Image [&] Narrative #3: The thin line between boring and interesting by Greice Schneider

20 Apr

In the last few years I’ve been conducting research on boredom and everyday life in contemporary graphic narratives. In my last article for Comics Forum, I discussed boredom on the perspective of production – specifically about a tendency of comics artists to agonize about the struggle of their métier (and why this tendency is maybe stronger in the comics medium). What I propose in the following posts is to continue this discussion, but this time looking at the side of the reader and the dynamics of boredom and interest specific to the experience of reading comics. Of course I’m not assuming here that these works are necessarily “boring”(even though the subject is becoming a dangerous cliché)- but many of them bring into play a number of strategies that can arouse boredom as a desired effect on the reader. My intention is not to write an elegy of boring comics, but to propose a poetics of boredom, one that contemplates the specificities of the comics medium.

The first thing that has to be done in order to avoid misunderstandings is to refine the concept of boredom and interest, and that is what I’ll try to address in this post. What does it mean to say something is “boring”? Is it possible to say that something boring is interesting without falling into a contradiction? In which ways? This apparent paradox can benefit from distinguishing the different levels at which the same term can be used. On one level, the pair interesting and boring imply an evaluation, a judgment of taste, a response of approval or disapproval, pleasure or displeasure. This meaning implies a subjective verdict that may vary according to a number of criteria (historical, cultural, psychological etc). On another level, boredom can be taken as an aesthetic category: it can become a source of interest. The purpose here is to focus on this conception, but without losing sight of the crucial interaction between both dimensions. [1]

Taken as a subject, boredom is central in the work of many “alternative” authors, but it is Seth who best materializes it into his discourse as an author. Admittedly “interested in things that are boring” (Seth) – to the point of making it a constant subject in his interviews – the author is a prime example of this trend of approaching everyday life with a melancholic mood so familiar in the comics field after the 90s. But more than that, Seth is also one of the authors that best grasps the ambiguous and slippery nature of boredom, something clear when he says his work “teeters” on the “edge of boredom” (Seth, “Drawn Together: Seth and the Newspaper. Interview with Amy Stupavsky”). Rather than downplaying his own work, such a declaration just confirms a deliberate attempt to achieve a state of what he calls “sublime boredom” that he describes as “kind of like a hypnagogic state” (Seth, “Conversations with Seth, Attention Revisited. Interview with Kathleen Dunley”).

“It’s like when you’re watching a very boring movie and drifting in and out of sleep and that’s the kind of perfect sublime boredom. It’s interesting but boring at the same time. So much of the comics I’m doing, I’m trying to achieve that actual state” (Seth, “Conversations with Seth, Attention Revisited. Interview with Kathleen Dunley”)

In the back cover of the first edition of the Anthology of Graphic Fiction (“Several Years Ago I Had a Fever…”) (featuring many of the alternative authors that address states of ennui and alienation), we find a very revealing comic page in which Seth describes his experience reading old comic books (as opposed to the more sophisticated “graphic fiction” from the anthology’s title). Under distinct contexts, the very same comics awaken in him two opposite responses. When he was sick in bad, looking for something to kill time, those stories seemed “interesting”, “lively and charming”. Later, when he was well, they were “horribly tiresome”, “uninteresting” and “dull”. What is particularly remarkable is that the same property that amused him in one context (stories with “few minor variations” and characters “defined by a single personality trait”), puts him off in another circumstance. Predictability, first described as a ‘fascinating quality’, makes him yawn later. Seth attributes these varied responses to different regimes of attention – in fever, “drifting through various states of consciousness” made him more open to appreciate those comics. The author concludes that “there’s a thin line between boring and interesting” (“Several Years Ago I Had a Fever…”).

This small intriguing example reminds us that the question of boredom and interest cannot be treated as something intrinsic to the text, isolated from the experience of the reader and the variety of different possible responses. This “optimal point of interest” is subjective and will depend on a negotiation between the text’s “demands” and a set of cultural, psychological conditions in which the reader finds himself. What is interesting in a given situation can suddenly become extremely boring. Patricia Spacks highlights this influence of selective reading: according to the cultural environment – geographical, temporal and even gender differences – distinct aspects of the text can arouse interest and gain meaning. To consider something boring or interesting relies heavily upon which aspects one choose to pay attention to while reading (160). Spacks examines oscillations of cultural interest by analyzing books acclaimed with enthusiasm in the time of their release but that nowadays are considered dull, reminding us of Seth’s experience.

The ambiguity that defines the concept of boredom could be replicated in cultural objects, basically divided according to what one decides to do when bored. That leaves two (loose) types: on the one hand, objects designed for killing time and distracting from boredom and, on the other hand, those that pose more challenges to our patience and encourage the endurance of boredom. Needless to say such separation should not be taken hierarchically (in the form of high versus low culture).

In that sense, it is possible to accept boredom as a deliberate aesthetic response (like Seth admittedly seeks to achieve) rather than an inadequacy in the reading process. In other words, rather than being a disengagement originated by a failed interpretation, boredom could be aroused by the successful triggering of the text’s potential. The ambiguous dialectics that orchestrate the dynamics of attention and distraction can inform a number of aesthetic choices such as speed (slow, fast), variety (repetition, difference) or level of complexity (minimalism, excess). In forthcoming posts, I will develop some of these strategies, in a poetics of boredom proper of comics storytelling.


Ngai, Sianne. “Merely Interesting.” Critical Inquiry 34.4 (2008): 777–817. Print.

Seth. “Boring Can Be Interesting: An Interview with Seth. Interview with Jonathan Messinger.” Time Out Chicago 10 June 2009. Web. 17 Apr. 2012.

—. “Conversations with Seth, Attention Revisited. Interview with Kathleen Dunley.” The Comics Grid 5 May 2011. Web. 9 June 2011.

—. “Drawn Together: Seth and the Newspaper. Interview with Amy Stupavsky.” The Newspaper 7 Jan. 2010.

—. “Several Years Ago I Had a Fever…” An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, & True Stories. Ivan Brunetti. Ed. Ivan Brunetti. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006. backcover. Print.

Spacks, Patricia. Boredom : the Literary History of a State of Mind. Chicago (Ill.): University of Chicago Press, 1995. Print.

Svendsen, Lars Fr H. A Philosophy of Boredom. London: London Reaktion Books 2005, 2005. Print.

Greice Schneider is currently conducting PhD research on boredom and everyday life in contemporary graphic narratives at K.U. Leuven, in Belgium. She is a founding member and a member of the editorial board of The Comics Grid. She is on the editorial board of Image [&] Narrative.

Click here to read Greice’s last article for Comics Forum.

Click here to read all instalments of the Image [&] Narrative column.

[1] – History only reaffirms the intimacy between both concepts. Boring and interesting appeared and were spread at the same time – in the late eighteenth century, with Romanticism, when “the demand arises for life to be interesting, with the general claim that the self must realize itself” (Svendsen 28).

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Posted by on 2012/04/20 in Image [&] Narrative


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