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Comics' reception as literature and the subjugation of the image

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posted on 22.05.2021, 15:24 by Michael Seravalle
[Para. 1] Scholars disagree on how comics should be defined in relation to other media. Some, such as Barbara Postema, assert that comics are representative of a medium featuring unique formatting and iconography that sits outside the traditional considerations of art and literature. The counter-point, as proposed by individuals such as Thierry Groensteen, is that comics are a hybrid or mixed medium, representing the combination of the written word and fine art working in conjunction to convey different perspectives within a single narrative. Historically, comics have been rejected by both fine art and literary communities due to their failure to conform to the standards presented in either discipline. However, due in large part to the narrative elements of the prose present in a comic text, comics settled primarily in the domain of literary consideration, albeit with some negative critique initially directed at the content and marketing that popularized the medium. Once considered rudimentary writing supported by gimmicky illustrations, the ongoing discourse concerning their status as either a unique medium or hybrid media has coincided with comics gaining academic merit in recent years. One of the issues that complicates this debate is whether the text and image in comics to be given equal consideration when determining the function of a comic narrative, as “one of the significant consequences of the literary turn in the study of comics has been the tendency to drive attention away from comics as a form of visual culture” (Beaty, Comics vs. Art 18). Compounding this tendency is the suggestion that narrative is exclusive to the domain of literary prose. Comics’ inclusion of sequential art challenges literary tradition through the levels of signification applied to formatting, such as “the image, the layout, the sequence, word-image combination, and finally narrative” (Postema 105). Historically, the use of image in comics has been condemned for lowering the literary quality of the narrative through claims made by critics such as Fredric Wertham that will be explored at length throughout this paper. The assertion that image in comics had no narrative value was compiled with the art actively rejected by the “fine” art community as failing to attain the level of “high” art. This has led to the devaluing of the image and its influence on narrative in comics, as “comic[s], [as] many critics will tell you, are not art” (Beaty, Comics vs. Art 18). Instead, comics have stood in opposition to art: “largely ignored by critics and art historians, and consequently disdainful of the interests of those groups, comics have long levelled in their lowbrow, badboy image” (Beaty, Comics vs. Art 19). Without the support of the artistic community to help establish a standard of critical approach, the comics industry evolved to place more emphasis on the literary element, as seen in the rise of the 'graphic novel' as a legitimating label for rebranding of the medium. Although scholars and critics such as Barbara Postema, Bart Beaty, and Scott McCloud recognize the importance of the image when critiquing narrative, the tendency to emphasize the writer over the artist as primary contributor of narrative value to a comics work has put the image and text of comics in separate categories, causing one to rise at the expense of the other.





Master of Arts


Literatures of Modernity

Granting Institution

Ryerson University

LAC Thesis Type


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Literatures of Modernity (Theses)