choice on Thompson’s part to associate the high ideals with voice-over narration and the logos, whereas reality – the naked truth – is represented as the visualisation of contorted teenage bodies. Puberty serves as an easily accessible context for this scene, although the religious subtext may be ←272 | 273→ ←273 | 274→lost on some readers. At the same time, aspirations in any field and the reality of underachievement can easily substitute for it as an alternative frame for readers’ attempts to interpret this sequence. Overall, Thompson refrains from extensive retrospective commentary in captions to let the scenes he unravels in front of our eyes ‘speak’ for themselves. Yet, presuming we could witness the experiences of the artist’s younger selves more directly as compared to the narrator’s retrospective commentary is clearly an illusion, as the source of the images is exactly the same as for the verbal text. Still, readers tend to judge the dramatisation of scenes as more immediate and directly accessible, despite the fact that they are reconstructions of real-life events at best, often created many years after they took place. Through its high metaphoricity page 52 serves as an ostentatious reminder that there is a shaping presence that arranges the material, which undermines the illusion of direct access.

Groensteen argues that images create a sense of the “here and now” (2013: 87), which is even encoded in English grammar: in contrast to the past tense of verbal narration, speakers describe the scenes that are depicted in images in the present progressive, as if they were happening at this moment in time, right in front of our eyes. Readers are likely to recognise a tension in comics between the ‘pastness’ of verbal narration and the readers’ experience of ‘eye-witnessing’ the very same events in the present (cf. 2013: 108), which means that creator and recipient operate within different time frames. The autobiographer’s outlook is retrospective and follows the logic of the present perfect tense – a series of events that have led to a result in the present – an end point that the narration is supposed to reach in classical autobiography. Readers are experiencing past events as the present in the form of a visual dramatisation and speculate in the future tense about the autobiographer’s present that the narrative may eventually reach. This inverse dynamic functions as a guarantee to readers that the depicted events are worthy of their attention, as the author is assumed to have an overall plan for the development of the narrative. This tension and interplay between the verbal and the visual is a key factor in autobiographical comics and essential to an understanding of the genre in this specific medium.

Readers may not consciously notice how they gradually slip into a more dramatised form of presentation when a narrative voice eases them into a story and then gradually fades away, while the actors take over. This is a significant transition in (auto)biographical comics, when the recounting of events is replaced by re-enactment. Authors in their roles as autobiographers and ‘puppet masters’ in the background take out “the paper marionettes” (Groensteen 2013: 121) and let the show begin. This may seem somewhat cynical, as a trick performed at the expense of readers, but the creative unfolding or decompression of the authors’ tightly compressed memories and personal ←274 | 275→stories allows for the flavour and qualia of personal experiences that would otherwise be lost. What readers should hope for is a taste of what it felt like to be those individuals many years ago instead of expecting the factual truth about the writers’ lives.

A final point that has to be addressed in this context is the artificial separation of visual and verbal tracks in comics. It has already become clear that, most of the time, both contribute to the ongoing narration in equal measure, but they are also much more alike than usually acknowledged. Eisner highlights the fact that the letters of many alphabets – such as Chinese and Japanese – are abstracted pictographs or symbolic signs that developed out of iconic signs via several iterations (cf. 2006: 14–15). Comics are a reminder of the interrelatedness of all signs, for example in the form of lettering and typography. These offer much more flexibility in visually communicating the paraverbal aspects of speech, such as volume, pitch and intonation (cf. Khordoc 2001: 164–5). Typography can even serve the advancement of the narrative. One striking example can be found in chapter VI of Blankets, where Craig’s confession of love – rendered in personal hand-writing – is answered by Raina in type: “OH CRAIG” (cf. 2007: 346–7). While the words themselves provide some indication, it is their visualisation that reveals to readers that she cannot afford to be the starry-eyed lover that Craig chooses to be.

In comics, the distinction between verbal and visual signs can become blurred, as hand-lettering and conventions allow for a much more fluid interrelation. Some or even all the words in speech balloons can be visually modified or replaced by symbols. These may also serve as conventionalised indicators of the tone of voice in addition to the words. It is not unusual for balloons to contain just punctuation, such as exclamation marks, question marks or a series of full stops, to indicate confusion, surprise or a sudden realisation (cf. Khordoc 2001: 170). The shape, size, colour and outline of captions and balloons (cf. 2001: 163) provide additional information on how the comics narrative appeals to “the mind’s ear” (2001: 156) of the reader. As the number of words a single character can use is strictly limited, “the speech balloon is a very dense source of information” (2001: 159). It has to fit the overall visual pattern of balloons, the character’s position in the panel, his or her general (vocal) behaviour, a precise point in a conversation and the overall tone of the exchange (cf. Groensteen 2007: 67–85). Due to comics’ greater reliance on dramatisation, artists traditionally try to reduce the interference of a narrator by relying on acting and direct speech (cf. Khordoc 2001: 163; Grünewald 2000: 17).

In a “mono-sensory medium” (McCloud 1994: 89/6; see also Smith, Duncan & Levitz 2015: 141–4; Groensteen 2013: 122) comics artists only have visual ←275 | 276→signs at their disposal which have to represent any type of experience or perception (cf. Duncan, Smith & Levitz 2015: 141–4). To elucidate this point further, I briefly focus on the sound effects of comics, whose realisation across words and visuals is both “complex and sophisticated” (Khordoc 2001: 159). Usually, they are conveyed through onomatopoeic words that both visualise and imitate the sound and its volume or proximity through conceptual metaphor – e.g. louder is bigger, nearer is bigger. They are integrated into the drawing and have a strong visual component (cf. 2001: 168–9).

On page 12 of Blankets (→ Fig. 7), readers find both examples of lettering and sound words that blur the line between the two codes. In the case of ‘snore’, ‘shove’ and ‘gasp’, verbs stand in for actions, movements and sounds that are difficult to draw. There are other ways to visualise snoring (e.g. z z z z z, sawing, cutting logs), but it is often more economical to represent it like this. Capital letters signify shouting and the increasing font size of the three ‘thump’s indicates that their father is coming closer. When Craig drops to the floor, ‘CLUNK’ not only visualises loudness (size) but pain, too (through pointed angles). There is clearly a similarity to picture books and text types that imitate spoken discourse through visual means, such as texting. Hatfield addresses the similarities between verbal and visual signs by observing that the “visual/verbal tension is not necessarily even a matter of playing words against pictures; it may be a matter of playing symbols against other symbols” (2005: 40).

Therefore, a common mistake would be to conceive of the verbal and the visual as completely separate tracks, often accompanied by the misconception that the images are somehow transparent, self-explanatory and secondary to the verbal narration in text boxes (cf. Hatfield 2005: 36). The suggested activity based on Thompson’s Blankets was primarily intended to demonstrate that important details are lost when verbal dialogue become isolated and the visuals treated as ancillary. The close association of literature with prose, the widely established notion of words and images as two different modes of expression, the distinct jobs of writer and cartoonist, many readers’ greater familiarity with reading prose narratives etc. all lead to the assumption that the two codes exist independently. However, both rely on signs that have to be interpreted within complex constellations in specific contexts, involving both verbal and visual input in the case of comics (cf. McCloud 1994: 47). There have been many attempts to adapt the classics of literature into comics to support struggling learners in their acquisition of traditional literacy, but the result is often a highly simplified prose summary of the original text, accompanied by uninspiring images that attempt to mirror the written text as much as possible (cf. Oppolzer 2012). This “duo-specific” relationship that is supposed to “send essentially the same ←276 | 277→ ←277 | 278→message” (McCloud 1994: 153) is an illusion, as visual and verbal clues cannot be exactly alike. This type of intended redundancy runs the risk of degrading the drawings to mere illustrations and of perpetuating the stereotype that visuals are categorically inferior and subservient to verbal art. Thus, it dissolves the close ties between words and images, but also between panels, which is the topic of the next section.

4.4.2 Image vs. Series/Sequence

Despite the fact that single images in comics can encapsulate ongoing actions, e.g. in the form of splash pages, or even reach the level of complexity associated with the highly compressed blends of political cartoons, they are always parts of and integrated into larger patterns – in most cases narrative sequences. Eisner defines comics as ‘sequential art’ (cf. 2006), which is mirrored in Groensteen’s “juxtaposed frames” (2007: 19) and Kukkonen’s definition that “comics are a medium that communicates through images, words, and sequence” (2013b: 4). For a discussion of the narrative potential of single frames vs. the series, three central questions have to be addressed: to what extent can a single image tell a story? This relates to the speculation whether a single blend – e.g. a painting – can be decompressed into an entire narrative. Secondly, should comics be understood as sequences of narrative images or is narrativity based on juxtaposition in the first place? This relates to the tension between encapsulation (compression) and dramatisation/breakdown (decompression). Thirdly, how do readers respond to these narrative sequences that come with visible gaps in between the panels?

The distinction between a single panel and the series may seem as straightforward as the distinction between words and images at first: the frames represent moments of the ongoing action that materialises as a series of snapshots. Relying on familiar scripts, readers automatically complete the action and experience it as continuous across several panels. However, panels may encapsulate much more than a single moment in time and serve widely different functions within the series, not to mention their complex interrelations with other panels and contextual frames across the entire network. This requires different forms of ‘breaking down’ (cf. Eisner 2006: 128; Groensteen 2007: 22; Hatfield 2005: 41) the sequence on the artist’s part, and different forms of closure – or conceptual integration – on the readers’ part. This is how Hatfield explains the interconnections between the two processes:

The reverse process, that of reading through such images and inferring connections between them, has been dubbed (borrowing from gestalt psychology) ‘closure’ by ←278 | 279→McCloud, in keeping with the reader-response emphasis of his Understanding Comics. In fact ‘breakdown’ and ‘closure’ are complementary terms, both describing the relationship between sequence and series: the author’s task is to evoke an imagined sequence by creating a visual series (a breakdown), whereas the reader’s task is to translate the given series into a narrative sequence by achieving closure. Again, the reader’s role is crucial, and requires the invocation of learned competencies; the relationships between pictures are a matter of convention, not inherent connectedness. (2005: 41)

Like Louise M. Rosenblatt, Hatfield distinguishes between the text (series) and the poem (sequence). The narrative sequence or continuous storyline is the product of the individual reading process, whereas the series is the string of panels on the page whose meaningful interrelations often depend on conventions rather than on natural patterns. Since most definitions of comics use ‘sequence’ as a constitutive formal characteristic of the medium instead of ‘series’ (cf. Kukkonen 2013b; Eisner 2006; Duncan, Smith & Levitz 2015: xiii), I am not going to use Hatfield’s terminological distinction. Still, the blueprint on the page and readers’ ‘evocations’ should not be confused.

McCloud’s take on conceptual integration – which he calls ‘closure’ – establishes six types of transitions between panels. I am going to explain later why this classification is not ideally suited as a general theory of blending in comics, but for the moment it is more important to realise that McCloud understands ‘closure’ in a much broader sense at first. Before he introduces the gutter as a generator of meaning and presents his widely accepted typology (cf. 1994: 66–74), he offers an introduction to ‘closure’ that resembles Fauconnier and Turner’s claim that conceptual integration is a widespread phenomenon and the basis of all cognition (cf. 1994: 63–5). McCloud provides several illustrations of how closure works within panels or even concerning single words (cf. 1994: 63–4; 86/4). A good example is his recreation of the iconic outline of Mickey Mouse’s head with the help of three coins (1994: 64/2). They evoke a shape that, in global pop-culture, is metonymically associated with Walt Disney, animation and, of course, Mickey Mouse. At the same time, coins are symbolic of capitalism. This creates an interesting blend, as the most iconic cartoon character is literally made out of money in McCloud’s example, which may illustrate the shareholder value of intellectual property. The way that comics produce narrative complexity is not through the gold standard of photorealistic representation, in which they can never compete with film, but through the simplicity of signs, whose artful combinations into textual structures invite complex meaning-making processes. It should not be forgotten that Rodolphe Töpffer proposed a theory closely resembling gestalt psychology to explain readers’ ability to instantly recognise objects or characters in cartoon drawings with their “really shocking gaps in outline” ←279 | 280→(1965: 8). He argues that “the least practiced eye fills in the rest of the image with an ease and, especially, a veracity that work wholly to the draughtsman’s advantage” (1965: 8). Like Iser, Töpffer understands gap-filling as an automated process (System 1): “the viewer sees them [the elliptical forms representing characters] as so many blanks that his imagination can people, fill up, complete automatically, accurately, and without effort” (1965: 8). Duncan, Smith and Levitz describe comics as “reductive in creation and additive in reading” (2015: 112; see also McCloud 1994: 85), which – in a nutshell – encapsulates this idea.

McCloud’s broad understanding of ‘closure’ or ‘gestalt-forming’ progressively narrows down when he chooses to focus on American superhero comics (cf. 1994: 74–5), the narrative progression that is typical of “mainstream comics” and, here again, on those that “employ storytelling techniques first introduced by Jack Kirby” (1994: 74; original emphasis). While he criticises the confusion of medium and genre earlier in the book (cf. 1994: 6), his theory of closure is mainly based on samples of superhero comics. All deviations from this norm are treated as either experimental or exotic (cf. 1994: 77–85). In traditional superhero comics, characters restlessly pursue goals and solve problems by physically interacting with their environments, which means that the action never stops. McCloud explains this key characteristic of the genre to the United States’ “goal-oriented culture” (1994: 81/3). Accordingly, he deliberately deemphasises the role of the single panel and makes the efficient, straightforward depiction of an action sequence the narrative standard of his theory. Apart from that, it is also a simple question of preference: “Whatever the mysteries within each panel, it’s the power of closure between panels that I find the most interesting” (1994: 88/1).

It has to be added that the superhero genre does occasionally rely on the single panel in isolation for narrative effect. The so-called “splash page” (Duncan, Smith & Levitz 2015: 119) deliberately arrests the development of the story to introduce a setting or character, to capture the timeless essence of a superhero in a striking pose or to represent a fight-scene with the hero’s arch enemy as a world-shattering event. The single image covers a whole page or double spread and, as I would argue, serves to establish qualities of locations, characters and relationships that transcend the immediate context, while still being part of it. In autobiographical comics we may find similar pages that belong to the ongoing narrative, but at the same time capture the essence of what a chapter is about. In Chapter 1 of Blankets, page 24 offers a symbolic representation of Craig’s victimisation, pages 42–3 of his imagination, escapism and penchant for daydreaming, and page 60 of his helplessness and frustration. There are very few of them, so they are likely to carry special significance. Notably, the ‘splash pages’ of chapter 1 ←280 | 281→are all framed. When Craig meets Raina, however, these panels lose their frames (2007: 129, 172).

Shedding the frame has a number of important implications that depend on how readers choose to understand the panels. Page 172 (→ Fig. 8) belongs to a ←281 | 282→scene that is introduced on the previous page: panel 171/1 provides an overview of the parking space where they meet. Climbing out of their parents’ cars they quickly turn to each other, establishing eye-contact. The second panel (171/2) dispenses loses the backdrop, thus foregrounding the two teenagers reaching out to each other. Then page 172 also dispenses with the frame. On the next page this is reiterated three times, representing an embodied dialogue of hugs and gestures, until frames and backgrounds return for the final two panels of page 173. Visually, readers witness all of this from a certain distance. At the same time, it is not hard to read the panel from the teenagers’ point of view, as they seem to forget their surroundings and only have eyes for each other. From Craig’s specific point of view, it illustrates and anticipates his feeling of being able to break the chains of his childhood through the purity of unconditional love. For Raina, whose parents are going through a divorce (cf. 2007: 158), the matter is much more complicated, as we shall see later in the narrative, but here readers become witness to the next step in their relationship.

Teenage Craig has willingly ignored her troubles, cast aside her complex feelings, reduced her message to clear signs of affection for him and began to imagine a Romeo and Juliet context of young lovers separated by fate (cf. 2007: 159). From the autobiographer’s point of view, this page may represent an important, even timeless memory around which the rest of the scene is constructed. On a symbolic level, it shows how love can transcend all boundaries and does not need words, at least in the imagination of a teenage boy. It also has a narrative function of capturing the emotional essence of the whole scene and the stage of their relationship – filtered through Craig’s consciousness. This panel is overdetermined in both Iser’s and Groensteen’s sense. The loss of the frame signals a level of transcendence that makes the image stand out – supposedly disentangled from time, space, narrative progression and the vicissitudes of human life.

This returns the discussion to the question of the narrative potential of single panels. Contrary to McCloud, there are quite a few theorists that are more accepting of this idea, such as Will Eisner, who offers an excellent illustration of how “encapsulation” (2006: 39) works: like Hogarth’s paintings, narrative images may contain so many contextual clues that observers can reconstruct the past and predict the future. This idea seems to be conceptually related to Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s ‘pregnant moment’, which he proposes in Chapter XVI of Laocoon: An Essay upon the Limits of Painting and Poetry:

Objects which exist side by side, or whose parts so exist, are called bodies. Consequently bodies with their visible properties are the peculiar subjects of painting. Objects which ←282 | 283→succeed each other, or whose parts succeed each other in time, are actions. Consequently actions are the peculiar subjects of poetry. All bodies, however, exist not only in space, but also in time. They continue, and, at any moment of their continuance, may assume a different appearance and stand in different relations. Every one of these momentary appearances and groupings was the result of a preceding, may become the cause of a following, and is therefore the centre of a present, action. Consequently painting can imitate actions also, but only as they are suggested through forms. Actions, on the other hand, cannot exist independently, but must always be joined to certain agents. In so far as those agents are bodies or are regarded as such, poetry describes also bodies, but only indirectly through actions. Painting, in its coexistent compositions, can use but a single moment of action, and must therefore choose the most pregnant one, the one most suggestive of what has gone before and what is to follow. (1874: 90–1)

Comics is both, of course: ‘painting’ and ‘poetry’ in Lessing’s sense. It is a tension between panel (painting → bodies) and series (poetry → actions), between encapsulation or compression and dramatisation or decompression. Lessing’s significance for comics studies has been widely acknowledged (cf. e.g. Breithaupt 2002) and has found its way into basic introductions to the medium (cf. Kukkonen 2013b: 13–15) and teaching approaches (cf. Tucker 2009).

In her seminal essay on “Pictorial Narrativity” (2004) Wendy Steiner explores the potential of single images to tell a story. Not only is this a central question in art history, but also in comics scholarship, where it has a bearing on the potential inclusion of single-frame (political) cartoons in the definition of the medium and on the role of the single panel in the series. If we consider comics to be a narrative medium, as I do here for reasons already stated, the narrativity of single images becomes an important issue. Steiner begins diachronically with some of the first, still existing attempts to record events in pictorial form. She strongly relies on an argument put forward by Ann Perkins in “Narration in Babylonian Art” (1957):

From the beginning of Babylonian narrative art two methods of depiction are employed. The most favored one was allusive rather than explicit, employing the culminating scene – one group of figures, one moment of time, at the climax of a series of events – to stand for the entire story. This was undoubtedly intended to arouse in the viewer’s mind recollection of the complete story, and in addition to stand as a symbol of the deeper lying ideas, beliefs, or psychical orientation of the community as in our own society the crucifix is expected to recall the entire Passion story and also the fundamental Christian belief in the redemption of mankind by the sacrifice of Christ. (1957: 55)

Based on Perkins’s observation, Steiner comments that the “pregnant moment or ekphrastic painting […] is typically construed symbolically rather than as an attempt at storytelling” (Steiner 2004: 156). In other words, Lessing’s ‘pregnant moment’ is less concerned with finding the point in time most suggestive ←283 | 284→of the ongoing action, but more so with a symbolic representation that takes some liberties with weaving a dense network of interconnected signs. Like ritual, such a painting is a complex blend of various perspectives and input spaces that transcends their limitations in an imaginary space. Secondly, these complex blends rely on readers’ familiarity with the grand narrative from which all the signs ultimately derive their meaning.

Steiner demonstrates the medieval predilection for symbolism over realism in a discussion of Benozzo Gozzoli’s The Feast of Herod and the Beheading of St. John the Baptist (1461–2) to demonstrate the transition from medieval to Renaissance conventions (cf. 2004: 162–7). While it was common practice in medieval art to depict several scenes from the same story within the same frame, this was later sacrificed in favour of more realistic depictions, especially due to the introduction of perspective. The interesting thing about Gozzoli’s painting is that the three scenes conform to the new paradigm of greater realism, but they are also visually interlinked in complex ways, as if they were taking place at the same time. They are indeed arranged in such a way that they provide commentary on each other. Steiner argues that the painting can be understood as a narrative, as it not only shows three distinct scenes from the same story, but repeats the main character, Salome, and adds layers of meaning through their unique composition:

We have seen the cause-and-effect relations created by the directionality of gazes, especially Herodias’s, and the implication of the beginning in the end in the echoing of clothes, colors, and Salome’s face. As in literary works, these metonymic and metaphoric linkages are crucial to the project of narrative wholeness. (2004: 167)

This seems to suggest that the narrative potential is linked to the sequence of and to the networked connections between individual images, although the three scenes have to be considered as one work of art. Some critics, such as Grünewald, defend the narrativity of the single image (cf. 2000: 12), but the “narrative potential is not intrinsic” (2013: 21), as Groensteen argues. It relies heavily on contextual information, which means that “a single image can evoke a story, but that […] does not mean that it tells one” (2013: 23). Steiner points out that, for Da Vinci, a ‘narrative painting’ usually meant a “stopped-action historical, biblical, or mythological scene. Everything that he says about such works is predicated, in fact, on the absence of temporal flow” (2004: 158). Such a painting represents an elaborate blend that does not need a temporal dimension, as a devout Christian familiar with the Biblical context can easily unpack its complex meanings (cf. Kemp 1989: 63). In the world of superhero comics, single panels can be successful blends that allow ←284 | 285→for the decompression of images into whole scenes, provided that readers are familiar with the overall mythology of the character, the context of the specific narrative and/or the basic scripts on which the scene relies (cf. Groensteen 2013: 25, 29; Petersen 2011: 12).

Pascal Lefèvre mirrors this discussion by arguing that single panels are clearly narrative as long as they depict sequentiality within a single frame: “I certainly will not neglect the fact that, since several events can be represented in one panel, a single image can be narrative according to my definition. In that case the sole panel consists of several virtual panels or frames” (2000: n. p.). In comics, they may be more frequent in certain genres, but Blankets contains only a few of them (e.g. 246/1 → Fig. 9):

Instead of three panels that show different stages of falling into the snow, the single frame encapsulates the unity and uniqueness of the experience. Returning to Lefèvre’s argument, it remains unclear why this panel should have a higher ←285 | 286→narrativity than relying on the ‘pregnant moment’ of having Raina lean backwards, showing the point just before dropping into the snow. In the context of a series, quantifying the relative narrativity of single panels does not make a lot of sense, since they are not intended to tell parts of the story on their own. The compression of three moments into a single panel has more to do with experientiality than narrative progression. This is further visualised through frame-breaking: Raina’s hands, the speech balloon and the sound word exceed the confined space of the panel.

Elisabeth Potsch and Robert F. Williams analyse the depiction of movement within panels, which often contain the starting point of an action, its direction and the end point. They single out “ribbon paths, motion lines, and impact flashes” (2012: 15) for their study, which are typical of superhero comics, but are used more sparingly in autobiographical comics. Of these, ‘ribbon paths’ are the most relevant for the present discussion of narrative progression within a single panel. Here, a character or object is depicted as performing a movement with a path drawn in – often in the form of a line or a ribbon – from the starting point to the present location. Such movements are not hard to read as they correspond directly to our everyday experiences of objects or humans leaving traces along their paths – airplanes in the sky, humans crossing blankets of snow, heavy tyres on the ground etc. Such basic experiences become image schemas or mental representations “of a pattern that people frequently encounter as embodied beings experiencing a physical world” (2012: 16). What follows is a quick reminder of what image schemas are, provided by Beate Hampe:

Image schemas are directly meaningful (“experiential”/“embodied”), preconceptual structures, which arise from, or are grounded in, human recurrent bodily movements through space, perceptual interactions, and ways of manipulating objects.

Image schemas are highly schematic gestalts which capture the structural contours of sensory-motor experience, integrating information from multiple modalities.

Image schemas exist as continuous and analogue patterns beneath conscious awareness, prior to and independently of other concepts.

As gestalts, image schemas are both internally structured, i.e., made up of very few related parts, and highly flexible. This flexibility becomes manifest in the numerous transformations they undergo in various experiential contexts, all of which are closely related to perceptual (gestalt) principles. (Hampe 2005: 1–2; see also Potsch & Williams 2012: 16)

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As Potsch and Williams demonstrate, superhero comics may depict action sequences in a highly stylised manner, using a ribbon band and a tiny speck representing the hero soaring into the sky (cf. 2012: 23), but readers still manage to recognise what is happening. While reading, they never face single panels in isolation, which allows them to build an interpretation from the narrative context, specific expectations based on genre and familiarity with the characters. That Superman may take off any minute and fly away is expected rather than marvelled at as a supernatural occurrence.

Artists have developed various means to compensate for the stillness of images (cf. Duncan, Smith & Levitz 2015: 115), of which ‘motion lines’ (cf. McCloud 1994: 109–14) are probably the best known and most widely used in comics, next to postures that signal movement. There is, however, a difference between comics genres, as superhero adventures have different requirements than so-called non-fiction, where the main emphasis is not on iconic confrontations and relentless pursuit. Craig Thompson uses them mostly for his childhood memories (e.g. 2007: 23, 25, 33, 40), which are rendered in a more cartoonish style, while Art Spiegelman employs them only very sparingly in MAUS, when he intends to indicate that the wheels of Vladek’s bicycle are spinning (cf. 1997: 14–15, 81) or that body parts are moving (cf. 1997: 22, 29).

The reason why the passing of time within a single panel is considered to be such an important issue in comics studies (cf. e.g. McCloud 1994: 94–117; Hatfield 2005: 52–8) may be due to narratology’s traditional focus on temporal progression, but also the potential of a single panel to contain a blended space “into which moments, hours, even days, are compressed” (Hatfield 2005: 58). Our subjective and relative experience of time is completely ignored in the mechanical precision of our watches, which do not conform to our internal, biological clocks. The obvious clash between the temporal progression of actions and the stillness of the single images, but also the potential mismatch between the breakneck speed of an action sequence and the single reader’s time to process what is happening, contribute to a relativity of time in comics that is incompatible with the desire to measure it accurately. Potsch and Williams argue that it is precisely the readers’ subjective perception of time that artists play with:

In comics, time is elastic: it can be stretched or compressed for dramatic effect in rendering the events of the story. Pacing emerges partly in the reader’s experience of taking in panel after panel, so artists can exert control over pacing through the size and placement of panels on the comics page, affecting how readers shift their gaze from image to image. (2012: 28)

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Accordingly, the exact amount of time that passes within and between panels is not important, as long as readers understand the sequence of events (cf. Grünewald 2000: 41), which is necessary for the ascription of cause and effect. Returning to the scene in which the Pastor asks Craig about his future plans, only two things seem relevant: that it takes place at the beginning of Craig’s final year in school, which is explicitly foregrounded through dialogue (cf. 2007: 54) and defoliated trees (cf. 2007: 55–6), and that it marks the starting point of a rekindled interest in dedicating his life to God. There is no need to engage in a narratological study of temporal progression and plot structure beyond this point. Lefèvre offers a similar observation:

Though this temporal ambiguity and flexibility seems complex on a theoretical level, in practice readers will seldom linger over such questions about the temporal dimensions of individual panels. As long as the reader has no problem in understanding the temporal order of a series of panels, questions like the ones just raised are not likely to give the reader pause. (2011: 24)

Time and space have no intrinsic meaning except for how they are experienced by the characters and readers. In this sense, time becomes an artistic resource that is rendered meaningful by serving a narrative purpose. When comics creators break down the sequence into panels, the question arises how time can be subjectivised and spatialised to serve the narrative at this point (cf. McCloud 1994: 94–117). Accordingly, time and space have a much more metaphorical, symbolic, thematic and contextual meaning than is usually acknowledged. Quite a few narratives – and especially those of the visual type – heavily rely on seasons or landscapes to express characters’ inner states in a metaphorical sense. Reader-response critics, such as Wolfgang Iser, argue that narrative elements are just signs and not representations of reality. They invite meaning-making and empathy, not the reconstruction of timelines and story world – with the exception of detective fiction, perhaps, where such issues may be foregrounded and central to the plot.

Contrary to McCloud, Eisner considers the panel and the page as the two organising frames of narration (cf. 2006: 41), which complements the linearity of panel-to-panel transitions with design work on a higher level of organisation. He argues that it is ultimately the sequence and the “grammar” (2006: 39) of combining panels into meaningful narratives that drive comics narration. Duncan, Smith and Levitz also acknowledge that encapsulation (cf. 2015: 108) has to be seen as part of a more general process that has to strike the right balance between the inescapable formal requirements of printed comics (cf. Groensteen 2007: 142) and the general sequencing of the story into narrative units (breakdown). The ←288 | 289→two processes “mutually inform each other” (Groensteen 2007: 143), which plays a role in gridding, when the comic is laid out in rough sketches as a ‘dummy book’ (cf. Eisner 2006: 136–8). With the advent of the page as “a commercial unit of narration” (Fresnault-Deruelle 2014: 130), we see a dramatic change in layout and a potential conflict between page design and breakdown: “the movement from the strip to the whole page disrupted the organization of the diegesis: the narrative is challenged as a one-way directional system, once the cartoonist, capitalizing on variable visual elements, breaks up the uniform patterning of the panels” (2014: 133). This creative tension between breakdown and layout can be used strategically to foreground elements in the narration, especially when certain regularities are widely established (extrinsic norms) or the comic itself favours a regular pattern or grid (intrinsic norm) that is then varied to great effect:

Greater or lesser deviations from these norms stand out as prominent. But at the same time, the viewer is alert for any norms set up by the comic itself. The intrinsic norms may coincide with or deviate from the conventions of the extrinsic set. Finally, the reader may encounter foregrounded elements the moment the comic diverges to some degree from intrinsic norms. (Lefèvre 2000: n. p.; see also Bordwell 1985: 150–3)

Apart from the gutter, turning the page creates a gap in the narrative that has to be accounted for and specifically designed. The final panel on the previous page and the first one on the next have privileged positions and are often employed to end a scene and begin a new one, provide a cliffhanger and resolve it or create a tonal shift in how the present scene plays out, just to name three obvious examples.

This draws readers’ attention to the materiality of comics and how the size of the page, which is usually standardised and invariable, affords very different artistic possibilities, e.g. the level of detail in the drawings that is still discernible or the size of the font that readers manage to decipher without a magnifying glass. While a painter can choose a canvas measuring five by ten inches or ten feet square and the prose writer is little concerned with the format during the creation of a text, the comics artist has to be alert to the format that is given. Groensteen argues that the placement of panels on the page, what he calls “spatio-topia” (2007: 21), creates a network of differently sized panels that assigns privileged positions to some of them and breaks the regular flow of the linear progression of the narrative. This is how page design (mise-en-page) and breakdown intersect. The result is an effect of foregrounding mostly driven by the size, (relative) position, framing (cf. 2007: 39–57) and visual style of panels. ←289 | 290→Through layout comics also acquire a musical quality (cf. Eisner 2006: 28–30) or rhythm (cf. Groensteen 2013: 133–57).

The same logic applies to elements within individual panels, which are foregrounded in varying degrees by the following visual means: size, centrality, colour, brightness, foregrounding (in the foreground; closer to the viewer), shallow focus (in photography; this is roughly the same as removing the background in comics) overlap, symbolism, vectors/lines and/or framing (cf. Machin 2011: 130–8). In multimodal analysis this concept is called ‘salience’ and offers an excellent starting point for a more formal analysis of images, in case teachers want to find evidence with their students why they are drawn to certain elements of a composition first. The idea is not to highlight one privileged element in contrast to the others, but to assign salience in degrees, by which the readers’ attention and conceptual integration can be guided. Teresa Bridgeman argues that – according to the same principle – artists are able to hide clues in plain sight by giving other elements of the composition more prominence (cf. 2004: n. p.). This may be a viable strategy of planting clues in a detective narrative that only become visible during a second reading.

Salience or foregrounding within panels is just the micro-structural equivalent to a figure-ground approach to narration that can be found on all levels of composition. Foregrounding on the level of the sequence or page operates with the same markers as listed above, but adds one important strategy to the mix: repetition. Bridgeman describes basic reading as a “process of scanning for salient features as hooks on which to hang our construction of narrative coherence” (2004: n. p.). Especially in wordless comics we follow around objects and characters (cf. Mikkonen 2017: 90–108) that become narrative anchors in Dancygier’s sense through reappearance. Redundancy as a narrative strategy of comics is also central to McCloud’s typology of panel transitions.

When he published Understanding Comics in the early 1990s, his sprawling exploration of the medium was such a revelation and leap forward in scholarship that it is still widely recommended as a manual for new readers, especially in educational settings (cf. e.g. Abel & Klein 2016: 84–7; Bakis 2014: 14–30; Hatfield 2009). In short, this is the lens through which many teachers ask students to look at comics for the first time. I have already raised some concerns about different aspects of the book, but for my cognitive approach to comics it is first necessary to establish to what extent his idea of closure corresponds to reader-response criticism and the theory of conceptual integration I introduced in part 3. The first important observation is that McCloud does not realise that closure is not a unique feature of comics: “What happens between these panels is a kind of magic only comics can create” (1994: 92/4). What McCloud understands as ‘closure’ for ←290 | 291→most of his book is a very specific type of conceptual integration, but clearly not the only one. He first defines ‘closure’ as a “phenomenon of observing the parts but perceiving the whole” (1994: 63/1) and “mentally completing that which is incomplete based on past experience” (1994: 63/2). This sounds like an explanation by Louise M. Rosenblatt showing how gap-filling works in any reading process. She even uses comic strips at one point as an illustration of a general principle:

… essential to “the plot” is the action of the reader in relating one episode or one element or one aspect of the events to the others decoded from the text. A child may look at the separate squares of a comic strip, and see them as separate and distinct. Plot begins to emerge when he sees that the characters and situation of the second square can be related to the first, usually as later in time and as developing from the situation indicated in the first and so on, so that the comic strip becomes a narrative. (1994: 92)

As I explained at the beginning of part 4, this may apply to comic strips in a literal sense, since there are only three or four panels in the series, which readers can see all at once. In the context of longer narratives, however, it has to be understood as a metaphor, since blending has to take place on a number of levels beyond the simplistic integration of the very next panel into what readers already know. McCloud’s complete disregard for the macrostructure of (reading) comics, both on a cognitive and a formal level, is going to be a major concern for the rest of this section, but first we have to look at what he does say about closure as the “grammar” (1994: 67/3) of comics and the gutter as the site of meaning-making. Without further ado, here are McCloud’s six types of panel transitions (cf. 1994: 70–4): (1) moment-to-moment, 2) action-to-action (depicting the same activity at a later time), (3) subject-to-subject (a shift of visual focus within the same scene while the action continues), (4) scene-to-scene (involving a significant shift in time and/or space), (5) aspect-to-aspect (a shift of visual focus within the same scene while the action pauses) and (6) non-sequitur (a shift in subject matter unrelated to the previous panel).

McCloud is correct in calling his typology “an inexact science at best” (1994: 74/1). According to his own statistics (cf. 1994: 75) half of his types – (1), (5) and (6) – do not even occur in a typical superhero comic book (X-Men 1), Gilbert Hernandez’s Heartbreak Soup, Carl Barks’s Donald Duck, Will Eisner’s A Contract with God and Art Spiegelman’s MAUS – with a negligible number of type (5) transitions in the last two cases. Type (1) is too slow and inefficient, as McCloud demonstrates (cf. 1994: 76/5), Type (5) is only relevant for a comparison with manga (cf. 1994: 77–81) and type (6) should not occur at all, as it puzzles readers and does not contribute to narrative progression at ←291 | 292→all (cf. 1994: 77/2). Of the remaining three, type (2) dominates with an average of around 65%, which means that we closely follow a character performing an ongoing action. Type (3) significantly falls behind with 20%, which represents a shift to another subject within the same scene, e.g. showing the actions of the villain for a change, which leaves 15% for a transition to a different scene altogether (cf. 1994: 75/1). In short, readers always follow characters performing actions, with occasional shifts between subjects or scenes.

McCloud’s system – especially the difference between action-to-action (2) and scene-to-scene (4) – proves useful when distinguishing different types of visual narratives, sequential art or picture stories. The irony, of course, is that the major examples of McCloud’s own history of comics, everything from Egyptian painting (Tomb of Menna) via Trajan’s Column and the Bayeux Tapestry to Hogarth’s work (cf. 1994: 10–16), only share sequentiality and scene-to-scene transitions with comics, but not action-to-action, which, according to McCloud’s own statistics, is the most important characteristic of comics narration by far. Therefore, I agree with Petersen and David Kunzle (cf. 2007) that Rodolph Töpffer is the inventor of comics in the modern sense:

Rather than use the typical visual strategy of employing one picture per scene, he used several images per page set apart by smaller frames. By doing this, he created for the first time a montage, a way of describing a single idea over several closely linked pictures, as if one were seeing the action unfold in a play. Töpffer also utilized for the first time different-sized panels on the page to suggest different kinds of narrative pacing; for example, giving the impression of an action building in intensity or dissipating through meaningless repetition. The novelty of this narrative construction is Töpffer’s greatest and lasting achievement, for it introduced a sense of momentum through more specific causal relationships between the pictures. (Petersen 2011: 49)

Returning to Petersen’s point about ‘causal relationships’: with the exception of McCloud’s sixth transition, all the other types are mainly related to spatial and temporal orientation rather than to meaningful connections. McCloud’s refusal to either fully embrace reader-response criticism or ascribe narrative functions to the transitions he enumerates, leads to a typology that is based on formal changes, but ignores narrative meaning: why does the narrative shift attention from one subject to the next? How is the next contextual frame related to the previous one? Does it constitute a flashback, a flashforward, a dream, a character’s thoughts, the narrator’s comments etc.? According to what overall logic are the panels strung together? Despite the limited applicability of film theory to comics narratives (e.g. continuity editing, intercutting, shot-reverse shot patterns etc.), it would have provided at least some orientation.

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Since I claim that McCloud’s theory of closure is a form of conceptual integration, it should be possible to illuminate his theory by comparing it to Fauconnier and Turner’s blending. That both are cognitive approaches should be obvious, which means that we can concentrate on the ‘vital relations’ (cf. Fauconnier & Turner 2003: 93–102, 312–5) they foreground. To make this comparison work, I treat the panels in comics as input spaces and discreet moments, which is a bit of a stretch, as they are mental frames rather than visual representations in conceptual integration theory. Still, this is how McCloud treats the content of panels and this should provide us with some orientation of how he conceptualises narrative integration. Mario Saraceni argues that McCloud’s typology is scaled in terms of redundancy and readers’ involvement (cf. 2001: 177), which means that moment-to-moment transitions are the easiest to read, as they contain the highest degree of redundancy and require the least amount of readers’ involvement. Using McCloud’s own examples of type (1) transitions (cf. 1994: 70), we can identify the three vital relations that have to be compressed into singularity: change into ongoing action, discrete moments into continuous time and repetition of character into identity. Place is not an issue in moment-to-moment transitions as it remains the same. In fact, change is so minimal that, based on two panels in isolation, we cannot see yet how this scene is going to develop. This turns cause-effect and intentionality into underspecified relations. Without context, it is impossible to read character motivation into a moment-to-moment transition. This may also explain why this type is so rare in western comics: readers may be too impatient to wait for a scene to develop at such a slow pace. I include character identity as a key vital relation in my discussion of McCloud, as he repeatedly demonstrates its importance in the illustrations, but otherwise privileges action/event over character and intentionality.

Having established the first type, it is now easier to explain the next few transitions as deviations from this model. Type (2) increases the temporal gap between the distinct moments, which means that it provides more evidence for the compression of events into cause-effect. In McCloud’s illustrations (cf. 1994: 70) we see how drinking champagne results in a burp or speeding is the direct cause of the car accident. If McCloud’s theory of reading works with basic scripts in the generic space, action-to-action sequences are easier to read than moment-to-moment transitions, as they provide more evidence of what is happening. All three of McCloud’s examples showcase that character identity is still vital for this type. This changes with subject-to-subject transitions, which abandon a character as a narrative anchor, “while staying within a scene or idea” (1994: 71/1). To make this work, artists have to rely on standard scripts and/or ←293 | 294→establish enough context in the previous panels to allow for some orientation. Otherwise, readers would suddenly be confronted with a new subject that might as well belong to the next scene. In the context of Catherine Emmott’s theory of contextual frames, I discussed the importance of character configurations and tracing which characters are bound into a frame. Concerning a dialogue scene in a restaurant, readers are not surprised to see a waiter at the table or two patrons alternating in frames as talking heads. Yet, the sudden appearance of a third character who they thought was not present, offers a form of dramatic foregrounding that may require some re-adjustment. Readers suddenly have to make room for a new dynamic and more complex character interactions, recalling previous frames and social relations between characters. All of that is not present in McCloud’s theory. His disregard for the macrostructural level denies the importance of contexts, which he seems to take for granted. With type (4) transitions we have a complete shift in contextual frames: McCloud speaks of “significant distances of time and space” (1994: 71/2), which may mean different characters, different actions and different character motivations. Without context or some form of redundancy (e.g. the same location or character), type (4) might feel like a type (6) at first.

In conclusion, there are a number of important observations that can be made: redundancy on all levels of narrative mediation is absolutely vital for storytelling. Without the repetition of elements, there is nothing that could be compressed into singularity. While McCloud considers the previous knowledge of readers essential to closure, he disregards contextual frames and macrostructural links, without which reading is impossible. Characters and their motivations play a much larger role than McCloud’s focus on ongoing action suggests. Since he only concentrates on the visual track, Hatfield criticises that his classification “neglects just how much the interaction of image and word can inform, indeed enable, the reading of sequences” (2005: 44). He further remarks that ‘voice-over’ narration can easily bridge the gulf between images whose sequence McCloud would be forced to classify as non-sequitur (cf. 2005: 44–5). While he addresses and foregrounds some of the vital relations that Fauconnier and Turner list (cf. 2003: 93–102, 312–5), there are others that should either play a more prominent role (e.g. cause-effect, intentionality) or be featured at all (e.g. part-whole, analogy).

Even more problematic, and this leads us gradually to Hatfield’s third tension, is the idea that the reading of comics proceeds in a strictly linear fashion. McCloud makes this point explicit later in the book: “Comics readers are also conditioned by other media and the ‘real time’ of everyday life to expect a very ←294 | 295→linear progression. Just a straight line from point A to point B. But is that necessary? For now, these questions are the territory of games and strange little experiments” (1994: 106/1–2). Considering that the book was written in the early 1990s, this claim was hard to maintain even then. If we take the “three convention-rupturing comics” (Wolk 2007: 8) of the 1980s, MAUS, Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, we find countless examples that contradict McCloud’s questionable generalisation, but the same argument could be made with less prominent examples.

Thierry Groensteen is probably the most prominent critic of McCloud’s classification, since his own concepts of iconic solidarity and braiding are predicated on a connection between panels beyond the linearity of the sequence (cf. 2013: 41, 74, 181; Lefèvre 2000). Yet, it was Iser who addressed this point before him, even if he did not refer to comics: “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; my emphasis). This is also a given in discourse analysis, for readers understand the meaning of sentences by evaluating the whole situation and not just the sentences in close proximity: “the meaning of an individual sentence or clause is often influenced by the surrounding text” (Emmott 2004: 79). Groensteen rightfully credits Iser with the basic principles of a reader-response theory that is highly applicable to comics and promotes an understanding of the “intericonic gutter” as “polysyntactic” (Groensteen 2007: 114). The individual panel is not only part of a linear sequence, but potentially linked to every other panel in the multiframe. Saraceni distinguishes between coherence and cohesion in this context, of which the first is a cognitive and the second a discourse-analytical term (cf. 2001: 169). Readers have to navigate the textual elements to arrive at a meaning that manages to integrate the suggested ideas into a unified whole. Saraceni calls this principle “relatedness” (2001: 169), which underlines both the network character of the text, but more importantly the way textual elements activate cognitive models, as the referents are located there.

Silke Horstkotte is equally vocal about the limitations of McCloud’s approach (cf. 2015: 33–40). She uses Charles Burns’s Black Hole as a typical example of a graphic novel “where many scenes refer forward and backward to each other, panels are frequently repeated with a difference, and episodes that were introduced through flash-forwards or flashbacks get retold from different points of view” (2015: 42). In this sense, the repetition of elements, with or without alterations, becomes a cornerstone of comics narration. While redundancy carries negative connotations in our culture, it is the foundation of storytelling, especially in picture stories. Like many critics, Groensteen observes that “comics are ←295 | 296→founded on a dialectic of repetition and difference, each image linked to the preceding one by a partial repetition of its contents” (2007: 115; see also Grünewald 2000: 44–5; Baetens & Frey 2015: 161). More specifically, Wendy Steiner proposes that “the most fundamental feature of all narrative” is the “cohesion and, in particular, the continuity of a repeated subject. In visual narrative the repetition of a subject is the primary means for us to know that we are looking at a narrative at all” (2004: 154; see also Mikkonen 2017: 90–108; Bridgeman 2004: n. p.). In this sense, pattern recognition and blending become the two most basic operations of all reading.

Saraceni identifies three basic types of relatedness, which are repetition, collocation, and closure/inference (cf. 2001: 170–8). ‘Collocation’ is what I have discussed in terms of conceptual metonymy: two things are mentally stored as closely connected to each other, so that a reference to the one activates the other. ‘Inference’ is essentially Iser’s gap-filling, consistency-building and gestalt-forming. The three types have to be understood as dependent on each other: without redundancy narratives cannot establish their constituent parts. These garner additional meaning and complexity by activating concepts associated with them. Finally, closure fills in the missing elements to complete the picture. Coherence as a threshold of readers’ understanding of a text requires a certain amount of connectivity, which is fundamentally built on repetition. In other words, there is no originality, complexity or art without redundancy: “The unoriginal is normally the dominant active matrix in any original achievement. Originality is no more than the exploitation of what is unoriginal. Originality, far from being autonomous, is contingent at every point upon the unoriginal structures that inform it” (Turner 1994: 51). Mark Turner is adamant that genius is closer to the pedestrian than the extraordinary: “The imagination must operate in a known space; it must work with unoriginal structures of invention. These are the conditions that the imagination must meet in order to be intelligible. Originality is just a step away from pedestrian thought, which accounts for most of the invention in any poem” (1994: 52). The best comics, with their relentless repetition of elements across panels, may represent a perfect illustration of Turner’s thesis. For the classroom, these repeated elements can and should be traced across panels and pages. Identifying repetition and salience/foregrounding as narrative strategies is a great starting point for an engagement with the basics of visual design. As with teaching poetry, it helps to work with coloured pens on photocopied pages to mark the elements that signal vital relations across panels.

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4.4.3 Sequence vs. Page

The third of Hatfield’s tensions is concerned with the linear and the ‘tabular’ – the sequence of images and the page as a total design. Accordingly, panels contribute to the narrative on different levels of formal organisation:

A single image within such a cluster [panels arranged on a page] typically functions in two ways at once: as a “moment” in an imagined sequence of events, and as a graphic element in an attempted design. […] the single image functions as both a point on an imagined timeline – a self-contained moment substituting for the moment before it, and anticipating the moment to come – and an element of global page design. (Hatfield 2005: 48)

Through the use of double inverted commas Hatfield signals awareness that panels are blends and not literal moments on a timeline, which he seems to suggest in the second sentence, only to counterbalance that with the notion of global design. In contrast to McCloud, who limits himself to a strict linearity, Will Eisner speaks of two frames that the artist always has to keep in mind: “the total page, on which there are any number of panels, and the panel itself, within which the narrative action unfolds. They are the controlling device in sequential art” (2006: 41). As a strong proponent of encapsulation, Eisner sees the action unfold within the panels. Given the choice between the panel and the sequence as a narrative unit, which is Hatfield’s second tension, Eisner seems to be in favour of the first. In Franco-Belgian comics theory the creative arrangement of panels on the page to prompt translinear blending is associated with the term ‘tabular’ (cf. Groensteen 2013: 12) and this is how Pierre Fresnault-Deruelle defines the concept:

It was the impassioned search for a way of making the form of expression coincide with the form of content that gave rise to highly original experiments in layout. The page, a commercial unit of narration, was perceived by some artists as a site for a new way of conceiving its overall design: the images, over and above their role in the narrative, could be part of a structure at another level, at once secondary and aesthetically determining. (2014: 130)

This, of course, dramatically influenced the role of the single panels in relation to the total composition: “the pages are tabular systems in which the panels are not always integrated into a logical continuum, but where certain individual frames, which represent the mental life of the hero, have relations of contiguity that are often complex” (2014: 134). In contrast to film, where shots have to be edited into a specific linear sequence after principal photography is over (cf. Groensteen 2013: 82, 101–2), the panels of comics are made to ‘linger’. They come in different sizes, shapes and frames, maybe even different styles and colours. They cluster together or keep their distance. Fresnault-Deruelle even suggests that they may not be part of the ongoing action at all, e.g. by representing a character’s thoughts ←297 | 298→or the narrator’s comment in the form of a visual metaphor. A conceptualisation of the relationships between panels as graphic forms and in terms of a spatial language or visual grammar (cf. Morris 1993: 196) may result in a very different view of layout in contrast to the linearity of the breakdown. In “Some Medium-Specific Qualities of Graphic Sequences” Pascal Lefèvre equally extends the range of relationships that are conceivable between panels:

From the moment various pictures are grouped together in a series or sequence, the viewer or reader is prompted to look for relations among them. Those relations can be of quite different kinds, including purely formal aspects, such as graphic or abstract qualities pertaining to the form of the pictures, as well as content-related aspects, which can range from how objects are grouped into categories to all kinds of logical, rhetorical, and symbolic relations among the portrayed objects and events. (2011: 26)

None of these relations are coincidental, as comics are heavily designed works of art. In a tabular context iconic solidarity is easy to spot, but these correspondences may extend across pages.

It is important to notice that Scott McCloud does acknowledge comics with very different transitions between panels, such as aspect-to-aspect (type 5), but he associates such phenomena with manga rather than with American comics (cf. 1994: 77–81). They foreground “mood or a sense of place” (1994: 79), which he seems to classify as non-narrative elements, as time and action do not progress. This has more to do with culturally privileging one thing over another and less with the question of narrativity. He even suggests that most mangas are so voluminous that there is less pressure to advance the story (cf. 1994: 80/2–3). Taking the opposite view, Groensteen proposes a specific purpose for this type of storytelling at a higher level of narrative organisation:

… certain mangas are signaled by a massive use of panels that are superfluous from a strictly narrative point of view, their precise function is elsewhere: decorative, documentary, rhythmic, or poetic, whatever the case. These panels respect the general principle of co-reference, but their contribution cannot be evaluated in terms of information. More than the panel, it is therefore the page or the sequence that, under this relationship, constitutes a pertinent unit. In reality, there exists a multiplicity of possible correlations between contiguous panels. (2007: 116–17)

McCloud tends to dismiss such experiments as not conducive to narration altogether. He even adds a visual joke (cf. 1994: 81/1) which shows him strolling along a path in a Japanese garden, which takes him from left to right, the usual orientation in western culture, but then downwards and to the left again, practically getting nowhere. In the next panel (81/2) he feigns to have lost his way. He concludes with the generalisation that western art is goal-oriented, like our ←298 | 299→culture, whereas eastern art is “cyclical and labyrinthine” (1994: 81). The point is not to make fun of McCloud’s simplistic outlook on art, but to highlight how our ‘universal’ truths and theories are always bound to cultural contexts and even personal experiences. Gillian Whitlock and Anna Poletti, who find Understanding Comics “seminal for reading the distinctive grammar of the comics” (2008: xii), cannot help but notice that “McCloud has little to say on the textual cultures of the comics – the intricacies of their circulation, reception, and interpretation in different social and cultural contexts” (2008: xii). Apart from that, Groensteen makes an important distinction between narrative elements that advance the plot and those that contribute to readers’ experiences without having informational value in relation to the story world. This corresponds to reader-response critics’ rejection of the idea that narrative texts are containers of information.

Groensteen’s most important contribution to the analysis of narrative organisation in comics is the insight that ‘iconic solidarity’ (cf. 2007: 17–20; see also 2013: 12, 33–5), which is his term for a panel’s relationships to other panels, does not stop at the level of the page:

… one must recognize the relational play of a plurality of independent images as the unique ontological foundation of comics. The relationship established between these images admits several degrees and combines several operations […]. But their common denominator and, therefore, the central element of comics, the first criteria [sic] in the foundational order, is iconic solidarity. (2007: 17–18)

Because of the potential complexity of how panels may relate to each other, Groensteen chooses to distinguish between “three major operations: breakdown, page layout, and braiding” (2013: 3). From an artistic point of view, a comics narrative has to work as a linear sequence of images (breakdown), as pages and double pages forming narrative units (layout/mise-en-page) and as an interconnected network spanning the entire narrative (braiding). Groensteen’s concept of a “plurivectorial narration” (2007: 108) leads him away from linear progression: “every panel exists, potentially if not actually, in relation with each of the others. This totality […] responds to a model of organization that is not that of the strip nor that of the chain, but that of the network” (2007: 146). He associates the three operations with the linear, the tabular and the “global” (2013: 13), by which he means the “translinear and distant” (2007: 22) connections beyond the page: “comics should be apprehended as a networked mode that allows each panel to hold privileged relations with any others and at any distance” (2007: 126). As a discourse linguist Catherine Emmott also argues that “it is not simply a question of readers establishing a causal link between two adjacent sentences, but of connecting each new sentence with the ‘global representation’ of the text” (2004: 18). ←299 | 300→In this sense, braiding is not a specific feature of comics. What may be unique is the ‘tabular’ as an intermediary level. Within the page frame, the iconic solidarity of panels is translinear, but the links are visible within a reader’s field of vision. The context or background of the scene becomes more important and adds layers of meaning that clearly go beyond the performance of a single action across several panels. This also explains why Franco-Belgian comics theory reveals such a keen interest in the tabular.

One of the more intriguing arguments in this context is Fressnault-Deruelle’s appreciation of the art of Charles M. Schulz, the creator of Peanuts. When he discusses “repetition and monotony as art form” (2014: 124), he notices how Schulz repeats panels strategically:

… by restoring elements from the first panel to identical positions in the final panel, Schulz indicates that the events taking place are in the realm of the imaginary (reality being immutable), and goes as far as to introduce visual rhyme within the strip. An intra-strip patterning is superimposed on the ‘assonance’ of the daily strip (the pay-off of the gag in the fourth panel): the mirroring of the panels at each end, in keeping with the Schulzian view of life, symbolizes the fact that everything has already been said, and that it is vain to take an alternative pathway or to cut his characters any slack. (2014: 124)

The interesting aspect of this analysis is less the meaning of Peanuts, but the realisation that even in the shortest form – the four-panel strip – comics display narrative strategies that go beyond the strict linearity of McCloud’s system.

While the term ‘braiding’ (tressage) suggests several, equally important narrative strands that cross each other, Groensteen makes a distinction between the main narrative sequence and other, more loosely connected series of images, whose “aspects or fragments” are “susceptible to being networked with certain aspects or fragments of other panels” (Baetens & Lefèvre qtd. in Groensteen 2007: 146). This particular understanding of braiding devalues his own contribution to comics studies and forces him to downplay the overall importance of braiding as “a supplementary relation that is never indispensable to the conduct and intelligibility of the story” (2007: 146–7). Groensteen seems to reduce the concept to the circumstantial “resurgence of an iconic motif” (2007: 151), such as a visual symbol, or the thematic concerns of authors that occasionally resurface throughout a text. Only when he discusses Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen does he acknowledge that the comic “makes intense use of all the procedures of braiding”, which means that it “becomes an essential dimension of the narrative project, innerving the entirety of the network that, finding itself placed in effervescence, incites translinear and plurivectorial readings” (2007: 155).

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Instead of reducing braiding to ephemeral links between panels that do not even contribute to the main narrative, it seems much more reasonable to accept it as an important component of all narratives – not just of comics. Following Iser, Emmott and Dancygier, I would argue that every text relies on textual structures that serve as translinear links beyond the context of the present sentence/scene. In fact, any time an element reoccurs that we have encountered before – from narrative strands and contextual frames via characters, settings and objects to more abstract reoccurrences of page layouts and specific colours, just to name a few examples – we have a case of iconic solidarity. These examples may be less exciting than Groensteen’s notion of braiding and the reappearance of visual symbols, thematic concerns or the yellow badge in Watchmen (cf. Groensteen 2007: 152), but there is more continuity between the two phenomena than Groensteen is willing to acknowledge.

Without repetition there is no understanding at all. At the most basic level, we have to recognise the protagonist every time he or she reappears (cf. Mikkonen 2017: 90–108). These primitive forms of pattern recognition are automatically handled by System 1, whereas other forms of braiding may be more ostentatious and invite an active translinear analysis that involves leafing through the book to find the previous occurrence of an element (System 2). In autobiographical comics readers often have to trace several incarnations of the self that reappear – sometimes sporadically – throughout the entire narrative. At the same time they find thematic concerns that resurface with each of the incarnations. In other words: braiding can be used by comics creators to add layers of meaning on top of an otherwise straightforward narrative, but more often than not artists are interested in prompting translinear integration by having textual structures evoke previous frames. In any case, readers have to develop a “synthetic global vision” (Groensteen 2007: 19), which Dancygier would describe as ‘viewpoint compression’, that allows for narrative understanding beyond the scene at hand.

There are literally dozens of examples to be found in Blankets, some of which I shall address in the next chapter. Here, I focus on four important instances that readers encounter in chapter II. When little Craig goes to church camp in winter, we see him walking into the main building, completely isolated from the other participants (2007: 79/1 → Fig. 10). Nine pages later we recognise teenage Craig in exactly the same spot (88/1 → Fig. 11).

Since the correspondences between the images are so strikingly obvious, there is no need to point them out in detail. As if the visual reminder was not enough, the verbal narrator invites a direct comparison: “Church camp in high school became a less lonely experience, as I’d learned to spot the other outsiders” (88/1). While Craig’s life continues to be dominated by routines imposed on him by adults, readers are invited to ←301 | 302→notice a greater amount of agency in contrast to the defeatist attitude that we have come to expect. Since we have already been introduced to the setting and Craig’s overwhelming feeling of isolation, braiding helps to foreground significant tonal changes, especially the dramatic shift of having a friend at his side – not to mention a cute girl he clearly adores. While most readers may become preoccupied with the burgeoning love story and forget about the first narrative iteration of Craig’s adventures at church camp, Thompson continues to work with the parallelism: He repeats panels 1–3 from page 86 (→ Fig. 12) thirty pages later, replacing his freezing and isolated younger self with a representation of his teenage self and Raina at his side (cf. 116/1–3 → Fig. 13). Panel 116/3 acknowledges the link and invites readers to go back and see for themselves how much has happened since then.

On the next page, Thompson takes us into what seems to be a generic bathroom (117). When Craig looks in the mirror (117/4–5), we are reminded of the bathroom at his old school where he had to wash his bloody nose after an instance of bullying (25/5–7). Here, he brushes his hair back to look more attractive to Raina. When the furnace in the rec room starts to fire at the end of chapter II (127/1), whose title is “Stirring Furnace” (66), Craig finds his desire to ←302 | 303→touch Raina, who is sleeping right next to him, hard to control (128). At exactly the same point forty pages before that, we witnessed young Craig improvising a tearful prayer to God: “I’m sorry, God, for sneaking out of the cabin and lying and not reading the Bible and not witnessing to people and picking on my little brother and calling someone ‘ASS’ and drawing a lady without any clothes on that one time and disappointing my parents and everything else” (87/2). Groensteen’s qualification that readers are not required to recognise these types of braiding to be able to understand the ongoing narrative may be warranted in this case, but a more rewarding reading of Blankets involves tracing Craig’s three major concerns – religion, love/sexuality and art, their impact on his life, how they intersect at crucial points in the narrative and how they blend. It is a deliberate choice on Thompson’s part to foreground Craig’s reorientation in terms of the priorities in his life with the help of braiding.

The importance of iconic solidarity beyond the confines of a double spread is one of the major reasons why students should be encouraged to reread parts of books and compare different scenes in view of their potential relations. This type of pattern recognition in comics should be familiar from reading picture books and corresponds to the idea of students as text detectives. For every task that ←303 | 304→encourages students to speculate about how the narrative may progress, there should be another one that invites them to relate the scene under discussion to previous contexts, which may now appear in a very different light or provide a valuable prism to look at present circumstances. Groensteen encourages translinear readings, as the meaning-making process is anything but linear: “If there is a vectorization of reading, there is no unidirectional vectorization in the construction of meaning” (2007: 110). Leaving aside the global perspective of meaning-making, even at the level of reading pages the medium requires a constant going back and forth between linear progression and larger units, as ←304 | 305→Karin Kukkonen explains: “As you read a comics page, you move back and forth between background and foreground, between the general and the specific, in your inferences. Both the layout of the entire page and the details of the individual panels feed into a larger whole, a gestalt” (2013b: 18).

Comparing The System of Comics (2007) with Comics and Narration (2013) it can be observed that Groensteen’s approach has significantly shifted from a semiotic towards a reader-response orientation: “Once the part played by the reader’s cognitive activity in the construction of meaning is accepted, it follows that what ←305 | 306→can be read in the image does not necessarily coincide with what can be seen, and frequently exceeds it” (2013: 36; see also 151). He even introduces his own equivalent of Rosenblatt’s ‘the text’ and ‘the poem’. He differentiates between what is shown in a literal sense (depiction/denotation), how this evokes what has intervened (closure/inference) and what has been signified beyond the literal (connotation/symbolism/metaphors/metonymy/intertextuality) (cf. 2013: 36–41). Groensteen argues that these strategies dominate in certain comics, such as type three in “modern or poetic comics” (2013: 39), but all of them are present at all times. Thus, the subjectivity of characters (internal focalisation), metaphor, analogy, allegory, symbolism, or aesthetic effects are not the prerogative of Chris Ware or (post)modernism (cf. 2013: 40), but part and parcel of comics narration in general. Groensteen is justified in criticising McCloud for his narrow focus on easily discernible action sequences, ruling out the complexity of comics narration as an odd deviation from a general norm (cf. 2013: 41, 181). However, it would be equally wrong to underestimate McCloud’s contribution to comics studies in general and his cognitive approach (based on gestalt psychology) in particular.

4.4.4 Experience vs. Object

Hatfield’s classification of tensions follows two patterns: he works from the inside out and from the smallest units of storytelling to the most encompassing. Since we have already had a look at words vs. images, image vs. sequence, sequence vs. page and the totality of the network/narrative, there is only one aspect left: the overall design and style of a comic book as a material object of art. Here Hatfield is interested in how the experience of reading the narrative is influenced by the interaction of readers with the physical object (its size, weight, quality of paper etc.) and the artistic style that is usually advertised on the cover (cf. 2005: 58, 60). Comics are designed objects, whose individual parts – including the peritexts – are carefully created to invite a response to their graphic art and to trigger an immediate, overall impression.

The materiality of comics has garnered renewed interest with the widespread availability of digital comics, which I have explored in a case study of David Hine’s Strange Embrace and its various print and digitial editions (cf. 2016). Equally, the advent of graphic novels and the mainstream success of cartoonists has made book design a more viable option. For the present discussion, I limit my focus to graphic style and what is termed ‘graphiation’ (cf. Baetens 2001; Baetens & Frey 2015: 137–8; Mikkonen 2015: 101, 112), the personal self-expression of cartoonists through their art. Since the concept of ‘graphiation’ was specifically developed in contrast to widely available and domineering art styles, ←306 | 307→these foils have to be addressed in turn. I end with a brief look at Harvey Pekar’s autobiographical work, which involved him as a writer and several cartoonists, who brought their own sensibilities and styles to American Splendor. This adds an interesting twist to the concept of graphiation and the foundational principles of autobiography.

In Comics and Narration (2013) Groensteen differentiates between ‘monstration’, which he associates with the subservience of the style to the clarity and transparency of expression, and ‘graphiation’, which foregrounds the artist’s signature style of graphic self-expression (cf. 2013: 85). This distinction was introduced by Philippe Marion in Traces en cases (1993) and popularised in English comics criticism by Jan Baetens in his article “Revealing Traces” (2001). It is predicated on a Romantic notion of artistic creation and an intimate relationship between artist and reader. The basic idea is the following: “The visual form of all comic elements is considered a ‘trace’, that is a reflection, a symptom, an index, of the subjectivity of a narrator; however, this subjectivity is never studied in itself, but in its relationship with the narratee, whose presence is as strongly felt as that of the narrator” (2001: 145). To underline the role of the flesh-and-blood cartoonist as a “graphic artist” and “calligrapher”, instead of some anonymous “enunciator” or “abstract agent”, Marion proposed a direct form of communication between artists and appreciative readers through an “idiosyncratic gesture” (2001: 147), which preserves its uniqueness throughout the production process. Baetens and Marion want to overcome the cynicism attached to mass-production by stressing readers’ felt communion with artists through their personal styles (cf. 2001: 148). Baetens, who essentially translates Marion’s arguments from the French, explains that “graphiation is obviously first of all a device of auto-representation” (2001: 149), which suggests that cartoonists are interested in developing a signature style that is immediately recognisable. In film studies this concept is known as auteur theory, which claims that – despite the involvement of dozens or even hundreds of other specialists – it is possible to detect and discuss the style of specific directors (cf. Beaver 2007: 21–2). Naturally, Marion favours the “complete author” (2001: 150), who is the sole creator of a comic, in contrast to the conveyor-belt mentality of having comics mass-produced by highly specialised individuals executing only a single step of the production process according to a predetermined plan. Chris Ware, who is the prime example of an auteur in comics, confirms Marion’s conceptualisation of style in his introduction to McSweeney’s Issue 13:

All cartoonists have a signature “style” that exists beyond the look of their art or the quality of their writing – a sense of experience, a feeling of how they see the world – as ←307 | 308→expressed in how their characters move, how time is sculpted. Comics are an art of pure composition, carefully constructed like music, but structured into a whole architecture, a page-by-page pattern, brought to life and “performed” by the reader – a colorful piece of sheet music waiting to be read. (2004: 11–12; cf. Beatens & Frey 2015: 135)

Apart from mirroring John Dewey’s and – in consequence – Louise M. Rosenblatt’s view of how humans experience art, Ware alludes to the important realisation that style is a form of focalisation. Through style, artists frame their narratives in a particular manner that expresses their attitude towards the material at hand, in the same sense that a parodic style in prose reveals the writer’s thoughts without having to state them explicitly. In the case of autobiographical texts, readers not only get a sense of how artists experience the world in general terms, as Ware suggests, but specific views – both literally and figuratively – of their lives. Accordingly, questions of overall visual design and the creators’ attitude to the piece have to be clarified – at least to a certain extent – before breakdown (cf. Eisner 2006: 128). Due to this centrality of style, it is not surprising that graphiation has been a major concern of autobiographical comics studies for quite some time now (cf. e.g. Kukkonen 2013b: 56; Chute 2010: 10–11; Versaci 2007: 43–7; Fischer & Hatfield 2011: 74–5).

One of the most interesting discussions of style in (autobiographical) comics can be found in Craig Fischer and Charles Hatfield’s article on “Calligraphy, Graphic Focalization, and Narrative Braiding in Eddie Campbell’s Alec” (2011). Looking at the almost complete collection of Alec stories in The Years Have Pants, the authors characterise Campbell’s work as “black and white, and mostly drawn in the roughhewn, autographic style that has become a Campbell trademark and a reminder of his small-press roots” (2011: 74). Since Fischer and Hatfield introduce important points in each of their three subsections, I follow them in order.

They define calligraphy in this context as “the autographic or doodle-like immediacy of Alec’s graphic style, which is typically loose, sketchy, spontaneous-seeming, and akin to handwriting” (2011: 75), which allows for “the comics image” to be “read as text, approaching, thanks to the calligraphic hand of the artist, the vanishing point where illustration, diagram, pictogram, and writing are all so many hand-drawn extensions of a single artistic sensibility” (2011: 75). Thus, Fischer and Hatfield add another dimension to the discussion of style, as they propose shared qualities between verbal and visual expression, conceptualise writing and drawing as extensions of each other and ultimately understand “cartooning as handwriting” (2011: 76). This is nothing new, as Will Eisner included a short chapter on “Letters as Images” in his 1985 book Comics and Sequential Art (cf. 2006: 14–16), in which he stresses the pictorial roots of all alphabets. Hand-lettering, which has been largely replaced with digital fonts in ←308 | 309→mainstream comics, traditionally involved ‘drawing’ letters, which is even more visible in the design of sound words.

Treating Campbell’s graphic style as focalisation, Fischer and Hatfield come to the conclusion that, apart from the general features listed above, it

… isn’t a single “style” but rather a constantly changing relationship with style, one that leads to continual variations in the comics’ [sic] degree of abstractness and in its graphic rendering. Campbell’s artwork isn’t exactly representational in a literal, supposedly objective sense. Rather, it evokes a perspective, a way of seeing that is partial, frankly subjective, and emotionally invested. For something so organically unified, Campbell’s “style” is plural, and all over the place: panel by panel, his drawings modulate to evoke the shifting terms of his attention and emotional entanglement. (2011: 76)

Hatfield is the critic who introduced the concept of “emotional truths” (2005: 113) to the study of autobiographical comics, for which he finds a perfect example in Campbell’s Alex stories. More to the point, style varies with every publication, scene or moment in the Alec series, even though the artist’s “idiosyncratic gesture” (Baetens 2001: 147) is recognisable in all of these variants. Using Alan Palmer’s term of ‘aspectuality’ to describe a character’s “own way of perceiving the storyworld – through his/her own beliefs, desires, motivations, and biases” (2011: 77), Fischer and Hatfield claim that the variations in style serve to foreground the characters’ unique perspectives on the world. Mikkonen calls the same phenomenon a character’s “mind style” (2015: 114), which he defines as a visual representation of a character’s subjective view (cf. 2015: 114–15).

For Marion, I believe, this would somewhat detract from the core idea of graphiation as artistic self-expression, as style is made to serve a narrative purpose here. In reality, this line is very hard to draw, especially in autobiographical texts, where the aspectuality of every younger self is equally expressive of the artist’s point of view and the overall design of the narrative. Focalisation in comics is a question of layering rather than a straightforward attribution of perspective to a single entity: “the action may be focalized in ways consistent with the character’s emotional state, while still being presented through an ocular perspective external to the character” (Fischer & Hatfield 2011: 78). Accordingly, readers should not confuse a third-person external visual point of view with a neutral perspective. We return to this phenomenon in the next part in the context of narration.

Fischer and Hatfield’s third point is braiding. Style can be an important component of braiding in that it helps to foreground elements of the design that, in turn, remind readers of things they have encountered before: “Campbell knits this memoir together with braided motifs that function simultaneously ←309 | 310→to insinuate meaning and, graphically, to complete his pages. Such motifs are often presented slyly, through an ostensible parataxis (literally, a placing side by side) rather than subordinated to an overtly narrated syntax” (2011: 84). Style also plays a role in the artist’s consideration of the “aesthetics of fragmentation” (2011: 85), of how many and which types of gaps the (imaginary) readers can handle. Fantastic scenarios can be grounded through a photorealistic style and the most mundane things can become defamiliarised when treated in a minimalist, fragmentary manner.

Since style permeates everything in comics, these have been just a few notable contexts in which it plays a more prominent role. The most important one is clearly cartooning and how artists choose to work with pre-existing styles and established conventions. Concerning the authenticity or truth value of autobiographical comics, style is a double-edged sword: on the one hand, “cartooning is, inescapably, a metaphor for the subjectivity of perception” (2007: 21; see also 118–25; Groensteen 2013: 85), as Douglas Wolk explains, “a direct expression of their creators’ idiosyncrasies and work-specific intentions” (2007: 30). According to the logic of graphiation, this would mean that readers gain ‘direct access’ to artists’ unique vision of the world, which would make autobiographical comics exceptionally authentic. On the other hand, readers are constantly reminded of the complete subjectivity of the text, where everything has been “transformed through somebody’s eye and hand” (2007: 118). Since there is no neutral ground or absolute objectivity in cartooning, it seems more pertinent to speak of ‘creative non-fiction’ and treat autobiographical texts as narratives, as I do throughout this thesis. In other genres, the impact of graphic style on aspectuality can complicate the matter even further, “prompting the reader to speculate whether the focus of perception and the cognitive attitude belongs to a character, a narrator, or the author” (Mikkonen 2015: 113). While autographic texts are shaped by a unique vision anyway, the presence of graphiation in purely fictional texts always adds a layer of focalisation that is difficult to bring in line with Genette’s theory (cf. Mikkonen 2017: 154). In classical narratology it may seem like a sacrilege to confuse character, narrator and creator, but the more one ponders focalisation in comics, the more ambiguous the concept becomes under these circumstances. Following Monika Fludernik, Mikkonen even suggests that “it does not always matter who speaks or sees in the narrative […]. What may be much more important is how the reader, or the viewer, gets optimal information about a character’s consciousness: his or her motivations, thoughts, and perceptions” (2017: 153). This is clearly related to Alan Palmer’s argument in favour of aspectuality (cf. 2017: 120), which cuts across key concerns of narratology to arrive at a more integrated understanding of characters in narratives.

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Since this section began with the Romantic notion that comics artists communicate directly with their fans through a unique style, graphiation cannot be divorced from the drudgery of comics production, considering that a single person has to render a whole book in a consistent style: “Drawing is an extremely labor-intensive, repetitive, virtually boring, exasperating, and desperately disheartening activity” (Baetens & Frey 2015: 138). When artists have completed a so-called ‘dummy book’, which is a rough mock-up of the finished product, they have to spend years to execute it ‘properly’ for publication (cf. e.g. Thompson in Whybark 2003: transcript 8). There are always purely pragmatic considerations, such as how much work artists can handle next to their day jobs as freelance illustrators or teachers, to what extent prospective publishers or conventions restrain creativity, how accessible texts have to be to reach a broader audience and, finally, how style is determined by the media, by which I mean the physical objects and tools the artists use. In this context Hatfield speaks of style as “the relationship between narrative content and physical medium” (2005: 63).

Another blow to Marion’s ideal of artistic self-expression is the creative necessity to serve a specific work of art, a scene or even a single moment. In their article Fischer and Hatfield demonstrate how Campbell varies his style to accommodate specific narrative purposes. Accordingly, the first foil to pure self-expression has to be “the rhetorical use” (Baetens & Frey 2015: 112; see also Groensteen 2013: 46–7; Peeters 2007) of art that subordinates visual design to storytelling, which then requires countless adjustments. Characters, objects and locations have to be recognisable across the narrative, which means that their cartoon representations have to rely on a few defining features that are discernible from different angles, under different ‘lighting’ conditions and in different configurations. Apart from this redundancy, elements of the composition have to be foregrounded all the time (cf. Mikkonen 2015: 115) and the rhythm of the panels has to fit the type of narrative the artist attempts to tell (cf. Baetens & Frey 2015: 132). Changes in modality (cf. Mikkonen 2017: 42) are often communicated with the help of style to mark a transition from one ontological frame to another. Following David Bordwell, Mikkonen lists four pragmatic functions of narrative style: “channel story information (denotative function), convey meanings (thematic function), signal a feelingful quality (expressive function), and exhibit perceptual qualities and patterns (decorative function)” (2015: 111).

David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp may be the most prominent example of the rhetorical use, as every character is associated with a specific type of speech balloon, font, artistic style and primary colour (cf. Duncan 2012: 48): “By modifying the drawing technique according to the character, the monstrator translates into external terms the way that each of them sees the world, their idiosyncrasies” ←311 | 312→(Groensteen 2013: 115). This is a case where aspectuality or mind-style is more important than overall visual consistency, which does not mean that Asterios Polyp lacks design. Marion’s concept of graphiation reaches its limits where it would mean that artists invariably foreground their signature style independent of genre or specific content. Judging the rhetorical use of style, we are still within the scope of cartoonists making choices that they consider advantageous for their works of art. The next two types, classical Franco-Belgian albums and US-American house styles (Marvel & DC), are good examples of externally imposed constraints. In some ways strict limitations may inspire creativity, to which the best newspaper cartoons attest, or they impede artists’ self-expression due to their overpowering rigidity. I start with the album and follow with a look at the beginnings of Marvel’s house style.

According to Groensteen, the Franco-Belgian tradition of comics was dominated for a very long time by “the ideals of simplicity” (2013: 47; see also Lefèvre 2011: 16), “the dogma of uniformity of style” (2013: 6) and “the sacred imperative of optimum transparency and immediate legibility” (2013: 6; see also 47, 56). At one point Groensteen even complains “how rule-governed the sphere of comics is” (2013: 55), which sounds odd as a generalisation, but his frequent references to the constraints of working within the established rules of the album tradition testify to such a pattern. The standard layout of albums even has a nickname – the “waffle-iron” (2013: 44) – which refers to the rigid pattern of panels on a page.

In the Franco-Belgian context one notices an almost revolutionary fervour, or at least a heightened sensitivity when scholars talk about phenomena that transcend the limitations of this prototype. We have already encountered how enthusiastically Pierre Fresnault-Deruelle celebrates the potential of the tabular to introduce layouts that overcome the linear progression of the narrative. Groensteen points out how the so-called French “neo-baroque” style “permanently deploys a whole arsenal of unsystematic effects”, which was embraced by “a generation that has turned its back on the ideals of simplicity and transparency that permeated Franco-Belgian comics” (2013: 47). At the level of mise-en-page this question seems to belong to Hatfield’s third tension, but Groensteen specifically addresses the cultural context and a general attitude towards comics and storytelling that is mirrored in the style and artistic choices. Style, in this sense, can have a strong primacy effect, as it invites a stance towards the narrative before one even begins to read.

The exact opposite of personal self-expression is the adherence to a so-called ‘house style’. Throughout their illustrious history American comics publishers Marvel and DC have worked more or less persistently on a corporate design ←312 | 313→that is intended to establish a consistent look across their major lines. Douglas Wolk sees “the rise of ‘house style’ in the ‘70s”, epitomised by “the 1978 publication of How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way”, which created a “generation of cartoonists who learned that there was a right (‘Marvel’) way and wrong way to draw everything (2007: 51). At the time, Neal Adams had set a new and very successful standard of how to draw (Marvel) superhero comics, so the company was eager to establish a best practice model and have young, aspiring artists follow a clearly delineated path. In the industry, ‘artists’ were considered to be mere (wage) labourers for a very long time, who were meant to visually execute stories that were handed to them. However, over a decade before that, it was Jack Kirby who became “the artistic dynamo of the Marvel line” and left his mark on its creative output: “the company’s style was built squarely on Kirby” (Hatfield 2012: 105). In an interview with Gary Groth, the editor of The Comics Journal, Gil Kane, who worked as a freelance artist for Marvel in the 1960s, comments on the impact of house styles:

Jack’s point of view and philosophy of drawing became the governing philosophy of the entire publishing company, and beyond the publishing company, of the entire field. […] In order to broaden the scope of their publishing, what they managed to do was to take Jack and use him as a primer. They would get artists, regardless of whether they had done romance or anything else, and they taught them the ABCs, which amounted to learning Jack Kirby. […] Jack was used as the yardstick by which they could measure their own progress. Jack was like the Holy Scripture, and they simply had to follow him without deviation. That’s what was told to me, that’s what I had to do. It was how they taught everyone to reconcile all these opposing attitudes to one single master point of view. (Groth 1986: 69–70; cf. Hatfield 2012: 106)

Despite important progress in the acknowledgement of comics artists’ rights and a certain acceptance of unique artistic visions, the house styles are still in place, as recent relaunches of the Marvel or DC lines have shown. This preference for corporate identity over individual style has two unfortunate consequences.

First, by suppressing the artists’ individual sensibilities and forcing them to adopt a pre-determined look, the publishers make it a lot harder for cartoonists to claim authorship (cf. Bredehoft 2011: 106). In a predominantly visual medium it is somewhat absurd to celebrate writers as the sole creators (e.g. Alan Moore), but relegate the contributions of artists to mere execution (e.g. Dave Gibbons, David Lloyd and Eddie Campbell’s work on Watchmen, V for Vendetta and From Hell respectively). It is not a coincidence that the so-called independent publishers (e.g. Image), attracted talent by promising ownership, creative control and shared profits (cf. Duncan, Smith & Levitz 2015: 69–70). Secondly, formulaic writing usually leads to generic fiction as an endless repetition of the same ←313 | 314→patterns and that includes style in the case of comics. For uninitiated readers it is difficult to detect how the most celebrated artists in superhero comics still manage to work around the formula, which is ostentatiously visible in their work. This is not specific to comics, as poets creating Elizabethan sonnet cycles were equally faced with the dilemma of not repeating the formula whilst working within the confinements of the tradition.

These discussions of style may seem very far removed from what is relevant for the classroom, but I would argue that the exact opposite is the case. Styles and established patterns are a phenomenon in every form of human communication, from comics and blockbuster films via dating to academic essays. The ‘uniqueness’ of great art or genre writing results from one’s familiarity with the tradition combined with intriguing variations of the established patterns. I have already quoted Mark Turner’s view on this issue (cf. 1994: 51). Like fragmentation and conceptual integration, the tension between repetition and innovation is foundational to the medium itself, especially the strip format. While educational genre writing requires an extended study of how text types work – the what of genres – to empower students to reach a higher level of performance through imitation (cf. Hallet 2011), the focus in narrative genre studies has to be set on questions that allow students to explore how a text transcends such stereotypes. Formal writing may rely on predetermined styles, layouts, structures and phrases to communicate information effectively, but ‘genre fiction’ is a derogatory term, because it applies the same principles to literature. From a ‘high-brow’ point of view, even the term ‘genre’ on its own usually means horror, science fiction and fantasy or, in a broader sense, all popular genres, which would then include romance, thriller, adventure, suspense, western or mystery. Students largely know the conventions, so the focus has to be on how creators work around the limitations of the form and find new means of expression. Like the unique selling point of films, to name the most simplistic approach to address this question, literary teaching has to keep the variations and deviations in view.

Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor series, for which he collaborated with various artists, most notably Robert Crumb, raises important questions about authorship and graphiation. Therefore, it is ideally suited for a case study to discuss these questions in context. In a fascinating article on this subject matter, Thomas A. Bredehoft claims that, for a more adequate conceptualisation and appreciation of authorship in comics, readers have to realise that the artists’ execution of a comic script – no matter how detailed the verbal descriptions may have been – always exceeds the prefiguration through the writer and warrants their recognition as co-authors (cf. 2011: 99–100, 105). He quotes Robert Crumb’s ←314 | 315→introduction to Ballantine’s 2003 anthology of American Splendor stories to provide some context for the question to what extent Pekar can be credited as the sole creator of these comics (cf. 2011: 100). I extend the quotation slightly by adding a few more comments from the first page:

… illustrating his stories is not easy. There’s so little real comic-book-style action for an artist to sink his teeth into. Mostly it’s just people standing around talking, or just Harvey himself addressing the reader for page after page. […] He writes the stories in a crudely laid-out comic page format using stick figures, with the dialogue over their heads, and some descriptive directions for the artist to work from. The next phase involves calling up various artists and haranging [sic] them to take on particular stories. (Crumb 2003: n. p.)

In American Splendor, whose first issue was published in 1976, Pekar established a unique style – what Marion would associate with graphiation – through his ‘voice’. In his extended study of Pekar’s work, Joseph Witek repeatedly stresses the importance of the autobiographer’s verbal art, who “brings a musician’s ear to the rhythms of daily speech and the nuances of ethnic dialects; many of the short pieces in American Splendor are simply celebrations of the way people talk” (1989: 130–2). For a medium that is equally comprised of the verbal and the visual, Witek’s remarks on a comic artist’s prose style are rather the exception, as the discussion of visual style – e.g. in the form of graphiation – tends to dominate critical debates.

In contrast to the antics of superheroes and underground comix artists, Pekar deliberately foregrounds the most mundane experiences, such as “Standing Behind Old Jewish Ladies in Supermarket Lines”, “How I Quit Collecting Records” or “An Argument at Work” (2003: n. p.). At the same time, Harvey handles his personal struggles, obsessions and little triumphs with such an unflinching ‘honesty’ and reveals so many character quirks in the process (cf. Witek 1989: 127), that readers are likely to become interested in this filing clerk’s “daily grind of working-class life in middle America” (Gardner 2012: 135). As Crumb explains above, these vignettes often take the form of extensive soliloquies (cf. Bredehoft 2011: 103) that rely on Pekar’s unique voice for consistency and put artists in the impossible situation of having to create visuals that add to the narrative in a meaningful way. “The Harvey Pekar Name Story” features 48 almost identical panels of Harvey talking directly to the reader, and still Crumb manages to convey many nuances through facial expressions, gestures, eye contact with readers and pauses. Bredehoft is adamant that, even as we accept Pekar as the authority on his own life, the visuals are too important to be ignored:

←315 | 316→

Pekar is the author if we continue to privilege the linguistic at all costs, but the degree to which he does and does not control the visual aspects of his comics – the images and their relationships –suggests the possibility of slippage or uncertainty in our ability to identify Pekar (as the subject of the comics) with the unique author of the images. (2011: 98)

Pekar chose artists whose styles would fit specific types of stories, which suggests that he exerted creative control over the aesthetics of his comic book to a certain extent (cf. Bredehoft 2011: 101–2). Bredehoft quotes Pekar declaring that he was able to find the most suitable collaborator for each assignment, “like a casting director assigns roles” (Pekar qtd. in Bredehoft 2011: 101; see also Witek 1989: 137). Although Pekar’s reference to acting is appropriate, considering comics’ general reliance on dramatisation and his collaborators’ practical involvement in staging scenes, I see more parallels to an executive producer (‘showrunner’) of a TV series finding the most suitable directors for tonally different episodes. The cartoonist’s responsibility clearly exceeds casting/acting and encompasses overall visual design and composition. Returning to the concept of style as focalisation, I agree with Bredehoft that the artists engaged in biographical work (cf. 2011: 99–100) and significantly shaped the stories. Bredehoft applies Mikhail Bakhtin’s term heteroglossia to American Splendor (cf. 2011: 99), since he considers the styles (‘voices’) of the cartoonists equally constitutive of the readers’ experiences of the character(s). Despite the fact that the production of collaborative comics progresses from writing to drawing, readers’ first impressions are undeniably visual, which gives the artists a lot of influence over how readers perceive Harvey. While some of them (e.g. Gerry Shamray) chose to take “hundreds of photos of Pekar, his wife, his apartment, the streets of his neighbourhood, and so on” (Crumb 2003: n. p.), presumably to match reality as closely as possible, Crumb’s Harvey can be unflatteringly hunched, hairy and cartoonish – not to mention irascible and obnoxious (e.g. in “A Fantasy”; Pekar 2003: n. p.). This leads Bredehoft to the following conclusion: “Pekar’s ‘voice’ and Crumb’s visual style each constitute a distinct and separate ‘stylistic coherence’ in such a fashion that both figures must be identified as partaking of the work’s author function” (2011: 104). Looking at the overall visual presentation of American Splendor, which offers “seemingly irreconcilable variations of depictions of Pekar himself” (2011: 98), the autobiographical self becomes visibly fragmented: While Pekar’s unique voice provides cohesion across all stories, every artist had to invent his or her own Harvey. As if that was not enough, Pekar experimented with thinly disguised pseudonyms (e.g. Herbie, Marvin) that appear in their own stories next to the ‘adventures’ ←316 | 317→of the ‘Harvey’ character (cf. Witek 1989: 123; Gardner 2012: 136). He also foregrounded different character traits in these pieces, to the point that readers were challenged to reconcile the “aggressive manipulator” with the “passive depressive, a street hustler” and “a social outcast” (Gardner 2012: 136). The most widely discussed story in the context of American Splendor’s heteroglossia is “A Marriage Album” (Issue 10; 1985; cf. Bredehoft 2011: 98), co-written by Pekar and his wife Joyce Brabner, for which Val Mayerik provided the art. For a scene that shows Joyce visiting Harvey for the first time, Mayerik had to recreate various renderings of Pekar’s cartoon selves, as Brabner imagines what he may look like based on the comic.

At this point in their relationship Brabner had been in contact with Pekar for some time, through letters and on the phone, but Harvey’s ‘physical presence’, his behaviour in social situations, the embodiment of his emotions and reactions to everyday experiences, were mostly known to her through visual representations by various artists. The irony, of course, is that Joyce meets Harvey three panels later, which signals an important step in Brabner and Pekar’s personal lives, but readers progress from one representation to another (cf. Witek 1989: 139). Benjamin Stevens calls this transformation of different modalities into the same representational code “ontological ambiguity” (2010: paragraph 14), as everything becomes equally real: two-dimensional, hand-drawn and monochromatic. Readers know from experience (embodied cognition, basic scripts), the narrative context of the scene and the characters’ warm embrace that, emotionally, this meeting has to be a major event, but for readers there is no shift in modality: Mayerik’s Harvey is as ‘real’ to us as Crumb’s. However, the ambiguity of authorship and authenticity is not limited to this one panel that confronts us with eight cartoon renderings of Harvey, but extends to the whole story and beyond. Leaving aside Mayerik’s substantial contribution to this story, of which the many wordless panels he had to create for this narrative are just one obvious indicator, it was also written by two people and features ambiguous shifts in perspective. We see Harvey on his couch ruminating about the early days of his relationship with Joyce, of which we are reminded intermittently throughout the next two pages. At the end of this sequence we find Joyce telling her friend Maxine the very same story in the car, obviously from her perspective. Since we are presented with scenes that only Joyce witnessed, she has to be the source of this information. Harvey may have heard about the details in a letter or during a telephone conversation before their marriage, or later when they moved in together. The scenes are clearly framed as Harvey’s memories at first, but drawn, of course, by Mayerik. This is a typical example of the polyphony that Bredehoft associates with American Splendor and an illustration of why Mikkonen finds the ←317 | 318→application of traditional narratological concepts to comics quite challenging. Since we revisit the fragmentation of the autobiographical self in the next part, for the present discussion of style and its impact on comics narration it seems appropriate to look at the other end of the spectrum – an overabundance of verbal narration. This also returns us to Hatfield’s first tension between words and images.

A surprising number of Pekar’s short stories rely on what Bredehoft calls “an extended Pekar soliloquy” (2011: 103), which results in an unusual and overbearing amount of continuous verbal narration in captions and/or thought balloons. This leaves very little room for visual narration and threatens to degrade the images to the level of illustration. In the Ballantine collection of American Splendor, “American Splendor Assaults the Media”, “An Everyday Horror Story”, “I’ll Be Forty-Three on Friday” or “Violence” (Pekar 2003: n. p.) are just the tip of the iceberg in this respect. Where “A Marriage Album” leaves plenty of room for Mayerik to re-create the couple’s early history, with Harvey’s verbal contributions restricted to a few speech balloons, “Violence”, also drawn by Mayerik, is incredibly text-heavy. It was published in the same tenth issue of American Splendor and, on the surface, offers an ongoing piece of prose, which Mayerik had to illustrate with a few suitable images. On a spectrum between prose narrative and pure visual storytelling, “Violence” and “A Marriage Album” are closer to the extreme poles than to each other. Still, Mayerik’s contribution to “Violence” should not be underestimated. Bredehoft sees a deliberate choice of artist, who is known for his work in superhero comics and who finally got a chance to capitalise on that set of skills for American Splendor (c.f. 2011: 101–2). Looking at the entire span of his lifetime, Pekar hones in on a few dramatic scenes of violence, which Mayerik had to capture within single dramatic panels or two consecutive frames at best. While some of the captions are oppressively verbose for a comic, especially on the final page, the cartoonist’s style is neither secondary nor coincidental.

A last word on style takes us to the groundbreaking film adaptation of American Splendor (2003) by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, which combines comics aesthetics with feature film narration, archival footage, interviews, making-of sequences and other documentary formats to create a generic hybrid that perfectly mirrors the kaleidoscopic approach that the comic takes. In recreated scenes actor Paul Giamatti portrays Harvey Pekar, who provides the voice-over narration and appears as himself in the film, in an actual recording of Late Night with David Letterman and even alongside Giamatti on the set at one point. Instead of promoting a mimetic illusion or a coherent master narrative of Pekar’s life, viewers are constantly reminded of the film’s ostentatious ←318 | 319→arrangements. Jason Sperb (2006) uses Gilles Deleuze’s concept of simulacrum to approach what seems to be a postmodern deconstruction of the (auto/biographical) self in the film. The opening sequence alone introduces us to a child actor playing young Harvey, who is quickly replaced with Giamatti as the older version of the same character, Pekar as the voice-over narrator referring to Giamatti as himself, Crumb’s cartoon Harvey pointing at Giamatti and stating that he (Giamatti) is playing ‘him’ now. This leads Sperb to the following important questions:

Does the real Harvey Pekar become more real because he is surrounded by cartoon Harveys, and by the photographically – but not historically or biographically – real ‘Harvey’ (Giamatti)? Or as I am inclined to suggest, does the performance of these other Harveys heighten our awareness of the real Harvey as himself in a state of performance? (2006: 136)

The performance aspect is foregrounded in Pekar’s various appearances on the Letterman show, where the supposedly ‘real’ Pekar plays an erratic version of himself, which is intended to camouflage his own nervousness and amuse the audience with unexpected quips (cf. Witek 1989: 143–6). We are reminded, as Sperb correctly observes, that Pekar playing himself is as much a performance as Crumb’s or Giamatti’s Harveys. This leads him to the following conclusion:

This film attempts to document his life, and Harvey plays an active role by narrating and commenting on events. Yet the deconstructive nature of the narrative, and Harvey’s own attempts to resist a definitive representation of his life story, provide instead a text in which postmodernism and the simulacrum serve as the primary, antithetical act of documentation. (2006: 124)

It has to be said that the resistance to a definite representation of Pekar’s life is very evident in the comic series and perfectly mirrored in the film’s style and generic hybridity. There is neither an essence of character nor a sense of truth-telling that is often ascribed to documentary filmmaking. Sperb makes an important distinction between the postmodernity of Pekar’s presence and the inappropriateness of a postmodern reading of the film (cf. 2006: 125). American Splendor does not eschew the serious attempt to capture Pekar’s real-life experiences, but it is very honest about its limitations: even having the ‘real’ Pekar collaborating on the film does not make it more authentic. At one point, Sperb is willing to abandon postmodernist film theory and accepts American Splendor for what it is: “It is a film about painful life experiences, and about the impossibility of representing those experiences” (2006: 128). Still, he feels haunted by the “crisis of unrepresentable experience and suffering [… in] postmodern film and film studies” (2006: 128). Despite Sperb’s realisation that American Splendor is ←319 | 320→able to convey Pekar’s “painful life experiences”, he is not willing to abandon his postmodernist stance. Yet, it is precisely the externalisation, dramatisation and fictionalisation of Pekar’s experiences that make them accessible in terms of emotional truth.

The style of the film – the postmodern foregrounding of its own status as a work of art – is central to the approach that the writers and directors took. It mirrors and further elaborates on the visual and generic hybridity of Pekar’s own comic books. Far from an ancillary effect, the overall design, I would argue, is as essential to this transmedial narrative project as Marion’s graphiation is to the personal expression of the artist: it cannot be separated from content or meaning, as these are largely determined by the way the narrative presents itself. Pekar’s voice(s) and the artists’ styles become two sides of the same coin. Many critics have become fascinated with these questions, as the visual design of comics is not decorative, but constitutive. Both Bredehoft and Sperb take the lack of Pekar’s presence in and control over these autobiographical texts as their starting points for a discussion of authorship and authenticity respectively. Marion’s concept of graphiation is predicated on the idea that Walter Benjamin’s ‘aura’ of the original work of art miraculously survives mechanical reproduction (cf. Gardner 2012: 146–7) through the artist’s graphic style. Would Pekar’s comics be more authentic, truthful and imbued with his personality if he had been gifted with exceptional drawing skills? Is it more important for readers that artists’ styles match the narrative or foreground their unique sensibilities? I am sceptical of the notion of authenticity and the illusion of direct communion between writer and reader. Having said that, I find Jared Gardner’s approach to the ‘aura’ of autobiographical comics more convincing:

… the auratic nature of autobiographical truth is worth defending – indeed it must be defended – even as the fictional mediations of that truth must be simultaneously acknowledged – not as a fall from grace but as a paradoxical but equally valid “truth.” It is the graphic memoir that best allows for this simultaneous claim of autobiography and fiction, and for the simultaneous demand on the reader for both distance and identification. (2012: 147)

There is no escape from representation, which turns the personal style of the artist into another available resource; nothing more. Berman and Pulcini’s American Splendor as an auto/biography of Harvey Pekar completely demolishes the borderline between biography and autobiography, between artistic self-expression and collaborative effort, between truth and fiction. And yet, having convincingly demonstrated that nothing is real in this film, Sperb succumbs to its emotional truth: “American Splendor is not just a light-hearted play of surfaces, ←320 | 321→it is also a story of trauma – of the very real pain of cancer treatment and survival” (2006: 127). It is important to notice that Gardner shifts the focus from the codes – which are only means of artistic expression – to the experiences of the readers, who have to discover for themselves what they are willing to embrace as an emotionally resonant ‘truth’ about another person’s life. They are well aware – or should be – that “fictional mediations” (2012: 147) cannot lead to a revelation of essences and eternal truths, but that the power of art can transform a feeling of what it means to be a particular person under specific circumstances into a worthwhile experience for readers and viewers.

4.5 A Cognitive Reading of Craig Thompson’s Blankets (Chapter I)

A reading of Craig Thompson’s Blankets might as well begin with the cover and other peritexts, which offer excellent starting points for speculations and first impressions. Assuming that the book is discussed in the context of autobiographical comics, the subtitle “an illustrated novel” (2007) may surprise a few readers. On the one hand, it offers a variation on the more familiar term ‘graphic novel’, which begs the question whether there are differences between the two formats. On the other hand, critical readers may object to the idea of reading a novel in the context of ‘non-fiction’, which is a widespread association with the genre of autobiography. However, Blankets and its paratexts (cf. e.g. Whybark 2003) provide readers with contradictory evidence concerning the authenticity or truth-value of the narrative. A naïve understanding of autobiography usually involves two basic misconceptions: confusing a literary genre (art) with sworn testimony (law) and mistaking someone’s memories (mental networks) for what happened (reality). I am going to address these two points in the next part, but for the moment it suffices to recognise that there is a legal reason for labelling Blankets an ‘illustrated novel’, precisely because readers have such expectations. On the copyright page Thompson states: “This graphic novel is based on personal experiences, though the names have been changed, and certain characters, places, and incidents have been modified in the service of the story” (2007: 4). To avoid a potential libel charge and to retain creative control over a work of art, especially when auto/biographical facts are in the way, may be two unusual points to raise in this context, but they reflect the reality of working in this genre and medium. Students may not even notice the label or fail to ascribe particular importance to it without explicit prompting. This might result from a blind trust in a teacher’s classification of the narrative – despite potential evidence to the contrary – or from a general habit of starting to read on page 1, where prose ←321 | 322→narratives usually begin. This is why framing a reading sequence plays such an important role in educational settings, especially when it involves a reorientation in terms of new genres or (narrative) media.

Picture books and graphic novels are usually designed in their entirety by the creator(s), which endows their peritexts – and especially the cover – with more importance and ‘weight’ than those of prose narratives. Hatfield dedicates one of his four tensions to “text as experience vs. text as object” (2005: 58) to highlight the impact of design on all levels of the creative process. Since both art forms share these qualities, it helps to approach comics through picturebook studies, where the materiality of the book, the centrality of paratexts and the importance of style have always been key research areas (cf. e.g. Nodelman 1988: 40–100; Nikolajeva & Scott 2006: 241–57).

One striking characteristic of my paperback edition of Blankets is the use of colours for the cover, which are set off against the black and white of the main body of the text. Thompson picked blue for the outside and a desaturated orange for the inside cover. Assuming that he had a free choice, blue is quite unusual for a love story. Before the text is announced and speculations on the cover start, it may be an interesting activity to let students collect iconic representations of love online, discuss the iconicity of love in class and then compare their findings with the cover illustration. Like film posters, picturebook and comics creators utilise covers to promote their content, appeal to genre expectations, introduce characters, settings and themes, express their attitude towards the narrative through stylistic choices and convey a certain mood. On the back cover of Blankets readers find an endorsement by journalist and now TV critic for The New York Times James Poniewozik, writing for TIME magazine in 2003. He considers Thompson’s graphic novel “a rarity: a first-love story so well remembered and honest that it reminds you what falling in love feels like”. This may serve as a second interesting contrast to the cover illustration, where the two lovers awkwardly embrace each other. We find them off centre (towards the right) at an unusually great distance, as if we chanced upon them. Due to the thick black outlines, the characters are foregrounded against a barely three-dimensional environment that seems both harsh and unforgiving to me: The lovers stand ankle-deep in a blanket of snow and behind them we discern a ghostly forest fence of dead trees. It could be interesting to have students rate how romantic the image is. This encounter with the protagonists is continued on the spine, where a medium close-up shows the couple from a shorter distance. The characters look sad, frightened, out of touch with the world, like an endangered species, or maybe caught in the act – surprised that someone else is there. One could even argue that readers have moved closer, which has alerted Craig and Raina to their presence. All of this is purely speculative and provides more potential for classroom discussions. ←322 | 323→The inside cover is orange and shows what readers later learn to be Raina’s quilt, a personal art object she made for Craig as a gift and which is the only remaining thing he did not burn after the relationship had ended (cf. 2007: 525–8). This introduces another blanket and more symbolism to the cover – next to the trees and the footsteps: figuratively speaking, the book is wrapped in Raina’s blanket.

The title presents more clues. I have already drawn attention to the blankets of snow and Raina’s quilt, but there are more blankets to discover. Raina and Craig’s footprints leave tentative marks in the snow, which is another ongoing theme in the novel. As an artist Craig/Thompson is confronted with blank pages (cf. 2007: 141, 147–8) and the question what marks he would like to leave. As a devout Christian, he is looking for something permanent and meaningful, but finds his initial ‘output’ sinful and of little value. At the same time, readers are aware of the massive and highly regarded graphic novel in their hands, which represents an interesting case of dramatic irony. Most of these observations are impossible to make without any knowledge of the text, so the benefits of rereading equally apply to the cover. As students should find their own way into the narrative, they only require a few hints in the form of questions rather than a specific analytical framework. As we shall see, the narrative offers many opportunities to connect with the protagonist and gradually introduces the book’s central themes. This allows for greater flexibility when framing the narrative.

Since Chapter I, “The Cubby Hole” (2007: 8–65), contains 58 pages and 250 panels, I cannot discuss all of them in detail, but I consider it important to demonstrate how the points I have raised in isolation throughout this thesis interrelate. I want to start with the idea that narratives consist of scenes and, more specifically, of what Catherine Emmott calls ‘contextual frames’ and Barbara Dancygier ‘narrative spaces’. I have already discussed one personal encounter from the first chapter (cf. 2007: 54–5) – Craig’s conversation with the Pastor – in terms of beats or conversational moves to illustrate how the visual and verbal signs are bound to particular stages of a dialogue and interconnect to form carefully designed patterns. Since readers are likely to memorise only a general impression of a scene, it is necessary to return to some of them during rereading activities. What I have not explained in sufficient detail yet is how Dancygier’s “viewpoint compression” (cf. 2012: 112) works, how compression and decompression are both creative and receptive processes and how (translinear) blending as a reading process is guided by what Iser calls ‘textual structures’, Dancygier ‘narrative anchors’, Emmott ‘long-distance links’ and Groensteen ‘iconic solidarity’. What all these variations of narrative prompts have in common is the basic idea that meaning is contextual and that it relies on mappings between mental frames, which illuminate certain structures in the input spaces and obscure others. ←323 | 324→Global insight is based on having at least two mental spaces active in working memory and integrating them on a higher level of meaning, which corresponds to Iser’s gestalt-forming. According to Dancygier, “viewpoint compression is a blending mechanism which attempts to account for the fact that zillions of low-level facts, observations, or thoughts are compressed into more manageable viewpoint spaces and used in the processing of the narrative as a whole” (2012: 112). Following this logic, and very much in line with Iser’s coordination of perspectives (cf. 1980: 35, 169), readers as ‘text detectives’ engage in an activity that social scientists would call ‘triangulation’. Thus, meaning-making becomes a process and an ongoing dialogue that involves the integration of diverse and ever-changing perspectives into an increasingly consistent ‘overview’, based on ‘synopsis’. These in-sights – on all levels of integration and complexity – are both gestalten, which means more than the sum of their parts, and blends, successful mappings between input spaces. What I want to focus on in this chapter is how the prompts of the ‘blueprint’ – in this case Chapter I of Blankets – function as response-inviting structures that facilitate viewpoint compression.

Thompson starts with a single panel that shows two boys in a large white bed placed in a dark room (2007: 9/1). The verbal narrator, who is going to be absent for most of the book, has a specific role in the first chapter: he is our tour guide and provides consistency. His comment reads: “When we were young, my little brother Phil and I shared the same bed” (9). Superficially, this may seem redundant, but the narrator performs a remarkable feat here: through the use of personal pronouns he invites readers to treat the name on the cover, his ‘voice’ in the form of sentences written outside and inside of panels and a cartoon drawing of a little boy, whom we cannot even see properly, as the same subject. Viewpoint compression in autobiography often involves readers’ attempts to conceptually integrate their experiences of various selves into a coherent image of a subject. The next panel (10/1) repeats the first one from a closer and slightly higher angle and even adds labels – ‘Phil’ and ‘me’ – to indicate who is who. Visually, there is a stronger emphasis on the room as a ‘prison cell’, with the incoming light producing a pattern of iron bars across their blanket. This may seem far-fetched, but the narrator’s second sentence reads: “ ‘SHARED’ is the sugar-coated way of saying we were TRAPPED in the same bed, as we were children and had no say in the matter” (10). The parallelism between ‘we were trapped’ and ‘we were children’ strongly suggests an interpretative frame for the entire first chapter: as we shall see, Craig’s childhood is presented as a nightmare, which leads to an almost complete lack of agency on the protagonist’s part. This theme is introduced here, both verbally and visually, but then repeated throughout chapter I. I find Groensteen’s metaphor of ‘braiding’ very useful to talk about literature ←324 | 325→and comics in particular, as this thread is going to resurface again and again. On a fundamental level, comics narratives foreground elements and prompt conceptual integration through repetition.

The boys begin to quarrel until their father intervenes in the most dramatic fashion (cf. 12/6). I discussed page 12 in the context of sound effects and typography. The emotions and attitudes of characters are very easy to understand here, as Thompson relies both on standard situations (children who argue and refuse to sleep) and cartoonish facial expressions that change dramatically from one panel to the next to “condense subjective experience into readily recognisable highlights. This exaggeration of feeling, together with a complete absence of awareness and control, also lends a quality of childishness to characters” (Tan 2001: 38). Tan talks about Hergé’s The Calculus Affair, but Thompson relies on the same principle of maximum transparency. Craig’s emotions go from amusement (12/1) to fear of falling (12/2) to rage (12/4) to seriousness (12/5) within seconds. These four states are presented in the most hyperbolic way possible to be instantly recognisable.

Their father’s appearance marks a major shift in character configuration and power relations. He has been announced both verbally and through an ominous thumping sound drawing nearer (cf. 12/5). When he gets his grand entrance (cf. 12/6; 13/2; 13/4), Thompson uses a brush instead of a pen to foreground panels 12/6 and 13/4 with thick, black borders. While their father’s question “WHAT’S GOING ON UP HERE?!” is presented in capital letters, but still contained within a speech balloon (cf. 12/6), his admonition “DON’T QUESTION YOUR PARENT’S AUTHORITY!” (13/4 → Fig. 14) knows no constraints. While panel 12/6 still follows the regular layout of the page, 13/4 extends to twice the size and demonstrates Thompson’s willingness to sacrifice any sense of realism in favour of pure symbolic expression. The previous (13/3) and the following panel (13/5) contain Craig’s complaints, but they are visually, verbally and symbolically ‘crushed’ by the exercise of parental power.

In This Book Contains Graphic Language: Comics as Literature Rocco Versaci stresses how “wildly interpretative and impressionistic” (2007: 64) autographic texts can be and foregrounds Blankets’ status as a work of art instead of a piece of documentary evidence:

To read such a work is to understand at a fundamental level that the “truth” of memoir is something that cannot be tied simplistically to the facts; the power of Thompson’s memoir lies primarily in its telling, which is subjectively arranged and presented. As Thompson shows, comics are clearly artistic, and in them we see not the world but a representation of it. (2007: 64)

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The boys’ father is presented as a towering giant who is hovering above their bed and trapping the boys in the bottom right corner. In its melodramatic hyperbole it is both easy to read and encapsulates a fundamental experience that transcends the specific context. Like comics in general and Blankets in particular, this panel heavily relies on embodied cognition, image schemas and conceptual metaphors. While size and centrality are the two most obvious factors that illustrate Mr. Thompson’s overbearing presence, there is also the image schema of verticality (up-down) that is central to depictions of power and related conceptual metaphors (cf. Hanić 2013: 132). Jasmina Hanić convincingly argues that the visualisation of social structures usually involves hierarchies and a pyramid that positions people as topdogs or underdogs. This is then metaphorically extended to moving up and down the social ladder (cf. 2013: 133–4). Accordingly, Hanić defines “control is up” as the “primary metaphor used to understand the concept of power” (2013: 135). The preposition ‘over’ dominates verbal entailments in such metaphors and can mean a state/status, e.g. “to be over him” and ‘overshadow’, or a movement, as in ‘overthrow’, ‘overpower’ and ‘overcome’. This extends to the notion that we can be overcome with emotions (cf. 2013: 143–4). Panel 13/4 is a reminder of how the image schema verticality (up-down) dominates the first chapter of Blankets. Another striking and ←326 | 327→highly symbolic manifestation of the same idea is the bullies’ triumph over Craig (24) – a panel to which Thompson dedicates a whole page.

Panel 13/4 is clearly foregrounded as the most salient one on this double-page spread (cf. 2007: 12–13) by being twice as large as any other and framed with a thick black border. Through iconic solidarity it is closely related to panel 12/6, but also to 13/2, maybe to a lesser extent. It establishes an embodied configuration of power, dominance and victimisation that readers are going to encounter throughout the chapter. Tom and Jerry (cf. 38/1), for example, is not simply a cartoon that Phil happens to watch on television: it is a reminder that physical abuse is ubiquitous for these children. In the current scene, their father’s presence has an immediate impact. The boys are separated (14), which is visualised by a move from ‘two-shots’ (cf. 14/1, 3) to singles (cf. 14/4). Following a trend of foregrounding panels through variations in framing, Thompson shows Phil’s horror in a frameless panel (14/4) and isolates him visually by setting the image of Phil inside the ‘prison cell’ apart from the regular arrangement of panels at the top of that page (cf. 17/5).

While readers have witnessed a continuous scene up to this point (9–17), page 18 introduces the idea that the episodes are not chronological, but closely related to each other in the autobiographer’s mind through powerful feelings, predominantly guilt and shame. On page 18 the narrator states across three panels: “I should have been the one who was locked in the cubby hole that night because I was a pathetic older brother. I neglected my protective role in dangerous situations” (18/1–3). This last thought triggers a memory of passively watching the babysitter take Phil to the next room (cf. 18/3). These episodic memories are linked for a reason, so that their spatial contiguity on the page encourages readers to discover how they are related. Viewpoint compression in autobiographical narratives always involves an awareness of what the presented scenes reveal about the intentions and the global vision of the implied author. While readers may wonder whether Craig and Phil were really sexually abused by their babysitter, which is a valid first reaction to the narrative, Thompson encourages his readership to view these scenes in a larger context of abuse (cf. 29–32).

Craig’s self-reproach continues with two highly symbolic images of abandoning Phil when his brother requires a sympathetic companion the most (cf. 19/1–2). The sequence ends with two panels that show Craig towering over Phil and frightening him with the prospect of constant physical abuse in school (cf. 19/3–4). Thompson ingeniously repeats the pattern of body codes which he established with their father’s intervention (cf. 13/4) in 19/4 (→ Fig. 15), putting ←327 | 328→Craig in the position of topdog, and mirrors that again in 20/1 (→ Fig. 16), where bullies threaten Craig at school and he finds himself in Phil’s place.

Through braiding, Thompson insinuates a history of violence, which affects society at large, but also his family in particular. The transition from 19/4 to 20/1 represents another abrupt shift in contextual frames, which only makes sense in view of the narrator’s associations. Visually, this scene (20–5) continues with the ←328 | 329→image schema verticality (up-down) as a basic conceptual metaphor for the abuse of power, which finds a paradigmatic expression on page 24. When Craig looks in the mirror at the end of the scene (25), alone in the school bathroom, he feels exactly like Phil in the cubby hole (cf. 17/5), which is emphasised by reproducing the scratch marks on the wooden door as blood-smeared fingerprints on the mirror (cf. 25/7). These translinear links are at least as important as the content of the scenes themselves. Finding the same patterns repeated across different frames, readers begin to conceptually integrate scenes into larger gestalten. Craig/Thompson feels shame for repeating the pattern himself by victimising his younger brother, although he should know best how this feels at the receiving ←329 | 330→end. Craig’s revenge fantasies involve his oppressors eating excrements (cf. 29/3). We learn that he has (ab)used his creative writing assignment to indulge in such fantasies, which leads to a severe reprimand by his teacher (cf. 28). Triggered by this revenge fantasy, the narrator returns to a memory of the babysitter taking advantage of himself and then of Phil (cf. 31/1). When we return to the classroom on page 32, the “merging of two different moments in time through the association of the intense feeling of shame common to both is conveyed by placing representations of both scenes into the same narrative space of the classroom and onto the same page of the book” (El Refaie 2012: 93). This observation by Elisabeth El Refaie highlights the fact that the medium affords comics creators with a montage technique that places references to various contextual frames side by side and invites readers to draw conclusions.

Narratologically speaking, this memory can be attributed to Craig as internal focalisation, whereas the first time we saw the babysitter it was the narrator who took us there (cf. 18/3). Both transitions prompt a comparison of Craig’s experiences across different social settings, which supports Mikkonen’s claim that “it does not always matter who speaks or sees in the narrative” (2017: 153). It would be another case entirely if the differences between narrating and experiencing I were foregrounded, but Thompson seems to be more interested in providing readers with a strong impression of how he felt about his childhood many years later. At the same time, chapter I has to be seen in the context of the primacy effect (cf. Sternberg 1978: 94): it serves as an experiential backdrop to the main narrative threads and hints at those thematic concerns that readers should look out for.

What is striking about “The Cubby Hole” is that many scenes have a symbolic and exemplary function, in the sense that depicted events are presented as symptomatic of many other incidences. They seem to be blends rather than based on episodic memories. Following Martin Conway and David Rubin’s categorisation of autobiographical memories (cf. 1993), Daniel L. Schacter postulates three levels of compression: event-specific knowledge, which is supposed to retain the level of details and qualia typical of a single event; general events, which are blends of several occurrences into a single memory; and lifetime periods, which are general observations or blended feelings based on years of experience (cf. 1996: 89–90). I would argue that most of the scenes in chapter I are general events for which there are several indications: Thompson compresses the first seventeen years of his life into 58 pages. In comparison, the two weeks at Raina’s home span more than 300 pages (2007: 171–482). Secondly, instead of pinpointing exact dates and locations, the verbal narrator introduces many of these scenes in the broadest of terms. The very first sentence reads: “When we ←330 | 331→were young, my little brother Phil and I shared the same bed” (2007: 9). When he describes his relationship to Phil it reads like a summary: “I was a pathetic older brother. I neglected my protective role in dangerous situations” (18/2–3). His dreams of escaping are introduced with: “Every night I would scheme of running away” (39/1). These introductory sentences suggest that either the scenes we witness have an exemplary status by capturing key experiences of Thompson’s childhood or they blend several incidences into one hyperreal, compressed representation that manages to convey basic convictions and feelings in a (melo)dramatic form.

Commenting on a scene in Isabel Allende’s Paula Schacter observes that the author “is not remembering a specific episode in a particular time and place; she is extracting features and themes that are common to many episodes” (1996: 90). I would argue that Thompson blends, condenses and dramatises recurring events by presenting them as a single experience to foreground essential and symptomatic features of his social encounters in childhood and during his teenage years. This is not to say that they are misrepresentations, as general events “capture a good deal of the distinctive flavour of our pasts, and are readily accessible because they have been strengthened through repetition” (1996: 91). In contrast to event-specific knowledge, which is about singular occurrences, general events are related to the grammatical forms “I used to …” or “I would …”, as in “I would constantly threaten him with my discouraging discoveries of the ‘real world’, as if my three years of seniority made me an expert” (19/2). While these input spaces tend to be generic, the complex links between them are not.

There are about fifteen contextual frames in the first chapter, which are presented in the following sequence: (1) Craig and Phil in bed and their father’s intervention (9–17; 41; 61–5); (2/3) two scenes of Craig and Phil out in the country (18–19; 45–7); (4) a generic abuse scene that involves the babysitter (18; 29–32); (5/6) two generic scenes of bullies physically abusing Craig in school (20–5; 33–4); (7) a typical lesson in school (26–32); (8) Craig coming home from school (35–8) and (9) dreaming about escaping (39–44); (10) a lesson in Sunday school (48–51; 61–3); (11) Craig’s fall from grace and into puberty (51–2); (12/13) two one-panel scenes of teenage Craig being ridiculed by bullies and warned by a teacher, while telling himself that none of that matters (53); (14) the Pastor’s proposal (54–5) and (15) the destruction of all his graphic art (56–61). There are a number of things to notice here: the first scene provides a frame for the entire chapter. The contextual frames are mostly organised according to emotional resonance and metonymy, not following a linear, temporal or causal structure. For the most part, they are blends that present symptomatic and endemic structures of basic social relationships. They are interrelated through braiding and thematic ←331 | 332→concerns, often using layout to foreground emotional contiguity. The most obvious example of braiding is a pattern of body codes repeated throughout the chapter (e.g. 53/2; 55/1 → Fig. 17 & 18). I would argue that the conversation with the pastor belongs to the same group. There is again this overpowering presence of an adult who strongly suggests a particular path to pursue. Suddenly realising that he wants to be guided by God, it is Craig who initiates the final move, but the Pastor’s affirmation, “I think God wants you to go into the ministry” (55/4), seems to push the teenager in a very specific direction.

In this last section I want to concentrate on the final ten pages, which set up a new dynamic. Independent of how readers choose to interpret the conversation with the Pastor in church, it marks a first turning point, as Craig suddenly becomes active. We also find more precise time indications in this part of chapter I, which may suggest that the narrative is finally gaining some momentum. The very next scene begins with “That afternoon, I was engrossed in the book ←332 | 333→of Ecclesiastes” (56/1), which is a second indication that the narrative finally adopts chronological time. It may seem that Blankets is an extreme example in this regard, but that is not the case. Elisabeth El Refaie, for example, describes Persepolis as a “fascinating portrayal of the workings of memory not as a filing-cabinet of separate ‘incidents,’ but as fragments of experiences, thoughts, and emotions that may run in parallel, feed into each other, or occasionally even merge completely” (2012: 129) Earlier in her study on autobiographical comics she considers this to be a general trait of the genre: “It is this idiosyncratic experience of subjective time, with its irregularities, circularities, overlaps, and gaps, which graphic memoirists typically want to ‘commemorate,’ or share with their readers” (2012: 94). Even within Blankets itself braiding continues to be a major concern. Chapter II is based on the contrast between Craig’s childhood experiences at church camp and his first meeting with Raina, which I discussed in section 4.4.3.

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The most fascinating thing about Blankets is that Craig discovers three potential answers to his search for meaning in life: art, religion and love/sexuality. Just a few pages before the scene in Sunday school (cf. 47–50) Thompson reminds us of his childhood passion: “An ENTIRE DAY would be consumed by drawing, interspersed with fits of running around outside expending our energy. These were the only WAKEFUL moments of my childhood that I can recall feeling life was sacred or worthwhile” (44/4). Drawing (cf. 44), dreaming (cf. 41–3) and playing (cf. 46) are closely related and spiritual activities to him. Throughout Blankets readers are reminded that Thompson thinks about art and love in religious terms. When he receives Raina’s quilt as a gift, he comments that “It’s SACRED” (184/1). Neither do I think that this is a coincidence, nor that Thompson uses religious words lightly. The blanket is Raina’s successful attempt to weave together the two things in her life that are dearest to her: her art and her long-distance relationship with Craig that is about to become a more direct experience. Craig struggles with his exploration of these different paths – art, love/sexuality and Christianity, which leads to a crisis of faith. As a reader of his own life Craig has a hard time seeing the larger pattern.

This is the context in which the last few pages of Chapter I may become more relatable. After realising that he wants to dedicate his life to God (cf. 55/3), he spends the afternoon reading his Bible outside. There he begins to associate the dead leaves falling from the trees with his childish drawings. As so often in comics the metaphor is visualised and becomes readily accessible (cf. 56/6). In a fit of religious fervour he scours his room for drawings (cf. 57/3–58/3) and sets out to burn them as an offering to God (cf. 58/4–59/3). The “new spiritual pact” (59/1) is based on what looks like a book-burning. Thompson wants to start his new life with a clean slate and therefore he has to purge everything that does not fit the new world order: “I wanted to burn my memories” (59/4). Here, the metaphorical process is reversed: the physical drawings are associated with Craig’s memories, the creative potential that is inside of him and his identity as an artist. When they go up in flames, this is mirrored in what looks like an exorcism, driving cartoon characters out of his body (cf. 60). The ‘heretic’ parts of his identity get burned on the stake. Craig seems to be suffering more than ever in his life, so this visual metaphor can also be read as a comment on the horrible decision he has made and the horrid acts that religious fervour can lead to. Depending on how readers have understood the narrative up to this point, the interpretations are likely to be very diverse, which makes this page an excellent choice for in-class activities.

Both his pain and the purging flames remind him of his former Sunday school teacher, who appears superimposed over the act, preaching the faith: “But if you ←334 | 335→don’t ask Jesus in your heart, you’ll spend eternity in HELL” (61/1). Her stories of hell and eternal suffering (cf. 61/1–4) remind him of Phil in the cubby hole, which returns us full circle to the beginning. Thompson lets the teacher continue with her preaching and adds images of Phil being locked up by their father (cf. 61–3). From Craig’s point of view, he has condemned Phil to the hellish cubby hole and, while he can hear him sobbing through the wall, there is nothing he can do but despair (cf. 64–5). Again, Thompson demonstrates that everything is connected. This is an ambiguous ending in which religious fundamentalism seems to triumph over art and family relations. Yet, the book readers hold in their hands – Blankets – is a triumphant celebration of cartooning and a victory – as it were – of artistic self-expression and self-determination over any doctrine. In this sense, the physical presence of the book promises a perspective that the narrative has not reached yet.

Thompson disentangles and decompresses his complex, emotionally charged memories of his childhood to let readers draw their own conclusions. The verbal narrator’s interventions are reduced to a minimum and – for the most part – refrain from explaining what there is to see and understand. Thus, readers are invited to take in the pieces of the puzzle and see the larger picture, as a sum total exceeding the individual parts, which is the key idea of gestalt psychology. Through selection, foregrounding and mise-en-page, this process is guided by textual structures. Instead of relying on a chronological presentation, memories are organised according to their interconnectedness in the autobiographer’s mind. The meaning of this first chapter can be found in the complex relations between these fragments, which are artfully arranged to produce visible patterns and suggest correspondences. In this case, many of them rely on the image schema verticality (up-down) and conceptual metaphors, such as control is up. All the social relations seem to be informed by a topdog-underdog mentality. That is why most adults preach and never listen. Raina is the first who becomes genuinely interested in him as a person, which he, ironically and sadly, cannot fully reciprocate. From his point of view, she is so perfect that he persistently fails to recognise her as a real person. His juvenile infatuation is understandable, but it also blinds him from the truth (cf. Thompson 2007: 337). While the facts about his life provide the most basic orientation, Thompson is not interested in a traditional autobiography at all. Readers’ tentative blends at the end of chapter I may be varied, as the autobiographer sets the stage for multiple directions. Despite the fact that there is this shaping presence, the absence of a verbal narrator during key sequences and the dramatisation of Craig’s worst experiences creates a tension between the particularities of his early life and the promise of any autobiography that life is a journey and has to lead somewhere (cf. Kövecses 2010: 4, 71). In the fifth and final chapter these questions take centre stage.

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