The method of analysis of communications registers outlined by linguists Douglas Biber and Susan Conrad, begins with the identification of what they call the ‘situational characteristics’ of a register. These characteristics are as much social as material. They claim that
before a register can be identified or expressive content considered, the analyst must undertake a sociology of the text. Following Biber and Conrad, this article will describe ways in which readers’ expectations of the content of comics, or comics’ genres, are an underlying characteristic
of the ‘situation’ of comics as a register. It will propose that, unlike other registers, the apprehension of the comics register as a genre constitutes an ongoing process of adaptation in which the influence of prior knowledge destabilizes rather than stabilizes the register.
To do this, it will analyse the adaptation by artists Simon Grennan and Christopher Sperandio, of specific examples of cover art from EC comics of the 1950s in the covers of their comics. Rather than comparing the original covers with their adaptations as expressive form, this analysis will
discuss how the adapted cover images represent the instrumental use of the relationship between comics genres and comics as a register, in which the artists self-consciously conflate the two in order to manipulate the ‘situational characteristics’ in which each comic is read. This
approach demonstrates the productive instability of the comics register itself: that is, the register’s availability to adaptation. Evidenced by local newspaper headlines of which they are the topic (Bradford Telegraph and Argus 1996, Eastern Daily Press 2005), Grennan & Sperandio’s
comics appear generic in order to adapt the register, and in doing so communicate well outside comic genres. There is no horror, romance, crime, autobiography, confessional or super power in them. Rather, their content constitutes oral history, museology or education. Considered as examples
of register, these are comics with ulterior motives. The comics register allows and disallows sets of specific expressions, which are quite different from, although affected by, the sets of expressions allowed and disallowed by comics genres. The overlaps between register and genres (or between
the ‘situational characteristics’ and the expectation of content), engender adaptation, parody, appropriation and non-sequiturs. This article will argue that these relationships are formed at the level of register as much as genre, so that each new set of ‘situational characteristics’
of readings, is an adaptation of the register that productively destabilizes genres, and that this is a definition of adaptation itself.
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