Subjectivity and a rant on Comics Scholarship

So, this is a review of a paper that is listed in my bibliography. If you’d like to see more of these, let me know…

Driest, Joris. 2005. Subjective Narration in Comics. Masters Thesis. Utrecht University.

This piece covers a broad overview of the ways in which “subjectivity” is represented in the “comics medium.” Of particular note is its analysis of word/thought balloons. The piece is largely influenced by film theory, and its relationship to comics and writing, however, it does not include citations to John Barber or other relevant works along those lines.

However, the piece didn’t seem to have a directed and focused hypothesis of sorts that it was out to prove. It hovered at the level of “these things are there” without probing that topic deeper. This isn’t necessarily terrible, considering that no other studies really cover this topic previously, except maybe in Saraceni 2000 & 2003 (which also weren’t cited).

It also seemed to comment upon a number of phenomena that occur in the “comics medium,” but didn’t seem relevant to the thesis (such as conventional graphic symbols). This is a trend I’ve noticed a lot in papers about VL & comics. Since they don’t have an established a cannon of scholarship (or an recognized field to study them), people often feel the need to insert every interesting thought they have about it regardless of how pertinent it might be to what they’re actually writing about.

Relatedly, most essays on anything comics-related feel the need to define what a comic is in the paper – whether or not the paper is about how “comics” are defined. To me, this just seems to cry out an underlying complex that “nobody knows what comics are, so I need to define it.”

Guess what: whether they actively read comics or not, most everyone in our culture knows what a “comic” or “graphic novel” is to the extant that most scholars write about. People don’t need to define what a novel or a film is every time they write about them, nor should they need to be told what a comic is. (Similarly, linguistics papers don’t define “language” in every paper – they just get to the meat of the issue).

At least from my perspective, the less exceptional we treat visual language and comics, the more they can be considered as equal with other forms of communication/literature. To invoke the metaphor: “Separate but equal” does not work, because it’s NOT equal. You need to have complete non-discrimination. By continually defining it where its not needed, “comics” (the social objects, and thereby the visual language associated with it) is implicitly placed into a “minority” position in the realm of criticism and scholarship.


  • It seems to me that one of the features of an emerging field of study is that each scholar will try to define what exactly is being studied. This is characteristic of a “turf war” since the field is very much open to definition at this early stage. Just as in science, there are “paradigms” of thought in the humanities world, and those who begin to question the dominant paradigm need to assert the primacy of their way of looking at the world, rather than just passively accepting the way it has been looked at before. Comics may or may not be well defined, but VL and comics-studies certainly are not. It is hard to say exactly at what point will it become appropriate to say that a new paradigm has been established and that people no longer “need” to discuss what they mean by “comics”, but I think that point hasn’t yet been reached. Naturally, each thinker within the emerging paradigm thinks that everybody else should just use their definition of “comics” since it is the “correct” one, but will have to keep arguing that until there is consensus (or at least until the dissenting voices have been delegitimized and marginalized).

  • Yes, but I’m not even looking for people to put forth my definiton necessarily. But, I’ve read papers that have the main thrust of the argument about the role of comics (the objects) in society or a literary type analysis, yet they end up spending at least two pages on the debate of whether “comics” are “images in sequence” or “text-image relations” (to which I say: “neither”).

    Given the intents of that sort of paper, going into debates over definitions like this isn’t necessary. It isn’t a part of the argument, so why belabor the point? It only makes it seem more marginalized, not less.

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