Comic (Book History): towards a new methodology by Padmini Ray Murray

24 Aug

The prevalent academic approach to the study of comics and graphic novels might be understood as one that defines itself by negation; scholars have focused on those formal qualities that differentiate sequential art from poetry or prose in order to create a theoretical vocabulary that might serve the discipline. However, for a scholar such as myself coming to comics studies from a different disciplinary background – that of book history and publishing studies – such a valorisation seems intriguing in the face of the form’s insistent materiality, especially in the commitment of this approach to structuralist readings of image and text. Examining this tension becomes particularly crucial at a time when new technologies and digital transformations are challenging the very notion of the book, for two specific reasons. Firstly, the attachment to the codex form, which I call “container nostalgia,” has interesting ramifications for comic book culture, given that part of the enthusiasm of the comic book reader has been, historically, embedded in the collectability and rarity of the comic as artifact as well as for its content. Secondly, the rapid pace of digital developments means that the “basic elements” of the form are thrown into exaggerated relief – as Jenkins and Thorburn put it: “What is felt to be endangered and precarious becomes more visible and more highly valued” (4) – presenting a unique opportunity for comic book scholars to reflect on how to define their objects of study. In this article, I’d like to suggest that this self-reflection might be enriched by using methodologies from the fields of book history and publishing studies to study comics, graphic novels and their contexts. In order to do so, it might be instructive to present a brief history of book history itself, and the circumstances out of which it emerged [1].

Academic interest in the book as material object gained momentum at the turn of the twentieth century spearheaded by the work of such scholars such as W.W. Greg and Fredson Bowers. Their work in the area of ‘New Bibliography’ sought to differentiate between ‘authoritative’ and corrupt versions of literary texts, by scrutinising the type, paper, ink, and technologies used in their production. The emerging discipline was an antidote to the school of New Criticism that was prevailed in the literary academy, which focussed on a close reading of texts and cast authorial intention as irrelevant to the understanding of the work. However, the seminal work of D.F. McKenzie went a step further, critiquing the assumptions of the New Bibliography, suggesting that the study of the texts should encompass “the processes of their transmission, including their production and reception” and must be historicised by examining the “social, economic, and political motivations of publishing” (12-13). McKenzie recast the definition of bibliography as the the “study of the sociology of texts” (13), forming the bedrock of the discipline that we have now come to call the history of the book. Scholars in the ’80s and the ’90s such as Roger Chartier, Robert Darnton, and others developed methodologies and models that considered the book’s status as material artifact, as well as the processes that governed their dissemination, circulation and reception. Such close scrutiny of processes did not aim to diminish the role of author as auteur but was alert to the roles played by other agents in the production of a text; a factor of particular significance in comics where there is almost always a supporting cast of artists, pencillers, colourists and letterers who contribute to the finished product.

As this brief overview demonstrates, book history espouses a cultural materialist viewpoint, which seems to me a particularly fruitful way to study comics, given its slippery relationship to literary and cultural legitimacy. As comics studies gets a firmer foothold in academic institutions, textbooks signposting the future direction of the discipline such as the recently published Critical Approaches to Comics explores a range of analytical possibilities. Indeed, I am not the first to suggest a shift away from formalist readings – in particular, Ian Gordon’s article on commodification and Superman, and Mark Rogers’ writing on how political economy could be a useful tool to understand the material context of comics sales both feature in Critical Approaches.

Though much has happened in the recent past to increase the visibility of comics (Paul Gravett speaks of a “gradual re-blossoming” in his 2011 book 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die) comics, and to a slightly lesser extent graphic novels, are still marginalised in contemporary narratives of the publishing industry. The UK industry’s trade journal The Bookseller rarely prints stories on comics and graphic novels (a search of the site tellingly throws up articles on France and Japan in the first few hits). Bookscan, the industry’s principal source for data on booksales on both sides of the Atlantic, only started to publish a dedicated graphic novel bestseller list as recently as this June. The London Book Fair introduced a strand on Comics and Graphic novels to much fanfare in 2010, but the consequent years have already witnessed a steep decline in offerings at the Fair. Academic engagement too is somewhat surprisingly low—the annual major book history conference held by the Society for the the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing (SHARP) featured its first panel dedicated to comics and graphic novels in 2011, and the major journals such as Logos and Publishing Research Quarterly have featured articles overwhelmingly on manga but little else from the field.

I would suggest, however, that the time is ripe for a cross-fertilisation of the disciplines of comics studies and publishing studies, with comics being able to provide object lessons to the rest of the industry. Publishing studies, the contemporary counterpart of book history, is grappling with the challenges being posed by digital technology to the industry, and one the field’s current preoccupations is how digital migration is transforming the form of the book, as well as the marketing mechanisms that shift units. The specificity of the formal qualities of the comic allowed the webcomic to flourish on the Internet long before the ubiquity of the e-book, and led the way as far as freemium content (and self-publishing) was concerned. The successful business model that allowed readers to access content for free but pay for merchandise and print editions also foreshadowed the crowdfunding phenomenon. Kickstarter, one of the earliest crowdfunding websites, is now the fourth biggest publisher of graphic novels after Marvel, DC and Image, demonstrating the ability of comics creators to grow and keep loyal niche audiences.

Publishers (ie non-comic publishers) are increasingly aware that in an age of ‘multi-screening’ content with visual appeal is likely to strike a chord with consumers – Canongate’s recent success with Simon’s Cat and indeed their online shop window, demonstrates the increasing awareness of publishers that we are living in an age of visual primacy. Consequently mainstream publishers are investing more in cross-platform, multi-media content as well as considering graphic novels for their lists, despite not being traditional comic publishers, recognising the form’s transmedia potential [2]. Due to digital bookshops and their recommendation algorithms, book buyers are now exposed to a wider range of genres, and this might stimulate an interest in comics and graphic novels that may have been less possible in the days of the brick and mortar specialist comic book store. The negotiations between publishers and technology companies who provide platforms and devices for consumers to access content demonstrate how precarious the balance of power is in the industry, and will influence the shape of the comics market. Such changes will find expression at a formal and creative level e.g. appearance optimised for reading on tablets, episodic structures, format [3] but these changes will be inevitably influenced by digital delivery processes, price points and ‘discoverability’ – which means increasing visibility of titles through sales activities and search engine optimisation, crucial in a crowded marketplace. One of the biggest concern of the shift to digital has been piracy, but it is arguable that practices such as scanlation have allowed for comics creator/readers to be exposed to new visual styles and vocabularies that are stimulating an international flourishing of the form.

These are interesting times, no doubt, for the publishing industry, and comics and graphic novels are no exception. The unique form of the comic of bounded image and text deserves ongoing reassessment as it inhabits new digital spaces, and explores new formats both in print and ether.

I hope this article will persuade other scholars that an awareness of the material conditions of production can invigorate readings of the comics we love to read and study and that, as both comics studies and publishing studies approach disciplinary maturity, a mutuality between the two can enhance the academic and institutional appeal of both fields of study.

Works Cited

The Beat. “Finally…Publishers Weekly publishes BookScan graphic novel bestseller lists with actual numbers.” Published June 4, 2012, accessed 18th August, 2012.

Flood, Alison. “Kickstarter becomes fourth biggest publisher of graphic novels.” In The Guardian. Published 11th July, 2012, accessed 18th August, 2012.

Gordon, Ian. “Culture of Consumption: Commodification through Superman: Return to Krypton.” In Critical Approaches to Comics: Theories and Methods. Matthew Smith and Randy Duncan, eds. London and NY: Routledge 2012.

Gravett, Paul. 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die. London: Cassell Illustrated, 2011.

McKenzie, D.F. Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Rogers, Mark. “Political Economy: Manipulating Demand and “The Death of Superman.” In Critical Approaches to Comics: Theories and Methods. Matthew Smith and Randy Duncan, eds. London and NY: Routledge 2012.

Smith, Matthew and Duncan, Randy (eds). Critical Approachs to Comics: Theories and Methods. London and NY: Routledge 2012.

Thorburn, David and Jenkins, Henry (eds). “Introduction: Towards an Aesthetics of Transition.” In Rethinking Media Change: The Aesthetics of Transition. Boston, MA: MIT Press, 2003.

Dr Padmini Ray Murray teaches publishing studies at the University of Stirling and is particularly interested in the impact of digital technologies on publishing, reading and authorship. She is on the advisory board for Graphic Scotland, an organization dedicated to promoting comics and graphic novels in Scotland, as well as being responsible for research and development at digital publishing think tank, Electric Bookshop.


[1] David Finkelstein and Alistair McCleery’s An Introduction to Book History (Routledge, 2005) offers a succinct account of the growth of the discipline.

[2] Recent examples of non-comic publishers buying comics: Scott Pilgrim by Bryan Lee O’ Malley (Fourth Estate, 2010); Dougie’s War by Rodge Glass and Dave Turbitt (Freight Books, 2010); The Complete Peanuts by Charles Schultz (Canongate Books, 2007). See: Ray Murray, Padmini. “Scott Pilgrim vs. the future of comics publishing.” In Studies in Comics, 3 (1) pp.129-142 on how mainstream publishers are engaging with the transmedia possibilities of comics.

[3] See Warren Ellis’s blogposts ‘The Broadcast of Comics’ (October 11th, 2011) and ‘The Shape of the New Webcomics’ (May 30th 2012).


Posted by on 2012/08/24 in Guest Writers


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2 responses to “Comic (Book History): towards a new methodology by Padmini Ray Murray

  1. charleshatfield

    2012/09/08 at 16:45

    A fascinating and very helpful article. Thank you.

    I would suggest that comics provides a particularly interesting test case for the reconciliation of literary formalism and the materialist methods of publishing studies. I don’t see formalism as opposed to, or exclusive of, other methodologies. What’s particularly interesting to me is that comics fans seem to practice their own vernacular formalism—highly sophisticated discussions of form being a matter of course among fans—even as they shop and interact within a reception culture devoted to collectability and the fetishizing of auratic objects. The extension of formalist thinking to the aesthetics of the whole object (see Chris Ware’s forthcoming mega-opus Building Stories) suggests a kind of hyper-formalism that seeks to encompass book design—a reaction to and against the dematerialization of books in general in the digital age?


    • Ernesto Priego

      2012/09/13 at 16:23

      “—a reaction to and against the dematerialization of books in general in the digital age?” Indeed, I discussed Ware´s work in relation to comic book history and culture in a digital age on my PhD dissertation.

      I am still struck by how often the material nature of comic book textuality is often taken for granted when discussing comics, though.



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