Title

Graphic interventions: Form and argument in contemporary comics

Date of Completion

January 2000

Keywords

Literature, General|Mass Communications

Degree

Ph.D.

Abstract

Mingling pictures and text, comic art represents a vast fund of examples that can illuminate the entire field of word and image studies. This project contributes to that field by engaging both the form and history of comics, with emphasis on recent book-length narratives. Two axial concerns drive the project: first, the distinctive demands comics make on readers; and second, the difficult relationship that persists between serial publication and the larger ambitions of comics authors. Readings of key works in the “alternative” comics tradition demonstrate the art form's complexity, as well as its potential for cultural argument. ^ Chapter 1 surveys early academic work on the reading of comics, and shows how this work overlooks the uniqueness of the form. Four fundamental tensions, constitutive of comics reading, are established: image versus word, image versus image, sequence versus surface, and experience versus object. These terms inform the rest of the study. Chapter 2 then posits a cultural and economic milieu for the works under consideration, with stress on the shifting relationship between serial publication and the larger graphic novel. ^ Chapters 3 through 5 analyze works that fully exploit the tensions inherent to comics. Chapter 3 focuses on Gilbert Hernandez's Heartbreak Soup saga, in which bold manipulations of space and time further a searching critique of comic art as a cultural practice. Chapter 4 engages theories of autobiography, examining comics memoirs (by Crumb, Spiegelman and others) that use the form's hybrid nature to question the social construction of the self. Chapter 5 demonstrates the radical potential of comic books by exploring Chester Brown's semi-autobiographical interrogation of social conditioning and gender stereotypes. Finally, the Conclusion probes the limits of the contemporary field, highlighting the influence of serialization on the works of Brown, Hernandez, and others. ^