Review: The Power of Comics

Duncan, Randy & Matthew J. Smith. 2009. The Power of Comics. New York: Continuum Books

The Power of Comics is a recently released “first textbook ever” for “comics studies”, authored by Randy Duncan and Matthew J. Smith (book website here).

Perhaps to be expected from a book on the general “comic studies”, it includes a broad range of topics, from the history of comic books to comprehension of the medium, to creators and fandom. In many ways, the vastly disparate topics brings into question the overall utility of conceiving of a singular field called “comic studies.” Indeed, a person interested in one particular subtopic may find the entire rest of the book irrelevant. No doubt though, the scope of the book is meant to be inclusive and to at least cast the possibility that such a broad field could exist.

As a textbook, it succeeds in content, scope, and execution. The chapters are well laid out, have thoughtful questions at their ends, and several chapters end with very practical examples of analysis that serve as models for students. Chapters also reference a broad range of experts (discussed below), which further validates breadth and depth of this growing scholarship.

Given the nature of my own interests, I’ll focus primarily on the chapters dissecting the medium, Chapters 6 and 7. These chapters on formal analysis largely expand and refine Duncan’s earlier papers on “Comic Book Communication.” The theories stick largely to the expected status quo of theory: nothing overly radical or surprising jumps out, which is perhaps to be expected from a textbook.

In some ways though, this is a detriment. Despite growing works on formal aspects of the “comic medium”, most of these chapters rely on concepts inspired by Eisner and McCloud, supplemented by Groensteen and scattered others. However, much of these ideas go by with little regard for debates to their legitimacy. For example, “closure” is assumed to be true and never questioned as being valid at all (though multiple interpretations are presented). Others include the (erroneous) belief that the “gutter” somehow contributes to meaning, and the idea that each panel must be connected with every other panel in comprehension (can you say “working memory overload”?).

The primary focus of these chapters describe aspects of meaning-making, providing summaries of overview notions that intertwine across numerous levels of comprehension (sequence, layout, etc). The chapters are chock full of information, much of it useful to a beginner and some likely useful to more advanced students. I particularly liked the idea of an interplay between the reduction and expansion of information in the medium as a nice simple way to describe the status quo of considerations about the medium.

However, on the whole, numerous broad theoretical concepts are discussed without much real theoretical grist to them. Again, this might not be bad since the format is a textbook — elaboration on numerous topics would be impossible for the space.

Nevertheless, some aspects describing theories are a bit roughshot — for example describing “icon/index/symbol signs” could have benefited from better explanations, and proper terminology (it should either drop “signs” or be “iconic/indexical/symbolic signs”) and attribution to their originator (Charles Sanders Peirce) would at make for a good mention that these theories are roughly 100 years old.

Additionally, while McCloud and, at least somewhat, Eisner, are recognized for their theoretical insights and contribution to the canon, the realms of theory and praxis get blurred further in the chapters with quotes from numerous comic creators and an unheard of “comics art collector,” which among the few experts seems curious as legitimate sources. It also brings into question just what and who these chapters are aiming at: Theory? Analysis? Praxis?

Despite its limitations, The Power of Comics marks an accurate state of the field (whatever it might be) for studying comics. For good or bad, the theories in Chapters 6 and 7 reflect a particular paradigm of thinking about the medium. While it is my personal belief that formal theories have moved into a more sophisticated state, the views expressed in this book reflect what will someday be viewed as a nascent growth stage of considering the medium. For that, it almost seems like a “living history”, saying where we’ve been while knowing bigger things have and will appear.

Overall though, the book — including the theory chapters — is reasonably good for a “first textbook on comics,” and I would imagine it will fast become a standard text for those sorts of classes.


  • I was wondering to pick one comics and now i have chosen "The Power of Comics". I hope it will be the Ultimate. I am going to buy as soon as possible and really excited to enjoy it.

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