Superior Unreliability: Thoughts on Narrators in Comics on the Occasion of Spider-Man 2012/13 by Stephan Packard

12 Aug

The following thoughts started off as a contribution to the online roundtable on unreliable narration in comics at the German Society for Comics Studies, ComFor. I am indebted to fellow roundtable participants Burkhard Ihme, Dietrich Grünewald, Elisabeth Klar, and Daniel Stein, as well as roundtable organizer Felix Giesa, for the engaging and inspiring discussion.

Spoiler Alert: Peter Parker is no longer the amazing Spider-Man; in fact, he is no longer Peter Parker. Doctor Octopus, one his longest-running villains, has taken possession of Peter’s body, is living in and through him and has been secretly continuing both his private and his secret identity. While Doctor Octopus’ Spider-Man has since launched into his own series, the Superior Spider-Man replacing (for now) the established Amazing Spider-Man, the original replacement of one mind by another took place around issue #698 of Amazing, late in 2012. More specifically, it took place before that issue starts, but readers only find out about it on the last few pages. Up to that point, the readers are deceived, much like the other characters surrounding Peter and Spider-Man. So the narration is unreliable in the strict sense of the prima facie interpretation requiring revision. But does the unreliable narration imply an unreliable narrator? And what can this unreliability tell us about the general problems of applying narratological concepts such as narration, narrator, and unreliability, which are typically formed vis-à-vis written lingual narrative, to comic books?

I want to argue in favour of such concepts’ applicability, albeit in a very specific sense: As a trace of historic transmediality. I don’t believe that even the most basic concepts of narration are timeless universals that are only secondarily realized in different forms of narrative in their various media. Rather, their applicability arises as part of a historical and currently on-going process in which some art forms take possession of specific devices of other art forms, and any overarching concepts of such devices across media are construed in the course and on the basis of these appropriations and contaminations, case by case and by induction. (For a more general discussion of this view, see Packard 2013.) These transfers and possessions are contentious, conflicted, and productive, and give rise to an informative unreliability of their own. The current observation of structural analogies between the written word and other media is questionable in the best sense, as it invites questions as well as topically and aesthetically inspired treatments in lieu of answers. The comparison between traditional lingual narrative and its more recent possessions does not first begin among academics discussing conceptual definitions and disciplinary boundaries by which to organize their subject matters; rather, it is a necessary perspective for successful readings of many current mainstream comics, and a prerequisite for several creative mechanisms employed therein.

Spider-Man’s unreliability is among these innovations. For it is comics themselves, not just comic researchers, that are unsure about the analogy of comics to traditional printed narrative, and they make good use of this uncertainty. Amazing Spider-Man 698 plays with forms of unreliable narration and unreliable narrators in a manner that would not be possible if it did not adapt some narrative devices precisely from traditional genres; and yet it would be equally impossible if the process of adaptation did not leave certain traces on the shape of narrative unreliability, that turn into special aesthetic options for comic book narration.

So what happens in ASM 698? First, we are dealing with a specific and narrow sense of unreliability, which does not aim for a general air of uncertainty and ultimately insolvable disorientation. Instead, it is destined for a specific and final revision: While we first believe that we are dealing with Peter Parker, we are in fact dealing with Otto Octavius. The revelation immediately prompts us to read the issue again: We want to check it for its means of deception and the coherence of its duplicitous depiction. It is only in the course of the second reading that our aesthetic enjoyment and evaluation of the comic is secured, if and when we have to acknowledge that a previously unclear unease with the central character’s attitude is now sufficiently explained, and that the deception has been pulled off in a way as to appear fair by some unwritten standard.

Many deviations from Peter’s decade-old and sometimes ambiguously depicted character now appear as elegantly placed clues: His stance and tone in many situations would not quite fit our expectations, as he seems less introverted, more promiscuous, and unusually arrogant and narcissistic. Now we realize that rather than showing an incomplete grasp of the character, author Dan Slott demonstrates his perfect understanding of even minute differences in Peter’s and Otto’s personalities. When a police officer describes a minor villain, he says:

There’s a reason he was speaking that way… he’s a bluffer. (p.9)

During the second reading, this sentence takes on a second and third meaning, pointing us towards the irregularities in Spider-Man’s speech as well as to the stance of the narration in general: Both Otto Octavius and Dan Slott are and have been bluffing, from the first page onwards.

This structure already suffices to fulfil a minimal definition of narrative: There is clearly a double temporality at work, dividing the narrated time of the histoire from the narrating time of the discours. This allows for the ultimate revelation of Otto’s invasion into Peter’s body to come too late in a precise sense: The act of possession has already happened before the issue begins, and yet it is only narrated at its end; it has two places in time because it exists in two temporalities. The additional loop created by the second reading emphasizes but does not create this effect. (Cf. Müller 1948; Genette 1972: 77-182; Chatman 1990; for comics, esp. Schüwer 2008: 23.) Martin Schüwer has criticized this adoption of a concept from traditional narrative for comics, rightly pointing out that the distinction of signifier and signified which supports that of histoire and discours is not as clear-cut in comics as it is in the structures of language: Characters will violate that boundary as they redraw their own surroundings, reach into one another’s speech bubbles, and in general act as comic book characters are wont to. And yet a structure must first be there in order for other devices to undermine it. By the minimal definition of doubled temporality, comics might well do a lot more than only engage in narration; but narration can and does happen in (many) comics, albeit sometimes among many other and perhaps more interesting things.

By this minimal definition, then, ASM 698 might be rightly called narrative, and its unreliability is tied to its narrative structure: with its characteristic belatedness, it is the signature unreliability of unreliable narration. To go beyond this minimum usually entails the search for a narrator as an enunciating position construed within the text. Typically, this is the crux for transmedia expansions of narrative structure. As is the case for movies as well as computer games and indeed has long been the case for theatre (cf: Pfister 1982: 18-22; Mahler 2001; Backe 2008: 118 -121; for a lucid overview and evaluation of positions for comics, see Thon 2013), comics are often described as a kind of mimesis without a diegetic source, and their claim to narration is in doubt for that omission. In terms of the unreliability in ASM 698, that generally productive question: Where is the narrator? takes a specific turn: Who has been deceiving us? And whose elegance in deception do we admire on our second reading?

One candidate here has to be Dan Slott, the comic’s author, whose mastery of the medium shines in the seeming ease with which he blinds his readers. Another might be that of an ideal or implied author that steps between Slott and his readers and acts as a theoretical position of absolute authority, with complete command of all the interpretative nuances afforded by the text, and collecting into that one same authoritative position of enunciation no less than the supposed intentions of Dan Slott and of the artists, Richard Elson, Antonio Fabela, and Chris Eliopoulos; and perhaps even those of editors Ellie Pyle, Stephen Wacker, Aexel Alonso, Joe Quesada, Dan Buckley, and Alan Fine. On the other hand, Otto Octavius is obviously also engaged in a deception of his own; but his is not directed at the ideal reader, whose command of interpretation is as complete as that of the ideal author in designing the object interpreted. Rather, Otto’s deception is meant only for the other characters of his world.

And this is crucial, precisely because it is not obvious in Otto’s speech. Otto’s speech is very much directed at the readers, in the form of a running narration as interior monologue in text blocks (pp. 7-17). And that monologue starts with the words:

My name is Peter Parker. I’m the amazing Spider-Man.

And it ends with this concession:

Still sounds wrong.

The first sentence might be considered a part of the deceit, as it seems to present the false information that this character is Peter. And the last sentence might be considered a revelation that the enunciation of this interior monologue has gone wrong. But neither is the case. Otto is not lying to anyone in that first sentence; in context, he is complimenting himself on having successfully usurped Peter’s body. Nor is he revealing the secret to anyone in that last sentence; he is merely becoming conscious of his own incomplete assimilation of his new role. Each sentence then has not two, but no less than three meanings: First, there is the idea that the first sentence has Peter reiterating the basic premise of the series, namely, that he, Peter, is indeed Spider-Man. Secondly, there is that same proposition put forward as a lie by an authoring position. And thirdly, there is the same sequence of words as thought-uttered by Dr Octavius, now denoting the triumph that he, Otto, now owns the name Peter Parker and is now Spider-Man in Peter’s place. The first of these meanings belongs to the first reading; but for the second reading, the second and third meaning compete. We understand Otto’s situation better now and see that he is accustoming himself to his new role – which involves deception, but is not intended to deceive us, nor to deceive by means of this utterance. And we understand that Slott and the implicit author of the comic are indeed deceiving us, through the same few words. For both Octavius and Slott are indeed speaking that way because they are both bluffers, but they are not in on the same bluff.

This might seem pedantic, but it is the decisive difference that determines the respective places competing for the position of narrator in this comic. To fully understand the implications of this first sentence of the main plot, we have to see both that it was put there in order to deceive us, and that it was formulated by Otto with a very different intention. The same is true for several more utterances both in the interior monologue and in spoken dialogue, each of which gropes for the illusive identity of the speaker, and each of which has a simple meaning ascribed to it in the first reading, which becomes revealed as deceptive in the second reading, but which in doing so also reveals a third meaning that speaks to Otto’s authentic actions and thoughts:

[…] what’s the point of being Spider-Man […] ? (p. 8)

For a poor boy from Queens, who always wanted to be a scientist, this is definitely a dream job. [Namely, working as a researcher at Horizons Lab; p. 13]

Me, of all people, on the world’s most renowned super hero team. (p. 17)

My God, who talks like that? (p. 9)

Really? I leap in and you say, “Spider-Man”? (p. 9.)

Why aren’t we together? (Reflecting on the relationship with on-off-love interest Mary Jane Watson, p. S. 12.)

Otto, here, is not out to deceive the other characters of his world (although he does do just that in many of his other actions and utterances), but neither is he identical to the author that wants to deceive the reader. He stands between author and characters, and thus in the classical position of a narrator. Indeed, he is a homodiegetic narrator. But while his words deceive us, as they have proven unreliable for our interpretation, Otto is not an unreliable narrator; in his uttered thoughts, he is not keeping his situation a secret from us, nor is he himself mistaken. Again, we miss out on important aspects of the text if we omit any one of the three meanings. “For a poor boy from Queens –“ turns from a jubilant self-congratulation in Peter’s voice into a distancing devaluation of Peter’s achievement by the academically and scientifically renowned Doctor. “Why aren’t we together?” is no longer wistful musing, but an attempt to make sense of a convoluted history, and quite reminiscent of the same question as asked in the fan discourse (especially after the relationship was rewritten through a Faustian pact that changed the very reality of the Marvel universe, leaving open questions as to what each character remembers and knows about the state of this forsaken love).

This artfully constructed placement of these threefold meaningful sentences is completely dependent on the concept of a narrator as taken from traditional, written narrative – not perhaps in the communicative structure of the whole, but more importantly in its style. The deceit becomes possible only because we accept that a person’s thoughts are rendered in language, and not just grammatically complete language, but language as broken down into words, exteriorised signs that can inadvertently allow for double meanings. This is hardly accepted as a realistic view of mental processes, but it is a well-established literary means for their depiction. Otto’s monologue works because it adopts the style of the homodiegetic, internally focused narrator from written narrative.

But the transmedia journey involved in that adaptation has left its traces on the device. While Otto is stylistically presented as a narrator, he might yet not function as the narrator for the storytelling that happens in this comic book. The true deceiver dwells in the position that has decided to show us these and only these sentences depicting Otto’s thoughts; rather than misreporting, as would be the case if ‘My name is Peter Parker’ had been intended to deceive a direct audience, that deceiver engages in underreporting, by leaving out the context that would make us understand what Otto is honestly thinking by those words. (For the two kinds of unreliability in narration, cf. Phelan 2005: 34-6, 49-51.) That deceiver might be considered more akin to a director or arranger of information, a ‘monstrateur’ or ‘shower’, as has sometimes been postulated for cinematic narration. On the one hand, the idea of the narrated world as a selection of propositions from which some can be chosen by the storyteller, while others are left behind, emphasizes the stylistic neighbourhood to traditional written words and the relationship between editors or translators and their books. It is in fact employed in similarly deceptively selective written narratives, such as Agatha Christie’s Murder of Roger Ackroyd, in which the narrator turns out to be the murderer. On the other hand, the device in this comic distances the shower from the more common attitudes of a narrator; for it is a position unlike the narrator that should receive the blame for the readers’ deception, as well as the applause for its elegance – whereas the murderous first person narrator Dr Sheppard in Ackroyd admits, in his homodiegetic voice, that he attempted to deceive the readers, at the end of that novel.

This phenomenon could be further traced in at least two more directions: In terms of its deviance from traditional narrative unreliability, and in terms of the communicative structure as employed in this and many other comics. For now, I only want to point out one more aspect that grounds the transition of the device from one media to another even more firmly in the specific historic situation of its production. For the question of unreliable narration has from its very inception been connected to the modern mediality of the written word as a vehicle for storytelling. In Wayne Booth’s seminal Rhetoric of Fiction (1961), the position of the implied author is introduced precisely because the direct narrative voice seems unreliable, as it lacks the moral condemnation of its adulterous characters that Wayne believes the novel to support. That distinction famously derives from the media divide between telling and showing, both of which are accomplished by means of words rather than pictures.

The comic repeats that distinction on top of its combination of text and image, showing us Otto’s thoughts in words, without telling us their true meaning; and in the same panel, telling us that Spider-Man is swinging through New York through a picture, without showing us who he is. There is a dispositif here that mirrors the media division of language and image, but does not refine itself to the boundary between those media. Instead, it is stylistically at home in the monomedial novel, where its 18th and 19th century emergence even predates the photographic device by which it is exemplified, as Jacques Rancière has shown (cf. Rancière 2003). The broader dispositif, however, is intimately connected to the type of story told here. For in separating the image and its interpretation through language, it preserves a dualism that is easily applied to that of mind and body, even though it is no longer believed for those metaphysical objects in its original Cartesian sense. The whole idea that Otto’s mind might be separated from his body and moved into Peter never needs to be explained in greater detail in this or any of the following comics. It is far from simple: Otto’s mind is confronted by a part of Peter’s memories and even moral values that eventually persuade Otto to take up Spider-Man’s mantle as a hero, albeit a narcissistically designed superior version of the same. For a while, in Superior Spider-Man, Otto’s mind lives in unaware cohabitation with the last remnants of Peter’s consciousness, which even momentarily regain control of some of his limbs. And both minds remain available as homodiegetic narrators. This system of replacements and interlacements is complicated to describe, but its complexity is never problematic to understand on the comic page.

Why is this implausible and convoluted situation so easily understood and accepted? I believe that it works precisely because of the new position afforded to the style of written narrative’s homodiegetic narrator, distanced from the communicative position of the shower that implicitly authors the comic. The mind-excerpt in words is accepted in novels; we accept its tradition in comics as well as its transition into a new communicative order for that reason. It brings with it the dualistic disposition of text versus image, mind versus body, and story told versus story shown. Its elegance is underscored by the ease with which those three distinctions, all co-emergent and reliant on one another, can still be played out against each other, with the image telling Spider-Man’s story, the text being shown as a trace of Otto’s mind, and the story told on the second reading exposing the storyteller as a master of deception.

Comics Cited 

Slott, Dan et al. (2012): Amazing Spider-Man 698 und 699, New York.

Slott, Dan et al. (2013): Superior Spider-Man 1 ff., New York.

Works Cited

Backe, Hans-Joachim (2008): Strukturen und Funktionen des Erzählens im Computerspiel. Eine typologische Einführung, Würzburg.

Booth, Wayne (1961): The Rhetoric of Fiction, Chicago.

Chatman, Seymour (1990): Coming to Terms. Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film, Ithaca.

Genette, Gerard (1972): ‘Discours du récit’. In: Figures III, Paris, pp. 65-267.

Mahler, Andreas (2001): ‘Erzählt der Film?’, in: Zeitschrift für französische Sprache und Literatur 111.3, pp. 260-269.

Müller, Günther (1948): ‘Erzählzeit und erzählte Zeit’. In: Festschrift f. Paul Kluckhohn und Hermann Schneider, Tübingen, pp. 195-212.

Packard, Stephan (2013, to be published): ‘Coleridge, Heartfield, Higgins. Finding Transmediality Amongst Intermedia’, in: Alfonso de Toro (ed.): Translatio. Transmédialité et Transculturalité en Littérature, Peinture, Photographie, au Cinéma, L’Harmattan.

Pfister, Manfred (1982): Das Drama, 6th ed.. München.

Phelan, James (2005): Living to Tell about It, Ithaca.

Rancière, Jacques (2003): „La phrase, l’image, l’histoire“, in: Le destin des images, Paris, pp. 41-78.

Schüwer, Martin (2008): Wie Comics erzählen. Grundriss einer intermedialen Erzähltheorie der grafischen Literatur, Trier.

Thon, Jan-Noël (2013, to be published): ‘Who’s telling the Tale? Authors and Narrators in Graphic Narrative’, in: Thon and Daniel Stein (eds.): From Comic Strips to Graphic Novels: Contributions to the Theory and History of Graphic Narrative, Berlin.

Stephan Packard is Junior Professor for Media Culture Studies at Freiburg University; he was previously Assistant professor for Comparative Literature at Munich University, where he received his PhD for a study on the semiotics of comics, Anatomie des Comics (Göttingen: Wallstein 2006). He is an active member of the German Society for Comics Studies, ComFor. Aside from comics, he is currently focusing on issues of censorship and other forms of media control, including the German and English articles in the online journal Mediale Kontrolle unter Beobachtung. He sometimes finds time to feed his blog, Signifying Media.

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Posted by on 2013/08/12 in Guest Writers


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