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The shape of comic book reading

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In most comics, the art and the text the visual and the verbal channels seem to be telling the same story. But, to be technical narratologically, it is actually the same fabula, not the same story which requires uniform perspective. That is, both art and text present events from the same general plot but not necessarily at the same time, in the same order, or from the same viewpoint. The captions may be disclosing a character's inner monologue, for instance, while the panels show that character leaping to safety. Or, as a reverse example, word balloons could be vocalizing a fight between two off-panel parents while the panel focalizes on a tearful child trying to sleep. It is the dreadfully boring and narrow comic that has the visual and verbal reflect exactly the same thing in each and every panel. There would be no point and, ultimately, no reason for doing this narrative in comic form. Since the visual and the verbal narratives may be telling different parts of the same fabula simultaneously, it stands to reason that there may also be two different narrators for a given panel as well. This distinction becomes particularly important when it is taken advantage of by a savvy creator (e.g., Art Spiegelman in MAUS, Alan Moore in Watchmen, Chris Ware in ACME Novelty Library) to create an intentional schism between the two narratives; that is, the visual and verbal narratives may actually be spinning different yarns. This narrative polyphony, though not unique to comics, affects the hermeneutic model for the medium to such a degree that a revised tetrahedral hybrid of Wolfgang Iser, J. Espen Aarseth, and Scott McCloud's theories bears implementation.

Keywords: Alan Moore; Chris Ware; J. Espen Aarseth; Scott McCloud; Wolfgang Iser; hermeneutics; narrative polyphony; narratology

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Boston University.

Publication date: April 1, 2010

More about this publication?
  • Studies in Comics aims to describe the nature of comics, to identify the medium as a distinct art form, and to address the medium's formal properties. The emerging field of comics studies is a model for interdisciplinary research and in this spirit this journal welcomes all approaches. This journal is international in scope and provides an inclusive space in which researchers from all backgrounds can present new thinking on comics to a global audience. The journal will promote the close analysis of the comics page/text using a variety of methodologies. Its specific goal, however, is to expand the relationship between comics and theory and to articulate a "theory of comics". The journal also includes reviews of new comics, criticism, and exhibitions, and a dedicated online space for cutting-edge and emergent creative work. 
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